The Most Stupid Thing You’ll Read Today

From The New York Times. “Pushed by Pandemic, Amazon Goes on a Hiring Spree Without Equal”.

“To grow so much, Amazon also needs to think long term, Ms. Williams said. As a result, she said, the company was already working with preschools to establish the foundation of tech education, so that ‘as our hiring demand unfolds over the next 10 years, that pipeline is there and ready.'”

STEM hysteria never ceases to amaze.

Wednesday Required Reading and Viewing

1. Colleges Have Shed a Tenth of Their Employees Since the Pandemic Began. The Great Contraction gathers steam. Yesterday, my uni announced the formation of a Joint Faculty Committee which will decide which programs and faculty to cut. When we did this four years ago, I knew we didn’t cut deeply enough. I regret being right.

2. Italian Police Use Lamborghini To Transport Donor Kidney 300 Miles In Two Hours. Should help with recruiting.

3. Have rogue orcas really been attacking boats in the Atlantic? This story has it all including a “rogue pod” and marauding “teenagers”. 

4. Jason Reynolds: Honesty, Joy, and Anti-Racism. Great book, highly recommended.

5. The Secret to Deep Cleaning. Come on over if you’d like to practice.

Pandemic Teaching

It’s resolved one of teaching’s greatest challenges—making wise choices about things like requests for extensions on assignment due dates in light of individual student’s different life challenges. Or even making educated guesses about whether absences are legit or not.

Now, when a student asks for an extension, I always respond, “That’s fine. How long do you need?” When they explain why they weren’t in class, “No problem. We missed you. Hope you feel better soon.”

I’ve morphed into an easy grader too.

My policy is best summed up thusly, “Socially isolated, uber-anxious, overwhelmed young adults get the benefit of the doubt. Every time in every way.”

Death By Lecture

I’m getting the hang of teaching on-line, but writing that is going to cost me. Bigly. Whenever I get the least bit cocky about my faux-electronic teaching skills, I almost immediately do something exceedingly stupid. My undergraduate Multicultural Education class is filled with bright eyed, smart, engaging young adults. Most of the time. On Tuesday, the proletariat staged a work stoppage. Meaning whenever I posed a question to the 22-person class, no one responded. “I’ll just wait them out,” I thought to myself. Had I not capitulated, I’d still be waiting.

It’s happened once or twice this semester. So I thought about what those class sessions had in common and formed the following hypothesis. If I start class by talking more than a few minutes, they all have the same inner dialogue, “Fine, if you like the sound of your own voice so much, just keep talking for the whole damn 90 minutes.” In medical circles, this is known as “Death By Lecture”.

It didn’t matter that my 30-minute presentation was clear, conceptual, and relevant, cross the 10-minute Rubicon on screen and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount would’ve left his crowd mute.

So I came up with an experiment. I started Thursday’s class without talking at all. At 10:01 a.m. I wrote in our Zoom chat room, “Good morning. I have a hypothesis. When I begin class by speaking for more than a 5-10 minutes, a passive pall descends upon the land.” Sheepish smiles from those with video cameras on spread like wildfire. “So today, instead of talking, I’m going to use this chat room to begin class. I will type fast. I’d like to begin by having you think about the following questions. You successfully graduated high school and earned admission to a well-respected university. To what do you credit your academic success? Why? What constitutes ‘success in school’? It has to be more than just getting good grades doesn’t it? What else should ‘school success’ encompass? Why? All right, ready? I’m going to put you into groups now.”

Then I weaved and bobbed through uber-animated small groups. After awhile, I brought everyone back together and again turned to the chat room. They were clearly digging the fact that I still hadn’t spoken. This time I typed, “Okay, that was excellent, you’ve already confirmed my hypothesis, but let’s extend the experiment. Have your Berliner article in front of you to refer to when discussing these questions. Which outside-of-school factors most impact how well students do or don’t do in school? If outside-of-school factors impact student achievement three times more than in-school factors, how much should the public expect teachers to accomplish in any given school year?” Again, they dove into animated, energized discussions.

An hour into class I ruined everything by breaking my silence. After a mini-lecture, we were nearly out of time. I hurriedly asked a few questions, but was met with another stone-faced work stoppage. Their silence wrapped up the experiment and spoke volumes. I had resuscitated their surliness. What I heard was, “Answer your own damn questions.”

Personal Life

I hear someone super smart on a podcast. I read about an unsuspecting athlete inspiring lots of other people to vote. I watch Savannah Guthrie give Fox News hosts a tutorial on how to interview the President. I read an absolutely beautiful essay about the arrival of fall in Twisp, WA.

And I want to know more about these people. So I google them and in a few seconds I’m skimming their wikipedia pages (or in the case of the essay writer, their personal website).

And when I skim someone’s wikipedia page, I always start with “Personal Life”. Is that because I’m a nosy bastard or because it’s human nature? What, dig this, they live in Ojai, CA; they’ve been married a few times; they have three children; and they raise llamas.

I wonder whether this phenomenon, which I think is human nature, partially explains higher education’s irrelevance in most people’s day-to-day lives. Higher education is always looking itself in the mirror and saying “This is the year I’ll become a public intellectual. This is the year I’ll make my work accessible. This is the year I’ll engage with the Deplorables.”

But why don’t the changes ever take? I propose it’s because academics, intellectuals, scholars, pick your preferred term, never ever talk about their Personal Lives. The unspoken agreement is that it detracts from the seriousness of your scholarship. The thinking being that one’s ideas, if they’re persuasive and original enough, should be sufficient to garner attention.

And how’s that working out?

Maybe higher education needs to look in the mirror and say “This is the year I become human. This year I’ll reveal something, hell anything, about my life off campus. This is the year I’ll crack the curtains on my Personal Life.”

How Long Will We Slight The Social-Emotional Costs Of On-Line Learning?

Thursday, First Year Writing, The Morken Building 131, the first in-person class of the academic year. Students take turns summarizing their first papers about whether one needs, as a Stoic philosopher we read argues, a coherent philosophy of life and a “grand goal of living” to avoid squandering one’s life. They’re smart, so they push back at the suggestion one can neatly plan their life. They talk about some things being outside of our control, like viruses.

If not a coherent philosophy of life, what about guiding principles I wonder. And if so, which ones? They’re not quite ready for subtly, nuance, ambiguity, complexity. That’s why college is four years long. For now at least, I keep those thoughts to myself and just listen.

One student says her mother died in February. Not expecting that, I loose track of what follows, wondering how she died and what would it be like to lose your mom at 17 or 18. She says doing well in school doesn’t matter as much as it did previously.

The students, many who say they struggle with anxiety, have never enjoyed going to class more. Not because of the doofus facilitating things, because they’re famished for friendship. Flat out famished. They linger afterwards, partly to disinfect the tables, but mostly to extend our shared sense of normalcy as long as possible.

The student whose mother died walks up to the front to talk to me. Through my mask I thank her for having the courage to share that news and gently inquire about her mother’s passing. She tells me her mother chose “Death With Dignity” after a lifetime of being severely disabled. And she wanted me to know the paper was really challenging to write, but my sense was, not in a bad way, in an important way. I think it caused her to grieve her mother in a way she hadn’t. She ended up writing her mother a letter and using parts of it to begin her paper.

For those few moments, as her classmates slowly filed out of the room in small groups, she and I shared a human connection that superseded our teacher-student identities. I saw her and heard her in a way that’s utterly impossible on-line.

I am all in on the scientific consensus regarding masks, social distancing, maximizing time outdoors, and washing hands. I am comfortable enough returning to the classroom because my university has done an excellent job preparing for as safe as possible a return to in-person classes. I will not help politicize this public health crisis.

What follows is a non-partisan question, my reference point is the social-emotional health of young people.

If we don’t begin implementing “blended” or “hybrid” teaching methods soon, with at least some in-person instruction, what are the social and emotional costs to friendless students who are not being seen or heard in any kind of meaningful way?

“Teaching” On-Line: A Report From The Front Lines

Midway through week 3. In three words, a roller coaster.

Last night the graduate Sociology of Education seminar was a case study of incompetence. When exiting breakout groups I disconnected everyone from everything so we had to scramble to reconnect. For good measure, I added in some pedagogical incompetence by talking too much. One other student saw my blabbing and raised it, and I didn’t know what to do as his classmates, like dominoes, tuned him out one after another.

After class, I retraced my steps and realized the errors of my ways. And so today I was an online teaching rock star, turning off the waiting room, screen sharing, moving between small groups and large with aplomb. I damn well better win the prestigious “Most Improved Zoomer” award, Boomer Division.

I just unplugged from the First Year writers. I forgot to tell them they could jet after they were done peer editing, so they all returned to “office hours”. And they just wanted to hang out, which was cool. They’re a fun subset of the bad luck Covid Class, those 18-19 year olds who missed their high school graduations and have had to start college with electronic teaching hacks like me.

One of them had hilarious background images repeatedly rotating behind him last session. Today, another student did. How long until I lose complete control?

But their daring to be different provided much need levity. They’re not just funny, but resilient, still in good spirits despite “the invisible enemy which no one could’ve seen coming”. After shooting the breeze a bit, I had to tell them it was 72 degrees outside and sunny for one of the last times in a long time. I pleaded with them to “go outside and toss a frisbee.”

Thursday, we’re meeting in-person for the first time. Glory hallelujah.

Thursday Assorted Links

1A. Picture pedaling across the U.S. on a safe, seamless, and scenic pathway.  3,700 miles from swampy Washington in the east to glorious Washington in the west.

1B. The ‘sports car’ of e-bikes. Pricey, but light for an e-bike. But 19 mph, come on maaan, I don’t want to take all summer to traverse the Great American Rail-Trail.

2. COVID-19 Projections Using Machine Learning compliments of Youyang Gu, an independent data scientist.

3. Okay, I feel a little better about public school education.

 

 

 

Reinventing College

There’s lots of talk of radical change as a result of the pandemic. I think a lot of it is premature.

Things may never be the exact same, but that doesn’t mean an era of tele-medicine and working remotely will be ushered in as soon as we receive an “all clear”.

We’re a forgetful people. By 2021, I predict most of the changes, like not shaking hands, will be relatively subtle.

I’m most intrigued by all the talk of higher education disruption. Not just the financial destruction of institutions that were already on the brink, but a major shift to on-line learning. Specifically, some like Scott Galloway predict a Big Tech firm like Google will partner with someone like MIT, or maybe Apple will partner with Stanford or Cal, to offer 2-3 year programs to 50x more students than at present for a fraction of the current costs. Mid-tier and lesser institutions will all suffer greatly; and this shift will be accompanied by major reductions in faculty and staff everywhere; with a few, surviving all-star faculty, making a lot more.

The prognosticators think this could happen in the next five years, which reminds me of all the over-excited driverless car talk from five years ago.

Those types of changes probably will happen, I just wouldn’t bet much money they will happen as fast as many opinion leaders are currently thinking.

The educational status quo is far more resistant to change than even the “education experts” realize. Probably best to measure “disruption” in decades.