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Coming Closer to the Census

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As we approach 2020, my past life as a Census Bureau director begins to intrude, with calls from journalists about my thoughts on the funding, design, and politics surrounding the next census. Each decade about this time (the year ending in “8”), funding issues come to the fore, concerns over the latest census technological innovation arise, and a re-education takes place for political elites about the independence of the operations of the census. This decade is no different. This is the year, under the current laws and regulations, that the final form of the census questions is selected and verified by Congress. This is the year that funding must ramp up for the large-scale field data collection operations to contact households that don’t themselves answer the call when first made. This is the year that, like it or not, key risks of the next census start to come clear.

While there are complicated statistical and data processing issues involved in any census, my memories of the experience arise from completely different aspects. One of the duties of a director during the census is to promote civic participation in the census, encouraging each household to provide information requested by the census. The director does a lot of traveling, focusing time and attention on communities where prior research has shown to be reluctant to respond to the census.

I spent time on the Texas-Mexico border. I visited several “colonias,” which are collections of self-made housing, often lacking electricity and water services. Many are placed on unused fields of ranchers and farmers, who rent small plots on which the structures are built. The extent of undocumented persons is high. Fear of the Federal Government is widespread. Many residents have fled countries in which the government could not be trusted. In this environment, we attempted to convey the message that all persons are part of the US census, whether they are citizens or not, whether they are documented or not. I tried to assure them of the strong legal protections of data confidentiality. I found families with admirable resilience, communities with very strong bonds, and households that shared among themselves in admirable ways. Indeed, they had come to the country for the same reasons that many, many others came to the US: the hope that the next generation would have lives that were safer and more financially secure than the current generation.

I spent time with Muslim-American and Arab-American groups in multiple cities. I will never forget a dinner with such a group. As the dinner progressed at a table of 10 or so persons, and we became more comfortable with one another, the father of a large family asked what the question about “race” should mean for them. Did the census seek a self-report of skin-color? Was it something else? It reinforced the fact that the social constructions of the American experience were not ubiquitous to all cultures now in the country.

I spent time with groups connected with various islands of Micronesia, each with strong cultural bonds both within their US communities but also with their islands of origin. They sought recognition of their numbers within the larger fabric of the country. They were proud of their hyphenated American community and looked to the census to make known to the society how their numbers had increased over the previous ten-year period. They too sought the opportunities for their children in the US and were full believers in the American Dream.

These groups on the whole were not rich in money, but they were wealthy in the bonds of family, friends, and community. It made me proud of how the country is enriched by their contribution to the social fabric.

A Survey that Really Matters: the 2018 COACHE Survey of Faculty

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Since 2013, every two years, we mount a survey of full-time faculty on the main campus and the Qatar campus, using a web-based questionnaire organized by the Harvard School of Education. In doing this, we join Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, Tulane University, University of Rochester, University of Arizona, and University of Virginia, among others.

The survey is called the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) Survey. The areas covered by the survey include the research environment and institutional support; teaching load and student quality; nature and distribution of service responsibilities; facilities and work resources; personal and family policies; health and retirement benefits; interdisciplinary work and collaboration; mentoring; tenure and promotion opportunities, clarity and reasonableness; recruitment and retention, and institutional governance and leadership.

I view this as a bit of a report card on the provost’s office. It has told us which aspects of faculty life are getting better and which are not. When concerns of faculty were evident in the statistical results, we assembled faculty task forces to ameliorate the problems. We mounted focus groups to get richer, qualitative information about important domains. We designed and implemented improvements in areas where we saw major problems. While there is always more work to do, we’ve made some progress on the clarity of tenure and promotion criteria, support for interdisciplinary scholarship, and mentoring for associate professors.

We’ve found the systematic measurement very useful. Use of the Harvard team to conduct the survey allowed us to assure faculty that administrators, like the provost, would never be able to associate answers with individual faculty members. Only statistical summaries of data are available to the provost’s office, deans, or unit heads. We sought transparency by giving presentations on the results of the survey to faculty throughout campus.

We want to continue using feedback directly from faculty, based on these measures, to hold ourselves accountable for the responsibilities of the provost’s office. We want to see whether things are getting better, staying the same, or getting worse.
Surveys become most useful with widespread participation by the faculty.

Please take a few moments to complete the web survey if you receive a request to do so. You can be assured that the many of your colleagues are participating; the results will be used, not just filed away. This is your chance to have a voice in the future of Georgetown.

The 2018 Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professors

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Each year we start the process of naming Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professors by having departments and similar units nominate deserving colleagues. A team of University and Chaired Professors judge the various nominations. They forward selections to the Provost. These designations are term-limited with a duration of five years, maximum. (When a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor is promoted to full professor status, the term would also be completed.)

For the third consecutive year, we are recognizing Associate Professors who are performing at such a high level that their colleagues have identified them for more visible praise. 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.

Caetlin Benson-Allott is an Associate Professor of English and core faculty member of the Film and Media Studies and American Studies programs. She joined the Georgetown community in 2010. Her research has focused on US film history since 1968, film and media theory, exhibition and new media technology, and gender studies. Dr. Benson-Allott is the author of Remote Control (Bloomsburg Press, 2015) and Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (University of California Press, 2013). In 2017, Dr. Benson-Allott was elected the new Editor of Cinema Journal, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ scholarly publication of record, a position she will hold through December 2022. Cinema Journal is the second-oldest scholarly film journal in the US and is the most esteemed film and media studies journal in the world.

Laurent Bouton is an Associate Professor of Economics. He obtained his Ph.D. from the European Center for Advanced Research in Economics and Statistics (ECARES) at the Université libre de Bruxelles in 2009, and joined Georgetown in 2013. Dr. Bouton’s research focuses on the incentives of voters under various electoral systems, namely the way in which they use information in these systems and how their use of information determines electoral outcomes. He has three publications in the top five general interest journals in economics, including: American Economic Review, considered by many as the flagship journal of the economics profession; Journal of Political Economy; and Econometrica, which is widely considered to be the top technical general interest journal. In addition to his strong publication record, in 2017 Dr. Bouton received a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant totaling 1.5 million euros. Dr. Bouton is currently a FNRS Research Associate at the Université libre de Bruxelles and a Research Affiliate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research. Additionally, he has served as a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research since 2014.

Marcia Chatelain is an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies. Although her research specializes in African American children, race in America, and social movements, she has been recognized for her impact in issues outside her area of focus. Dr. Chatelain has been the recipient of a NEH grant and New America Foundation National Fellowship. She was a member of the Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, and her associated work with the group continues today. In 2016, Dr. Chatelain was named a “Top Influencer in Higher Education” by The Chronicle of Higher Education. She is the author of South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015). Dr. Chatelain joined Georgetown in 2011.

Bryce Huebner is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, a department in which he has served since 2009. His research has been highly interdisciplinary, including the study of interrelated issues in moral psychology and metaphysics of the mind; the cognitive strategies people employ in making moral judgments; and the ways in which neuroscientific and computational research on learning and motivation might be able to fund a more plausible account of moral cognition. In addition to his monograph, Macrocognition: Distributed Minds and Collective Intentionality (Oxford University Press, 2013), Dr. Huebner has authored 33 regular articles, seven shorter articles, and nine book reviews.

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

Facts, Evidence, and Changes of Perspectives

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In my ongoing attempts to read across the disciplines – reading sideways, in some sense – there are some consistencies in approaches across many fields that I had never observed before. Indeed, in my experience, some scholars in these fields are not particularly aware of these similarities. I’ve written whether facts are discovered or constructed. This post is about what we might mean by “facts” and “evidence” and how insights are dependent upon perspectives taken on a given issue. I think there are two ubiquitous practices of many disciplines that are deserving of note: 1) a use of concentrated observation, 2) the valuing of change of perspective for insight.

I was a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which perforce needed to attend to differences between data and evidence. My own judgments after experiencing scores of discussions on these matters is that the difference between the two is important. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with noting that, “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.” In some sense, however, formal evaluation studies entail the assembly of facts in a way that they inform a judgment about whether a program is functioning as intended. Facts (or data) are the precursors of evidence. Evidence is the coherent assembly of facts to permit a valid conclusion. In some sense, “evidence” requires an assembly of some facts, a discarding of some facts, and a synthesis of the chosen facts into a coherent insight. So, we could add to the Moynihan note: “Effective evidence demands wise selection of the available facts.”

This is relevant to disciplinary commonalities and differences. The first common practice appears to be an intense observational focus, the process of collecting and assembling facts. In the sciences that rely on deductions from well-found prior findings, the observation may examine an implication that had never been examined. Alternatively, it may be the focus on an untested assumption underpinning a given finding. In disciplines whose medium is text or images, the focus may be on a feature of the entity that was ignored in prior interpretations of the text or image. In disciplines examining human behavior, the focus may prompt measurement of thoughts or behaviors that offer new conceptual frameworks for explaining the behavior. Scholars succeed when such deep, focused attention is paid to the selective assembly of facts. When the assembly leads to a preferred level of coherence relative to the past work (e.g., a new theory, a new interpretation, a new discovery), an advance in the field is achieved.

The second common practice valued by scholars in many fields seems to be the ability to change perspective on a given issue. Mathematicians often note that breakthroughs came to them by entering the unsolved problem in a completely different way. Social scientists note that changing perspectives from a disinterested observer of the group to a member of the group can yield unrivaled insights. Those creating visual images are the masters of the importance of changing physical perspectives for the impact of a piece of work. Those intensely studying text often move closer and further away from ingredients of the text to unlock new interpretations. All of these seem to be examples of the scholar believing that new insights can come from changing the perspective taken on the issue at hand.

In my own education as a researcher, I can’t remember many formal discussions of these two practices. I do remember, however, adopting both, probably by mimicking the behavior of my mentors. It would be interesting to know whether collectively we are now better at educating young scholars in the value of these skills.

Discovering and/or Constructing Fact

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This is not a post about facts and alternative facts. It’s a post about how some fields determine what they currently believe to be true and what is too tenuous to believe.

I’m reading an older book, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, written by a nonscientist observer in a neuroendocrinology laboratory. The observer attempts to glean how knowledge is built and assessed in the unit.

It’s always interesting to look at a process through the eyes of someone external to it. The value of such studies is that basic assumptions of a field, especially those that form the very basis of its foundations, are sometimes difficult for participants to articulate. One removed outside the milieu tries to discern these assumptions. When the observer can then seek verification of their conclusions, real insight is possible.

The book described how the group, in some sense, was in continuous debate, attempting to separate fact from artifact. Indeed, at the start of a new program, all possible facts might seem equally plausible. The consequence of research allows the identification of what is fact and what is artifact. Progress in the laboratory consisted of discarding possible facts, as quickly as possible. This is very similar to the notion of identifying the signal in noisy information or the notion of extracting order out of disorder. The observer concluded that resolutions of those debates on a given issue was a signal of progress in the inquiry. The classification as fact or artifact became part of their agreed-upon knowledge state, and onward the scientists went to studying the next issue.

The observer saw the scientists in the laboratory to be singularly focused on their impact on the field. They were continuously reading the results of peer/competing laboratories, and they were adapting their own agenda to be complementary to those. One principal means of having impact on the field was to produce scientific articles, peer-reviewed by those in the field. The achievement of the peer-reviewed article supported their belief that the finding in the paper was novel enough to merit a separate notification to the field.

Impact, however, was not just the publication but whether the findings reported in the article affected other people’s work. Citations to the papers were used as an indicator of this. But the citations tended to have multiple forms. Sometimes citations were made within articles that contested the original finding. Sometimes citations to the work were related to new developments building on top of the original finding. The latter, of course, were viewed as evidence of more positive impact.

Over time, if the percentage of work building on the original finding dominated the new literature, the scientists took that as evidence that their finding had lasting value. When a citation was found from a textbook providing an overview of the field, then the finding had, in some sense, become a fact. That is, the field was including the finding in teaching the key knowledge of the field. Further evidence of impact arose from the findings of the laboratory being used in clinical or pharmaceutical industry developments.

The subtitle of the book, noting the construction of facts versus the discovery of facts, is an interesting choice of words. I’m not sure all the scientists in the laboratory would view their work with that perspective. All fields in some sense are involved in such construction. Some fields are deeply self-aware of their role in the construction. Other fields hold fast to the notion that they are objective viewers of a fixed external reality. Their new facts are viewed to arise from discovery, not their own construction.

Hermeneutics and Bayesian Statistics

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I find myself reading across disciplines these days, with special attention to differences in the logical structure and scholarly criteria for determining excellent work in the fields.
 
From time to time in this learning, I find odd correspondences across two disciplines, sometimes two fields that tend to have little interaction. I hit one last week.

 The word, “hermeneutics,” a iterative process of discerning meaning in a text, is as old as biblical scholarship.  At this point the word applies to a whole sub field of philosophy, but also has more specific meanings. Its use in that sense involves a sequence of interpretations of a text – a “guess,” as it were – followed by application of the interpretation to a more detailed review of parts of the text, other texts of the same author, or external phenomena related to the text.  In short, is the initial interpretation supported by repeated, more specific examinations?  If not, the initial interpretation is altered and the process begins again, until at some point, there appears to be no important change in the then-achieved interpretation.  (There are some obvious caveats here.  One is that we must assume the text itself exhibits some coherence.)
 
A key attraction of revealing such a conceptual structure on interpreting the meaning of words is that it can help direct new students to their behavior as they learn to examine new material.
 
Bayesian statistics is founded on an important theorem, mathematical in its logic, that permits an integration of what is known prior to an analysis of new data into the analysis of those new data themselves.  Instead of basing our conclusions about a phenomenon (e.g., what portion of a patient population benefits from a specific drug) only on a given single set of data, our conclusions will ask the question of how the new findings alter the prior conclusions, based on other sources of data on the same phenomenon.  (There are some obvious caveats here, too.  One is that we must assume that there is no difference between the conditions generating the prior data and the conditions of the current data collection.)
 
So what?
 
First, it’s fascinating to me to learn of two, relatively independent fields, inventing methods that resemble one another. Second, one wonders about the counterfactual – what would have happened if the two fields had been collaborating earlier?  For example, the application of hermeneutics, in some sense, seems quite adaptive to new information.  Indeed, some treat the structure of hermeneutics as a circle of interpretation/reinterpretation that never ends.  New observations can be entered into older completed interpretations, yielding a new state of interpretation. 
 
Bayesian statistical approaches are designed as a two step process, an integration of the new observation “on top of” everything else we know that yielded our beliefs prior to the new data.  Of course, repeated application of Bayesian estimation to repeated new data collections creates on going updating process that closely resembles the hermeneutics circle.  But its original focus was the two step process.  

It looks like some developments in machine learning, which can produce constantly updated predictions of the future state based on new data, are using formal Bayesian methods. This resembles more fully the continuous revision of the hermeneutics circle.

So maybe the two conceptual structures are increasingly resembling each other.  I’d love to see a dialogue between these fields to see if any new thoughts would arise if they understood each other more fully.

The Centrality of Method

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The power of disciplines within the academy is one of the driving forces for knowledge advancement. The freedom of scholars to pursue their imaginations to ever-deeper understanding of the natural world, human creativity, and societal processes, is a key facilitator for the advancement of civilization. It is a powerful force that universities offer the world.

It is interesting, therefore, to compare various fields with regard to their cohesion of purpose in scholarly inquiries. Indeed, when one peruses the different fields of inquiry, whether they’re organized into departments (as in most Colleges of Arts and Sciences) or other units, they tend to exhibit vastly different levels of internal unity.

Some fields seem to agree on what are the key questions facing the field and how to go about answering them. The prime example over the past two to three decades is the consensus within astronomy of key challenges and steps to take to make progress. When those fields exhibit this consensus, attention coalesces around the focal issues. Such fields often produce deeper and deeper insights in the agreed-upon areas.

Other fields seem to be in turmoil. There are intense debates across subfields questioning the wisdom of their pursuits. I recall a fist fight between two colleagues at a party prompted by snide remarks about the legitimacy of one’s research approach. (Passions based on intellectual disagreement can turn ugly.) Such fields risk missing opportunities for insight that flow from combining approaches.

One way to think of different fields is to parse their work into a) questions pursued, b) research methods used, and c) scholarly products produced. Reflecting on fields that seem to be undergoing turmoil, the use of different methods often seems to be a source of the discomfort. For example, debates about the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methods in several social science fields plagued the groups for several decades in the 20th century.

When these intellectual conflicts are raging, one often sees individual departments choosing sides, building strength in only one school of thought. Those departments that find a way to resolve the conflict, however, integrating the best parts of different sides, generally achieve prominence in the next era of the discipline. Conflicts resolved by new integrative solutions often produce long-lasting advances.

An interesting challenge and benefit of working in problem-oriented, interdisciplinary research arises around choice of research methods. The challenge is that such work usually involves researchers with allegiances to different methods. Each must learn a bit about another method; this is difficult. The benefit is such work enriches our understanding of the phenomena in question, using multiple methods. Inevitably, in the hands of strong scholars the work leads them to innovative theoretical thinking in their home discipline. In this way, interdisciplinary work enriches the constituent disciplines.

In this sense, researchers entering into interdisciplinary spaces internalize some of the conflicts that plague full disciplines. They choose to have their allegiance to method challenged by alternative ways of thinking. They are intellectually brave, but also enjoy the benefits of new insights difficult to achieve without that choice.

Searching for the Best

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Some recent reading evoked memories of various evaluative panels that I’ve experienced in the past few years. Some were created to award a national or international honor to the awardee, based on self- and/or others’ nomination. Some were review panels of interdisciplinary grants. Some were fellowship offers to promising mid-career scholars.

The panel members were often chosen from among those with established reputations in their field. Most often the panelists represented different disciplines. The assigned job of the panel was to identify the “best” among a set of proposed awardees. Sometimes the focus of the evaluation was the awardee; sometimes, the proposed work of the awardee. Inevitably, it became some blend of the two. That is, part of the evaluation of the promise of the work was whether the work could indeed be accomplished well by the awardee.

Lamont, in her book with the wonderful title of How Professors Think, notes that such panels execute their work with a complicated and jointly negotiated pattern of evaluative viewpoints. Sometimes they are focused on the “generalizability of the work.” Sometimes they are focused on its ability to evoke an “understanding of broader processes.” Sometimes, they value the deeper understanding that results from a “particular interpretation.”

These evaluative viewpoints are differentially susceptible to the so-called “Matthew effect,” which gives the more established line of thinking a distinct advantage in an evaluation. That is, when examining a proposed project, ideas that build upon years of successful knowledge construction in a field, have an advantage. They benefit from reflected glory of widely-accepted knowledge and technique. They receive the immediate respect of association with the current leaders of a field.

One might suspect that when the evaluators are focused on the generalizability of the proposed project, they might evoke their knowledge of what past scholarship has demonstrated in a field. When, in contrast, the panelists are highly valuing the creation of a particular interpretation of a topic, they might be less susceptible to the Matthew effect. Clearly, the cognitive bias associated with the Matthew effect threatens support of the new, the controversial, the different. In panels that I remember, such proposals receive the label of “high-risk.” (Even in such cases, however, the Matthew effect is present with a little twist – if the novel proposal is made by a famous, established scholar, the panel will tend to label it as “innovative” rather than “risky.”)

At various points of evolution of a field, it seems likely that generalizability becomes more important than understanding or novel interpretation. For example, one of the key issues facing educational research (e.g., what teaching techniques are more effective) was the domination of the field of small-scale experimental interventions that could not be replicated. That is, a project that showed great learning leaps in one classroom, implemented by one teacher, showed no such gains when later implemented in another classroom. The field began to call for greater attention to the generalizability of scholarship funded.

Some have noted that generalizability, understanding of basic mechanisms, and novel interpretation, can themselves be viewed as specific to particular uses of knowledge. The three might array themselves on a dimension of theory-application. Generalizability is an important attribute in applied knowledge. Novel interpretations are important in the generative step of understanding. Understanding basic processes are the building blocks of theories that later lead to generalizability.

The Matthew effect, giving advantage to building on large bodies of existing knowledge, is a natural bias that mitigates risk in applications. It’s probably deadly, however, for the giving value to the unexpected, the novel, the innovative. In short, thinking back over my panel memberships, sometimes the group should have explicitly warmed to the safety of the well-established and sometimes, to the new.

Science for All

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“The natural sciences, and the technologies that they enable, are woven deeply into the fabric of our lives and are central to many of the important political and social challenges that we face. They are also among the pinnacles of intellectual accomplishment in humanity’s ancient and ongoing quest to understand the world in which we live. Thus, we believe that to function as liberally educated, ethically responsible citizens, stewards of the planet, and as effective leaders, all Georgetown students should understand scientific modes of thought and concepts, both in the abstract and as they are exemplified in at least one major area of scientific inquiry.”

This is the prefatory statement of report from the core curriculum committee that has recently been accepted by the main campus faculty. The report proposes a uniform application of base science course requirement for undergraduates, regardless of the school of enrollment.

It recognizes that the world has changed over the years, with a more central role being played by technology and scientific knowledge in the day-to-day lives of all. It recognizes the importance of the scientific method, with observation, hypothesis formulation, data collection, analysis and conclusion, in an ever-continuous cycle of learning. It recognizes that many of the unsolved world problems either arise from unequal access to technology or may find their solutions in new uses of technology.

I am proud that faculty governance bodies have supported this innovation in the curriculum, even though not all departments will benefit from larger enrollments. I am pleased that our natural science colleagues have committed to their contributions to the common good of our undergraduates, even when many will not be science majors.

A new requirement such as this also brings with it the chance of pedagogical innovation. In addition to traditional single instructor courses, the proposal encourages team teaching. Team teaching gives students a change to compare perspectives of multiple faculty members on the same material. It’s clear that, when two or more faculty members are willing to engage in dialogue on a topic in front of students, the level of student engagement jumps. It’s clear when the faculty illustrate real debates for the students, the retention of the knowledge is greater than merely reading about such debates.

In addition to team teaching, the requirement is perfectly suited to a new “core pathways” treatment. In this format, 7-week, 1.5 credit class modules can be assembled into 3 and 6 credit aggregates in a coordinated manner. One example of such a structure was this year’s “Climate Change” theme. In that framework, each module is 1.5 credits. Students can take up to four distinct 7-week modules in a single year. In order to ensure exposure to multiple disciplines’ approaches, students will take modules from different fields in the same semester. By taking two 1.5 credit modules in the same discipline, students will satisfy core requirements. Students may also combine two 1.5 credit modules from different disciplines as a 3-credit interdisciplinary elective and full-course equivalent. Faculty from different disciplines teach the modules, which themselves are coordinated to assure complete coverage and lack of redundancy.

Undergraduate requirements fill our desire to expose baccalaureate students to the major bodies of human knowledge. They attempt to teach students how different fields vary in their methods of achieving and evaluating advances in knowledge. They provide the basic concepts and theoretical frameworks for students to follow future developments in a field. They do not magically build advanced expertise in a field. Instead, their goal is to help students become literate with the key concepts and theories in a field.

We should be proud that we are extending these benefits to more scientific fields with this change in requirements.

A Magical Holiday Scene, Thanks to a Dedicated Crew

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This is an unusual time on a university campus – study days and final examinations. There are few students walking around. They’re all huddled in study areas, packed into library spaces, grouped in empty classrooms. Inside the library, you see some furiously typing away to finish final papers. Others are in very high alert mode, apparently finishing take-home exams, usually surrounded by course materials. Still others have the strange looks of sleep deprivation. Across campus, one sees disheveled undergrads delivering their final paper to their professor’s office. Coffee consumption is at an all-time high. There’s not much noise on campus (seems fine), but also not as much laughter (sorely missed). Seriousness abounds.

The thoughtful and inventive library staff has created a variety of ways for students to de-stress during finals week. These are clever ideas that offer a break from their studying. But they also permit a little nap taking while in Lauinger. Depending on when you’re walking around study areas, students displaying intense attention sit next to students who are sleeping. Study-sleep-eat-study-study.

With fewer and fewer hours of light each day, I walk to and from work in darkness each day. But there’s a great benefit to that now because the wonderful campus grounds crew really outdid themselves this year. The trees in Healy circle with their bright lights are prettier this year than I remember from last year. The Dahlgren Quad Christmas tree, framed by the oldest buildings of Georgetown seems like something out of a Hollywood movie depicting what a beautiful campus should be at the holiday time. The Christmas tree outside the president’s office, the poinsettias, and the decorations hanging from lamps in Healy Hall uplift the spirits instantly. Even the ICC Galleria is bedecked with multiple lighted trees. Tonight, we lighted the first candle of the menorah for the start of Hanukah.

This beauty just doesn’t arise without effort. But the grounds crews are so efficient; I don’t remember seeing them construct all the decorations. It’s clear, however, the work is substantial and ongoing. Equipment is needed to hang the lights; the poinsettias drink a lot of water during the week; lights need to be checked and adjusted.

As an administrator, I don’t feel the full anxiety and fatigue of the finishing up the term that students face. It might be a little easier for me to appreciate the work of the grounds crew that transform the campus so effectively. On the other hand, I imagine that seeing the lighted trees might offer a small psychological boost to students nearing the end of semester. The lights and the trees might remind them that it won’t be long before they can rest. Some will return to homes remote from DC and enjoy wonderful renewed warmth that only families offer. They will appreciate days in which they don’t face the burden of an upcoming assignment or required readings. They will sleep. Those near graduation may realize that it may be the last time “the kid from college” will return. They will reflect. In the depth of their labors ending the term, I think the decorated campus might give them hope toward those days of rest and reflection.

I’m not sure the students get a chance to thank the workers that make the campus so pretty at this holiday time, but I hope that staff knows that what they do offers a bit of cheer, hope, and anticipation to students enduring their most stressful time of the semester.

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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