I Predict There Will Be More Wild Ass Predictions

‘New York City is done!’

‘Office work is done!’

‘Higher education as we know it is done!’

‘Long distance travel is done!’

Why are so many highly educated people making such dumb, over-the-top predictions? Besides the fact that education and wisdom have never been closely correlated, it’s because the prognosticators are desperate to be heard above the din of the social media cacophony. PLEASE listen to my podcast. PLEASE read my twitter feed, ‘insta’, blog, book.

Scott Galloway is Exhibit A of this modern tendency towards hyperbole. Subtly, nuance, and ambiguity—the stuff of complexity—is passe, and we have the scramble to be relevant on social media to thank for that.

Lo and behold, New York City real estate values are on the rise again. Executives are desperate to have employees return to offices, college life looks and feels very familiar, and have you been in an airport lately? A bit more hybrid learning, telemedicine, and remote work aside; most ‘rona-inspired changes in behavior are proving relatively superficial despite the pandemic’s legs.

I would like you to prove me wrong on this, but neither do I expect many of the heartfelt proclamations of personal transformation to stick. Maybe a vicious virus can inspire a personal ‘reset’ of sorts in the short-term. Maybe people will simplify their lives; strike a healthier work-life balance; and commit more deeply to their family, friends, and neighbors. But as soon as the virus begins to fade, watch for long established habits to return. Human nature endures.

Ultimately though, when it comes to brash, facile predictions, maybe resistance is futile, in which case I predict the UCLA Bruin football team will win the Pac-12*.

*The last time that happened, Blockbuster Video was killin’ it.

Netflix’s ‘The Chair’

Six very short episodes totaling three hours. Final grade, ‘A’. It’s the story of a newly appointed Chair of an English department at a fictional “near Ivy”. The larger stories are the corporatization of higher education, the declining status of the humanities, and the rising tide of social media-based groupthink among (many) students.

The filmmakers hit the elderly/senile/tenured faculty especially hard and it’s always hilarious. Sandra Oh is excellent as the besieged Chair, but her adopted daughter may be even better. Kids are usually filler, but she’s a complex, edgy, thoughtful human just in smaller form. Other filmmakers take note. 

The contrast between the young hip prof and the one well past his expiration date missed the essential element of excellent teaching—the degree and thoughtfulness with which students engage directly with one another. Had I consulted, I would’ve recommended substituting more poetry class-like dialogue for the Hamilton-like performance which was far fetched. Partial credit for that vignette though because with the exception of this all time great teaching film, t.v. and film teachers are almost always center stage. 

We don’t go to sporting contests to watch coaches. We don’t go to symphony concerts to (just) watch composers. So why do filmmakers take us into classrooms to primarily watch and listen to teachers? The answer of course is because way, way too many teachers talk way, way too much. And that teacher-centered model has seeped into our consciousness to the point that it’s rarely questioned.

Postscript: Clearly, no sophomore slump for Ted Lasso. Still so well written. A wonderful mix of intelligence, humor, and humanity.  

Call Me ‘Ron’ Addendum

I like and respect my students, but we cannot be friends. I need to enforce rules, hold them to deadlines, and give them grades. If your friend Steve gave you a D you’d be angry, but if Prof. Lake gave you a D then he’s just doing his job.

The title is needed also to keep a degree of formality in our relationship. This is as much for me as for them. I need to do what is best for them, which is not necessarily what they would want. Thinking of them as peers would leads to a temptation not to challenge them, to be the ‘cool’ teacher instead of the good one.

I also suspect it helps in other ways to maintain this formality. I have only heard of a couple of cases of professors behaving inappropriately with students, but in both cases they were the kind of professors who went by first names.

Besides, I am not at all convinced that the seemingly egalitarian idea of first names is actually egalitarian. Formality makes it easier for those unfamiliar with a culture to navigate it. Being informal just hides the rules and may actually make it harder for those from disadvantaged groups to understand what is expected of them.

My students can call me Steve when they graduate.”

Comment 2. “One thing I’ll add to this excellent post: I am slightly autistic, and one of the ways that manifests in me is that I find rules of social behavior unintuitive. If you put me in a highly egalitarian spontaneous order situation, I don’t really know how to act or how to talk to people. What I need are clearly defined social rules, scripts if you will. Formal, hierarchical relationships like teacher-student or colonel-major make me comfortable because there is a clear script for me to follow.”

Comment 3. “I always ask my students to call me David, but Steven makes a good point that I hadn’t previous considered that formality is easier to navigate – especially given the international nature of the student body.

Nonetheless, I have always found that colleagues that insist on being called Professor or Doctor (or use the titles on Twitter) are almost always insufferable in person.”

The Problem With ‘Self Care’

Self care is a concept, a lucrative subset of a 4 trillion dollar wellness industry, and a red-hot social fad that doesn’t do anything to address the underlying issues of why so many people are burned out at work and seriously anxious about an ever-growing list of things.

Because of the money now associated with self care, the purveyors of it have a vested interest in NOT helping resolve the underlying issue of frantic busyness that defines so many people’s daily lives. Granted, some of that frantic busyness is explained by people trying to eke out a living with too few jobs that pay a livable wage, but a lot of it is the result of social contagion. I run on the treadmill of life because you do.

We will mute the clarion call for self care when people will themselves to get sufficient sleep, eat healthy food, and be physically active.

My university is a classic case study in the ridiculousness of self care. All of a sudden, despite my colleagues’ tendencies to overwork, the leadership is talking about the importance of self care. We are like seriously overweight people who think we’ve found the miracle diet, but in this case, we’ll be fine if we just make time for a warm bubble bath at the end of our frantic days. And don’t forget the candle.

I predict all of the self care talk will have no medium or long-term effect on how faculty live their lives. But on the plus side, more bubble bath and candles will be sold.

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.”

The End of College as We Knew It

Brian Rosenberg, who just finished a long stretch as president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, observes:

“If one were to invent a crisis uniquely and diabolically designed to undermine the foundations of traditional colleges and universities, it might look very much like the current global pandemic.”

Frank Bruni quotes Rosenberg in his essay “The End of College as We Knew It?” A thoughtful lament on the decline of the humanities.

Rosenberg notes higher education was already on the defensive seeing that it is. . .

“maligned by conservative politicians for its supposed elitism and resented by students and their families for its hefty price tag.”

In my case, Bruni is preaching to the choir when making a case for the humanities. Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with him about the timeless importance of the humanities, his last argument seems specious.

He writes:

“We need doctors, all right, but not all doctors are the same, as Benito Cachinero-Sánchez, the vice chair of the Library of America’s board of directors, reminded me. If he were choosing between two physicians, he said, he would go with one who has read Chekhov, ‘because he’s a fuller human being and he’s going to treat me like a fuller human being.'”

Not everyone who reads classic literature becomes a fuller human being. It’s even more foolhardy to assume someone is going to behave markedly better as a result of having read Chekhov. The ink on the paper is not magic, more important are the institutions’ values and the overall ethos of the place where one engages with classic literature.

But let’s ask every medical student to read Chekhov just in case I’m wrong. Again.

Friday Assorted Links

1. At virtual Family Chapel, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ find community during pandemic. Eldest is featured, making me even more famous.

2. Why Trump Was Deaf To All The Warnings He Received. Incuriosity and paranoia.

3. Colleges could lose up to 20 percent of students.

“Ten percent of college-bound seniors who had planned to enroll at a four-year college before the COVID-19 outbreak have already made alternative plans. Fourteen percent of college students said they were unlikely to return to their current college or university in the fall, or it was “too soon to tell.” Exactly three weeks later, in mid-April, that figure had gone up to 26 percent. Gap years may be gaining in popularity. While hard to track, there are estimates that 3 percent of freshmen take a gap year. Since the pandemic, internet searches for gap years have skyrocketed. College students do not like the online education they have been receiving. To finish their degrees, 85 percent want to go back to campus, but 15 percent want to finish online.”

4. The Grumpy Economist on University finances, particularly endowments. Sign of the seriousness of things, belt tightening ahead even for the uber wealthy.

“University endowment practices are quite a puzzle. . . . Why are they invested in obscure, illiquid, hard to value, assets, with at least two layers of high fees (university management + asset managers) rather than, say, have one part-time employee and put the whole business into Vanguard total market for about 10 basis points? Why do they leverage with short-term municipal debt which must be rolled over at the most inconvenient times? Why do university presidents seem to glory in great endowment returns in good times, but these occasional liquidity crunches are seen simply as acts of nature, not preventable with a nice pile of liquid assets? Why do donors put up with this — why do donors give money that will be managed in obscure high fee investments, rather than demand low-fee transparent investment, or even set up separate trusts, transparently managed, to benefit their alma maters?”

A flurry of great questions. The short answer to the first question I suspect is because investment managers’ think they’re smart enough to pick stock winners when history suggests otherwise.

An addendum suggests I’ve nailed it:

“Where are the trustees? Well, I speculated to one correspondent, there is a natural selection bias. How do you get to be a university trustee? 1) Make a ton of money as a (lucky) active asset manager, especially on trades and investments that come from college contacts;  2) Collect a lot of fees;  3) Persuade yourself how smart you are and how easy the alpha game is 4) Desire to socialize with the people who run universities. This is hardly likely to produce contrarians, fans of scientifically validated, quantitative, low-fee investment strategies.”

5. The Real Story Behind That Viral Photo of President Johnson During the Vietnam War. In praise of thoroughness and media literacy.

“. . . President Johnson wasn’t crying over thousands of dead American soldiers in the photo. Johnson is actually listening to an audio tape that was created by Captain Charles “Chuck” Robb, his son-in-law. That detail would allow the casual viewer to assume that LBJ was distressed to hear the recording, but it seems that so many of the documentary filmmakers who use this image haven’t bothered to look at the other photos taken during that same time in the White House.”

 

So You Wanna PhD

You don’t care that higher education is hemorrhaging jobs. You don’t care that you may end up living in a van down by the river. You’re determined to get a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology or Sociology. But you’re in need of a dissertation topic.

I’m here to help.

Wikipedia describes Nextdoor this way:

“Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. Based in San Francisco, California, the company was founded in 2008 and launched in the United States in October 2011, and is currently available in 11 countries. Users of Nextdoor submit their real names and addresses to the website. Posts made to the website are available only to other Nextdoor members living in the same neighborhood.”

I’ve been a member for a few years and have concluded it’s a solid source for analyzing human nature and theorizing about it. For example, a recent post in my Nextdoor feed began thusly:

“To the fool driving the grey Lexus mini SUV today, tailgating me down Boston Harbor Rd. Can’t you see clearly that the roads are TREACHEROUS and icy today!?? Melting snow, causing severe ice, on roads that clearly have not been treated. You may have all wheel drive and feel safe. . . ”

The author, whose intro reads “I’ve been working in the Creative arts, music, video and ministry related field the past 18 years”, and lists “Westwood Baptist Director” as one of his titles, goes on to say he hopes the tailgater totals his car.

Leading to quite the kerfuffle. Keyboard warriors rushing into battle, angrily slinging words like arrows in The Game of Thrones.

A doctoral candidate in the social sciences could use textual analysis on Nextdoor messages to theorize about our modern state of affairs.

One would most likely draw an overarching conclusion from such an analysis. People do not know how to get along with one another. Interpersonal conflict is the new normal. People who enjoy harmonious relationships with others are outliers.

Invective, defined as “insulting, abusive, or highly critical language,” is the defining feature of Nextdoor communications. So much so, the only reason I’m still a member is I have a fear of missing out on the next “your horse is loose in our yard” or “your pig just ran into our barn” message that my urban self finds endlessly entertaining.

I’m not going to write the title for you, but here’s some words and phrases to help you get started.

  • An Examination of A Social Networking Site For Neighborhoods
  • Discord
  • Interpersonal Conflict As The New Normal
  • Dissonance

You’re welcome.

 

 

Rich Beyond Measure

That’s a wrap. The semester is over. Grades are (mostly) in. Back at it January 7th for one month-long course. Then my academic year will be a wrap since I’m a half-timer. Don’t hate me because you ain’t me.

It felt kinda weird returning to work in early September after such a long sabbatical. Pre-sabbatical, I handed off my administrative duties, so I was teaching full-time for the first time in a long time. And while I was gone, even more colleagues who I enjoyed had moved on. By “kinda weird” I guess I mean somewhat disconnected.

After all these years, I sometimes feel as if I should’ve assumed more administrative responsibilities somewhere along the line. I mean what kind of sad sack is back exactly where he started 22 years earlier?

And yet, as I read final papers, and email messages, and hand written notes of appreciation, I feel like finally, I might be getting this teaching thing down. Of course, putting that in writing means my “J-term” course will probably be a disaster, you know, pride coming before the fall and all.

Every educator is different, but for me at least, the “secret” to teaching well is the same as living well, the more selfless, the better. Maybe it was having no administrative responsibilities that enabled me to see and hear my students more clearly this fall. More specifically, maybe it was not being in a hurry, maybe it was taking the time to listen to them and to read their words even more closely. And then to respond to those words.

The more authentic and present I am in the classroom, the more my students appreciate my teaching. They also appreciate the thought put into our more accessible, shorter, more thought provoking than average reading list.

My students’ end-of-semester gestures of appreciation make me think I’m still doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Consider one student among many, a physically imposing, politically conservative, first year footballer whose domineering dad tolerated no negative emotions.

“When I found out I had to be in a mandatory writing seminar as part of the ‘First Year Experience Program’ (FYEP) titled ‘The Art of Living’, I dreaded it. I despised writing, especially that of a personal nature. All of the essays and discussions I would have to participate in would be about my life, inner thoughts, and feelings. I figured it was just another stroke of bad luck. My goal for the semester was just to survive, and hopefully improve on my personal writing ability after a few failed attempts. However, I found out very quickly that this was just the class I needed. It turns out that my destiny was not to have an unfortunate event take advantage of me, but was to have an unbelievable stroke of luck being placed in the Art of Living writing seminar.”

Further in:

“This unexpected change of heart provided me with energy and enthusiasm. Writing my fourth essay became something I enjoyed, not something I dreaded. I wrote about my stance on modern love and the concept of soulmates, which was the strongest stance in any essay I had written. I wrote about my own experiences with love, and how in my eyes the person I want to marry will be able to fill my heart with love. I wrote about how that love would allow me to experience the six varieties described in Krznaric’s writing: eros, pragma, ludus, agape, philuatia, and philia. . . . I had ended up doing the exact opposite of what I had initially thought I would: I wrote about my definition of love, my love life, and I loved doing it. By writing from the heart and being vulnerable with my audience, I was able to capture their attention and provide details that I otherwise might have excluded. My paper connected better with my readers, and it was relatable. Over the course of this semester I had not only grown as a writer, but I opened my mind and grew as a person.”

Watching this young man blossom into a superb, sensitive discussant was a joy:

“One of the most influential changes to my (writing) process was in-class discussions. They allowed me to deepen my understanding of the prompts while listening to others’ thoughts and feelings. I could formulate my own stances in response. It allowed me to consider outside opinions and beliefs and flush out my ideas. They made my essays even more thorough because I gained not only different pieces of textual evidence but I learned about different experiences my peers could connect to the readings. Being able to have personal, open conversations in class also made the texts more applicable to daily life. The discussions helped shape not only my essays, but the way I looked at the world as a whole. I could consider expanding my varieties of love as Kznaric wrote, or I could consider the lifestyle of Stoicism written in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. These discussions opened my heart and mind to the different ideas we discussed in class, and allowed me to incorporate those into my essays. This class broadened my life views and expanded my horizons.”

Because I’m half-time and I get paid over 12 months, and I max my retirement contributions, and I add family dental insurance and a Health Saving Account in for good measure, my take home pay for November was $34.37. But I feel rich beyond measure.