Too much is never enough 
The short version: Ratemyprofessor.com was recently acquired by MTV. This is something of which we academics should be aware, and perhaps it is a cause for concern.

The long version: I have known about the website ratemyprofessor.com for several years. Visitors to the site rate their professors for easiness, helpfulness, and clarity. They can also add brief comments.*

I have always considered the site a curiousity. I learn from the entry on me that, although I am a "loud dresser", I am "awesome." Who can argue with the accuracy of that?

Admittedly students want and can use this kind of information. Students do share information like this informally, but on a campus with over ten thousand students that kind of testimony is not always readily available. At UCSD, my grad alma mater, the Course and Professor Evalations are systematically summarized and made available to students. UAlbany does not do anything comparable.

Regardless, the information on ratemyprofessor suffers from serious sample selection problems. There is no reason to believe that the dozen students who have commented on me, for example, are anything like a representative sample of the hundreds of students that I have taught. My more senior colleagues have comments from people who admit they are commenting on a course they took more than a decade ago, and there is nothing to stop non-students from posting any sort of fabrication.

There is also a certain frivolous tone about it. In addition to rating courses for 'easiness', students can assign chili peppers to professors that they think are 'hot'. Beth Davison (also here and here) complains that this sexualizes the role of the professor. I can't imagine any students taking the chili peppers seriously, however, and informal gossip often does include that kind of information. Any professor who cared about their number of chili peppers would already be a bit messed up.**

Still, it would worrisome if an unrepresentative and deliberately somewhat frivolous resource came to play an important part in campus life. Last week it was announced that MTV has acquired ratemyprofessor. I do not think that it will serve as a beachhead from which MTV is able to conquer campus. I do, however, worry that MTV has no interest at all in having ratemyprofessor be a useful source of information. When there are already jibes about "sexualizing of the professorial environment", the entry of MTV onto the scene is hardly reassuring.



* Bill Sledzik, who welcomes MTV's acquisition of the site, says that it "works the same as Wikipedia." This is not quite right. Users of the Wikipedia can edit the contributions of other users, producing one aggregate document. Users of ratemyprofessor can only add an additional line to the professors rating. They can respond to other comments, and they do, but they cannot directly edit comments from other users. I address such fora in an old paper.

** My dismissiveness has nothing to do with the fact that I have zero chili peppers.

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Shiny new versions 
I recently posted a new draft of my induction paper. Having taught with forall x last term, I had the opportunity to catch some errors and infelicities. They have been exchanged for felicities, and the new version 1.21 is on-line.

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Miscellaneous F 


Janet laments the decline of library card catalogs and links to this tool for wallowing in card-file nostalgia.

When I was a student at UCSD, the library was slowly eliminating their collection of cards. All of the library records were available at computer terminals, and stacks of old cards were left by the terminals for use as scrap paper. I kept them as bookmarks on occasion and probably still have a few.

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Wikis fit wee locks 
As any regular reader will recall, I have misgivings about the epistemology of the Wikipedia. Other wikis inherit these misgivings, although it really depends on the details of what information the wiki is meant to provide and who participates in maintaining it.

Two recently-established wikis share information of use only to professional philosophers. As with any public wiki, there is the danger of deliberate misinformation. In what follows, however, I want to consider specific misgivings.

(Hat tip: I learned about both of these by way of TAR and LR.)

Jobs


Some background for those who might not know: Most tenure-track philosophy jobs follow the same rough timetable. A job is advertised in Jobs for Philosophers in October or November. Applicants send in their materials. The hiring committee meets to select a dozen or so candidates for interviews. Interviews are conducted at the Eastern division APA meeting at the end of December. Three or four of the interviewees are selected for fly-outs in January or February.

Depending on the job, there may be 50 or 100 applicants. Committees are reading files at the same time as finishing their teaching for the semester, so decisions can be made very late. This can make for a real mess, and candidates get no timely information unless they are called for an interview.

The Academic Careers wiki began to provide candidates with more information in those tense days leading up to the APA. Schools that advertised in JFP were listed in a block on the page. Anyone who knew for certain that University X had begun to schedule APA interviews could edit the page and move University X out of the starting block and into a list of schools that had scheduled interviews. The change might be made by a candidate who had been contacted for an interview or by a member of the search committee at University X. I was on the search committee for our ancient position, and I updated the page myself when we had scheduled interviews.

There was some vandalism, of course, and it is hard to check the reliability of the page. Nevertheless, I think it provided a useful service. Given the short span between committee decisions and the APA, schools do not have a chance to notify candidates who don't make the cut. Yet candidates juggling several interviews or making last minute plans can profit by even modestly reliable rumors about which schools have or haven't made decisions yet.

There may be 50some people waiting for any information in the short window of time leading up the APA. The wiki might be updated by any of the dozen or so interviewees; they are apt to consult the wiki because they want to know about the 50 other jobs for which they applied. So the wiki seems likely to be updated by people who know what's going on.

Now the Careers wiki has entered a new phase. Organizers hope to trade information about which schools have or haven't scheduled fly-outs. There were only about a dozen interviewees for each position, and about a third of those will lead to fly-outs. So the community who can profit by the information is rather small. Moreover, time is less pressed. Matters are more fluid. Most schools will notify candidates who are no longer in contention, but candidates who are not flown out immediately might be flown out later if the first fly-outs are not to the department's satisfaction.

APA interviews are decisive, develop over a very short time, and affect a large group of people. Fly-outs are simply not like that. The wiki now seems ill-suited for conveying relevant information to people who genuinely need to know.

Journals


Delays and miscues at philosophy journals are a common problem. Some of the best craft knowledge one can acquire is about which journals reach their decisions quickly, which provide substantive, helpful referee reports, and which are editorial blackholes. Douglas Portmore has started a Philosophy Journal Information wiki designed to aggregate this sort of information in a public way.

Brian Weatherson worries that the wiki might collect unrepresentative information, if contributors preferentially record only their gripes and horror stories. One might also worry that the community of folks apt to contribute to a wiki is also a skewed sample. The Academic Careers wiki would function merely if its contributors were honest; the Journal wiki requires moreover that they be a representative, even-handed group.

It seems to me that a wiki is simply the wrong tool for aggregating this information. Contributors indicate how long the initial decision took, what the initial decision was, how long the final decision took, and so on. Each item of information is listed as a new item at the end of a list, and there is nothing to stop these lists from going out-of-synch.

This problem is compounded because the information is stored on one continuous page. It would have been more natural to give each journal its own entry. Then, any disputes that arose could be handled distinctly.

It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Judgment


These examples illustrate wikis used in three different contexts. (1) The job market wiki leading up the the APA provided a reasonable way of disseminating information about interviews. (2) The job market wiki after the APA seems like a poor way of disseminating information about fly-outs. The pool of interested parties is rather small, the pool of informed potential contributors even smaller, and the information more subtle than the wiki's categories allow. (3) There is a real value in sharing the kind of information that the journal wiki is meant to aggregate, but the wiki seems like the wrong tool for the job.

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Year in review, bullet point meme edition 
I try to resist picking up too many blog memes, because none of you really care about my favorite color or what kind of salsa I might be. Today, I succumb.

The rule (via Janet) is to list the first sentence of your first blog post from each month of the preceding year. Then write a two sentence summary of the year that generalizes from these.

I: Writing about parapsychology, Paul Churchland argues that parapsychologists do nothing more than point to anecdotal results that are anomalous for materialism.

II: A few random remarks about forall x...

III: A propos of Owen Chamberlain's death, the New York Times describes his work in the 50s to experimentally demonstrate the existence of the anti-proton.

IV: I managed to do a good bit of writing in Budapest. I wrote this in a cafe just off Batthyany Square.

V: Dorothy uses the phrase 'pink collar worker' in today's Cat&Girl.

VI: Thanks to a kind invitation from Matt, I've been sitting in on a reading group here in San Diego.

VII: Aaron Schiller used forall x for a course he taught in the Spring.

VIII: In his TV show Good Eats and in his books, Alton Brown explains the physics and chemistry behind various recipes: what flour does at a molecular level, how butter makes biscuits fluffy, and so on.

IX: I am teaching Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" in a course on American philosophy.

X: It has been about a year since I launched Footnotes on Epicycles; the one year mark is Wednesday.

XI: Three items of forall x news...

XII: I am sometimes envious of philosophers of language, since any interesting turn of phrase can become a datum.

To review: I seem to be concerned with logic, pragmatism, random bits of pop culture, my blog, and myself. Maybe I should start the first post in January with a sentence about how we should all work to end world hunger, so that next year I will seem less self-absorbed.

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