Why I don’t donate to Clark University, and thoughts on the future of college

I went to Clark University, and a couple weeks ago I talked to someone from their “development” department (read: they ask alumni for money) about what I’d been up to, what I thought about Clark, and then, finally, in the “Will-she-sleep-with-me” moment, whether I’d give more than $10 a year. I won’t. Even if I magically made Zuckerbergian billions, I wouldn’t give much more because while Clark is a good school, it isn’t in a position to solve the most pressing problem(s) in higher education: cost and access. Clark can be a wonderful and amazing experience for individual students but it will never be widely accessible due to cost and its model is not replicable for the same reason; the major problems in education are cost and access, which I’ll return to below.

Right now I give a little cash because of bogus rankings like those by U.S. News and World Report; here’s a good piece by Malcolm Gladwell on their bogosity. Nonetheless, despite them being bogus, people love rankings—even very bad rankings. When I was in high school, someone—the villain U.S. News again, maybe—ranked high schools simply by the number of students divided by the number of AP tests (or vice-versa). My high school came out well in that regard and parents and administrators and even the students themselves (to some extent) ran around saying “Oh wow we go to one of the best high schools in America!!” Which was bullshit to anyone who stopped to think for 30 seconds, but the meme propagated anyway and the number of people infected with the counter-meme (“Most school rankings are bullshit”) was and is much smaller than the number with the first meme.*

Maybe nothing short of a cultural change in views on college can alleviate the obsession-with-ranking problem. Some of that cultural change may be in the air: here’s one of the articles about Google’s decreased emphasis on college degrees. Maybe more firms will move in this direction. Certainly I would be more interested in assessing someone’s blog, books, or other material in hiring them than their degree. I’ve met a lot of PhDs who are morons. That is not to deny the value of education—it is easier and more pleasant for most people to learn in the context of someone who can select material, judge material, and accelerate learning. But too few teachers seem able or willing to do that. Alternate signals may emerge.

To look at one alternative to the present education system consider Western Governors University. This is one article on WGU, though there are many others. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the major problems in contemporary higher ed emerge from rising costs, Baumol’s Cost Disease, weird cross subsidies, and related factors. Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation is good on these subjects. I obviously like and generally support Clark but I don’t think the school is the answer to the biggest problems in higher ed today. There may not be one single answer. We may be seeing the researcher-teacher hybrid model splitting back into their constituent pats as well, since, as has long been observed, someone very good at one may not be good at the other.

The “teacher” point is important too, because teaching well is expensive and difficult. It’s not clear to me that the current structure of higher education is sustainable regarding teaching. Here is one well-written and half-right, half-wrong piece about how “Teaching Is Not a Business.” In some sense everything is a business whether we want it to be or not.

Saying that teaching is not a business is another way of saying, “We can pour an infinite amount of money into this endeavor without asking what we’re getting it.” There is a magic to teaching and I’m susceptible to that feeling, but teaching is also a system and set of institutions and many other things as well. Not surprisingly most members of the guild want to retain the mystique and a lot of outsiders appalled at rising costs want to de-mystify and improve. The overall trajectory of the last two or three hundred years makes me think the latter are eventually going to win, even if the definition of winning changes and the win takes decades to play out.

This is getting far afield from the point about donating to Clark, but the biggest issue is that I don’t see how most of the current version of higher ed is rewarding teaching adequately. Some like “The Minerva Project” may be the answer. It and Western Governors University are both very consciously doing a lot of things very differently than the standard college model, which Clark follows in important ways. Clark has a high cost structure and can’t avoid that. As I said above it is a good school. If I had a kid and could afford to send them I would.

But how much does Clark cost?

Somewhere within Clark, someone has the minimum number of dollars per student the school must take in in order to stay afloat. If I had to guess, I’d guess that number is between $25,000 and $30,000, and Clark must hit it whether Joe pays $15,000 and Jane pays $40,000 or vice-versa. Every college has this number somewhere. For a few schools it’s probably zero, counting endowments. Until we get more clarity about that number, however, it’s hard to get a meaningful value for it.

This began life as an e-mail to the Clark development person. Most of the answers she gets are probably more emotional than my somewhat cerebral / systems-based thinking, but part of my dissertation is about academia and I’ve now worked in, around, and for a lot of colleges, as a student, instructor, and consultant. The inside of the sausage factory is not a pretty place and the romantic notions I may have once had regarding the college experience are now dashed. I still retain hope and even optimism—I would be teaching as an adjunct this semester if I didn’t—but the ugly reality is that relatively few existing institutions have the structure or infrastructure, literally or intellectually or politically, necessary to make real changes. Whatever spare cash I might have one day—ha!—is unlikely to go to existing providers. It’ll go to whoever is trying to augment or replace them. Right now I don’t know who that is.

It’s not you, Clark. It’s it.**


* These sorts of idiocies persist. When I was in grad school, some girl in the University of Arizona’s Rhet Comp (or “Rhetoric and Composition”) program claimed that they were “number two in the country.” Being the obnoxious person I am I asked, “As ranked by who?” She didn’t know. “As measured how?” She didn’t know and didn’t like me. To be fair I thought she was dumb and didn’t see her manifesting evidence to the contrary while I was around.

** See also “Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over;” I doubt any individuals at Clark approve of the competitive college race, but they are also relatively powerless to stop it.

How Universities Work, or: What I Wish I’d Known Freshman Year: A Guide to American University Life for the Uninitiated

Note that you can also read this essay as a .pdf.

Introduction

Fellow graduate students sometimes express shock at how little many undergraduates know about the structure and purpose of universities. It’s not astonishing to me: I didn’t understand the basic facts of academic life or the hierarchies and incentives universities present to faculty and students when I walked into Clark University at age 18. I learned most of what’s expressed here through osmosis, implication, inference, discussion with professors, and random reading over seven years.

Although most of it seems obvious now, as a freshman I was like a medieval peasant who conceived of the earth as the center of the universe; Copernicus’ heliocentric[1] revolution hadn’t reached me, and the much more accurate view of the universe discovered by later thinkers wasn’t even a glimmer to me. Consequently, I’m writing this document to explain, as clearly and concisely as I can, how universities work and how you, a freshman or sophomore, can thrive in them.

The biggest difference between a university and a high school is that universities are designed to create new knowledge, while high schools are designed to disseminate existing knowledge. That means universities give you far greater autonomy and in turn expect far more from you in terms of intellectual curiosity, personal interest, and maturity.

Universities are also supposed to help students help themselves. That is, you, the student, are or should be most responsible for your own learning.

Degrees

This section might make your eyes glaze over, but it’s important for understanding how universities work. If you’re a freshman in college, you’ve probably just received your high school diploma. Congratulations: you’re now probably working toward your B.A. (bachelor of arts) or B.S. (bachelor of science), which will probably take four years. If you earn that, you’ll have received your undergraduate degree.

From your B.A./B.S., if you wish to, you’ll be able to go on to professional degrees like law (J.D.), medicine (M.D.), or business (M.B.A.), or to further academic degrees, which usually come in the form of an M.A., or Master’s Degree. An M.A. usually takes one to two years after a B.A. After or concurrently with an M.A., one can pursue a Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy degree, which usually takes four to ten years after a B.A.

The M.A. and Ph.D. are known as research degrees, meaning that they are conferred for performing original research on a specific topic (remember: universities exist to create new knowledge). Professional degrees are designed to give their holder the knowledge necessary to be a professional: a lawyer, a doctor, or a business administrator.

Many if not most people who earn Ph.D.s ultimately hope to become a professor, as described in the next section. The goal of someone earning a Ph.D. is essentially to become the foremost expert in a particular and narrow subject.

Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

There are two to three main groups—one could even call them species—you’ll interact with in a university: professors, adjunct professors, and graduate students.

Professors almost always have a Ph.D. Many will have written important books and articles in their field of expertise. They can be divided into two important classes: those with tenure—a word you’ll increasingly hear as you move through the university system—and those without. “Tenure,” as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with Mac OS X 10.6, is “guaranteed permanent employment, esp. as a teacher or professor, after a probationary period.” It means that the university can’t fire the professor, who in turn has proven him or herself through the publication of those aforementioned books and papers along with a commitment to teaching. This professor will probably spend her career at the university she’s presently at.

Those without tenure but hoping to achieve it are on the “tenure track,” which means that, sometime between three and six years after they’re hired, a committee composed of their peers in the department will, along with university administrators and others, decide whether to offer tenure. Many professors on the tenure track are working feverishly on books and articles meant for publication. Without those publications, they will be denied tenure and fired from their position.

Adjuncts, sometimes called adjunct professors, usually have at least an M.A. and often have a Ph.D. They do not have tenure and are not on the “tenure track” that could lead to tenure. They usually teach more classes than tenured or tenure-track professors, and they also have less job security. Usually, but not always, adjuncts teach lower-level classes. They are not expected to do  research as a condition of staying at the university.

Graduate Students (like me, as of this writing) have earned a B.A. or equivalent and are working towards either an M.A. or a Ph.D. From the time they begin, most graduate students will spend another two to eight years in school. They take a set number of small, advanced classes followed by tests and/or the writing of a dissertation, which is an article- or book-length project designed to show mastery in their field.

Many—also like me—teach or help teach classes as part of their contract with the university. In my case, I teach two classes most semesters, usually consisting of English 101, 102, or 109 for the University of Arizona. As such, I take and teach classes. In  return, the university doesn’t charge me tuition and pays me a small stipend. Most graduate students who teach you ultimately want to become professors. To get a job as a professor, they need to show excellence in research—usually by writing articles and/or books—as well as in teaching.

For all three groups, much of their professional lives revolve around tenure, which brings additional job security, income, and prestige.

Two Masters

Most graduate students and non-tenured professors serve two masters: teaching and research. As an undergraduate, you primarily see their teaching side, and your instructors might seem like another version of high school teachers. For some if not most instructors, however, teaching is not their primary duty and interest; rather, they primarily want to conduct original research, which usually takes the form of writing articles (also sometimes called “papers”) and books. The papers you are assigned for many classes are supposed to help you prepare for more advanced writing and research.

Graduate students and professors feel constant tension between their teaching and their research / writing responsibilities. Good ones try to balance the two. For most graduate students and professors, however, published research leads to career advancement, better jobs, and, ultimately, tenure.

Many of your instructors will have stronger incentives to work on research than teaching. This doesn’t mean they will shirk teaching, but many do. Some teach creatively and diligently, as they should. But it’s nonetheless wise to understand the two masters most of your instructors face; they are usually rewarded much more for research than teaching.

In graduate school multiple professors told me to minimize my time spent teaching and maximize my time spent researching. This isn’t unusual advice. Grad students and non-tenured professors are often explicitly told not to waste time on teaching, since that doesn’t lead to advancement, and often imbibe a cultural atmosphere that denigrates teaching. This is important if you’re wondering why your professors seem distracted or uninterested in the classroom. Professors are often incentivized not to focus on teaching. Professional academics understand these facts well, but they’re surprisingly poorly understood by everyone else:

There is only one problem with telling students to seek out good teaching in college. They’re going to have some trouble finding it, because academic institutions usually don’t care about it. Oh, they’ll tell you otherwise, in their promotional material. But I advise you to be skeptical. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. (Deresiewicz 180-1)

I personally think teaching is of great importance and that schools ought to reward teaching, but “what I personally think” and “what is true” are different in this situation.

Interacting with Professors, Adjuncts, and Graduate Students

To earn tenure (or work towards a PhD, or earning tenure), many professors and grad students spend long periods of time intensely studying a subject, most often but not exclusively through reading. They expect you to read the assigned material and have some background in reading more generally; if you don’t, expect a difficult time in universities.

Professors and other instructors have devoted or are devoting much of their lives to their subjects. As you might imagine, having someone say that they find a subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant often irritates professors, since if professors found their subject boring, worthless, or irrelevant, they wouldn’t have spent or be planning to spend their lives studying it.

Most make their subject their lives and vice-versa. They could in theory earn more money in other professions but choose not to pursue those professions, but they are often excited by knowledge itself and want to find others who share that excitement. If you say or imply their classes are worthless, you’ve said or implied that their entire lives are worthless. Most people do not like to think that their lives are worthless.

Professors can sometimes seem aloof or demanding. This is partially due to the demands placed on them (see “Two Masters,” above). Being aloof or demanding doesn’t mean a professor doesn’t like you. Most professors are interested in their students to the extent that students are interested in the subject being taught. Engaged professors often try to stir students’ interest in a subject, but actively hostile/ uninterested students will often find their instructors uninterested in them. Motivated and interested students often inspire the same in their professors.[2] It’s a virtuous cycle.

To be sure, there are exceptions: some professors will be hostile or uninterested regardless of how much effort a student shows, and some will be martyrs who try to reach even the most distant, disgruntled student. But most professors are in the middle, looking for students who are engaged and focusing on those students.

Nearly all your instructors have passed through the trials and tests they’re giving you: if they hadn’t done so, and excelled, they wouldn’t be teaching you. Thus, few are impressed when you allocate time poorly, try to cram before tests, appear hungover in class, and show up late to or miss class repeatedly. On the other hand, many will cut slack for diligent students who show promise.

One reason professors don’t think much of student excuses is because many students have different priorities than professors. As undergraduates, most professors were part of the “academic culture” on campus, to use Murray Sperber’s term (5); in contrast, many undergraduates are part of the collegiate (interested in the Greek system, parties, and football games) or vocational (interested in job training) cultures. The academic culture, according to Sperber, “[has a] minimal understanding of, and sympathy for, the majority of their undergraduate students” (7) at big public schools.

I think Sperber is too harsh, but the principle is accurate: if you aren’t in school to learn and develop your intellect—and most students in most schools aren’t, as Sperber shows—you probably won’t understand your professors and their motivations. But they will understand yours. Academics are a disproportionately small percentage of the student population at most schools but an extraordinary large proportion of grad students and professors.

Another book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, describes how many universities have evolved two or more tracks, but those tracks are mostly concealed from the students. One track is primarily academic, with hard, usually technical, majors that are highly demanding and that usually lead to developing important skills. The other track is primarily social and leaves students with fewer skills but lots of time to party. The latter track works reasonably well, or is at least not catastrophic, for students from wealthy and/or well-connected families that can get intellectually weak, low-skill students jobs upon graduation—even graduation with a dubious degree and four years of intense partying. The party/social track doesn’t work well for students with poorer or disconnected families. The more time I spend in the system the more apparent the two tracks become—and the more I wish students were explicitly told about them.

Requirements for Undergraduates

You can only graduate from a university if you pick a major and fulfill its requirements. Clark called its undergraduate requirements “Perspectives,” while the University of Arizona calls them “Gen Eds” or “General Education Requirements.” There is no way to avoid filling requirements, and most requirements demand that you spend a certain amount of time with your rear end in a seat at a certain number of classes. Fulfill as many requirements as possible as soon as you realize those requirements exist, assuming you want to graduate on time.

You’ll often be assigned an “academic advisor,” whose job it is to help keep you on track to graduate and to help you pick courses. Don’t be afraid of this person: he or she will often help you or point you to people who can help you. At bigger schools, your advisor will often seem harried or uninterested, but even if that person is, remember that he or she is still a valuable resource. And if you can’t get help from your counselor, find the requirements of potential majors or all majors and work toward checking them off, because you won’t be able to get out of them.

As an undergrad, I tried and found that there is virtually no negotiating with requirements, even if some are or seem silly. For example, Clark required that students take “science perspective.” In studying my schedule and options, I figured that astronomy was the easiest way out. Considering how useless astronomy looked, I decided to petition the Dean of Students to be excused from it so I could take better classes, arguing that I’d taken real science classes in high school and that I could be more productively engaged elsewhere. The answer came quickly: “no.”

Astronomy, as it was taught to me, consisted of tasks like memorizing the lengths of planets from the sun, what the Kuiper Belt is[3], and the like. Tests asked things like the size of each planet—in other words, to regurgitate facts that one can find in two seconds on Google, which is how I found out what the Kuiper Belt is again. The professor teaching it no longer appeared to have a firm grasp of his mental faculties; I think he was in his 80s. At least it was relatively easy: the only worse thing would’ve been having to take, say, chemistry, or a real science class.

That astronomy class was probably the most useless I took, and Clark’s tuition at that time was something like $22,000. I received a scholarship toward tuition, room, and board, so my tuition was probably closer to $16,000, or $8,000 per semester. Undergrads took four classes, so the useless astronomy class cost around $2,000. Would I have rather taken another English class, or computer science class, or a myriad of other subjects? You bet. But I couldn’t, and if I didn’t take some kind of science class, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate, no matter the uselessness of the class.

What should I major in?

I have a theory that virtually everything you learn in universities (and maybe life) is the substance or application of two (or three, depending on how you wish to count) abilities: math and reading/writing. Regardless of what you major in, work on building those two skills.

In the liberal arts, that most often means philosophy, English, and history; other majors vary by university, but those requiring a lot of reading and writing are almost always better than those that don’t. In the hard sciences and economics you’ll be left to develop your reading and writing skills on your own. And this does apply to you, whether you realize it or not. As software company founder and rich guy Joel Spolsky wrote:

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.

The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages  they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage.

So if you want leverage, learn how to write. And if liberal arts majors don’t want to be bamboozled by statistics, they better learn some math.

In short, I have no idea what you should major in. But you probably shouldn’t major in business, communication, sociology, or criminal justice, all of which are worthy subjects that, for most undergraduates, are sufficiently watered down that you’re unlikely to challenge yourself much. Odds are that you’ll even make more money as a philosophy major than a business management major (“Salary Increase by Major”).

Paul Graham wrote:

Thomas Huxley said “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Most universities aim at this ideal.

But what’s everything? To me it means, all that people learn in the course of working honestly on hard problems. All such work tends to be related, in that ideas and techniques from one field can often be transplanted successfully to others. Even others that seem quite distant. For example, I write essays the same way I write software: I sit down and blow out a lame version 1 as fast as I can type, then spend several weeks rewriting it.

The reality is that your specific major probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as your tenacity, ability to learn, and the consistent application of that ability to learn to specific problems. One way  people—friends, employers, graduate schools, colleagues, etc.—measure this is by measuring the way you speak and write, which together are a proxy for how much and how deeply you’ve read.

A great deal of college is about teaching you how to learn, and reading is probably the fastest way to learn. Once you’ve mastered the art of reading, you’ll be set for life, provided you keep exercising the skills you develop at a university. Keep that in mind as you search for majors: those that assign more reading, more writing, and more math are probably more worthwhile than those that  don’t.

Many people have many opinions about what you should major in, and most of them are probably wrong. This one included. As I said previously, it probably doesn’t matter in the long run, so don’t worry much about what to major in—worry about finding something you’re passionate about and something you love. In Prelude to Mathematics, W.W. Sawyer wrote: “An activity engaged in purely for its consequences, without any pleasure for the activity itself, is likely to be poorly executed” (16 – 17). If possible, find something to major in which you enjoy for itself, or which you can learn to enjoy for itself.

Regardless of what you major in, let me reiterate something I wrote in the introduction: you are or should be most responsible for your own learning. This is true not only in school but in your entire life. You will get some bad teachers, some bad bosses, some bad clients, and some bad situations in your life. Nonetheless it is your responsibility to keep learning, to overcome obstacles, and to help yourself.

Students often want to be spoon-fed everything, but that’s not how the world works. People generally pay other people to solve their problems. Your goal is to develop the skills it takes to solve the problems other people have, so that they pay you. Let’s look at some professions and how, in an ideal world, each profession solves a problem:

  • Cop: Solves the need for public safety.
  • Scientist: Solves the need for learning how things actually work, and, tangentially to that, how to turn ideas and facts into products.
  • Petroleum Engineer: Solves the need for energy, which people require to get from point A to B via car, plane, or train, and for electricity.
  • Teacher: Solves the need for education, and helps turn economically useless children into productive adults (Senior).
  • Social Media Analyst: Solves the need to advertise through numerous electronic platforms.

You can occasionally find situations in which it’s possible to get paid without solving someone’s problem, but they’re rare. There are also important jobs that are nonetheless illegal but can be analyzed through the same method as the bullet above (for example, prostitutes solve the need for sex, and drug dealers solve the need for different experiences). People on the cutting edge of technology and social change often solve needs for themselves—Mark Zuckerberg needed a way to communicate with others online before most people really noticed that need.

Your teachers and professors, including me, are often not that good at identifying such needs.

Finally, note that you often can’t predict what will be useful and what won’t be. It’s also possible that the people designing your curriculum know more about the subject than you do.

How do I get an A?

One thing you shouldn’t do is say that all you want to do is get an A: as stated above, most professors are completely and utterly invested in their subject. When you ask how you get an “A,” they’re likely to be annoyed because you’re indicating you don’t care about learning, which is the best way to earn an A. Instead, you care about the badge. It’s like asking how you become poet laureate, as Ebenezer Cooke does in The Sot-Weed Factor: the question itself is wrong, because the right question is how you become a poet, and the laureateship will follow (Barth 73). If you ask professors how to get an A, they’ll also tell you what you already know: work hard at the class, show up, read the book(s) and related materials, form study groups, etc.

Another grad student in English said that she’s almost relieved when students say they just want to get an A, because it means she doesn’t have to worry about them or their grade. Paradoxically, when you say that you just want an A/B/C, you lower the probability that you’ll actually get it.

To get that A/B/C, demonstrate that you’re interested in the material, do all the reading, and show up to class every day. Go to the professor’s office hours to ask intelligent questions—like whether you’re on the right track regarding a paper—or what you could’ve done better on a quiz. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re interested in doing better, rather than saying you are. Novelists have a saying: “show, don’t tell,” which means that you should show what a character is thinking and why they are acting in a certain way rather than telling the reader. Readers are smart and will figure it out for themselves. Your professors will be able to figure out in a million ways whether you’re interested in a subject, and when you ask how you get an A, they’ll know you aren’t.

Oh, and don’t fear the library—it’s the big place with the books. If you conduct research with books, your professors will be impressed. And learn to use the online journals. If you don’t know what this  means, ask a librarian, who will assist you. They very seldom bite and are there to help, and most schools also conduct library help sessions at the beginning of each year. Indeed, almost everyone at a university is there to help you learn; you just need to a) want to learn and b) ask. Many students never get to point a, and of those who do, more should get to point b.

Reflection

I wrote this now because I’m old enough to, I think, have some perspective on universities while still being young enough to remember the shock and bewilderment of the first semester of my freshman year. This document reflects my academic training and preoccupation: it contains allusions and references to other work and is structured in such a way that you can skip easily from section to section. As a trade-off for its detail, however, weaker or uninterested students might lose interest in it before they come to the end, which is unfortunate because it describes the world they will largely be inhabiting for somewhere between one week and six if not more years.

Anecdotes from my own academic experience are included because discovering facts about the incentives in university life didn’t occur all at once for me. No one gave me a document like this; I was expected to either already know or understand most of what you just read, and as a result, I spent years drawing a mental map of universities. The professors and graduate students had spent long enough in the university atmosphere that they knew how universities were structured with the thoroughness you know your native language. I’ve written this in the hope that it will better explain to you (in the plural sense) what I’ve explained to many individuals.

My natural impetus is to remember when I have to repeat the same things over and over again, consider how I might convey all the things I’ve said to a large number of people, and then write those things down so that they might be read, which is a vastly more efficient information transfer mechanism than speech. Nonetheless, I realize that this document and my explanations are probably not perfect, so if you’ve read this to the best of your ability and still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask them. One thing universities should inculcate is inquisitiveness, and I hope I do so as a teacher and as a person.

Notice that this document has a version number in the upper-right corner: as time goes on and I receive questions or comments, I’ll probably change this document to reflect new concerns. When you ask questions, you’re not only helping yourself discover something: you’re helping the person you’re asking better understand the subject at hand and the nature of what they’re trying to say. By asking me questions about this document, you might help me ultimately improve it, and ultimately help those who read it in the future. If there is one cultural advantage universities should impart more than any other, it is the ability to ask questions about even the most fundamental things; confusion and uncertainty are often the sources of new knowledge.

As Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, said of his own research (which led him to the prize):

The models I wrote down that winter and spring were incomplete, if one demanded of them that they specify exactly who produced what. And yet they told meaningful stories. It took me a long time to express clearly what I was doing, but eventually I realized that one way to deal with a difficult problem is to change the question — in particular by shifting levels.

He also has a section called “question the question,” in which he recursively asks himself whether the question he has asked is the right one. For him, as for many people, questions are at the center of the learning universe, and if you learn to ask them promiscuously and then seek the answers, whether from me, your other professors, or from books, you’ll be better equipped to find the answers, do well in college, and do well in life. One challenge is often learning enough to be able to formulate the right questions, and with this in mind, I hope you know how to ask important questions about the institution you’re attending.

As noted previously, you can also download this essay in .pdf form.

Works Cited [4]

Barth, John. The Sot-Weed Factor. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.

Graham, Paul. “Undergraduation.” Personal website. March 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://paulgraham.com/college.html&gt;

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Free Press, 2014.

Krugman, Paul. “How I Work.” Personal website. Accessed 11 November 2008. <http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/howiwork.html&gt;

“Salary Increase by Major.” The Wall Street Journal. Undated. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html?mod=googlenews_wsj&gt;

Sawyer, W.W. Prelude to Mathematics. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Sperber, Murray. Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

Spolsky, Joel. “Advice for Computer Science College Students.” Personal website. 2 January 2005. Accessed 7 December 2008. <http://joelonsoftware.com/articles/CollegeAdvice.html&gt;

“tenure.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. 2010. Mac OS X 10.6 Operating System.


[1] One useful study tip: if you read or hear a word you don’t know, look it up. You’ll expand your vocabulary and, concomitantly, the range of your thinking.

[2] In the hard sciences, for example, it’s often wise to ask professors if you can join their research labs, where you’ll gain valuable experience and make important connections. But most undergraduates don’t seem to realize that the first thing they have to do is ask. The second thing they need to do is show their professors that they won’t be a waste of time.

[3] A bunch of rocks near Neptune’s orbit, for those of you wondering.

[4] Writers include works cited pages so others can draw on the sources used to construct an argument. Contrary to popular belief among freshmen, they’re not just pointless hoops teachers set up, and they become progressively more important as you matriculate.

Europe, the United States, living standards, GDP, and the University of East Anglia (UEA)

I’ve only lived in Europe—and even then it was England, where I found that many people considered the country not part of Europe—briefly, but like Megan McArdle and Matt Welch, I “found it noticeably poorer than the United States.”

The debate is mostly symbolic and a proxy for U.S. healthcare issues, about which I know sufficiently little to not comment in public. Nonetheless, the living standards issue comes up because McArdle writes about “The Difference Between the US and Europe” in response to Paul Krugman’s comments on the same, where he says:

Actually, Europe’s economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it.

McArdle and Welch think otherwise. My limited experience occurred at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which is in Norwich. The school was noticeably more run down than any university I’ve seen in the U.S. The dorm cots—they weren’t really beds—were tiny and hard; the desks made the ones at Clark University, where I was an undergrad, wonderful by comparison; and the campus had a general feeling of dilapidation that was enhanced by graffiti on walls.

That was just the physical plant. Classes were only taught for six hours a week. I have no idea what most students did the rest of the time. There were in effect no meal plans, so students were supposed to do their own cooking in dirty communal kitchens. To use the gym, one had to pay £6 to take a useless orientation class and then pay £1 or £2 to get in every time thereafter. It was so bad that a friend and I wrote a document called “About UEA” and e-mailed it to others at our home schools. Bathrooms were—charitably—vile.

But wait! Aren’t dorms terribly everywhere? Maybe so, but in the limited number of places I’ve spent some time in or on dorm beds, none have been nearly as bad as UEA’s, and that includes Clark, the University of Washington, Seattle University, Harvard, USC, and the University of Arizona. This isn’t a full sample, but the difference was obvious. So was the price of books, which did help explain why so many excellent used bookshops popped up but didn’t help the £10 trade paperback price or hardcover prices that verged on £20.

Perhaps because of exchange rate issues, the UK also felt very expensive. “Expensive” and “worse” is a bad and unusual combination.

The debate reminds me of the New York Times piece, “We’re Rich, You’re Not. End of Story,” which studies how rich Scandinavian countries feel relative to the U.S., Spain, and others:

After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York – his first trip outside of Europe – he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in “Moscow on the Hudson.”

The plural of anecdote is not data, and I like what I’ve seen of European cities, especially because they feel more like cities and less like giant suburbs than places like Tucson, Arizona do. Europe is a lovely place in many respects and has decided, as a continent, on a different set of trade-offs than the United States. But the difference in living standards is noticeable, at least to me, and evidently to others, at a given income level; if you have enough money, almost anywhere can be nice.

EDIT: I uploaded “About UEA,” a document a friend and I wrote to warn our other friends about life at UEA. Commenters say the university has gotten better since, but I can’t tell if they’re astroturfers or the real thing.

EDIT 2: It appears that Britain has a well-known and measurable productivity gap, which is elaborated on and explained at the link. The post is interesting throughout and you should really read it, including this:

I’ll never forget the first time I visited the Netherlands in 1985. I was in Dordrecht and reading through the comments of a guest book for a modest hotel. The writer was British, and apparently was visiting the Continent for the first time. He/she expressed shock at seeing that virtually everywhere in the Netherlands was a nice place, compared to the home country, much of which was not so clean and not so nice. He/she lamented and apologized for this feature of Great Britain, and that is yet another way of expressing the productivity gap.

Links: Cops and murder, the need for justic, computers, William G. Tapply, and more!

* “The smart against the dumb: The new Cold War;” usually I avoid posting political stuff but will make an exception given the entertainment and insight of this piece.

* “Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop,” which is well paired with Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

* Someone found this blog by searching for ‘”jake seliger” “global warming.”‘ I have no idea why.

* “A letter to … the girl who accused me of rape when I was 15.”

* “What should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?“, which is highly recommended though you may not recognize some words in the title.

* “Only Yesterday” by William G. Tapply, which describes his use of notebooks; I took his novel writing seminars at Clark University.

* A weapon for readers; regular readers surely know that is how I read.

Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

Links: Sibling loss, free speech, self-publishing, transfer of learning, and more

* Quora answers: “What does it feel like to have your sibling die?” HT MR.

* The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform.

* Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again: What kind of democracy teaches its young people they’ll be punished for talking out of turn?

* The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web. This basically describes where I’m going.

* From Tyler Cowen, a link to “Working 9 to 12: ‘How Much Is Enough?’ by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky:”

I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.

As I said in MR’s comments, to me, the situation may not have improved that much; as an undergrad I went from Clark University to the University of East Anglia for a semester and was shocked at the condition of the latter, and of England in general. Notice too this:

There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

I like my work, most of the time, and would probably be bored being idle. We might be better off if we tried to do things we like, and, if we can’t, we should at least try to like the things that we do.

* “Low Transfer of Learning: The Glass Is Half Full,” which ends with this: “Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job. Seriously.”

Links: The time for novels, technology in universities, programming and writing, academia, and more

* Zoe Williams: No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead. Fortunately, people have been castigating fiction for as long as there has been fiction in any meaningful sense of the word.

* University of Virginia President Teresa “Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as ‘hybrids,’ replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.” Having both listened to my students talk about what intro-level courses are like at the University of Arizona and having experienced the distinctly not useful aspects of many of the intro-level courses at Clark University, I can’t see a huge problem with trying these ideas: at the moment, such courses appear to largely be a way of collecting tuition, rather than imparting real knowledge. Many of my students say intro math and science courses at the U of A are so bad that the students prefer taking them at community colleges, if possible, and the intro humanities courses are often “taught” in lecture halls with hundreds or more than a thousand students nominally taking them at once.

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* “The Frisson of Friction: An undergraduate tries a challenging introductory programming course.” I find this especially poignant, given what I do: “Last I checked, there are just over 100 users of my [Chrome] extension. This is far fewer than the number of people using the most popular extension (AdBlock, with 1,626,216 users at that point), but also far more than the number of people who usually read my papers (my TF, 1).”

* Margaret Atwood answers questions on Reddit.

* On Leaving Academia. Notice too the discussion on Hacker News, including perverse publication incentives.

* Sexual harassment is not like employee theft. Notice this: “There’s a trade-off between preventing unwanted advances and preventing wanted advances – and there’s no reason to choose a corner solution. Treating harassment complaints as seriously as employee theft complaints is simply bad for business. You might make a few puritan workers happy, but what about everybody else?”

I found this, from Tim Parks’s “Does Money Make Us Write Better?“, interesting:

When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

John Barth and William Goldman almost quit too. How many others have? I don’t want to be one of them. And I bet I can make more than £1,000, though I don’t know how long ago Parks began writing: adjusted for inflation, £1,000 might be a lot of money.

* Charter schools raise educational standards for vulnerable children.

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

What happens when people with partial knowledge start talking about college costs in Arizona and elsewhere

One painful thing about knowing a complex politicized subject fairly well is that most of the commentary on it looks pretty dumb because the commentators don’t really understand it. The latest edition of that malady comes from A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona, which someone forwarded to me because a) I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and b) I write about academic novels. The problem with the link is that while some of it is somewhat accurate, some of it less so, and a lot of it is taken out of context. For example, it shows a table demonstrating that a surprisingly high number of people working in low-skill professions that don’t require a college degree nonetheless have one—but that probably says more about the graduates than it does about college.

The next item quotes the conservative Goldwater Institute saying that the number of administrators has grown:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

(You can read more in this vein via Why So Many Administrators?, but although it asks “Why so many administrators?”, it doesn’t answer that question.)

Problem is, the Goldwater Institute study is specious for two reasons: 1) It doesn’t deal with changing definitions of “administrator” over time, and although it implies that more administrators equal more waste, it doesn’t actually talk about which administrators it wants cut. Job services offices are new and science grants often require administrators. Everyone is against bureaucracy unless it’s the bureaucracy they need. Hell, I’m against administration, bureaucracy, evil, simple carbohydrates (except for carrot cake), and the coyotes that ate my neighbor’s cat. So do we want the administrators in the beefed up jobs office cut? The ones in the disability resource centers that’ve opened widely? The ones that offer counseling to students contemplating suicides? The ones hired to manage science grants? You tell me.

Productivity among universities isn’t increasing—see College Costs: The Sequel for more on why:

College cost, and cost in the other similar industries, is rising for three broad reasons. First, over time we have found ways to reduce the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. By contrast, many services remain artisan-like. The time of the service provider is the service itself, and labor-saving productivity gains are very hard to achieve. As a result, the cost of a year of college or an hour of a lawyer’s time must rise compared to the price of a ton of steel or a bushel of wheat.

This is “cost disease,” which is sometimes called Baumol’s disease, and a comment by Al zeroed in on it quite accurately. Rising productivity elsewhere in the economy generates this “disease,” while creating the growth that pays the costs for these more artisan-like services. The college-centric view of the world does not accord this argument the central place the data say it deserves.

[. . .]

A number of our critics noted that distance learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We wish we were as sanguine as the distance-learning optimists. The best evidence suggests that course work that blends face-to-face instruction with distance components yields the best outcome. The best courses for this are introductory classes with relatively static knowledge. Many universities already are well down the path of incorporating these approaches.

In short, we haven’t really found an effective way to increase the productivity of education because we can’t find good ways of educating mass numbers of people save through having them sit together with more experienced people who are supposed to be experts in their fields and having those “experts” (who we call “teachers” or “professors”) impart some of what they know. This doesn’t scale easily because the prof / teacher : student ratio remains approximately even. Although digital utopians want the Internet to replace teachers / profs, it appears that the vast majority of the population prefers watching porn and computer games to figuring out what the hell Hegel is talking about or how mitochondrial DNA works.

Then there are comments like this: “Arizona State University’s four-year graduation rate is a shocking 28 percent. Low standards and easy loans are a recipe for disaster.” There are two obvious ways to raise the graduation rate: raise the admissions bar so better students get in or make it easier to graduate. Grade inflation has already done the latter to some extent. ASU and UA will effectively take almost anyone, which they apparently need or want to for budgetary reasons.

An aside about grade inflation: one of the most useful efforts I’ve read about recently comes from A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, which discusses UNC Chapel Hill’s effort “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.” This would be incredibly welcomed, because at the moment there’s a strong incentive for professors to give higher grades, which lead to higher evaluations, but don’t have any immediate cost for the profs involved.

The harder way to raise the college graduation rate is to make classes smaller, track each student more carefully, increase the number of advisors, and so forth. All this will decrease “productivity” (it’s very “productive” by simple measures of productivity to have one prof lecture 1,000 students). In short, big schools would need to become more like Clark University, where I went to undergrad, only with tens of thousands of students, and this would raise costs, ceteris paribus.

The biggest problem with this article is that it acts like college administrators and professors aren’t aware of the kinds of issues raised. They are, and there’ve been endless books written about them. A recent winner: Why Does College Cost So Much?.

There may be a “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona,” but it isn’t for the reasons stated or implied in this article.

A meta point: most big, complex social systems (think healthcare, education, government, military, companies) don’t exist as they do because they’re the theoretical best. They exist the way they do because they’ve evolved thanks to reactions from social, financial, and other pressures into the beasts they look like today. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to understand why and how they evolved they way they have.

My overall political feelings are usually captured by The Onion, mostly because so much day-to-day political discourse looks like parody. Two examples from America’s Finest News Source: “Barack Obama – Either Doing His Best In One of The Most Difficult Times In American History, Or Hitler,” since we all know politicians must be one or the other, and “Jan Brewer – Not Afraid To Do What The Federal Government Won’t And Shouldn’t,” which basically describes what Arizona politics are like:

By demanding that police check any suspicious- looking individual’s immigration status, Brewer stood up for the kind of racial profiling that other politicians wouldn’t, and under any circumstances shouldn’t, have the guts to support. Refusing to bow down to sense or reason, Brewer also made it possible for citizens to sue police officers who fail to carry out the troublingly vague terms of the new law, no matter how much it might tie up the state’s court system—a bold stance the federal government simply couldn’t be bothered with.

Efforts to solve big, institutional problems tend to suffer from unintended consequences. They tend not to respond well to ideologically driven solutions, whether those preferred by the left or right. They tend to to require a lot of strenuous effort if you’re even going to understand them, let alone propose to fix them, and the problems are much easier to identify than possible solutions to those problems, which might be worse than the problems themselves. Note one such example above: a simple way to improve the graduation rate at Arizona universities is to raise the admissions bar. But doing so means that some deserving though marginal students won’t get a shot at college at all. They’ll be more likely to steal the car of the people who write “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona.” And so on.

This is the place where I’m supposed to propose solutions to the kinds of problems universities have, but I don’t have any that are short and easily digestible. Beware people who say they do.

An interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and Codex, Part II

Note that this image is shamelessly stolen from Grossman's siteThis is the second part of an interview with Lev Grossman, author, most recently, of The Magicians, which is out in paperback. You can read part I here.

Jake Seliger: Just like in some ways The Magicians feels much realer than most other novels because it actually incorporates sex, and there are all these funny, dirty phrases—the kinds of things that buddies and I have talked about and that you hear around. Janet says, “I’m freezing my tits off,” at one point, and it’s like, “I know girls who talk like that.” But girls in fantasy novels never talk like that.

Lev Grossman: The first time I wrote the word “fuck” I could hear tens of thousands of elementary library sales just vanishing into mist. But that was the book I wanted to write.

JS: That’s a very good reason for writing it, because trying to write to the market seems like a fool’s errand in many respects.

LG: Yeah, I mean, I was happy to go on that errand, and I probably would have, but for some reason—I just couldn’t do it.

JS: Which in some ways is good, because maybe that’s what helped make the truer book that became what it is.

LG: I think that’s probably true, yeah. It’s a rare example of my not selling out in my life.

JS: Why a rare example?

LG: I’ve historically been drawn to large, powerful institutions like Harvard. I went to Yale. I joined Time Incorporated. These huge, monolithic institutions. I tend to embed myself in them. It seems very safe.

JS: I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school, which I found interesting. I went to Clark University in Massachusetts, and in high school I was the co-editor of the newspaper, and one of the girls who was co-editor the year before me went to Harvard. I went to visit her, and I learned something very useful about the Harvard mystique: when Harvard kids are drunk or puking in the toilet or whatever, they look and act remarkably like everyone else.

LG: Yeah, they do that sober too. It’s a much less magical place than you would expect.

JS: I’m not sure I would expect it to be magical. Did you expect it to be?

LG: Yeah, but that’s because I was an idiot.

JS: That’s funny too, because I spent almost no time thinking about college when I was in high school, and I didn’t get particularly wonderful grades, and the future was just sort of like a gray mist that was out there.

LG: I was like this disgusting, grade-grubbing, Gollum-like creature who only thought about college. Colleges, of course, where I wouldn’t have any problems any more.

JS: I feel like I met you.

LG: Yes, you probably met me, and didn’t especially like me. I was so obsessed with that, and I didn’t think there would be any problems after that.

JS: We think there aren’t going to be any problems after moment X, and then there are. Quentin finds this out when he’s working—there are always these moments where magic is depicted as being really hard. Early on, The Magicians says, “Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.” It seems like this description can apply to a lot of life. The magic is really hard. It seems like accomplishing anything is really hard.

LG: It’s Quentin’s one gift, basically. He’s a real wonk. He works hard.

JS: I’m surprised he picks up magic tricks, as opposed to something like computer programming or math, which seems like they get analogized to magic—math seems analogous to math in the novel.

LG: My sister’s a mathematician, or she was, and my talent for math is just average. It seemed very magical, what she did, and it still kind of does.

JS: Computer programmers adopted the word “wizard” from fantasy novels. It’s in the Jargon File. If you’re a wizard, you’re a master because you can make the computer do something that it shouldn’t be able to do.

LG: It’s true. There aren’t many computers in The Magicians.

JS: It seems like you always need a way to have electricity not work [in fantasy novels]. When I was working on A Glimmer in the Dark, conveniently if you used the power, it would shut off electricity—because that often time makes for more satisfying drama. And for sword fights!

LG: It’s an absolutely essential cheat, and that was one of the big cheats in this book. I wanted Brakebills to look like a nineteenth-century country house, and I didn’t care what I had to do to make that happen. There’s no good reason.

JS: If you have the Internet, some of the romance of old books and that kind of thing—or having to memorize old spells—goes down. Because if you have a massive spell database, you would just read that. There’s no app for spells in The Magicians. The girl I’m dating is in med school, and she wants to get an iPhone because she needs an app that lists symptoms of diseases and stuff like that, so she queries “funny knee, runny nose, kidney problem, what does that mean?”

LG: There’s a series of fantasy novels, that I haven’t read, set in a world where electricity and magic are not incompatible, and, in fact, it is possible to do magic by running an app. Computers basically, when they execute code, they are capable of casting spells. That struck me as a really fascinating idea. And I was pissed that I didn’t think of it.

JS: It is a fascinating idea, but it also seems like one that can easily go wrong. Good fantasy often requires limits and places where power stops, so you don’t get into a God complex where you have a character who becomes God.

LG: I looked at that, when I read the premise, I thought, “My God, who the hell is going to take that on as their world?” I didn’t even know how you would start hashing out the rules.

JS: The Magicians feels so rules-based: there are limits, there are things that are unknown. That’s part of what’s so satisfying. It’s not like you’re constantly running up against a barrier and then you knock it right down.

LG: The question of the world being rule-governed is one that was really paramount to me. And I felt like I was negotiating between—something very weird happened, when you move from C.S. Lewis, to le Guin, to Rowling. In C.S. Lewis, magic is essentially miraculous. There are people who do magic, but they’re all evil, mainly Jadis, and the Magician, in The Magician’s Nephew.

JS: In Tolkien, Galadriel says to Sam, you use the same word—magic—to describe the deceits of the enemy as what I do. [Her actual quote is regarding the Mirror of Galadriel: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel” (Fellowship II, vii, 377).] For her it’s just something she does, not magic per se.

LG: Which is closer to my view. And then you move to le Guin, where magic literally is a language, and then to Rowling, where magic borders on the technological. It’s so completely rule governed that if you swish and you flick and you say, whatever you say.

JS: It seems very easy.

LG: It seems very easy, yes.

JS: And you’re reacting against that here with the rhetoric of magic being difficult, and the practice and the practice and the practice.

LG: Again, something that Rowling wasn’t interested in but I was. I wanted to know why magic was hard, and why some people could do it and some people couldn’t do it.

JS: There’s that speech that I believe Eliot gives toward the beginning

[Here’s the speech: “The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well […] One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the dedicated and startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly. And five […] some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”]

and then he gives five reasons, and the fifth reason is that some people just can’t do it for reasons that aren’t apparent. And there’s that aspect of mystery again.

LG: I couldn’t tie off all the threads.

JS: You shouldn’t tie off all the threads.

LG: Then magic ceases to be magical. It becomes mundane. It becomes thermodynamics. Or the magical equivalent thereof.

JS: They go to Fillory, and they find—at least Alice and a few others—can still manage to do magic, although the Circumstances and I believe some other things have changed. So they still manage to translate, and perform some bad-ass magic, for lack of a better term.

LG: They really have to recalibrate for Fillory, and they do so at different rates.

JS: Quentin at a lesser rate, it seems. But he manages to cast Magic Missiles. The Magic Missiles seem to be more devastating than they are in Dungeons and Dragons.

LG: They are effective. I think, yes, they are effective. Either those monsters are really, really low level. It’s a what—D4 damage? Something quite low. Quentin, he figures it out during his weird mourning period with the Centaurs. He gets quite leveled up during that period.

JS: We have to go back to that terminology of leveling up.

LG: It turns out, there really isn’t a better way of talking about it.

JS: Even though it feels much more organic than that in the novel, because they’re learning and what not. Although it’d be funny if they had a stat ring or something like that, because then of course everyone at Brakebills would do it, and they would start comparing whose is bigger.

LG: Oh, completely. The metrics aren’t quite that precise. They have a general idea, who is strong and who is weak.

JS: And then they’re always comparing each other, like people in actual classes. Who’s the smartest, who’s the most knowledgable, who’s the most capable, who gets laid the most?

LG: But then, you know, look at Josh, who’s sort of flukey. He has a lot of juice, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just he can’t deploy it reliably.

JS: Which is somewhat problematic […] As far as the actual moving to Fillory, Anaïs, she really gets off on the bloodlust aspect, the killing aspect, in an almost psychopathic way. Can you speak more to that, or is she just an unappealing character and that’s who she is?

LG: She represented a personality type that we hadn’t seen up to that point. Which is somebody who doesn’t have this American sentimental attitude toward violent conflict. Maybe it’s a European thing, coming out of a culture that remembers what it’s like to have wars on its own soil. Maybe she’s just sociopathic. I think she probably is.

JS: She mixes that up with sex too. There’s that line where someone says, did you see her looking over Dint’s shoulder? She was pressing her tit into it.

LG: She just has empathy problems, basically. She’s one of those people.

JS: She’s almost encouraged to have empathy problems because in the labyrinth there just seem to be monsters.

LG: I cut out a sustained ethical argument about whether they could kill the monsters or not. Just to keep the tedious—

JS: What made it tedious?

LG: Fantasy and morality—it’s hard to represent morality in a nuanced way in the context of the fantasy genre. Things rapidly trend toward a black and white. I was having trouble hanging onto the shades of gray.

JS: You did a very good job of hanging onto shades of gray. That’s part of what is satisfying.

LG: That was one of my goals. I feel like if there isn’t a powerful, single antagonist, like Voldemort, who magnetizes everything into poles, well, I wondered what it would be like. If you remove that term from the equation, suddenly, everything becomes more complex.

JS: And here it does so effectively. Martin seems to be driven mostly by power for its own sake. Or he’s moved beyond human morality and has become the monster or the Beast.

LG: As you might notice, Martin is connected emotionally to Quentin, and on some level, is a frightening vision of the person Quentin could’ve become. Somebody who’s obsessed with Fillory and remaining there and then not returning to Earth. It’s not worlds away from Quentin. Martin just made some very dark transactions in order to stay there.

JS: So we’re going back to the idea that there is some aspect of forbidden knowledge, or places that people shouldn’t go.

LG: Yeah.

JS: You say yeah, but in a way that makes you sound very unconvinced. Like there’s something more there.

LG: I’m trying to hold onto my status as the fantasy writer who’s into shades of gray. Martin is a very difficult character because I’m not happy often with the way fantasy novels portray evil. I don’t find—as much as I like Harry Potter—Voldemort to be an especially compelling villain. I think the White Witch actually really is. So it troubled me a lot, the question of Martin’s evil. A lot of, sort of, bad DNA in the fantasy genre.

JS: Bad DNA. You’ve used that term of “fantasy DNA” before. I think it was in another interview that you said, “Fantasy novels share so much DNA with each other anyway, because the convention of the genre are so firmly established, that you’re almost always reworking an idea somebody worked before you.” But it seems to me that you could take out fantasy and insert all genres, or all models. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I think it’s Adso who realizes that books talk to other books. And he realizes intertextuality. So why limit that comment to fantasy novels? And also, why DNA? Why that metaphor?

LG: That’s a good question. I think I’ve always been concerned with DNA because I have an identical twin, who, in theory, I share 100% of DNA with. Well, I stick to my guns about fantasy. Genres are by their nature conventional, that’s what makes them genres. But I stick to my guns with the idea that there is a higher degree of continuity between fantasy novels than between most other novels within a genre. I see more biodiversity—I don’t say this as a bad thing, fantasy is the genre that I love—but strictly in terms of raw biodiversity, I feel like I see more of that in science fiction, or comics, or detective fiction. Not that I’ve made a thorough survey of detective fiction. I don’t read it very much.

JS: It’s hard to read all genres, because there are so many books out there.

LG: There are so many things that are just really rock solid fantasy. Think of a dragon, a sword, magic castles, knights. The building blocks—it’s very easy to point to them.

JS: And if you can point to them, the novelist should be taking them away, or doing something weird or unusual with them. Which you’ve accomplished and is part of what I was shooting for in A Glimmer in the Dark.

LG: I would never presume to say what novelists should do. But that’s what I wanted to do. What happened to A Glimmer in the Dark by the way?

JS: I think I finished submitting it to agents in December, and a bunch of them took either partials or fulls. And then all of them eventually declined, for various kinds of reasons. Which to me always makes me slightly crazy, because I’ve been a wannabe novelist type for a while, and I’ve gotten in a cycle, where starting with the novel I wrote before Glimmer, I started getting a lot of bites. The first two novels I wrote that were actually feature complete and proper lengths and what not—now I realize weren’t actually very good. Although I thought they were better at the time. And then finally I wrote one called A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, which steals a line from the John Donne Poem: “So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, / But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.” It’s about two journalists at the University of Washington who investigate a maybe rape in the Greek system. Finally I figured out how plotting works, especially, and how character works, and with that I finally started getting requests for partials and fulls, and then I’d get back these rejections. One would say, “too much research.” Another would say, “Research is great but characters are dead.” All kinds of stuff. And with Glimmer I’ve gotten a lot of the same kinds of things. I got a lot of generic—well, not generic exactly, but ones that basically said, “I don’t like it, try someone else.”

LG: As irrational and non-meritocratic as the publishing system is—

JS: Writers are irrational as well, because if I was rational, I would stop writing.

LG: Well, the agent part of it is, I feel, the least well-organized, and it’s absurd how that works. It’s very difficult to crack that.

JS: After I got all these eventual rejections and what not, I was bitching and moaning and telling my girlfriend I was going to stop writing fiction and focus on academic or other things for a while because I was an idiot, which I am. Robertson Davies has this great line where he says [quoted in the Guardian], “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ ” So I was bitching and telling her, I’m not going to do it anymore. Then we went to Seattle together and were sitting in French restaurant called Voila. I’m from Seattle, so she’d just met a lot of my friends. I looked at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you wrote a novel with a guy and a girl and they were thinking about getting married and the guy decided to make a game of it and poll all his friends?” This is not autobiographical. Should I get married or should I do? So I started writing Asking Alice […]

LG: That’s great.

JS: It’s a little bit like—I’ve been watching The Pacific on HBO, and they hit the beaches and get machine gunned. That’s a little bit how I feel. I take two steps on the beach and get machine gunned. I think this will be more of the same.

LG: I don’t know.

JS: There’s no answer to it. It’s very random and chaotic.

LG: I have to say, my first novel, Warp, was a complete failure. It only had representation because a woman I went to Yale with dropped out around the same time. I didn’t get a very successful agent except by accident.

[…]

Warp was a disaster. Codex, it took us a year and a half to sell it. It got 20-something rejections.

JS: So the rejection never stops.

LG: No. That was a cruel period. At a certain point you just have to ignore the data.

JS: Grad school is the same too, which everyone warns you about before you go to grad school. But you went and dropped out, if I recall. Were you ever a Derrida reader?

LG: Oh sure, yeah, I went to college in the late 80s, when he was all the rage.

JS: Did you ever read his essay “The Law of Genre?”

LG: No.

JS: What you were saying about genre earlier reminded me of it, because he says the law of genre is that genres are not to be broken, but we must break the law. I wish I could give a better account of it.

[…]

I was reading Codex on the way over here, and with Edward you see a lot of the same stuff Quentin’s going through.

LG: I suppose it’s inevitable.

JS: I don’t know if I’m like the fiftieth asshole to say, “Hey, I see your earlier book has some of the same themes as your later book.”

LG: I haven’t read Codex since it came out. My memory’s a bit fuzzy.

JS: Also, you have this question of childishness in Codex, and people are always accusing each other of that in The Magicians. […] It does seem dangerous to extend childhood unnecessary or unnaturally. That’s one of the things John Barth writes about: the dangers of trying to extend innocence past where it belongs. The Sot-Weed Factor is phenomenal.

LG: When I read Lost in the Funhouse when I was a freshman in college, I thought, my God, that person has said everything that I ever wanted to say in fiction, there’s no point in me going on.

JS: Funny how that can happen.

LG: And then I never connected with a book of his the same way.

JS: Did you try The Sot-Weed Factor?

LG: I did. He wrote a lot after that. […]

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or you’d like people to know?

LG: No one ever says anything in response to that, do they?

JS: Yeah! They say all kinds of stuff. [Here I tell a long story about working on my high school paper where this question saved my ass because I was interviewing someone who’d won a big jazz award, except I didn’t know why I was interviewing him. I learned some useful lessons in high school.]

LG: Once I interviewed Jack Nicholson, he was doing the press for—not As Good as It Gets. He was doing the press for a terrible movie. Something’s Gotta Give. Horrible movie. He had this interview or whatever, and the phone rang. The message was, this is Jack Nicholson, there’s something very important I forgot to mention. I called him back, left a message, but I never found out what it was.

JS: Bummer. […]

LG: I’m a big panicker. I never come up with anything good on the fly.


 

That’s the end of the interview, with a whimper, not a bang. Although Grossman did mention that, in this blog post, he stole the concept of Fuck-You Money from Cryptonomicon; I responded that that’s an excellent place to steal from.

A few other thoughts: I mentioned that “I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school.” In person, Grossman’s not; if he was once, he’s shed that identity.

Grossman said, “I would never presume to say what novelists should do.” But I would stick to my assertion and would presume to say what novelists should do: something that isn’t already being done. Something that tries to break formulas to the extent possible. Something, in short, novel. I like quoting Milan Kundera’s assertion in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

I think Kundera is a bit overwrought, but his point is taken: aspiring to be average, to merely use what’s been given to you—why bother?

Regarding Asking Alice: If you’re curious, as of this writing, the agent mentioned to Grossman said no, as did a bunch of others, and I think two agents have fulls or partials right now. I’m working on a new novel called One Step Into the Labyrinth, which I’m about 70,000 words into, and which is done in the style of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and set in an imaginary version of Seattle.

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