Education – Dune Scholar

Dune Scholar

Science Fiction, Feminism, and Digital Humanities All in One Place

Category: Education (page 1 of 2)

Effective Altruism

I first heard about effective altruism through a guest lecture by Dr. Catherine Low from Students for High Impact Charity on “Effective Altruism and the Environment” in December 2016. At the end of the lecture, the audience split into small groups to debate the merits of several charities that she had pointed out were effective in various areas, and then everyone voted on which one to donate $500 to (with the funds provided by her organization). There was also an opportunity to sign up to receive a free copy by mail of a book by William Macaskill entitled Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference (first published in 2015), so I signed up, not being able to resist a free book and wanting to learn more about the evidence behind this emerging movement. effective_altruism_bookThe thinking behind it offers an interesting critique of the personal-responsibility kind of changes we’ve been led to believe we should be doing, and I’d like to offer some highlights from the lecture and book that people may not have considered before (especially regarding Fairtrade and sweatshop goods!).

Dr. Low’s main thesis was that effective altruism is about using evidence and analysis to do the most good we can do, and that many things we might think are really good aren’t actually making the best use of our money, time, or resources. One of the examples was that the BBC in 2006 was freaking out about Brits keeping phone chargers plugged in because of the ‘ghost energy’ they were wasting. But it turns out that they hardly consume any energy (.01% would be saved by unplugging them). Yet people choose to focus on these minor, inconsequential issues rather than looking at the bigger picture. There was also a study by David Anderson that found that up to 75% of social programs in the U.S. had little or no effect. It turns out that many initiatives aren’t really studied at all and are based on someone’s gut instinct on what will do good rather than research. An example that she mentioned and that is in the introduction of the book is the Playpump, which was rolled out in Africa to get children to help pump water while playing but turned out to be quite ineffective. It was created with the best of intentions, but not enough research and design went into seeing if it would actually work.

Regarding New Zealand charitable giving, she asked us to compare the $40,000 cost of training a guide dog (which who could argue against that cause) with the $25 for cataract surgery to prevent blindness in the Global South. It is clear which one is a better value for money, but that doesn’t mean that people donate according to that criteria. There was also the comparison between $9,000 for a Make-a-wish holiday for a sick child compared to a far lower amount to buy bednets against malaria and save a couple lives in Africa. Again, the former is a nice cause, but the latter makes the money not only go farther but can actually save lives.

Dr. Low said that part of the reason why effective altruism is more possible now is that we have more information to make better decisions about giving. She listed the following places that provide this kind of information:

There is also Stanford’s Carbon Footprint site where you can calculate how much greenhouse gas your activities produce. If you see how much your airline travel is producing, for example, you could offset it by donating to an organization like CoolEarth, which for $350 can protect a hectare of rainforest. This might be more effective than buying an electric car, because there are other costs and issues you need to weigh — if you don’t do that much driving, you could have spent the extra money on a more effective way of protecting the environment, for example. In the same way, you probably don’t need to fret over the Energy Star Rating for appliances, because the $100 or whichever amount you would have spent on buying a more efficient device might be better spent on a charity, since you’re unlikely to get as much energy savings as you think, especially if you use it infrequently. One of questions she left us with was: Are we more morally obliged to prevent human-made suffering (like climate change) or naturally-occurring ones (like malaria)? It’s something to consider as we choose which causes to support.

The book reiterated the point that some ideas are good but are not actually the most effective, or the best use of resources, and most are not evaluated to see if they are working. It offered several seemingly harsh realities, including:

  • You probably shouldn’t give to disaster relief because there is likely to be a large number of people hearing about and giving to those causes, so your contribution will make less of an impact.
  • It is possible that people could have been better off without a charitable intervention, or might actually have been harmed by it, so some intervention is not necessarily better than none. Some problems work themselves out.
  • Looking at overheard percentages, which some evaluations do, is not a good measure of effectiveness. Spending a lot on good administration and fundraising does not mean a charity is not also being very effective at its programs. Outcomes are more important.
  • Following your passion in terms of a career is bad advice because you can have impact in all kinds of fields and don’t need to necessarily go to work for a non-profit or charity to change the world. The book states: “Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors (this is known in psychology as the ‘job characteristics theory’): Independence…Sense of Completion…Variety…Feedback from the job…Contribution” (Macaskill pg. 187). Basically, personal fit is a better indicator to go by, and you can gain a passion out of a variety of types of work. You can look up what you might be interested in at the site 80,000 Hours.
  • Sweatshop goods are sometimes providing better jobs for people in developing economies than other forms of labor and are considered the ‘good’ jobs, alternatives to backbreaking farm work or unemployment. In one case in 1993, a child labor bill brought to Congress prompted factories in Bangladesh to lay off 50,000 child workers; UNICEF then investigated and found that many of them had to turn to more desperate ways to survive, including hustling and prostitution (Macaskill pg. 160-163). So although boycotting sweatshop goods may seem like a good thing to do, it may be more effective to work to end the poverty in those countries that makes those jobs so attractive.
  • Buying Fairtrade-certified products is another example of how what may seem like a no-brainer thing to do may not actually be the best use of that extra money you spend for the Fairtrade product. One of the issues is that only a very small percentage of the money you pay for Fairtrade reaches the farmers. In one analysis by the World Bank, less than 1% at a British cafe chain reached coffee exporters in poor countries; in an analysis in Finland, only 11% reached the countries that produced the coffee; and in an analysis in the US, for an extra $5 per pound for Fairtrade coffee, only 40 cents or 8% would make it to coffee producers) (Macaskill pg. 165). A lot goes to the people in the middle, so you would be better to put the money you would have spent on Fairtrade toward a more effective charity to help the poor in those countries (such as GiveDirectly, in which 90 cents of $1 donated reaches the poor).
  • Thinking rationally rather than emotionally sounds harsh–especially because it might mean saying no to local causes or people asking for money on your doorstep–but it is necessary to be able to evaluate charities and see which programs are most effective.

As presented in the lecture and the book, effective altruism makes a lot of sense from a rational perspective. The trick is that so many charitable appeals work on an emotional level (or religious level), and the urge to help others we can see, in our community, probably won’t be going away any time soon. Thinking more abstractly about giving is certainly a new concept to consider thoughtfully.

Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

dh-textual-analysis-word-cloud

Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

dh-textual-analysis-word-clouds

Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

dh-textual-analysis-trend

Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

dh-textual-analysis-trends

Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

dh-textual-analysis-contexts

Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

dh-textual-analysis-microsearch

Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

dh-and-regex-exercise-2

Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

dh-and-regex-exercise-1

Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

One of the main issues in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is ethnography and its limitations. The main character Genly Ai is an ambassador for the Ekumen confederation who is conducting a mission on the planet Gethen and making reports about its population, cultures, customs, etc. He especially has trouble understanding the androgynous nature of the people. To try to start students thinking about the practice of ethnography and the potential drawbacks before we began our discussion of themes in the novel, I created a short list of generic questions they were to ask a classmate. They then shared their findings with the class, and we all learned how different people’s everyday lives were, even in the same city attending the same university. One student decided to alter their fellow student’s responses because they seemed too boring; although it was obvious they were making up information by the tone of their voice, it provided a good opportunity to discuss how accurate these kinds of records are and what motives the interviewer might have for changing information. A lot depends on what questions are being asked or what is being studied — someone might not know to even ask about a custom that their own culture lacks, for example.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures (Merriam-Webster).

Take turns being the ethnographer and the person being interviewed.
You may wish to take notes so you can present a summary of your findings to the class.

Questions:

Could you describe a typical day for you in your home city?

Could you give an example of a typical meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack) in your city/country? How is it prepared and who prepares it?

Could you describe an important holiday or festival?

When you meet someone for the first time, how do you greet them? Is there a difference in how you interact with women and men?

Shakespeare in a Mug Teaching Activity

For my first time helping to teach an introductory-level Shakespeare course, I found a good icebreaker activity from Stefanie Jochman on the Teaching Shakespeare Folger Education blog. It’s called Shakespeare in a Mug, which is her modification of Shakespeare in a Can from other teachers. The activity is fairly simple but really fun. You have students pick lines of a play or plays from mugs and then a location from another mug, and then have them improvise a scene after a brief preparation time.

Shakespeare mug

I modified hers a bit because I wanted students to be able to work in small groups rather than in pairs, since I thought that would be less intimidating. I also added a bit of participation for the audience by writing the possible locations on the whiteboard and having them guess the location after each group finished its scene. Since I wanted to use lines from the first play we were studying, Richard III, I went through the online version and picked out lines that I thought would be easier to mix and match for an improv scene and that didn’t have too much difficult language. I know the added pressure of reading out loud when it’s unfamiliar or hard to pronounce.

So here’s my version:

Shakespeare in a Mug
  1. Make sheets with lines from a play or plays and locations and cut them into individual strips (or modify my sheet of Richard III lines and modern-day locations).
  2. Put the lines in one, two, or more mugs (depending on class size) and the locations in a separate mug.
  3. Assign or have the students get themselves into small groups and choose one or two lines per person, then one location for the whole group.
  4. Give them time to prepare a scene set in their location using at least some of the lines. (I told them they could add non-Shakespearean lines if they needed to — some groups did and others didn’t.)
  5. Write up all of the potential locations on the boards if you want them to guess.
  6. Let them improvise their scene in front of the class and have the audience guess which location they are at.

Despite some eye-rolling and hesitance at the beginning, most of them seemed to get into the spirit as they started talking with their groups and having to negotiate how they were going to put together a scene. I was quite impressed with what they managed to come up with on such short notice, and we laughed a lot which was a pleasant experience for the first, sometimes awkward session where few people know each other and they aren’t sure what to expect. It also allowed me the chance to let them know that Shakespeare really has to be heard and performed for full impact, and that we would be doing more speaking of lines throughout the term.

One of the most memorable lines was an added one said in a ‘Shakespearean’ way. The group was pretending to be at a shoe store, and one person came up to the salesperson with a shoe in hand and asked, ‘Dost thou have these in a size 9?’ The class couldn’t help cracking up! I would definitely recommend this activity as a good ice-breaker or something to enliven a class or tutorial session.

Older posts

© 2017 Dune Scholar

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: