Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I Brought All My Journals To Class

One of the things that drives me up the wall is when students cite bad sources. Students are taught throughout grade school - particularly in high school - to always cite their sources because plagiarism is bad. And while it's true that plagiarism does interfere with the production of knowledge, teaching students that plagiarism is wrong because it is 'theft' does the production of knowledge no service. If, however, we judge plagiarism by its impact on a broader scholarly community, I think we would still come to the same conclusion that plagiarism is bad. But with such a metric, we'd also be given a more useful understanding of credibility itself.

Teaching a research-based course in economics requires that my students develop a keen sense for credibility. There is a lot of bullshit written about the economy. I told my students that today after passing out all the peer-reviewed academic journals I had. (In case you're curious, it consists largely of the Review of Radical Political Economy, a few volumes of Feminist Economics, and the special Anwar Shaikh issue of the Global & Local Economic Review.) I plopped the journals on the desk in the front of the class and had students come up during the middle of lecture to take one at random.

Why Should They Believe You?

As arrogant as I may seem, I really do believe that humility is a scholarly virtue. To my mind, this is less about social graces than it is about individual limitation. One simply cannot expect to ever possess the entire body of human knowledge in a single discipline, much less in general. Part of learning to be a good scholar is recognizing that you must fundamentally rely on others to provide you the opportunity to explore what would otherwise be intractable intellectual grounds had they not been cleared by previous scholarship.

In The Rhetoric of Economics Deirdre McCloskey, following the "methodological anarchism" of Paul Feyerabend (which bears no resemblance to and it quite contemptuous of actual anarchism), frames the point a bit more cynically:

Appeal to authority is often reckoned as the worst kind of "mere" rhetoric. Yet it is a common and often legitimate argument, as here [in the case of a citation]. No science would advance without it, because no scientist can redo every previous argument. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and it is a perfectly legitimate and persuasive argument to point this out from time to time. (McCloskey 1983, 500)
What McCloskey does here - as postmodernists are wont to do - is reducing a convention to its aesthetic, confusing the scholar with their scholarship. When you cite a source, as does Paul Samuelson from whom she draws and example, you are not appealing to the authority of the author by virtue of having written a citation than you are appealing to the authority of the year. The author-date citation is not a reference to the author, but to a specific argument which only depends on the author's authority insofar as they have a command of the subject matter and its demonstration.

This does not mean, however, that the author is unimportant - especially for an introductory student. What I stress to my students above all else is that while ultimately the scholarship's credibility stands on its own, scholars are people who have motives and beliefs. In knowing who you are reading and paying attention to the publication it appears in, you as a researcher, are more capable of noticing tendencies within the various camps that exist in the academic community. For all the decorum of the academy, it is as petty and tribal as religion when it comes to scholarly points of contention. Learning where various scholars you read fall with regard to these epistemological cliques is important to understanding your field of study and, ultimately, where you want to fall within it.

An Anarchist Classroom For Non-Anarchists

It is no question that I am decisively in a number of these scholarly camps when it comes to my field of study. Such information makes the far right extremely upset. If they took my class, they would likely discover that, barring my policy on classroom conduct, they have quite a bit of freedom to oppose my views and get good marks for doing so. As I said to Tucker Carlson, as long as the student is doing the work and citing credible sources, they can have whatever viewpoint they want. The key, of course, is in how one defines credibility.

Rather than, as implied by McCloskey, reducing credibility to proximity to a series of Hegelian/Nietzschean Great Men, I do so instrumentally and teach my students the same. Credibility is not in what knowledge is being produced, but how it is being produced. Hence, I give my students what I call a "Taxonomy of Reliability of Sources.":

Best c=1 Scholarly Publications
1. Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Journal Articles
2. Edited Volumes by Well-Credentialed Authors
3. Books by Well-Credentialed Authors
Good c=2 Only If They Contribute Substantially To Scholarly Debate
4. Working Papers Unpublished Elsewhere
5. Books by Less-Credentialed Authors
6. Speeches
Okay c=3 Only If They Generated a Measure of Publicity That You Are Discussing
7. Blog Posts
8. Books by Uncredentialed Authors
9. Op-Eds or Long Form Journalism
10. Tweets, Facebook Posts, or Interviews
Never c=4 For Reference Only
11. Encyclopedias (In Print or Online e.g. Wikipedia)
12. Textbooks
13. Dictionaries
14. Random-Ass Websites
So this is why I brought my journals to class. As you can see, peer-reviewed journal articles appear at the top of the list. The reason is not (just) because I am a snob, but because the process for publication is more rigorous. Unlike any of the other types of sources, journal articles are sent to expert reviewers anonymously for fact checking and intellectual honesty. If, for example, an author neglects to mention a competing theory that explains the phenomenon equally well, one of the reviewers (there are usually two) ought to insist on its inclusion. The reviewer makes a judgment as to whether the article should be included in the journal (they're published similarly to magazines) and their remarks are passed, also anonymously, back to the author for revisions.

This process is known as double-blind peer review. It's "double-blind" because the article the reviewer sees does not indicate who the author is, and the comments that the author sees do not indicate who the reviewer is. This is meant to mitigate the bias a reviewer might have toward individual scholars and the consternation an author might have in receiving feedback from individual reviewers. Publications in edited volumes (often called 'chapters') are second on my list because, although the peer-review is not double-blind, an expert editor is commissioning and overseeing the publication of other scholars. Books by authors, facing no review beyond whatever voluntary reviewing the author commissions from colleagues, I place third among scholarly publications.

I expect my students' citations to come overwhelmingly from the first category. The latter three categories, I expect to only receive citation as absolutely necessary (some facts are too new or obscure for scholarly attention). This encourages two habits in my students. First, it encourages them to investigate the types of sources they are consulting and, in doing so, consider their research time an asset. Second, it encourages them to remain within the realm of synthesizing research and adding manageable insights rather than trying to haphazardly do original research without the methodological grounding necessary to do so. These are intro undergrad students, so I want to encourage them to explore and understand the existing body of scholarly knowledge as it interests them.

Though credible citations are only 30% of the students' grade (the remainder are defining your terms, developing the theory you discuss, and presenting an extension or critique of the theory), I tell them that in general, the rest will follow if you are building with a foundation of worthwhile sources. In my experience grading student papers, this has been overwhelmingly true. In general, the more familiar a student is with the existing literature, especially its points of content, the better students are able to make coherent points regarding their research subject. Because of the construction of my citation criteria, students are not limited to narrow textbook approaches, but are offered the opportunity to explore heterodox approaches, so long as they can find a source worth citing. In economics, there exists a wide breadth of methodological and ideological commitments. It is so baked into the discipline that economists often distinguish between freshwater (conservative, often at midwest schools) and saltwater (liberal, often at coastal schools) economists.

In bringing my journals to class, I was able to show them what exactly it is that they were making a citation for. It's remarkably difficult to explain what a journal is with electronic copies and allusions to magazines. I then took them through an exercise of writing out the citation for the second article in whatever journal they grabbed after going through the process of doing one together as a class. This is the first time I've done this exercise, and it went really well.

Okay But How Do You Grade a Citation?

I have assigned them an annotated bibliography to do that grades them on the elements of a proper citation, so presumably by their term paper, I will only have to worry about the quality of their citations as in the taxonomy above. To grade that, I use the following formula,

$$\left({}\frac{1}{1+\bar{c}}\right){}^{\frac{1}{1+n}} \times 30$$

where \(\bar{c}\) is the average value of c for non-consecutive citations per the taxonomy above and n is the number of non-consecutive citations. As one might expect, the better the average citation the better the grade, and the more non-consecutive citations the better the grade. The crazy fraction acts as an index (i.e. it takes a number between zero and one) which you can multiply by whatever score you want to give citations.

The index itself is asymptotic in both \(\bar{c}\) and n, so it's technically impossible to get a perfect score. I give my students two excuses for this. First, there is no such thing as perfect research, and you are always endeavoring to do the best you can do. Second, I use a curve that presents the opportunity for an adjusted grade above 100% depending on how the class does overall, so whatever you might lose in an imperfect citation grade, you can make up for by ensuring your classmates are getting the help they need to complete their research. Cooperation is a big part of academic study and a big part of my classroom.

The construction of the grade itself encourages a number of habits I seek to develop in my students. First, it encourages them to find multiple sources for their insights. Second, it encourages them to compare and contrast multiple sources as switching between sources also counts as "non-consecutive." Third, it encourages them to layer sources to support individual arguments which is both a common scholarly practice as well as a good fact-checking skill. I'm looking forward to seeing how the semester turns out.