GBV and social norms. By me! In print!

I’m constantly amazed at both how long the publishing process is and how quickly the years have gone since I started a handbook chapter with my wonderful, talented colleagues, Betsy Levy Paluck and Laurie Ball Cooper. I’m happy to say that today, the The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Psychology is available for sale and has some great essays on gender, including ours on gender based violence and social norms around the world.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.

Woohoo, Spring Break Reading List!

It’s Spring Break for Gettysburg College, which means I have jetted off to somewhere it decidedly does not look like Spring. Well, perhaps at least in the conventional definition. I’m quite happy to see snowflakes my entire break, but many of my students were appalled that I wasn’t heading south for warmer weather. Oh, well.

A break from classes means work with new data, getting caught up with student blog posts, and of course books. Below is a peek into what I’m reading this week, though it likely won’t be the last you hear from me about these books.

Things I actually read over break

As the semester was winding down, I published a list of books and things I wanted to read over the winter break. The best laid plans, of course, blah, blah, blah, but I did get some reading done, and I’m excited to share them with you.

  1. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (h/t @brettkeller) Really beautiful DC novel, immigrant novel, American novel. It’s a quick read and just lovely.
  2. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (h/t my dear friend and colleague, Ruth) I loved the turns of phrase in this book. The story is a bit odd at times and falters a bit, but beautifully written. Ruth couldn’t get past the May-December romance, but it didn’t bother me like it did her.
  3. The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal and the Search for Peace
    I wish I could say I read all of this, but I only started it. It’s an exhaustive history of Ireland’s recent struggle. Astoundingly well researched. I hope to finish it sometime soon.
  4. My own papers, over and over again
  5. My own fellowship applications, over and over again. (Extra thanks to those who helped me with these.)

There’s always the summer, I guess, to get back to the things I said I’d read!

National Book Award Finalists

I was pleased to see this week that Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was named the National Book Award Winner for Non-fiction. I finally finished in a flurry of plane rides in October, fighting exhaustion and will-I-make-it-back-to-the-East-Coast stress in the shadow of Hurricane Sandy. Yes, I was one of those lunatics people trying to fly into the storm. I just made it, thankfully–I think my students would have revolted had I not–and haven’t picked up a book since then. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture of development, aid, poverty, or India, but that’s kind of the point.

Congratulations to all the winners! Thanks for keeping words beautiful.

What I’m reading

I’m headed to Maine this afternoon for a quick talk at Bates College and a wedding in Kennebunkport. I’ve never been to Maine, so I’m excited for the beach and seafood, among other things. I’m also excited to read some books that have been on my list for awhile and another that just came out. This is what I’m taking with me:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman

This Is How You Lose Herby Junot Diaz

It should be a good weekend!

Reflections on a semester of blogging

There are many important issues in the news right now that I’d love to write about. There are policy decisions and campaign statements and housing woes and education debates that are all demanding my attention. Unfortunately, so is grading, and a trip to SF, and so I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on the semester and particularly the inclusion of student blogging in my quantitative methods class this semester.

First, the positives. I really like that my students were writing every week. I think it’s important for their development as thinkers and economists to find ways to express themselves in various ways. Looking over their posts from the semester, I see significant growth in their thinking about econometrics and economic issues in their blogging and am excited to read their final thoughts this week on Donohue and Levitt’s (in)famous abortion and crime paper. I have pretty strong feelings about Freakonomics, but I hope that by reading the Freakonomics chapter, other chapters from the book, the actual paper that prompted the main thesis of the chapter and one of the primary critiques, they can reasonably evaluate the merits and failings of all sides of the argument.

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of teaching this course has been how to help students to understand that statistical significance is not necessarily the end goal in itself. I’m not grading their papers on whether they found a significant result, but rather their ability to explain it. In reading several chapter of two books, the news, and working through their own research process, I hope that they begin to understand the distinction. I tried to design writing assignments to reflect an understanding of numbers, or coefficients, and will be looking to make that more explicit in upcoming semesters.

All of my students had some great insights throughout the semester. Whether in reading an article in the news and relating that to their research, or finding a connection between a chapter in Poor Economics and some aspect of their own research, it’s been exciting to see them grow and incorporate their lives into their writing and academic work. I’m not sure I made any bloggers for life, but I do hope they all continue writing and finding ways to share their work.

On the not-so-good side, I need to find a better way to track their posts and comments and a better way to ask them to read what each other is writing. Requiring commenting appeared not to be sufficient. I would like to have larger conversations on the blogging platform about the posts themselves. Perhaps requiring everyone read a particular student’s post in a given week and comment there is a better solution. Asking students to read different pieces of books or different articles might solve this as well. Although I think it’s useful for students to read different analyses of a topic they themselves have analyzed, I would like to split the kind of commenting they do a little more in order to expose them to more topics. In addition, much of the commenting was within small groups I only realized existed later in the semester. Students from one fraternity tended to read mostly each others’ posts, for instance. I would have liked to see more integration, but that was my shortsightedness, and it will be remedied.

Related to the issue of topics is the issue of books, reading different books, or more books, or articles may be in order. I chose Poor Economics and Freakonomics for their accessibility and ready discussion of statistics, but surely there are others. I have ruled out More Than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel, for reasons I might explicate here some other day, but surely there are others. Perhaps some Dan Ariely, or parts of Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays.

Another significant problem was length. I found it difficult to keep up 25 students worth of writing every week. In the future, I will be stricter and more explicit about length requirements. In order to stay on top of it, and help students develop the skill of writing concisely, maximum word counts are definitely in order.

I’m still exploring ways to better incorporate twitter into the classroom. I know that many of my students read this blog and thus see many of my tweets on the sidebar, but they are still mostly passive readers. Perhaps it’s too much to try to incorporate social media in a class that’s already jam-packed with mountains of new information, but I did like the few opportunities I had to bring it up.

All in all, I think it’s a great way to do writing exercises. Even the limited exposure my students had to outside commentary was useful and a good reminder of how they can use their ideas to shape opinions and contribute to wider conversations. Next time, I’ll do some things differently, but we will keep blogging. You can follow a whole new group of students in the Fall, and even more of them in the Spring! Look for us later on, and of course, you’ll hear plenty from me in the next few months. Thanks for a great semester, for all your thoughts and tweets and emails, and if anyone has thoughts about how to make the student blogging process smoother or more integrative or more useful to students, I’d be very happy to hear your ideas in an email or the comments section.

In which I review Matt Yglesias’ The Rent is Too Damn High

I caved last week and downloaded a Kindle App for my iPhone. It kind of killed me. I really love books–the bound, paper kind. I’ve been fighting the Kindle/iPad/tablet/Nook/e-reader thing for years now, and imagined I could still hold out for several more years. At least one publisher probably figured out that the best way to get me (and other holdouts like me) to convert was to offer certain desirable pieces solely on e-readers. I may be one of the few they got with this book, but surely there are others coming this way.

Matt Yglesias was a fellow at Think Progress and now writes a blog about economics for Slate. He’s thoughtful, smart, and perhaps even more important, concise. I’d followed him on twitter and through his various blog posts for awhile. When he released this e-book–too long for a magazine piece (still my favorite form of journalism) and too short to really be a book, book–called The Rent is Too Damn High, I felt like I had to read it.

I read the book (ebook, Kindle, whatever it is) in about an hour an a half when I arrived at a friend’s condo on Friday evening. I spent the entire next day talking about it and subsequently lent it to my ski buddy, who also devoured it in an evening. The skiing was terrible, might as well talk about economics, right?

Matt’s argument is fairly simple and straightforward. He argues that much of our housing and societal woes could be addressed–partly, certainly not entirely–by relaxing restrictions on building height and density and reducing implicit and explicit subsidies for single-family homes in the far-flung suburbs.

It’s a very convincing argument. Letting more people live in desirable places means more efficient transportation and other public services, reducing long average commute times, increasing the number of people walking and taking public transportation, increasing availability and variety of service providers, and more. Most importantly, perhaps, increasing density would reduce upward pressure on housing prices, which pushes people out of their homes, reduces variety and profitability of businesses, and likely contributed in some ways to the housing bubble.

At the center of the story is a profound disconnect in the way we think about houses. Hoping that a house will appreciate in value and constitute a sound investment is rather silly. Houses are made of wood and concrete and stone and steel, physical materials that will only degrade with time. The land a house sits on is an investment, and can appreciate based on the values of proximate amenities. But when housing prices increase rapidly, as they did prior to crashing a few years ago, they lose predictive power of the true value of the land and incorporate speculation. That’s how we get a bubble.

What I love about Matt Yglesias is that he is skilled at taking rather complicated topics in economics and making them perfectly accessible. He has a deep understanding of economic theory and relates those ideas in a clear, concise, and readable way. This book is no exception. It’s easy to read and clearly well thought-out.

My only real complaint is that I wanted more. Though there were places I wasn’t sure where he was going, it quickly came back to the point. The repeated discussion of elevators as technology was a bit amusing, but nothing more than a slight distraction. What I would have liked is to have seen additional discussion on the policy problems that additional density would create. No policy, regardless of how enticing it sounds, can change a rather significant trend in demographics without significant adjustment. This doesn’t mean that the costs aren’t worth it, but they are worth enumerating and discussing.

Water, for instance. While it’s cheaper per capita to get water to people who live in denser areas, it also means that pipes need to be replaced more often, and at least one person writing a book tells me NYC’s sewer system is in dire need of repairs. Direct re-use plants, increased sanitation, etc, are all things that belong in this discussion. Higher density housing also necessitates a stronger commitment to building more schools and park and hospitals. The ease of spreading diseases, access to sunlight, etc, etc.

There’s more, surely. In sum, though, read it. It’s quick, straightforward, and you might just learn something.