Survivorship Bias, Survivor Guilt, and Opportunity Cost

N.B. For best results, try to get Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” going in your head before proceeding.

Two recent blog posts by Larry Cebula and Holger Syme highlight the deep divide that separates the pessimists from the optimists in academia. Cebula explains why he steers his students away from pursuing a career as a professor, essentially arguing that the odds are simply too stacked against them even under the best of conditions. Syme, in contrast, suggests that Cebula’s dream-crushing advice is short-sighted and ultimately dangerous to the long-term viability of the profession. While Cebula’s reasoning will be familiar to many — he’s working the same rich vein as has William Pannapacker under his nom de doom Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education — I suspect he’s also still greatly outnumbered among the greater population of academics, thanks in no small part to survivorship bias and an unwillingness to grapple with the unforgiving calculus of opportunity cost.
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On Usage Figures

Among the more eye-popping numbers associated with LinkedIn’s recent initial public offering is the 100,000,000 members it claims. What do those hundred million people do with their LinkedIn accounts? If they’re like me, they quietly ignore the endless spam but never quite motivate to unsubscribe. Or maybe they occasionally click through a link returned by a Google search, only to discover the limp résumé of some sad sack looking to escape the Enterprise rent-a-car counter, not the super cool and attractive “Sean Takats” that they went to high school with and are stalking.
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Zotero Versus

Brian Croxall recently lit up the comment feed at the Chronicle with his ProfHacker comparison of “Zotero vs. Endnote,” where the debate centered mostly around issues of citation fidelity. As Fred Gibbs notes, however, “while citation formatting is one major reason to use bibliographic software, it isn’t necessarily the only or even primary reason, especially in the humanities.” Zotero’s citation functionality was always imagined merely as bait: by providing this labor-saving functionality, Zotero would encourage each user to move her research into what amounted to a fully searchable and shareable relational database that could be subjected to text mining and other analysis. Here researchers could begin to do truly remarkable and new things with their evidence.
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Time Shifting and Historical Research

About ten thousand years ago, we were introduced to the phrase “time shifting” by a decade-long lawsuit over the right to use VCRs to tape TV shows for later viewing. Today’s DVR has of course made this process far easier and probably more widespread, but the idea remains the same: rather than watch something right now, with no snack breaks, we instead put it off until some later time. Other than the occasionally self-serving gripe about having “a lot of TiVo to catch up on,” time shifting is a settled and dead issue, a non-story. Or it would be, if it were not for the troubling case of historical research.
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The End of (French) History

As a historian I like to think that I’m comfortable with the idea of fields dying. Maybe they’re reborn and live to fight another day (like diplomatic history, or so we all keep hearing), and maybe they never really die at all (like quantitative history, safely entrenched at Paris 1-Sorbonne).

But what about the old workhorse geographic fields like, say, French history?1 Unless you are Natalie Davis, being a French historian over the last five decades or more probably meant that you, well, went to France to do your research. And why did you go? You told your department chair and your grant funders and your colleagues that you had to get to the archives and the libraries, of course. But let’s be honest here: French historians don’t go to France to get to the documents. Instead we wed ourselves to documents that just so happen to be found only in France, “forcing” us to go there, usually when the weather there is super great, or at least super crappy at home. That’s why we became French historians in the first place. There are a few exceptions to this rule: the handful of self-loathing sad sacks we all know who hate wine and cheese and cigarettes, but this is no time to be cruel. Continue reading

  1. I’m focusing on France, of course, because it’s what I know. That said, I don’t see any compelling reason why the argument that follows couldn’t apply to any number of national or transnational areas of inquiry. []