The Privilege to Cringe

I am teaching GOV 1005: Data this semester. The syllabus includes this section on course philosophy:

  • No Lectures: The worst method for transmitting information from my head to yours is for me to lecture you. There are (almost) no lectures. We work on problems together during class meetings.
  • No Math: I cut out everything that is not directly relevant to future employment, especially internships. The biggest impact on course content relates to (the lack of) math, probability and statistical theory. Employers don’t offer internships to sophomores because they want someone who can repeat the formula for a normal distribution. They hire sophomores who can do stuff with data.
  • R Everyday: Learning a new programming language is like learning a new human language: You should practice (almost) every day.
  • Transparency: We use professional tools in a professional fashion. Your workflow will be very similar to the workflow involved in paid employment. Your final project will be public, the better to interest employers in your abilities.

A Harvard senior tweeted out a link, quoted the first sentence about the lack of math and referred to the class as “the cringiest harvard course I’ve seen thus far.”

Let’s unpack this sentiment.

  1. One dictionary definition of “cringe” is to “experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust.” I suspect that this is a fair summary of the student’s opinion. (Harvard students are smart and generally use words correctly.)
  2. This student is embarrassed but for whom is not exactly clear. Is she embarrassed for me, in that I feel the need to be so explicit in the pedagogical choices I am making and the reasons behind them? Perhaps. But there is little that I can (or should?) do about this. There are only X hours in a week and every moment that I have a student spend on math or probability theory is an hour that she is not spending doing something else. I owe it to (potential) students to be transparent.
  3. Consider a specific example of this trade-off. I teach the students how to use Git and GitHub. I could leave this out as most (all?) introductory statistics courses do at Harvard. This would free up lots of time for math.
  4. Or perhaps the student is embarrassed for the students who take this course, who are concerned enough about future employment that they are swayed by this (accurate!) description. That would be much more “problematic,” as the kids say.

Without knowing anything more about this student than that she would tweet out this comment, can you guess anything about her background? I can! You can be certain that she is part of the privileged elite at Harvard, students who have already had a variety of well-paid internships, students with contacts throughout the upper reaches of our society, students who don’t need to worry about receiving multiple high-paying job offers senior year. Sadly, this is not the case for all, or even a majority, of Harvard students. Those are the students who I seek to help.

To anyone critical of these efforts, you may cringe all you want . . .

David Kane
Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics
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