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.

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.

The view from the Tucson afternoon

Outside my window:

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After weeks of hundred-plus days, rain signifies that one can go outside without roasting or feeling caught between sun and pavement. In Seattle, rain was the default and sun a rare treat. Tucson is the opposite; now I marvel gratefully at the rain, thinking that we often want a change from whatever we have, if only for variety’s sake.

Real work calls, and I have a proposal to write.

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Announcement: The Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend

tucson_festival_books_tents21I’ve complained before about the dearth of literary activity in Tucson, but this weekend ought to shut me up for a while: the Tucson Festival of Books is coming to the University of Arizona campus this weekend. Preparations on the mall are underway, as shown on the right.

I’m particularly interested in Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard, who are both speaking on Saturday afternoon. Expect a report next week. If you’re in town, be sure to come!

Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education — Murray Sperber

Federal Requests for Proposals (RFPs) like the Grant Competition To Prevent High-Risk Drinking or Violent Behavior Among College Students are like sheets of paper held up as protection against the hurricane of larger social forces. The program aims to “develop or enhance, implement, and evaluate campus-and/or community-based strategies to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior among college students,” but it’s facing a campus culture that, as Murray Sperber describes in Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, has shifted to drinking and fanatical attention to sports in lieu of learning (I couldn’t help but think of a classic piece from The Onoin, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which sums my feelings about sports I’m not actually playing).

The “How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education” subtitle is slightly misleading: big-time college aren’t themselves crippling education, though they are a contributing facto. Rather, they combine with shifts in university priorities toward research, curriculums, graduate departments, and star professors that, combined with a negative feedback loop thanks to big-time sports and decreased state and federal funding support, leads to inferior undergraduate education at many big schools and big public schools in particular. Hence the “beer and circus” formulation that alludes to bread and circus, with beer deadening thought and circus in the form of sports. Sperber’s argument is not a bad argument, although it’s overstated—universities are not as callow as he makes them out to be. Furthermore, if students in the aggregate didn’t want beer and circus, they would vote with their feet and wallets, as many of the financially able and academically inclined do.

That last designation, “academically inclined,” is an important one: Sperber discusses the four loose categories students tend to fall into, with the collegiate wanting parties, Greek life, and sports, the academic wanting knowledge, the vocational wanting a better job, and the rebels looking for life fulfillment. I might add the “lost” group, or those who wandered into college as an extension of high school and don’t really know why they’re there except that their parents told them to go. These categories aren’t rigid, and students can shift from one to the other and carry traits from more than one, but they’re useful nonetheless. Sperber cites research efforts to explore the composition of schools based on those categories, and it appears that, at many big public schools, the collegiate and vocational students compose the vast majority and have at least since World War II. Schools in turn began shifting their priorities, which accelerated in the 60s and early 70s, and appears to have reached its apotheosis sometime around there.

There’s some danger of propagating a myth of the golden age, but Sperber does seem to have found a genuine shift, especially when he’s discussing funding priorities. The most useful section might be devoted to the culture gap between many of those who control university departments and their undergraduate students. In this respect, the academic outsiders of undergrad eventually become the professors. Here’s where I wonder if the mythological aspect is rising, since, as a percentage basis, the academically inclined might not have dropped any or much, but the sheer number of them simply hasn’t kept up with the collegiate or vocational, and consequently, their influence might have waned. Academic-types also probably can’t connect with professors as easily as they once might have and are more likely to be left adrift in vast classrooms Sperber analogizes to mass transit stations, with all the charming behavior that implies. At the same time, the gulf between undergrads and professors grows: most professors came from the academic culture, while their students don’t. Conflict naturally arises, and I’ve now experienced it—most often indirectly but occasionally directly; the instructors will snicker when they (we?) hear excuses like, “I couldn’t come to class because my sorority kidnapped me…” Such excuses can be especially galling when they come back to back with students who have real problems, like family medical emergencies. How should one respond, I can’t help but asking? There doesn’t seem to be an ideal way, in part because of different values—and I can’t help believing mine are superior. And it’s not easy to inculcate those kinds of values regarding critical thinking, writing, and the like on an industrial scale to people who chiefly want to party. The question becomes, “What should be done?” and the answers—discussed briefly below—seem likely to remain in the ethereal realm of ideas rather than the practical realm of implementation.

Obviously I’ve spent some time considering Sperber’s conclusions and reasoning. But, alas, a book like Beer and Circus reminds me of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why in that both are unlikely to reach the people who need them most—in Bloom’s case, people who don’t or seldom read, and in Sperber’s case, people in positions of power at colleges or who are choosing colleges. The kinds of people most likely to read Beer and Circus are the academics, who are already opposed to the beer and circus mentality and don’t need to be convinced. We find a paradox: someone insightful enough to read this book and who knows something about large universities in the United States will probably already understand the problems it describes, while those who don’t see the problems or like beer and circus aren’t likely to read it.

So how could you decrease campus drinking and such? By now, the game-day culture is sufficiently entrenched that you probably can’t, but one could allocate more money to universities with the stipulation that the money a) not supplant existing teaching funds and—here’s the critical part—b) go entirely to support teaching, rather than research, athletic centers, administrators, and the like. It’s likely to be more effective than approaches like trying to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior through band-aids that don’t fix the fundamental problems underlying the behavior: a persistent focus among faculty on research, among undergraduates on each other, and with almost no one but grad students (like me) minding the undergrads. Small schools and honors programs help somewhat, but Sperber justifiably calls them “lifeboats.” Real change would cost more, take more time and effort, and require more full-time teachers and professors who are actually rewarded, socially and otherwise, for teaching. All that seems improbable: what’s more probable is business-as-usual, with books like Sperber’s marking time in unused libraries while most of the student body spends time on the field and in the stadium.

(Oh, and for more Onion-related mockery: see Shitload Of Math Due Monday, which is not unlike many comments I overhear at the gym.)

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