Dan Luu has a great Twitter thread about “how few bits of information it’s possible to reliably convey to a large number of people. When I was at MS, I remember initially being surprised at how unnuanced their communication was, but it really makes sense in hindsight” and he also says that he’s “noticed this problem with my blog as well. E.g., I have some posts saying BigCo $ is better than startup $ for p50 and maybe even p90 outcomes and that you should work at startups for reasons other than pay. People often read those posts as ‘you shouldn’t work at startups’.” In other words, many people are poor readers, although “hurried” or “inattentive” might be kinder word choices. His experiences, though, are congruent with mine: I’ve taught English to non-elite college students, off and on, since 2008; when I first started, I’d run classes by saying things like, “What do you all think of the reading? Any comments or questions?” I’d get some meandering responses, and maybe generate a discussion, but I often felt like the students were doing random free association, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why.
After a semester or two I began changing what I was doing. An essay like Neal Stephenson’s “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” is a good demonstration of why, and it’s on my mind because I taught it to students recently (you should probably read “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” first, because, if you don’t, the next three paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense—and you’re the kind of person who does the reading, right?). Instead of opening by asking “What do you think?”, I began class by asking, “What is the main point of ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out?’” Inevitably, not all students would have done the reading, but, among those who had, almost none ever have, or give, good answers. Many get stuck on the distinction between “geeking out” and “vegging out,” even though that’s a subsidiary point. Some students haven’t seen or dislike Star Wars, and talk about their dislike, even though that’s not germane to understanding the essay.
Stephenson says at least three times that Star Wars functions a metaphor: once in the third paragraph, once in the second-to-last paragraph—although that technically compares the Jedi to scientists, rather than Star Wars as a whole to society—and again at the end (“If the ‘Star Wars’ movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs”). Most students don’t know what a “parable” is, which also means I wind up asking what they should do if they come across a word they don’t know. It’s also not like the essay is long or using numerous complex words: it’s only about 1,300 words and it’s about pop culture, not some abstract topic.
The first few times I taught “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” this way, I wondered if I was getting unrepresentative samples, but I’ve done it many times since and have consistently gotten the same results. I think most high-school students, to the extent they’re being taught to read effectively at all, are being taught to skim a work for keywords and then vomit up an emotional reaction (I assign free-form, pass-fail student journals, and most take this form). Very few students seem to be taught close reading, although when I was still in grad school, I had a cluster of students who all had had the same junior or senior year high school teacher, and that teacher had drilled all of them in close reading and essay writing—and they were all proficient. She seemed to be the exception, not the rule, and I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. Teaching “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” usually takes somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, in order to go through it and look at how the essay is constructed, how the sentence “What gives?” functions as a turning point in it, and other related topics. I tell students at the end of the process that we’ve not talked about whether they like “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” or not; the goal is to understand it first, and evaluate it later. Understanding before judgment: Internet culture encourages precisely opposite values, as I’m sure we’ve all seen in social media like Twitter itself.
At the end of class, I ask again, “What is the main point?” and get much better answers. I’ll sometimes do the same thing with other argumentative essays, and often the initial answers aren’t great. I posit that most students aren’t being taught close reading in high school, and part of that theory comes from me asking them, individually, what their high school English classes were like. Many report “we watched a lot of movies” or “nothing.” Sure, a few students will have taken “nothing” from excellent classes and instructors, but the answers are too uncomfortably common, especially from diligent-seeming students, for me to not see the pattern. In high school, few students seem to have looked closely at the language of a given work and how language choices are used to construct a story or argument. To my mind, and in my experience, doing that is a prerequisite for being a proficient writer, including on topics related to “social justice.”
It’s not just “turn On, Tune In, Veg Out;” when I assign Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” I’ll get strange responses from students about how it’s so totally true that these days the English language is being used poorly. After enough of those kinds of responses, I began to open class by asking students to take 20 or 30 seconds to write down when “Politics” was written. In case you think this is a trick question, “1946” is displayed in huge font at the start of the version I’m using, and it’s repeated again at the very end. In the text itself, Orwell cites a Communist pamphlet, and he mentions the “Soviet press,” and such choices should be clues that it’s not contemporary. Nonetheless, if a third of a given class gets in the right ballpark—pretty much anything between “1930s” and “1950s” is adequate enough for these purposes—that’s good, which implies two-thirds of a given class hasn’t done the reading or hasn’t retained what I’d call an elemental idea from the reading. Students routinely guess “2010s” or “2000s.”
Right after college I taught the LSAT for two years, and the LSAT is largely a test of reading comprehension. I worked for an independent guy named Steven Klein, who’d started his company in the late ‘80s or early ’90s, before Kaplan and Princeton Review became test-prep behemoths. He and his business partner, Sandy, would marvel at the students who had 3.8, 3.9, sometimes 4.0 GPAs in fields like sociology, communication, English, or “Law, Society, and Justice” but who couldn’t seem to understand even simple prose passages. The students would get frustrated too: they were college grads or near college grads, who were used to being told they were great. The LSAT experience made me a sympathetic reader of the book Paying for the Party, or Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education, both of which describe how most colleges and universities have evolved vast party tracks that require minimal skill development and mental acuity, but reliably deliver high grades. I think of those books when I read about the massive, $1 trillion and growing amount of outstanding student loan debt. Many college and university students would be better served with apprenticeships and vocational education, but as a society we’ve spent 40, if not more, years disparaging such paths and exalting “college.” Articles like “41% of Recent Grads Work in Jobs Not Requiring a Degree” are common. We have many bartenders and airline stewards and stewardesses and baristas who’ve obtained expensive degrees: I’m not opposed to any of those professions and respect all of them, but a four-year degree is a very expensive way of winding up in them.
The LSAT is a standardized test, and many schools still like standardized tests because those tests aren’t changed by how rich or connected or otherwise privileged a person is. Some Ivy-League and effectively-Ivy-League schools are doing away with the SAT, in the name of “diversity,” but that usually means they’re trying to give themselves even more discretion in “holistic” admissions, which tends to mean rich kids, with a smattering of diversity admits for political cover. “Race Quotas and Class Privilege at Harvard: Meme Wars: Who gets in, and why?” is one take on this topic, although numerous others can be found. The students who had gotten weak degrees and high GPAs were flummoxed by the LSAT; when they asked what they could do to improve their reading skills, Steven and Sandy often told them, “Read more, and read more sophisticated works. The Atlantic, The New Yorker [this was a while ago], better books, and do it daily.” I’d sometimes see their faces fall at the notion of having to read more: they were hoping to learn “One Weird Trick For Improving Your Reading Skills. You Won’t Guess What It Is!” When I’ve taught undergrads, they often want to know if there’s a way to get extra credit, and I tell them to do the reading thoroughly and write great essays, because I will grade based on improvement. This seems particularly important because many haven’t been taught close reading or sentence construction. I also see the disappointment in their faces and body language, because they think I’m going to tell them the secret, and instead I tell them there is no real secret, just execution and practice. A lot of school consists of jumping through somewhat ridiculous, but well-defined, hoops, and then being rewarded for it at the end, but real learning is much stranger and more tenuous than that. Sarah Constantin argues that “Humans Who Are Not Concentrating Are Not General Intelligences,” which is consistent with my experiences.
Many, if not most, English and writing professors also seem strangely uninterested in teaching writing or close reading. I get peculiar looks when I talk about the importance of either with other people teaching writing or English; one woman at a school I taught at in New York told me that social justice is the only appropriate theme for freshman writing courses. I know what she meant, and grunted noncommittally; I didn’t really reply to her at the time, although I was thinking: “Isn’t developing high levels of skill and proficiency the ultimate form of social justice?”
This is a long-winded way of saying that poor reading comprehension may be closer to the norm than the exception, and that may also be why, as Dan observed, very few bits of information trickle down from the C suites in big companies to the line workers (“I’ve seen quite a few people in upper management attempt to convey a mixed/nuanced message since my time at MS and I have yet to observe a case of this working in a major org at a large company (I have seen this work at a startup, but that’s a very different environment)”). I’d imagine the opposite is also true: if you’re a line worker, or lower-level management, it’s probably difficult or impossible to tell the C suite people about something you think important. Startups can disrupt big companies when a few people at the startup realize something important is happening, but the decision makers and the BigCo don’t.
I’ve also learned, regarding teaching, a message similar to what the MS VPs had learned: not much goes through, and repetition is key. One time, my sister watched me teach and said after, “You repeat yourself a lot.” I told her she was right, but that I’d learned to do so. Teachers and professors repeating themselves endlessly made me crazy when I was in school, but now I understand why they do it. I’ll routinely say “Do [stuff] for Thursday. Any questions?” and have someone immediately say: “What should we do for Thursday?” There’s a funny scene in the movie Zoolander in which the David Duchovny character explains to the Ben Stiller character how male models are being used to conduct political assassinations. He goes through his explanation, and then Zoolander goes: “But why male models?” The David Duchovny character replies: “Are you stupid? I just explained exactly that to you.” Derek Zoolander is a deliberately stupid character, but I think inattention is probably the most relevant explanation in the real world. Big tech companies like Microsoft probably have very few stupid people in them. Most students aren’t stupid, but I think many haven’t been effectively challenged or trained. It’s also harder for the instructor to teach close reading than it is to have meandering discussions about how a given work, which has probably been at best skimmed, makes students feel. I’ve written on “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.” There’s a phrase that floats around higher education about a rueful compact between students and teachers: “They pretend to learn, and we pretend to teach.” Students, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, really like to get good grades. I of course grade with scrupulous honesty and integrity 100% of the time, just like everyone else, but I have heard rumors that there’s temptation to give students what they want and collect positive evaluations, which are often used for hiring and tenure purposes.
Politicians appear to have learned the same thing about repetition and the limits of the channel: the more successful ones appear to develop a simple message, and often a simple phrase (“Hope and change,” to name a recent one: you can probably think of others) and repeat it endlessly, leaving the implementation details to staff, assuming the politician in question is elected.
When Paul Graham confronts readers mis-reading his work, he’ll often ask, “Can you point to a specific sentence where I state what you say I state?” It appears almost none do. Even otherwise sophisticated people will attribute views to him that he doesn’t hold and hasn’t stated, based on the mood his essay creates. In Jan. 2016, for example, he wrote “Economic Inequality: The Short Version” because he saw “some very adventurous interpretations” of the original. In April 2007, he wrote “Microsoft is Dead: The Cliffs Notes” because many interpreted his metaphor as being literal. I often teach a few of his essays, most notably “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” and some students will report that he’s “arrogant” or “pretentious.” Maybe he is: I’ll ask a version of the question Graham does: “Can you cite a sentence that you find arrogant or pretentious?” Usually the answer is “no.” I tell students they could write an essay arguing that he is, using specific textual evidence, but that never happens.
I’ve told bits and pieces of this essay to friends in conversation, and they sometimes urge me to try and make a difference by making an effort to improve college teaching. I appreciate their encouragement, but I don’t run any writing or English departments and have a full-time job that occupies most of my time and attention. I like teaching, but teaching represents well under 10% of my total income, tenure-track jobs in humanities fields haven’t really existed since 2009, and adjunct gigs offer marginal pay. To really encourage better classroom teaching, schools would need to pay more and set up teaching systems for improving classroom teaching. The goal of the system is to propagate and perpetuate the system, not to disturb it in ways that would require more money or commitment. Pretending excellence is much easier than excellence. I’m okay with doing a bit of teaching on the side, because it’s fun and different from the kind of computer work I usually do, but I’m under no illusions that I’m capable of changing the system in any large-scale way. The writing I’ve done over the years about colleges and college teaching appears to have had an impact on the larger system that’s indistinguishable from zero.