Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”


I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

Circumstances under which going to law school can make sense

The reasons you should avoid law school are well known and I won’t repeat them here, but the other day I was explaining to a former student why she shouldn’t go to law school and she asked a perceptive question: Who should go? Under what conditions should a person go?

The answer is “almost no one” and “almost never,” but law school can be okay in a handful of circumstances:

* People who have already worked in law firms, probably as a paralegal but maybe under other circumstances, and who thus understand what the day-to-day life of a lawyer is like. That firm should have a job waiting and ready to go for the person before the person starts law school.

* People who have family (or close family friends) in law firms who can set the law school applicant up with a job straight out of school. If your uncle has a firm and wants you to take over that firm, law school can make sense.

* People with a very specific sense of what they want a law degree for and what they want to do with it—for example, people who desperately want to fight for voting rights, or immigrant rights, or something along those lines, and are convinced that those fights will be their life’s work, regardless of other challenges.

That’s really it; if I’m missing something, leave a comment or send an email. Law school mostly works for people who don’t need law school and only need the credentials that law school entails. There is a reason why most lawyers learned the craft on the job as apprentices, and law school only became a requirement in the post-World War II-era as a way of raising the salaries and status of then-existing lawyers.

Even going to highly ranked schools doesn’t make sense because, while you may get a big-firm job straight out of school, you’ll still be shackled to the work by student loan debt slavery, and you’ll still have to be a lawyer at the end (which most people don’t really want to do), and you’ll still probably not make partner (which means that you’re mostly working to line someone else’s pocket).

Don’t go to law school.

Why do so many people continue to pursue doctorates?

In “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s: Why do so many people continue to pursue doctorates?”, Laura McKenna reviews the data on how terrible grad programs and the academic job market are, then goes on to ask: “Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic?” Having observed and participated in the mass delusion, I have some possible answers:

1. It’s a way to (pointlessly) delay adulthood.

2. Fear of the job market.

3. Don’t know what else to do.

4. Magical thinking (despite the numerous articles out there, like mine) that attempt to dissuade it). I think this is the biggest issue. In addition, there seems to be a Lake Woebegone effect: Everyone thinks they’re going to be above average.

5. Contrary to what grad students often say, in many disciplines and programs grad school is pretty easy and fun! You get to hang out on campus, think about ideas, take a minimal number of classes, do a bit of teaching, and have copious free time. Also, let me be euphemistic and say that many straight guys spend a lot of time with female undergrads. The problem is that, as time advances and your priorities start changing (want a real life / job, date people who don’t date people whose lives aren’t together, etc.), reality starts to intrude. Many grad students have an unacknowledged Peter Pan complex.

6. For most, academic success has been rewarded every step of the way (thanks to Hacker News reader mathattack for this point). The individuals who’ve gotten the most mileage listening to their teachers are also the ones who most need to stop listening to them. Professors are very keen on producing more professors and reproducing themselves, even though doing so is often not in the best interests of a particular individual.

7. People mistakenly focus on the outliers who accomplish major, important breakthroughs and think that they’ll be like the outliers, not the medians. This is another variant of the Lake Woebegone effect.

Note that a few fields (econ, computer science) appear to have relatively robust job outcomes for PhDs, so some of the above likely doesn’t apply to them.

Life: There is no authority left edition

All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape. For Lacan, desire is still a by-product of the law. Even the most daring thinkers nowadays do not dare to recognize that prohibition has a protective function with regard to the conflicts inevitably provoked by desire. They would be afraid that people might see them as ‘reactionary’. In the currents of thought that have dominated us for a century, there is one tendency we must never forget: the fear of being regarded as naive or submissive, the desire to play at being the freest thinker—the most ‘radical’, etc. As long as you pander to this desire, you can make the modern intellectual say almost anything you like. This is the new way in which we are still ‘keeping up with the Jonses’.

— Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

The book itself is a hodgepodge of brilliance and incoherence / irrelevance, but the former outweighs the latter. The notion of defining the difference between “man” and “animal” seems to fascinate older philosophers in a way that I find bizarre or unimportant.

To my mind, the strongest part about American culture American culture’s meta ability to rapidly re-write itself in response to changing conditions and outside influences, including conditions related to Girard’s conception of desire.

Universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts: Students are paying higher tuition than ever. Why can’t more of that revenue go to the people teaching them?” is well-summarized by its headline, but there is a very good “excuse” why universities treat adjuncts how they do: because they can. When people stop signing up for grad school and/or to be adjuncts, universities will have to offer better pay and/or conditions. Until that happens, universities won’t.

Markets are clearing.

“There Is No Excuse” keeps popping up in my inbox or in discussion sites, and I keep saying the same thing. The usual response to decry administrators (which is fine with me, although I’m not sure they’re the fundamental driver of cost) and to promote unions. On unions in universities I don’t have incredibly strong opinions; there may be some benefits to the people who get into the union on the ground floor, but raising the pay of some adjuncts will result in shortages of any work for others.

If the market-clearing price is $3,000 per class, and universities have to pay $5,000, there’ll be a large pool of people who can’t get those higher wages because there aren’t a sufficient number of jobs out there for them. So one can trade plentiful but somewhat poorly remunerative jobs for a smaller number of somewhat more remunerative jobs for those who grab them.

Universities will also be somewhat less reluctant to hire anyone, because those people who are hired won’t leave. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a series of court cases eliminated mandatory retirement policies. Those ruling, combined with lengthening life expectancies, meant that tenured faculty could stay on indefinitely—blocking the path forward for younger academics. Which led to… the explosion of adjuncts presently being decried in the media. Unions (usually) prevent their members from being fired, and, if lay-offs do happen, they happen on a “first-in, first-out” basis. So the youngest and freshest workers will be gone first.

Still, I find the rhetoric of faculty who argue that the job of grad students is to be students hilarious; at the University of Arizona, grad students in English taught the same number of classes for the same number of hours as full-time faculty. Grad students, like medical residents, are workers, regardless of what else you call them.

It’s also worth contemplating alternatives to academia, which has lots of barriers to entry, formal credentials, and unspoken rules. Marginal product of labor for academics is hard to measure. by contrast, technology employment works well in part because there are close to zero barriers to entry. Someone who wants to learn to code can type “Learn to code” in Google and start. Unions will make the existing barriers to academia higher, and will leave it less like the healthier parts of the economy.

Academics are not exempt from the law of supply and demand, and it turns out that tenured academics are savvy marketers, singing a song of the life of the mind to the unwary who throw themselves onto the shore of a barren island. Supposedly smart people seem to be doing a lot of not-so-smart things.

By the way, I also like teaching as an adjunct because the jobs are plentiful, the hours are flexible, and the work is quite different from what I usually do. On a dollars-per-hour basis the pay is much worse, but the work itself is sometimes gratifying, and one gets the usual and much-discussed pleasures of teaching (the joy of young minds, etc.). It seems like the online conversation around adjuncts is dominated by people who teach at five different schools and have neither time nor money. Like any job it is not perfect. I do it for the same reason everyone, everywhere, works any job: it beats the alternatives.

The race to the bottom of victimhood and “social justice” culture

In “A Different Kind of Diversity Fear” Matthew Reed writes of a junior professor who

mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity. Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I’ve witnessed similar things in schools where I’ve taught, and this is happening because the diversity coalition is, weirdly, eating its own supporters. At Seliger + Associates we see related challenges in grant writing and wrote about a particular instance in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” The story at the link is hilarious and demonstrates the dangers of saying almost anything about diversity or related matters, since the line between cultural sensitivity and cultural insensitivity barely exists and moves constantly, without warning.

It’s virtually impossible for people, even well-meaning people sympathetic to the social justice worldview, to know whether they’re saying the right thing or the wrong thing about diversity, inclusion, or related matters. Inadvertently saying the wrong thing means being accused of insensitivity—or worse (Scott Alexander touches similar themes in “Radicalizing the Romanceless“). People who are actively trying to be sensitive can’t predict whether they’ll be accused of being insensitive.

Jonathan Haidt has also written about the dangers of victim culture, in “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account” and “The Yale Problem Begins in High School:”

Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into “moral dependents” who cannot deal with problems on their own. They must get adult authorities to validate their victim status.

Victimhood culture has also taken root in universities. It isn’t a purely left-wing phenomenon anymore, either: right-wing students can also take on the mantle of oppression, especially in a university context when right-wing students are the minority. In the United States, can a religious Christian be a victim? What about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? That line of thinking, and the competition to be the bigger victim, can lead to a race to the bottom over who is a victim and who isn’t.

From a professor’s point of view, it takes only one well-meaning but inadvertent comment to end up pilloried. As noted previously, the likely reception of the comment is unknowable, while the accusation can be almost as damning as conviction. In that environment, the optimal solution for someone who values their job is the one Reed’s prof came up with: silence.

Silence around important issues is probably bad, but one doesn’t need elaborate game theory to see why it happens. There is no defense against insensitivity or “triggering.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

I’ve seen the offendedness sweepstakes play out in classrooms. It’s ugly. It’s also impossible to adjudicate different people’s different levels of offendedness because there’s no real standard to compare one person’s level of offense to another’s. I can tell whether a paper is poorly written or well written or whether an argument is well-researched or poorly researched, but I can’t tell whether student x has a better “claim” to victimhood than student y.

The obvious counter to perpetual offendedness is that living in the world requires some level of fortitude and resilience. The flipside to that, however, is that people (including professors) can use “fortitude and resilience” as excuses for being jerks or being deliberately provocative in a non-productive manner.

Still, the current academic climate seems to have swung too far towards the offendedness sweepstakes and too far from fortitude and resilience. But we’re unlikely to see a fortitude coalition form, and even attempting to do such a thing risks the “insensitive” label. So we get more and more offense and less and less thought.

Outside of academia and some media circles none of this matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent Sheep is a truer work of philosophy than 99% of the stuff published under the banner of “philosophy.”

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

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


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