What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does to its credit note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and to a lesser extent office hour visits generated. None of that work is rewarding but it can be distracting. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations. Grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals.

In addition, I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades. The message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy away from more important activities. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

Finally, there is no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” I haven’t noticed students doing that. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Colleges mostly know this, and they’ve set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.”

Links: The writer, the adjunct, the technology

* Professors, we need you! (Maybe.)

* This is probably fake but definitely hilarious and true to my own teaching experience.

* “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” I tend to answer “Yes, with qualifications,” and indeed I write many fewer negative reviews than I once did. Then again I write many fewer reviews in general than I once did.

* “Is Paying Adjuncts Crap Killing Technological Innovation?” Hat tip and further commentary: Dean Dad.

* Technological Progress Isn’t GDP Growth and, relatedly, Tyler Cowen: “Robert Gordon’s sequel paper on the great stagnation.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy.

* “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?“, which is to say, bad?

Journalism, physics and other glamor professions as hobbies

The short version of this Atlantic post by Alex C. Madrigal is “Don’t be a journalist,” and, by the way, “The Atlantic.com thinks it can get writers to work for free” (I’m not quoting directly because the article isn’t worth quoting). Apparently The Atlantic is getting writers to work for free, because many writers are capable of producing decent-quality work, and the number of paying outlets are shrinking. Anyone reading this and contemplating journalism as a profession should know that they need to seek another way of making money.

The basic problems journalism faces, however, are obvious and have been for a long time. In 2001, I was the co-editor-and-chief of my high school newspaper and thought about going into journalism. But it was clear that the Internet was going to destroy a lot of careers in journalism. It has. The only thing I still find puzzling is that some people want to major in journalism in college, or attempt to be “freelance writers.”

Friends who know about my background ask why I don’t do freelance writing. When I tell them that there’s less money in it than getting a job at Wal-Mart they look at me like I’m a little crazy—they don’t really believe that’s true, even when I ask them how many newspapers they subscribe to (median and mode answer: zero). Many, however, spend hours reading stuff for free online.

In important ways I’m part of the problem, because on this blog I’m doing something that used to be paid most of the time: reviewing books. Granted, I write erratically and idiosyncratically, usually eschewing the standard practices of book reviews (dull, two-paragraph plot summaries are stupid in my view, for instance), but I nonetheless do it and often do it better than actual newspapers or magazines, which I can say with confidence because I’ve read so many dry little book reports in major or once-major newspapers. Not every review I write is a critical gem, but I like doing it and thus do it. Many of my posts also start life as e-mails to friends (as this one did). I also commit far more typos than a decently edited newspaper or magazine. Which I do correct when you point them out.

The trajectory of journalism is indicative of other trends in American society and indeed the industrialized world. For example, a friend debating whether he should consider physics grad school wrote this to me recently: “I think physics is something that is fun to study for fun, but to try to become a professional physicist is almost like too much of a good thing.” He’s right. Doing physics for fun, rather than trying to get a tenure-track job, makes more sense from a lifestyle standpoint.

A growing number of what used to occupations seem to be moving in this direction. Artists got here first, but others are making their way here. I’m actually going to write a post about how journalism increasingly looks like this too. The obvious question is how far this trend will go—what happens when many jobs that used to be paid become un-paid?

Tyler Cowen thinks we might be headed towards a guaranteed annual income, an idea that was last popular in the 60s and 70s. When I asked Cowen his opinions about guaranteed annual incomes, he wrote back to say that he’d address the issue in a forthcoming book. The book hasn’t arrived yet, but I look forward to reading it. As a side not, apparently Britain has, or had, a concept called the “Dole,” which many people went on, especially poor artists. Geoff Dyer wrote about this some in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The Dole subsidized a lot of people who didn’t do much, but it also subsidized a lot of artists, which is pretty sweet; one can see student loans and grad school serving analogous roles in the U.S. today.

IMG_1469-1Even in programming, which is now the canonical “Thar be jobs!” (pirate voice intentional) profession, some parts of programming—like languages and language development—basically aren’t remunerative. Too many people will do it free because it’s fun, like amateur porn. In the 80s there were many language and library vendors, but nearly all have died, and libraries have become either open source or rolled into a few large companies like Apple and Microsoft. Some aspects of language development are cross-subsidized in various ways, like professors doing research, or companies paying for specific components or maintenance, but it’s one field that has, in some ways, become like photography, or writing, or physics, even though programming jobs as a whole are still pretty good.

I’m not convinced that the artist lifestyle of living cheap and being poor in the pursuit of some larger goal or glamor profession seems is good or bad, but I do think it is (that we have a lot of good cheap stuff out there, and especially cheap stuff in the form of consumer electronics, may help: it’s possible to buy or acquire a nearly free, five-year-old computer that works perfectly well as a writing box).* Of course, many starving artists adopt that as a pose—they think it’s cool to say they’re working on a novel or photography project or “a series of shorts” or whatever, but don’t actually do anything, while many people with jobs put out astonishing work. Or at least work, which is usually a precursor to astonishing work.

For some people, the growing ability of people to disseminate ideas and art forms even without being paid is a real win. In the old days, if you wanted to write something and get it out there, you needed an editor or editors to agree with you. Now we have a direct way of resolving questions about what people actually want to read. Of course, the downside is that whole payment thing, but that’s the general downside of the new world in which we live, and, frankly it’s one that I don’t have a society-wide solution for.

In writing, my best guess is that more people are going to book-ify blogs, and try to sell the book for $1 – $5, under the (probably correct) assumption that very few people want to go back and read a blog’s entire archives, but an ebook could collect and organize the material of those archives. If I read a powerful post by someone who seemed interesting, I’d buy a $4 ebook that covers their greatest hits or introduced me to their broader thinking.

This is tied into other issues around what people spend their time doing. My friend also wrote that he read “a couple of articles on Keynes’ predictions of utopia and declining work hours,” but he noted that work still takes up a huge amount of most people’s lives. He’s right, but most reports show that median hours worked in the U.S. has declined, and male labor force participation has declined precipitously. Labor force participation in general is surprisingly low. Ross Douthat has been discussing this issue in The New York Times (a paid gig I might add), and, like, most reasonable people he has a nuanced take on what’s happening. See also this Wikipedia link on working time for some arguments that working time has declined overall.

Working time, however, probably hasn’t decreased for everyone. My guess is that working time has increased for some smallish number of people at the top of their professors (think lawyers, doctors, programmers, writers, business founders), with people at the bottom often relying more on government or gray market income sources. Douthat starts his essay by saying that we might expect working hours among the rich to decline first, so they can pursue more leisure, but he points out that the rich are working more than ever.

Though I am tempted to put “working” in scare quotes, because it seems like many of the rich are doing things they would enjoy doing on some level anyway; certainly a lot of programmers say they would keep programming even if they were millionaires, and many of them become millionaires and keep programming. The same is true of writers (though fewer become millionaires). Is writing a leisure or work activity for me? Both, depending. If I self-publish Asking Anna tomorrow and make a zillion dollars, the day after I’ll still be writing something. I would like to get paid but some of the work I do for fun isn’t contingent on me getting paid.

Turning blogs into books and self-publishing probably won’t replace the salaries that news organizations used to pay, but it’s one means for writers or would-be writers to get some traction.

Incidentally, the hobby-ification of many professions makes me feel pretty good about working as a grant writing consultant. No one think when they’re 14, “I want to be a grant writer like Isaac and Jake Seliger!”, while lots of people want to be like famous actors, musicians, or journalists. There is no glamor, and grant writing is an example of the classic aphorism, “Where there’s shit, there’s gold” at work.

Grant writing is also challenging. Very few people have the weird intersection of skills necessary to be good, and it’s a decade-long process to build those skills—especially for people who aren’t good writers already. The field is perpetually mutating, with new RFPs appearing and old ones disappearing, so that we’re not competing with proposals written two years ago (where many novelists, for example, are in effect still competing with their peers from the 20s or 60s or 90s).

To return to journalism as a specific example, I can think of one situation in which I’d want The Atlantic or another big publisher to publish my work: if I was worried about being sued. Journalism is replete with stories about heroic reporters being threatened by entrenched interests; Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are the best-known examples, but even small-town papers turn up corruption in city hall and so forth. As centralized organizations decline, individuals are to some extent picking up the slack, but individuals are also more susceptible to legal and other threats. If you discovered something nasty about a major corporation and knew they’d tie up your life in legal bullshit for the next ten years, would you publish, or would you listen to your wife telling you to think of the kids, or your parents telling you to think about your career and future? Most of us are not martyrs. But it’s much harder for Mega Corp or Mega Individual to threaten The Atlantic and similar outlets.

The power and wealth of a big media company has its uses.

But such a use is definitely a niche case. I could imagine some of the bigger foundations, like ProPublica, offering a legal umbrella to bloggers and other muckrakers to mitigate such risks.

I have intentionally elided the question of what people are going to do if their industries turn towards hobbies. That’s for a couple reasons: as I said above, I don’t have a good solution. In addition, the parts of the economy I’m discussing here are pretty small, and small problems don’t necessarily need “solutions,” per se. People who want to turn their hours into a lot of income should try to find ways and skills to do that, and people who want to turn their hours into fun products like writing or movies should try to find ways to do that too. Crying over industry loss or change isn’t going to turn back the clock, and just because someone could make a career as a journalist doesn’t mean they can today.


* To some extent I’ve subsidized other people’s computers, because Macs hold their value surprisingly well and can be sold for a quarter to half of their original purchase price three to five years after they’ve been bought. Every computer replaced by my family or our business has been sold on Craigslist. Its also possible, with a little knowledge and some online guides, to add RAM and an SSD to most computers made in the last couple of years, which will make them feel much more responsive.

Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

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.

How to get coaching, mentoring, and attention

Introduction

Students regularly say that professors, teachers, coaches, mentors, and others don’t care about them or don’t offer real help and advice. In a recent discussion on the forum Hacker News, someone wrote, “[…] coaching/mentorship is probably found a lot more in a grad program than undergrad, where it’s pretty much nonexistent.” That commenter is somewhat right, but the deeper issue is that professors (and others with knowledge and competence) are most inclined to help people who won’t waste their time.

The challenge is to figure out who is going to waste time and who isn’t. Professors accomplish this through implicit tests. The challenge for you, the student who wants help, is to demonstrate that you’re worth the investment. I’m going to describe the incentives acting on both professors (or people with expertise) and students (or people seeking to develop expertise) and explain how to show that you’re better than the average student.

“How to get your Professors’ Attention” is biased towards universities because I’m a grad student in one and therefore more attuned to universities and the peculiar people who inhabit them. But this advice can be generalized to other situations where someone is knowledgeable and someone else is trying to seek knowledge or mentorship.

This essay is also biased toward English, which is my field. But if you’re working in computer science, for example, you’ll probably get more and better help if you walk into a professor’s office and say something like, “I’m having a problem with this program, which I suspect is related to X, but I’m not sure. I’ve tried sources Y and Z, which might be related, but I can’t figure out what’s going on. Am I missing something?” This will almost always go over better than saying, “Explain binary search trees to me” or “I don’t get this class,” which will probably yield a pointer to the relevant section of the book, with the instruction that you come back once you’ve read it and explain more explicitly where you’ve gotten lost.

Background

I majored in English and went to Clark University, where I think I got a lot of mentorship and connected with my professors. That might be because I took a lot of time to seek them out or because Clark is a small liberal arts school where professors are expected to interact with students. Even there, however, most, though not all, professors offered real mentorship/guidance to the extent the students seek it. When I was an undergrad, I was doing many of the things described in this essay, albeit unconsciously.

What do you care about?

The idea that professors don’t care about their students is a pernicious half-truth. Most professors do care about their students (otherwise they wouldn’t be professing), but professors know that many students don’t care about the subject or about learning—they care about grades. Professors don’t care about grades, and they often care about their students to the extent that their students care about learning.

If a student really wants to learn, the professor will usually help, but most students don’t—so the professor builds a wall between herself and her students to make sure that the only students who breach the wall are the ones who do care about learning. Professors do this through the tests described in the next section. Students often perceive this wall as indifference or callousness, when it’s really just a practical means of separating out the students whose primary goal is to get an A from the students whose primary goal is to understand why Ulysses was a major break from the tradition of the novel and why it became an emblematic text of modernism…

And so on. Life is complex and simple questions often have complex answers. Those complex answers are often found in the form of text, since good writing is far more idea-dense than speech can hope to be, which leads to my next point.

Books

Now I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and tell my students the same thing: if they want to go beyond whatever is required in class, they should start by showing up in their professors’ office hours, ideally with somewhat smart or at least well-considered questions or comments. Most professors respond well to this and will often give recommendations on books to read and/or projects to work on. A few days ago I taught Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” and students glommed onto this paragraph:

A key ingredient in many projects, almost a project on its own, is to find good books. Most books are bad. Nearly all textbooks are bad. So don’t assume a subject is to be learned from whatever book on it happens to be closest. You have to search actively for the tiny number of good books.

Professors are a good place to find good books because they’ve read so many. If you follow their recommendations and talk to them afterwards, coaching and mentorship relationships will be much more likely form. Demonstrate interest in their subject if you want their attention.

Obviously, there are exceptions, but this principle usually works reasonably well. If you show up in office hours and say “mentor me!” you’re probably not going to get much. But if you show up and ask questions x, y, and z, then read whatever the prof recommends, then come back, you’ll probably have a much better shot at their attention.

Another person on the Hacker News discussion said, “I get the impression that some undergraduates at some colleges do get good coaching and mentorship, and I would like to hear from other HN participants if they know of examples of that.” They’re right: some undergraduates do get good coaching and mentorship, but I suspect that depends less on the college or university and more on the undergraduate—and the undergraduate realizing how things work from her professors’ perspectives.

Reading

Professors tell you to read more or read particular books / essays for two reasons. The primary one is that reading is simply more information dense than talking, as mentioned earlier. Try this sometime: copy a half hour of TV news verbatim. You’ll find that it comes to maybe a page of text. To have a reasonable conversation, it often makes sense to read something related to the topic first, then talk about where to go from there. To learn more, read more. To learn faster, read more.

Secondarily, your professor will often recommend reading to test your seriousness. If she says, “Go read X and Y,” and you do, you’ve demonstrated that you’re not wasting the professor’s time and are genuinely interested in the topic. If you go away and don’t come back, you’ve demonstrated that you would’ve wasted her time had she spent an extra hour talking to you outside of class and office hours.

In English and related fields, a deep interest in reading is a pre-condition to doing other interesting things, like knowing about the world. It’s necessary but not sufficient. You don’t need to have read obsessively since you were 12 to catch my attention—but it does help if you say something like, “Oh, yeah, I read Heart of Darkness last summer and noticed the narrative structure, with Marlow telling the story to a random guy on the deck of the boat…” If you tell your computer science professors, “I’m working on a system to save and organize the comments I leave on blogs and read about this association algorithm…” they’re probably going to be more impressed than if you say that you’re ranked on the StarCraft II Battle.net ladder.

There are a handful of people who for whatever reason can’t get around to reading. But all of us make time for what’s important to us. If you can’t make time to read whatever your professor suggests, that indicates the topic isn’t of great importance to you—and therefore your professor shouldn’t waste time doing something that’s not important.

Once I had a student who said in class that he didn’t like to read fiction. Fair enough; not everyone does and it doesn’t offend me when others don’t share my vices. A week or two later, however, he wanted me to edit his 43 pages of Starcraft fan fiction; when I said that it isn’t possible to be a good writer without being a good reader, he didn’t believe me. Nonetheless I told him that if he read How Fiction Works and discussed it with me, I would read his Starcraft fan fiction. And I would have. He didn’t, of course, and acted like I I had kicked his puppy when I suggested that he prove himself.

To summarize: reading teaches you faster than talking can, and it efficiently sorts people who are willing to put in some time investment from those who aren’t. It’s necessary if you’re going to do interesting work.

Doing

People know I’m a wannabe “novelist” (as Curtis Sittenfeld said of her success with Prep in “The Perils of Literary Success,” “I was excited by the thought of no longer having to use air quotes when referring to myself as a ‘writer’ working on a ‘novel’ ”) with many rejection letters and near acceptances to prove how much of a wannabe I am. Sometimes friends and others say things like, “I want to be a novelist,” or “I want to write a novel.” I usually say, “Okay: start today.” Then I tell them: write Chapter One by date X (usually two or three days out) and send it to me.

I’ve probably made this offer to between one and two dozen people over the last couple years. One person has taken me up; she sent me Chapter One, I sent her some comments, and I didn’t hear back (we’re still friends; she says she’s writing other things). When people say they want to be better writers, I tell them what I told my Starcraft fan fiction writer: read James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. The rare ones who read show me they’re serious.

By now, I’ve been trained to assume that most people who say things like “I want to write a novel” a) have no idea how hard it is to write a novel, b) how much harder it is to write a novel someone else might actually want to read, and c) the fact that, based on experience, most people who say, “I want to write a novel” are full of shit.

Almost everyone in the United States who wants a computer has one. If you have a working computer and two or three hours a day, you can write a novel. Nothing is stopping you: you don’t need a $10,000 piano. You don’t need a mass spectrometer.[1] You don’t need permission. You don’t need to pass a test. You don’t need to be told you’re special.

All you need to do is sit down and write every day for a couple of hours. Eventually, you’ll have a novel, or at least a very large pile of words. Few people really want to.[2]

Most people who say they do, don’t, just like most people who say they want to lose weight don’t read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and then stop eating simple carbohydrates and highly processes meats. They say they want to lose weight and keep buying Coke. Comparing statements to actions reduces to, “I want to write a novel / lose weight, but not as much as I want to watch TV / drink soda.”

The funny thing is that both novel writing and losing weight are actually fields where relatively minor changes, accumulated over time, can lead to relatively large changes: try writing for one hour a day. Then two. Then three (maybe only on the weekends). Try to drink nothing but water (most drinks are just easily removed empty calories). Take most forms of bread out of your diet; eat fruit instead of candy. Go for a walk at the end of the day. You’ll eventually have a largish pile of words or drop some pounds. A large enough number of people do both to prove they’re possible—if you want them.

Your professors are asking themselves: “Does this student want it? Really want it?” The value of “it” varies by discipline, but the idea remains the same.

A lot of students say or imply they’re not ready or incapable to do a real project, or that they don’t have the time to do so. The former excuses about readiness might be true, but students should still start doing something. I wasn’t capable of writing a novel anyone wanted to read when I was 19—or even finishing one. It took me three tries to get a coherent, complete narrative together, which was still unpublishable. But I wouldn’t have the skills I have now if I hadn’t started trying then. Here’s Curtis Sittenfeld again, this time in an interview with The Atlantic: “I don’t think that you can learn to write a book except by writing a book.”

This isn’t just true of writing books. I didn’t start or stop my work based on what classes I was in or whether I was somehow authorized or trained to do what I was doing. In effect, I mostly trained myself, which I wouldn’t have done without all those early hours writing unpublishable crap. Most novelists tell the same story: lots of early crap and rejection that they ultimately overcome.

If you have a choice between building or making something and not building or making something, always choose “building or making something,” which will be more impressive than not trying even if you fail. Plus, if you look for it, you’ll see people in almost every field saying the same thing: the only way to learn is via the work itself. Here’s Patrick Allitt in I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student:

[. . .] but the way to improve as a teacher is by actually teaching; hypothetical situations or abstract discussions are too different from the real thing. The best you can hope for, short of actually getting down to the job, is to learn a handful of principles, on the one hand, and a handful of useful techniques, on the other.

You can learn those principles and techniques, but you still have to—above all—do. And your professors, like coaches and mentors, are looking for the people who will do whatever it takes. A lot of students say, “I’m just a student, and the president of club X, and I have homework to do, and I want to have sex with my boyfriend / girlfriend / neighbor / person-from-the-party-whose-name-I-forget, and my parents are breathing down my neck…” That might all be true, and all of those are fine things to do or worry about. I have to worry about many of them myself.

But you’ll only have more work over time, and the work done in college is nothing compared to the real work people do to support themselves. From what friends have told me, college schoolwork and life is nothing like the work of having a baby and being responsible for feeding and keeping alive a small, helpless, somewhat boring human. So in your professors’ minds, saying that you have so many responsibilities often reduces to an excuse not to start now. A base excuse. The best time to start anything is now. Today.

People who really want to do something… do it. Or they make changes so they can; you might notice that most people are not too busy to find time to date and/or have sex with the person of their dreams. But most people say they want to do something and then they don’t (I’ve repeated this a couple of times in the hopes that it sticks). Over time, others notice this (like me), and they start to assume that most people who say they want to do or know something are full of shit, in part because experts can’t distinguish at first glance who’s full of shit and who is genuine and thus worth investing in.

So experts assume that someone is full of shit until they prove otherwise. In the case of someone who wants to write a novel, I assume they’re no longer full of shit if they’ve written a complete first novel and started on a second one (the first one is almost certainly no good, although there might be useful lessons to draw from it. That was true for me). In the case of someone who wants to lose weight, I assume they’re full of shit until they start carrying around a Nalgene bottle and a bag of peanuts instead of a Coke and a Snickers. Your professors will start to think you’re not full of shit when you read the books they recommend, ask for more recommendations, read those, and come back for more.

In addition, if you do enough stuff, you’ll have something to bring to the table. A random person with no skills is less appealing than a random person who can say, “I’ll get your blog up and running” or “I’ll write the first draft of the boring NIH proposal for you” or even “I’m obsessed with coffee and will make you a single-original brew in a Chemex.” People who develop skills tend to develop the meta-skill of developing skills, and they’re more appealing because of the skills they already have.

Caveats

This basic advice won’t always work: some professors won’t pay any attention to you no matter what you do. They might be more interested in their own research than teaching, or they might be having personal problems, or they might be off in their own world, or they might be burned out. Some professors will go out of their way to try and inflict mentoring on students who don’t particularly want it, although I don’t think there are very many of these professors, especially in big public schools; most professors who try this approach will also probably encounter enough apathy to scale it back once they’re rebuffed enough times.

There are probably also variations by field: enough people have reported that professors in technical fields are less inclined to work with undergrads to make me wonder if there is some truth to this stereotype. I suspect that science professors just have a different mode of mentoring, which goes something like: “Come to the lab, we’ll see if you can do anything there.”[3] Most professors, however, will fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and those are the professors who can most be reached via this guide. It would be very unusual to find a school where following the basic outline presented here will result in nothing.

A story…

I had a student who I’ll call “Joe.” He habitually wanted to hang out and chat after class. This is good: at first I interpreted it as meaning that he was intellectually curious and driven.

But as the semester went on, I got progressively more annoyed because he’d ask questions that couldn’t be reduced to sound bites. I kept telling him to drop by office hours if he wanted to really talk, but he never showed up. I’d suggest he read X, and when I asked him about it a week later, he’d say he’d been busy, but he was never too busy to waste ten or fifteen minutes of my time in class. We were reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and he said something about her place in literary history that was… unlikely, let us say, so I told him to read a few of the essays in the back of the Norton critical edition. I don’t think he did.

Before their first papers are due, I usually meet with my freshmen individually to go over their work. I close read, edit, talk to them about ideas, catch disastrously bad papers so they can be rewritten, and so on. Joe didn’t show up to his conference; he didn’t come to my office hours; and when I finally did read his paper, it had incredible howlers in terms of both fact and interpretation, my favorite being his assertion that the Toyota Prius is in some way like a perpetual motion machine, which demonstrated that he didn’t know anything about physics or perpetual motion machines or even general knowledge.

Joe got back a paper that was charitably graded, given its quality, and he dropped the class. Joe is an extreme example of a time waster: I think he would’ve been more than happy to chat for an hour after class each day, shooting the breeze while I had places to be and other pressing concerns. But I get at least one Joe every year. I separate Joe from students who want to learn by a) telling them to read something and b) seeing if they do it. The ones who do, I spend as much time talking to outside of class as they want—because I know they’re not wasting my time.

Criticism

Most of us don’t like being criticized: we’d prefer to imagine that we’re good at everything, that we don’t need the help of others, and that whatever we’re working on is perfect—we shouldn’t change a thing. We get prickly when people try to help us and often denigrate the person giving us advice, assuming that person doesn’t understand our genius or is too hard a grader or has malice in their heart.

Grades are a form of criticism and a form of ranking you against other people: they’re a direct statement from your professor to you about how well the professor thinks you’ve mastered the material. Even in an era of rampant grade inflation, grades can still sting, and very few students achieve a 4.0. A small but noisy minority of students will come back after every semester to fight about their grades, which is one of the least pleasant aspects of teaching.

Professors know that most people who are looking for help mostly want to have their current ideas or beliefs gratified and validated. If professors offer real, constructive criticism, it’s often viewed as a personal attack by the person on the receiving end, who will then be hostile to the critic; that hostility will turn into negative responses on the end-of-semester evaluations, awkward moments when the professor and student run into each other on campus or at a bar, and so on.

Still, some fields are culturally disposed towards rapid, yes/no assessment. One friend who read this essay mention that his vector calculus professor often says things like, “No, you’re doing it wrong—here’s how it should be done.” My friend said it took him aback at first, and he realized that the professor’s honesty could be mistaken for cruelty and indifference. But the professor’s demeanor is actually about efficiency: the math professor wants his students to get the right answer as fast as possible. Most of us, however, aren’t used to being told we’re wrong on a regular basis, so we interpret this as hostility when it’s not.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” which is a cliché precisely because very few people are capable of listening dispassionately to criticism, evaluating it, and ignoring it if they think it invalid and accepting it if they think it’s valid. Most of us suffer from some level of confirmation bias, which is a term psychologists use to describe what Wikipedia calls “a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.”[4] We all want to believe we are smart and capable. But we often aren’t, and we don’t like to accept it when people tell us this or imply it. When students do attempt something, fail, and accept credit, it’s almost as impressive as if they get it on the first try.

From the professor’s perspective, it’s easier to avoid giving the real criticism necessary for improvement. If you’re a student who wants to learn, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re capable of taking criticism, that your ego is not overly inflated, and that you’re willing to accept that you don’t know everything and that you could be wrong. Some people never learn how to do this. Others do only after a great struggle. Professors will assume that you can’t take criticism until you show you can. This problem inhibits your professors from forming real bonds and sharing real knowledge with you, especially if that knowledge contradicts what you already believe to be true. If a professor gives you real commentary, use it to improve.

That doesn’t mean you have to believe your professor or take all the advice anyone gives you, but you should at least not be hostile to it. If the professor is right, modify your behavior; if the professor is wrong, pity them for their ignorance or incorrect interpretation. But don’t get angry because someone is trying to help you, however imperfectly.

Professors, and most people who do good or interesting work, need to have a peculiar temperament: they need an open mind (Paul Graham in “What You Can’t Say:” “To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere”) but also the rigor not to become too infatuated with or attached to particular ideas. Few people achieve this balance, and very few people have the kind of openness that I associate with great intelligence, which manifests itself in a willingness to take in new ideas and be wrong when necessary. When I see these kinds of traits in anyone, they arrest my attention. This is doubly true for students, because so few students have or manifest them.

Real education

In “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?“, Mark Edmundson writes:

If you want to get a real education in America you’re going to have to fight—and I don’t mean just fight against the drugs and the violence and against the slime-based culture that is still going to surround you. I mean something a little more disturbing. To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be. (In fact, the more prestigious the school, the more you’ll probably have to push.) You can get a terrific education in America now—there are astonishing opportunities at almost every college—but the education will not be presented to you wrapped and bowed. To get it, you’ll need to struggle and strive, to be strong, and occasionally even to piss off some admirable people.

This guide is basically teaching you how “to fight,” because the regular education that you get solely from sitting in classes won’t be real impressive. You won’t learn as much from formal, explicit education as you will from informal, tacit education. Both have their place, but you have to go beyond the given to get the tacit education. That’s where the “struggle and strive” come from. If you’re perceptive and attending a big American school, you’ve probably noticed that you’re not getting much out of a 500- or 1,000-person lecture class.

Of course you aren’t—those classes are designed to balance the university’s budget, since they cost only marginally more to run than ten-person seminars, yet the university charges you, the student, the same amount per credit hour as it does to the ten seminarians. If you’re not perceptive or you just want to party and get laid, it probably doesn’t matter. But if you are that student who really wants to get something more than a particular kind of fun from the college experience, you need to know how to “get a terrific education,” which “will not be presented to you wrapped and bowed.” You have to take it for yourself—you have to prove yourself. In movies about sports, you may notice that the team or individual doesn’t get to the championship match or fight the first time it hits the field or enters the ring.

You won’t either. You have to prove to your professors and to others that you have what it takes. That you have tenacity, grit, strength. That you want the education, not merely the piece of paper at the end that says you’ve sat through four years of stultifying classes and managed not to fail out. Depending on your major, it’s shockingly hard to fail, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

It’s important to learn how to cultivate teachers. In A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, William Deresiewicz writes:

The need for teachers: there is something in the modern spirit that bridles at the notion. It seems inegalitarian, undemocratic. It injures our self-esteem, the idea of having to confess our incompleteness and submerge our ego beneath another person. It outrages our Romantic temper, which feels that the self is autonomous and the self is supreme. [ . . .] But Austen accepted it, even celebrated it. Nearly all of her heroines have teachers of one kind or another, and in her own life, we know, her mentors were many crucial.

Most teachers are not very good, despite our need for them. But we need to learn how much we need them, if we’re really going to do the things we want to do in our lives. We might be “autonomous,” but we also need to have someone else’s perspective and experience.

Conclusion

Many professors will help you, but you need to know how to make them want to help you. You need to learn how to signal a willingness to learn, which you can do mostly by formulating good questions and doing the reading or projects your professor suggests. As stated earlier, some professors won’t help you no matter what. They’re not very common, since if they didn’t have a strong desire to teach, they’d have gone into a more lucrative field, since there are few fields less lucrative than teaching at the university level (adjusted for education and opportunity costs). Many, however, will have been burned by students who are dilettantes and time wasters. You need to prove you’re not one of them and learn how to breach their defenses. This is a guide to doing so, but reading the guide is the easy part. The hard part is doing the reading and finishing the projects. That is up to you.

Thanks to Bess Stillman, Derek Huang, and Andrew Melton for reading this essay. For further reading, consider Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Leading a meaningful life is not easily accomplished, and for evidence of that assertion I’d submit the tragically small number of people who seem to do so.


[1] But really, who doesn’t want one?

[2] Maybe they are afraid of ending up with that very large pile of words.

[3] They want to know: Are you competent? Can you do math? Will you break the $10,000 PCR machine? Okay, go play with chemicals, read this paper, get back to me in a week.

[4] Learning about confirmation bias is one of the first steps toward combating it, which Steve Joordens discusses in his lecture “You Can Lead Students to Knowledge, But How Do You Make Them Think?” The lecture is about critical thinking, but it’s really about how to think and why.

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