Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of teaching; I’ve spent a bunch of years teaching college students and being a grant writing consultant, and I suspect that part of the problem airline workers experience is simple and akin to the problems I experience: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy a lot of time and mental energy.* So there’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which impacts interactions with the vast majority of people, who are normal and reasonable.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because that bottom 5% is so noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the bottom represents the whole—even if intellectually one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in, say, consulting.

There seems to be something about the human mind that makes one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. So there’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. And when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole and that behind every irrationally unhappy person there are 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have seen crazy social justice warrior stuff out there, like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale. This stuff is in fact outrageous, but, again, it’s salient because it’s unusual and because it’s unusual one sees it in the news (and it does represent a real problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances who know what I do sometimes ask me about whether I see this kind of stuff. I do, a little. The vast majority of college students, however, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority!

That last point is one many casual news readers don’t realize, which is why I emphasize it. It’s related to my essay, ““How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords often have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, really suffers from this problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, more unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it?


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

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.

Links: The lure of hatred, particle physics, bookstores, academic failures, and satisfaction

* “The Nazi-Era Papers My ‘Mexican’ Mother Kept: She preserved her German ID card, with its ‘J’ stamp, as a warning about the danger in societies driven by nativism and anger.” The most essential link in this list.

* “Is Particle Physics About to Crack Wide Open?

* Can On-Demand Printing Bolster Bookstores?

* “NYC Planners Propose Long Overdue Subway Line Just for the Boroughs.”

* “Is Libertarian Gary Johnson a factor in Clinton-Trump matchup?“, an underrated story.

* “Job-Seeking Ph.D. Holders Look to Life Outside School: New doctorate holders are grappling with dwindling employment prospects within the academy.” This should not surprise readers of this blog. This is me: “Ph.D.s still earn a significant premium over others in the labor market and their overall rate of unemployment remains low, though a growing number are taking jobs that don’t use their education.”

* “University lets rape accuser bring experienced lawyer, won’t let accused bring one,” in what is not likely to be the last of these sorts of bizarre cases.

* An Expensive Law Degree, and No Place to Use It, which should also be well-known to readers here. Yet when I tell students not to go law school, many of them look at me funny.

* “Sex, Income and Happiness.” This is congruent with my 2009 post on Stumbling on Happiness and my 2014 post on “The inequality that matters.”

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.

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