Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.


* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

Paul Graham and the artist

Paul Graham’s new essay “Before the Startup” is as always fascinating, but Graham also says several things that apply to artists:

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.

The same is true of ideas for novels, which often come from minute observations or moments or studies of character. They often don’t feel like novels at first: they feel like a situation (“What if a guy did this…”) and the full novel comes later. Artists often work at the margins.

He also writes in a footnote:

I did manage to think of a heuristic for detecting whether you have a taste for interesting ideas: whether you find known boring ideas intolerable. Could you endure studying literary theory, or working in middle management at a large company?

This may be why I and perhaps many other grad students find grad school worse as time goes on, and why MFA programs have been growing. Too many critics have ceased focusing not on how “to be an expert on your users and the problem you’re solving for them”—or, in this example, “readers” instead of “users”—and instead focus on straight forward careerism, which rarely seems to overlap with what people want to read.Paul Graham and the artist

Comment when you have something to say

By now it’s well-known that most Internet forums devolve over time, even when the people running the forum take concrete steps to avoid devolution. But the main problem is not necessarily the trolls who deliberately attempt to degrade the quality of the conversation. It’s low-quality comments that aren’t necessarily malicious or even mean-spirited but do reflect shallow knowledge. Not only that, but such comments are often designed to appeal to groupish belief or to raise the status of the commenter, rather than sharing information and asking genuine questions.

Kens offered this insightful observation on HN:

My theory (based on many years of Usenet) is that there are three basic types of online participants: “cocktail party”, “scientific conference”, and “debate team”. In “cocktail party”, the participants are having an entertaining conversation and sharing anecdotes. In “scientific conference”, the participants are trying to increase knowledge and solve problems. In “debate team”, the participants are trying to prove their point is right.

Unfortunately, the people in scientific conference mode attract the cocktail people, but the latter don’t tend to attract the former. Debate team-types tend to be attracted to both—they’re the people exhibiting groupish and status-based behavior. In HN land, I’m probably closer to cocktail mode people than the scientific conference mode people, though I want to act more like a conference person.

Still, it’s worth looking more carefully at what the scientific conference-mode means. I don’t think scientific conference means a literal presentation of new results, but I think it does mean that the people commenting are deeply informed, deeply curious, reasonably respectful, and work to speak from a position of knowledge, rather than ignorance, about a subject. In this sense I fit the scientific conference mode when I discuss a small but real number of issues related to teaching, urban planning / development, and grant writing / government practices. The second one relates least to my day-to-day life but is a personal interest about which I’ve read a fair amount. Towards this end, I suspect a lot of people could improve the quality of the conversation simply by not commenting.

I distill this general idea to a simple behavior heuristic that might be valuable to others: don’t comment unless you have a special, unusual, or well-informed viewpoint. Many of my comments link to books and/or articles I’ve read that elaborate on whatever point I’m making or trying to make (here’s one example, linking to Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and here’s another, citing Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City; in response to the second, someone even said, “I got these books simply because of this recommendation,” which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside). Some of the ideas contained in the books or articles I cite might be wrong or badly argued, but at least I’m basing my comments on something specific rather than some general philosophical point. Too many people argue based on first principles or unsourced speculation. The latter isn’t always bad; for example, someone might work in a field and know something deep and important about it without having a link to a specific discussion of the idea being discussed.

Many of my comments that don’t link to books or articles still deal with specific issues in which I have above average expertise, knowledge, or experience. This comment discusses how I deal with a student who asks a question relating solely to his or her individual issue in a large group without sounding like a jerk (I think, anyway), this comment is about a specific product I’ve used (the Unicomp Customizer), and this comment is about specificity in writing and thinking. Again, I might be wrong, but in each case I’m writing based on experience.

You can find some exceptions to the principles I’ve discussed above. You should ask logical or reasonable follow-up questions, especially if you’d like more information (here’s one sample; here’s another.) Succinct is often beautiful. Focus on genuine questions, rather than challenging people because their beliefs don’t match yours.

You don’t always have to follow these rules—I don’t—but if you’re debating about whether you should post a comment, you should probably err on the side of silence and not intruding on other people’s time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who most need such internal self-restraint are probably also the ones least likely to use it, and I doubt anything can be done to solve this problem, which seems like a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Despite all this, I don’t see a solution to the fundamental problems, at least beyond the person at the margin who might read this and change his or her behavior slightly.

In other words, one can appeal to community rules and norms, or resort to meta-posts (like this one).* Such an appeal shouldn’t be done too often, or a community will spend more time discussing its own rules and norms than it does discussing and reading the material that should be the purpose of its existence (I last wrote a post like this in January; that January post still seems relevant, but I feel like enough time has passed and that I’ve observed enough behavior to make this post relevant too). But perhaps the occasional reminder will, as I said, help at the margins.

Oh, and the other rule for commenting? When you’re done with substantive content, stop.


* Granted, these kinds of posts and comments can make a community deteriorate. For example, there are a set of overly long comments by jsprink_banned and josteink that fail to distinguish between an argument and how the argument is presented: I suspect they’re unhappy with the mod functions mostly because they haven’t focused on how an argument is delivered. Civility counts for a lot, at all levels of debate; see, for example, Tyler Cowen’s comments on civility and Paul Krugman (and his comments on the limits of binary, good versus evil thinking in general).

There are also comments like this, in which the poster argues from nothing, attempts to activate an anti-corporate ideology, and ignores the obvious, abundant evidence of the continued importance of firms. Alex-C, fortunately, did reply: “I almost can’t tell if this comment came from some sort of Markov text generator.” HN used to have many fewer of those kinds of comments, and when it did get those kinds of comments, they were much less likely to rise. It takes more effort than it should for me not to respond to them directly. Incidentally, the comment Alex-C was replying to meant to say something like this.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about

There’s a fascinating moment in The Righteous Mind where Jonathan Haidt makes a point similar to one I wrote about earlier:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Compare this to my December 2010 post “What people want and what they are: religious edition:”

. . . as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Haidt doesn’t use the word “signal,” but his idea of using moral claims to “justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to” is pretty close. This also describes why, over the past ten years, I’ve become a person much less invested in political, moral, or (many kinds of) intellectual arguments: most of those arguments aren’t really about their content, but about something else, below the surface, that doesn’t always bob up to the surface. Here’s Paul Graham on that idea in “What You Can’t Say:”

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

Most people seem to equate “winning” an argument in a lawyerly fashion with being intellectually right. This might be why lawyers have some of the reputation they do: they get paid primarily to construct arguments that may be specious, but that have to be convincing.

I also like to think that realizing how moral arguments really work makes me a better teacher: rather than fighting with students who bring up moral arguments, I try to ask them where their arguments come from and how they come to believe what they believe. In other words, I try to work at a higher level of abstraction—which is what Haidt is doing in The Righteous Mind.

One other point about Haidt: if you’re frustrated by “how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you,” imagine how you must act to them.

Why professors don’t bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

Why professors don't bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

Hilarity Ensues — Tucker Max

Laughter, the greatest testament some books can receive, can’t be directly quoted in a review. By the metric of “number of times I laughed out loud,” I gave many, many testaments to Hilarity Ensures.

Beneath that laughter, though, there’s actually a surprisingly amount of commentary about how to live and think about your life interwoven among escapades with drunk girls, drunk guys, at least one drunk dog (that I counted), existential despair, sexual elation, three-ways, success at getting in his or her pants, despair at not getting in his or her pants, angry bouncers, angry parents, angry girls, and boats.

For an example of “how to live and think about your life,” consider this overly long quote about law school, which I include in part because I went to law school for a year, for the same crappy reasons and one different reason that every other bright but unfocused 22-year-old grad goes (the only thing I did right was quit):

Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted. Once I actually arrived on campus, I realized that not only was the hardest part done, but everything else was a complete joke. The emperor had no clothes.

Going to class is a complete waste of time. The professors don’t care about teaching; they either ramble endlessly about meaningless shit, or they spend the whole time telling you how important they are. The students are no better; the ones constantly raising their hands to talk (they’re called ‘gunners’) are all pompous suck-ups, and add nothing of value to the conversation. . . . I would say that probably 90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job as a lawyer. Think about that—most of what you learn in class has no application anywhere outside of law school.

Hypocrisy comes from the school itself: because “90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job,” classes don’t matter; school should be tightly coupled with outcomes related to your life or job. When school and outcomes aren’t tightly coupled, the school is exploiting you, and schools are particularly good at this because they’re dealing primarily with unformed humans who haven’t yet acquired the analytical skills to realize what’s happening to them. I’m not sure if Max is a reader of scholarly monographs, but if he is, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers would be a natural stocking stuffer. Law schools have positioned themselves as gatekeepers who extract resources from students in return for credentialing, rather than adding real value. If they did add sufficient value to convince the marketplace that lawyers with degrees are better than those without, they wouldn’t need legal means to restrict competition. Today, you can’t effectively read for the bar, take it, and become a lawyer on your own because other lawyers don’t want the competition and law schools want your money. You, like sheep, give it to them. So did I.

Max hates hypocrites: that’s the moral, if there is one, of much of his work, and especially of the Miss Vermont Story, concerning a bizarrely immature 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant who preaches abstinence and sobriety while practicing the exact opposite with Max. Out of a misguided sense of importance and vengeance, Katy Johnson / Miss Vermont’s mother orchestrates a dubious lawsuit whose only real outcome is a variation on the Streisand effect.

I identify with that story in particular, since I was a minor league hypocrite once:

This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

Hypocrisy ties more broadly into the girls who say one thing and do another. Though they’re mostly a source of bemusement in Hilarity Ensues, underneath the bemusement is a real critique: why lie, both to yourself and others, about what you really want? The question is mostly rhetorical, but there are answers, social conditioning being the most obvious. Max is aware of that conditioning:

The rules your parents teach you to live by are very different than the rules the world actually runs by. Most of the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s a lie told to us by people who want to control us. It doesn’t help us, it helps them. Pretty much everything we’re told as children (and adults, really) by the established power structures in our lives are made-up fairytales used to reinforce that control. . . It makes sense if you think about it; the only way you can truly control people is to lie to them.

The “rules” are certainly different, although I’m not sure who the “us” and “them” are in the quoted paragraph. The lies we tell kids are real, and one reason for teenage alienation might be the slow, real discovery that much of what we’ve been told about decorum, success, and meaning are lies. Once implanted, those lies are hard to remove: “People will ignore a lot of reality in order to maintain their fantasies,” especially if those fantasies are comforting.

But Max is not advocating anarchy. He has a sense of anarchy’s consequences; in Mexico, “there is a flipside to no rules: The American safety net isn’t there to protect you from the consequences of your stupid decisions.” It’s an obvious point, yet I bet the million Max wannabes miss this insight, and miss the fact that pleasure has its pleasures and its price. In some ways Max is lucky: his own “stupid decisions” could’ve ended much worse. The “safety net” caught him. No cars hit him, he sustained no permanent physical injuries, and he didn’t encounter anyone murderously psychotic at a random bar. Lessons and memories remain, like those about how we absorb ideas when we grow up.

Lies are often propagated by parents because parents’ and kids’ interests diverge. The teenage girl having sex reaps the pleasure of the act, while her parents might end up paying much of the financial and emotional price of a pregnancy. So parents discourage sex, girls get mixed messages, most don’t have the intellectual capacity or inclination to sort truth from lie, and end up in the bizarrely bifurcated universe that provides fodder for jokes—in the United States, anyway, since “Canadians, especially French-Canadians, have a much healthier attitude towards sex than Americans,” an observation made in the context of a visit to a strip club in French-Canada.

The trick is discovering the lies. But even after discovery, most people appear to continue propagating them anyway, to their children, and want those lies propagated to their children. A surprisingly large number of potheads I knew in college became teachers, yet none to my knowledge would admit as much in a classroom. One friend teaches photography to high school students and, at the beginning of class, tells her students not to shoot nudes of people under 18, since that’s technically illegal, regardless of the central place of the nude in Western art. To her credit, she also adds this caveat: “And if you do anyway, don’t tell me.” It’s a subtle but effective dig at the powers-that-be.

The people who follow the straight path are often cursed by getting what they think they want, like law school and becoming a lawyer. Many who win such dubious victories come to rue them, like Max’s friend Hate, who “kept doing the ‘right’ thing, checking off all the boxes. . . and he kept getting fucked. All the while, the guy doing the wrong thing (me, for example) kept getting what he wanted. Sisyphus led a less futile existence than Hate: at least Sisyphus got in a workout” (notice, too, here the characteristic and characteristically hilarious allusion, recast into the modern language of the gym). Here, “right” and “wrong” are inverted: the real world is big and confusing, and one needs a strong bullshit to detector to make sense of it. If you don’t pay attention, these moments will slip by, like some of Max’s jokes: in one story, a groups of girls came over, and “one of them told me that she was afraid to try anal sex because of my first book. I told her I didn’t give a shit about her problems” (emphasis added).

Other moments involve the perfect allusion, as when a dominatrix plies her trade on Max at a party: “She was beating me with the type of anger usually reserved for people who owe money to Tony Soprano.” Or the apt analogy: “Whatever, we’re both naked and horny, and I’ve fucked way worse. No turning back now. When you try to jump a lake of fire you don’t take your foot off the gas once you’ve hit the ramp.” When you’re having sex with someone you compare to a lake of fire, you may want to reconsider your partner or quarry: but that’s also the sober, distant, far from the act person talking, not the person in the moment (the writer says, thinking back to his own dubious moments). Consider this, of Max’s friend Jerry: “He was not fucking her; he was jackhammering her so hard and fast, he was moving like one of those things that mixes paint at Home Depot.” I haven’t read so many creative sexual descriptions outside of Nicholson Baker. Or inside of Nicholson Baker, as the case may be. These metaphors create their own worlds, in James Wood’s sense in “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville.”

The reaction to Max fascinates almost as much as Max’s writing itself: critics call his writing odious and worse (an example, from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: “He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. . . .” As someone who’s dated around enough to find the occasional nutcase, I find many of his stories too believable). Yet those critics don’t often go beyond name-calling and into close reading, and calling someone’s work “unbelievably nasty” makes it more intriguing, not less, especially because Literary history serves up innumerable examples of writers who thumb the day’s decorum and later come to be revered; obvious examples include Dreiser, for Sister Carrie, which now reads so tepidly and tediously that it’s tough to get through, or D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, given its references to anal and class miscegenation, or James Joyce’s voyeurism and masturbation.

Now, just because past writers have defied conventional norms and later received literary recognition for that doesn’t mean the two have a causal relationship, or that anyone who defies norms will thereby gain later literary recognition. But I think the quality of Max’s writing sets him apart from other people writing about sex adventures online or off, and that’s what draws me. The style affects the content, and it’s that style that makes him broadly popular, and very much unlike his literary predecessors.

But Max doesn’t wrap himself in high-brow literary paraphernalia or pretensions. He does the opposite, and that’s what I think his critics hate, along with his honesty. Drape yourself in highbrow literary accouterments and you can write what you want; do the opposite and take tepid critical punishment, which is no doubt salved by fan adoration (given a choice between groupies and a sedate, smug, and positive New Yorker Review of Books essay, which would you choose? Me too).

I think aspect of critics’ dislike of Max’s honesty comes from a particular source: there’s still a large contingent of people who want to view women as non-carnal and basically preyed on and manipulated by men (see one example, which I wrote about, in “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more“). This kind of makes sense if you’re a parent trying to lie to yourself or protect your daughter or son—or at least make them compliant. Or religious and trying to do much the same, but it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve dated a fair number of women, or are female and honest, or pay more attention to behavior than to words.

The distaste for Max’s sexual politics is hard to square with Max’s legion of willing groupies, or even with his descriptions of his pre-fame hookups: it takes two or more people for sex, and the women say yes, even if many of them choose to douse themselves in alcohol first. The refutation of the belief that women are non-carnal victims is in the behavior of the women Max describes, not Max himself. Being angry at Max is shooting the messenger: if hot women regularly put out for gallant, polite men, I think his bad boy personality would morph quickly. Women’s revealed preferences, as shown by their love of Max (or your local bad boy), might be what bothers his critics.

If women themselves were collectively more honest, they’d simply say they go out and get hammered so they can hook up with guys. Instead, they often lie to themselves and others and say they’re just going out to “have a good time” or “hang out with their friends,” or any number of other rationalizations. That word, “honest,” appears with surprising frequency, especially as it relates to gender: In Mexico, “Girls wanted to fuck, and here, as opposed to America, they were honest about it.” Why aren’t girls honest in the first place? Because their parents don’t want them to be.

There are also moments where Max wonders: “I never understand why women think drama and bullshit are attractive to guys. They’re not. I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.” Here’s my guess: women don’t consciously think “drama and bullshit are attractive to guys,” but they like the attention drama and bullshit generate, especially among guys too committed, weak, or stupid to avoid or ignore it. Women engaged in vapid drama might say they want “Prince Charming” but be willing to compromise through the ministrations of whoever responds to their keening. Granted, lacking self-awareness is also a human trait more than a female one: on the side of straight men, I think about all the so-called “nice guys” who are “nice” not because they’re genuinely caring but because they think they can’t get laid acting otherwise anyway. Women often crave attention: look at the ones who go to bars to stroke desire and then ignore the desire they’ve stroked. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that men go to bars to get laid, while women go to get attention and maybe get laid. That fits the behavioral patterns I’ve seen.

One of my students mentioned Tucker Max in the context of literary valuation in class a couple days ago, and he seemed to want to know if Max “counted” as a good writer, or something like that (students are weirdly attuned to perceived authority: many have wanted to know about Paul Graham’s background, for example, which is the kind of thing that interests me not at all—I only want to evaluate people based solely on their writing, not about aspects of their life tangential to their writing or the accuracy of their arguments).

It seems like students themselves are wary, at least in official discourse, of trying to decide for themselves who’s a “good” writer and who isn’t. They associate “goodness” with “approved” behavior. They probably have some sense of the critical edifice above them, canonizing some writers and ignoring others. I wish I could convince them to develop their own ideas of what counts, and how it does. That’s part of stepping out of the artificial school fishbowl and into the greater literary world, where the people who win big are the ones who reconceptualize what’s possible. Max did: he mentions the thousands of rejections he got from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and others when he started out. But he also had the good fortune to see his style evolve with the Internet.

The occasional dark threads appear too, as with mentions of depression, or a moment on a boat off the Alaskan coast:

At 7pm, the dark, empty deck of a crab boat is a strange place. It’s pitch black and there’s no land, no life, nothing whatsoever. It’s complete, barren, unforgiving void. It’s just plain disturbing. The water frothing beneath the sides of the boat is literally black. Dying that way—by falling in and freezing—must be horrific.

You can understand Moby-Dick by looking at the sea; Max is encountering an existential void. If he didn’t appear to be enjoying himself so much and if I were a dumber kind of critic, I’d say something about this standing for the heart of his soul.

This is the part where a lot of reviews and essays say something bad. I don’t have much. There are occasional oddities in language: “Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted.” Why “thing difficult” instead of “difficult thing?” Usually the adjective goes before the noun. I can’t think of any stylistic or content reason for the word order reversal, or why he used a semi-colon instead of a colon. I should probably also say something about how he interacts with women, but why bother? A friend’s Dad gave her this advice when she was 12 and periodically thereafter: men will treat you as badly as you let them. And is it “bad” to give someone what they want (again: think of revealed preferences)? In America, the answer tends towards “no.” Max gives readers what they want—humor, respite, philosophy—and, whatever his critics may protest, many women what they want. Everyone is happy, save those who don’t want to confront the reality on the ground of life.

Instant feedback in the classroom, and in life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple other notes:

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

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

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

Why “How Universities Work” and other essays

Someone wrote to say: “I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write your article on how universities work. As someone who didn’t have the advantage of a college experience it was really eye opening. Universities have always been sort of a black box to me” (link added). Which made me think about why I wrote it and several related essays; the obvious, topmost reason is because I know I have an essay to write when I explain the same concept or constellation or concepts several times to different people asking similar questions. When that happens—and it often does with students—I know that I should save myself some effort and write a complete answer I can point others to. Plus, if more than a couple students are curious about the same basic issues, I also know other people will be interested too. But there are also deeper reasons.

The further I go, the more I realize how much of official education is actually cultural and bound by all kinds of finicky little pieces of knowledge that no one or almost no one takes the time to really explain; people are simply left to figure them out on their own, or fail to figure them out and suffer for it. This preference may further explain why I like many of Paul Graham’s essays so much: they illuminate the stuff that a lot of knowledgeable people eventually intuit but then don’t bother to try making explicit to others. So at times I work in the Grahamian style, trying to make explicit what I’ve figured out, or what I think I’ve figured out.

I think my impetus in writing essays and novels is actually quite similar: I write the things I wish someone else had written, so that I could read them. Alas, no one else has, so I’m left to do it myself.

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

Graham:

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. 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 stuff in class, but most people aren’t that interested in the subject, and then the people interested in fashion will be left out (even then, most students who say they’re interested in fashion actually 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 engrained 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 actually end up doing so—their papers end up more exploratory than disputatious—but the overall effect 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?

Graham:

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 actually 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. They often come while you’re doing something else.

By the way, 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, know a lot of the advice given in this essay on some level. 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.” Again, 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. Many suffer as a result. 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 it. But I am pushing them in the direction of real writing—which is part of the reason I tell the ones who really want to 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.

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