Weapons of Math Destruction

Here I go again: making a comment about my approach to the assignment. I looked at the syllabus this morning and discovered that I did not have in my possession Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction; it wasn’t available at the MSU Bookstore when I went there two months ago. Shoot, I thought, I wasn’t planning on going to campus today. When I clicked on the link to the book from our class website, under the required reading section, it took me straight to Amazon. The webpage in front of me said something about how I had a free-trial of Audible available to me, for one month. Perfect, I thought. How nice was that? I didn’t have to leave the comforts of my own home and desk, and I could listen to O’Neil’s matter-of-factness all the way to Belgrade and back, at the barn while I groomed and picked up after my horse (not while riding!), more driving (best if the phone is upside down in a cupholder to be heard over road noise), and even while chopping vegetables and cooking dinner I listened. Two birds with one stone, it seemed. Needless to say, highlighting and marginal notetaking didn’t happen. Though this method is free (until I forget to cancel the at-the-ready subscription), as well as my first go at audio booking, I wonder how effective it is for me. Let’s see.

First of all, I’m intrigued. She seems pretty well-versed in a couple of ideas (pretty big ones), so far, that have suffered destruction. Education, finance, and law. In the introduction she gives an example of a teacher who, until the method of evaluation changed, was a fine educator in a low-income school district. Reports from students and parents continued to be positive, as in years past, but the new data proved otherwise. I thought it was interesting to be reminded of the fact that it is the private, more privileged institutions that engage in person to person evaluations, while the others get grouped together and analyzed by machines. Machines that are programmed to do specific things, things that don’t take into consideration feedback that makes a real difference. O’Neil concluded that this teacher’s poor evaluation resulted in yet another loss for a school district that really needs good teachers, and another gain for the private institution that hired her.

This makes me think about the way MSU asks its students to evaluate instructors. I recall having to do more than select A, B, C, or D…for some professors anyway. It seems to be most effective when the instructor sets time aside during scheduled class time to do this, making it clear to the evaluators the importance of such effort. What about other surveys though? I can’t think of any other kind of online feedback that I really take the time to complete thoughtfully and thoroughly. My patience is so slim, I’ve noticed, that the most I’ll answer is two pages of questions (multiple choice) before I close the windows and shut my computer. For example: Who does Delta think I am? I don’t have time for this. It’s a privilege to travel, I think, to have a computer. Slam. Behaviors...

From what I've gathered, it must be quite difficult to incorporate practical, ethical qualities into algorithms. Thank goodness O'Neil has spoken out and shed light on the ties these algorithms have to injustice in our society. What an interesting/infuriating time to be alive.