Instant feedback in the classroom, and in life

You never really know if you’re teaching the right thing. The best way to get closer that ideal is instant feedback.

When I’m teaching, I often ask simple, binary questions (“How many of you think you’d leave the body?” of Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home;” “How many of you checked Facebook at least once while you were writing your essays? More than once?” of Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“) to gauge the classroom’s temperature. I also ask a lot of questions and ask students to write their answers in two to five minutes, so they have some kind of coherent response. The writing serves a second purpose: I can walk around, look over students’ shoulders or ask to see their answers, and get five to ten responses in less than a minute and change plans accordingly based on those responses.

A few days ago, for example, I asked open-ended questions about “Disconnecting Distraction” and found that about five of twenty students had read it. So a discussion about “Disconnecting Distraction” made no sense. Talking about what it meant that so few people had read “Disconnecting Distraction” made a lot of sense. So we did that instead.

I never know what’s going to happen when I walk in. I have some things planned if no one wants to start a discussion, as well as some ways of steering conversations toward close reading and ideas if the conversation meanders too much. But making hard-and-fast plans, then executing them regardless of the conditions on the ground, leads to sub-optimal class time.

I’ve been in plenty of classrooms like that, and my experiences have been every bit as dull and tedious as yours. Instead, I incorporate immediate feedback and establish the tightest loop I can between me and and students. If class doesn’t go as planned, I’m not going to take it personally: I’m going to ask “why?” and figure something out. Anything less can be done online, through a broadcast lecture (I’ve actually thought about getting a friend to record my classes, then putting the recordings on YouTube, but it’s a project that would take a fair amount of effort and deliver little immediate return to me. I might do it anyway).

These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere, and they’re linked to the larger intellectual climate. For example, innumerable Hacker News posts discuss how business plans don’t survive first contact with customers and how you have to listen to customers and iterate rapidly if you’re going to run a successful business—especially a successful startup. The “survive first contact” reference in the first sentence is adapted from the military’s idea that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. It’s easy to see how those ideas can be adapted for the classroom. See also this Atlantic article on great teachers:

Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing. . . .

For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding . . .

The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer.

The article focuses on K – 12 teachers, but the same principles apply across the age spectrum: does the person you’re trying to reach understand what’s going on? Can they think on their feet (or, since they’re sitting, on their ass)? A week later, can you ask follow-up questions and see if students retain what they were doing? How about a month later?

These are questions I should be able to answer, and I should be able to get data on them quickly, without disrupting what else is happening. Granted, there’s near-zero institutional incentive at universities for grad students or even professors to think about this when they teach, but I do it anyway because I think teaching well is important and because I’ve sat through so many hours of idiotic, half-baked instruction and would like to avoid inflicting the same on my own students. To me, rapid measurement and change is part of “teaching with authenticity and authority.”

A couple other notes:

1) In some ways, teaching is a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger economy and what’s being rewarded right now: innovation, rapid responses to changing circumstances, attention to detail, and a willingness to do whatever is needed at a particular time, without resorting to tradition or past ideas that might have no authority in the present.

2) I’ve have witnessed numerous teachers and other quasi authority figures demanding “respect” or some equally dubious homage for their “position,” rather than because they’ve earned it. That sort of thing is bogus, has always been bogus, and always will be bogus, yet it continues anyway, and it’s the sort of thing I want to avoid.

3) Life decides whether what you’re doing is effective or not. So I’m not as worried about catching cheaters and so forth; their real judge is the market, and the market is infinitely harsher and infinitely more demanding than I am. If they can pass market tests without learning how to read and write, then that’s their affair. But by choosing to avoid, to the extent they can, knowledge, they’re going to make the market tests that much harder when those tests arrive, as they do for virtually everyone save those who are cosseted by such mammoth wealth they can lead lives of shocking indolence and, to my mind, tedium, which sounds like much greater punishment than I could possibly mete out, even were I inclined to do so. Sometimes I explicitly connect classes to the larger world. I’m not sure those connections are successful, but they are present.

Facebook, go away—if I want to log in, I know where to find you

Facebook keeps sending me e-mails about how much I’m missing on Facebook; see the image at the right for one example. But I’m not convinced I’m missing anything, no matter how much Facebook wants me to imagine I am.

In “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors,” Ben Casnocha says that writers need to “Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.” Many other writers echo him. We have, all of us, a myriad of choices every day. We can choose to do something that might provide some lasting meaning or value. Or we can choose to tell people who are often effectively strangers what we ate for dinner, or that we’re listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Lil’ Wayne, or our inconsidered, inchoate opinions about the political or social scandal of the day, which will be forgotten by everybody except Wikipedia within a decade, if not a year.

Or we can choose to do something better—which increasingly means we have to control distractions—or, as Paul Graham puts it, “disconnect” them. Facebook and other entities that make money from providing distractions are, perhaps not surprisingly, very interested in getting you more interested in their distractions. That’s the purpose of their e-mails. But I’ve becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook offers something closer to simulacra than real life, and that the people who are going to do something really substantial are, increasingly, going to be the people who can master Facebook—just as the people who did really substantial things in the 1960 – 2005 period learned to master TV.

Other writers in the “Practical Tips” essay discuss the importance of setting work times (presumably distinct from Facebook times) or developing schedules or similar techniques to make sure you don’t let, say, six hours pass, then wonder what happened during those six hours—probable answers might include news, e-mail, social networks, TV, dabbling, rearrange your furniture, cleaning, whatever. All things that might be worthwhile, but only in their place. And Facebook’s place should be small, no matter how much the site itself encourages you to make it big. I’ll probably log on Facebook again, and I’m not saying you should never use Facebook, or that you should always avoid the Internet. But you should be cognizant of what you’re doing, and Facebook is making it increasingly easy not to be cognizant. And that’s a danger.

I was talking to my Dad, who recently got on Facebook—along with Curtis Sittenfeld joining, this is a sure sign Facebook is over—and he was creeped out by having Pandora find his Facebook account with no active effort on his part; the same thing happened when he was posting to TripAdvisor under what he thought was a pseudonym. On the phone, he said that everyone is living in Neuromancer. And he’s right. Facebook is trying to connect you in more and more places, even places you might not necessarily want to be connected. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Facebook, of course, but my Dad’s experience shows what’s happening in the background of your online life: companies are gathering data from you that will reappear in unpredictable places.

There are defenses against the creeping power of master databases. I’ve begun using Ghostery, a brilliant extension for Firefox, Safari, and Chrome that lets one see web bugs, beacons, and third-party sites that follow your movements around the Internet. Here’s an example of the stuff, a relatively innocuous news site, loads every time a person visits:

What is all that stuff? It’s like the mystery ingredients in so much prepackaged food: you wonder what all those polysyllabic substances are but still know, on some level, they can’t be good for you. In the case of’s third-party tracking software, Ghostery can at least tell you what’s going on. It also gives you a way to block a lot of the tracking—hence the strikethroughs on the sites I’ve blocked. The more astute among you will note that I’m something of a hypocrite when it comes to a data trail—I still buy stuff from, which keeps your purchase history forever—but at least one can, to some extent, fight back against the companies who are tracking everything you do.

But fighting back technologically, through means like Ghostery, is only part of the battle. After I began writing this essay, I began to notice things like this, via a Savage Love letter writer:

I was briefly dating someone until he was a huge asshole to me. I have since not had any contact with him. However, I have been Facebook stalking him and obsessing over pictures of the guys I assume he’s dating now. Why am I having such a hard time getting over him? Our relationship was so brief! He’s a major asshole!

I don’t think Facebook is making it easier for the writer to get over him or improve your life. It wouldn’t be a great stretch to think Facebook is making the process harder. So maybe the solution is to get rid of Facebook, or at least limit one’s use, or unfriend the ex, or some combination thereof. Go to a bar, find someone else, reconnect with the real world, find a hobby, start a blog, realize that you’re not the first person with these problems. Optimal revenge, if you’re the sort of person who goes in that direction, is a life well-lived. Facebook stalking is the opposite: it’s a life lived through the lives of others, without even the transformative power of language that media like the novel offer.

Obviously, obsessive behavior predated the Internet. But the Internet and Facebook make it so much easier to engage in obsessive behavior—you don’t even have to leave your house!—that the lower friction costs make the behavior easier to indulge. One solution: remove the tool by which you engage in said obsessive behavior. Dan Savage observes, “But it sounds like you might still have feelings for this guy! Just a hunch!” And if those feelings aren’t reciprocated, being exposed to the source of those feelings on a routine basis, even in digital form, isn’t going to help. What is going to help? Finding an authentic way of spending your time; learning to get in a state of flow; building or making stuff that other people find useful. Notice that Facebook is not on that list.

Some of you might legitimately ask why I keep a Facebook account, given my ambivalence, verging on antipathy. The answers are several fold: the most honest is probably that I’m a hypocrite. The next-most honest is that, if / when my novels start coming out, Facebook might be useful as an ad tool. And some people use Facebook and only Facebook to send out messages about events and parties. It’s also a useful to figure out when I’m going to a random city who might’ve moved there. Those people you lost touch with back in college suddenly become much closer when you’re both strangers somewhere.

But those are rare needs. The common needs that Facebook fulfills—to quasi-live through someone else’s life, to waste time, to feel like you’re on an anhedonic treadmill of envy—shouldn’t be needs at all. Facebook is encouraging you to make them needs. I’m encouraging you to realize that the real answers to life aren’t likely to be found on Facebook, no matter how badly Facebook wants to lure you to that login screen—they’re likely going to be found within.

By the way, I love In Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors. I’ve read it a couple times and still love it. It’s got a lot of surface area for such a short post, which is why I keep linking to it in various contexts.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr

One irony of this post is that you’re reading a piece on the Internet about a book that is in part about how the Internet is usurping the place of books. In The Shallows, Carr argues that the Internet encourages short attention spans, skimming, shallow knowledge, and distraction, and that this is a bad thing.

He might be right, but his argument misses one essential component: the absolute link between the Internet and distraction. He cites suggestive research but never quite crosses the causal bridge from the Internet as inherently distracting, both because of links and because of the overwhelming potential amount of material out there, and that we as a society and as a people are now endlessly distracted. Along the way, there are many soaring sentiments (“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book”) and clever quotes (Nietzsche as quoted by Carr: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”), but that causal link is still weak.

I liked many of the points Carr made; that one about Nietzsche is something I’ve meditated over before, as shown here and here (I’ve now distracted you and you’re probably less likely to finish this post than you would be otherwise; if I offered you $20 for repeating the penultimate sentence in the comments section, I’d probably get no takers); I think our tools do cause us to think differently in some way, which might explain why I pay more attention to them than some bloggers do. And posts on tools and computer set ups and so forth seem to generate a lot of hits; Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have is among the more popular Grant Writing Confidential posts.

I use Devonthink Pro as described by Steven Berlin Johnson, which supplements my memory and acts as research tool, commonplace book, and quote database, and probably weakens my memory while allowing me to write deeper blog posts and papers. Maybe I remember less in my mind and more in my computer, but it still takes my mind to give context to the material copied into the database.

In fact, Devonthink Pro helped me figure out a potential contradiction in Carr’s writing. On page 209, he says:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

But on page 47 he says: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.” So if “sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” then is it true that “The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function?” The two statements aren’t quite mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Maybe reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being will clear up or deepen whatever confusion exists, since he a) went deep but b) like many philosophers, is hard to read and is closer to a machine for generating multiple interpretations than an illuminator and simplifier of problems. This could apply to philosophy in general as seen from the outside.

This post mirrors some of Carr’s tendencies, like the detour in the preceding paragraph. I’ll get back to the main point for a moment: Carr’s examples don’t necessarily add up to proving his argument, and some of them feel awfully tenuous. Some are also inaccurate; on page 74 he mentions a study that used brain scans to “examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction” and cites Nicole K. Speer’s journal article “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences,” which doesn’t mention fiction and uses a memoir from 1951 as its sample text.


That’s a relatively minor issue, however, and one that I only discovered because I found the study interesting enough to look up.

Along the way in The Shallows we get lots of digressions, and many of them are well-trod ones: the history of the printing press; the origins of the commonplace books; the early artificial intelligence program ELIZA; Frederick Winslow Taylor and his efficiency interest; the plasticity of the brain; technologies that’ve been used for various purposes, including metaphor.

Those digressions almost add up to one of my common criticisms of nonfiction books, which is that they’d be better as long magazine articles. The Shallows started as one, and one I’ve mentioned before: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer: maybe. The answer now, two years and 200 pages later: maybe. Is the book a substantial improvement on the article? Maybe. You’ll probably get 80% of the book’s content from the article, which makes me think you’d be better off following the link to the article and printing it—the better not to be distracted by the rest of The Atlantic. This might tie into the irony that I mentioned in the first line of this post, which you’ve probably forgotten by now because you’re used to skimming works on the Internet, especially moderately long ones that make somewhat subtle arguments.

Offline, Carr says, you’re used to linear reading—from start to finish. Online, you’re used to… something else. But we’re not sure what, or how to label the reading that leads away from the ideal we’ve been living in: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

Again, maybe, which is the definitive word for analyzing The Shallows: but we don’t actually have a name for this kind of mind, and it’s not apparent that the change is as major as Carr describes: haven’t we always made disparate connections among many things? Haven’t we always skimmed until we’ve found what we’re looking for, and then decided to dive in? His point is that we no longer do dive in, and he might be right—for some people; but for me, online surfing, skimming, and reading coexists with long-form book reading. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to get through The Shallows.

Still, I don’t like reading on my Kindle very much because I’ve discovered that I often tend to hop back and forth between pages. In addition, grad school requires citations that favor conventional books. And for all my carping about the lack of causal certainty regarding Carr’s argument, I do think he’s on to something because of my own experience. He says:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

He says friends have reported similar experiences. I feel the same way as him and his friends: the best thing I’ve found for improving my productivity and making reading and writing easier is a program called Freedom, which prevents me from getting online unless I reboot my iMac. It throws enough of a barrier between me and the Internet that I can’t easily distract myself through e-mail or Hacker News (Freedom has also made writing this post slightly harder, because during the first draft, I haven’t been able to add links to various appropriate places, but I think it worth the trade-off, and I didn’t realize I was going to write this post when I turned it on). Paul Graham has enough money that he uses another computer for the same purpose, as he describes in the linked essay, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Disconnecting Distraction” (sample: “After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction, because I didn’t realize that it evolves.” Guess what distraction evolved into: the Internet).

Another grad student in English Lit expressed shock when I told him that I check my e-mail at most once a day and shook for every two days, primarily in an effort not to distract myself with electronic kibble or kipple. Carr himself had to do the same thing: he moves to Colorado and jettisons much of his electronic life, and he “throttled back my e-mail application […] I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began to keeping the program closed much of the day.” I work better that way. And I think I read better, or deeper, offline.

For me, reading a book is a very different experience from searching the web, in part because most of the websites I visit are exhaustible much faster than books. I have a great pile of them from the library waiting to be read, and an even greater number bought or gifted over the years. Books worth reading seem to go on forever. Websites don’t.

But if I don’t have that spark of discipline to stay off the Internet for a few hours at a time, I’m tempted to do the RSS round-robin and triple check the New York Times for hours, at which point I look up and say, “What did I do with my time?” If I read a book—like The Shallows, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’m most of the way through now—I look up in a couple of hours and know I’ve done something. This is particularly helpful for me because, as previously mentioned, I’m in grad school, which means I have to be a perpetual reader (if I didn’t want to be, I’d find another occupation).

To my mind, getting offline can become a comparative advantage because, like Carr, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” and that someone is me and that someone is the Internet. But I can’t claim this is true for all people in all places, even as I tell my students to try turning off their Internet access and cell phones when they write their papers. Most of them no doubt don’t. But the few who do learn how to turn off the electronic carnival are probably getting something very useful out of that advice. The ones who don’t probably would benefit from reading The Shallows because they’d at least become aware of the possibility that the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that might not be beneficial to us, however tenuous the evidence (notice my hedging language: “at least,” “the possibility” “might not”).

Alas: they’re probably the ones least likely to read it.

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