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What are the Civic Obligations to Provide Personal Data for Common Good Statistical Information?

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Some time ago, I mused about a notion of “data ethics,” in a set of posts that was focused most on the obligations data collectors and data analysts had to the persons who data they were handling. Most of principles that I discussed had to do with protection of the privacy of individuals whose data were being collected and assurances that no individual harm could come directly from their provision of personal data.

This post takes a different perspective on personal data. It ruminates on the question of what obligations do residents of a society have to provide data to produce statistical information for common good purposes.

Most countries of the world have some system of institutions that collect data from individuals, aggregate them to produce statistical summaries, in order to inform the populace about its own characteristics. These generally inform about the welfare of the national population and various subgroups. For example, they describe the income distribution of households, educational achievements across subgroups, labor force participation, incarceration rates, agricultural production levels, cost of living changes, and a host of different attributes.

These basic indicators collectively provide the nation with a sense of how it’s doing. They inform us how the benefits of the society are shared across different subgroups. By comparing the same indicators over time, the country can judge whether things are getting better or getting worse.

Indeed, such indicators are a foundational component of a democracy. They help the people judge whether the performance of elected officials merits the continuation of their service or whether the country needs new leadership.

In these days of data breeches, we are reminded nearly daily of misuse of personal data to harm individuals, profiteering from personal data without full consent of those who supplied the data, and numerous other events that heighten our concerns about personal privacy. One is tempted to react to these events by avoiding sharing any personal data with anyone, as a way to maximize one’s own privacy protections.

However, obviously, none of the statistical indicators that the democracy needs to guide decisions of residents would be available to the nation if individuals chose not to agree to supply their personal data for such statistical purposes.

So, in parallel with our discussions about protecting our own privacy, I’d like to see us all engage in a discussion about what civic obligations we have to contribute to common good statistical indicators. When asked by a government statistical agency to participate in a survey that produces such statistical indicators, for what reasons to people frame the request as an unwarranted intrusion into their private lives? In what way, can such requests be viewed as a chance for public service to the common good?

Scholarship and Storytelling

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Recently, Georgetown had the honor of hosting Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. He met with students, participated in discussions about educational activities among the incarcerated, and showed some of his film product.

Mr. Burns made one suspect a common tendency to overemphasize distinctions between academic scholarship and the kinds of documentary films he makes.

Regarding depth of archival research, Mr. Burns reviewed the making of several films that took over ten years of work, not unlike the length of time to produce a university press book. He cited the cataloging and digitization of hundreds of thousands of images (photographs, documents). He noted the aggregation of materials from multiple sites over many years. That feature of his work seemed very similar to what many academics do in the beginning stages of a research product.

Increasingly, modern academic scholarship involves interdisciplinary teams. His description of the close ties of his group and his respect for their diverse skills reminded me of interdisciplinary research teams describing their cross-functional strengths.

Regarding the rigor of review and rewrite, he cited the numerous iterations in the design and execution of the video product. He described the time and effort in the editing phase of a project, continuously squeezing the content to extract the most meaningful components of the overall message. It reminded me of precisely the same apparently-endless process of drafting any scholarly work, whether it be an article or a book.

Much of academic scholarship is devoted to assuring a balanced presentation of alternative arguments. Much scholarship clearly describes limitations on conclusions or presents conflicting perspectives. Mr. Burns repeatedly noted how he felt obliged to show both the good and bad of every character, even those for whom he had great sympathy. His goal was to make it difficult for a viewer to know how he felt about a character or an event.

Academic scholarship produces the raw material for teaching. Mr. Burns’ films produce the attention that all lecturers seek in the classrooms but few of us ever achieve. The awe that viewers feel in his films imprints permanent memories of their content.

Mr. Burns has another point of view quite consistent with that of many academics – true understanding takes time. The fleeting, mediated interactions of the modern world limit the likelihood of true insight into complex, elaborated, and interwoven pieces of knowledge. Indeed, at one point, he uttered a common refrain of a truly wise scholar – when you really understand a phenomenon, you have finally identified what the key questions really are, or when you really have deep knowledge of a field, you are focused more and more on what you don’t know. All of this takes time.

Finally, Mr. Burns knows deeply what many scholars are now just discovering. A very common discussion among the science and social science community these days is how the use of storytelling can motivate understanding of technical research findings. It is the stories that generate emotions, and the emotions that generate attention and memory. When stories generate the attention, more complicated facts can be communicated and remembered more effectively. On this, his mastery is unrivaled.

So, stepping back from the day, I find myself a little more puzzled about the perceived differences between academic research products and those products that share so many of attributes of academic work, but are designed for a broader audience. It seems to me that both sides are at least intellectual cousins, if not intellectual siblings. The goals are the same; the methods have more overlap than we sometimes may think.

The 2020 Census is Coming!

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As we approach the year 2020, all of the preparatory activities for the US decennial census are ramping up. This week, with the partnership of the Poynter Institute and the support of the Ford Foundation and the Annie E Casey Foundation, Georgetown conducted a 1.5 day Census 2020 workshop for journalists.

Because a census comes only once in a decade, few remember the what, how, and why of the event. Our workshop was aimed at giving the journalists a deep dive into the various operations of the census and what stories are likely to be important as the months transpire.

A census requires design and careful implementation of thousands of details. It is the only event in the society that includes everyone. It requires a large staff of devoted workers. It is a national ceremony that occurs once a decade. That is the topic of this post.

In the 2010 Census over 600,000 people were employed to conduct the various stages of the census. This is the single largest civilian deployment of human resources. Indeed, it exceeds the sizes of military deployments.

Employment as a Census worker is public service. The founding fathers placed the Census in Article 1 of the US Constitution. They invented this scientific method of assuring that the lower house of the legislature would be allocated to represent the population distribution of the fledging but growing nation. They were serious that the census count every resident, levying a $20 fine for nonparticipation (over $500 in current value). The census retains a legal requirement to participate, but large efforts are mounted to raise voluntary participation.

The census seeks civic participation on an unrivaled scale. Communities throughout the country form voluntary groups, called Complete Count Committees. Over $500 million will be spent on media – as small as weekly in-language newspapers and local in-language radio stations for new immigrant groups and as large as national network television.

Everyone is counted at their usual place of residence as of April 1, 2020. Most households will receive snail mail envelope inviting them to complete a short questionnaire online; some will be mailed a paper questionnaire; a small number will be visited by an enumerator. Even mobile phones can be used to complete the Census form. If the first mode of request is not successful, the large nonresponse followup stage begins, with hundreds of thousands of enumerators, lasting until mid-Summer 2020.

The Census Bureau is now taking applications for a large variety of jobs, from checking on the completeness of the list of addresses to office activities preparing for the nonresponse followup stage. The pay rate for the District of Columbia is $25 per hour for a census taker.

These are great jobs for university students because they offer flexible hours; they assure that one will meet people in the community in vastly different kinds of environments; and they provide the satisfaction that one is contributing to the common good.

Over the coming weeks and months, we need to get the word out to Georgetown students about this opportunity.

Communities Determine What is Fact

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It’s difficult to read any media these days without encountering a discussion of whether some pieces of news are fact-based or whether they are distorted reports of reality.

It prompts an academic to think about how our individual fields determine what is meritorious and what is not. Much of this is based on peer reviews. The “peer” in this phrase is generally meant to be one schooled and practicing in the same field of inquiry as that of the given scholar.

In fields with external funding, the peer review takes place in multiple stages. When a proposal for external funding is submitted to the funding agency, it is often reviewed by a group of researchers in the same field. They rate the proposals relative to other proposals for work in the field. These are judgments of knowledgeable others about the likely benefits of knowledge expansion from a proposed project.

The link to “determining the facts” and peer review is that the reviewers are judging whether the proposed research will indeed add knowledge to the existing domain. Will the results of the work produce valid knowledge expansion?

Later, when funded research has been completed, another stage of peer review begins with the dissemination of findings. These are often fully anonymous reviews. A group of peer scholars are asked to read the written product of the research and judge whether it is persuasive as evidence of a novel finding, an innovation, or an extension of current knowledge. If the work doesn’t yield support of peer reviewers, it is not published (at least in that journal).

Similar, but perhaps more diverse, procedures of peer review for book-length manuscripts by university presses. It is common that this occurs after a few early chapters are drafted and the full book is outlined. The role of the internal editor for the university press is often an important influence on the acceptance.

The link to “determining the facts” is that the community of peers determine whether the work is meritorious of being added to the cumulative product of a field.

In speaking with my journalist friends, they note that mainline newspapers often have codes of practice and internal review procedures to vet drafts of stories. They form the internal community of vetters who determine their acceptance of facts. They are quick to note that the proliferating new media have not fully adopted such procedures. Indeed, the rate at which new articles, blogs, tweets, and texts are produced makes such reviews unlikely.

In the absence of this, social networks that exchange news pieces among themselves might vet the veracity of reports. Unfortunately, such networks in general do not possess the knowledge requisite to reviewing the veracity of such pieces. They are in general based on friend groups; they tend to be rather homogeneous, thus, offering little variation in viewpoints.

I am fully aware of the weaknesses of peer reviews that are part of academic life, but, with all their faults, I must admit I appreciate them more these days.

Technology and Society

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Discoveries in basic science decades ago have made available sophisticated technologies to billions of people around the world. As many people have noted, many of us carry around devices more powerful than all the electronic gear in the Saturn moon rocket capsule.

The technological changes applying those scientific discoveries were catalyzed by a culture of entrepreneurship. In this country the most obvious examples of this lie in Silicon Valley. Failing fast, quick prototyping, agile focus on the market, seeking disruption – all of these catch phrases underlay an environment that nurtured unrivaled innovation.

Recent events, however, have revealed a weakness in the environment that created much of the technology that surrounds us daily. It was the hope of many innovators that they were building a world that democratized access to knowledge, reduced the cost of entry of economic enterprises, and linked people together in enriching ways. In essence, this was the key to flattening the earth, in Friedman’s terms. The dominance of the nation state as arbiter of culture and laws would diminish and be replaced by a ubiquitously available set of tools that permit the whole world to form mutually valuable social, political, and economic ties.

A cursory inspection of recent media reports about new technology, however, highlights a different view – cyberbullying; use of the Internet to support criminal activity; the very existence of something called “the dark web;” microphone recording of personal activities by Alexa; control over internet-based information flows in autocratic regimes; active disinformation attacks via bots controlled by another country; cyberwarfare unleashed. It isn’t clear how many of these outcomes were anticipated at the founding moments of these technologies.

Thus, many begin to question what these technologies are doing to the fabric of society. Do we know and interact with our neighbors less frequently? Does the perceived distance between us and others on the web encourage us to be less friendly, engage in harsher language, or disclose the selfish side of our natures? Are the generations coming into adulthood, having experienced the internet and mobile communication from birth, less interpersonally engaged, less capable or needing of deep long-lasting relationships? Do predictive analytics privilege ties among homogeneous groups at the cost of ties to heterogeneous groups? Are we constantly connected but ironically less close to one another?

All of these questions have reminded humanity once again that actions can rarely, if ever, be value-free. One can evade explicit articulation of the underlying values of a platform design, but they will inevitably manifest themselves. Human designers make decisions. The values underlying these decisions can be made explicit or not. The values will either be made obvious at the design stage, or they will become obvious at the execution stage.

It seems clear that Georgetown has a special opportunity here. The intellectual resources of Georgetown and the mission of educating women and men for others give the institution a special obligation to act at this moment in history. We can help provide a conceptual framework that refocuses attention of use of technology for the common good. We can develop ethical guidelines that could assist developers at the design stage to make explicit underlying values of platform design. We can help articulate user agreements that clearly inform users of costs and benefits of agreement. We can push the frontier of tools and algorithms to help protect privacy and make transparent risks of privacy breeches. We can lead in the use of high-dimensional data to promote social justice. We can help answer the questions of a developer about how they should design and use technology when they seek a more just world.

Derivative Inquiry: Dangers Facing Fields that Use Data without Producing Data

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An old joke describes a severely inebriated man who is found looking around, on his knees under a streetlight. A passer-by asks him what he is doing. The man says that he lost his keys and is looking for them. The passer-by asks if he’s sure he lost them there. The man says no, he thinks he lost them in the park nearby, but the light was so much better where he was looking.

The story fits some fields of academic inquiry in the sciences and social sciences. For example, much of the empirical work in macroeconomics relies on aggregate data produced by private enterprises and government statistical agencies. The field is somewhat removed from the production of those data. Hence, some of the literature focuses on the gap between theoretical concepts and the data available to reflect them. There were, however, few alternatives. Those data were the streetlight for the field.

In contrast, other sciences collect original data. They conceptualize what observations must be taken to test alternative ideas, how to mount the measurement, how to construct instruments to implement the measurements, and then how to process the data to address the research questions they pose. By collecting the observations directly, they learn the fallibilities of the measurements. By measuring features of the phenomena, they become more sophisticated about the mechanisms producing the phenomena.

Recent events have highlighted this distinction between science based on original measurement and science that starts with data produced by others. Implicit biases discovered in machine-learning based algorithms are hitting the popular press. The algorithms under scrutiny were based on data sources that were available at the times the algorithms were built. That was their streetlight. Unanticipated was poor performance for phenomena that were not part of the original data set. For example, the misidentification of persons of color in facial recognition seems to be related to the rarity of images of persons of color in the training data set for the algorithms.

Algorithms that guide loan risk or health risk assessment can fail if the data sets do not contain measures of all the attributes that affect risk. The best data come from deep understanding of the mechanisms that affect the likelihood of loan default or health conditions requiring medical interventions.

Some of the data sets used as the basis of the machine learning were very, very large in numbers of different units observed. But the total size of the data set is of little relevance if the characteristics of the data set do not match the real-world phenomena the algorithm will face.

Data scientists are increasingly realizing that building sophisticated algorithms on weak data is problematic. Faced with the choice between unsophisticated algorithms derived from rich data describing the mechanisms affecting some outcome of interest versus sophisticated algorithms based on weak data, they’re arguing that better data sets are a faster route to impact.

To build more useful data sets, we need data scientists’ attention to the measurement step producing the data, as well as the analytic step. Depending only on convenient, bright streetlights may fail us in locating the keys.

Leadership in a Networked World

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Some decades ago, Rensis Likert studied large number of work groups in an attempt to form a typology of leadership. Much of the work focused on communication and decision practices in different organizations. He identified four different “systems,” which exhibited the key variations across organizations. They form a progression. System 1 is the most hierarchical, with those in higher positions holding full responsibility for decisions, without input from subordinates. Management is focused entirely on work completion, sometimes through threatening behavior. System 2 lightens up on the threats and replaces them with rewards of various sorts. Communication from below is limited to information pleasing to the boss. System 3 leaders have greater trust toward subordinates, generating more information flow up, down, and sideways. System 4 is more fully participative; there is trust up and down the line. Subordinates feel free to deliver bad news. Successful teams abound. Members of more than one team end up having importance to organizational success.

Likert’s work was conducted in individual work organizations and suffers from having been done before the internet and globalization of work. Increasingly, organizations and individuals are linked together into networks. Some are short-lived and unidimensional. Some are long-lasting and heavily integrative. Some modern work organizations have members that interact virtually via electronic media and rarely are in the same room together. At the organizational level, complementary task assignments to allied organizations produce alliances for the production of products or services. Organizational cultures blend across networks.

This contrast makes one wonder what effective leadership will be in a fully networked world. In some sense, this is a side issue to what makes effective networks. In another sense, networks by their nature abhor centralized authority and hierarchies. The notion of the boss of a network seems oxymoronic.

What makes a node in a network of collaborators or work organizations judge that its network membership is fruitful? What are the attributes of persons who strengthen the network?

This all has relevance to the modern university. As research issues increasing are informed by knowledge domains spanning the entire university, networks appear to be increasingly attractive as an organizing principle in contrast to hierarchies. What kind of roles offer leadership possibilities in a network of research groups?

System 4 in Likert’s perspective highlighted the role of “linking pins,” people who were members of multiple work teams. Such persons lead some work teams and were members of others. They ended up translating organizational strategy to day-to-day work. Their team-spanning knowledge facilitated integration of ideas, processes, and workflow.

One would hypothesize disproportionate importance for those who are members of multiple nodes in the network. They learn multiple cultures. They identify and communicate the potential synergies across nodes of the network.

Effective leadership of a network, in my experience, requires a selflessness that masks that any leading is even being done. Leadership in a network seems more like facilitating latent consensuses. Hence, one key attribute is consistent outreach to different nodes, and the ability to translate knowledge and nomenclature of one node to another. (This is one feature of joint citizenship in multiple nodes.)

Another attribute goes beyond knowledge of different nodes’ perspective to support of them. Effective leaders in networks must be devoted to the value of the network, beyond the value of individual nodes.

I suspect leaders in networks must be more flexible on the degree of commitment of each node to a network. Networks are often voluntary clustering of synergistic units. The benefits of ongoing network membership might vary across the nodes (some are deeply benefitting; others not so much). Hence, an effective leader needs to calibrate aspirations across nodes. This requires empathy and the ability to understand various perspectives.

I suspect much of this means that leaders of networks, in contrast to leaders of single organizations, may not even be labeled as “leaders.” Indeed, they might wisely avoid labeling their work as leadership. Rather, they will yield their influence because of the shared beliefs of network nodes that they have each node’s interests at heart.

Some Joys Require Time to Develop

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In reading about the private sector job market, it’s notable how much has changed. In the 20th century, it was common for a young person to enter a work organization after completing their education, to enter a relatively low-level job, to receive formal training from the company over time, to advance through the ranks, and eventually to end one’s career at the highest level of their careers. In contrast to that culture, many organizations today assume that employees will spend relatively short amounts of time before leaving for another organization. Indeed, with the rise of the “gig” economy, many workers are not really employees of any organization. They are contractors exchanging their labor for money, with no legal obligations to work on any particular schedule and, in return, little ongoing commitment of the organization toward them.

In contrast, many of the joys of being an academic in a university come from the longevity of tenure as a faculty member.

Faculty members can gain immense satisfaction from interaction with students. There are few experiences more pleasurable than seeing an individual student finally understanding some threshold concept in a course. Once a key concept is understood, the student is then able to achieve a more integrated knowledge of a field. Before that, all was blurry to them. The “aha” moment in a student’s eyes is priceless. Accumulating these moments takes time.

So too are the pleasures of following the news of successful former students, providing a quiet sense of being a little part of their success. Indeed, it is the student who had to work hard, and struggled in classes, whose success is most rewarding for faculty. These pleasures do not arise quickly; they require time.

Similarly, faculty tell us over and over again that their colleagues in the same field are a source of great satisfaction to them. The ties that grow among colleagues are really unlike many. Colleagues read drafts of papers and chapters written by each other. They proffer critical ideas for improvement; they provide key stimulus to new projects; they buck us up when we hit dry patches. Nurturing such bonds among colleagues takes time.

Finally, academics have the freedom to pursue long-run research activities. For example, the history of scientific discoveries is clear in showing that the perseverance of basic science yields over time many of the discoveries that yield new technological breakthroughs (sometimes decades later). Much curiosity-driven research requires building up an infrastructure (in some humanities, images of key documents; in the lab sciences, equipment, specimens, research teams). This requires time.

There is another benefit, about which I was reminded today. Today, Vice Provost Aggarwal and I shared lunch with members of the Georgetown University Association of Retired Faculty and Staff. The atmosphere was joyous, with colleagues renewing friendships and updating one another on their activities. Some mentioned to me research activities they continue post-retirement. Others described their participation in the GU Learning Community Courses (retirees.georgetown.edu), where retired faculty teach noncredit courses on a wide variety of topics, open to the community. In short, they were engaged. They were animated.

What struck me was another attribute that comes with longevity – a commitment to an institution, a sense of shared purpose, and an interest about the future of the organization. The questions the retirees posed to me were almost all future-oriented. They cared about the future of Georgetown, to which they gave so much of their lives. While it was fun for me to communicate all the exciting initiatives Georgetown is launching, I benefited most from the reminder from them that an academic career offers another gift – a long-lasting sense of belonging in a university community.

2019 Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professors

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Each year, deans, departments, and similar units nominate deserving colleagues as Provost Distinguished Associate Professors. A faculty committee of university professors, endowed chair holders (chaired by Reena Aggarwal, Vice Provost for Faculty) reviewed the applicants. This year, competition was particularly intense, with many more nominations than previous years.

Georgetown uses the designation to honor Associate Professors who are performing at extraordinary high levels. These designations are term-limited with a maximum duration of five years, or until promotion to full professor. As indicated below, their work exemplifies what makes Georgetown strong – faculty thoroughly engaged in pushing the envelope of knowledge in their field, and transmitting their passion for such work to their students and the general public.

Vishal Agrawal is an Associate Professor of Operations and Information Management in the McDonough School of Business. He received his Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Agrawal’s research interests include sustainable operations, new product development and supply chain management. His research focuses on managerial challenges at the interface of business and the environment. He is also interested in the effect of consumer behavior on operations and new product development strategies. Dr. Agrawal’s research has appeared in leading journals such as Management Science and Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, and has received several awards including the Management Science Best Paper in Operations Management Award (2015), Paul Kleindorfer Award in Sustainability (2016), and the INFORMS ENRE Young Researcher Award (runner up 2014). He serves as an associate editor for Manufacturing and Service Operations Management and as a senior editor for Production and Operations Management.

Laia Balcells is an Associate Professor in the Government department of Georgetown College. She is a political scientist specializing in the study of political violence as well as nationalism and ethnic conflict. She earned her PhD from Yale University in 2010 and came to Georgetown from Duke. Dr. Balcells’ book, Rivalry and Revenge: The Politics of Violence during Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2017), deals with the determinants of violence against civilians in civil war, and explores micro-level variation in the Spanish Civil War and Côte d’Ivoire. Her more recent work examines preferences for secessionism and their relationship with redistribution and identity-related factors. She has also recently explored post-war low-intensity violence (in Northern Ireland), wartime displacement (in Colombia and Spain), and cross-national variation in civil war warfare and its implications on conflict duration, termination and severity.

Shweta Bansal is an Associate Professor of Biology in Georgetown College. She completed a RAPIDD postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University and the Fogarty International Center at NIH. She completed her Ph.D. in 2008 in network modeling and infectious disease ecology at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Bansal is an interdisciplinary mathematical biologist, and her research is focused on the development of data-driven mathematical models for the prevention and containment of human and animal infectious diseases using tools from network science, statistical physics, computer physics, computer science and statistics. Dr. Bansal’s Lab focuses on the interactions that facilitate infectious disease transmission between hosts. It seeks to understand how social behavior and population structure shape infectious disease transmission, and how knowledge of such processes can improve disease surveillance and control.

Leticia Bode is an Associate Professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology master’s program of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work lies at the intersection of communication, technology, and political behavior, emphasizing the role communication and information technologies may play in the acquisition and use of political information. Her work examines the effects of incidental exposure to political information on social media, effects of exposure to political comedy, use of social media by political elites, selective exposure and political engagement in new media, and the changing nature of political socialization given the modern media environment. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Communication, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, New Media and Society, Mass Communication and Society, Journal of Information Technology and Politics, and Information, Communication, and Society, among others. Dr. Bode also sits on the editorial boards of Journal of Information Technology and Politics, and Social Media + Society.

Jeremy Fineman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science of Georgetown College. He joined the Georgetown community in 2011, before which he was a Computing Innovation Fellow at Carnegie Mellon. Dr. Fineman studies algorithm design and analysis, focusing on parallel algorithms, scheduling, and memory-efficient or large-data algorithms. He is also interested in classic (sequential) algorithms and data structures. He has published prolifically and has emerged as a leader among his peers. His work is well-recognized by his peers, and one of Dr. Fineman’s papers received a Best Paper award from the 2014 European Symposium on Algorithms.

Emily Mendenhall is an Associate Professor of Global Health in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is a medical anthropologist who writes about how social trauma, poverty, and social exclusion become embodied in chronic mental and physical illness. Dr. Mendenhall received her Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University and MPH from the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University.  Prof Mendenhall’s most recent project is a book forthcoming with Cornell University Press (2019), Rethinking Diabetes: Entanglements of Poverty, Trauma, and HIVRethinking Diabetes considers how ”global” and ”local” factors transform how diabetes is perceived, experienced, and embodied from place to place. She is also the author of Syndemic Suffering: Social Distress, Depression, and Diabetes among Mexican Immigrant Women (Routledge, 2012). In 2017, Dr. Mendenhall was awarded the George Foster Award for Practicing Medical Anthropology by the Society for Medical Anthropology.

Please join me in congratulating these wonderful Georgetown colleagues for their accomplishments and their ongoing contributions to our university.

What Do We Mean by “Skills?”

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There is much discussion these days, especially in liberal arts institutions, about what kind of knowledge should be the focus of undergraduate and graduate education.

In many of these discussions, the word “skills” arises. Its use is causing some misunderstandings. Some of us devoted to liberal education hold to notions that the traditional liberal arts are knowledge domains resulting from “disinterested inquiry” in contrast to those devoted to a given profession or vocation. Indeed, “skills” often is used to describe the knowledge required for activities within a job. From this, there is a common reactance to the notion that an undergraduate degree from a liberal arts institution should explicitly not be occupationally targeted, that job skills are not the obligation of such an undergraduate curriculum.

If one looks for formal definitions of a skill, you find: “An ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carryout complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills). (This from Businessdictionary.com). This indeed sounds rather task-oriented.

But further definitional commentary dissects skills into hard skills, labor skills, life skills, people skills, social skills, and soft skills. These expand the notion of skills far beyond narrow task-oriented knowledge suitable for a given job. Some of these subcategories of skills fit the kind of capacities that those in liberal education have espoused for some time: creativity, resiliency, critical thinking, decision-making under uncertainty, leadership, dealing with conflict, empathy, taking the “other’s” perspective, inter-cultural competence, reflection, and discernment.

Surveys of employers and business executives repeatedly find that they highly value attributes like strong work habits, self-discipline, computer skills. This is to be expected. But they also highly value attributes like critical thinking, communication, problem-solving abilities, and cultural and global awareness. These latter attributes are often identified as desired outcomes of a liberal education. But it’s rarer that we inside universities label them as “skills,” but some outside academia routinely think of them as skills.

So, in some sense, the word “skills” is being used in multiple ways and causing communication problems. I find that many colleagues who take pride in their “disinterested inquiry,” searching for insight and truth, also value that such inquiry builds the ability to think critically, and to communicate in words and speech. They value that such inquiry is global in its reach and requires cultural understanding. They value that a derivative attribute of the experience is empathy towards those quite different from oneself. But often they would not label these as skills.

So, as we all actively contemplate the future of universities and how they can contribute to humankind, I wonder whether we should be more careful to avoid too glibly using the term “skills,” either to denigrate or support some new educational activity. Having a discussion at a finer conceptual level (e.g., empathy, global awareness) might be a wiser course. It’s not that liberal education is antithetical to many personal attributes valued by others as “skills.” It’s that many in academia don’t think of them as skills.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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