Teachers and the income ceiling

The teacher pay gap is a myth? Maybe. This one has a different spin than the typical unthinking “teachers are underpaid” articles (it argues they’re not, and yes there is data to support the assertion), which is why I point to it specifically, but I think both sides are underestimating an important point about flexibility and possibility in any given career; teaching has a relatively low pay ceiling and even if a given teacher wants to work twice as hard and make twice as much money, that’s really difficult and potentially impossible. High IQ and high conscientiousness persons in other professions, meanwhile, can maximize incomes to a much greater extent than teachers. For example, as a consultant there are various avenues I can explore to further raise my income, but if I taught high school I couldn’t. In big metro areas, too, there are also many more employers to choose from than most teachers can choose from, since there’s usually one district, or a handful in nearby areas; at the same time, high rents in many superstar cities make teaching less attractive, so the “teacher pay” story is also a story about land-use regulations that raise the cost of housing—it’s just never discussed in those terms.

Teaching has other challenges: bureaucracy is a real problem and so is low morale, perhaps related to bureaucracy. In most sectors, if you don’t like the bureaucracy at one company you can switch to another, but this is considerably harder for teachers, since most districts are local monopolies. Financial returns to IQ also seem to be going up and at the same time we’re making housing in many cities and first-tier suburbs out-of-control expensive—so teachers are really taking it financially, from both the cost-of-living side and from the payment side. I have heard through the grapevine, for example, that pretty much every new public school teacher in Seattle says the same thing about how she got there: “My husband got a job at Amazon and…” That’s no doubt an exaggeration, but how much of one?

To use myself as an example, my parents moved from California to a boring suburb when I was a kid, and they left California because the cost of housing was so high. I checked how much they paid for the house in the boring suburb; in inflation-adjusted terms, they paid about $350,000 in today’s dollars. The same house is estimated to be worth about $700,000 today, so the cost has just about doubled in real terms, but that suburb forbids townhouses in the vast majority of its land, so no one can buy the house, knock it down, and put two houses on the same lot. If that were legal, we’d not have the housing crisis we do in many high-productivity cities and their suburbs. If we could lower the overall cost of living, struggles around teacher pay would seem less dire. Oregon, for example, has legalized duplexes and fourplexes statewide, so it will offer a natural experiment in lowering housing costs.

Let’s return to the original link:

shortages exist precisely where expected in a nationwide labor market that pays an increasing premium for STEM and other specialized skills. When researchers have examined the teaching vacancies that districts say they have trouble filling, they find that elementary, English, and social-studies teachers are not the problem. In fact, the Department of Education found that 20 states and the District of Columbia produced over twice as many elementary-education graduates as they had elementary-teaching positions to fill. At the same time, some districts struggle to fill STEM and special-education positions.

It’s hard to measure teacher “productivity” and yet almost no one bothers trying. So the most productive teachers are incentivized to move somewhere they can be paid in line with their productivity, which can’t be at most schools. Talk about an adverse selection problem! We have problems in data and definitions in both health care and teaching; rarely have two fields absorbed so much concentrated thought and produced so little change. The data and definition problems make it much harder to evaluate quality, inputs, and outputs than in other fields, especially those related to manufacturing. In most businesses, a major goal is simple (profit) and measurement is comparatively simple. The output of high-quality teaching may not manifest itself for decades, and very little of the value improvement is captured by the educator. By contrast, if you build a better widget, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to capture more of the widget value beyond the cost of production.

Because we’re not measuring, or able to measure, teacher quality effectively, most schools also seem to pay based on years of experience. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that it can be very hard to get hired by another public school after 10 – 15 years of experience, because then you’re too expensive and most schools would rather hire cheaper teachers. So this is another way of ossifying the labor market.

There’s also a narrative about teachers working a lot of hours per week, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data consistently show that teachers work 40 hours a week. One example, although I have seen many other similar ones. Anecdotes consistently run one way, and data consistently runs another.

Overall, however, it seems that the number of people trying to have a completely honest conversation around this topic is not high, and many who argue that we should pay teachers “more” don’t know what “more” looks like. We may also see lots of composition effect problems, in which people who can get higher wages or better working conditions leave and get them, while those who can’t stay at school districts and take what they can get, which is at least consistent with some of the teachers I had in high school, but that may not be desirable at the societal level.

Teaching demands starting where comprehension ends

How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths” is from Timothy Gowers‘s blog, and many sections are not unique to math; they apply to teaching almost anything. Like this:

I’m jumping around a bit here, but a semi-counterintuitive idea that he advocates, which is apparently backed up by serious research, is what he calls pretesting. This means testing people on material that they have not yet been taught. As long as this is done carefully, so that it doesn’t put students off completely, this turns out to be very valuable, because it prepares the brain to be receptive to the idea that will help to solve that pesky problem. And indeed, after a moment of getting used to the idea, I found it not counterintuitive at all.

In English, “pretesting” as such is often not possible, but it’s useful to attempt to gauge students’s knowledge and go back to wherever the student is confused—which may be very simple aspects of language, like parts of speech. I often had debates about this subject in grad school, when other grad students or professors would lament students’s weak grasp of “basics” or “fundamentals” like comma rules. The stern professors had a point, in that university students should know those things, but I would counter that, if students don’t know them, it’s useful to teach them, even in “advanced” classes. Sometimes students seem to have not been taught much of anything in high-school English classes. Many high-school English classes have devolved into discussions of feelings and vague hand-waving about a given book, and students emerge from them with few concrete skills.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite is true. While teaching in grad school, I had a series of students, all good writers, all of whom had been taught by a particular teacher in a particular high school, and she apparently really drilled students in close reading and essay construction, like someone out of “The Writing Revolution.” The results showed. I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. I would guess that she did a form of “pretesting,” albeit without multiple-choice questions, to ascertain students’s skill levels and then base each day in class on what students know. I used to do something similar at times, by doing quick yes/no questions based on raised hands, in order to get a sense of where students were. Now, reading “How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths,” I think I should have spent more time and energy on assessment.

In most if not all subjects, it’s not possible to teach (or learn) advanced topics without mastering fundamentals, so an instructor should go back to wherever someone lacks mastery and begin building up from there. If that doesn’t happen, students—in the broadest sense, even outside formal school—at most muddle through and at worst waste everyone’s time. It’s nice to see someone as eminent as Timothy Gowers coming to a similar conclusion.

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”

mortality-chart

I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

*Do* we need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle asks: “Do We Need Shakespeare?“, and she offers some theories about why we might that don’t rely on “Because we’ve always done it that way,” including “What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them” and “Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still, I’m not so sure. I began imagining reasons almost immediately, but most reduced to, “Because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.” Which can be reduced to “path dependence.” Teaching a writer who seems incomprehensible at first glance and requires experts to decipher also raises the status of (some) teachers and professors, who have knowledge that can’t be readily accessed by every day people. That Hansonian reason, however, isn’t real good reason why we should choose Shakespeare plays over some other means of teaching English.

Let me try to develop an alternate possibility that will likely make many people unhappy. I’ve begun to think that education is really about cultivating a relatively small elite who really push forward particular domains (which is a variant of McArdle’s comment about the thousands of future English teachers). In other words, mass education doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensely educating a small number of very high skill people, but those people probably aren’t identifiable in advance. This idea isn’t purely mine, and I’ve been thinking about it explicitly since reading Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, in which he writes:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies.

Wow: Something as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution may have been driven by a small number of people. I’ve also read a lot about the early computer industry and the early development of integrated chips, and that too seems to have been driven by a small number of physicists and mathematicians, with particularly important companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel starting off with tiny workforces. Most of the world didn’t matter much to the development of those industries, even though those industries are now so large that a large part of the workforce spends our time in front of glowing screens that show executed code most of us don’t understand and can’t write. Computers and the Internet are the biggest stories of our age, possibly excepting global warming and mass extinction, yet many of us aren’t substantially participating and don’t care to.

What gives?

The unpleasant answer may be that most of us don’t matter that much to the process. By the same token, most people who learn to despite reading from being made to read Shakespeare may never be good readers, writers, or thinkers—but they’re not the ones who push the world forward, intellectually speaking. Instead, those of us who go on to realize that, say, “
Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense: What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind
” are the ones who matter, at least in this domain.

Most Westerners are uncomfortable with outright elitism, but I’d ask: How many of us really work as hard as we can at a given domain? In “How A Slight Change In Mindset: Accelerated My Learning Forever,” Tristan de Montebello observes that few of us really throw ourselves into learning. Most of us learn as much as we need to to survive and do okay and reproduce, but not much more than that. You can tell as much via behavior.

That may be true in language as a domain as well. I read more than the vast majority of people I know, and yet there are people who read and write much more than even I do.

To return to Shakespeare, I’d also argue that sometimes complex, weird, or seemingly outdated works force us to read closer and more carefully than we might otherwise. Shakespeare makes contemporary readers work harder to understand what the writer means—which is ultimately a useful and under-used skill. Just look at most Internet forums: since the 1980s and Usenet, going forward all the way to today with Reddit, we have numerous places where people gather online and utterly fail at basic reading comprehension (this is one reason I spend little time posting there and much more posting here).

Under this theory, reading someone like Shakespeare is akin to lifting weights: a 500-pound deadlift may not translate directly into 500 pounds of force in a game, but it sure translates more force than a guy who can’t deadlift 500 pounds.

Still, I’m treating the argument that Shakespeare-is-good like a lawyer and trying to come up with the best possible argument, rather than arguing from first principles. I’m not fully convinced we need Shakespeare, as opposed to some other writer or group of writers, as a necessary component of teaching English.

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.”

Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing

This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to this e-mail.

I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing. As you observed, there is an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses. Such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity, overall, in sentence structure. This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about Facebook and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality (which may speak about the culture as a whole).

IMG_3049That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you, since few if any students write in such a fashion, and I (like most contemporary people) value novelty. As long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks, and I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.

So how do you, the seeker, figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right!

When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”

Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.

In addition, skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.

To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.

One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly (if they wish to), let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.

If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree. Few people who consciously work throughout their lives think their work as, say, 20-year-old students is as good as their work at age 30.

With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”).

That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform, but a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.

Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.

When I started teaching, I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).

This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).

I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:

The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.

Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might want to read. This guarantees that different students will approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. Learning to conceptualize the problem domain is an essential part of the writing process that’s often left out of high school and even college. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.

I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I have a fairly wide or broad sense of “good” writing—or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.

These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.

In general, I’d like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.

Finally (at least on this topic), if you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.

Most people’s conception of “good” differs at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.

This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.”

The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.

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