How not to choose a college: Frank Bruni ignores the really important stuff

Frank Bruni wrote an essay called “How to Choose a College” without mentioning the most important fact about college for the life outcomes of many students: debt. That’s liking writing about the Titanic and ignoring the whole iceberg thing.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business, Mark Cuban writes, “financial debt is the ultimate dream killer. Your first house, car, whatever you might want to buy, is going to be the primary reason you stop looking for what makes you the happiest.” He’s right about debt often being “the ultimate dream killer,” but he should add student loans to his roster of “whatever you might want to buy,” especially because student loans are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. I don’t think most 18 year olds really understand what tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will really mean to them five years, ten years, twenty years after they graduate.

To me, the most interesting metric a university could offer these days is the mean, median, and mode debt of students upon graduation.

Money shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a college, but it should be a major one, unless one has uncommonly wealthy parents.

College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs

I’m an on-the-record fan of William Deresiewicz, which made reading “Tsunami: How the market is destroying higher education” distressing. It blames problems in contemporary higher education on capitalism and markets, but I think it ignores a couple of things, the most important of which is the role in colleges in raising prices, increasing the number of administrators, and reducing teaching loads for tenured faculty.

Beyond that, Deresiewicz discusses Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is a dubious place to start; see, for example, “Shock Jock” for one critique. In it, Tyler Cowen notes that “Most of the book is a button-pressing, emotionally laden, whirlwind tour of global events over the last 30 years” and that “The book offers not so much an argument but rather a Dadaesque juxtaposition of themes and supposedly parallel developments in the global market.” Klein’s book reminds me of the bad academic writing that assumes the dubious evils of capitalism without quite spelling out what those dubious evils are or what plausible alternatives exist.

Returning to Deresiewicz: “College is now judged in terms of ‘return on investment,’ the delivery of immediately negotiable skills.” But this might simply be due to rising costs: when college was (relatively) inexpensive, it was easy to pay less attention to ROI issues; when it’s almost impossible to afford without loans for middle-class families, it becomes much harder. ROI on degrees that, in contemporary terms, cost $20,000 can be safely ignored. ROI on degrees that cost $150,000 can’t be.

Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher.

Presidents and other bureaucrats make popular punching bags—hell, I took a couple whacks in my first paragraph—and perhaps they are “overpaid” (though one should ask why Boards of Trustees are willing to pay them what they do), but such highly-paid administrators still aren’t very expensive relative to most colleges’ overall budgets. I would like to see universities exercise greater discipline in this area, but I doubt they will until they’re forced to by markets. At the moment, schools are underwritten by federally-backed, non-dischargeable loans taken out by students. Until we see real reform,

The only good answer about the rise in college costs that I’ve seen come from Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Their short answer: “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” Unfortunately, it’s more fun pointing fingers at evil administrators, evil markets, evil capitalism, and ignorance students who want to know how much they’re going to make after they graduate.

At the very least, Why Does College Cost So Much? is a better place to start than The Shock Doctrine.

These questions are getting more and more play in the larger culture. Is College a Lousy Investment? appears in The Daily Beast. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” appears in The New York Times. A surprisingly large number of people with degrees are working in jobs that don’t require them: in coffee shops, as bartenders, as flight attendants, and so on. That’s a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be primarily about personal development and partying. So what should students, at the individual level, do?

To figure out whether college is a good idea, you have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish: getting a credential or gaining knowledge. If the primary purpose is the latter, and you have a strong sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it, college isn’t automatically the best option. It probably is if you’re 18, because, although you don’t realize this now, you don’t know anything. It might not be when you’re, say, 23, however.

Part of the problem with discussing “college” is that you’re discussing a huge number of varied institutions that do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. For people getting $200,000 English degrees from non-elite universities, college makes less sense (mine cost about half that much, and in retrospect I might’ve been better off with a state school for half again as much, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and seems to have worked out for me, as an individual). For people getting technical degrees from state schools, college does a huge amount for lifetime earnings. Talking about these two very different experiences of “college” is like talking about eating at McDonald’s and eating at New York’s best restaurant: they’re both about selling food, but the differences dwarf the similarities. College is so many different things that generalizing is tough or simply dumb.

In response to paragraphs like mine, above, we’re getting essays like Keith Burgess-Jackson’s “You Are Not My Customer.” Burgess-Jackson is correct to say that not everything can be valued in terms of dollars—that’s a point that Lewis Hyde makes in The Gift and others have made in terms of market vs. non-market economies. The question is whether we should view university education through a market lets.

When tuition was relatively cheap and quite affordable in absolute and relative terms, it made sense to look at universities through a “gift”-style lens, as Burgess-Jackson wants us to. Now that tuition is extremely high, however, we basically don’t have the luxury of making this choice: we can’t be paying $50,000 – $250,000 for an undergrad degree and have the attitude of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” It’s one or the other, not both, and universities are the ones setting prices.

Comments like this: “Good teachers know that most learning, certainly all durable learning, is self-effected” are true. But if Burgess-Jackson thinks that his students aren’t customers, wait until the administration finds that no one will or wants to take his classes. Unless he’s a publishing superstar, I suspect he’ll find out otherwise. I’d like universities to be less market-oriented and more gift-oriented, but an era of $20,000+ comprehensive costs for eight to nine months of instruction just doesn’t make that orientation plausible.

The place of literary criticism

A second Zadie Smith quote, also from Changing My Mind: “Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later.” This is remarkably close to what I wrote to a friend not long ago, concerning why I like blogging despite the fact that I’m also enmeshed in an academic context that only values peer-reviewed articles and books: “English profs always show up to a fire long after the house has been burned down and the fire already long extinguished.”

Blogging, if the blogger is any good, offers the possibility of getting to the fire when it’s still going, or even building a fire of your own. Maybe in twenty years this will be more widely recognized.

The problem with justifying college involves cost

In “Telling the Right Story,” Dean Dad notes that higher education has had a series of real or perceived crises, around hippies / protests, diversity / multiculturalism, and, as he says, the latest set are “about cost.” Though I would say they’re about cost and value, the basic point remains: skepticism regarding the utility of conventional colleges and universities is growing, as is skepticism about the idea that the “lifetime payoff” of college always justifies its costs for all people. Dean Dad ends his post by saying, “have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?”

To me, the problem is simple: “the value of public higher ed” increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. Payscale.com’s salary data shows data for a bunch of majors, with things like art and social work clustered at the bottom while engineering and applied math at the top. (I find the relatively low salaries of business majors interesting.) Someone who majors in petroleum engineering (starting pay: $98,000; mid-career in the mid six figures) is basically living in a different world than someone majoring in sports management ($35,300 and $57,600, respectively). Lumping both into “college” makes only slightly more sense than lumping McDonald’s and dung beetles into the general category of “food” just because both happen to be edible.

As Megan McArdle wrote, “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.” People who aren’t developing important skills should be asking what they are doing; by now, it’s pretty clear that a lot of majors don’t require much effort. Colleges are happy to offer some majors that require learning and some that don’t. This isn’t purely anecdotal: as Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren’t learning that much in many majors. In chemical engineering and computer science, students are presumably learning the kinds of skills they need to get paid a lot of money. Alternately, those majors weed out students who can’t or won’t learn the material.

If they students get out of college and end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn’t a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Plus, not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols. Which is okay. But we’re pretending that everyone should sit quietly in classrooms and manipulate abstract symbols, and we’re subsidizing them through student loans to let them do so, and then we’re surprised when not everyone fits this profile.*

To be sure, there is more to life than money, but again, Academically Adrift shows that a lot of students don’t appear to be learning anything measurable. Maybe they’re growing as people. But $50,000 – $250,000 is an onerous payment for that growth, especially when the debt incurred for the growth can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

To return to Dean Dad’s point, I don’t think he or anyone else will hear “a better story” than the one we have now (“We’ve used the ‘lifetime payoff’ argument for a long time, generally to good effect. But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down”) until we, collectively, acknowledge reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major.

Clever stories can’t hide hard truths.

I’ve written about this set of issues before. I’m sure I’ll write about them again.


* Arguably the worst-off students are the ones who attend for two or more years, incur the debt, and then don’t graduate. They don’t even have the piece of paper at the end.

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.

The stupidity of what I’m doing and the meaning of real work: Reading for PhD comprehensive exams

Last weekend, I wrote a flurry of posts after months of relative silence because I needed to do real work.

This might sound strange: I am doing a lot of things, especially reading, but all of it is make-believe, pretend work. That’s because the primary thing I’m doing is studying for PhD comprehensive exams in English lit. The exam set is structured in four parts: three, four-hour written segments, and a single oral exam, on topics related to stuff that’s not very important to me and probably not very important to most people. The exams also aren’t very relevant to being an English professor, because the key skill that English professors possess and practice is writing long-form essays/articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals. The tests I’m taking don’t, as far as I can tell, map very effectively to that skill.

As a consequence, the tests, although very time consuming, aren’t very good proxies for what the job market actually wants me to do.*

Consequently, PhD exams—at least in English—aren’t real work. They’re pretend work—another hoop to be jumped through on the way to getting a union card. Paul Graham makes a useful distinction in “Good and Bad Procrastination,” when he says that “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” That’s what I’ve done through most of grad school, and that’s part of the reason why I have a fairly large body of work on this blog, which you can obviously read, a fairly large body of fiction, which you can’t (at the moment, but that’s going to change in the coming months). To Graham, the kind of small stuff that represents bad procrastination is “Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.” Passing exams has zero chance of being mentioned in my obituary. Writing books or articles does.** PhD exams feel like bad procrastination because they’re not really examining anything useful.

They’re also hard, but hard in the wrong way, like picking patterns out of noise. Being hard in the right way means the soreness you get after working out, or when a challenging math problem suddenly clicks. The quasi-work I’m doing is intellectually unsatisfying—the mental equivalent of eating ice cream and candy all day, every day. Sure, they’re technically food, but you’re going to develop some serious problems if you persist in the ice cream and candy diet. The same is true of grad school, which might be why so many people emerge from it with a lugubrious, unpalatable writing style. Grad school doesn’t select or train for style; it selects and trains for a kind of strange anti-style, in which the less you can say in more words is rewarded. It’s the kind of style I’m consciously trying to un-cultivate, however hard the process might be, and this blog is one outlet for keeping the real writer alive in the face of excessive doses from tedious but canonized work and literary theory. Exams, if anything, reinforce this bogus hardness. If I’m ever in a position of power in an English department with a grad program, I’m going to try and offer an alternative to conventional exams, and say that four to six publishable, high-quality papers can or should take their place. That, at least, mirrors the skills valued by the job market.

The bogosity of exams relates to a separate problem in English academia, which I started noticing when I was an undergrad and have really noticed lately: the English curriculum is focused on the wrong thing. The problem can be stated concisely: Should English department teach content (like, say, Medieval poetry, or Modernist writers), or skills (like writing coherently and close reading)? Louis Menand describes the issue in The Marketplace of Ideas:

[C]ompare the English departments at two otherwise quite similar schools, Amherst and Wellesley. English majors at Wellesley are required to take ten English department courses [. . .] All English majors must take a core course called ‘Critical Interpretations’; one course on Shakespeare; and at least two courses on literature written before 1900 [. . .] The course listing reflects attention to every traditional historical period in English and American literature. Down the turnpike at Amherst, on the other hand, majors have only to take ten courses ‘offered or approved by the department’—in other words, apparently, they may be course sin any department. Majors have no core requirement and no period requirements. (Menand 89-90)

Most departments right now appear to answer “content.” Mine does. But I increasingly think that’s the wrong answer. I’m not convinced that it’s insanely important for undergrads to know Chaucer, or to have read Sister Carrie and Maggie: Girl of the Streets, or to have read any particular body of work. I do think it’s insanely important for them to have very strong close reading skills and exceptional writing skills. Unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority of professional Englishers in this respect. And I’m in grad school, where the answer skill mostly appears to be “content,” and relatively few people appear to be focusing on skills; those are mostly left to individuals to develop on their own. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss what makes good writing at conferences, in seminars, or in peer-reviewed papers (MFA programs appear to be very interested in this subject, however, which might explain some of their rise since 1945).

As Menand points out, no one is sure what an “‘English’ department or degree is supposed to be.” That’s part of the field’s problem. I think it’s also part of the reason many students are drawn to creative writing classes: in those, at least the better ones, writing gets taught; the reading is more contemporary; and I think many people are doing things that matter. When I read the Romantic Poets, I mostly want to do anything but read the Romantic Poets. Again, I have nothing against the Romantic Poets or against other people reading the Romantic Poets—I just don’t want to do it. Yet English undergrad and grad school forces the reading of them. Maybe it should. But if so, it should temper the reading of them with a stronger focus on writing, and what makes good writing.

Then again, if English departments really wanted to do more to reward the producing of real content, they’d probably structure the publishing of peer-reviewed articles better. Contrary to what some readers have said in e-mails to me, or inferred from what I’ve written, I’m actually not at all opposed to peer review or peer-reviewed publications. But the important thing these days isn’t a medium for publishing—pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can get that for free—but the imprimatur of peer-review, which says, “This guy [or gal] knows what he’s talking about.” A more intellectually honest way to go about peer-review would be to have every academic have a blog / website. When he or she has an article ready to go, he should post it, send a link to an editor, and ask the editor to kick it out to a peer-reviewer. Their comments, whether anonymous or not, should be appended to the article. If it’s accepted, it gets a link and perhaps the full-text copied and put in the “journal’s” main page. If it doesn’t, readers can judge its merits or lack thereof for themselves.

The sciences arguably already have this, because important papers appear on arXiv.org before they’re officially “published.” But papers in the sciences appear to be less status-based and more content-based than papers in the humanities.

I think this change will happen in the humanities, very slowly, over time; it won’t be fast because there’s no reason for it to be fast, and the profession’s gatekeepers are entrenched and have zero incentive to change. If anything, they have a strong incentive to maintain the system, because doing that raises their own status and increases their own power within the profession. So I don’t foresee this happening, even if it would be an important thing. But then again, academics are almost always behind the important thing: the important thing is happening in some marginal, liminal space, and academics inhabit a much more central area, where it’s easy to ignore stuff at the margins. I don’t see that changing either, especially in a world where many people compete for few academic slots. In that world, pointless hoop-jumping is going to remain.


* There’s a vast literature in industrial organization on the subject of hiring practices, and most of that literature finds that the most effective ways to hire workers is to give them an IQ test and a work-skills or work-practice test. The former is effectively illegal in the U.S., so the best bet is to give workers a test of the thing they’ll actually be called on to do.

** I also consciously ask myself this question set:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

I have an answer to number three, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.

Why “How Universities Work” and other essays

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

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

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

What happens when people with partial knowledge start talking about college costs in Arizona and elsewhere

One painful thing about knowing a complex politicized subject fairly well is that most of the commentary on it looks pretty dumb because the commentators don’t really understand it. The latest edition of that malady comes from A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona, which someone forwarded to me because a) I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and b) I write about academic novels. The problem with the link is that while some of it is somewhat accurate, some of it less so, and a lot of it is taken out of context. For example, it shows a table demonstrating that a surprisingly high number of people working in low-skill professions that don’t require a college degree nonetheless have one—but that probably says more about the graduates than it does about college.

The next item quotes the conservative Goldwater Institute saying that the number of administrators has grown:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

(You can read more in this vein via Why So Many Administrators?, but although it asks “Why so many administrators?”, it doesn’t answer that question.)

Problem is, the Goldwater Institute study is specious for two reasons: 1) It doesn’t deal with changing definitions of “administrator” over time, and although it implies that more administrators equal more waste, it doesn’t actually talk about which administrators it wants cut. Job services offices are new and science grants often require administrators. Everyone is against bureaucracy unless it’s the bureaucracy they need. Hell, I’m against administration, bureaucracy, evil, simple carbohydrates (except for carrot cake), and the coyotes that ate my neighbor’s cat. So do we want the administrators in the beefed up jobs office cut? The ones in the disability resource centers that’ve opened widely? The ones that offer counseling to students contemplating suicides? The ones hired to manage science grants? You tell me.

Productivity among universities isn’t increasing—see College Costs: The Sequel for more on why:

College cost, and cost in the other similar industries, is rising for three broad reasons. First, over time we have found ways to reduce the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. By contrast, many services remain artisan-like. The time of the service provider is the service itself, and labor-saving productivity gains are very hard to achieve. As a result, the cost of a year of college or an hour of a lawyer’s time must rise compared to the price of a ton of steel or a bushel of wheat.

This is “cost disease,” which is sometimes called Baumol’s disease, and a comment by Al zeroed in on it quite accurately. Rising productivity elsewhere in the economy generates this “disease,” while creating the growth that pays the costs for these more artisan-like services. The college-centric view of the world does not accord this argument the central place the data say it deserves.

[. . .]

A number of our critics noted that distance learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We wish we were as sanguine as the distance-learning optimists. The best evidence suggests that course work that blends face-to-face instruction with distance components yields the best outcome. The best courses for this are introductory classes with relatively static knowledge. Many universities already are well down the path of incorporating these approaches.

In short, we haven’t really found an effective way to increase the productivity of education because we can’t find good ways of educating mass numbers of people save through having them sit together with more experienced people who are supposed to be experts in their fields and having those “experts” (who we call “teachers” or “professors”) impart some of what they know. This doesn’t scale easily because the prof / teacher : student ratio remains approximately even. Although digital utopians want the Internet to replace teachers / profs, it appears that the vast majority of the population prefers watching porn and computer games to figuring out what the hell Hegel is talking about or how mitochondrial DNA works.

Then there are comments like this: “Arizona State University’s four-year graduation rate is a shocking 28 percent. Low standards and easy loans are a recipe for disaster.” There are two obvious ways to raise the graduation rate: raise the admissions bar so better students get in or make it easier to graduate. Grade inflation has already done the latter to some extent. ASU and UA will effectively take almost anyone, which they apparently need or want to for budgetary reasons.

An aside about grade inflation: one of the most useful efforts I’ve read about recently comes from A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, which discusses UNC Chapel Hill’s effort “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.” This would be incredibly welcomed, because at the moment there’s a strong incentive for professors to give higher grades, which lead to higher evaluations, but don’t have any immediate cost for the profs involved.

The harder way to raise the college graduation rate is to make classes smaller, track each student more carefully, increase the number of advisors, and so forth. All this will decrease “productivity” (it’s very “productive” by simple measures of productivity to have one prof lecture 1,000 students). In short, big schools would need to become more like Clark University, where I went to undergrad, only with tens of thousands of students, and this would raise costs, ceteris paribus.

The biggest problem with this article is that it acts like college administrators and professors aren’t aware of the kinds of issues raised. They are, and there’ve been endless books written about them. A recent winner: Why Does College Cost So Much?.

There may be a “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona,” but it isn’t for the reasons stated or implied in this article.

A meta point: most big, complex social systems (think healthcare, education, government, military, companies) don’t exist as they do because they’re the theoretical best. They exist the way they do because they’ve evolved thanks to reactions from social, financial, and other pressures into the beasts they look like today. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to understand why and how they evolved they way they have.

My overall political feelings are usually captured by The Onion, mostly because so much day-to-day political discourse looks like parody. Two examples from America’s Finest News Source: “Barack Obama – Either Doing His Best In One of The Most Difficult Times In American History, Or Hitler,” since we all know politicians must be one or the other, and “Jan Brewer – Not Afraid To Do What The Federal Government Won’t And Shouldn’t,” which basically describes what Arizona politics are like:

By demanding that police check any suspicious- looking individual’s immigration status, Brewer stood up for the kind of racial profiling that other politicians wouldn’t, and under any circumstances shouldn’t, have the guts to support. Refusing to bow down to sense or reason, Brewer also made it possible for citizens to sue police officers who fail to carry out the troublingly vague terms of the new law, no matter how much it might tie up the state’s court system—a bold stance the federal government simply couldn’t be bothered with.

Efforts to solve big, institutional problems tend to suffer from unintended consequences. They tend not to respond well to ideologically driven solutions, whether those preferred by the left or right. They tend to to require a lot of strenuous effort if you’re even going to understand them, let alone propose to fix them, and the problems are much easier to identify than possible solutions to those problems, which might be worse than the problems themselves. Note one such example above: a simple way to improve the graduation rate at Arizona universities is to raise the admissions bar. But doing so means that some deserving though marginal students won’t get a shot at college at all. They’ll be more likely to steal the car of the people who write “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona.” And so on.

This is the place where I’m supposed to propose solutions to the kinds of problems universities have, but I don’t have any that are short and easily digestible. Beware people who say they do.

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.

Tax day links: Gender stereotypes, sexual mores, universities, and more

* Why men don’t listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences shows.

* “Generation Scold: Why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity.” Of course, what people say and what they do are still separate, as we know from descriptions of the Puritan practice called “bundling.”

* Why are novels the length they are? And, implicitly, how will technology change that length over time?

* Where professors get their politics.

* Why humanity loves and needs cities.

* A Defense of Abortion is a fascinating thought experiment in moral philosophy.

* On healthcare nationally and in Massachusetts:

When Massachusetts rolled out its coverage program in 2007, many more people signed up for the new heavily subsidized insurance than was originally predicted by budget officials. Almost immediately, costs far exceeded what had been budgeted, forcing state officials to scramble to find cuts elsewhere in government and other sources of revenue.

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

* Along the same lines as above: For every doctor, there are five people performing health care administrative support. This may be part of our national problem, like the growth of administrators relative to professors in academia. (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)

* Universities set their prices based on what people will pay. Consequently, they raise their sticker price and then offer discounts to woo top students.

* D.G. Myers’ suggestions for the Library of America, (apropos of the kerfuffle discussed here):

Novelists with large untapped bodies of work, and who are likely candidates, are fewer and farther between, although I would make a case for Stanley Elkin and (less passionately) for Wright Morris. But a two-volume set of New York Jewish novels, including The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), Call It Sleep, and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), would be a terrific addition.

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