Self-undermining behavior

This semester, all my classes have been grouped together so that I’m done teaching by 1. This may seem to leave a wonderland of free time for writing and research, but experience tells me that is not the case. While I enjoy Shimer classes a great deal, I am an introvert and hence I am usually exhausted by the end of three back-to-back 80-minute sessions in which I have to be “always on,” both intellectually and socially (to help manage the dynamics of the class). Serious creative work is out of the question by that point — sometimes even reading on the train ride home feels like a struggle.

Early on, I realized that translation was a much better fit for my mental headspace after class. I was pleased with this, because it allowed me to put otherwise dead time to a good use other than doing laundry. For the first half of the semester or so, I made significant progress on my translation, putting me well ahead of the pace I needed to get it finished on time.

So naturally, at a certain point I decided that I needed to try to force myself to write on those afternoons. The result would be that I would squeeze out a paragraph or so, but spend most of the time hovering on Twitter. Then I would be frustrated with myself and despair of ever finishing the writing project in question.

On one level, I understand why I made this switch. Due to my extra CTS class, I only have one free day this semester, so it makes sense to try to find other windows for writing. Yet the project that I’ve been so prioritizing is not due until a week after classes end — and since I’m not traveling for Thanksgiving, that is a full week I have free, during which I can very easily finish the piece. I then have another piece due a couple weeks after that, but again, I will have a much more open schedule.

In the end, I think I just became obsessed with being “done” with my overwhelming amount of work for the semester. But even that would have been self-undermining, because history teaches me that when I don’t have a project to work on during break periods, I quickly become listless and depressed. So the net result of this totally gratuitous prioritization of a project that could easily wait is that I have needlessly halted progress on my translation, generated a trivial portion of the article (which could have been achieved in an afternoon had I chosen more hospitable circumstances), and ranted a lot on Twitter.

What about you, readers? Have you found yourself caught in self-undermining cycles lately?

Why do we do courses?

During my five years or so of teaching, a nagging thought has kept resurfacing — namely, that the traditional course format is remarkably unforgiving. This was especially clear when I taught on the quarter system, where a moderately serious illness could very easily lead a student to miss 10% of the class sessions. Yet semesters have their own drawbacks, as they can sometimes feel like a marathon. In fact, a semester is just long enough to have multiple spells of sickness, which tend to hit first-year students particularly hard.

And all these issues could even happen under the best-case scenario of a full-time, residential student with no significant work commitments and no serious family crises during the semester. Once you start throwing actual reality into the equation, things quickly become more complicated. Work schedules tend to accomodate class time itself, but not prep time — and often students will schedule the maximum amount of work time possible for their normal weekly workload, leaving them no additional time to work on longer-term priorities such as papers.

In short, it seems like the format was devised for a particular kind of privileged student, and it isn’t even very forgiving for those people. I might be okay with this if there was some kind of positive pedagogical justification for the format, but I’m not sure there really is.

Let’s look at the format objectively. Read the rest of this entry »

A matter of utmost urgency

A while back, Shimer was planning to refurbish its classrooms, and they asked the faculty whether they preferred chalkboards or dry-erase boards. I put in an impassioned plea to retain chalkboards, though I was sadly overruled in the end.

In my view, chalkboards are the more robust technology, precisely because of their simplicity. Indeed, it is unclear to me what practical advantage dry-erase boards could possibly have. Markers dry out remarkably quickly, and it’s all too easy to confuse a dry-erase marker with another kind, potentially permanently damaging the board. You need specialty chemicals to clean it, and using water can damage it and make it more difficult to clean in the future.

Obviously chalk boards require maintenance as well, but virtually every dry-erase board I have ever used, other than ones that were literally brand-new, has been in terrible condition. I’ve routinely been in classrooms with no markers or dead ones, whereas I’ve almost never been in a classroom that was completely out of chalk.

I understand the seduction of a new technology, but we as educators have decades of experience with the pitfalls of dry-erase boards. Why do we put up with it? Why don’t we agitate for a return to the old familiar regime of chalkboards, which has served us so well for centuries?

The only explanation I can think of is that businesses prefer dry-erase boards, and universities are imitating corporate fashions. Further, I speculate that businesses initially preferred dry-erase boards precisely because they didn’t have the baggage of academia. So basically, we’re imitating the shitty technology of people who hate us, and we aren’t even doing a good job of it.

On helpful feedback

Early this summer, I reworked a talk I had given into an article for an edited volume. The topic was one I would feel confident listing as an “area of specialization,” and when I completed the changes (which involved considerably expanding it from its original form), I was proud of it — I felt I had made a real step forward in my understanding of said topic and presented it in a way that would be helpful to others.

One idiosyncratic feature of this particular volume was that the editor had asked that the authors act as “peer reviewers” for each other’s essays. When I heard of this scheme, I had a deep sense of foreboding, anticipating that the result would be for all the authors to be overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism, but I held my tongue. After all, the scheme might work — it might even produce a more coherent edited volume!

When the review of my essay was completed, my worst fears were fulfilled. I was indeed overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism. Between the reviewer’s remarks and the editor’s attempt to give a sense of their own priorities for revision, the total amount of feedback amounted to ten single-spaced pages. At one point, it was recommended that I cut an entire section of my essay (amounting to at least a quarter of the extant text) to expand upon things the reviewer and editor felt were more interesting and important. And needless to say, I was not engaging with the secondary literature nearly enough.

Fortunately, I had another possible venue for the piece, so I simply withdrew from the volume without much lost labor on my part. Yet the profoundly discouraging experience of getting a firehose of criticism for a piece I was pretty happy with stayed with me. I put off editing the piece for the new venue until the very last minute, absolutely dreading the major surgery that it would surely require. When I finally sat down to undertake the dreaded task, however, I found something surprising: I was still basically pleased with it. There were points the editor and reviewer had criticized that were certainly worthy of addressing, but I felt I could adequately respond to those critiques with a few clarifying sentences and additional footnotes. There was no reason for me to feel so insecure about the piece, no need to dread returning to it.

It seems to me that “feedback” in academic contexts often plays out like this, making huge demands on our time and our emotional resilience without doing much to actually improve our work. We academics as a group are very good at passing judgment, but not very good at reading each other’s work and genuinely helping each other out. A lot of that stems from fundamentally arbitrary standards — for instance, not every single piece of scholarship needs to engage with every other relevant piece of scholarship, and there are often very good reasons to make a stylistic and rhetorical decision not to deal significantly with secondary texts at all and instead to focus directly on the primary sources. That kind of arbitrarity is a symptom of a deeper impatience and lack of sympathetic imagination, so that we can’t think our way into what the author is attempting to do and how that project might be better served, rather than transformed into something else we happen to like better.

I can anticipate the objection that we are all so pressed for time, but the hegemonic forms of “helpful feedback” in academia are already hugely time-consuming — and, perhaps even more important in a field legendary for imposter syndrome, they are also hugely emotionally draining. Even if I hadn’t had the alternative venue, I always have the option of saying, “Screw it, I’ll just post it on the blog” and knowing I’d get at least some readers. Not everyone has that advantage, however, and a needlessly discouraging reader report could easily lead them to believe that no one could possibly give a fuck about what they’re saying and they should just give up. Or if they don’t have the option of giving up, in light of “publish or perish,” they wind up defacing their work to respond to the arbitrary complaints of someone who may not even really grasp what they were trying to do in the first place.

Surely there must be a way of helping each other with our research and writing without actively degrading the quality of our work and destroying our self-esteem. Right? Right?!

Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

This article on the limited value of teaching evaluations makes for bracing reading. It is based on experiences in UK universities, but I assume many of the lessons would be applicable to similar mainstream institutions in the US. Broadly speaking, the study referenced concludes that positive teaching evaluations actually correlate negatively with educational outcomes, meaning that students basically hate professors who actually make them learn. What’s more, it claims that a narrowly functional view of education actually increases over the course of the students’ college career — many come with a real love of learning, and it’s gradually beaten out of them.

On one level, of course, it’s satisfying for us as faculty members to imagine that negative course evaluations mean that we’re bold truth-tellers resisting the lowest-common-denominator model of education, etc. I’d suggest, however, that this negative correlation only holds in institutions without a clearly articulated set of pedagogical commitments. In institutions that do have such explicit commitments — like Shimer College, for instance — I imagine that teaching evaluations and educational outcomes correlate fairly closely, at least if students have significant buy-in and investment in that pedagogical model.

And for student buy-in to happen, you absolutely must have faculty buy-in. Faculty should all be able to answer questions about why courses and programs are structured in the way they are, and those answers should be consistent. Whatever the preferred pedagogical model, whether it’s lecturing or discussion or some mix, everyone involved should be able to give an account of why that method is preferable and what purpose it’s serving. Not every professor has to do the same thing, but there should be some sense of what benefit students are supposed to derive from a variety of styles — and people should actually mean it, not just be hand-wavy.

This sounds totalitarian, I know, but we already see what the alternative is: a relative indifference to pedagogy as a topic of explicit reflection, leading to each individual instructor re-inventing the wheel in near-total isolation from their colleagues. Why shouldn’t students “shop around” for pedagogical methods that come easiest to them when we’re doing literally the same thing with our own pedagogical approach?

If students know what they’re getting and know why it’s supposed to be beneficial, then education and satisfaction should go together. In a total vacuum of explicit pedagogical reflection, students will default to non-academic standards for satisfaction, because we’re giving them nothing else. If students don’t know how to evaluate whether we’re helping them to learn, it’s not because students are stupid and ignorant and we shouldn’t ask them anything — it’s because we’ve failed to teach them that. And the only way to lay the groundwork for actually teaching them that is to make focused discussion of pedagogical commitments, with both fellow faculty members and with students, a pervasive feature of the culture of a given school.

Failing that, each individual faculty member should be able to give an account of why they’re doing what they’re doing and of what it would look like for students to be really making progress. If we don’t have an answer — for instance, if we just assign a mid-term and final paper because we need something to grade — then we should change our approach to something that has an actual rationale. And I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for any particular pedagogical model (such as Shimer’s), but for any explicit model at all. We at least need an ethos if we’re going to fight against the inertia of nihilism.

A tic in academic writing

I’ve noticed a strange tic among academic writers, a tic to which I fall victim myself: a compulsive overuse of connective particles. In some cases, it seems that there must be some type of connective particle in literally every sentence of every paragraph. It’s as though we can’t trust our readers to infer that our sentences are related to each other by virtue of being placed in sequential order in the same paragraph, etc.

As Voyou said when I voiced this concern on Twitter, “what makes it clear that it is a tic is that they’re always the most general connective particles (like ‘thus’), so they gesture at a connection without saying what the connection is.”

My hypothesis as to the origin of this tic is the increasingly frequent experience of over-hasty and dismissive readers of academic writing. Reading half-attentively, ready to jump on any pretext for criticism, these readers simply cannot be trusted to, you know, read our work. Instead, they dip in and out, reading every third sentence while scanning over the rest.

And this is where the connective particles come in. They remind the inattentive reader that each individual sentence can’t be taken in isolation and criticized as though nothing else had been said. No, they’re connected to the rest of the piece, which must actually be read and assessed as a whole rather than as a collection of isolated monadic sentences suitable for target practice.

In other words, the “thus” tic is a kind of verbal cringe, a wincing attempt to dodge the inevitable arbitrary criticism. Every time we throw in a “thus” or “in other words” or “that is to say,” we’re saying: “No, see, I wrote these other sentences, too, and what I’m saying here depends on what I said there. You can’t just take this one sentence in isolation!” It’s an attempt to shame the impatient reader into at least glancing at the previous sentence before pouncing on the one their judgmental gaze happened to fall upon.

Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

I woke up this morning to a retweet of JKAS’ Wall Street Journal “Has Anyone Seen Last Year’s Promising Freshman?” It was, umm, “interesting” to read a pedagogical perspective dripping with utter contempt for his students especially as I had gone bed late last night reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. hooks encourages her readers to foster an openness in the classroom driven in part by student desire but also that recognizes that every pedagogical decision is a political decision, that when one teaches only the canon that one has advocated something. Teaching is never simply teaching and if you think it is you’re either not thinking or being willfully ignorant. Now, if we take JKAS at his word at being “invited into this exclusive club” of “liberal enlightenment”, would should, I suppose, trust that he is smart enough to know how insulting his article will be taken as an insult. After all, in it he lambasts professors, his very colleagues (I suppose tenure makes rascals of folks), for not simply  extolling the virtues of the Western and instead “confuse teaching with advocacy”. But setting aside the veracity of such a claim (it seems to me to lack merit) we may assume that while JKAS is aware enough to know it will cause offense we may also assume, since he wrote the article, that he enjoys the fact that it will be offensive. He may even feel that he’s struck a blow against the complex of PC college professors whose only taste for intolerance is against the intolerant. In other words, JKAS is a contrarian and so shares less in common with the lover of wisdom than he does with the sophist who likes the way the words feel in his mouth. Ironically this means he shares more in common with the common right-wing caricature of “social justice warriors” who get off on their outrage as he clearly is enjoying his own smug denigration. Read the rest of this entry »


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