Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Praise of UC Riverside Undergraduates

This year, U.C. Riverside is ranked #1 among national universities on the US News & World Report college ranking metric of "social mobility". This metric is based on six-year graduation rates among Pell Grant recipients (most of whose family incomes are below $50,000) and the relative graduation rates of Pell students vs non-Pell students.

UCR has long been notable for its success with first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged students, and students from historically underrepresented groups. Money Magazine ranks it #1 among "most transformative" public colleges (and #4 overall), based on having higher-than-expected graduation rates, earnings, and student loan repayment given the economic and academic background of its students. In 2014, when President Obama proposed a plan to rank universities based on graduation rates, percent of Pell recipients, and affordability, UC Riverside also came out as #1. Fifty-six percent of UCR students are Pell recipients, and the plurality (40%) are Latinx.

I often hear faculty from other universities complain about their undergraduates acting entitled to high grades and special treatment. I have not found this to be the case at UC Riverside. Last year, only one student complained to me about their grade, and the few who asked for accommodations or exceptions seemed genuinely to need them. Many UCR students work incredibly hard, juggling work, school, and sometimes difficult family lives. Students admitted to the U.C. system who want to party choose one of the coastal schools instead.

In theory, a school could achieve high graduation rates by making the coursework easy. Although grade inflation is widespread in academia, I don't think it is especially the case at UCR. My lower-division class "Evil", for example, requires substantial amounts of difficult reading, two essays, and three exams in a ten week term, including a comprehensive in-class final exam which students must pass in order to pass the course. Despite the difficulty of the course, it is among the most popular courses at UCR, always filling with as many spots as we can open up, usually 300-500.

Although students cannot pass Evil without passing the final exam, and about 10% normally fail the final exam, there is almost no cheating on the exam as far as I can tell. Potentially, students could cheat by going to the restroom and looking things up on their phones, but only a small percentage go to the restroom at all, and almost all of those students are quickly in and out. Only about 1% of students even spend long enough in the bathroom to call up a meaningful amount of information on their phone if they wanted to. Students in my Evil class would rather fail the final exam than cheat in that way. Those who do fail tend to blame themselves and retake the course, doing better the next time through.

You won't find me complaining about "kids these days". Not at UCR.

ETA (8:15 a.m.): Some speculations on how this comes about. Mostly, I think, it's explained by the population of students who choose UCR: solid enough academically to gain U.C. admissions, but not the ones who choose schools on grounds of attractive location or party reputation, and often commuting students from the greater L.A. area, with family ties that keep them local. Partly, it's a critical mass of diverse students, so that students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds don't feel unusual or isolated, and professors are accustomed to students from such backgrounds. And partly, it's the generally supportive and collaborative academic culture at UCR, in which staff, faculty, and peers all generally want to see each other succeed.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity

New essay, just out!

  • published version: Res Philosophica, 96, 347-368
  • manuscript version

  • Introduction

    I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is: Most people aim to be morally-mediocre. They aim to be about as morally good as their peers -- not especially better, not especially worse. This mediocrity has two aspects. It is peer relative rather than absolute, and it is middling rather than extreme. We do not aim to be good, or non—bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of people we regard as out peers, and we aim to behave broadly within that range. We aim to be neither among the best nor among the worst. We -- most of us -- look around, notice how others are acting, then calibrate toward so—so. The normative thesis is that this a somewhat bad way to be, but it's not a terribly bad way to be. Also, it is a somewhat good Way to be, but it's not a Wonderfully good way to be. It's morally mediocre to aim for moral mediocrity. This might sound like a tautology, but it's not. Someone with stringent normative views might regard it as inexcusably rotten to aim merely for mediocrity in our rotten world. Someone with much less stringent views might think that it's perfectly fine to aim for mediocrity, as long as you avoid being among the Worst. I will argue that aiming for mediocrity is neither perfectly fine nor inexcusably rotten. We're morally blameworthy not to aspire for better, but we also deserve tepid praise for avoiding the swampy bottom.

    Part One defends the view that most of us aim for about the moral middle. Part Two argues that, at least in out culture, having such an aim is not perfectly morally fine, and thus that the somewhat pejorative term mediocre is warranted, capturing in a single word both the empirical peer-relative middlingness and the moderate moral badness.

    Part One: The Empirical Thesis

    2. Following the Moral Crowd

    Robert B. Cialdini and collaborators went to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park (2006). The park had been losing about a ton of petrified wood per month, mostly stolen in small amounts by casual visitors. Cialdini and collaborators posted four different signs intended to discourage theft, rotating their placement at the heads of different paths. Two signs were explicit injunctions: (A) "Please don't remove petrified wood from the park" (with a picture of a visitor stealing wood, crossed by a red circle and bar) and (B) "Please leave petrified wood in the park" (with a picture of a visitor admiring and photographing a piece of wood). Two signs were descriptive: (C) "Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest" with pictures of three visitors taking wood) and (D) "The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest" (with pictures of three visitors admiring and photographing the petrified wood). Cialdini and collaborators then noted how much wood the visitors tookc from the paths headed by the different signs. Rates of theft were lowest (1.7%) when visitors were explicitly enjoined not to take wood (Condition A). Rates of theft were highest (8.0%) when visitors were told that many past visitors have removed wood (Condition C). Being told that many visitors have removed wood might even have increased the rates of theft, which were estimated normally to be 1% to 4% of visitors (Roggenbuck et al. 1997).

    Cialdini and collaborators also found that hotel guests were substantially more likely to reuse towels when a message to "help save the environment" was supplemented with the information that "75% of the guests who stayed in this room (#xxx) participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once" than when the message to help save the environment was supplemented with other types of information or a longer injunction (Goldstein et al. 2008). Similarly, evidence suggests that people are more likely to heed injunctions to reduce household energy usage when shown statistics indicating that they using more energy than their neighbors -- and they may even increase usage when shown statistics that they are using less (Schultz et al. 2007; Allcott 2011; Ayres et al. 2013; Karim et al. 2015). Littering, lying, tax compliance, and suicide appear to be contagious (Cialdini et al. 1990; Gould 2001; Keizer et al. 2011; Haw et al. 2013; Innes and Mitra 2013; Abrutyn and Mueller Z014; Hays and Carver 2014; Kroher and Wolbring, 2015; Maple et al. 2017; Hallsworth et al. 2017; Reyes-Portjllo et al. 2018). In "dictator games" (i.e., in laboratory situations in which randomly chosen participants are given money and told they can either keep it all for themselves or share some with less lucky participants), participants tend to be less generous when they learn that previous participants kept most of the money (Bicchieri and Xiao 2009; Dimant 2015; Mcauliffe et al. 2017).


    To read more about the empirical evidence that people mostly aim for peer-relative moral mediocrity and for my reflections on the ethics of doing so, access the full paper here.