Links: Reading, photos, teaching, life

* Inadvertently depressing, though it does raise the relative status of photographers: “Photos are the killer content type on mobile. Quick to consume like text, but easier to produce on a phone.”

* “The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking,” or, why economics offends through counterintuitive facts and principles.

* “Putting Teacher Tenure In Context,” which has revised my opinions.

* “Reading: The Struggle” (maybe).

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* Someone found this blog by searching for “nurses making love.” I don’t know either.

* “When Literature Was Dangerous.”

* “Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.

Briefly noted: The Great Man — Kate Christensen

The Great Man is one of the best novels I’ve read recently; it should be cited more often. Almost every page delights. It’s the sort of novel I should hate but yet don’t. A longer essay on it is coming, but it’s coming far behind work on Asking Anna, a novel of mine you’ll see more about shortly, and work-for-money. Nonetheless here is one characteristic passage from early in the novel:

“Please sit down,” said Teddy; she intended it as a command. She wasn’t impressed by Henry. She guessed he was forty or thereabouts. He looked like a lightweight, the kind of young man you saw everywhere these days, gutless and bland. He wore soft cotton clothing, a little rumpled from the heat and long drive in the car—she would have bet it was a Volvo. She could smell domesticity on him, the technologically up-to-date apartment on the Upper West Side, the ambitious, hard-edged wife—women were the hard ones at that age. Men turned sheepish and eager to please after about forty. Oscar had been the same way; he’d turned into a bit of hangdog at around forty and hadn’t fully regained his chutzpah until he’d hit fifty or so, but even then, she had never lost interest in him, and she was still interested in him now, even though he was gone.

We learn more about Teddy than about the stages of life and yet she, like almost every character, is half right half the time. One could spend an hour well on this paragraph in a fiction-writing class.

College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs

I’m an on-the-record fan of William Deresiewicz, which made reading “Tsunami: How the market is destroying higher education” distressing. It blames problems in contemporary higher education on capitalism and markets, but I think it ignores a couple of things, the most important of which is the role in colleges in raising prices, increasing the number of administrators, and reducing teaching loads for tenured faculty.

Beyond that, Deresiewicz discusses Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is a dubious place to start; see, for example, “Shock Jock” for one critique. In it, Tyler Cowen notes that “Most of the book is a button-pressing, emotionally laden, whirlwind tour of global events over the last 30 years” and that “The book offers not so much an argument but rather a Dadaesque juxtaposition of themes and supposedly parallel developments in the global market.” Klein’s book reminds me of the bad academic writing that assumes the dubious evils of capitalism without quite spelling out what those dubious evils are or what plausible alternatives exist.

Returning to Deresiewicz: “College is now judged in terms of ‘return on investment,’ the delivery of immediately negotiable skills.” But this might simply be due to rising costs: when college was (relatively) inexpensive, it was easy to pay less attention to ROI issues; when it’s almost impossible to afford without loans for middle-class families, it becomes much harder. ROI on degrees that, in contemporary terms, cost $20,000 can be safely ignored. ROI on degrees that cost $150,000 can’t be.

Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher.

Presidents and other bureaucrats make popular punching bags—hell, I took a couple whacks in my first paragraph—and perhaps they are “overpaid” (though one should ask why Boards of Trustees are willing to pay them what they do), but such highly-paid administrators still aren’t very expensive relative to most colleges’ overall budgets. I would like to see universities exercise greater discipline in this area, but I doubt they will until they’re forced to by markets. At the moment, schools are underwritten by federally-backed, non-dischargeable loans taken out by students. Until we see real reform,

The only good answer about the rise in college costs that I’ve seen come from Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Their short answer: “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” Unfortunately, it’s more fun pointing fingers at evil administrators, evil markets, evil capitalism, and ignorance students who want to know how much they’re going to make after they graduate.

At the very least, Why Does College Cost So Much? is a better place to start than The Shock Doctrine.

These questions are getting more and more play in the larger culture. Is College a Lousy Investment? appears in The Daily Beast. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” appears in The New York Times. A surprisingly large number of people with degrees are working in jobs that don’t require them: in coffee shops, as bartenders, as flight attendants, and so on. That’s a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be primarily about personal development and partying. So what should students, at the individual level, do?

To figure out whether college is a good idea, you have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish: getting a credential or gaining knowledge. If the primary purpose is the latter, and you have a strong sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it, college isn’t automatically the best option. It probably is if you’re 18, because, although you don’t realize this now, you don’t know anything. It might not be when you’re, say, 23, however.

Part of the problem with discussing “college” is that you’re discussing a huge number of varied institutions that do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. For people getting $200,000 English degrees from non-elite universities, college makes less sense (mine cost about half that much, and in retrospect I might’ve been better off with a state school for half again as much, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and seems to have worked out for me, as an individual). For people getting technical degrees from state schools, college does a huge amount for lifetime earnings. Talking about these two very different experiences of “college” is like talking about eating at McDonald’s and eating at New York’s best restaurant: they’re both about selling food, but the differences dwarf the similarities. College is so many different things that generalizing is tough or simply dumb.

In response to paragraphs like mine, above, we’re getting essays like Keith Burgess-Jackson’s “You Are Not My Customer.” Burgess-Jackson is correct to say that not everything can be valued in terms of dollars—that’s a point that Lewis Hyde makes in The Gift and others have made in terms of market vs. non-market economies. The question is whether we should view university education through a market lets.

When tuition was relatively cheap and quite affordable in absolute and relative terms, it made sense to look at universities through a “gift”-style lens, as Burgess-Jackson wants us to. Now that tuition is extremely high, however, we basically don’t have the luxury of making this choice: we can’t be paying $50,000 – $250,000 for an undergrad degree and have the attitude of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” It’s one or the other, not both, and universities are the ones setting prices.

Comments like this: “Good teachers know that most learning, certainly all durable learning, is self-effected” are true. But if Burgess-Jackson thinks that his students aren’t customers, wait until the administration finds that no one will or wants to take his classes. Unless he’s a publishing superstar, I suspect he’ll find out otherwise. I’d like universities to be less market-oriented and more gift-oriented, but an era of $20,000+ comprehensive costs for eight to nine months of instruction just doesn’t make that orientation plausible.

Links: The Amis obsession, Roosh’s hate mail, quiet, feminism and Ke$ha, and Alan Jacobs on taste

* The Amis Obsession.

* Roosh: “This is the fourth time where I’ve woken up and had an entire country mad at me. It does make the day a little more interesting…”

* “The Quiet Ones.” This describes me, and wanting quiet sometimes makes me feel increasingly out of place, or out of time. The Hacker News discussion is also good, and Paul Graham said this:

I think the fundamental problem with noisy people is not that they’re inconsiderate, but that they don’t have any train of thought to interrupt, and they thus don’t realize the havoc they’re wreaking.

When I was living in Providence, working on On Lisp, I told my loud but well-meaning neighbors that I was writing a hard computer book, and that made them be quiet. Ordinary people can understand that you need quiet if you’re working on some specific, hard task, like doing math homework. What they don’t grasp is that someone would want their mind to work that way all the time, as a matter of course.

* “The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen.” My favorite annoying question when I hear people discussing the contemporary impact of terrorism is this: About how many Americans die in car accidents every year? If they don’t know the answer, they probably aren’t all that serious about evaluating real dangers and priorities. Sometimes it takes re-framing an issue to make sense of it.

* A highly dubious yet interesting observation:

If prominent feminist thinkers of the last century or so were to get together and design their composite “woman of tomorrow,” what would she be like?

Weirdly enough, she might look and act kind of like… um, Ke$ha.

* Alan Jacobs: “Ranking the Writers,” on how literary tastes change over time.

Summary Judgement: Sweet Tooth — Ian McEwan

For a novel about a spy, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly slack. Maybe it’s slack in defense of realism. The cause eludes me, since the writing is as customarily crisp as the story isn’t. Excellent quotes are easy, from the first page, with this description of Serena’s father, an Anglican Bishop: his “belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne House.” The parents are distant to the point of barely believable indifference: much later in the novel, Serena thinks, “Would the Bishop even notice I’d been away?” She’s free of parents, like an orphan in a 19th Century novel or a teenager in a contemporary TV show.

That doesn’t detract from the aforementioned beauty, like this, to go back to the second page: “We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good.” Serena, on learning about the difficulties of writing, “went for important walks,” the silliness and accuracy of the phrase “important walks” working so well to conceptualize her state of mind and what many people with intellectual dispositions end up doing.

But the beauty of sentences eventually feels like backdrop when a second or third act fails to develop. The novel ends with a great, revisionary secret, the sort of secret that powers PhD dissertations more often than it does readerly love. We’ve seen these surprise techniques before—most notably in Atonement, but also, after a fashion, On Chesil Beach.

Like many writers, including this one, McEwan, through Serena, is at least interested in and perhaps obsessed by what reading and books do to people. Serena works in books as much as she’s a spy and sleeps with authors (which is the sort of practice I’d like to encourage). She notes what she reads and how she reads it. The book becomes about a love of books, but it does so to the point that the occupant of this book becomes dull. What does the book talk add up to? I’m a person sympathetic to books and book talk, but in Sweet Tooth the answer is “not much.” It becomes easy to lose focus midway through. Sure, for Serena, reading is how she both constructs and understands her world, but then you have to, you know, go do something. That’s not to say that she isn’t artful or funny. Consider this problem, about Jeremy, Serena’s first lover who turns out, predictably, to prefer men:

I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mind. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.

Colette was her escape, but into what and from what? From mysteries? From something she can’t quite articulate, perhaps. And Serena, as a narrator, is also willing to ostentatiously tell us that she’s older and wiser now: “What I took to be the norm—taut, smooth, supple—was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!” This intrusion of the future self reminds us that we’re reading something from the future of events, with two pairs of eyes: the eyes of the undergraduate Serena and the eyes of the much older Serena, imagining her younger self from a position of greater articulacy and knowledge. Done too often, though, it becomes tedious. The notes in my copy trail off as the novel advances, and as I hope for Serena to become more than an acted-upon reporter of events. Her own life feels like it happened to someone else. Later in the novel, much later, the reason for this is revealed. But the view at the end of a long trail doesn’t always redeem the journey. The reason is clever, cerebral, not expected and not forced, and doesn’t make me want to read Sweet Tooth again, unless the next reading is part of some academic project about the usual sorts of academic things.

Serena says this of her reading habit:

All thanks to my mother, I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.

Reading can be a powerful way of not thinking. I know from experience, even if most people think of reading as a highbrow, intensely intellectual activity these days. It isn’t, necessarily. And the assigned essay can be a chore instead of a pleasure. Serena wants it to be a pleasure:

My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Simple intellectual and erotic needs might be easier to fulfill than complex ones, in one sense, but also harder, in the way that a simple task executed perfectly may be harder than a complex task executed with a margin for error. Still, Serena should have known that it isn’t vulgar to want love and marriage and plot. It’s vulgar that professors and highbrow critics might make her think it is vulgar to want those things, to want fiction that might be, to use that overused term, “relatable.” That one might be able to follow effectively. Serena isn’t a close reader, or someone practicing towards being a professional.

But she is someone who learns how to be through books, which makes her different from someone who learns how to be from in other ways, or someone who never learns how to be. She says, “I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work.” Her friends are snobby and dismissive. Given the choice between snobby and unrefined but passionate, I’ll take the latter. The difference between those becomes a running issue, as when Serena begins to write a little column, and, like bloggers, something unfortunate happens: “I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously.”

It’s a narrow act, the stance that straddles too serious and not serious enough. When I’m waffling between them, I try for “not serious enough:” after all, we’re talking about fiction here, not life and death. But for Serena the two become bound together because of her work. That’s an interesting theme; if only the plot were drilled more vigorously through the loam of Serena’s mind and story.

I’m not the only one to notice bad academic writing: B.R. Myers in The Atlantic

I’ve occasionally, and probably futilely, pointed out bad academic writing, but my audience is small and the war against cliche is a lonely one, fought mostly by guerrilla cranks, misfits, and writers, frequently all embodied in the same person, and often ten against the official and indifferent edifice of institutions that are nominally devoted to literary excellence. But I’m heartened that B.R. Myers has spotlighted the problem in his Atlantic review of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight:

The author also conforms to the current academic practice of laboriously redescribing the obvious. To say that people hide what they don’t want others or themselves to see is to make a commonsense point that a small child could grasp. It verges on tautology. Yet for all his access to a rarely described world, Pachirat keeps returning to this of all points, writing in revelatory tones of a “politics of sight,” of “distinctions between visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined that, in theory, keep repugnant activities hidden and therefore make them tolerable.” In a profession where success is judged by how often one gets quoted, the author has perhaps succeeded in creating a new catchphrase, something colleagues writing on other topics may feel compelled to invoke. As in, say: “The dictator’s effort to conceal the massacre was a prime example of what Timothy Pachirat calls ‘the politics of sight.’ ”

In academia, you don’t earn points for beauty or concision, but you might be docked for confusing a distracted or dense peer reviewer. So writers err on the side of the obvious, because that’s what their incentive structure rewards. The person who gives up reading because of bad writing isn’t considered.

The Facebook Eye and the artist’s eye

“We are increasingly aware of how our lives will look as a Facebook photo, status update or check-in,” according to Nathan Jurgenson in “The Facebook Eye,” and the quote stood out not only because I think it’s true, but because this kind of double awareness has long been characteristic of writers, photographers, artists, and professional videographers. Now it’s simply being disseminated through the population at large.

I’m especially aware of this tendency among writers, and in my own life I even encourage and cultivate it by carrying around a notebook. Now, a notebook obviously doesn’t have the connectivity of a cell phone, but it does still encourage a certain performative aspect, and a readiness to harvest the material of every day life in order to turn it into art. Facebook probably isn’t art—at least to me it isn’t, although I can imagine some people arguing that it is—and I think that’s the key difference between the Facebook Eye and what artists are doing and have been doing for a very long time. I’ve actually been contemplating and taking notes on a novel about a photographer who lives behind his (potentially magic) camera instead of in the moment, and that might be part of the reason why I’m more cognizant of the feeling being expressed.

Anyway, Michael Lewis’s recently gave an NPR interview about his recent Obama article (which is worth reading on its own merits, and, like Tucker Max’s “What it’s like to play basketball with Obama,” uses the sport as a way of drawing larger conclusions about Obama’s personality and presidency). In the interview, Lewis sees Obama as having that writer’s temperament, and even says that “he really is, at bottom, a writer,” and goes on to say Obama is “in a moment, and not in a moment at the same time.” Lewis says Obama can be “in a room, but detach himself at the same time,” and he calls it “a curious inside-outside thing.” As I indicated, I don’t think this is unique to writers, although it may be more prevalent or pronounced in writers. Perhaps that’s why writers love great art and, in some ways, sex, more than normal people: both offer a way into living in the present. If writers are more predisposed towards alcoholism—I’m not sure if they are or not, though many salient examples spring to mind—getting out of the double perspective might be part of the reason why.

I think the key differences between what I do, with a notebook, and what Facebook enables via phones, are distance and perspective. My goal isn’t to have an instantaneous audience for the fact that I just did Cool Activity X. Whatever may emerge from what I’m observing is only going to emerge in a wholly different context that obscures its origins as a conversation, a snatch of overheard dialogue, a thing read in a magazine, or an observation from a friend. The lack of immediacy means that I don’t think I’m as immediately performative in most circumstances.

But the similarities remain: Jurgenson writes that “my concern is that the ultimate power of social media is how it burrows into us, our minds, our consciousness, changing how we consciously experience the world even when logged off.” And I think writing and other forms of art do the same thing: they “burrow into us,” like parasites that we welcome, and change the way we experience the world.

Still, the way we experience the world has probably been changing continuously throughout human history. The idea of having “human history” is a relatively recent idea: most hunter-gatherers didn’t have it, for example. The changes Facebook (and its analogues; I’m only using Facebook as a placeholder for a broader swath of technologies) is bringing seem new, weird, and different because they are, obviously, new. For all I know, most of my students already have the Facebook Eye more than any other kind of eye or way of being. This has its problems, as William Deresiewicz points out in “Solitude and Leadership,” but presumably people who watch with the Facebook Eye are getting something—even a very cheap kind of fame—out of what they do. And writers generally want fame too, regardless of what they say—if they didn’t, they’d be silent.

I think the real problem is that artists become aware of their double consciousness, while most normal people probably aren’t—they just think of it as “normal.” But then again, very few us probably contemplate how “normal” changes by time and place in general.


Thanks to Elena for sending me “The Facebook Eye”.

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