On Beginnings: Part 24

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

I’m not yet convinced that outcomes outside of a closed system are knowable in advance.  If they were, Olestra would have been marketed as a purgative, Ford Motor Company would have redesigned the Pinto, and I never would’ve sat through a vivid description of The Human Centipede.  It isn’t possible to say definitively whether any course you pursue – college or otherwise – will be fruitful.  Today, you might tell the pollster it has not been “worth it.”  Tomorrow, it might seem like everything in your life was leading to this moment.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and there is some positivistic truth we can attain and harness to build that better future, if we can only gather enough evidence.  I wonder whose truth, and whose future, it will be?

Maybe the problem with history is precisely that we try to “learn” from it – to extrapolate futures or justify assertions based on past events – to construct “meaning” from happenstance, which we then term “progress.”  This is partly how we come to define ourselves, in the characters, ideas, and values we either venerate or view with a *mote* of superiority.  Likewise, attempts to imagine the future may be meaningful, not in some vague, power-of-becoming sense, but in what they reveal about our own subjective presuppositions, which necessarily determine the ways in which we collect, organize, and analyze data, and hash out what, after all, constitutes data in the first place.  Perhaps this is why methodology is important – an aspect of data-gathering I never considered before getting my statistically worthless B.A.  To the extent that statistical analyses may be employed to either create or diminish uncertainty, depending on the context and goals of the user, it may be more useful to think of them as yet another strategy for authorizing a certain paradigm, rather than an algorithmic gyre toward a fated singularity.  We are the noisemakers, after all, and the modulators.  We might draw own measures from the gutter to the stars, or leap into the abyss but find, as another great philosopher said, “it only goes up to your knees.” Maybe we need this king-of-the-mountain battle over “truths” to continually re-present our own idiosyncratic cosmographies – a perpetual audit of what we think we can control and what we know damn well we can’t control:  enough “reality” to reassure us that we will make it through the day, and enough “uncertainty” to cling to the sometimes smug, sometimes despondent knowledge that we are not at the mercy of statistics, whatever we may choose.  Or as liberal arts major Stephen Sondheim melodiously put it:

“Who knows what may
be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods
To get the thing
That makes it worth
the journeying.”

On Beginnings: Part 22

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

In a side-effect sense, I can offer one abiding perquisite of a liberal arts degree:  the flexibility it gives you to respond to the unfair inquiry, “So what are you going to do with a degree in _______?”  Devise any occupation you please – I plan to: “pursue a Ph.D. in topology with a special focus on knot theory,” “write choose-your-own-adventure intergalactic erotica – I’ll post a link to my blog on your wall,” “become the CEO of Goldman Sachs then coast into the office of U.S. Treasury Secretary,” “invest in a crystal ball and tell my own future for $5 a reading.  You owe me $5.”  The nebulous aegis of the College of Arts and Sciences virtually guarantees that nothing will breach the bulwarks of tenability.  Like a brisk volley by liberal arts dropout Billie Jean King, your newly forged critical thinking skills and subtle finesse of plausible diversions will deliver an ersatz sense of authority that makes your “chosen” field seem respectable while marginalizing you just enough to abate any further lines of invasive questioning.  This will buy you some time while you wait to hear back about that incredible unpaid internship opportunity!

Game, set, match.

Godspeed, Civil Engineers.  I don’t know how to help you.

If my resumé is categorically non-traditional, I am curious to know from which “traditional career pathways” current struggling college majors are deviating.  What outcomes of “success” or “failure” are we assuming, and according to whom?  What is the unspoken destiny college grads are failing to fulfill when we don’t secure “jobs in our chosen fields?”  Or to frame the question differently, what not-so-subtle classism is implied by the expectation that college graduates won’t be carpenters, or plumbers, or welders, or the inventors of meat tea?  Who says the post-bacc lifestyle is the only variety worth aspiring to, making the choice before us merely college or not-college – disregarding all the rich and interesting things people do when they walk, apparently naked and unformed as a forgotten Hugga Bunch into the wild, wonderful, cruel void?  I would wager it’s as easy to predict the future value of a college degree in a changing economy as it is to predict the day-to-day performance of the stock market – not unpredictable exactly, but as far as I know, to the degree it may be deterministic, we do not flatter ourselves that we grasp its tangled workings.  At least, liberal arts major Robert Shiller and clarinetist Alan Greenspan seem to agree on this point.   So why spin these studies, and engage in a tautological, courtroom-like contest of spectacle?

Part 23 coming tomorrow morning…

On Beginnings: Part 21

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

I don’t know how to calculate the abstract value of degrees I don’t have, so I’ll talk about a few things I think I know, and wish I had known sooner rather than later.  I didn’t progress through college based on anything like cognitive ability, creative skills, or academic merit.  I got into and through college because I had parents who signed a promissory note to put me there.  If college is the filtering process that is portrayed in these many articles, it is not the “realization” of latent academic “potential.”  It is merely the line between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot afford to pay.  I graduated from UA’s College of Arts and Sciences with two of the bleakest majors these articles have rated, though I think their combined score vaults me into the range of, maybe, the college of Social Work.  I have used any means at my disposal to land all of the low-paying jobs I have had since graduation, to wit:  apply, persist, cajole, or (only twice so far!) lie.  Most of the time, if I discuss it at all, I tell people I earned a B.A. in the same blasé tone of voice I would use to tell them I once had a benign tumor, and I receive the same heartfelt tones of sympathy.  If you put stock in such things, you could easily put me into the category of the 25th percentile for whom college was not a good investment.  This has nothing to do with the “absolute” economic or social value of obtaining a degree; it’s a consequence of the decisions I have made along the way as I stumbled through my wayward life.   A more graceful, clever person, with or without a degree, may have maneuvered more successfully, however that may be defined.  Perhaps it’s the opportunity itself that’s priceless, and you can either make use of it or squander it.  But on any given day – clipboard in hand – how will you know the difference?  Continue reading

On Beginnings: Part 9

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

If statistics are so handy for gauging the value of a college degree, why do we encounter such a disorienting array of interpretations?  And what are the methods used to collect the data from which we extrapolate?  Publishers of these studies often provide access to descriptions of methodologies, along with standard error rates and explanatory endnotes.  We can forego, in this case, the tedious and contingent process of tabulating probabilities; the data itself testifies to some past or projected “reality,” and need only be arrayed by percentages into neat columns or colorful graphs to serve as convenient indices of our implicit options and their fiscal consequences.  This allows us to parse out the benefits of various types and levels of education like sifting through colored beads in a jar.  The results are then re-viewed by various media and jettisoned into the sphere of either popular consumption or popular indifference.  Many reviewers seem reluctant to place any real or imagined value on a college degree, but as liberal arts major Hugh Hefner can tell you, when you punctuate the text with compelling pictures, only the most dedicated readers are going to probe the articles.  I can’t help contrasting the statistics collected in these studies to the polling data Nate Silver mines to polish his predictions.  Election polling data purport to show the number of people opting for a particular candidate in a given election at a specific moment in time; descriptive statistical data on education and career choices seem to provide license to further deduce which majors are worth it, and which ones are worthless.

Part 10 coming today at noon…

On Beginnings: Part 8

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

In the aftermath of our 2007 financial crisis, it does seem rational for a more debt-savvy general public to be concerned with ROI, particularly when we see that college costs have surged 500% since 1985 – though we are given little context in which to ascertain how costs have risen, in the face of what types of budget cuts, at what institutions, in what forms, and how that additional money appears in the ledgers of either public or private two- or four- year institutions nationwide.  I’m not refuting the possibility that the numbers are true – tuition certainly feels like it’s risen over the past decade, but these claims are difficult to assess at face value, given I could say I have grown over 117% taller since 1985.  Continue reading

On Beginnings: Part 7

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

Well….

Educational and vocational statistics can be compiled by many different official or unofficial entities, including private information service companies like Payscale, non-profit, trust-funded research institutions like the Pew Research Center, and government agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the National Center for Education Statistics.

The extrapolations from these statistics can be done by the agencies themselves, but are also done in the open market of public discourse, and in the Great Debate Over the Value of a College Degree, seem to fall under a few general rubrics:  the rift over the utility of any college degree and how to determine such, and another point at which advocates seem to split off into college-specific camps – some espousing the virtues of a more versatile liberal arts education, some suggesting the irrelevance of the liberal arts in a modern world of applied and technical sciences.  The standards of measure are vaguely economic – comparing for instance, median salaries and expected earnings of graduates, projected job growth by sector, and a catalog of accrued assets vs. debt, by field of study.  Since I was a liberal arts major, I naturally take a keen interest in these debates, as I, too, struggle to estimate the value of my degree weighed against my deflated ambitions to join the Big Top. Continue reading

The Difficult Art

Picture 4“What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult art of making interpretative decisions and facing up to their full consequences ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study. This is the work of education, it is also the work of the world and of life. Let students and the public and, above all, the faculty be told this clearly. This is the only sort of work for which college trains. It is more than enough.”

– from Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Puzzlement” (1986), republished in On Teaching Religion (2013: 127; edited by Christopher Lehrich)