September 2011 links: Jobs, leads, feminism, the new pants revue, shoulds and wants, demand for software engineers, plagarism, and more

* This is how you catch someone’s attention with the lead: “I became a feminist the day my sixth-grade math teacher dismembered and spit on a white rose, telling us, ‘This is you after you have sex.’

* The shoulds and the wants, highly recommended and possibly related to the link immediately above. See also the penultimate link.

* One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities.

* My job is to watch dreams die.

* The New Pants Revue, by Bruce Sterling: “Since I’m a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail.”:

I should explain now why I have been wearing “5.11 Tactical” trousers for a decade. It’s pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.”

If I didn’t live in Arizona, where pants are appropriate maybe three weeks of the year, I would’ve already ordered a pair. I, too, have too much gear.

(Hat tip Charlie Stross.)

* Demand for software developers is still high.

* Turnitin: Arming both sides in the Plagiarism War. The term “plagiarism war” is part of the problem: it’s not a “war,” and students and instructors shouldn’t be adversaries. I don’t spend a huge amount of time hunting for plagiarism, mostly under the theory that the primary person hurt is in fact the plagiarist, who isn’t developing the writing skills he or she will one day need. The market punishes people without skills harshly enough, as so many of the unemployed have discovered the hard way in the last three years. If I find plagiarism in students papers, I deal with it, but I wonder if schools would be better off adopting honor codes and expecting students to abide by them, rather than militarizing the issue, even metaphorically, and hunting for violators.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “french sex games.” I suspect they were disappointed, although I also wonder what else they found.

* More on that ever-popular topic, “Why does the female orgasm exist? A popular theory has been criticized as male-centric, but it might have unexpected feminist results.”

* Two thousand years in one chart, or, “we make a lot of stuff these days.”

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

I love The Magicians. I like The Magician King.

The Magician King has many of the qualities that made The Magicians special: twists on standard fantasy tropes; impressive language in many sentences, although not quite as impressive its predecessor; and a consistent willingness to instill a sense of wonder about the world and about what the characters might be able to accomplish. Happy endings aren’t foreordained, which is to be admired.

But The Magician King lacks the surprising urgency of The Magicians and feels like another lap after the race is over. Consider a passage from page six, after Quentin, Julia, Janet, and Eliot have returned to Fillory as benevolent if distracted monarchs. They’re hunting a magic hare who can see the future, which sounds like a bum gig; life’s excitement comes from not knowing what happens next:

The point wasn’t really to catch the hare. The point was—what was the point? What were they looking for? Back at the castle their lives were overflowing with pleasure. There was a whole staff whose job it was to make sure that every day of their lives was absolutely perfect. It was like being the only guests at a twenty-star hotel that you never had to leave.

Does this sound familiar? If you read The Magicians, it should, since The Magicians is endlessly concerned with the questing for meaning that can’t be imposed from without. I’m going to spend the next couple paragraphs looking at similar rhetoric from The Magicians; if this sort of thing bores you, skip to the paragraph that starts with a series of bolded words. Rhetorical comparisons aren’t everyone’s forte, but they’re essential for understanding how The Magician King is too often a rehash of the same problems presented in The Magicians but without a new angle on those problems.

In The Magicians, Quentin thinks:

You just had to get some idea of what mattered and what doesn’t, and how much, and try not to be scared of the stuff that doesn’t. Put it in perspective. Or something like that. Otherwise what was the point?

“What was the point” is a decent question for someone with an adolescent temperament. Quentin spends the rest of the novel ineffectively trying to answer the question. He doesn’t answer it, not perfectly, but somewhat understands that you make the “point” for yourself. You make meaning for yourself, because meaning can’t be imposed by external social forces, and death itself gives meaning to life. One would think the sheer realism of The Magicians’s end would show Quentin as much. When the party reaches Ember’s Tomb at the end of The Magicians, two large, evidently hostile animals charge, and we find our hero panicking: “Oh my God, Quentin thought, this is really happening. This is really happening.” You don’t make something merely by saying it, although the prospect of death wakes him from the upper-middle class reverie where he’s been living. Death, especially violent death, is not beautiful or noble—it is terrifying and shocking. It reminds you of why so many people move to the quiet suburbs and get jobs in middle management. Beats the hell out of getting the hell beaten out of you.

The repetition of “This is really happening” is like a refrain designed to keep Quentin awake. He watches the death of the Ferret and thinks, “He wasn’t ready for this. This wasn’t what he’d come here for.” He wasn’t ready then and he never will be—unlike Alice, whose maturity contrasts with his throughout The Magicians. She says, “[…] don’t talk to me about death. You don’t know anything about it.” She’s right. The disappointing thing is that he still doesn’t in The Magician King. He hasn’t internalized the central fact that death is connected to finding meaning because death and its predecessor aging can’t be avoided. I am not opposed to characters who don’t realize this; I am opposed to characters who don’t realize this, have a series of events that should cause an epiphany, appear to realize it, and then forget that they’ve realized it in the next novel.

Early in The Magicians, Quentin is still in a mostly mundane reality and thinks that

He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world—he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn’t going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you’d buried and mourned wasn’t really dead after all.

And now, in the time of The Magician King, he’s a king in Fillory and still dissatisfied. You can’t get no satisfaction, Quentin, but the problem eventually shifts from the world’s fault to your own. He is still “looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was.” You were looking for something else in Brooklyn and now you’re looking for something else in Fillory. No one, not even a Seeing Hare, can tell Quentin. Whenever “Life was good” for Quentin, it was time to fuck it up for no particular reason. Seeing someone fuck up a perfectly good life through understandable hubris and dumb social dynamics is thrilling and sickening once, as it is in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Seeing someone do so twice is just daft.

In The Magician King, Quentin is still in awe of where he is: “You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.” But he’s been seeing magic constantly for, presumably, years. Are talking animals not enough? Still, the novel’s fidelity to the bureaucratic grit of life is impressive—Janet says of Dryads, “I spend enough time listening to them bitch about land allocation.” Ruling Fillory becomes associated with petty zoning squabbles of the sort you can find at City Hall if you’re so inclined. That Grossman includes such ideas is part of what makes The Magicians and its sequel special. But it also raises expectations, and when he includes something that’s wrong, it’s disquieting, as with this:

Fillory wasn’t England. For one thing the population was tiny—there couldn’t have been more than ten thousand humans in the whole country, plus that many talking animals and dwarves and spirits and giants and such.

A population that small wouldn’t be sufficient to get Fillory into medieval-level specialization; at best, 20,000 people could support a slightly elevated hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Plus, why is the land so infertile that it can only feed 10,000 people? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Malthusian paradox ensured that populations grew to approximately the size of the agricultural capacity of the land itself. With only 10,000 people and 10,000 magical non-people, there couldn’t have been much arable land, and certainly not enough to sustain any kind of specialization network (for more on similar topics, see, for example, Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy and Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, along with the vast corpus of economic and historical literature about historical development patterns and the Industrial Revolution). Fillory is big enough to have a navy. Countries of 20,000 don’t even have an army, and the knowledge necessary to grow a ship-building industry must span thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly, I’m jolted out of a fictional universe and into the various economics textbooks I’ve read by a seemingly trivial detail.

And this isn’t the only scene of questionable economics. Quentin goes on a quest to collect taxes from an outer island with a single-digit population, and while there an uncanny resident says:

Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the gold beetles. They’re amazing: they eat dirt and poop out gold ore. Their nests are made of gold!

If a source of apparently infinite gold is available via a short ship ride from the mainland, the logical thing to do is to begin farming and set up a trading route. Why hasn’t anyone done so? The Spanish imported so much silver from the Americas in the age of colonization that some economists believe it caused inflation in the European economy. People are very good at acting on incentives and exploiting commodities. Why aren’t the Fillorians? It could be because the novel states that there’s an abundance of everything, again for reasons that aren’t obvious, but that’s not a terribly satisfying explanation.

You could get over these errors and others by waving your hand and saying, “It’s magical”—Quentin says “Magic was part of the ecosystem”—but it still rankles in a book devoted to showing the “real” side of magical living. These are minor details, but they stand out in a book devoted to realism.

Quentin has a small-l liberal, educated, and modern knowledge of how group formation works (a hilarious sample of his liberalism: “If I were a Fillorian I would depose me as an aristocratic parasite”), as shown by his unwillingness to identify with the putative patriotism embodied in a tapestry

that depicted a marvelously appointed griffin frozen in the act of putting a company of foot soldiers to flight. It was supposed to symbolize the triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people whom nobody had liked, but for some reason the griffin had cocked its head to one side in the midst of its rampage and was gazing directly out of its woven universe at the viewer as if to say, yes, granted, I’m good at this. But is it really the best use of my time?

“The triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people:” your own fears, prejudices, and beliefs will one day probably appear the same way to many others. Are your beliefs so strong and important that the issues they represent will still be important 100 years from now? Five hundred? A thousand? Or will you be another long-dead person of limited importance, with ridiculous but firmly held allegiances to minor causes that turn out to be historical blips?

Many parts of The Magician King are funny: “Quentin had some idea that Australians were fun-loving and easy-going, and if that was true he could see why Poppy had gotten the hell out of Australia.” Quentin draws his sword, but he has trouble: “Nothing made you look like more of a dick than standing there trying to find the end of your scabbard with the tip of your sword.” Although The Magician King is, alas, less sexed than its predecessor, one doesn’t need Freud to realize Quentin is talking about more than a sword, especially when he thinks: “Let somebody else be the hero. He’d had his happy ending” (if that isn’t enough, Eliot also makes a sword-related double entendre on page 29). I guess it takes a while to recharge after a happy ending, even for a king.

The humor both conceals and reveals vital truths. Quentin has never really been the hero, so thinking he should let somebody else be the hero is presumptuous. This is played for comedy, and successfully. The comedy naturally and appropriately falls away as the novel progresses into darker days, much as it does in The Magicians, but the jokes make the novel fun. So do the moments of self-recognition, like this one:

Quentin couldn’t think who Benedict reminded him of until he realized that this was what he had probably looked like to other people when he was sixteen. Fear of everybody and everything, hidden behind a mask of contempt, with the greatest contempt of all reserved for himself

Quentin’s diagnosis the problems of others more easily than his own: “Maps of places, rather than actual places, were obviously where young master Benedict preferred to live.” Replace “Maps of places” with “The Internet” and “actual places” with “the real world,” and you’ve got a decent description of a lot of contemporary adolescents. The novel is very good at these mappings onto the real world.

The “good,” however, is not consistent; even the novel’s first line has an “almost, but not quite” feel: “Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.” Is Dauntless the name of the white socks or the gray horse? The context makes it obvious, but I had to double check. There are also reflections of contemporary society—the quartet, who are listlessly hunting a magic rabbit, “moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts.” Rather like people and their cell phones: if you look around, you’ll often find couples or groups all of whom are looking into their phones, as if searching crystal balls for answers. Do they find them? I sometimes want to ask. But I don’t. Usually.

There aren’t as many of those spectacular sentences as there were in The Magicians; there are some, like this: “Casually, like she was calling over a waiter, Julia summoned a tiny songbird to her wrist and raised it up to her ear.” Nice: the metaphor makes magic seem normal, a part of her life, which contrasts with Quentin’s continued shock at magic. The magic blends with the technological; a paragraph later, Quentin notices how Julia “was always giving and getting little secret messages from the talking animals. It was like she was on a different wireless network from the rest of them.” Talking animals and wireless networks correspond to fantasy/fairy tale and to science fiction / literary fiction, but these two sentences join them. If you’ve ever accidentally tried connecting an 802.11b device to an 802.11n network, you’ll understand the frustration of knowing that everyone around you can use, theoretically, up to 130 Mbs / second while you’re stuck at 11 Mbs / second (Grossman makes the technological metaphorical; I extend the metaphor). A few days ago, my class was talking about James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” and I wrote on the board that music functions like TCP/IP. Did anyone notice? I’m not sure.

The wireless network comparison reminds me of this description from The Magicians, of Eliot: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” The equivalence between hitting someone and starting a blog, which one senses many do because they wish they had the courage to hit someone, is so biting, so surprising. More surprising than the wireless network, however appropriate the wireless network comparison is.

Grossman hides a lot in a small space. The Magician King opens in Fillory while The Magicians closes in New York. That gap is filled in swiftly: “But then he and the others had pulled themselves together again and gone back to Fillory. They faced their fears and their losses and took their places on the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and were made kings and queens.” There’s a whole novel in those lines. The passage is also strange because pulling themselves together has never been a strong suite for the collected magicians; they seem much better at tearing each other pointlessly apart.

You could argue that much of this review consists of quibbles, small points, and things easily ignored. You’d be partially right. Taken on their own, many of the things I’ve written about are unimportant. Taken together, they begin to form a pattern. I don’t expend this kind of energy on every good but somewhat disappointing book that comes my way; most I don’t write about at all, let alone at this length. I’m writing about this one because of how good The Magicians was. You don’t hold a college athlete, even an accomplished one, to the same standards as an Olympian, and The Magician King should be competing at the Olympic level but instead settles for keeping one eye on the NCAA rankings, hoping to make it to Nationals. That’s not quite ambitious enough, however impressive competing at the college level might be.

In The Magicians, Julia was an object of Quentin’s misdirected adolescent lust at the start and reappeared at the end, riding a broomstick and rescuing Quentin from himself. Quentin does need to be rescued from himself routinely; this pattern holds in The Magician King. Hell, Julia even says, “Sometimes you just have to do things, Quentin [. . .] You spend too much of your time waiting.” Yes. We know.

Her story takes up a large narrative chunk of The Magicians, which is really two threads in two separate time registers: Quentin’s, moving forward on his self-conscious quest, and Julia’s regarding her progression as a magician outside the Brakebills track. But her story lacks urgency. In an interview, Grossman said: “It was almost an engineering project to retrofit that particular timeline. Because in Magician King, we go over the same period of time that happened in The Magicians, and we fit Julia’s story in there.” The engineering shows where it should be hidden, and, more than that, it feels. Since you—the reader—already know Julia becomes a magician, there’s not much narrative tension until the scene where she loses some of her humanity (which I won’t describe further here, though it’s shocking and powerful). Otherwise, she’s going through a bizarro-world version of what Quentin has already done. Since we know she learns magic, the means of getting there aren’t all that important. Neither are the various somewhat arbitrary hoops she goes through, which resemble the spiraling downward of despair one sees in drug addiction narratives. The culmination of the narrative is strong, but the getting there is too long and feels too much like padding. Or engineering, if you prefer.

More on that in the next section.

Don’t read the rest of this post if spoilers irritate you. A friend wrote to say this, and only this, in an e-mail with the subject line “Just finished the Magician King:”

Magical fox-rape cum… really???!!!

The worst.

I’m actually not opposed to the scene my friend is referencing: it is hard to read and vile, but then so is rape, and rape is part of the world, and the world should be the novelist’s subject. I think my friend is fixated on a scene she would’ve respected or accepted in a different context—a context that was a main story, not a subsidiary one. The scene is the culmination of Julia’s powers and makes us understand what she’s given up, so to speak, to get where she is. It’s a powerful point. But the temporal shifting of the scene, from Julia’s distant past to her present, isn’t as important as it should be because it’s grafted onto Quentin’s saving Fillory quest. The Julia story should’ve been told in its own book, with its own details and tensions, and the larger Magician King story should’ve been a third, standalone novel. Conflating them makes an awkward chimera of a novel.

So we get a somewhat ungainly hybrid, with the false crescendo of the fox-God rape being a prelude to the true ending. It doesn’t work as well as it should. Which isn’t to say the scene doesn’t work at all: it does. It’s only disappointing because of the sense that the scene and its story could’ve been so much better—like The Magician King itself. The novel is good. As I said in the first line of this review, I like it. But The Magician King doesn’t have that essential feeling, that power, that grip that made me say to friends who like fantasy or want book recommendations, “Heard of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? No? Get a copy.” Now those friends have heard of Lev Grossman, and they want to know how the new ones is. I tell them it’s okay—and it is—but I also ask: have you already read Philip Pullman? Ursula K. le Guin? Tolkien? Elmore Leonard? If not, start there. I wish Quentin had new problems. The world is full of unmet needs and desires. Why can’t he realize that? Read The Magician King if you have the time and inclination. But literature is very big, life is short, and sometimes incredible writers don’t produce the book you most hope for.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson's Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

Reading How Fiction Works

I finished re-reading How Fiction Works a couple days ago—it is always a good time to re-read How Fiction Works—and realized that, every time I read it, I recognize a few more of the author-characters it mentions. This time, Effi Briest caught my eye: what was once another blank reference, noted and moved past, had now become freighted with meanings and impressions. The experience reminded me of how I used to feel going into bookstores or libraries. The real question for the younger me was, “How can anyone possibly make decisions among ten of thousands of choices?” There were so many books with authors I’d never heard of. How do you find the one you want to read among all of them? By reading thousands of dust jackets?

Now, I scan the shelves of bookstores and see more than names and cover art: this writer I’ve already read and didn’t like; this one I’ve already read and liked, but I’ve read all her work; this one I heard about through a blog post; this other one appeared on Bookworm and made his book sound boring. The challenge has changed from merely knowing something about what’s on the shelves to finding something I could actually want to read among many books I know I don’t want to read.

When I first read How Fiction Works in 2008, I didn’t stop at every reference to an author I didn’t know because I never would’ve gotten through the damn thing. Plus, as much as I love Wood’s criticism, I’ve also realized how different our tastes are; Wood quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I find that deeply wrong: a novel without plot is veering close to badly done philosophy. So many, though by no means all, of the novels he loves aren’t likely to have much in the way of plot. When I read amateur writing, I often notice the lack of any plot and often suggest the writer think about things like what the main character is reacting to, what the main character wants and why he can’t get it, what subsidiary characters want, and so on. A writer doesn’t, of course, need to be able to answer every one of those questions, but I get the impression a lot of beginning writers don’t ask them.

Wood actually comes very close to suggesting something similar when he writes

The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

But Wood’s definition of “push out” is probably different from mine, even if the ailment he diagnoses is the same. And it’s amazing to realize just how many of the things I inchoately knew before I read How Fiction Works are discussed, described, dissected, elaborated in the book. And now, as I said, when I come back to it, I find my gaps in knowledge filled in. Here’s another example of that, this time dealing with a critic:

Gabriel Josipovici discusses Beckett in [. . .] On Trust (2000). He points out that Foucault liked to quote from The Unnameable, as evidence of the death of the author: ‘No matter who is speaking, someone says, no matter who is speaking,’ wrote Beckett. Josipovici comments that Foucault forgets that ‘it is not Beckett saying this but one of his characters, and that the point about that character is that he is desperately seeking to discover who speaks, to recover himself as more than a string of words, to wrest an “I” from “someone says”.’

Gabriel Josipovici: he wrote Whatever Happened to Modernism?, a book I half-liked and wrote about at the link. Maybe one day I’ll read the book, recognize every reference, and wonder whatever happened to that person who first read it in a relative fog.

From the Department of "No Shit:" technology and computers are not silver bullets for education

File this New York Times article under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

There is no silver bullet and no New Jesus for education. There never will be, but the search goes on, because it’s easier to search for the magic methodology that will solve seemingly intractable problems than it is to admit the thing Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have realized about software engineers: talent, motivation, and tenacity vary greatly among individuals and that you can’t merely take someone who lacks all three, put them through some kind of system or give them some kind of tool, and expect everyone to be equally good on the other side. That kind of thing works passable well if you’re building widgets on an assembly line, but it works terribly for any kind of creative or intellectual work.

Nonetheless, it’s much easier to search for that magic methodology to improve very old skills that are surprisingly resistant to methodology: reading, writing, and math. None of those fundamental skills has changed much in the last century. Yet we keep searching for that formula that doesn’t exist, because teaching and learning are inherently hard, like software engineering, math, writing, and any number of other complex but vital skills. Technologies—now we have special blackboards! They blink! They light up! They’re new!—might mask the essential difficulty of task, but they can’t remove it, much as some programming IDEs try to hide some of the essential difficulty of coding. But fields that are essential difficult can’t be mastered by sleight-of-hand or new whizzy gadgets.

They can only be mastered by people who are dedicated to the craft and to continuous self-improvement. The people who, because they believe they can, can. The ones whose tenacity is boundless and who aren’t willing to blame external circumstances.

You need a weird set of skills to teach effectively: you need to empathize with your students—to be able to see from their point of view—without becoming mired in their point of view. You need to master your field, but not in such a way that you lose the beginner’s mindset required to master the field in the first place. You need the stoic’s attitude of realizing you can’t control everything while still having the achiever’s mindset that you must strive to do the best you can, no matter what. You need to be willing to try new things and ideas while not leaving behind the old ones that work. You need to remember not everyone is interested in the things you’re interested in, and you need to do whatever it takes to make subjects more interesting than they would be otherwise. You need to find that profitable zone of challenge for most students—something hard enough to make them struggle but not so hard that it’s impossible to accomplish—it’s reasonable to expect college freshmen to be able to read a story or article on their own, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to pick up and digest every nuance on their own. Some will. Most won’t. You need to be enthusiastic, because enthusiasm is as contagious as boredom, but your job isn’t to be a cheerleader and enthusiasm can’t substitute for knowledge. You need, in other words, a bunch of paradoxical traits that balance each other.

You also need to realize that students need things broken down in steps, and need to learn by example and through discussion. Last week I taught Neal Stephenson’s 2005 New York Times opinion piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Whenever I do, I let the class talk for a while at the beginning; when discussion dies, I ask students to do a simple activity: write the essay’s main point in a sentence or two. Then I come around and look at the sentences.

It should be simple, right? Read the piece, find the main point. But it’s not simple. It’s actually quite hard, and most people are bad readers (myself included). When I go around and look at sentences, lots of students get caught up on the distinction between geeking and vegging out. Others think the piece is primarily about Star Wars. Only a few—usually around five of fifty—get the essential elements of the main point.

Stephenson basically says, twice, that he’s using Star Wars as a metaphor: once in the third paragraph: “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” and once more in the last paragraph: “If the “Star Wars” movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs” (emphasis added). But most students haven’t learned how to think metaphorically, as writers do. Metaphor is one of those essential ways of thinking that people need to be effective writers. In On Writing Stephen King says:

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood says:

“Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo’s back, or – as I did earlier – the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter’s blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do – see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the lager fiction of the novel or story.

Again: that’s hard. And technology isn’t going to make it any easier to start thinking about metaphors, which is probably a precursor to writing in a way that uses metaphor deftly. Before you can do that, you’re probably going to need to recognize when other writers are doing it, and yet, while Stephenson says that he is twice, most students don’t pick up on it. This isn’t to blame them, by the way—a lot of my graduate seminars are still about what the writer actually says. Some of you are probably getting caught up on this discussion of metaphor and think that I’m really writing about how it’s important for students to learn, when this is only a subsidiary point supporting my main point about the place of technology in classrooms. Here’s Wood again on the subject of learning to read:

You only have to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticiers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins.

If he wasn’t a good noticer at 20, what hope is there for the rest of us? And how is having a laptop going to help someone become a better noticer? Consider too one other thing to notice: in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” Stephenson isn’t using any complex or convoluted vocabulary. His sentence structure isn’t very complex; there aren’t lots of nasty nested clauses you have to mentally sort out to figure out what’s being talked about, as there are often are in abstruse literary theory and philosophy. His piece isn’t hard to read. But it’s still evidently hard for many freshmen to understand. So I spend a lot of time working towards understanding, towards reading for detail, towards asking, “Where do you see that?” Technology isn’t going to help that process very much. It may even hurt it by offering a proliferating number of distractions: if you interrupt your reading of “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” four times for text messages and once for an e-mail, are you going to remember how Stephenson said “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” by the end?

I’m teaching honors students, which is easier than teaching standard classes, which is in turn easier than teaching in tough inner-city schools. So I don’t face the same challenges as some of the teachers mentioned in the NYT article. But sometimes I think about Daniel Singal’s Atlantic article, “The Other Crisis in American Education: A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system–the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” As the subtitle implies, he argues that the best students aren’t as challenged as they once were. I can’t tell if he’s right or if he’s hearkening back to a mythical golden age, but I do think about his work sometimes when I see what’s going on around me: other grad students and professors want to watch movies in class, or they aren’t even focused on imparting and enhancing basic reading and writing skills—the same ones pretty much everyone needs. Are the strongest students really getting something out of their classes? Is the technology really helping? If not, could it be part of what’s actually causing “our mediocre educational system?” I’m not saying it does, but I am saying it’s worth pondering.

Still, I think the strongest thinkers and learners—the ones who are now running Google and Facebook, the ones who are now partners in law firms and building their own businesses—are doing fine. Better than ever, maybe. Generation X was supposed to be the slacker generation, but its members built large blocks of the Internet—the same set of technologies you’re almost certainly using to read this. But I wonder if there’s not a growing bifurcation between the people who are doing really well and the ones who aren’t. In income terms, that’s certainly true, but I wonder if it’s happening in intellectual terms too. Stephenson thinks so: “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.” But the people who spend all that time vegging out aren’t going to create whatever the next iPod and Facebook will be. And they won’t reap those rewards, either. They’re the ones who might be “learning less,” as Singal has it. The people who make the next iPod and Facebook will be the one who are focused on “geeking out” regarding important topics. The ones who will, I hope, have teachers—whether in honors or not—who are focused on the essential questions that imparting knowledge involves.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat up college freshmen—if I were, I wouldn’t have the empathy necessary to be good. A lot of college seniors are little better than my freshmen, which I found out by working for Steven Klein at the Steven Klein LSAT Company. The LSAT is mostly a test of reading. If you can read effectively, you’ll do pretty well. But a lot of 22 – 24-year-old college graduates had a lot of trouble on reading comprehension because they couldn’t or hadn’t been trained to look at every word, evaluate it in relation to other words and in relation to the context of the passage, and understand what it means. I think back to those experiences when I read books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses or articles like the one about cool whizzy tech stuff in classrooms. The whizzy tech stuff isn’t going to help readers when they’re facing the LSAT.

A second “by the way” is in order: I’m neither trying to denigrate technology nor be a luddite—I say so as the guy typing on a fancy keyboard, ergonomic chair, and 27″ iMac, with a bunch of Textmate windows open. Computers make the mechanical process of writing easier, so that the hard stuff—the stuff that goes on in the mind—can dominate. Technology is great—in its place. The University of Arizona has computers and projectors and other neat stuff in many classrooms, and if that neat stuff is available, I use it.

But technology complements other skills; it doesn’t substitute for them. You can only use computers effectively to the extent you can read, write, and do simple math effectively—try programming without algebra. Or try to extract information from man pages without strong reading comprehension skills; hell, I like to imagine myself as being at least moderately literate, and I find some of them tough. So this is not one of those tedious essays in which Old Man Withers shakes his cane and complains about the kids with those damn beeping gizmos and sending those darned pictures of each others’ privates around and get off my damn lawn. Plus, I’m too young to shake my cane; I ran a modest but real number of miles yesterday. Even when I do have a cane someday, I hope that it 1) has a hidden sword, because that kind of thing is cool and 2) that I haven’t ossified to the point where I’m not willing to learn new things.

But this is an essay that points out how basic skills and the means of imparting those basic skills haven’t changed so much, as Amanda Ripley’s Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” makes clear in its discussion of what great teachers do:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. [. . .] Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Notice the thing absent from this list: use computers, iPads, and so forth. Sure, those great teachers could use technology, but they don’t need to. And the technology is not going to automatically make an indifferent teacher set big goals or recruit families or maintain focus or plan. Used poorly, it’s just going to provide some flash and pizazz and some distractions. Check out this Marginal Revolution discussion of a study looking at how introducing computers in poor households actually decreased student grades because students spent more time playing games on them than doing homework:

Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

See also “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality:” “Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.” These reports should give technology cheerleaders pause: you aren’t going to get better results simply by lashing a computer on a teacher’s back and telling him to use it.*

To be a good teacher, you still need that weird skill- and mindset mentioned above. If you don’t have it or aren’t willing to develop it, I doubt anything else imposed on an individual teacher from the outside, like mandates to use technology, are going to do much for that teacher or for his or her students. If you want to really improve teaching, you’ll need to take an approach similar to the one Facebook and Google take to hiring hackers, which means a relentless focus not on degrees that offer dubious value in predicting achievement but on finding the best people and making sure they stay. Finding the best teachers is different from finding programmers—you probably can’t tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they hit the classroom—but you can at least acknowledge that you’re not going to get people who are good merely by saying, “use iPads in the classroom.” Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t have iPads in their classrooms growing up, and maybe that’s part of what made Jobs able to have the vision necessary to Turn On, Geek Out, and make the iPad.


* I had a computer in middle and early high school that I used to master Starcraft and various other computer games, until I somehow realized I was wasting my life and smashed my Starcraft disks in the driveway. I sometimes use this analogy when I explain the situation to friends: some people can handle snorting the occasional line of coke without getting addicted; it’s just a fun way of spending a Saturday night. Some people can handle computer games in the same way. I discovered, at the time, that I’m not one of them, and, worse, I’ll never get those three or so wasted years back. Now I tend to find video games boring on average and can’t play for longer than half an hour to an hour at a stretch, while I’ve trained myself up to being able to write effectively for three to six hours at a time. The first draft of this essay, for example, took me about two hours.

From the Department of “No Shit:” technology and computers are not silver bullets for education

File this New York Times article under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

There is no silver bullet and no New Jesus for education. There never will be, but the search goes on, because it’s easier to search for the magic methodology that will solve seemingly intractable problems than it is to admit the thing Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have realized about software engineers: talent, motivation, and tenacity vary greatly among individuals and that you can’t merely take someone who lacks all three, put them through some kind of system or give them some kind of tool, and expect everyone to be equally good on the other side. That kind of thing works passable well if you’re building widgets on an assembly line, but it works terribly for any kind of creative or intellectual work.

Nonetheless, it’s much easier to search for that magic methodology to improve very old skills that are surprisingly resistant to methodology: reading, writing, and math. None of those fundamental skills has changed much in the last century. Yet we keep searching for that formula that doesn’t exist, because teaching and learning are inherently hard, like software engineering, math, writing, and any number of other complex but vital skills. Technologies—now we have special blackboards! They blink! They light up! They’re new!—might mask the essential difficulty of task, but they can’t remove it, much as some programming IDEs try to hide some of the essential difficulty of coding. But fields that are essential difficult can’t be mastered by sleight-of-hand or new whizzy gadgets.

They can only be mastered by people who are dedicated to the craft and to continuous self-improvement. The people who, because they believe they can, can. The ones whose tenacity is boundless and who aren’t willing to blame external circumstances.

You need a weird set of skills to teach effectively: you need to empathize with your students—to be able to see from their point of view—without becoming mired in their point of view. You need to master your field, but not in such a way that you lose the beginner’s mindset required to master the field in the first place. You need the stoic’s attitude of realizing you can’t control everything while still having the achiever’s mindset that you must strive to do the best you can, no matter what. You need to be willing to try new things and ideas while not leaving behind the old ones that work. You need to remember not everyone is interested in the things you’re interested in, and you need to do whatever it takes to make subjects more interesting than they would be otherwise. You need to find that profitable zone of challenge for most students—something hard enough to make them struggle but not so hard that it’s impossible to accomplish—it’s reasonable to expect college freshmen to be able to read a story or article on their own, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to pick up and digest every nuance on their own. Some will. Most won’t. You need to be enthusiastic, because enthusiasm is as contagious as boredom, but your job isn’t to be a cheerleader and enthusiasm can’t substitute for knowledge. You need, in other words, a bunch of paradoxical traits that balance each other.

You also need to realize that students need things broken down in steps, and need to learn by example and through discussion. Last week I taught Neal Stephenson’s 2005 New York Times opinion piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Whenever I do, I let the class talk for a while at the beginning; when discussion dies, I ask students to do a simple activity: write the essay’s main point in a sentence or two. Then I come around and look at the sentences.

It should be simple, right? Read the piece, find the main point. But it’s not simple. It’s actually quite hard, and most people are bad readers (myself included). When I go around and look at sentences, lots of students get caught up on the distinction between geeking and vegging out. Others think the piece is primarily about Star Wars. Only a few—usually around five of fifty—get the essential elements of the main point.

Stephenson basically says, twice, that he’s using Star Wars as a metaphor: once in the third paragraph: “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” and once more in the last paragraph: “If the “Star Wars” movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs” (emphasis added). But most students haven’t learned how to think metaphorically, as writers do. Metaphor is one of those essential ways of thinking that people need to be effective writers. In On Writing Stephen King says:

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood says:

“Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo’s back, or – as I did earlier – the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter’s blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do – see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the lager fiction of the novel or story.

Again: that’s hard. And technology isn’t going to make it any easier to start thinking about metaphors, which is probably a precursor to writing in a way that uses metaphor deftly. Before you can do that, you’re probably going to need to recognize when other writers are doing it, and yet, while Stephenson says that he is twice, most students don’t pick up on it. This isn’t to blame them, by the way—a lot of my graduate seminars are still about what the writer actually says. Some of you are probably getting caught up on this discussion of metaphor and think that I’m really writing about how it’s important for students to learn, when this is only a subsidiary point supporting my main point about the place of technology in classrooms. Here’s Wood again on the subject of learning to read:

You only have to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticiers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins.

If he wasn’t a good noticer at 20, what hope is there for the rest of us? And how is having a laptop going to help someone become a better noticer? Consider too one other thing to notice: in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” Stephenson isn’t using any complex or convoluted vocabulary. His sentence structure isn’t very complex; there aren’t lots of nasty nested clauses you have to mentally sort out to figure out what’s being talked about, as there are often are in abstruse literary theory and philosophy. His piece isn’t hard to read. But it’s still evidently hard for many freshmen to understand. So I spend a lot of time working towards understanding, towards reading for detail, towards asking, “Where do you see that?” Technology isn’t going to help that process very much. It may even hurt it by offering a proliferating number of distractions: if you interrupt your reading of “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” four times for text messages and once for an e-mail, are you going to remember how Stephenson said “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” by the end?

I’m teaching honors students, which is easier than teaching standard classes, which is in turn easier than teaching in tough inner-city schools. So I don’t face the same challenges as some of the teachers mentioned in the NYT article. But sometimes I think about Daniel Singal’s Atlantic article, “The Other Crisis in American Education: A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system–the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” As the subtitle implies, he argues that the best students aren’t as challenged as they once were. I can’t tell if he’s right or if he’s hearkening back to a mythical golden age, but I do think about his work sometimes when I see what’s going on around me: other grad students and professors want to watch movies in class, or they aren’t even focused on imparting and enhancing basic reading and writing skills—the same ones pretty much everyone needs. Are the strongest students really getting something out of their classes? Is the technology really helping? If not, could it be part of what’s actually causing “our mediocre educational system?” I’m not saying it does, but I am saying it’s worth pondering.

Still, I think the strongest thinkers and learners—the ones who are now running Google and Facebook, the ones who are now partners in law firms and building their own businesses—are doing fine. Better than ever, maybe. Generation X was supposed to be the slacker generation, but its members built large blocks of the Internet—the same set of technologies you’re almost certainly using to read this. But I wonder if there’s not a growing bifurcation between the people who are doing really well and the ones who aren’t. In income terms, that’s certainly true, but I wonder if it’s happening in intellectual terms too. Stephenson thinks so: “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.” But the people who spend all that time vegging out aren’t going to create whatever the next iPod and Facebook will be. And they won’t reap those rewards, either. They’re the ones who might be “learning less,” as Singal has it. The people who make the next iPod and Facebook will be the one who are focused on “geeking out” regarding important topics. The ones who will, I hope, have teachers—whether in honors or not—who are focused on the essential questions that imparting knowledge involves.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat up college freshmen—if I were, I wouldn’t have the empathy necessary to be good. A lot of college seniors are little better than my freshmen, which I found out by working for Steven Klein at the Steven Klein LSAT Company. The LSAT is mostly a test of reading. If you can read effectively, you’ll do pretty well. But a lot of 22 – 24-year-old college graduates had a lot of trouble on reading comprehension because they couldn’t or hadn’t been trained to look at every word, evaluate it in relation to other words and in relation to the context of the passage, and understand what it means. I think back to those experiences when I read books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses or articles like the one about cool whizzy tech stuff in classrooms. The whizzy tech stuff isn’t going to help readers when they’re facing the LSAT.

A second “by the way” is in order: I’m neither trying to denigrate technology nor be a luddite—I say so as the guy typing on a fancy keyboard, ergonomic chair, and 27″ iMac, with a bunch of Textmate windows open. Computers make the mechanical process of writing easier, so that the hard stuff—the stuff that goes on in the mind—can dominate. Technology is great—in its place. The University of Arizona has computers and projectors and other neat stuff in many classrooms, and if that neat stuff is available, I use it.

But technology complements other skills; it doesn’t substitute for them. You can only use computers effectively to the extent you can read, write, and do simple math effectively—try programming without algebra. Or try to extract information from man pages without strong reading comprehension skills; hell, I like to imagine myself as being at least moderately literate, and I find some of them tough. So this is not one of those tedious essays in which Old Man Withers shakes his cane and complains about the kids with those damn beeping gizmos and sending those darned pictures of each others’ privates around and get off my damn lawn. Plus, I’m too young to shake my cane; I ran a modest but real number of miles yesterday. Even when I do have a cane someday, I hope that it 1) has a hidden sword, because that kind of thing is cool and 2) that I haven’t ossified to the point where I’m not willing to learn new things.

But this is an essay that points out how basic skills and the means of imparting those basic skills haven’t changed so much, as Amanda Ripley’s Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” makes clear in its discussion of what great teachers do:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. [. . .] Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Notice the thing absent from this list: use computers, iPads, and so forth. Sure, those great teachers could use technology, but they don’t need to. And the technology is not going to automatically make an indifferent teacher set big goals or recruit families or maintain focus or plan. Used poorly, it’s just going to provide some flash and pizazz and some distractions. Check out this Marginal Revolution discussion of a study looking at how introducing computers in poor households actually decreased student grades because students spent more time playing games on them than doing homework:

Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

See also “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality:” “Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.” These reports should give technology cheerleaders pause: you aren’t going to get better results simply by lashing a computer on a teacher’s back and telling him to use it.*

To be a good teacher, you still need that weird skill- and mindset mentioned above. If you don’t have it or aren’t willing to develop it, I doubt anything else imposed on an individual teacher from the outside, like mandates to use technology, are going to do much for that teacher or for his or her students. If you want to really improve teaching, you’ll need to take an approach similar to the one Facebook and Google take to hiring hackers, which means a relentless focus not on degrees that offer dubious value in predicting achievement but on finding the best people and making sure they stay. Finding the best teachers is different from finding programmers—you probably can’t tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they hit the classroom—but you can at least acknowledge that you’re not going to get people who are good merely by saying, “use iPads in the classroom.” Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t have iPads in their classrooms growing up, and maybe that’s part of what made Jobs able to have the vision necessary to Turn On, Geek Out, and make the iPad.


* I had a computer in middle and early high school that I used to master Starcraft and various other computer games, until I somehow realized I was wasting my life and smashed my Starcraft disks in the driveway. I sometimes use this analogy when I explain the situation to friends: some people can handle snorting the occasional line of coke without getting addicted; it’s just a fun way of spending a Saturday night. Some people can handle computer games in the same way. I discovered, at the time, that I’m not one of them, and, worse, I’ll never get those three or so wasted years back. Now I tend to find video games boring on average and can’t play for longer than half an hour to an hour at a stretch, while I’ve trained myself up to being able to write effectively for three to six hours at a time. The first draft of this essay, for example, took me about two hours.

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