What sorts of academics should there be?

from Carl Elliott, “How to be an academic failure: an introduction for beginners”, The Ruminator Review, but also:  whitecoatblackhat.com/academicfailure/

Carl visited us up in Edmonton a few years ago, courtesy in part due to the work he was doing at the time on big pharma and also as a member of the What Sorts Network.  In addition to enjoying and learning much from his public lecture, we also had a great informal, roundtable session with about a dozen people that was focused on his then-developing work on a particular case in psychopathology that involved a senior professor who had murdered his spouse.

I also had a fun dinner with Carl in which he confessed his slight ill-ease with me.  This was caused by the fact that every time I started speaking, I managed to disappoint his expectation that I would sound just like The Dude.  “Damn it, how can that be?” he wondered aloud, almost with sufficient pathos for me to consider peppering our conversation with some of the many lines I know from heart from The Big Lebowski.  But despite the short-term fun this would have involved, I thought that this might actually exacerbate the problem in the long run, so I resisted the temptation.  “But that’s just like, your opinion, man.” I still hear a small voice inside my head say.

Here’s how his recent article, with all its sage advice on academic failure, begins:

How to be an academic failure? Let me count the ways. You can become a disgruntled graduate student. You can become a burned-out administrator, perhaps an associate dean. You can become an aging, solitary hermit, isolated in your own department, or you can become a media pundit, sought out by reporters but laughed at by your peers. You can exploit your graduate students and make them hate you; you can alienate your colleagues and have them whisper about you behind your back; you can pick fights with university officials and blow your chances at promotion. You can become an idealistic failure at age 25, a cynical failure at 45, or an eccentric failure at 65. If failure is what you’re looking for, then you can hardly do better than the academic life. The opportunities are practically limitless.

Call me arrogant, but I like to think I have a knack for failure. Having started and abandoned one abortive career, participated in the dissolution of a major bioethics center, published dozens of articles nobody has read and given public lectures so dull that audience members were actually snoring, I think I have earned my stripes. It is true that I am not an alcoholic yet. I do not have a substance abuse problem, and no university disciplinary proceedings have been brought against me so far. I am still a novice at failure. Many other people in my own field have succeeded at failing in a far more spectacular fashion than I have, some of whom are rumored to be living in South America. But I am learning. And I think I have something to contribute.  Read more

Retrofit 5-Pack, end of 2009 spirit

Here are five What Sorts posts that I had particular fun writing–from mid-2008 to early 2009–that can serve as a kind of bon voyage for 2009 … despite the fact that only two of them were written in 2009, and pretty early on, at that. Farewell 2009, farewell! May 2010 bring more sunshine and fewer clouds.

Julia Serano’s “Cocky”

“Let’s Talk About It”: Contemporary Eugenics for Louisiana and the Problem of Intergenerational Welfare

Two birds, one stone

Pollyannaism about polygamy: Martha Nussbaum on Mormon History

Standing corrected: Why is there no apostrophe in “Hells Angels”?

Can thought experiments harm people?

[This post is the tenth in our series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays. Transcript of clip beneath the fold.]

A common tool of the philosophical trade is the thought experiment, an imagined scenario that evokes certain kinds of reactions and responses. Imagine that none of the objects that you take yourself to see, hear, or feel in your daily life–water flowing from a tap, a car driving by, other people chatting at a nearby table–actually exist, and that all the experiences you have of them are generated by–take your pick–an evil demon, scientists who have “envatted” your brain, or The Matrix. Is that coherent? If not, why not? If it is a coherent thing to imagine, what does it tell us about our knowledge? our minds? ourselves?


Thought experiments play a central role not only in philosophical thinking in general but in thinking about morality and ethics in particular. Some philosophers have been critical of this kind of reliance, sometimes on the ground that such thought experiments are contrived, artificial, and unrealistic–they don’t have enough connection to the REAL WORLD to tell us much about anything. And surely if ethics and moral philosophy are to be of any use it all they should, at the end of the day, guide our actions. Others think that this simply misses the point of thought experiments, which is to help tease out common sense views of morality that tell us something about the structure and order to moral thinking, the principles that underly, or perhaps even should underlie, moral thinking and so, eventually, moral action.


There’s a different kind of worry that one might have about thought experiments, one that Sophia Wong articulates in a question that she posed to Peter Singer at the Cognitive Disability conference. In some ways, it’s just the opposite to the concern about thought experiments being too far removed from everyday life to usefully inform us about what to do, and it raises the sorts of questions about “the ethics of exclusion” that I’ve blogged on before–see the link beneath the fold for this:


There are a couple of things I found of interest here. Continue reading

Parental Disorders

From the Special Education Law Blog, from about three years ago, Lori Miller Fox’s list of disorders and disabilities that parents of special needs children often suffer from. Self-diagnoses welcome!

h/t to the Aussie blog that takes its name from the first entry below:

Terrible Palsy – A condition in which onlookers and people in the community tell parents how terrible life must be raising a physically challenged child. This condition manifests itself through pity and audible sighing of those around you. Terrible Palsy can be deceiving because you can be asymptomatic for weeks, months, or even years, and then just when you and your family are feeling really good about your child, it can present itself in the form of a condescending pat on the head or a blessing from an anonymous busybody. Best known treatment is to carry a list of snappy comebacks in your pocket or a large bag of peanut M & Ms.

Shlepilepsy – A compulsive condition in which parents feel the need to shlep from doctor to doctor and specialist to specialist in order to seek help and find answers for their child with special needs. The only known effective drug for this illness is caffeine, primarily given to parents to keep them awake while driving to and from appointments.

Continue reading

Take Home Exercise: Giving Back to Marriage Bigotry

Over at The Data Lounge, a recent post with a bright, new idea for those struggling with what to do in light of the push for gay marriage, and (more especially) the push back against it. They report from one gay NYC man who has just had enough:

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I’m trying. Turns out it’s fun. Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend. She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband”, and I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.” The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs. Just replace the words husband, wife, spouse, or fiance with boyfriend, girlfriend, special friend, or longtime companion.

Continue reading

Talking about cognitive disability and moral philosophy

As readers of this blog will know, in September there was a relatively large, special topic conference called “Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy”, organized by Eva Kittay and Licia Carlson (and I think Sophia Wong), held in New York City.  In some recent comments here, Shelley Tremain has said the following about the roster of speakers for this conference, particularly the inclusion of Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan:

I would like to know when disability theorists, activists, and our allies came to regard it as beneficial, indeed, laudable, to have Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan speak about disabled people, especially cognitively disabled people. … Giving this kind of attention to nondisabled white, male bioethicists whose awful, dominant views about disabled people are in the public domain (and quite familiar to many of us) serves to further marginalize the work of authors in Disability Studies who are attempting to unravel the misunderstandings and prejudices the views of the former entail for concrete human beings; it marginalizes disabled theorists; it marginalizes feminist disability theorists.

Continue reading

Positively Autistic

Autism Awareness icon

Autism Awareness icon

CBC News has just run a special, Postively Autistic, that many will find of interest–the link to the site is beneath the fold below as well as a transcript. The video runs 19 minutes, and features Amanda Baggs, Ari Ne’eman, and Michelle Dawson, amongst others. The site for the special also contains a lot of other information. General drift: representation of autism as a positive human variation that stands in need of social acceptance, and links this view to the disability rights movement and the idea of neurodiversity. It’s a bit more choppy than I would have liked, and has very articulate autistics (like Baggs and Ne’eman) speaking for auties as a whole. Maybe this is a good way to start with introducing the idea of autism as a form of natural human variation, but we might push further and represent more of this variation, some of which folks will find more disturbing. (Here having Dawson in here is a bonus, since while she’s incredibly articulate, she also conveys a few more clues about the kind of variation one might find on the spectrum. Sadly, there’s not an extra piece on her, only on Laurent Mottron, whom she works with in Montreal, on the CBC website. I suspect that was a personal choice of Dawson’s.)

To be sure, this is not a way of saying Continue reading

Why Women Shouldn’t Marry

From my good friend RR at Chicana on the Edge, some reflection on mother-daughter team Cynthia and Hillary Smith’s recently revised book of this title (it’s an update of their 1988 book). Even her pic for this one is too irresistible not to steal, with the book being read on her recent belated honeymoon …

Cover of the book Why Women Shouldn't Marry

Cover of the book Why Women Shouldn

On the first day of our honeymoon, my husband and I wandered into a bookstore. I happened to notice one title, Why Women Shouldn’t Marry: Being Single By Choice and I picked it up. I was a spinster for too long to not find this book irresistible. My new husband indulgently carried it to the checkout counter for me.

I appreciate Cynthia S. Smith and Hillary B. Smith’s book. It acknowledges all the great reasons to get married, but asserts that too many women marry for bad reasons. With chapters like “The Soul Mate Myth,” “Why Divorced Women with Kids Shouldn’t Marry” and “Why Widows Shouldn’t Marry: You’ve Been Through Enough,” they have a lot of opinions I agree with. Their book rips into the cultural beliefs that a woman who isn’t married is less valuable and that marriage improves every woman’s life. I love the numerous stories of women who live independently, staying true to what they want out of life and refusing to let a man ruin their balance and stability. Continue reading

Three Cheers for Granta!

Cover of Granta 102, The New Nature Writing, showing a person in a semi-cleared field

Cover of Granta 102, The New Nature Writing, showing a person in a semi-cleared field

I am a long-time Granta subscriber, and it remains one of the most informative and fun things I read on a regular basis. For those not in the know, Granta is “the magazine of new writing”, published out of the UK, and it published issues 100-102 under the new editorship of Jason Crowley this year. It includes fiction and poetry, but also essays, autobiography, photo essays, and other forms of writing. Two things about it that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

The first is that under Crowley’s short-lived editorship (he has now moved on, or perhaps back, to The New Statesman), Granta now has a significant online component, much of which is free. You can go there and check out interviews with authors, weekly updates on relevant stories, recent events, and much more. Some of this complements the printed version, but much of it is free-standing and so of use to those who don’t subscribe to or otherwise read Granta. Two on-line items worth checking out are Continue reading

Gay Diver Makes a Splash

Cover picture from the gay magazine The Advocate of Matthew Mitcham

Cover picture from the gay magazine The Advocate of Matthew Mitcham

Ok, ok, ok, so I *haven’t* actually seen this headline in a tabloid of late, but given all the kerfuffle that my compatriot Matthew Mitcham’s gold medal in the 10 metre diving event has caused, I might well have. There’s a few stories to watch and sort through (and don’t give up until you’ve taken The Quiz, a special feature of today’s post, below the fold.)

Basic story 1: Australian Matthew Mitcham clinched the gold medal in the 10 metre dive with his final dive of the day, knocking off Chinese favourite Zhou Luxin by just under 5 points overall. Mitcham was the only non-Chinese athlete to score a gold in the diving, and also received the hightest score EVER for a diver in this event. Yay Matt!

Basic story 2: Matthew Mitcham, who won a gold medal in something watery, was the only openly gay male athlete at the Beijing Olympics. Of the roughly 11 000 athletes competing, 10 openly lesbian women have been identified (by strategically placed spies?). If at least half the athletes competing were men, that makes calculating the percentage of openly gay male athletes something that even I can calculate: 1 in 5500. (Women: 1 in 550). Let’s stick our necks out, and hazard a guess: that’s significantly lower than the base rate of openly gay people in the rest of society. Every society. Yay … society?

Basic story 3: NBC and other major US networks ignored Basic Story 2 in covering Basic Story 1. Sports and sexual orientation are just separate things, and they were just interested in covering sports. Yay, self-deception!

Basic Story 4: Basic Story 2 is of much more interest to many people than Basic Story 1. As is the ambivalence that Basic Story 2 creates in many people who share that interest. (And as conveyed by my sorry attempt at a punchline in Basic Story 2.) Three cheers for Matthew on all fronts, but really, which century are we living in? In addition, people who get worked up about Basic Story 3 should really get Out more. Continue reading

Fatal Misconception: Family Planning and Population Control

Last week I read Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard UP, 2008). It’s a critical look at the population control movement focussed largely on the second half of the 20th-century, and discusses some of the early heroines of that movement, such as Margaret Sanger, as well as the role of major Western-led organizations, such as the UN. It’s well worth a read, even though it gets more bogged down in conferences, meetings, and deals than many will have time for. You can read Nicholas Kristof‘s review of it from the New York Times Sunday Book Review right here, which I’ll turn to in a minute.

To many, the term “family planning” will call to mind individual choice and rational decision-making about when to have children, as well as how many to have. To perhaps others, “population control” will send a shudder down their spines as they recall forced sterilization and even extermination, and the control of their lives by others. The “many” referred to above are, by and large, the affluent, the white, the Western (or all three), while the “others” are the poor, the not-so-white, and the non-Western (and often all three). In the course of the 20th-century, family planning and population control became two-sides of a perceived crisis in the growth of population, a putative crisis especially for The West as they saw themselves usurped by The Rest. Continue reading

Can we ditch the fatty anorexics but save our own stupid selves?

Support For People With Eating Disorders - Anorexi Bulimi Kontakt

Support For People With Eating Disorders - Anorexi Bulimi Kontakt CLICK TO SEE VIDEO

Bloggingheads.tv threw up an interesting piece last week that begins with a discussion surrounding obesity (The entire segment is titled “The Skinny on Obesity“, but note in advance that the conversation is less focused than the title implies; they switch topics and discuss carbon emission regulations for the last half). I was struck by a number of the claims that were made throughout this discussion and most particularly by the way that later comments contrasted with earlier ones. It is in this contrast, especially given the subject matter, that I believe there is a valuable lesson regarding how we should view answers to the question “What sorts of people should there be?” Continue reading

Voting for Mavericks

Just a reminder to anyone who wants to vote in the Mavericks competition that the Vocational and Rehabilitation Research Institute in Calgary is running to GET TO IT FOLKS. On the roster (Maverick #6) is our very own Leilani Muir (pictured here, some time earlier than yesterday), who blazed a maverick path by taking the Province of Alberta to court in 1995-96 for her wrongful eugenic sterilization under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta. The decision in Leilani’s case paved the way for a large number of further settlements for other plaintiffs, and more than a blip of public awareness about this aspect of Alberta’s history. You can vote for three candidates in different categories (education, deinstitutionalization, and community living), and voting for Leilani is a small step to having the courage and determination behind her efforts recognized more publicly, Continue reading

Is your dog on Prozac?

Suppose that there is a problem case–let’s call it the Zoey case–of extreme, uncontrolled biting behaviors that pose serious risks to others. Then we might imagine the following snippet from a clinician’s consultation with Zoey’s guardians:

If we were to ask Zoey: ‘Look, if you slip up in the future, and you bite someone like that again, the chances are you’re not going to come out of it alive. But we can make you feel better if we give you some medicine like, for example, Prozac. Would you like to have the medicine that might save your life?’

Your dog on drugs

Your dog on drugs

Perhaps melodramatic? Not so, given that Zoey is a 5-year old, muzzled dog brought in to the office of Nicholas Dodman by her concerned owners for a psychiatric evaluation! The quote above contains words of advice that Dodman begins his consultation with.

This comes from a recent New York Times Magazine article by James Vlahos, Pill-Popping Pets. Although it rambles in places, bringing in everything from the origins of cognitive ethology to Thomas Nagel’s “What’s it like to be a bat?”, it’s worth a read, especially if it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon. Continue reading

Standing corrected: Why is there no apostrophe in “Hells Angels”?

Flying the other day presented me with an opportunity for an inter-cultural exchange far deeper than any I had had in French Montreal last week. And one with an even happier ending.

Struggling down the aisle toward my seat I found myself squeezed in between three impressively large Hells Angels, 1000 pounds of manhood helpfully identified as such by friendly words and images tattooed over much of their exposed bodies and heads. Continue reading

Citizendium

Anyone reading this have any experience with Citizendium? At the Minds and Societies summer institute today I went to a talk by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger on Citizendium, which aspires to be “the world’s most trusted encyclopedia and knowledge base”. Citizendium is Sanger’s alternative to Wikipedia, the outcome of his unsuccessful arm-wrestle to reform Wikipedia from within. Citizendium chiefly distinguishes itself from Wikipedia by two features: its privileging of editorial expertise (over the pandemonic egalitarianism of WP) and the removal of anonymous authorship. While they sound like relatively small and sensible changes to the structure that Wikipedia has, from the presentation, question period, lunch, and other conversation I got the distinct impression that Citizendium is likely to be significantly more stodgy and less fun than Wikipedia, even if it also contains fewer whacko and misleading articles. It may become Eliteopedia or Boringopedia if the governing council doesn’t loosen or liven up a little, but it’s likely to remain Radicallyincompletopedia for more than a while: it bats at around 7000 articles now, very few of which have been approved by the knowledgable editors that Citizendium prides itself on using, in contrast to Wikipedia, which prides itself on being the encyclopedia that Homer Simpson contributes to (and which also has around 2.5 million articles … just in English, and not all by Homer). Continue reading

It’s My History Too: Your Chance to Vote

The Vocational and Rehabilitation Research Institute in Calgary is running a vote-driven competition that YOU can participate in. They are contributing to a museum exhibition called It’s My History Too that will focus on “mavericks” who have made a difference to the lives of people marginalized by, or in the name of, developmental disability (perceived or real). In a recent email communication, they say:

The nominations are in! Now is your chance to vote for 3 mavericks who you would like to see in the It’s My History, Too! exhibit. It’s a quick & easy way to participate in this exciting project. Click here to read about the candidates and then vote for your top maverick in each category. Remember: You have until July 18, 2008 to vote for your 3 mavericks. We look forward to your votes. Please encourage others to vote, too!

Well, I’m taking that last part to heart in blogging this here and encouraging you to vote. Although the form itself is not all that clearly organized and somewhat unwieldy–why organize it through pictures if you only have pictures of half of the nominees?–it’s worth clicking through the list to see the nominees’ accomplishments. What Sorts member Leilani O’Malley (Muir) is Maverick #6. You can read more about her at the Wikipedia article linked above, and how her own struggle led to significant changes in the lives of many others.

Here’s encouraging you to vote early (and often) in a democratic glow.

Advertising Autism

Since I’ll be reading Roy Richard Grinker’s Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism over the next week or so, here’s a kinda pre-post on some related things on my mind.

The first is a series of 30-second tv ads that have sprung up over the past year or so focused ostensibly on raising awareness about autism (but implicitly on donations for research on it). Below is one of them, featuring some pretty tired-looking rock legends that forms a part of VH1’s “Rock Autism” campaign; I also saw my first one on Canadian tv the other day –probably a function of the fact that I don’t watch enough tv to have caught it earlier. This one just rolled a bunch of 1 in x stats sequentially, starting with the chance that a child (your child) will be abducted by a stranger, and ending with the 1 in 150 stat that has become the current mantra about autism. Some of these cross the line from awareness-raising to paranoia-inducing, and they leave me with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach; in this respect, they contrast with most of the longer (2-5 minute) autism awareness videos you can find on YouTube by searching under that title. Don’t know if I’m alone on that one.

The second is a series of posts over at Autism Vox by Kristina Chew, the latest of which you can link to right here. These raise questions about talk of an “autism epidemic” and sub-topics under that general heading, such as the putative link between autism and vaccines. Chews posts on this go back 18 months to one called “What if there is no autism epidemic?“, which offered a commentary on a Huffington Post article by journalist David Kirby. Chew is worth reading on this and other autism-related issues.