Posted by: James P Burke | September 12, 2009

Zotero Tips

I found this post on Zotero tips on another blog and thought it might be of interest to my researching colleagues:

12 must know Zotero tips and techniques

Some of the tips are probably already familiar to you, but one in particular was completely new to me: Zotero can index your PDFs and make your whole library searchable. (Tip #4)

Have Zotero index your PDFs
Zotero can index your PDF attachments and make them fully searchable, turning your library from a mere linked catalogue into a Google Books of sorts. The option is turned off by default because it relies on an external open source program (pdf2txt) which is not distributed with Zotero. However, Zotero can automatically install it and enable fulltext indexing: simply go to Preferences > Search and click on the ‘Check for installer’ button. For more info see pdf fulltext indexing in the Zotero documentation.

Thank you, Mark at The Ideophone, for that tip.

He also suggests a saved search to keep track of recent additions. I just sort the references by Date Added. But having a “new” group folder for papers that need to be read or have their metadata cleaned up (“ingested”, in his parlance) is a great idea. It’s like a reference to-do list.

Check it out.

Posted by: James P Burke | September 6, 2009

That’s Not Research

I eagerly await part 2 of Derek’s rant on Social Media.

It probably bears mentioning that my opinion on social media is probably slightly more favorable than my colleagues, although not much more. I’d classify it thusly: I appreciate the uses I have personally had for it and I admire efforts of people I know to actually use social media to empower people.

However, I believe that people are jumping to some unsupported conclusions and they worsen the situation if they claim they have science to back up their assertions when they have nothing of the sort.

It is refreshing to see some criticism of social media. That’s one other thing that is lacking. Enthusiasm for the new, in and of itself, is not a virtue. That is especially true when a thing already has as many adopters as Twitter, Facebook or blogs have.

Around any new concept you’ll always get two camps: those that hate it as a reaction to possible change and those who love it because they love the new. Both camps grow as adoption grows, but neither have anything useful to say. A lot of social media boosterism is of the latter-camp type, and a lot of the criticism is of the type best described as “kids, get off my lawn!”

I want to see both more substantive support and criticism for the uses of social media. And right now, the hype for social media makes me wish that the criticisms were less bewildered and more substantive.

On a related note, there is also the notion of science and research at stake here. When you use the word science to describe any old question and answer, you dilute the notion to the point where it is meaningless and useless. It is up to scientists to tell you to stop.

I thought you might be interested in this passage from Wayne K. Hoy’s Quantitative Research in Education: A Primer (pp. 17-18) discussing a type of so-called research (Descriptive Research) that really isn’t. It seems applicable to this and future discussions.

Descriptive Research

Descriptive research is another phrase that is used to characterize inquiry in the social sciences. It is a term that I typically avoid because it has several connotations, one of which is not really research. Research always should involve examining relations between at least two variables. Yet many “researchers” simply use statistics to describe the characteristics of various groups of individuals. For example, they ask what the proportions are of males and females in a given group of teachers, the average age and experience of the group, the number who have BA, MA, and PhD degrees, the percentage of teachers who drop out of teaching after one year, the average level of experience before teachers become principals, and on and on. The answers to such queries may be quite useful, but such compilations are not examples of descriptive research because they do not relate variables–a more appropriate term for the process is social book keeping, not research.

Descriptive research is the process of simply describing relations without speculating about the cause. The two variables go together; they are correlated. For example, weight and height are correlated, but gaining weight does nor cause you to grow taller. Likewise, growing taller does not necessarily lead to growing heavier. Correlational studies give us interesting information about relations, but until we can begin to make causal inferences, their utility is limited. Careful description is important, but it is only the beginning of the study of causal relations.

I came across a reference to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences yesterday and it reminded me that I am wading into a world with many theories and beliefs, some based in empiricism and some less so. And also of my ignorance. Opinions about education are everyone’s right, but in research, theories need to be about a lot more than opinion.

The article is in support of viewing the President’s upcoming televised message to students on the occasion of their return to school, September 7, 2009. The passage comes as the author makes a point about why President Obama’s history gives him a unique perspective and credibility on the subject of personal advancement:

“He rose to the presidency because he can THINK. He is a reader, a writer, an orator, a lover of art and music and people.  He is a leader.  Spiritual.  Self disciplined and self made.  He is the embodiment of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.” (Riley, 2004)

In my quick review of MI (Multiple Intelligence) theory, I do not think that this reference makes sense.

In a Scientific American article which Gardner later updated, Gardner (1998/2004) makes his case in opposition to familiar intelligence tests which force students to do unusual and difficult tasks for the purpose of determining an IQ or “g” – a measure of general intelligence.

In contrast, Gardner believes that there are multiple forms of intelligence (eight in all) and that even if we had no tests for g, we would recognize these intelligences in the activities of students. His interest was also to work cultural context into the understanding of intelligence as can be seen in his definition: “an intelligence is a psychobiological potential to process information so as to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one cultural context” (Gardner, 1998/2004, p.3)

Gardner’s initial insights came from his work with children with certain exceptional abilities and people with neurological damage who had left some abilities in place but others intact. He refers to people with scattered profiles of strengths and weaknesses.

My biggest question for Gardner’s MI is why a new definition of intelligence is necessary,especially if there are correlations among some of the intelligences he identifies. Might a theory of manifestations of intelligence suffice, which would preserve the possibility that there is a general intelligence that boosts many abilities? And, if so, that general intelligence might be somewhat useful and predictive? My observations of classrooms tell me that students can employ different abilities in the cause of learning, as when social interaction in the classroom turns toward debating mathematical concepts. But is that ability itself an intelligence?

I’ll have to read a lot more to answer my questions, and it was not my intention to pronounce judgment on Gardner’s theory.

Defenses of Gardner’s theory refer to how teachers have adopted the notion, but also how it has not always been translated into practice in an accurate or useful way. (Kornhaber, 2004, pp.4-5) Out in practice, theories can lose coherence and teachers can adopt the language to represent their own ideas.

In the Riley’s quote above, he is referring to Obama’s many talents. If we assume this has some relationship to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, it’s not clear to me whether he is considering these talents to be innate intelligences which Obama used to succeed or whether he is saying that Obama has worked hard to somehow increase his own intelligences.

The best embodiment of a theory of MI would be a person who is able to excel in one or two areas because that is where his intelligences lie. He may or may not be a good example of a successful student, but he would exemplify a separation of intelligences. This meshes with  Gardner’s “scattered profiles.”

A person with success and accomplishments in many areas would embody a theory of general intelligence; coupled with varied interests and hard work, he was able to apply his intelligence in many areas and excel.

Of course, Obama’s success is not meant to embody anything, and his specific case supports no theory. MI theory doesn’t rule out a person being gifted in many areas.

I wonder, though, whether Riley is only concerned with the cultural context of Gardner’s ideas: that intelligence’s wider definition should reflect skills that are valued in society. If this is the case, Riley may not be saying that Obama’s success tells us anything about the theory of MI, but rather that Obama’s attributes happen to be a laundry list of Gardner’s intelligences.

This may be a result of my imperfect understanding of Gardner’s intelligences, but for such a theory to be useful I imagine that it would have to embrace a notion of the stability of intelligence(s) over time. In other words, Obama earned his success and his expertise, but did not earn his intelligence(s). Calling Obama the embodiment of multiple intelligences implies that he has these intelligences at his disposal, drawing attention away from the message of hard work.

If we are teaching school children to strive and work hard, to make sacrifices and to be persistent in trying to reach their goals, I think it’s better to relate the challenges a successful person faced rather than the advantages he started out with.

Gardner, H. (1998/2004). A Multiplicity of Intelligences: In tribute to Professor Luigi Vignolo. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from

Kornhaber, M. (2004, August 15). Psychometric Superiority? Check the Facts – Again. Retrieved from

Riley, K. (2009, September 5). WHY PRESIDENT OBAMA WILL BE OUR GUEST SPEAKER AT EL MILAGRO. El Milagro Weblog. Weblog, . Retrieved September 6, 2009, from

Questions resulting from reading Gardner (1998/2004)

  • Gardner describes g (general intelligence) as “difficult to change.” (p.1) Is this intended to contrast it with his own view of intelligence, meaning that the individual’s multiple intelligences are subject to change over time?
  • How do we distinguish intelligence from specific aptitude and ability?
  • If MI theory acknowledges that there may be correlations among different intelligences, why should it not be a theory of the application of general intelligence to multiple abilities rather than a splitting of the concept of intelligence.
  • Gardner states intelligence shouldn’t be conflated with creativity, wisdom or morality. Why the distinction? Is musical creativity not part of Gardrner’s musical intelligence? In what way should wisdom be distinct from intelligence? Why is morality exempt?
Posted by: Undeclared Scientist | September 5, 2009

This Really Skews My Median

The other day I attended my first Ph.D. course, Quantitative Reasoning I. Sure, I’m not actually enrolled in the program or even the course but you can’t stop my edu-ma-cation! Now before I get into my academic-y post I need to preface it with Johnny T-Bird’s (the course instructor’s flashy name I just now gave him) great learning philosophy based on root vegetables. The analogy follows that you when you do constant drill activities, such as addition, it is akin to taking a carrot, writing down the addition algorithm on the carrot and placing it back in the ground. Then, later on, when you have to add two numbers you simply find your carrot, pull it out of the ground, read it, say “yep, that’s addition” and finish the problem. As time passes, however, if you don’t keep drilling a particular procedure you’ll eventually forget where you’re addition carrot lives. Sure, its still there but you can’t remember how to get to it. On the other hand, if you force students to understand a new concept based on what they already know its like a potato. The potato starts off as a single potato but then grows connections to other potatoes in the ground. Therefore, later on when you’re trying to figure out some crazy stats you pick up your crazy stats potato and up pops a string of knowledge used in connection. The theory of learning based on carrots and potatoes…very interesting.

So, during the first lecture we touched upon distributions of the normal and skewed type. First we reviewed the basics of mean, median and mode then we got into the definitions of positively and negatively skewed distributions. Since Johnny T-Bird enjoys growing potatoes and not carrots he told us to work out the relationship between mean and median in skewed distributions. My first instinct was that the mean would fall away from the median towards the tail of the skew (right of the median in a positive skew, left of the median in a negative skew) but the more I thought about it the concept didn’t mesh right in my mind. Of course, as some may remember from all those glorious math courses you took, my first instinct was correct and I had successfully created some potatoes…but were they rotten?

It seemed to me that two conditions could occur which would reverse the mean/median order:

  1. The tail was long enough that it contained more samples than that of the bulge of the skew
  2. The bulge was “heavy” enough (in terms of density and number of samples) so that it would pull the mean towards itself.

But this couldn’t possibly be right, the textbooks were all telling me the mean/median relationship rule is infallible…am I taking crazy pills? Well, turns out the mathematics community regards the infalliability (is that even a word? sure) of this rule to be a liiiiitle white lie. In fact, there are three instances where this rule fails with a surprising frequency:

  1. Multimodal distributions
  2. Discrete distributions
  3. The kind of distribution like I described above

How do I know all this is true? Because Dr. von Hippel said so and he has a Ph.D in Computer-Based Music Reseach (oh, and he’s a statistician)

Posted by: James P Burke | August 28, 2009

Feynman on Pseudo-Science

Feynman had a low opinion of the social sciences. He says it may be because he doesn’t know enough about it, but his belief is likely based on research he saw at that time which failed to impress him.

We don’t know what he would think of social science today, but we do know what he is criticizing: a veneer of science without the hard work.

Being too cavalier with declaring we know something can make us wrong. But the other consequences can be bad as well…. Read More

I’m in a field which overlaps and includes social sciences, so I’m sensitive to this criticism. I admire Feynman; I find him an inspiration as both a scientist and an educator. I want to keep this in mind.

Also, if I choose to study how people use technology to learn and communicate, I don’t want to face prejudice that other people earned but may affect whether I get to research my own ideas.

Posted by: Undeclared Scientist | August 28, 2009

social media (with no caps)

As I sit here rediscovering Zeppelin for the 1,034th time, I’m becoming increasingly incensed over so-called “smart” software. Apple released their latest OS, Snow Leopard, today but maybe they should take some time and look at the fuck-ups that they are still selling…like Remote Desktop 3.0. My assignment yesterday here at the center was to use Remote Desktop to install a ton of software on our lab of MacBooks (haptics, what?) but supriiiiiise! Remote Desktop != The Balls. In the time it has taken me to realize this “smart” software is actually riding the short bus I could have manually installed the software on all these machines.

But I digress from the spirit of this particular blog-o-sphere. Fall is upon us and school is in the soon to be chilled New England air. As I start my 3rd year as a PTL, my thoughts have been lingering on the recent influx of social media in the classroom arguments. Technology is practically my soulmate, I use it on a constant, minute-to-minute basis. I work at a center devoted to using technology in the classroom to engage and intrinsically motivate students. Yet, I use practically no technology in my classroom and I believe this current social media in education movement is complete bullshit. Why you ask? Because a great man once said:

“Software isn’t worth the silicon it’s written on without curriculum” ~ Jim Kaput

As a PTL with a full plate of life in front of me I do not have the luxury of being able to develop a comprehensive curriculum on my own. The curriculum I employ for my Introduction to Programming in C course follows a great book (Problem Solving and Program Design in C) and my own style of teaching (class discussion + some whiteboard shenanigans – powerpoint boring = results!). My students react well to this and, for the most part, they have succeeded more than with other versions of my course (purely qualitative proof, however). If I were to find or develop a curriculum rich in technology that was proven to work (like, you know, research and studies and junk) I would adopt it…after my own personal research.

And there we have my issue with this quagmire of integrating social media into education (I’ve stopped using caps for the term to illuminate my hate). Where are the studies showing a curriculum enhanced by social media (also, wtf does social media even mean? someone give me a definition that isn’t PR/marketing bullshit) improves student learning, motivation or participation? Its going down the same road as technology in the classroom during the 90’s. Throw some myFaces in your classroom and, TA DA!, you’re kids get smarter. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Yes, it would be, but just like tech in the 90’s  it will be a false promise. Soon the public will realize that posting your class information on Facebook is stupid and not helping the situation. Thus leading to a revolt over using social media in the classroom. Of course, by the time this all happens people like me and you and the other folks on this here blog will have found great uses for Social Media in the classroom (our version gets caps) leading to an uphill battle for adoption because 10 years earlier a bunch of marketing douchebags decided PR is better than R&D.

I write this because, as you can tell, there is a very strong voice on this blog against social media and we have all been questioned before about our strong words. It is not because we feel that social media is the bane of all existence (though sometimes I may). My reason (I will let others speak for themselves) is because social media is a very new thing; so new, in fact, that I still call it a “thing”. Nothing should ever be wholly adopted because “the kids use it” or “its just so damned cool” or “it’s everywhere!”. No, there needs to be a reason for adoption. It is only now, over a decade after the “dot boom”, that we are starting to successfully implement that technology in our classrooms (instead of the 90’s mantra, “give them a computer and genius will come”). Recently, there have been many crazies spouting off unfounded crazy about using social media in the classroom and, you may argue, that it is harmless. However, when people start to listen and act on the crazy (and they are) history will repeat itself. It is important that we, as educators and scientists, and you, as conscientious citizens, demand rigor and research regarding what is adopted in the classroom.

Over the next few years researchers, educators, policy makers and even students need to look at the affordances of social media and research how to turn it into Social Media in the classroom.

Posted by: silentj | August 25, 2009

I was unaware that Derek had a child.

Posted by: James P Burke | August 24, 2009

Social Media and Higher Education

Brace for impact!

(It’s a joke on a number of levels.)

This is something we’re going to be seeing over and over again, whether we’re studying Social Media, Social Networks, Communications, Technology or not.  We’re all in the academic world and these new popular methods of communication are going to have an effect on the classroom, if not teaching and learning. What that effect is remains to be seen.

This article prompted this, the first of what I’m sure will be many posts about so-called social media: How Students, Professors, and Colleges Are, and Should Be, Using Social Media

The title is extremely misleading; it’s a one-page interview that deals mostly with questions about some opinions on the current effect of social media. it barely touches on anything like advice.

My interest, specifically, is on classroom effects, and here is the entirety of that portion:

Q. How has today’s student changed how professors prepare their classes?
It’s really forcing university professors to think about their teaching style and the pedagogical techniques that they use in the classroom. In other words, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with simply delivering a traditional lecture in the classroom. I’m beginning to debate whether or not it’s effective, whether or not it works, whether or not it’s a useful tool or a useful way to engage and create a kind of learning space or a learning environment. They’re active learners, as opposed to passive learners. That one-way flow of content — I don’t know how effective that is anymore.

Social media is forcing professors to think about their techniques and style? They didn’t think about this before? Pardon me, but I doubt that a professor who didn’t consider his teaching style before is going to suddenly have an epiphany because social media has hit the scene. They may not even be aware of the effect of social media on their classroom.

Perhaps we will see some serious treatment of this subject, or some analysis that tells us serious treatment is justified. Either way, we will be seeing more books and articles like this.

Posted by: James P Burke | August 23, 2009

Been Around The Block

Since everyone is posting their origin stories, I figured I would jump in as well. Despite my superhero name, I was not bitten by a radioactive physicist. The true story is more boring, and that’s just the tale I tell the tourists.

I am a child of the late 60’s, which means I was steeped in 80’s music when I was a teenager, and all the trauma that implies. Actually I love 80’s music because it seemed like there was at least some popular embracing of science as a force for good in the 80s.

From the time I was very young, my parents encouraged me towards science. I’d watch NOVA on PBS with my mom and think that those scientists were pretty damn amazing.

But truly, I was interested in anything out of the ordinary. I was fascinated by religious beliefs, and when I befriended a born again christian kid in middle school I wouldn’t leave him alone questioning him about the most outlandish aspects of his dogma. He was happy to spill; people always think you’re listening because you want to get on that train. I didn’t even think it was crazy to believe all sorts of outlandish things at that point, even though my own upbringing was Catholic and i was an altar boy.

It seemed not too difficult to reconcile conflicting supernatural stuff. Magic was supposed to be mystery, right? I was heavily interested in UFOs, ghosts, poltergeist, E.S.P. and demonic possession.  Your average 12-year-old steeped in popular culture and with access to a number of libraries. I read every book about those subjects and the Bermuda Triangle, strange disappearances, dowsing, premonitions, dreams, alien abductions and the like.

When I had exhausted the credulous publications, I began to realize that the same stories were being printed over and over again, yet nobody seemed to get very far in answering any questions. Eventually I started looking for more formal treatments of these subjects: there were researchers at the respected SRI who had done ESP tests and there were famous people who supposedly still displayed powers (Uri Geller). they had data!

If that was true, though, then why hadn’t anyone harnessed the knowledge?

The stories got boring when I realized that nobody asked the obvious questions that I would ask, if confronted with someone claiming to be reincarnated, or having seen an unlikely creature, or whatever. Science had at least taught me something about questions.

Then I learned of skeptical literature, and people like James Randi and Martin Gardner. Gardner I knew from his articles in Scientific American, which my father left around the house now and again. They, and others like them, were asking questions that the paranormalists could not answer. They couldn’t answer the questions because the data was fudged, the methods intentionally sloppy, the observations inaccurate, the eyewitness accounts misremembered. It was all what people wanted to believe, not what they could support with evidence.

I got into computers because they fascinated me, and my academic interests veered toward the application of software for education. My personal track took me away from academia at first and toward building a family. I’ve got a wife and two daughters, one of which is about to enter high school.  I came back when an opportunity was presented to explore mathematics education and how software could play a role.

For over 15 years now, my role has mostly been in designing technology rather than exploring theory. But that is all about to change as I await acceptance in a mathematics education Ph.D. program.

My interest is in formal thought. There are many reasons why this is so, but part of the reason is that I see now that a lack of rigor, a lack of the ability to think formally is not only contributing to poor math learning, but is a general problem with understanding science and adopting a habit of thinking critically.

It was fun, for a while to believe in UFOs and such, but I felt horribly betrayed by publishers when I realized that so much of it is bullshit. I could have spent my time reading about true wonders of the universe, and those are myriad. We all have a responsibility to intellectual rigor that applies to varying degrees in everything we do. It is an ethical issue.

I want to understand how people think, how they learn, and how better to help them build knowledge. If you ask me to define “knowledge” I will say that for the purposes of this discussion, I have two definitions. Philosophically and skeptically, knowledge is justified true belief. And learning deals with both figuring out if your beliefs are true and also learning how to justify them. But there is very basic knowledge of science and mathematics that even now are not making it into the population in a way that allows these people to understand their world more deeply. I would like to help correct that.

I have not decided what my exact focus is yet, but I feel I have a good deal of theory to get through before I concentrate on that point.

I’ve agreed to participate in this group blog where I understand there will be many voices contributing to a conversation about the graduate student experience. Knowing some of my fellows, I expect there will be many harsh comments, and I welcome seeing honest passion and frustration expressed here and an attitude that everyone is responsible for his own opinion.

I, like Derek, will probably also use this as a dump for concepts that either strike me as particularly surprising or interesting. As I have a strong interest in politics and policy, you’ll probably see news stories every so often. I welcome all comments and discussion. And I hope this site can be an honest place to vent, to learn and to help get through this experience.

Posted by: silentj | August 22, 2009


Let me just get this out of the way immediately: I am way less science-y or professor-like than Derek, and probably less also than any other contributor to this blog.  However, I may also be the only one here for whom the title of “doctor” will not include air quotes in verbal description.  So y’all can just suck on my big M.D.

Yes, anyway, now that that’s out of the way.  Hello.  My name is Arija.  For information on how to pronounce that, please refer to the “about me” section of my personal blog.  I am a Yale graduate with a degree in anthropology, former literary agent, onetime perpetuator of sublimely stupid internet memes, expert children wrangler, and now a first year medical student with the white coat — embroidered — to prove it.

I’m an avid fan of books, more as collector pieces than actual reading — I do most of my reading on the internet and in expensive paperbacks with titles like “Neuroanatomy: An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems” (Haines 2007).  I’m an inveterate consumer of science fiction; I prefer the space/aliens/future face-eating technology subgenres, but I’m curious about almost all of it.  Except for the vampire shit.  I can’t stand that garbage.  Also steampunk.  What the fuck?  I also live and die for karaoke and grueling bike rides.

Medically, I’m most interested in women’s health, especially as it relates to elementary and secondary education — I’m really excited to get religion and its evil spawn, abstinence-only sex education, out of American public schools forever.  At this point, I’m most strongly considering a residency in pediatrics and/or adolescent medicine.  That’s right, I want to deal with your slutty, cranky 13-year-olds; in fact, I can’t wait to.  I am constantly amazed at the negative reaction I get to this statement, to which I reply with incredulity, “What are you gaining by criticizing this?  Wouldn’t you rather send your kids to someone who actually wants to deal with them?” I’m also, like many people who lived in the squalid real world for a while before returning to the warm breast of academia, interested in extending health coverage to everyone, or at least in a more egalitarian fashion.  Feel free to ask me my opinions on health care reform.  Let me just catch up on my reading first.

I currently live in a city I like to call New England’s Rising Shithole, drive a really stupid car that I have a lot of affection for, drink coffee with cream and no sugar, shy away from physical contact and affection, and prefer my iPhone to human company.  I’ve tried to classify my personality according to the Myers-Briggs test several times but am always frustrated at having to choose between only two answers, neither of which ever accurately describes my brain.  I consider myself intelligent and love being in the company of even more intelligent folks, hence my participation in this blog which I’m guessing will be spotty, but I’m really trying, no seriously guys.  Please call me out on my shit, as I’ll be doing the same for you.

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