Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Data-Driven Determination

After listening to this NPR report on possible SCOTUS (Supreme Court) nominee Elena Kagan (click to listen below), it reminded me of two connections to our class.

"Should Kagan's Lack Of Judicial Experience Matter?"
  1. Our brief discussion on Kagan focused on her qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice. There was a question as to what exactly those qualifications are. Here's what the Constitution says:

    "[The President]...shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme [sic] Court" (Article II).

    This is something most of us already know — it's the President's choice, as long as the Senate approves. But what about specific qualifications? Here's all I could find:

    "The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office" (Article III).

    "good Behaviour"? It's fascinating that there isn't even a qualification that the nominee had been a judge. Furthermore, only a single justice from the landmark Brown v. Board decision had served previously as a judge.

  2. One of the main reasons recent SCOTUS nominees previously have been lower court judges is that "by looking at a lower court record, a president, or a senator for that matter, can get a reasonably good idea of what a nominee's views are." I connected this notion to the near-obsession that some of our students have with their own "record" (grades, activities, etc.) accumulated in school.
    Are we in danger of becoming a purely "data-driven" society? Think of our previous discussion of how in the future sensors will be embedded in books and shoes to measure everything. Then read this post about overcoming data with the power of stories. Does your own "record" function as a decent measure of how you want people to see you?


    BFlan said...

    When applying to college, a persons grade point average and ACT score are often the two most important things to a school. These two numbers serve as a persons "record" and supposedly determine how good of a student one is. Although it is a fair system, these numbers often do not serve as an accurate reflection of a student. Even when other parts of a students record are considered, such as the activities and community service they do, the things that actually matter are left out, such as their personality. The question I have then is, is there a better system? How can our society not be "data-driven"?

    S. Bolos said...

    What makes you say this is a "fair" system? Would everyone agree with that?

    Zoe C. said...

    I have to agree with Brian that your "record" seems to be the most important things when applying to colleges. The majority of things they look at when deciding on admissions is mainly data-based. While the essay is also an important component, it is definitely not as important as your GPA and ACT scores. I do not think this is an accurate depiction of a person. Yes, it does tell a person how good of a worker someone is, but there is much more to a person that just grades and test scores. Why shouldn't personality matter? Someone might get really bad grades but still be motivated to learn. Why doesn't that matter? Data acts a good indicator of a person, but only to a certain point.

    BFlan said...

    I say it is a "fair" system because everyone has a chance to score well on the ACT or have a high GPA. This being said, the system is not entirely fair. Money often has an effect on education, and a wealthier person can have advantages, such as a tutor for the ACT or school.

    S. Bolos said...


    Nice catch there. As you probably know, there is high correlation between SES (socio-economic status) and scores on standardized tests, so I would agree with you that the system is not as fair as ACT would have us believe.

    Jackie said...

    Hey! Im sitting in SWS Senior Writers Seminar right now, supposed to be writing an essay (please dont tell) and I decided to give a look to my favorite blog!

    I think its so funny how much this plays into college. Ya ACT scores, and GPAs and junk, but what Im talking about is perception. I got into my three top schools, great, I loved them, but the issue became that one of them, a school I liked a lot, had a slightly negative image associated with it. For some reason, I loved the school, but I loved nothing about how being at the school would make me look. Now that sounds really bad, and I'm kind of embarrassed to even admit that I was driven by something that vain when I picked my school (I am not going to that school), but at the same time it's very realistic. We live in a world and environment where you are constantly judged, whether good or bad. I think it has positive and negative aspects to it, like it may be more fair, but it may make it more dog-eat-dog. I think New Trier students, especially juniors soon to be seniors, deal with this a ton, and I think if they can realize that they're dealing with it, they can start to deal with it in whatever way they want to.

    DPark said...

    Does your own "record" function as a decent measure of how you want people to see you?

    In terms of college admittances, I think that we are NOT in danger of having it purely be "data-driven". I think a lot of people forget that some schools do personal alumni interviews and have short response questions/essay questions on their applications. These are great ways for applying students to tell their stories of their experiences.

    As of my own record, I think it gets the message containing my effort, my interests, and my own level of dedication across. My digits (GPA/ACT/SATII's) function to show my final outcome and results of my work. But the clubs, teams, and groups that I'm affiliated with reflect my interest in science.

    S. Bolos said...

    @Jackie: Ha! Could be far worse -- we always appreciate you weighing in. Your amazing honesty is always appreciated.

    @Danny: Thanks for restating the question with your comment. I agree with you that colleges do look at more than your "digits" :)

    But are all students (nationally) allowed that...privilege?

    MMarin said...
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    MMarin said...

    The student record does kind of remind me of the Schell talk. Schell seemed in some ways to argue that by storing large quantities of information about people, we will be able to become more emotionally bonded with them, which is hilarious. Data doesn't sway emotion or show development, stories do, so why would data make us care more about someone?

    I read something a while back that talked about obituaries and I thought it was really interesting. It commented on how the most meaningful accounts of peoples lives are not lists of what people did and awards they won and stuff they accumulated, but instead are stories written by their friends about them in an emotional moment-- one of play, sadness, anything. You would get a better sense of how a person was from seeing how they influenced others' emotions or something along those lines. Our Death of Bolos papers showed that even by analyzing stuff people have really doesn't tell much of a story.

    I sort of see the accumulation of test scores as just accumulating information, perhaps resembling status symbols or trinkets that could be shown off in an obituary but shouldn't be. Certainly it takes a lot of work to take a bunch of SAT IIs, but SAT IIs are pretty pointless in and of themselves. If you get an A in biology and loved the class it's redundant to re-memorize everything you did all year just to take a test that says, "I did well in biology." You put more time in to science, certainly, but I don't think the act of test-taking is that meaningful itself.

    Someone I know once described high school by saying, "You put up with as much crap as possible so you can get in to a college," and I really just see the accumulation of more test scores as putting up with more things, and I disagree with that entirely. Putting time in to science by doing something that brings you pleasure (ex. you participating science-related clubs) shows a lot more commitment than putting time in to something that you don't enjoy but felt obligated to. I took the biology SAT II for that very reason, and it was just like studying for finals again.

    And I think the notion that ACT scores are the result of years of work is completely off. When taking the ACT all I could think was, "What does this have to do with anything?!" If we were to decode the meaning of a student's ACT score the way we tried to decode the boxes of Bolos' stuff-- by going through it item by item-- we wouldn't have much to say. It's just funny how irrelevant the questions are, the entire test is like a maze. Sure, some people say, "Your score on the English/reading section tends to reflect whether or not you've done a lot of reading in your life." Others say, "It rewards fast-thinking." I find those claims flimsy and as having misplaced values. I can't think of a single practical use of being able to solve a basic math problem in one minute as opposed to two.

    MMarin said...

    Also couldn't help but notice the addition of the 'The Data You Leave Behind' addition to the anamericanstudies page. I have mixed feelings about that sort of thing.

    On one hand, it's obviously important to be a responsible 'netizen' so you don't end up making other peoples' lives miserable (cyber bullying, slander). If you do that sort of thing, you deserve to have law enforcement officials trace your behavior to your IP.

    But it depends on what extreme you take monitoring online behavior to. I think most internet culture (memes) comes not from things created by businesses (ex, facebook, online gaming), which Schell zeroed in on, but from crowd sourcing that's somewhat "anonymous" and other forms of collaboration (webcomics, stories, database sites, art trades, discussion boards, social commentary, etc). Even though most internet memes only serve the purpose of being funny, they're still important.

    As we discussed recently, when people are online, they make things. But this can be discouraged if it's tied to peoples' actual identities-- we're all supposed to have multiple sides to ourselves, and sometimes creativity/speech need buffers. There's a youtube interview of the guy who made the Obama 1984 ad and he basically says he wanted to remain anonymous so he wouldn't lose his job or get negative publicity.

    As long as data mining doesn't evolve to the point where all online behavior is tied to IP addresses in some sort of database for businesses to use, so that even peoples' alternative names are tied to their offline selves, it's ok. But it also shouldn't be the case that younger people are stopped from engaging in productive online behavior for fear of losing employment opportunities. Memes shouldn't be cast as 'unprofessional' or 'embarrassing' when they're used in the appropriate environment, same with other forms of online speech.

    nathans said...

    I think that in respect to college application, it isn't all that mysterious why it is very data driven. Even medium sized institutions recieve thousands of applications every year, which take an extremely long time to review. I think that the colleges simply don't have the time to read everyones life story and why they should be accepted to a particular school, and for this reason they resort to people's "digits".
    Also I think the rationale for schools is that numbers don't lie, and people, unfortunately do. Like the Ideas and Thoughts post says, "lack of trust = show me the numbers."
    Personally, my record does not really depict me in the light I would like. Obviously I would feel that I am a little more complex than a few numbers. But I have come to peace with this lazy approach to the understanding of people. On a side note.
    There are many small schools however that do have mandatory interviews an essays to develop a multidimensional profile of applicants. For those of you stressing about being percieved poorly by your "record" you may want to consider this.

    StoneA said...

    I really like what Nathan said and think it can be applied to many situations. Colleges have to look at thousands of applications every year. While it is true that extra curricular activities are taken into account by the admissions office more than they used to be, the data is still the most important part of the application. In truth, the data (GPA and standardized test scores) tells alot in a small amount of space. I think there is more to a person than their GPA, but listening to everyone tell their life story would be a real pain. I don't think my "record" functions as a decent measure of how I want people to see me, but I also don't want to do all the writing it would take for someone to gain a perspective of who I really am.

    MMarin said...
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    MMarin said...


    "Also I think the rationale for schools is that numbers don't lie, and people, unfortunately, do."

    The thing about narrative is that, as described by one of the blogs, emotion is often a big part of it. And frankly, if you aren't genuine about something, it's extremely difficult to generate emotion about it, and even harder to convince others to feel emotion about it.

    And if numbers send an inaccurate picture about someone's intelligence, sometimes way off, then how can they be considered to be 'not lying'?


    "In truth, the data (GPA and standardized test scores) tells alot in a small amount of space"

    What do standardized test scores say about a student?

    Lizzy said...

    Since we are all talking about how we should be leaving stories behind instead of data, maybe we should ask ourselves if those easily-accessible stories are things that we truly want colleges and future employers to be looking at. After looking at "The Data You Leave Behind" link, I saw that 63% of future employers check social networking sites before hiring a new employee. Then I asked myself, are these sites like Facebook really all about data, or do they tell a story? I think it is the latter.
    I consider anything that can be interpreted by a computer to be data, while anything that requires human input to be at least part story. After reading the articles comments (some of which were quite funny, I might add) I realized that the number of pictures you may have tagged of you (which is a number, or data) does not mean nearly as much as what those pictures are actually of (which is a story). Since so many employers do look at these sites, I do not think that we are in as much danger of becoming data-driven as some people would like to think.
    The real problem is that the stories by which we are being judged are not in our control anymore.

    On a slight side note, one of the comments on the article worried me quite a lot. Someone with the screen name btdown wrote, "If I can find you on myspace account/facebook, I can pretty much guarantee you will not to be hired." Since pretty much everyone that I know in my age-group has such an account, I wonder if these standards will change in the future. They almost have to.

    Sam H said...

    I am having a little trouble understanding this connection. When a SCOTUS nominee is being considered, he or she, is only one person vying for the position. On the other hand, when one is applying for college, there are thousands of people looking for your spot. This is made apparent in the way that we look at the way that Kagan and a college applicant have been scrutinized. People have brought up specific papers of Kagans (most specifically the one where she talked about supreme court nomination process as vapid). Even at really small liberal arts colleges where they may try to look at you beyond just your stats (GPA, ACT etc), it simply impossible for the board of admissions to look at every thing that the applicant has done. Kagan, on the other hand, will have everything that she has done scrutinized by her board of admissions (Congress)