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”.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier — Edward Glaeser

When I lived in Seattle, I was driving a friend home when she said she didn’t like all the new buildings because they pushed poor people out of the city. I was confused by her argument and that building more housing units will make it easier for poor people—any people, really—to afford to live in the city, but she argued that wasn’t true because the existing buildings were “worse.” But that doesn’t matter much: if a given parcel of land goes from having four units on it to four hundred, that’s vastly more supply. The conversation’s already low level of intellectual content degenerated, but I thought of it as I read Triumph of the City, which gathers a lot of useful information about cities and what they offer in one place. Yes, the title is overwrought, but the content is useful, and I especially noticed this, about Jane Jacobs:

Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability. That’s not how supply and demand work. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.

It’s basic supply and demand, but, from what I can tell, relatively few cities actually discuss supply, demand, and housing costs—which is unfortunate given the extreme costs of many desirable cities that offer intensive knowledge spillover effects. If how we live affects what we think and how we think, we should pay a lot of attention to how we live. Yet few of us do, though more of us should. Triumph of the City is the kind of book unmoored young people and people contemplating career changes need to read, because where you live affects so much of how you live. This part speaks to a dilemma I’m facing:

In the year 2000, people were willing to accept lower real wages to live in New York, which means that they were coming to New York despite the fact that higher prices more than erased higher wages. It’s not that New York had become less productive; the city’s nominal wages, which reflect productivity, were higher than ever. But housing prices, fueled by the robust demand to live and play in the city, had risen even more than nominal earnings. If housing prices rise enough relative to nominal incomes, as they do when cities become more pleasant, then real incomes can actually fall during a period of great urban success. Manhattan had changed from a battlefield to an urban playground, and people were willing to pay, in the form of lower wages, for the privilege of living there.

I’m likely to move to New York and live for at least two years. Which raises questions: am I willing to “accept lower real wages” because of the housing cost increases? How valuable is “an urban playground?” Perhaps not valuable enough to keep me there. I love New York and just wish I could live there. L.A. has similar problems, and I have some friends who want to leave Tucson—for which I blame them not at all—and are contemplating where to go; based on their disposition and temperaments, Seattle or Portland would be obvious choices. They’re much less expensive, and moving to either will probably result in an increase of 10 – 20% in real income terms, as Virginia Postrel shows in “A Tale of Two Town Houses.” (Glaeser speaks to L.A., too, however indirectly: “Cities grow by building up, or out, and when a city doesn’t build, people are prevented from experiencing the magic of urban proximity.” L.A. has replaced proximity with traffic.)

And there tend to be clusters of artists and other creative types in cities that offer dense environments, not totally dysfunctional politics, and cheap housing. The 1920s Paris immortalized by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and recently recreated in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was such a place; today, as Glaeser says, “Restrictions on new construction have ensured that Paris—once famously hospitable to starving artists—is now affordable only to the wealthy.” It’s a useful reminder that you can’t beat economics with raw policy alone, and so many articles about rising rent prices or changing demographics utterly fail to connect housing costs with the needs of the poor outsiders who will one day start startups or be artists (for a recent, positive example, see Megan McArdle’s post “Empty Apartments, Stupid Laws“).

Artists simply can’t afford Paris anymore, and New York is becoming expensive too.

The really famous, important parts of the world—New York, London, Tokyo, Beijing—are important because of what large networks of hundreds of millions of people have done with and to them. They’re not intrinsically important because of the land they occupy. Cities that want to emulate their example and distinguish themselves from surrounding suburbs and rural lands need to build up, not out (or not at all). New York’s housing prices are so high because lots of people want to live there—because it’s awesome. As Glaeser shows, we should want them to be able to live there, too. But we often can’t.

This doesn’t just hurt us as individuals, or economies composed of people who can’t live in spaces where they connect with one another: it also hurts the environment because: “Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving. [. . .] Department of Energy data confirms that New York State’s per capita energy consumption is next to last in the country, which largely reflects public transit use in New York.” And:

Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth.

But I think he misses something here: for a lot of people, environmentalism is just a pose, a way to show they care—provided it doesn’t harm or affect their life in some immediate, substantial way (those of you firing up your e-mail clients to send me angry missives should hold off: this applies to lots of other subjects too, like religion). So the people who claim to be environmentalists are really claiming that they want you to think they care about the environment, and that’s a cheap stance until people start to complain about construction noise, or loss of a neighborhood’s dubious “character,” or whatever other excuse comes up. As Alex Tabarrok says in Launching The Innovation Renaissance, one major, underappreciated problem the U.S. faces is the sheer number of veto players who can affect any building project at any scale. Glaeser is in effect pointing to a single facet of this general principle.

In essence, there’s too much regulation of what happens in most cities. For example, take parking policies: if people (especially those who claim to be environmentalist) want good public transportation, one useful strategy is to raise the real cost of cars, which is an especially good idea because Free Parking Comes at a Price. And that price is innumerable underutilized parking spaces. I see this price every day in Tucson, where miles and miles of land are given over to hideous parking lots that make walking virtually anywhere impossible.

One interesting missing piece: a concrete theory of why cities offer the advantages they do. We have lots of indirect information showing the advantage of cities, combined with some theories about why they offer the things they do, but little else. Steven Berlin Johnson is similarly indirect in Where Good Ideas Come From; like Triumph of the City, it’s a fascinating book (and he speaks to cities as innovative environments in it), but it also has this gap that I don’t know how to fill. Perhaps no one can at current levels of technology and understanding.

A lot of the prose in Triumph of the City is uninspired, and occasionally garbled, like this: “Urban proximity enables cross-cultural connection by reducing the curse of communicating complexity, the fact that a garbled message increases the amount of information that is being transferred.” But the density of ideas makes up for the weakness of the language, and Glaeser is also a native economist, rather than a writer.

Here’s Slate’s (positive) review. I don’t think I’ve read any negative reviews; if you’ve seen any, post a comment.

Paul Graham and not being as right as he could be in “The Age of the Essay”

Paul Graham often challenges people who say that he’s wrong to cite a particular sentence that is untrue; see, for example, this: “Can you give an example of something I said that you think is false?” Elsewhere, although I can’t find a link at the moment, he says that most people who say he’s said something wrong aren’t actually referring to something he’s said, but something they think he’s said, or imagines he might say. Hence my italicization of “something I said:” Internet denizens often extrapolate from or simplify his often nuanced positions in an attempt to pin ideas to him that he hasn’t explicitly endorsed. So I’m going to try not to do that, but I will nonetheless look at some of what he’s said about writing and writing education and describe some of my attempts to put his implied criticisms into action.

While I think Graham is right the vast majority of the time, I also think he’s off the mark regarding some of his comments about how writing is taught in schools. I wouldn’t call him wrong, exactly, but I would say that trying some of the things he suggests or implicitly suggests hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I’d hoped, especially when applied to full classrooms of students drawn from a wide spectrum of ability and interest.

I’ve long been bothered by the way writing and related subjects are taught in school. They’re made so boring and lifeless most of the time. Part of the problem, and perhaps the largest part, is the teachers. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how to improve the writing class experience. Some of that effort appears to be paying off: a surprisingly large number of students will say, either to me directly or in their evaluations, that they usually hate English classes but really like this one. Yes, I’m sure some are sucking up, but I don’t care about sucking up and suspect students can detect as much. I really care about what happens on their papers. But some of my experiments haven’t worked, and I’ll talk about them here.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Graham starts:

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Oy. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.

Graham doesn’t say so explicitly, but the implication of “the other side of the story” and “what an essay really is” is that essay writing in school should be more like real essay writing. To some extent he’s right, but trying to make school essay writing like real essay writing doesn’t yield the kinds of results I’d hoped for. Graham is right that he hasn’t directly said that school writing should be more like real writing, but it’s an obvious inference from this and other sections of “The Age of the Essay,” which I’ll discuss further below. He also does a lot with the word “Oy:” it expresses skepticism and distaste wrapped in one little word.

The way Graham puts it, writing a school essay sounds pretty bad; concluding “that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure” in a pre-structured essay is tedious, if for no other reason than because a million other students and a much smaller number of teachers and professors have already concluded or been forced to conclude the same thing. I think that a) teaching literature can be a much better experience and still serves some institutional purposes, and b) teaching writing in the context of other subjects might not be any better.

Passion and interest


The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

I’d love to get well-developed essays on baseball, economics, and fashion. But most students either don’t appear to have the kind of passion that would be necessary to write such essays or don’t appear able to express it. Alternately, they have passion, but not knowledge behind the passion: someone who’d read Moneyball and other baseball research and could put together this kind of essay, but almost no students have. Even those who do have the passion don’t have much knowledge behind their passion. I’ve been implicitly testing this theory for the past three and a half years: on my assignment sheets, I always include a line that tells students something like this: they can write on “a book or subject of your own choosing. If you write on a book or idea of your own, you must clear your selection with me first.” Almost none exercise this choice.

Now, one could argue that students have been brainwashed by 12 years of school by the time I’ve got them, and to some extent that’s probably true. But if a student were really, deeply interested in a subject, I think she’d be willing to say, “Hey, what if I mostly write about the role of imagination among physicists,” and I’d probably say yes. This just doesn’t happen often.

I think it doesn’t happen because students don’t know where to start, and they aren’t skilled enough to closely read a book or even article on their own. They don’t know how to compare and contrast passages well—the very thing I’m doing here. So I could assign a book about baseball and work through the “close reading” practice in class, but most people aren’t that interested in the subject, and then the people interested in fashion or math will be left out (and most students who say they’re “interested in fashion” appear to mean they skim Cosmo and Vogue).

If you’re going to write about a big, somewhat vague idea, like money in baseball, you need a lot more knowledge and many more sources than you do to write about “symbolism in Dickens.” Novels and stories have the advantage of being self-contained. That’s part of what got the New Criticism technique of “close reading” so ingrained in schools: you could give students 1984 and rely on the text itself to argue about the text. This has always been a bit of a joke, of course, because knowing about the lead up to World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War will give a lot of contextual information about 1984, but one can still read the novel and analyze it on its own terms more easily than one can analyze more fact-based material. So a lot of teachers rely on closely reading novels, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

There may be more to the story of why students are writing about 1984 and not “what constitutes a good dessert” beyond “a series of historical accidents.” Those accidents are part of the story, but not all.

Amateurs and experts

What’s appropriate for amateurs may not be appropriate for experts; Daniel Willingham makes this point at length in his book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom; he says that “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training” and, furthermore, “[. . .] years of practice make a qualitative, not quantitative, difference in the way [scientists, artists, and others] think compared to how a well-informed amateur thinks.” We don’t get there right away: “Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.” It takes years of that dedicated practice to become an expert, and ten often appears to be it: “There’s nothing magical about a decade; it just seems to take that long to learn the background knowledge to develop” what one really needs to do the new, interesting, creative work that defines an expert.”

Graham is an expert writer. He, like other expert writers, can write differently than amateurs and still produce excellent work. Novice writes usually can’t write effectively without a main point of some sort in mind. I couldn’t, either, when I was a novice (though I tried). Graham says:

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

He’s right in the sense that real essays don’t have to take a position and defend it, but teachers insist on thesis statements for the same reason bikes for three-year olds have training wheels: otherwise the student-writer will fall over. If you don’t get students to take a position, you’ll get—maybe—summarization. If you don’t ask for and emphasize thesis statements, which are basically the position to be defended, you’ll get wishy-washy essay that don’t really say much of anything. And it’s not that they don’t say much of anything because they’re trying to explore a complex problems: they don’t say much of anything because the writer doesn’t have anything to say, or is afraid of saying anything, or doesn’t know how to explore a problem space. If you want an academic-ized version of what essays are, Wolfgang Holdheim says in The Hermeneutic Mode: Essays on Time in Literature and Literary Theory that “[…] works in the essay genre (rather than presenting knowledge as a closed and often deceptively finished system) enact cognition in progress, knowledge as the process of getting to know.” Students don’t have the cognition in progress they need to enact Graham-style essays. They haven’t evolved enough to write without the scaffolding of a thesis statement.

When I started teaching, I didn’t emphasize thesis statements and got a lot of essays that don’t enact cognition or make a point. The better ones instinctively made a point of some kind; the worse ones summarized. After a while I realized that I could avoid a lot of heartache on the part of my students by changing the way I was offering instruction, because students weren’t ready to write essays without taking a position and defending it.

So now I teach thesis statements more or less like every other English instructor. I try to avoid boring theses and encourage deep ones, but it’s nonetheless true that I’ve realized I was wrong and have consequently moved on. I consider the no-thesis-emphasized experiment just that: an experiment that taught me how I should teach. In the future, I might try other experiments that could lead me away from emphasizing thesis statements. But for now, I do teach students to take a perspective and defend it. Many don’t end up doing so—their papers end up more exploratory than disputatious—but the overall effect of telling them to take a point of view and defend it is a positive one.

I’m not the first one to have noticed the problem. In Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, he says this of student writing in a history class:

Certain errors are so common as to be almost universal. The first one is that almost no student really knows how to construct an argument and then deploy information to support and substantiate it. Usually student papers describe what happened, more or less, then throw in an indignant moral judgment or two before stopping abruptly.

I know the feeling: students, when they start my class, mostly want to summarize what they’ve read. And, as Allitt notes, they badly want to moralize, or castigate other people, or to valorize their own difference from the weakness of the writer’s. I find the moralizing most puzzling, especially because it makes me think I’m teaching a certain number of people who are a) hypocrites or b) lack the empathy to understand where other writers come from, even if they don’t agree with said writer. They use ad-hominem attacks. When I assign Graham’s essays “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and “What You Can’t Say,” a surprisingly large number of students say things like, “Who is this guy?”

When I tell them something along the lines of, “He started an early Internet store generator called Viaweb and now writes essays and an early-stage startup investment program,” their follow-up questions are usually a bit incoherent but boils down to a real question: Who gives him the authority to speak to us? They’re used to reading much-lauded if often boring writers in school. When I say something like, “Who cares who he is?” or “Shouldn’t we judge people based on their writing, not on their status?” they eye me suspiciously, like six-year olds might eye an eight-year old who casts aspersions on the Tooth Fairy.

They’ve apparently been trained by school to think status counts for a lot, and status usually means being a) old, b) dead, c) critically acclaimed by some unknown critical body, and d) between hard or soft covers, ideally produced by a major publisher. I’m not again any of those things: many if not most of my favorite writers fit those criteria. But it’d be awfully depressing if every writer had to. More importantly, assuming those are the major criteria for good writing is fairly bogus since most old dead critically acclaimed writers who are chiefly found between hard covers were once young firebrands shaking up a staid literary, social, political, or journalistic establishment with their shockingly fresh prose and often degenerate ideas. If we want to figure out who the important dead people will be in the future, we need some way of assessing living writers right now. We need something like taste, which is incredibly hard to teach. Most schools don’t even bother: they rely on weak fallback criteria that are wrapped up in status. I’d like my students to learn how to do better, no matter how hard.

Some of the “Who is this guy?” questions regarding Graham come from a moralizing perspective: students think or imply that someone who publishes writing through means other than books are automatically somehow lesser writers than those whose work is published primarily between hard covers (Graham published Hackers & Painters, as well as technical books, but the students aren’t introduced to him in that fashion; I actually think it useful not to mention those books, in order to present the idea that writing published online can be valid and useful).

Anyway, trying to get students to write analytically—to be able to understand and explain a subject before they develop emotional or ethical reactions to it—is really, incredibly difficult (Allitt mentions this too). And having them construct and defend thesis statements seems to help this process. Few students understand that providing analysis and interpretation is a better, subtler way of eventually convincing others of whatever emotional or ethical point of view you might hold. They want to skip the analysis and interpretation and go straight to signaling what kind of person they want the reader to imagine them to be.

Not all students have all these problems, and I can think of at least one student who didn’t have any of them, and probably another dozen or so (out of about 350) who had none or very few of these problems when they began class. I’m dealing with generalizations that don’t apply to each individual student. But class requires some level of generalization: 20 to 30 students land in a room with me for two and a half hours per week, and I, like all instructors, have to choose some level of baseline knowledge and expectation and some level of eventual mastery, while at the same time ensuring that writing assignments are hard enough to be a challenge and stretch one’s abilities while not being so hard that they can’t be completed. When I see problems like the ones described throughout this essay, I realize the kinds of things I should focus on—and I also realize why teachers do the things they do the way they do them, instead of doing some of the things Graham implies.

Reading Allitt makes me realize I’m not alone, and he has the same issues in history I have in English. His other problems—like having students who “almost all use unnecessarily complicated language”—also resonate; I talk a lot about some of the best and pithiest writing advice I’ve ever read (“Omit unnecessary words“), but that advice is much easier to state than implement (my preceding sentence began life saying, “much easier to say than to implement,” but I realized I hadn’t followed my own rule).

Graham again:

I’m sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you’re not concerned with truth. You already know where you’re going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

But defend-a-position essays, if they’re taught and written well, shouldn’t be completely opposed to meandering, and they’re not about “blustering through obstacles.” They’re about considering what might be true, possible objections to it, addressing those questions, building roads over “swamp ground,” changing your mind if necessary, and so on—eventually getting to something like truth. In Graham’s conception of defend-a-position essays, the result is probably going to be lousy. The same is likely to be true of students who are taught the “hand-waving your way” method of writing. They should be taught that, if they discover their thesis is wrong, they should change their thesis and paper via the magic of editing. I think Graham is really upset about the quality of teaching.

Thesis statements also prevent aimless wandering. Graham says that “The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.” Correct. But students do this out of frivolity and tend to get nowhere. Students don’t discover “the most economical route to the sea;” they don’t have a route at all. They’re more like Israelites wandering in the desert. Or a body of water that simply drains into the ground.

Why literature?


It’s no wonder if this [writing essays about literature] seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

We may have gotten to teaching students how to write through literature via the means Graham describes, but I don’t think the practice persists solely because of the history. It persists because teaching through literature offers a couple of major conveniences: literature can be studied as a self-contained object via close reading and offers a narrower focus for students than larger subjects that require more background.

The rise of literature in university departments started in the nineteenth century and really took off in the first half of the twentieth. It was helped enormously by the rise of “close reading,” a method that had two major advantages: the trappings of rigor and a relative ease of application.

The “trappings of rigor” part is important because English (and writing) needed to look analytical and scientific; Louis Menand covers this idea extensively in a variety of forums, including The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, where he says that the argument “that there is such a thing as specifically literary language, and that literary criticism provides an analytical toolbox for examining it—was the basis for the New Criticism’s claim to a place in the structure of the research university.” So students look at literature because teachers and professors believe there is “specifically literary language” that’s different from other kinds of language. I used to not think so. Now I’m not so sure. After having students try to write analyses of various kinds of nonfiction, I can see the attraction in teaching them fiction that doesn’t have a specific message it’s trying to impart, primarily because a lot of students simply don’t have sufficient background knowledge to add anything to most of the nonfiction they read. They don’t read nonfiction very carefully, which means they have trouble making any statements other than bald assertion and frequently saying things that be countered through appeals to the text itself. Getting them to read it carefully through the asking of detailed questions is both hard and tedious.

Enter close reading. It supplies literature with a rationale, as stated above, but it also works pretty well when used in classrooms. As a method, it only requires knowledge of the tool and some text to apply it on. Like literature. To do close reading, you have to know you should pay attention to the text and how its writer or speaker is using the language it does. From there, the text becomes what Umberto Eco calls “a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations” in a way that a lot of nonfiction isn’t.

Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” which I teach in my first unit, almost always generates vastly worse papers than James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” because Graham has deliberately covered most of the interesting territory relating to his subject. “Sonny’s Blues,” on the other hand, is just trying to tell a story, and the possible meanings of that story extend incredibly far outward, and they can be generated through close readings and relatively little other knowledge. Students who want to discuss “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” intelligently need a vast amount of life experience and other reading to even approach it cogently.

Students who want to discuss “Sonny’s Blues” intelligently need to pay attention to how the narrator shifts over the course of the story, how sound words recur, what music might mean, and a host of other things that are already mostly contained in the story. Students seem to have much more difficulty discovering this. When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students almost never realize how the story subtly suggests that Connie is actually in a dream that plays out her anxieties regarding puberty, adulthood, and encroaching sexuality. It offers a lot more substance for discussion and decent papers than Graham’s essays and a lot of other nonfiction.

Perhaps the bad papers on Graham are my own fault, but I’ve tried a lot of ways to get students to write better papers on nonfiction, usually without much success. I’ve begun to suspect they’re just not ready. Students can be taught close reading that, in an ideal world, then gets applied to nonfiction. The reading of literature, in other words, is upwind of the reading of other kinds of nonfiction, however useful or interesting those other kinds of nonfiction might be. If you’re dealing with not-very-bright high school teachers and students who know even less than college students, the advantages of close reading literature as a method are magnified.

This is a relatively new affair, too; here’s Louis Menand discussing where English departments came from and how T.S. Eliot influenced them:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that ‘stand for’ something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

Now, maybe people don’t “need to be taught how to read literature” as literature. But they do need to be taught how to read closely, because most people are really bad at it, and literature offers advantages to doing so.

Most students don’t have very good reading skills. They can’t synthesize information from books and articles effectively. So if you turn them loose on a library without direction, they’ll dutifully look some stuff up, and you’ll get back a lot of papers with citations from pages three to nine. Not very many cite page 221. And the citations they have feel random, rather than cohesive. In a structured class, one can spend a lot of time close reading: what does the author mean here? Why this sentence, why this turn of phrase? How is the piece structured? If it’s a story, who’s speaking? These skills are hard to build—I’m still building mine—and most freshmen simply don’t have them, and they don’t have the energy to engage with writing on its own terms in an unstructured environment.

Giving them a topic and telling them to write is akin to taking a random suburbanite, dropping them in northern Canada, and wishing them luck in finding their way back to civilization. Sure, a few hardy ones will make it. But to make sure most make it, you’ll have to impart a lot of skills first. That’s what good high school and undergrad classes should do. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “good:” lots of humanities classes are bad and don’t teach much of anything, which gives the humanities themselves a bad rap, as people recall horrific English or history teachers. But one bad example doesn’t mean the entire endeavor is rotten, even if the structure of schools isn’t conducive to identifying and rewarding good teachers of the sort who will teach writing well.

Bad Teaching and the Real Problem with Literature

English, like most subjects, is easy to do badly. Most English teachers teach their subjects poorly; that’s been my experience, anyway, and it seems to be the experience of most people in school. I’m not sure broadening the range of subjects will help all that much if the teacher himself is lousy, or uninterested in class, or otherwise mentally absent.

It’s also easy to understand why English teachers eventually come to scorn their students: the students aren’t perfect, have interests of their own, aren’t really willing to grant you the benefit of the doubt, aren’t interested in your subject, and don’t understand your point of view. Notice that last one: students don’t understand the teacher’s point of view, but after a while the teacher stops trying to understand the students’s point of view. “What?” the teacher thinks. “Not everyone finds The Tempest and Middlemarch as fascinating as I do?” Er, no. And that kind of thing bleeds into papers. The world might be a better place if teachers could choose more of their own material; I’ve read most of Middlemarch and find it pretty damn tedious. Perhaps giving teachers more autonomy to construct their own curriculum around works students like better would solve some of the literature problem. But if the median student doesn’t read anything for pleasure, what then?

Too many teachers also don’t have a sense of openness and possibility to various readings. They don’t have the deft touch necessary to apply both rigor and openness to their own readings and students’s readings. Works of art don’t have a single meaning (and if they did, they’d be rather boring). But that doesn’t equate to “anything can mean anything and everything is subjective.” In teaching English, which is often the process of teaching interpretation, one has to balance these two scales. No one balances them perfectly, but too many teachers don’t seem to balance them at all, or acknowledge that they exist, or care that they exist. So you get those essays that find, “say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.” Which is okay and probably true, but I wouldn’t want to read 30 papers that come to that conclusion, and I wouldn’t order my students to come to that conclusion. I’d want them to figure out what’s going on in the novel (then again, in composition classes I teach a lot of stuff outside the realm of “English literature”).

Not being a bogus teacher is really hard. Teachers aren’t incentivized to not be bogus: most public high school teachers effectively can’t be fired after two or three years, thanks to teachers’ unions, except in the case of egregious misconduct. Mediocrity, tedium, torpor, and the like aren’t fireable or punishable offenses. Students merely have to suffer through until they get to college, although some get lucky and find passionate, engaged teachers. But it’s mostly a matter of luck, and teaching seems to actively encourage the best to leave and the worst to stay. Even at college, however, big public schools incentivize professors and graduate students to produce research (or, sometimes “research,” but that’s a topic for another essay), not to teach. So it’s possible to go through 16 years of education without encountering someone who is heavily incentivized to teach well. Some people teach well because they care about teaching well—I’d like to think I’m one—but again, that’s a matter of luck, not a matter of systematic efforts to improve the education experience for the maximum number of students.

Teachers can, and do, however, get in trouble for being interesting. So there’s a systematic incentive to be boring.

In an essay that used to be called “Good Bad Attitude” and now goes by “The Word ‘Hacker,’” Graham says that “Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness.” Writers are unruly too. At least the good ones are. But many teachers hate unruliness and love conformity. So they teach writing (and reading—you can’t really do one without the other) on the factory model, where a novel or whatever goes in one end and is supposed to emerge on the other like a car, by making sure every step along the way is done precisely the same way. But writing (and, to some extent, reading) doesn’t really work that way, and students can sense as much in some inchoate way. Graham, too, senses that the way we teach writing and reading is busted, and he’s right that we’d be better off encouraging students to explore their own interests more. That’s probably less important than cultivating a sense of openness, explicitly telling students when you’re ordering them to do something for training-wheel purposes, admitting what you don’t know, acknowledging that there’s an inherent level of subjectivity to writing, and working on enumerating principles that can be violated instead of iron-clad rules that are almost certainly wrong.

Most students aren’t interested in English or writing; one can do a lot to make them interested, but it’s necessarily imperfect, and a lot of classrooms are unsatisfying to very bright people (like Graham and, I would guess, a lot of his readers), but that’s in part because classrooms are set up to hit the broad middle. And the broad middle needs thesis statements, wouldn’t know how to start with a wide-open prompt, and aren’t ready for the world of writing that Graham might have in mind.

While a series of historical accidents might’ve inspired the teaching we get now, I don’t think they’re solely responsible for the continuation of teaching literature. Teaching literature and close reading through literature continue to serve pedagogical purposes. So Graham isn’t wrong, but he’s missing a key piece of the story.

Writing this essay

When you’re thinking about a topic, start writing. I began this essay right after breakfast; I started thinking about it while making eggs and thinking about the day’s teaching. I had to interrupt it to go to class and do said teaching, but I got the big paragraph about “status” and a couple notes down. If you’re not somewhere you can write, use a notebook—I like pretentious Rhodia Webbies, but any notebook will do. If you don’t have a notebook, use a cell phone. Don’t have a phone? Use a napkin. Whatever. Good ideas don’t always come to you when you’re at your computer, and they often come while you’re doing something else. Paul Graham gets this: in “The Top Idea in Your Mind,” he wrote:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Everyone who’s worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There’s a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I’m increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly.

Most students don’t do this and don’t think this way. If they did, or could be instructed to, I suspect Graham’s ideas would work better.

Knowing it

Students themselves, if they’re intellectually honest, intuit a lot of the advice in this essay. One recent paper writer said in a reflection that: “My first draft does not have a direction or a point, but my final draft does.” Not all writing needs a point, but if you read student writing, you find that very little of it lacks a point because the author is trying to discover something or explore something about the world. It lacks a point because it’s incoherent or meandering. Again: that’s not me trying to be a jerk, but rather a description of what I see in papers.

Here’s another: “You were correct in telling me that writing a paper by wrapping evidence around big ideas rather than literary analysis would be difficult, and I found that out the hard way.” These writers could be trying to suck up or tell me what I want to hear, but enough have said similar things in a sufficient number of different contexts to make me think their experiences are representative. And I offer warnings, not absolute rules: if students want to write “big idea” papers, I don’t order them not to, though many suffer as a result. Suffering can lead to growth. A few thrive. But such students show why English instructors offer the kinds of guidance and assignments they do. These can be parodied, and we’ve all had lousy English classes taught by the incompetent, inept, and burned out.

If I had given students assignments closer to the real writing that Graham does, most simply wouldn’t be able to do them. But I am pushing students in the direction of real writing—which is part of the reason I tell the ones who want to really write to read “The Age of the Essay.” I love the essay: it’s only some of the reasoning about why schools operate the way they do that bothers me, and even then I only came to discover why things are done the way they are by doing them.

If you think you can teach writing better, I encourage you to go try it, especially in a public school or big college. I thought I could. Turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Reality has a surprising amount of detail.

EDIT: In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz writes:

My professor taught novels, and Catherine was mistaught by them, but neither he nor Austen was finally concerned with novels as such. Learning to read, they both knew, means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you’re looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time.

Novels are tricky in this way: they’re filled with irony, which, at its most basic, means saying one thing while meaning something else, or saying multiple things and meaning multiple things. That’s part of what “learning to live” consists of, and fiction does a unique job of training people to keep their eyes “open all the time.” Most teachers are probably bad at conveying this, but I do believe that this idea, or something like it, lies underneath novels as tools for teaching students how to live in a way that essays and other nonfiction probably doesn’t do.

A lot of people seem very eager to stop learning how to live as quickly as possible. They might have the hardest time of all.

A writer’s complaint about realism

A writer friend: “I’ve suffered from too many books made boring in the name of realism to indulge it myself.”

Amen. If you have a trade-off between verisimilitude and cleverness, choose whichever will be the most fun. I’ll forgive hilarity but not tedium. Most of us are surrounded by boring people with incoherent, shallow thoughts all day long, and we don’t need to read about them too. Many of us are such people, however witty we may want or imagine ourselves to appear in our writing.

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