Briefly noted: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep is great though polemical—snide remarks about tech companies are neither true nor useful—and one gets a sense of its contents from “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” which went viral for the best of reasons (as opposed to the worst, which is more common). “Eros in the Classroom” is also good, though curiously erotically attenuated, and could be read profitably in tandem with Laura Kipnis’s “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The two point to the need for satirization of contemporary academic mores, but that satirization is already so thorough that its failure to make much of a dent inside academia is obvious.

excellent_SheepBut Excellent Sheep is comprehensive, despite its overreach. But major orators know that if they have the audience the audience will forgive much, as such is the case here. The book is situated as one that fills a need and one that speaks to the author’s earlier self:

This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then.) I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ [. . .] Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, ‘success.’

I was perhaps slightly less blank but barely so. That being said, I often try to talk to current college students about what college is about and usually get resistance. So it may be that Deresiewicz’s twenty-year-old self wouldn’t listen to older Deresiewicz anyway. And, like almost any book of this sort, Excellent Sheep probably won’t be read by many of the students who could most benefit from reading it. Many who might be handed it might resist it. Slightly analogously, I’m struck by Emily Nussbaum’s description of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: “In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period.” I’ve assigned it before and it’s not been treated as a Bible; some students cottoned to it but some strongly resisted, though I also don’t think of it as dealing with “the feminist battlefields” of anything: I think of the stories as being about individuals, not dreary ideologies or ideological think-pieces.

Deresiewicz has a keen grasp of what’s happening in contemporary academia and, often, life itself. He writes of a “system,” or “a set of tightly interlocking parts,” including “private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself; [. . .] the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA [. . .]” and of course much more. But this paragraph is the most interesting:

What that system does to kds and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you just saying that we’re all just, like really excellent sheep?”

He goes on: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” I’ve noticed those things. They are of course not pervasive. But I aslo find them impossible to miss.

Already I’ve chewed through a thousand words and two long blockquotes and have gotten to page three of Excellent Sheep. That should speak to the book’s quality. To attend to its every argument would be to almost write another book. As I said before, don’t trust everything. But do read it. It is also interesting to me that this article about Peter Thiel describes his mistrust of the education system, which partially evolved from his unhappiness with a track-based life and system. Yet this system persists for reasons, some of which Megan McArdle articulates in “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents.” The system has been in construction for decades. Startups are one route around them. Self-publishing is another. One can no doubt imagine more.

Many people are bad at being and bad at purpose. Including, possibly, me. Excellent Sheep challenges them, which is to say, us.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama

My review on Grant Writing Confidential is actually germane to readers of The Story’s Story, too, so I’ll start by directing you there. The book’s central and brilliant point is simple: for at least a century various people have imagined that better technology and the spread of technology will solve all sorts of social ills and improve all sorts of institutions, with education being perhaps the most obvious.

Geek_heresy2There are many other fascinating points—too many to describe all of them here. To take one, it’s often hard to balance short- and long-term wants. Many people want to write a novel but don’t want to write right now. Over time, that means the novel never gets written, because novels get written one sentence and one day at a time. Technology does not resolve this challenge. If anything, Internet access may make it worse. Many of us have faced an important long-term project only to diddle around on websites:

Short-term pleasure often leads to long-term dissatisfaction. That intuition underlies the psychologist’s distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. Pleasure-seeking hedonism is questionable, but maybe long-term eudaimonic life satisfaction is good.

One sees these issues all over. Porn remains ridiculously popular (though some consumers of it are no doubt fine). Many people drink soda despite how incredibly detrimental soda is to health, and in my view how bad soda tastes compared to, say, ice cream. TV watching time is still insanely high, though it may be slightly down from its previous highs. There are various ways one can try to remove agency from the people watching porn while drinking soda and keeping one eye on a TV in the background, but the simpler solution is to look at people’s actions and see revealed preferences at work.

Most people don’t have the souls of artists and innovators trapped in average everyday lives. Most people want their sodas and breads and sugars and TV and SUVs and all the other things that elite media critics decry (often reasonable, in my view). Most people don’t connect what they’re doing right now to their long-term outcomes. Most people don’t want to be fat but the soda is right here. A lot of people want a better love life but in the meantime let’s check out Pornhub. Most people want amazing Silicon Valley tech jobs, but Netflix is here right now and Coursera seems far away.

And, to repeat myself, technology doesn’t fix any of that. As Toyama says of one project that gives computer access to children, “technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves in less productive ways. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites.” I had access to computers as a teenager. I wasted more time than I want to contemplate playing games on them, rather than building the precursors to Facebook. Large markets and social issues emerge from individual choices, and a lot of elite media types want to blame environment instead of individual. But each individual chooses computer games—or something real.

It turns out that “Low-cost technology is just not an effective way to fight inequality, because the digital divide is much more a symptom than a cause of other divides. Under the Law of Amplification, technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” But those disparities emerge from individual behaviors. People who want to be writers need to write, now. People who want better partners or sex lives need to quit the sugar, now. One could pair any number of behaviors and outcomes in this style, and one could note that most people don’t do those things. The why seems obvious to me but maybe not to others. The people who become elite developers often say coding is fun for them in a way it apparently isn’t to others (including me). Writing is fun to me in a way it apparently isn’t to others. So I do a lot of it, less because it’s good for me than because it’s fun, for whatever temperamental reason. Root causes interest me, as they do many people with academic temperaments. Root causes don’t interest most people.

Let me speak to my own life. I’ve said variations on this before, but when I was an undergrad I remember how astounded some of my professors were when they’d recommend a book and I’d read it and then show up in office hours. I didn’t understand why they were astounded until I started teaching, and then I realized what most students are like and how different the elite thinkers and doers are from the average. And this is at pretty decent colleges and universities! I’m not even dealing with the people who never started.

Most of the techno-optimists, though—I used to be one—don’t realize the history of the promise of technology to solve problems:

As a computer scientist, my education included a lot of math and technology but little of the history or philosophy of my own field. This is a great flaw of most science and engineering curricula. We’re obsessed with what works today, and what might be tomorrow, but we learn little about what came before.

Yet technology doesn’t provide motivation. It’s easy to forget this. Still, I wonder if giving 100 computers to 100 kids might be useful because one of them will turn out to be very important. The idea that a small number of people drive almost all human progress is underrated. In The Enlightened Economy Joel Mokyr observes that the Industrial Revolution may actually have been driven primarily by ten to thirty thousand people. That’s a small number and a small enough number that the addition to or subtraction of a single individual from the network may have serious consequences.

This isn’t an idea that I necessarily buy but it is one I find intriguing and possibly applicable to a large number of domains. Toyama’s work may reinforce it.

When there are too many administrators, which ones do *you* fire?

You know there are too many administrators when even The Nation argues there are too many administrators.* More importantly, though, everyone regardless of political bent is against “administrators” in the abstract but almost no one is listing who should be on the chopping block. Too few articles and polemicists say, “These are the 100 positions I’d eliminate at the University of Washington.” If a school decided to fire its “Diversity” department in the name of cost cutting, The Nation would be the first publication screaming about racism and institutional indifference and the betrayal of high-need populations. Everyone rails about administrators, but almost no one has concrete plans to fire them and halt their proliferation.

Consider UC-Berkeley’s “Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion;” perhaps UC-Berkeley doesn’t need seven “equity and inclusion” teams or 17 employees in the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion.** The staff includes several financial analysts and a graphic designer exclusive to that office. California’s public salary database shows that that graphic designer earned $75,800 in 2014. The Development Director earns $109,000. The Executive Assistant earns $91,400. The Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion earns $209,000 a year. And so on. But UC-Berkeley will probably never cut this department (maybe that’s a Good Thing).

One sees this elsewhere. At Marymount Manhattan College, last week I got an email about a “Change of Title IX Coordinator.” That’s another part of one administrator’s job that didn’t exist decades ago. In addition, the email says the school “undertook an assessment of how best to comply with evolving federal and state legislation.” Which is another way of saying, “We spent a much of time and man hours.” There were also “mandated student, faculty, and staff trainings.” Maybe that work is good and maybe it isn’t, but it’s still indicative of the time and energy and activities that otherwise hated administrators are doing.

(Title IX, by the way, is the subject of Laura Kipnis’s hilarious, expensive Title IX inquisition. I wouldn’t blame you if you left this somewhat dry article to read her funnier, more ribald essay.)

I don’t want to pick on any particular school or even the education industry specifically. Regulatory compliance costs are increasing in virtually all industries, including the financial industry (link goes to a PDF) and many others. We rarely consider the systematic effects of regulatory compliance and instead think of each particular regulation / requirement in isolation. Nonetheless, when we get a lot of regulatory and other mandatory or optional costs together, we see the need for more lawyers, bureaucrats, administrators, and other people who all need to be paid and who have to be at least somewhat good at abstract thinking, writing, and statistics.

To be sure, the presidents and so forth making $500,000 or more per year is obscene on its face, but those are a relatively small number of positions, and, while I agree that college presidents should behave more like part of the university and less like corporate titans, I’m not sure that a small number of overly paid people is the biggest problem. I am sure that the next time I see someone announcing that we need to first fire all the administrators I’ll send them this post and get nothing in response.

** Much of this post and its research came from a friend, who gave me permission to publish it.

Apply this also to academics, writers, and artists:

Many years ago, my wife and I were on vacation on Vancouver Island, looking for a place to stay. We found an attractive but deserted motel on a little-traveled road in the middle of a forest. The owners were a charming young couple who needed little prompting to tell us their story. They had been schoolteachers in the province of Alberta; they had decided to change their life and used their life savings to buy this motel, which had been built a dozen years earlier. They told us without irony or self-consciousness that they had been able to buy it cheap, ‘because six or seven previous owners had failed to make a go of it.’ They also told us about plans to seek a loan to make the establishment more attractive by building a restaurant next to it. They felt no need to explain why they expected to succeed where six or seven others had failed. A common thread of boldness and optimism links businesspeople, from motel owners to superstar CEOs. (258–9)

That’s from Daniel Kahneman’s highly recommended book Thinking, Fast and Slow. How many times have you read some artists say that they succeeded because they believed totally in themselves and worked demonically to make their careers happen? If you’re like me you’ve heard this narrative many times. But you haven’t mostly heard the narrative about artists who believed totally in themselves and worked demonically only to fail, because they don’t get interviewed and their views don’t hit the media.

The quote is from chapter  24 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about getting a grad degree in the humanities. People giving advice on this topic tend to have succeeded; those who haven’t succeeded are mute (though less mute than they once were).

Why do people, including other “humanists,” love to hate the humanities?

In “The Hierarchy of Humanities Schadenfreude: Scoffing at academic job-market losers comes from some unexpected places” Rebecca Schuman posits some of the reasons why other academics look down on humanities professors, and why humanities professors look down on the adjuncts. I have some theories of my own:

* The simple answer is stated in Schuman’s second paragraph: “Allow me to explain supply and demand to you.” Teaching 18 – 22-year-old undergrads is just not that hard and a lot of people can do it. Grad school in the humanities is more time-consuming than hard. There is in fact a lot of supply and limited demand. The simple answers are often correct.

* Regarding tenured professors looking down on adjuncts, academia is not solely a lottery (though it has some lottery-like elements); people who write in a disciplined, perhaps even demonic, way tend to succeed, at least for some value of “success.” Tenure-track gigs in rural Wisconsin or Florida are much easier to be had than TT gigs in New York and Chicago.

* Academia is ridiculously hierarchical and status-oriented, even if its status ladder is different than the mainstream American status ladder. It’s also, interestingly, very transparent. People at the very top of any ladder rarely have a need to piss on those lower than themselves, but the nervous middle classes often piss downwards to make themselves feel better. Humanities professors are convinced they got where they are because of their hard work and adjuncts got where they are because of their lack of it, yet humanities professors rarely if ever apply the same thinking to income or to non-academic status.

* The unspoken fear underneath much of the status jockeying entails realizing that, even among the employed, much of the “research” being done either doesn’t matter or is just wrong.

That last one is important. To some extent humanists are destroying themselves and have been for decades. They’ve lost whatever ability they had to ask themselves, “Is this important?” and “Why should other people give a shit about it?” I don’t think I ever heard those discussions among academics, and I rarely if ever read them among the marginalized scribblers online. If you want to know whether going to grad school in the humanities is a good idea, start by reading the journals or books. Many are filled with garbage and the ongoing fascination with 19th and early 20th century economists and psychologists is bizarre. Humanists rarely even cite each other. The simplest way to learn about these problems is just to read the output.

People are talked out of their creative, interesting, and original ideas. People with those kinds of ideas get MFAs, or blog, or leave. The field has no space for such ideas, per Peter Thiel. At one point academia was growing fast enough that even humanities disciplines had space for heterodox thinkers, but since ~1975 that hasn’t been true.

The lessons of academic satires and Camille Paglia have been largely ignored. The cost to the individual who manages to get tenure is low but the cost to the field as a whole is high.

Within the field no one can say this and outside the field everyone is ignored. The equilibrium is not a good one.

What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does to its credit note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and to a lesser extent office hour visits generated. None of that work is rewarding but it can be distracting. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations. Grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals.

In addition, I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades. The message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy away from more important activities. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

Finally, there is no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” I haven’t noticed students doing that. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Colleges mostly know this, and they’ve set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.”

Insanity in academia, or, reason #1,103 why you should stay out of grad school: Kangaroo courts

In “In the Middle,” a medieval studies group blog, Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy have a post reasonably titled “Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability.” But the body isn’t reasonable: Kim wants to adopt policies that demand being “Victim-Centered,” which in her view means among other things:

Don’t ask for ‘proof’.
Don’t treat ‘both sides of the story’ as if they hold equal weight.
Do not engage in any type of victim blaming behaviour.
Listen to the victim. Do it. And don’t judge.

And she quotes approvingly:

Did a woman just report getting sexually harassed? Eject the man from the conference.

This reminds me of the Harvard law professors who are protesting, for good reason, changes to Harvard’s policies.

We have adversarial legal and conduct systems because those systems are designed to balance the rights of the accused with the rights of the accuser. Being able to confront one’s accuser and hear the evidence against a person is part of that process—and for a good reason. False accusations exist and they too are a serious problem.

Formal bodies of almost any sort should have to adhere to evidentiary requirements and assume innocence. Otherwise you’re running a witch hunt. That witch hunt won’t necessarily be limited to men, either, as Jane Gallop writes in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.

If I went to a conference with rules like this I’d be tempted to accuse a woman of sexual harassment just to see what happens. Performance art may be the only appropriate respond to insane policies. I wonder too if Kim, Hsy, or the various approving commenters have read Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel.

I’m also curious about what sexual harassment constitutes. If a woman says to me, “Wanna come to my room and have a drink?” does that count? It shouldn’t. The line is tough to draw and is close to “I know it when I see it,” which may be one reason why it’s hard to draft good rules—and publicly available rules that are specific enough to be understood are another legal hallmark developed over centuries to prevent unfair punishment. If a woman offers to hug me and I feel uncomfortable, should that count? Possible examples proliferate.

Anyway, this post is also worth discussing because most of the comments about academic looniness and unreasonableness either blown out of proportion or misunderstood or whatever. In Kim and Hsy’s case, here are academics being their own worst stereotypes; the post reads like Rush Limbaugh-style caricature. It’s also a good example of yet another reason you should avoid grad school. See also “The ignorance and ideological blindness in the college sex articles: Kathleen Bogle and Megan McArdle.”

(I originally left a version of this post as a comment; perhaps not surprisingly, it was deleted. The open flow of ideas is not appreciated in all quarters of academia!)


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