Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Metrics (for Colleges & Books)


We tend to be over reliant on rankings, as our media report them. Our culture is obsessed with it. We must some how be attracted to them, because we are now making rankings out of a topic just so they would attract more readership.

There are now colleges that do not cooperate with certain surveys that result in national rankings, such as Reed College for U.S. News College Rankings (and some colleges have excluded SAT scores, which are used to rank students, from their admissions decisions, which, apparently made their entering class more diverse and higher performing). So, I was surprised to see Reed College listed in the Best Liberal Arts ranking. Curious, I looked into their formula.

Acceptance rate was one of the key factors. It seemed odd that the harder it was to get in, the better the college would rank. Another way to look at that metric is the popularity of the college (how many people wanted to go to that college, as reflected by the number of applications). Popular ≠ good. If a college did a good job marketing itself to the types of students it desired, and so the applicants were self-selected, the acceptance rate would be high. If a college did a good job marketing itself to appeal to the most student possible, it would have a low acceptance rate (and a high cost of having to deal with admissions, taking away from its core mission to educate the ones that do enter the college).

Then I started thinking about ranking books. There are metrics that readers don’t care about though publishers do: e.g., length of the book. For publishers to be able to market the book well, it has to be of a certain length. I heard that the best seller “On Bullshit”, was typeset and the page size selected in a way that made the overall book heftier to compensate for its short length. More pages wouldn’t have made the book better necessarily, even if it might have gotten easier for the publisher to market it. Popularity doesn’t matter. Making the best seller list won’t get me to buy a book about something I didn’t care about.

So, what then?

I was thinking about books that I appreciate. Many are ones recommended by close friends who knew what I would like. Then I thought about what books I would qualify as good books. Here is what I have come up so far:

Books that I

  • have read multiple times (e.g., The Passion by Jeanette Winterson )
  • have read different editions/translations of (e.g., La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de La Fayette)
  • look forward to reading again (e.g., Essays by Michel de Montaigne)
  • have recommended to others (e.g., Nudge by Richard Thaler)
  • have purchased for others (e.g., Higglety Pigglety Pop!* by Maurice Sendak)
  • still own (e.g., The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte)
  • quote/refer to (e.g., Up the Organization by Robert Townsend)
  • wanted to read even after reading/listening to an extensive book review and/or comments by the author (e.g., The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris**—NOT Timothy Feriss!!)

Clearly, there are books that “rank” in multiple categories above. Another metric is books written by authors I enjoyed reading before (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell). If I bought into the ranking fad, I should also make a list of friends who have a higher hit rate of recommending books I like.

After thinking through why rankings in general bother me or why they aren’t as useful as I think they ought to be, it’s because rankings and their metrics are meant to satisfy “most people”, and the one-size-fits-all approach rarely fits anyone well. (And as for college rankings, studies are now stating that because there is a huge variance in performance among programs within a college, rating an entire college against another college vs. their specific programs in itself is a one-size-fits-all approach that is no longer relevant, if it was ever at all.)

*The two books I purchased most for others both happen to be children’s books (i guess I better weight this metric, as there are more opportunities to gift books to children), though I have given them to adults as well. They are:

  1. Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, and
  2. Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window

Totto-chan is written originally in Japanese. While I tend to mistrust Japanese texts translated to English, Totto-chan‘s English version reads well, true to its original (and I even found the English version in the Danish library system, so it must not be too hard to get even outside of Japan and the U.S.).

**This book feels so relevant in thinking through not only democracy but our state of capitalism. If you don’t have time to read it, I recommend you take a look at its comprehensive review.

Photo: Korean Garden within the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus (whose high national rankings for astronomy, ocean and earth sciences, and Asian studies are not reflected in its overall rankings)

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This entry was posted on October 20, 2015 by in Book, books, Culture, metrics and tagged , , , , .
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