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.

Susan Engel doesn't get the problems with schools, but she'll tell us to "Teach Your Teachers Well" anyway

Susan Engel’s Teach Your Teachers Well completely misses the point. She says:

And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.

But the problems with teacher training probably have less to do with teacher training and more to do with institutional structures and incentives within teaching itself.

She says, “Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior.” The reason they probably look down upon education is that most educators, in the sense of public school teachers, have little incentive to excel at teaching once they earn tenure; consequently, most don’t. There’s been a lot of material published on this subject:

Taken together, these pieces paint the proverbial damning indictment of how teaches are hired, promoted, and (not) fired. Once you’ve read them, it’s hard to accept the dissembling evident from teachers’ unions. Given the research cited regarding the importance of good teachers and how few incentives there are to become a good teacher, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that education majors and graduate students typically have incredibly low standardized test scores and GPAs, as shown in the following chart (2002; source):


Notice that education is at the bottom. Should it be much of a surprise that the best universities, which are almost by definition hyper-competitive, look down on the profession? Susan Engel thinks so.

If you change the incentives around teaching, the programs that teach teachers will change, and so will the skill of the teachers more generally. Over the last thirty years, the larger economy has undergone a vast shift toward greater competition and freer markets—a vast boon to consumers. The market for primary and secondary education has seen virtually none of this competition, or, to the extent it has seen such competition, has seen it on a district-by-district level, which requires geographical moves to take advantage of it.

This topic is one I attend to more than others because I think I’d like teaching high school and that I might even be good at it. But the pay is low, even relative to academia (which isn’t most remunerative field in existence), and, worse, there’s virtually no extrinsic reward for excellence. Almost anyone with a slightly competitive spirit is actively driven out; even those who have it begin with probably lose it when they realize they’ll make the same money for less work than those with it. And you’ll basically have to spend an extra year or two and lots of money to get an M.A. in education, which sounds like a worthless degree.

If you teach computer science in most districts, you make as much as someone who teaches P.E. You might notice that, according to‘s average salary by major table, education majors usually start at about $36,200 and make a mid-career average of $54,100. That’s probably low because it doesn’t take into account the extra time off teachers get during the summer. Still, notice the numbers for Math: $47,000 / $93,600, Computer Science: $56,400 / $97,400 or even my own major, English: $37,800 / $66,900.

But I doubt money will solve the problem without institutional reform, which is very slowly picking up. Susan Engel’s comments, however, only muddy the water with platitudes instead of real solutions.

EDIT: And if you want further hilarity as far as teaching incentives go, check out Edward Mason’s story, “Union blocks teacher bonuses.” As Radley Belko says, “The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.”

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