Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths

Timothy Taylor’s “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously” makes an argument for doing something we, collectively, should have started a long time ago. College is not the magic answer to every social and economic problem, as anyone who has taught at a non-elite college should know. Yet this powerful meme holds that college for everybody, everywhere, is a good idea. It isn’t. There should be alternate routes to a reasonable life.

The standard college-for-everyone argument comes from extensive data showing that college graduates earn higher lifetime earnings, which is true, but correlation is not causation: smarter, more conscientious people may attend college, and that is one of Bryan Caplan’s arguments in The Case Against Education. In that line of reasoning, college is mostly about signaling.

It’s hard to tell what’s actually happening in the economic market for college grads, because “college” is a lot of different things, much like it’s hard to evaluate whether, say, “sex” is good or bad: usually it’s good and more is better, but we can all imagine contexts in which it’s not so good. To take one example (about college, not sex), Derek Thompson wrote “The Value of College Is: (a) Growing (b) Flat (c) Falling (d) All of the Above,” which discusses some of these arguments and concludes, naturally, (d), in part because the economic value of college depends a lot on what you do in college. If you do just enough to squeak by and don’t have the skills to make things people want or do things people want to pay for, then have to pay back tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, college is not so hot and vocational education might have been better.

This issue reminds me of arguments a friend and I have been talking about via e-mail: my friend has heard the endless cry for more Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) graduates. But he’s involved in a business that requires strong communication skills and is disappointed with many of the cover letters and resumes he see; they evince limited knowledge of the very skills he’s hiring for. Can you really take people who lack sufficient knowledge about their native language to write a competent cover letter and make them understand the finer points of the difference between a heap and stack? Or understand differential equations?

My larger point is that everyone needs basic skills but few people have them (English majors could do well with a CS class or two—for the skills imparted and for the appreciation they’ll have of the people designing their iPhones). Taking an average comm or sociology major and sticking them in STEM classes will lead to more dropouts, and, beyond that, most big schools also have STEM weedout courses designed to be punitive rather than to impart knowledge. The world needs more smart, curious people in general, but smart and curious people appear to be in the minority, and probably always have been. One of my favorite moments in Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy is this:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies. (Mokyr 121–2)

(Yes, I do sometimes include page citations in e-mails.)

A relatively small number of people can create, find, or make new ideas that then spread to everyone else. I too would like to increase the number of such people, but I’m not sure that’s really possible, at least at the level of public policy.

We probably could use more people with STEM skills, but we could also use more people with all kinds of skills, and especially people with STEM and humanities interests. The STEM training mantra reminds me of something Gerald Graff wrote in “Narrative and the Unofficial Interpretive Culture:” “As often happens in the history of criticism, an extravagantly stated fallacy proves to be more illuminating than many sober truths, and in appropriate such histories the critical community tends quietly to discount or ignore their exaggerations” (4). The “extravagantly stated fallacy” that many people should major in STEM is wrong; the lesser idea, that perhaps people on the margins should, is probably right.

Still, there’s one other problem with STEM fields: they’re transparently hard; you know if you’re doing it right or not, while other disciplines can more easily be fudged or watered down, as has happened to sociology, comm, and other disciplines.

Links: Critics and novelists, ethernet, dissertations, fashion, writing, porn data, and more

* “There comes a moment in the life of every literary critic when they need to give up and admit they’re never going to be a novelist. [ . . .] I don’t, in short, have a novelist’s soul.” Though I disagree with this: “Novelists appear to dwell most deeply in their childhoods.”

* “Ethernet at 40: [Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet’s inventor] reveals its turbulent youth.” Ethernet is still, even when wireless is a viable alternative. In some circumstances running a cheap ethernet cable from a router to a desk, couch, or other work station can still be a real win, especially given how even very long ethernet cables from Monoprice.com only cost a couple of dollars. Ethernet cables last forever, aren’t subject to the level of interference wireless is, and, in many conditions, have faster data transfer speeds than wireless.

* Essays in Biography.

* “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” which makes points that should be obvious to damn near everybody involved in the humanities section of academia.

* Three views of consumption and the slow economy.

* Riding Around Paris With Olivier Zahm, Fashion’s Most Libidinal Editor.

* “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” which is actually about the stakes of student testing.

* New York Times “journalist” John Broder lies in Tesla motors review, gets called out for it.

* “Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars;” highly data-driven and should be safe for work.

* New York real estate: a study in price escalation.

* Megan McArdle: “How to Make the Most of Your Higher Education.” The bit about not majoring in English, and not getting a PhD in it, resonates, especially as someone who did the one and is doing the other.

A.S. Byatt and Tracy K. Smith speaking in New York

A.S. Byatt and poet Tracy K. Smith spoke in New York last night, and my favorite moment may have been Byatt’s comment on influence: she said, “I learn from dead people. I read books.” Which is accurate, simple, and too seldom mentioned. She also said, “If there is one thing I shall never do it is write a memoir.” But Byatt does watch viral YouTube videos, though I won’t offer the context. No word on whether she’s seen “Gangnam Style.” I wanted to listen to her indefinitely; she seemed low bullshit and subtly, Britishly funny in a way not conveyed by these quotes and perhaps not conveyed by any quotes. I would take her seminar despite the danger of being assigned Henry James and Melville.

IMG_2029Byatt also said that at some point “I got sick of realism. . . and I realized realism is only one way of putting prose together.” That remark—”putting prose together” was deliberate. English’s promiscuous borrowing also delights her (as it does pretty much anyone who really writes), and to that I would add that English has a sophisticated technical vocabulary offering a rich lode of metaphors not always available, or easily available, in other languages, unless they’ve borrowed from English (often in turn borrowing from other languages).

One senses that literature for her is urgent, as it is for Roland Mitchell in Possession (in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Roland Mitchell explains that he stole letters from the British Library “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent,” implying that much of what happens in the British Library and academia is so not urgent that one must wonder if and why it should happen at all) and many characters in The Children’s Book. She makes me want to be a better writer.

Smith said, in the context of mentorship, that having someone ask different kinds of questions of your work can be useful. She’s right, though I’d never conceptualized the issue in those terms, and it’s difficult to find people who will ask questions different but still useful than those you ask yourself.

Does she like Billy Collins?

Is Amazon.com’s Marketplace encouraging buyers to scam sellers by filing a refund claim?

I’ve been selling miscellaneous books on Amazon.com for years, and in the last three months three people have filed requests for refunds or sent messages claiming that their items never arrived. That’s a big problem because the cheapest way to ship books and similar items is through the Postal Service’s Media Mail. Big sites, like eBay, solve this problem by letting buyers rate sellers and sellers rate buyers, but Amazon only lets buyers rate sellers—sellers can’t rate buyers. Sellers have to ship the item and hope for the best, which worked fine until recently, or add a confirmation number, which increases costs to the point that selling books isn’t really worth it for me.

Someone claiming one item didn’t show up could be chalked up to USPS, or bad luck, or whatever. Two could be a coincidence. Three makes me think of enemy action: buyers heave learned to game Amazon’s system.* Looking around the Internet makes it apparent that problems like mine aren’t so unusual bad stories are more common than I would have imagined before I had this problem.

Looking back at the problems I’ve had shows that the buyers are systematically weird. In one case, the name of the person contacting me for a refund didn’t match the name of the person to whom the book was shipped (in most cases, Amazon encourages or requires buyers to contact the seller before filing a refund claim). Another message said, “Recipient has not received the item,” which is curious: most people would say, “I haven’t receive the book.” “Recipient has not received the item” is generic enough to be a bot. The third person has a U.S. address but doesn’t actually appear to live in the United States.

The only conclusion I can draw are that medium-priced items (in the $10 – $30 range) probably aren’t worth selling on Amazon: they’re expensive enough that adding a confirmation number makes them uneconomical, but not so expensive that a confirmation number is a necessity and a small percentage of the price.

Amazon could reduce this problem by providing symmetrical buyer / seller feedback. But Amazon presumably doesn’t want sellers to cancel orders to unproven buyers, and it’s still possible to game feedback systems (as eBay users have discovered). Nonetheless, I sent Amazon a couple of e-mails about the issue, and someone at Amazon did reply to eventually say, “I would also like to let you know that we do have a team that checks on the buyer’s account for any fraudulent activity and take the necessary action on them.” Still, buyers could file claims only on the occasional item. I’m happier knowing that someone at Amazon is at least thinking about the problem. Amazon, however, is a notoriously data-driven company, and I can’t see them taking action unless sellers stop selling on Amazon.

I’m tempted, in the name of science, to buy a moderately expensive item and then claim it never showed up, or showed up damaged, to see if Amazon will refund the money, and, if so, how many times I could do this before Amazon boots me. But I won’t for obvious reasons.


* This is of course a reference to Goldfinger’s rules about coincidence. I should also point out that the items shipped all had normal return addresses; none of them came back to me.

Culture really is the water we swim in: America, France, sexism, and sexual politics

Johanna Kollmann’s recent post, “Sexism is not funny, let’s stop laughing argues what its title implies it will argue, and she uses these examples:

A talk at a conference showing girls in bikinis. An API presentation from a sponsor featuring ladies in bras. A demo at a hack day with a slide of women in underwear. A business model canvas workshop using a strip club as an example to illustrate the tool. These are just a few examples of casual sexism I’ve experience at (tech) events.

But where does sexy end and sexism begin? I too am against sexism (who isn’t?), but most Americans appear to find women in limited amounts of clothing sexy; take a look at most women’s magazines in the grocery store next time you’re there (or, better yet, look through a bunch of Cosmos: a woman once suggested I do it, and I found the experience highly educational). Men’s magazines mostly feature sexy women in limited clothing, and women’s magazine’s mostly feature. . . sexy women in limited clothing. Sexism in tech and the workplace are real problems, but I don’t think a slide with a woman in underwear is a good example and arguably detracts from larger problems.

France_1Beyond that comparisons between the U.S. and France are often dubious, but reading Elaine Sciolino’s La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life made me rethink some of the issues Koll describes. Sciolino writes, for example:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

Sciolino’s experiences in the French workplace appear to be mostly good. It might be that the U.S. and France are too different to compare, but I also don’t think that the asexual approach implicitly endorsed by Kollmann is right or even practical. In addition, much of humor and personality are bound up in sexuality.

There are also a couple of larger notes: one is that, at the time I read La Seduction, I figured it was just a throwaway book, but I find myself referencing it surprisingly often. Even books that seem like throwaways can turn out to be influential, and no one really knows what those books will be in advance. You have to do the reading, or not do the reading.

France_2In addition, sexism is also one of these important topics that brings the worst out of many user-voting sites (like Hacker News, where I found the link), because it’s a) broad, b) important, and yet c) has a large political and social dimension that makes knowing the whole problem space impossible. Sometimes user-voting sites work well (the top HN comment is substantive and links to actual research), but often people talk past each other, or don’t closely read what the other person writes.

In Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman recounts this anecdote: A Princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies:

On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!

One sees this tendency over and over again. Nobody really knows anything about sexual politics in the workplace, or social problems, or macro economics, so we all have opinions that can’t easily be disproven. The problem is frequently worsened by ignorance.

A lot of academic “research” may barely count as research by many definitions

Miriam Burstein has an interesting post on “(Un)intentional scholarship,” which is about the relationship of blogs and other online media to what “counts” in universities. As she says, “Mark Sample defines scholarship thus: ‘a creative or intellectual act becomes scholarship when it is public and circulates in a community of peers that evaluates and builds upon it.'”

By this definition, however, as Mark Bauerlein shows in “The Research Bust,” many peer-reviewed articles in English Lit are barely research: no one “builds upon it,” or the vast majority of “it,” through citations. If that’s true, then we really do need to re-define what counts as “scholarship.”

I’m not likely to be part of that “we,” because there are simply too few jobs in academia to justify trying to get one, but the disjunction between what counts—peer-reviewed articles—and what people actually read—very rarely peer-reviewed articles—speaks to the way academic intellectual life has gotten out-of-whack: the stuff that should be rewarded isn’t, and the stuff that is being rewarded is often irrelevant by academic intellectual life’s own standards.

EDIT: A friend wrote to say that he doesn’t envy the deans who will have to decide the academic merit of blogs. It’s a fair point: the collective “we” don’t have a good way of doing so now. But I’m optimistic because peer review does such a lousy job of deciding academic merit now. People are getting jobs-for-life for writing books that almost no one reads, on subjects no one cares about. I perceive the problems of awarding academic credit for blogs, but those problems can’t be worse than the current problems in academic credit.

In the humanities, most people implicitly treat work as unimportant by delaying its appearance. Peer reviewers are notoriously slow, and articles can pile up for years in publication limbo. Important work needs to reach the world now. That so few academic humanities journals strive to reach this ideal shows what many humanities professors really think about the importance of what they’re doing. I don’t meant to have science envy, but scientists now post important findings to arVix.org and wait for the peer-reviewers to catch up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sciences have developed this dissemination mechanism, while the humanists retain rigid status hierarchies and disdain “officially” publishing work that has already appeared on blogs.

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