the higher education assessment sour spot

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a qualified supporter of the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, the Council for Aid to Education’s standardized test of college learning that is the subject of my dissertation. For awhile now, I’ve been poking away at a post about why; it sometimes disturbs my fellow education reform skeptics to hear that I am supportive in the use of a standardized test (as long as that test is used with critical, careful understanding). I hope to finish that piece before the new school year starts, so you can get a better idea of my thinking. Suffice is to say for now that, like Richard Shavelson, one of the developers of the CLA, I don’t think that any one test can tell us everything we need to know about college learning, but that some tests can tell us some things of interest, and that there are reasons to believe the CLA+ is superior to some alternatives. In the meantime, I do want to mention one pitfall not just for the CLA but for any standardized test: the low student stakes/high institutional stakes trap.

One of the foremost criteria for any test instrument is that test’s validity. In simple terms, validity refers to whether a test measures that which it purports to measure. (This straightforward notion of validity is now often referred to as “face validity.”) There is a vast literature on the various kinds of validity and how to assess them, and that kind of meta-research is some of the most fascinating and complex I’ve read. But even aside from the grander questions, validity is important for everyone whose life is impacted by a test. We need to feel confident that a test measures what it is understood to measure.

One question in test validity is the question of student motivation. When we give a test, we want students to work at the best of their ability; otherwise, we introduce construct-irrelevant variance, which undermines our ability to interpret the test’s results. In many or most educational contexts, student motivation isn’t a problem: because tests help determine grades, and grades have direct stakes for students, we can generally assume that students are trying their hardest. Similarly, voluntary tests of academic or intellectual aptitude like the SAT, GRE, or LSAT generally are only taken by those who are motivated to score highly. Someone with no interest in attending graduate school would be very unlikely to take the GRE, while someone who is intent on attending graduate school would try their hardest. (Whether students are trying their hardest on the vast number of standardized tests now being implemented in our K-12 schools is a question I leave to you to ponder.)

A test like the CLA+, currently, is not like that. The CAE has talked at length about their hopes that the CLA+ will become a recognized standard for employers and graduate schools (here’s their information for employers), but at present, it’s unlikely that there is much advantage for students putting their CLA+ scores on their resumes, or much chance that a particular employer would know how to interpret those scores. A certain critical mass of students and institutions participating would have to be reached before the potential benefit to students on the job market is realized. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there are competitors to the CLA+, other tests of college student learning that could potentially be adopted by colleges themselves. (The Spellings Commission report, though it mentions the  CLA by name, only calls for “interoperable” test measures, not one universal test of college learning.) Currently, colleges often have to provide some sort of incentive for their students to take the test, such as discounts for graduation or similar. As it stands, I think most anyone would conclude that the CLA+ is a  low-stakes test for students.

And yet, if the Obama administration gets its way, the test will have high stakes for colleges and universities. As has been much-discussed, the Obama White House has called for the creation of a set of national college rankings, based on which schools do the best job teaching undergraduates and which provide the most “value.” Assessments like the CLA+ are to be a key part of the creation of the rankings. Those rankings, in turn, will be tied to how much federal aid and subsidies colleges are able to access. While we can debate the wisdom or efficacy of this plan, or the values and conceptions of education that are implicit in these rankings, most anyone would say that this makes the test high-stakes for institutions.

That low-stakes/high stakes divide represents a challenge to the fair use of the test, particularly given that student perception of the stakes involved has a direct impact on student performance. In 2010, Braden Hosch, an administrator at Central Connecticut State University (my alma mater!), published a study on the administration of the CLA at CCSU. He found that student motivation played a strong role in determining test scores, and that strong student motivation was not universal. Last year, a major study by researchers from the Educational Testing Service demonstrated that motivation made a large impact on performance on ETS’s Proficiency Profile, one of those competitors to the CLA+. The researchers told one group of students that their test results would be linked to them in the future, that their professors and college would have access to this data and use it to assess them. Those students performed consistently and significantly better than those who were not told that the test’s results would follow them. Clearly, then, a student’s perception of a test’s importance plays a strong role in their test scores.

We can therefore easily imagine a “sour spot” for this type of assessment. Students could, sensibly, continue to see the test as an unimportant task for their own lives, while institutions could face serious consequences if their students don’t perform to the peak of their ability. Since the CLA+ is a value-added metric, this problem would be particularly acute if seniors take the test less seriously than freshmen do. Given the tendency of freshmen to be so malleable and gung-ho in comparison to upperclassmen — I’ve often joked that first-semester freshmen would consent to washing my car without blinking an eye, if I put it on a syllabus — that’s a legitimate concern. This difference in the intrinsic stakes for these tests between students and institutions is one of my foremost fears. It could cause public policy to go wrong in a very serious way.

The easiest way to ameliorate this problem is for administrators, politicians, and policy makers to maintain an appropriate skepticism towards this kind of test in general, and to see such assessments as only one part of a broad perspective on what a college does and should do. That type of probity, I’m sorry to say, can be hard to find in a politicized educational environment.

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Hey Spencer Ackerman: do you still think Libya ended successfully?

Back in 2011, the Libyan intervention was a bit of an obsession of mine. It wasn’t just that we were starting yet another deployment of American military power in the Middle East. It was how desperate liberals, after years of complaining about Iraq, wanted to be seen as tough, cool, and serious. Self-styled liberals and progressives fell all over themselves to declare this a good war. When it comes to foreign policy, American political journalists and analysts fall into two camps: those who support every conceivable military operation imaginable, and those who take a kind of tick-tock approach to warmaking, being sure to balance their rejection of one conflict with the aggressive embrace of another, in order to prove how Very Serious they are in the village that is elite political media. A potential third alternative– a profoundly necessary alternative, given the last decade and a half of American failure– is a set of pundits and journalists who recognize that military intervention is almost always a disaster for both America and the people on whose behalf our military supposedly intervenes, and who therefore oppose military adventurism and aggressive foreign policy as a matter of principle. This third alternative essentially does not exist within connected, elite media.

In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan intervention, Ackerman spoke for the liberal hawks, if only after the fact. Here’s what he had to say in 2011:

In the spirit of intellectual honesty, I need to concede that I got the Libya war wrong. Several Danger Room pieces under my byline ran this year predicting that Libya was an open-ended mission, lacked a clear plan for victory, and could lead to NATO peacekeepers battling post-Gadhafi insurgents. While reasonable people can disagree about whether the war was in the U.S. interest (or even legal), or whether President Obama portrayed it honestly, the fact is that the war successfully ended after eight months, contrary to consistent predictions on display here.

We owe it to you to acknowledge forthrightly that we were wrong, and probably too blinded with fears of Iraq 2.0. It’s not just the Pentagon that has trouble with predictions.

This is a Very Serious fellow! And a seriously very wrong fellow. Libya is in chaos. Nothing was finished. Nothing was successful. The country is broken, utterly broken. The political apparatus is in shambles. Basic governance has failed. Militias vie for control. Ordinary citizens lack any control of their country and suffer without basic services. All of this was predictable. Some of us warned as much at the time. Like me!

what actually matters– what has moral valence– is the material condition of the lives of the Libyan people. Nothing there is finished. Nothing is settled. To call it a democracy now would be an absurd act of projection. Many corrupt men are now freely operating in Libya, armed to the teeth and with a feeling of entitlement. Some of them want to execute homosexuals, oppress women, and adopt Islamic theocracy. Some want to ensure the ascension of their tribe or clan. Some just want to get their piece of the pie. But that’s the reality. There is neither security nor stability yet, and anyone who actually cares for the future of the Libyan people would admit that.

As I said at the time, the time frame of genuine humanitarianism– of ensuring that actual human beings are capable of living lives with basic material security and democratic power– is far, far longer than the time frame of pundit careerism. To declare Libya won at that date was wrong on its face, as there was no possibility that anyone could have safely said that security and political stability had been established. Those things take time, and I’m afraid our political media doesn’t have time to wait.

So Spencer. (In the spirit of intellectual honesty!) Care to revise your opinion on Libya?

Update: Some people are saying to me, well, it may not have ended successfully for Libya, but from the point of view of NATO, it was a successful mission. That doesn’t make any sense. The only pretext for this war was humanitarianism. There was never any self-defense argument made. Since the humanitarian outcome was the only goal, and the humanitarian  situation is a disaster, you can’t call Libya a win for intervention.

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a heated argument about teacher unions and teacher tenure

I’m grateful to Bloggingheads and Conor Friedersdorf for having me on again. This is an issue about which I feel great passion. I’d like to point you in the direction of this excellent Jacobin piece about the charter school takeover in New Orleans, which is pretty much exactly what I’m talking about with Conor here when I talk about sweeping changes to public education based on dubious methods.

By the way: the thumbnails of these are always maximally derpy, but I’m on another level in this one.

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Alex Dunn of UCSB’s Philosophy department does it again!

Man, this dude is incorrigible.

@dunndunndunnTL;DR Freddie says he didn’t accuse SK of lying because he doesn’t consider her a “source” regarding her own experiences— alex dunn (@dunndunndunn) July 24, 2014

That is emphatically, totally, and non-negotiably not what I said. It’s an utter lie. It’s someone representing something as true that he knows to be untrue. Please: look at the actual post I wrote. This one truly takes the cake. He’s trusting that people on Twitter are too lazy to actually bother to read my actual words.

This dude.

update: Dunn says that this tweet does not reflect his current understanding about what I was trying to say, and I believe him.

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The standardized systems and assessment thicket

I’ve been reading Julie Pennington’s The Conquest of Literacy, which is a study derived from the 15 years Pennington worked at an elementary school in Austin, Texas. The elementary school was 93% Hispanic students and about half-and-half Hispanic and white teachers. (Austin, by design, is an immensely racially and economically segregated city.) In the book, Pennington talks about the challenges the school and students faced in trying to maintain a definition of literacy as a communal, social understanding, rather than as a rigid, state-defined phenomenon. Part of that difficulty came from the sheer number of programs, requirements, and assessments that came down from the state. Here’s a list of some of the alphabet soup of acronyms she and her peers had to deal with:

  • the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
  • the Texas Reading Initiative (TRI)
  • the Reading Excellence Act (REA)
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
  • the Texas Examination of Assessment of Minimal Skills (TEAMS)
  • the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
  • Site Based Decision Making (SBDM)
  • the Early Literacy Inservice Course
  • the Primary Assessment for Language and Math (PALM)
  • the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
  • Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)
  • Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)
  • the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI)
  • The Flynt Cooter Informal Reading Inventory

And note that this is all pre – Common Core. Some of these Pennington sees more positively, some less. But what’s clear is that educators and administrators were dealing with an impossibly Byzantine set of guidelines, requirements, goals, and tests. How can organic, adaptable teaching survive in an environment like this? Many of these programs are the product of the George W. Bush gubernatorial administration in Texas, and this vision of education is what Bush tried to make national policy as president.

I’m not opposed to all assessment — assessment of writing is one of my chief research interests, I’m writing a dissertation on a standardized assessment, I’m helping to run an assessment of the introductory composition program at Purdue this fall, etc. But I firmly believe that we can assess effectively with a much lighter footprint than we’re now using. The NAEP is the gold standard of national assessments, and it functions without unduly burdening students or teachers. It’s possible, but it’s only possible through a genuine policy choice, one that is rigorously applied and defended by administrators. We’ve got to allow teachers to dictate their own teaching. Of course, letting teachers determine their own pedagogy can make it harder for private entities to monetize public education….

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Alex Dunn of UCSB’s Philosophy department, you’re today’s lying liar

 This here is Alex Dunn, a PhD student in the Philosophy  department at UCSB and someone who started a blog about Harry Potter. (“A blog for people who take silly things way too seriously.” What a novel idea on the internet!) Last night, Alex told some lies about me on Twitter.

his finest moment was explicitly suggesting SK lied about threats then immediately denying it

No. No, I didn’t. Let’s follow the link and see what I actually had to say, shall we?

As a result, that person and her family received even more rape threats.


At the moment, Anon — who is almost certainly Mr. Alex Dunn here, although the internet is full of people who are too cowardly to sign their names to stuff — started using that as a bludgeon with which to suggest that I was some rape denier. Asking for a source to a claim is now apparently enough to conjure the shadow of skepticism which is supposedly proof positive of being a full-throated rape denier. Well, in fact, it was this “and her family” that caused me to ask for a link. That was literally the first time I had seen any reference to these threats reaching her family, so I wanted a link. I never said that Kendzior was lying about rape threats, not once, not ever, not even a little bit. I am not shy, I was already up to my elbows in that fight, and if I thought she was lying, I would have said so. But I didn’t think she was lying, so I didn’t say so. Ever. To say that I was “explicitly suggesting” that is just a pathetic, cowardly lie, told by Alex Dunn of UCSB’s Philosophy department, who apparently finds it cool to slander people on Twitter when he thinks nobody is watching.

Now, I repeatedly did call Kendzior a liar during Jacobinghazi, for the sensible reason that she kept lying. That’s what the linked post was all about. She lied about what Amber Frost’s point was. She lied about what Elizabeth Stoker said. She lied about what Elizabeth Nolan Brown said. Again and again, she blatantly misrepresented what people had said to advance her little crusade. And she has recently been involved in another embarrassing round of writing deceptively about others, causing two women — it’s almost always women who Kendzior lies about, and isn’t that funny — to attempt to clear their names, and to point out that she had badly misrepresented them in a piece for hack website Politico. (The words “journalism 101″ were used by Melissa Golden to refer to Kendzior’s failings.) So, yeah: I’ve called her a liar about some things. But I never said she lied about her threats.

You might ask yourself why Mr. Dunn here would be obsessing about that one accusation that he’s inventing when I’ve been straightforward with so many other accusations of dishonesty. Well, first, as when this all went down, even Kendzior’s most rabid defenders seemed to be too shamed to flat out say that she wasn’t lying. I mean, the Elizabeth Stoker thing was such an absurd, direct act of dishonesty that even people in full-throated “I am being an online social justice warrior!” mode seemed too ashamed to defend it. But more to the point, claiming that I denied that she had received threats (which I absolutely did not do) ticks the Bingo card. It’s one of those things which the Twitter left has decided equals immediate denunciation. So he’s trying to squeeze me into that space, rather than to actually engage me on what I actually believe, which would require him to, you know, marshal evidence and argue.

Just as with Karl Steel, some will say “why get into this stuff, why call attention to it, it just looks petty.” But they were wrong with Steel and they’d be wrong now. A lot of people seem to think that they can lie about others, on the internet, when nobody is looking. And in particular, people seem to think that if they wrap themselves in the flag of progressive politics, they receive carte blanche to be serially dishonest. Well I think that attitude is a disaster for actual, effective left-wing politics, and I think that people who skulk around telling lies need to be called out, both for basic honesty’s sake and for the health of social justice. If you tell lies about me online I’m going to find out about it and respond. So Alex Dunn of UCSB’s Philosophy department: stop telling lies.

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Emily Gould’s Friendship

Emily Gould is a talented young writer. Here are my thoughts on her first novel, Friendship.

“What are your grandest aspirations?” That’s a question on a job application that stymies one of the main characters, Bev, near the very beginning of Gould’s book. If it challenges Bev, it animates Friendship. The question hangs around in the back of the narrative constantly, sometimes as text, sometimes as subtext, but always present. That may make the book sound terribly self-important, but it isn’t. By turns, the question is posed seriously and comically, but always with sympathy for the characters. Gould lets Bev and her best friend Amy ask themselves this question, even while she gently mocks some of their pretensions. And without getting too meta, it’s fair to say that the question also reflects on the novel, on Gould, and on writing: what are the ambitions at play here, and how grand can and should they be? What kind of book is Gould writing, and what does that mean about How Writers Write Now?

As a woman and a New Yorker, these questions are especially acute for Gould. Women who write novels face a kind of dual consciousness: they are expected to either fight against the “chick lit” stereotype by embracing arch seriousness or stereotypically masculine prose, or to embrace it under a theory of reappropriation. But they are not permitted to opt out of the question, even if it bores them as much as the question seems to bore Gould. And of course, being a writer in New York writing about characters in New York means that many people will look to Gould’s book as a symbol of New York writing and New York ambition. It’s a lot to take on, but I think she’s up to it.

Friendship is Bev and Amy’s story, although plenty of ancillary characters slide in and out of the narrative. Bev and Amy are both bright young women living lives in New York City that they can’t really afford, trying to prove to themselves and to employers that they are meant for more than they are doing when we find them. I write that sentence and I wince, because although it’s an accurate reflection of the book’s narrative and themes, it’s the kind of synopsis that we’re expected to find ridiculous and preemptively annoying. Gould’s book has to labor in a cultural scene — and this is not just a literary scene thing, not even close — where we’re meant to assume that stories of young, educated women striving in big cities are inherently tired and ridiculous. Gould’s solution, I think, is just to be smart and to be funny and a little self-deprecating, and it seems that she would like her characters to respond to their own New York City that way as well: just be a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little less self-serious.

Gould follows Amy and Bev as they navigate young adulthood, or really, young adulthood of a very particular, very prominent kind. The story of privileged-but-broke young New York is now a well-worn topic, and there’s little in Gould’s narrative that jumps out as a departure from the typical: Amy and Bev navigate the indignities of low-paying work, getting too drunk, a disastrously ill-considered “I quit!” moment, an unplanned pregnancy with a jerky guy, clueless bosses, the steady accumulation of petty unhappiness in a grey, grinding city. The characters are similar, but Gould differentiates them in workmanlike fashion. Amy starts the book working for a trendy (if revenue-free) website; Bev, merely a temp. Amy also enjoys the stability and occasional financial support of a long-term boyfriend. Gould takes pains to demonstrate how Amy’s greater material security, though frequently imperiled, actually contributes to the difference in the emotional lives of the two characters — even though Amy is typically possessed of the kind of sweet cluelessness about it that is such a part of young elite life.

If some of these tropes are familiar by now, they are fortunately of less direct importance to the novel than the reactions that they inspire in Bev and Amy. The point is to see all of this through the lens of this relationship, a friendship that starts a little too quickly and a little too intensely, one that is revealed to be a little artificial in its familiarity and mutual comfort, and one that is mediated constantly through the internet. One of the somewhat-depressing insights of the book is that this best friendship is inextricable from online life, and not just in the obvious sense in that Bev and Amy are in constant digital communication. They also connect in the same way people do on the internet, as somewhat exaggerated characters, performing for each other in the way that the digital generation does, enabling the kind of quasi- or micro-celebrity that is the half-embarrassed culture of the online world. The fact that they also spend tons of time with each other face-to-face does little to diminish this spirit of performance, and part of Gould’s take on contemporary friendship is that the digital self does more to define IRL interactions than the other way around. Gould is careful not to judge this dynamic. I’m a lot less polite, in that regard. I find Bev and Amy’s friendship sweet but sad, hung with artifice that dulls the intimacy they both desperately need.

Though the book is titled Friendship, the most compelling, best-realized relationships within it are romantic and sexual. Gould is at her best when she’s writing about romantic and sexual partners misunderstanding each other. In particular, she is remarkably deft in describing the patterns and cadences of worn-in relationships, the kind that are happy and comfortable and not heading in any particular direction. The relationship between Amy and Sam, her artist boyfriend, is a highlight. Gould shows how an honest relationship between good people who respect each other can, just below the surface, be deeply broken. It’s a sympathetic and mature portrayal. I don’t know, maybe I’m just glad to read a contemporary novel where a dysfunctional relationship is portrayed as sweet and loving, rather than full-on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though the book is occasionally a bit forced in delivering character information, Gould knows how to reveal relationships with subtlety, and the way in which she quietly signals at the fundamentally unhealthy relationship between two characters we like shows great craft. The description of Bev’s secret relationship with the teenager she lost her virginity to — there’s a lot of time-shifting in the book, which is handled without pretense or fuss — is also great, and shows what Gould is capable of. It’s warm, true-to-life, funny, and only a little mean.

Gould understands the city, which is something that you wish could be said for more novelists who live in New York and write novels about New York. Or, at least, she writes like someone who understands the city. Just like the worn-in comforts and unspoken dysfunction of the relationships she describes, the relationship of her main characters to the city is true to life, mundane, and unaffected. With so many novels, movies, and shows set in New York, you never get far from the sense that the characters are emoting a New York experience that is thought more than it’s lived. Gould’s characters seem to me to be the kind of people who actually live someplace. Bev’s unplanned, awkward pregnancy is contrasted with the “rosy perfect baby dispensary in central Brooklyn,” and the differences and parallels between Bev and Amy’s lives and the lives of the Park Slope types that crop up in countless Brooklyn novels feel earned and real. Whatever else is true of the book, it feels like a New York novel that was not written by someone who  felt anxiety about how to write New York into every page. And that includes the many little ways in which the main characters demonstrate that they probably shouldn’t be there. I don’t want to spoil any of the important plot points — I’ll share that the ever-rising tide of New York rents is a constant, roiling anxiety for the characters as it is for real-world New Yorkers– but it’s enough to say that, just as the book subtly hints at the problems in human relationships, it gives us reason to think that some of the characters badly need to break up with New York. Just as with real people, the self-definition of these characters seems at times to preclude the possibility of really thinking of moving away. But again and again I found myself thinking that what these women really needed was to get the hell out of New York.

There are a lot of little tics, none of them major, none of which overwhelm the many little pleasures of Gould’s craft, but which do gradually aggregate together and chip away at the polish and focus of the book. For example, Gould’s novel has that name problem, the implausibly plausible names of characters and places that sound like a writer trying not to sound like a writer coming up with names of characters and places. There’s Bev’s friend J.R. Pinkman, the literary agency Warwick Smythe, career woman Sally Katzen, self-important entrepreneurs Jonathan and Shoshanna Geltfarb…. These are the types of names that are realer than real. (This is an understandable and common problem in a novel. I’d hate to have to name characters myself.) I wonder how many young, ambitious New York women would consent to being called Bev.

When she hits on something just right, Gould has a habit of underlining the achievement. The name of the Jewish-themed blog Amy writes for, Yidster, is quite funny, but Gould calls attention to its funniness one too many times. The name Plum, for a magazine about older women trying to get pregnant, is perfect, but Gould can’t help but call attention to its perfection. Many aspects of the book give the impression that Gould does not quite trust her own material, though she should. When she wants to signal “online media life!,” she squeezes references to CMS, Gchat, Twitter, and Wikipedia into a single paragraph. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard springs to mind: don’t spend it all in one place.

Though characterization is a strength for Gould, dialogue is not. A lot of her dialogue is pregnant with the anxiety of writing dialogue; the seams show. The characters speak in a kind of forced casual jokiness that seems all the more unnatural for trying so hard to seem natural. It’s uncanny valley territory. Gould faces a typical problem, which is that she needs to accurately portray manners of speaking and being which are quite obnoxious when put on the page. I would like to pay Gould $20 to never write dialogue with the construction, “Ha, [sentence]” again. And while there are certainly people who speak in non-question sentences in the cadence of a sentence, and you can portray that habit like this? Lots of times? that doesn’t really mean that you should. I suspect that for a lot of people, the central question of the novel will be whether they are annoyed by Amy and Bev. Gould’s negotiation of the many minor irritating things about her characters is the greatest effort of the book, and she sometimes navigates it well, sometimes clumsily.

Still: that central question, from the beginning. What are Amy and Bev’s greatest aspirations? (During a date, a half-listening suit asks Bev, “So what’s the ultimate goal?”) It’s a question that Gould allows to grow from plot to theme and, ultimately, to a kind of social critique, or maybe just a social observation. That question, as all of the questions in the book are, is filtered through the lens of a life lived constantly online. From my perspective, that kind of question — direct, unashamed, and concerned with the larger notions of who we are and what we are living our lives for — has been rendered somewhat unspeakable in the online age.

The type of people that Gould writes both for and about (Amy’s boss says that she is symbolic of her generation of “young, upwardly mobile urban Jews”) have created a culture where nothing is less permissible than pretense. That desperate fear of appearing pretentious has compelled a generation of young writers to scrub their work and their self-presentation of appeals to the transcendent, the self-consciously deep. The sad, inevitable consequence is that they start to view their own lives as petty and inconsequential. Amy and Bev struggle with these questions, as Gould does, in Friendship. At one point, they consider people who “seem to know what their spot in the world is and how to navigate it comfortably.” As they note, such people “skew dude.” They do, indeed. What the book asks implicitly is whether people from outside of the self-important demographic should pursue a similar sense of purpose, or whether the whole construct should be given up. The latter is easier, and more in keeping with their culture, but Friendship keeps reminding us of the necessity of that sort of self-belief, particularly in times of crisis, like pregnancy or unemployment. At one point, Amy considers trees, thinking “How powerless the trees were!” It’s the kind of writerly affect we all know now to deride, and yet Gould is kind enough to let her character take these feelings seriously. I think that’s what I like about Gould as a writer best, her capacity for sympathy in displaying attitudes and behaviors the savvy set finds ridiculous.

These are important, interesting questions that Gould is asking. I just wish she found them more interesting herself.

My central complaint, ultimately, is that Gould often seems impatient with her own book. At its worst, Friendship reads like someone trying to hurriedly put her notes into a novel. There’s a stand up comedy quality to the book; frequently, Gould seems to want to go from one set piece to another and seems bored by having to do the work of stitching them together. There is far too much delivery of material that seems forced and ostentatious. There are a bunch of metaphors and moments that are a little too clever for their own good. Gould describes Amy’s bank account, somehow still controlled by her mother, as a “bedraggled, half-rotten umbilical cord that had somehow snaked its way up I-95 all the way from the D.C.  suburbs to New York.” This is an overly-polished nugget, and one that should have been left in a notebook. Although we appear to be in the midst of a anti-MFA program backlash, this is precisely the sort of book that could have benefited from workshopping. This sort of showy prose is rendered extra frustrating because Gould has the chops to do without. “The curtains were made of a clean, worn-thin type of white cloth that looked like an apron someone might be wearing in a black-and-white photograph.” That’s an actual metaphor, a structural one, one which informs the reader without calling attention to its own cleverness. I read this book and want to say, trust your material.

I’m just not sure if Gould wants to be writing it at all. This is a powerfully presumptuous thing to say, but I cannot shake the feeling that Friendship is not the book that Gould really wants to write. The impatience of her prose, to me, betrays an ambivalence about the project. That’s a shame, because this is not a bad book, not at all. It’s a fussy, rumpled book, and one that could have used another round of revisions, but it’s also a bright, kind, funny book, a book that shows the naturally endearing writer who wrote it without self-obsession or autobiography. But Gould seems uncomfortable with the basic question that she is asking of her readers and of her characters, as if she is afraid of what she might find if she asked herself that question, “what is your greatest ambition?” I rudely suspect that the answer, for Gould, is not “to be a novelist.”

After I finished college I had nothing particular to do and no particular idea of where to do it, so I moved to Chicago where several of my friends had gone before me. It was a fun, young time, full of drift and booze and sex, and it was over very quickly. One of my best friends had gone out there, I suppose, to make it in the comedy world. I would go to parties with his friends, people who performed at places like Improve Olympic, who did funny sketch comedy shows and terrible improve. I would come home from these parties and find that I was totally exhausted. The young comedy types never stopped delivering their material; it was wave after wave of bits, hours of the beats of comedy, the tension of everyone waiting for the punchline. None of which is to say that this wasn’t entertaining. On the contrary, they were all lovely people, and some of them were very funny. But I would just get so tired.

My experience of the internet, as it has congealed into a set of fossilizing cultural and social practices, is something like those parties. I am exhausted by getting people’s material. There are dozens of websites and networks on which the digital elite interact, but you could combine them all and name it Clevr, where people go to be funny and to be seen being funny and to be rewarded with acknowledgments that they are funny. I feel the tension of people throwing their  best stuff out there, and absorb their ambient anxiety as they tensely wait for the digital strokes to roll in. I cannot help but say that very few people seem to be made genuinely happy by this ceaseless, unrelenting writers room. Instead, they paw around at the vague feeling of embarrassment that hangs around the whole enterprise like the marine layer, consciously rejecting that shame but unable to will it away by writing a longread. And I wonder if we all wouldn’t be better served if, rather than trying to will away this ambient embarrassment, people asked themselves if they feel it for a good reason, if maybe there isn’t something else they’re all supposed to be doing.

Amy and Bev are creatures of the internet, and they live with the desire to be seen while secretly fearing that there is little to be gained if they are. They are self-consciously creative but seem to create very little. Amy’s boyfriend paints incredibly detailed pictures of mundane objects, and in their own way, Bev and Amy stumblingly pursue the task of painting themselves in similar fashion. The open question is whether this is something worth doing, or maybe more importantly, if this is something people can find lasting happiness in doing. It’s a question that the book poses to the characters, to its readers, and to Gould herself. What do you want to do with your life?

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the say Tom is a flat circle


Were this someone’s attempt at a Tom Friedman parody account, rather than the actual synopsis of an actual Tom Friedman essay, I’d call it cliched and uninspired. This human has passed through parody and gone out the other side. He is a parody wormhole, which the scientists of the future might exploit to permit faster-than-light travel.

By the way: there’s no such thing as a sharing economy. A sharing economy is an oxymoron. Sharing means that no money changes hands. Strip away the Silicon Valley deepity and you’re left with a rental economy, which is neither new, nor emancipatory, nor particularly interesting.

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today in Atlantic derp

Above is the image that the august Atlantic has chosen to run alongside an article by David Frum, the Axis-of-Evil coining, unhinged former George W. Bush speechwriter. The headline is “Russia Has Become Dangerous Again.” Illustrating Russia’s danger, apparently, is such a confusing endeavor that you end up with a graphic depicting a German philosopher and economist who was never a head of state, a German social scientist who was never a head of state, a Russian Marxist who led a revolution to become the head of state, a Russian dictator who was quasi-Marxist at best, and a Russian oligarch who is an enthusiastic capitalist. A corrupt crony capitalist, to be sure, but then in the real world, all capitalism is corrupt crony capitalism. What’s the connection between a poor anti-capitalist German intellectual who never led anything and a Russian billionaire who happily embraced the demise of communism as a means to grab money and power? Who knows! “Bad, bad people who look scary when drawn in a line” seems to be the extent of the thinking here.

Frum, incidentally, is a product of reformocon affirmative action. The man is directly responsible for the demise of the post-9/11 rapprochement between the United States and Iran, which has unquestionably left the world a less safe place, had a hand in the Iraq imbroglio, and holds views on Israel-Palestine that are nutty even in the context of universal nuttiness on that issue. But because conservatism is so desperate for warm bodies that aren’t slobberingly racist rape-denialists, he’s “one of the good ones.” Aside from being an attractive Republican woman or Luke Russert, there’s no lower bar to climb to build a career in media than being a not-entirely-crazy-or-obviously-despicable conservative. If the celebrated conservative reformers like Ross Douthat really cared for reform, they might ask about how the soft bigotry of low expectations keeps them from achieving it. But I suspect that essentially no one involved really thinks reformist conservatism is a serious enterprise. There’s a glaring unreality to it — everybody keeps writing think pieces about the next conservatism, people go on long disquisitions about who and how and why, but nobody really buys any of it. You think Reihan Salam is gonna carry the flag that leads the Cliven Bundy crowd out of the darkness? I kind of doubt it! Even if they could articulate a reform plan that maintains some semblance of modern movement conservatism — and they can’t — they couldn’t possibly win politically.  But then, maybe nobody really expects them to. Rather, I think reform conservatism exists to give reform conservatives something to do. The existence of their jobs is the end itself. Nice work if you can get it.

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cultural liberalism reaches peak self-parody

If you have a time capsule to fill, you could do a lot worse than to print out some of the crowing about a woman Thor and a black Captain America. The glee with which these changes have been met, contrasted with the bleak state of structural change and economic justice, will tell you pretty much all you need to know about a certain strain of contemporary American liberalism. We’re mere weeks away from a Supreme Court decision where an alliance of religious crazies and corporatists was able to remove a legal provision requiring employers to pay for emergency contraception, but don’t worry, ladies! You too can now be portrayed as a heavily-sanitized version of a minor god from a long-dead pantheon. Black Americans continue to lag national averages in a vast number of metrics that depict quality of life, and in some of them have actually lost ground, but never fear. The guy portrayed punching people while wearing red white and blue spandex will now be black.

The point of all this, of course, is that it gets some people mad, and that gives others the opportunity to get mad back, and so the sorting function of cultural politics is fulfilled. The question at this point isn’t whether these people will go to the wall to fight for meaningless symbolic politics every time. The question is whether they’ll ever fight for anything else.

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drip drip drop, ed reform fails

You know I don’t know, at this point, how anyone could be surprised by the results of Sweden’s voucher system. We are now several decades into the modern education reform movement. Its history is a litany of failure, of vast promises and pathetic returns, of constantly over-promising and under-delivering. The charter school Deion Sanders started is a horror show? Why, it’s almost as if designing policy with the explicit aim of privatization and dividing public funds from public accountability is guaranteed to result in corruption. Who could have known.

I have been waiting for the steady accumulation of evidence, year upon dismal year of profiteering off of failure, to finally penetrate the elite consciousness. I imagine I will be waiting for a long time. You want to help kids, you want them to be better educated? Fine. Me too. None of this is working. It’s not working, and your credulity towards broken policy is the problem. Not the unions, not bureaucracy, not a lack of will. It’s the addiction to one of the greatest failures in the history of public policy. It’s the refusal to change in the face of the evidence. That’s the problem.

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chasing skills is a bad bet and bad policy

 Danielle Kurtzleben reflects on the myth of the STEM shortage and its analytic problems: 

[I]t’s not necessarily that there aren’t enough science and math scholars out there; it’s that there aren’t enough people out there with the particular skills the job market needs right now. Spending four years doing biology experiments is no guarantee for a job, and indeed might not go as far as a couple semesters of statistics or computer science….

There’s a key distinction to be made here: this doesn’t necessarily say that there is or isn’t a shortage of STEM workers — rather, it might say that there’s a shortage of business workers with sufficient STEM skills.

“If you’re an anthropology major and you want to get a marketing job, well, guess what? The toughest marketing jobs to fill require SQL skills,” Sigelman says. “If you can … along the peripheries of your academic program accrue some strong quantitative skills, you’ll still have the advantage [in the job market].” Likewise, some legal occupations (such as intellectual property law) and maintenance and repair jobs stay open for long periods of time, according to the Brookings report, if they require particular STEM skills.

Perhaps. Kurzleben seems to be a careful and smart writer who is genuinely committed to thinking these issues through without resorting to cliched, unsupported thinking. But it’s very frustrating that Kurtzleben, and essentially our entire elite policy media, doesn’t go a step further: trying to predict what particular set of discrete and limited skills will be useful in the future is a mug’s game. It’s a fundamentally risky way for an individual to behave, and for policy decisions that are supposed to be based on the most good for the most people, it’s incoherent strategy. Jobs in petrochemical engineering have been exploding, because of a largely-unpredictable boom in American fossil fuel reserves. Becoming a contracting engineer for a construction firm was a great idea in 1999, but by 2005, was a very risky proposition. Going to law school was the epitome of mercenary self-interest until, suddenly, it was the epitome of laughable, deluded foolishness. Teaching kids how to code Python now, when they’ll be hitting the job market 20 years from now, is ludicrous, especially in a world where there’s every reason to think that tech firms will continue to have very low employee to market cap ratios and where computers might take over the bulk of coding. Individuals can navigate the markets, if they’re smart, privileged, and lucky. But great masses of people never can. If you’re telling me that you know what every freshman should start studying in 2014 so that s/he can get a good job in 2019, I think you’re full of it.

Instead, we should return to the point of what education has always been about: to teach students skills, yes, but only as part of a larger, more important goal of teaching them soft skills, meta-skills, and habits of mind that enable them to adapt to an endlessly-changing labor market. If you teach a kid how to use a particular kind of database or programming language, you might get them employed for five years, maybe ten. But if you teach them how to think, how to acquire skills themselves, how to be critical interpreters of information, and how to exist as compassionate and ethical members of a democratic society, you may empower them to keep themselves employed for 40 years. We could stop mistaking education as the process of one person giving information to others and rediscover education as a process of mentoring and apprenticeship where teachers work closely with students to develop not just specific skills but a mind that’s capable of acquiring more skills, and of understanding how and why skills become valued in the first place, and of forming moral choices about how these decisions drive society.

Of course, if we do that, then we’re back to the ideals of a liberal arts education, and I’m afraid that embracing that long, illustrious tradition isn’t sexy in policy elite circles, and doesn’t sell books.

I’ve been writing about issues like this on this blog consistently now, because they’re an obsession of mine and because they’re deeply important for our society. I’ve written about how there is no STEM shortage generally, how there is no computer scientist shortage specifically, how the tech industry is profitable in large measure because it employs so few people relative to revenues, how humanities majors don’t underperform national averages, how you can’t possibly blame broad unemployment on people taking “impractical” majors, how we mistake the value of being a star in a field for the value of simply being in that field. As the data about specific questions like the farce of a STEM shortage becomes too obvious to ignore, the policy apparatus slowly evolves. What makes me worry is the possibility that the thought process will simply shift around a little bit, without confronting the actual central problem: a vast embrace of quantitative, scientific, and technology skills as the solution to all of our labor woes, under the false notion that those skills are more “futuristic” than broader ways of knowing and that they necessarily will result in better economic outcomes. That is essentially the calcified orthodoxy of our policy apparatus, and yet it has never been buttressed by much more than prejudice, assumption, and narrative. (And I say all of this as someone whose research is largely computerized and quantitative.)

And of course, admitting that we shouldn’t educate to provide specific and limited skill sets robs neoliberal media types of one of their favorite pastimes: blaming individuals for their own unemployment. “You’d be employed if you got a computer science degree instead of studying French poetry!” combines the preening moralism and the vague, useless embrace of “the future” that are so intrinsic to our media elites, as well as reflecting unquestioned assumptions that are wrong as often as they are right. The truth of the matter is that the world of work has undergone massive changes in a short period of time, that jobs were lost by the hundreds of thousands thanks to destructive and immoral behavior of financial elites, that our problems have been far more about a lack of aggregate demand and the merciless march of automation, and that individuals cannot fairly be blamed for their own precarity. The supposedly impractical Millennial theater major has been the butt of constant invective for years. But she’s not guilty; she’s merely a convenient receptacle of hate for a policy apparatus that has failed her and her generation by the millions. What’s needed is a redistributive public policy that shields people from the random vagaries of the job market, and a return to the definition of education as a public good that teaches our citizens not just how to make money, but how to think, how to be free, and how to live.

Posted in Education | 23 Comments

a couple quick notes

So here’s some bile from commenter Dawn Kwicksoat that is one part common, one part unique:

And you guys… we have to stop arguing by telling others what the believe instead of arguing with what they actually believe. It’s useless and destructive.

I guess when you use a different internet handle at other locales, this general prescription doen’t apply to you, eh Fred?

But who can blame you? You have angst to release, and that’s so hard to do when you’re being an academic rhetorician writing convoluted, dry and boring jargon-laden essays. An academic has to avoid even passive aggression, and must stifle those nefarious urges to snark and ping and smack.

Thankfully one can inhabit as many alternate personages as one can imagine and manage separately, and those devices allow a lot of room for releasing the pent-up feelings whose expression academia proscribes when speaking to fellow academicians.

The first part, that I have other “handles” that I comment with online, is a new one on me. In large part, that’s because I’m fairly notorious for commenting on other people’s blogs and sites using my real name. A fair number of professional writer types have made fun of me for the practice; I guess the thinking is that commenting is for the rabble, not for the pros. Luckily, I’m not a pro. I comment using my own name because being held accountable for what you say is a cherished value to me. The only times I have deviated from this practice was back in like, 2005-2006, when I first started reading blogs, I had no blog of my own, and essentially nobody commented under their own name; and I also have occasionally commented at The Atlantic under a commenter handle because my Facebook-connected account got banned. (Totally unfairly, by the way.) I have since gotten a new account under my real name there. So I have no idea what Dawn here is talking about. I have had, in the past, people post intentionally offensive things under my name in comments sections as a way to discredit me (think, like, blatant anti-Semitism, racial slurs, etc.) but that was mostly a short-term thing when I had attracted the attention of some conservative cesspit.

I mean, I’m used to a lot of abuse, but the idea that I’m unable to be public about my feelings, or that I have to take to pseudonyms to express what I don’t like is… odd. It’s been the advice of many that I shouldn’t argue about politics as a graduate student, as that could unnecessarily disadvantage me for jobs in an already brutal market. But while some of my opinions are controversial, I don’t think any of them are offensive in the traditional sense, and I believe that basic academic and intellectual freedom should protect political expression. I also think that academics need to be more willing to express themselves publicly, not less. If there are negative professional consequences for that stance, well, I can live with it.

As for the second bit, making fun of me through making fun of the study of rhetoric, this one is quite common. It’s also a very bad tactic, because I don’t, by and large, study rhetoric. I’m in a rhetoric and composition program, yes. But just as you might, for example, be in a Film and Theater department and focus almost entirely on drama and not on film, I am focused on the composition side. My research, currently, explores hybrid approaches to writing education that involve techniques from applied linguistics and textual processing. I also have a strong focus on literacy education policy, particularly when it comes to empirical measures and assessment.  I have taken extensive coursework in rhetoric, and I very much value the field. I find the notion that there’s something inherently unserious about studying the way we argue and persuade each other to be pretty nuts. In a democracy, these questions are of vital importance. But regardless, don’t consider myself a rhetoric scholar, and it’s a very weird, scattershot way to go after me. So everybody who does this, please adjust your invective accordingly, OK? Lord knows, there’s plenty of material out there if you’re looking for avenues of attack.

Posted in Meta | 10 Comments

HIV after the death of nuance

So to continue with my complaints about how, in a world where nuance is dead, we’re unable to tell the truth, here’s a piece from Gawker’s Dayna Evans going after Vine star and moron Nash Grier for an ugly video in which he says the word “fag” and suggests that HIV/AIDS is “a gay thing.” Evans writes that Grier “endorses the wrongheaded and homophobic idea that HIV is an issue that exists primarily in the gay community.” The comments, meanwhile, are filled with people arguing that of course, everyone is at equal risk of getting infected. 

This kid, clearly, is an idiot and a jerk. And indeed, the idea that only gay men have to worry about AIDS is simply wrong: there are many heterosexual men and women who are infected with HIV, and no one is truly without risk. That said: it’s simply not true to suggest that men who have sex with men are not at significantly higher risk of getting infected with HIV, outside of the unique epidemiological conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s a chart of HIV infections in the United States from 2010 from the CDC:

(MSM = men who have sex with men)

Now, does that change the part where this kid is a dumb jerk? Of course not. Does it mean straight people have no risk? Of course not. Does it justify any kind of homophobic reaction, or acting like AIDS is a less important public health problem, or saying that people with HIV “deserve it”? Of course not. There is absolutely no contradiction in saying

1. HIV/AIDS remains a major public health risk, particularly for those without access to combination therapies;
2. Everyone should be smart and careful in their sexual practices, thanks to a variety of STDs, not just HIV;
3. We have a pressing moral responsibility, as a society, to confront HIV/AIDS;
4. In the developed world, men who have sex with men, and intravenous drug users, face far higher infection risks than the public writ large.

That all seems sensible and respectful to me. But I so often see educated, liberal people insisting that there isn’t any difference in risk factors, or reacting with anger to suggestions that different populations are at different risk. And it just gets back to this sense that we’ve made politics so much about signaling your tribal allegiances that you can’t speak with a modicum of nuance or care — either you’re on the team that thinks AIDS is a plague sent by god to punish sinful gays, or you’re on the team that thinks that everyone is perfectly equal in their risk because life is perfectly fair that way. Everything is this way now; you’re never allowed to believe the things you say, but rather have to lard every political statement with a litany of the things you expressly don’t believe, or else get sorted into the camp of the Evil People and get accused of believing things that you haven’t even suggested. It’s exhausting, pointless, and utterly childish, and it makes it so tempting to quit talking about politics entirely.

Posted in Rhetoric | 30 Comments

who’s really got tenure?

I’ve been thinking about pointing this out, off and on, for awhile now, but then David Brooks goes and lays it out so directly I can’t help myself. I’ve argued in the past that journalists and pundits, in general, don’t respect academics and teachers. Some people disagree. What’s much more clear, however, is that whether for university professors or school teachers, journalists and teachers don’t like tenure.

Academic tenure, that swiftly-dying job benefit that was designed to protect academic freedom and gives professors a degree of job security once they pass their initial (brutal) tenure review, is seen as a way for coddled professors to earn money without having to produce. (See Megan McArdle for a typical take.) Tenure for public school teachers is seen as a way to protect the unqualified and the corrupt and keep ed reformers from fixing our schools.  (See, of course, Even the Liberal New Republic.) Now I personally think that these claims are unfair; immediately post-tenure academics don’t, in my estimation, stop working hard as researchers. Indeed, often they accelerate, as there’s all sorts of status markers that academics tend to pursue in their tenured career. Whether the focus on research is healthy or beneficial is a discussion for a different time. I also have never personally understood the claim that tenured professors don’t care about teaching undergraduates, which simply does not jibe with my experience. But then, it’s only my experience. And it remains the case that there’s no strong evidence that tenure hurts student performance, and in fact the evidence mostly points in the other direction.

More to the point, though, my problems with media complaints about tenure is that they come from a class that appears, to me, to have a kind of tenure of their own. Brooks lays that out succinctly in this interview with Yahoo News:

 there are plenty of reasons for the 52-year-old to stay at the Times: He has unprecedented freedom and job security. Times columnists, Brooks said, are treated like “hothouse flowers.”

“I’ve never attended a meeting at the Times,” he said. “We can write about anything. I’ve been at the Times for over a decade, I’ve never had a performance review. We can go anywhere we want. And we are just left alone.” …

Brooks believes he — like the Times print edition — will still be published in 10 years.

“They’re making new old people every day,” Brooks joked of the Times’ print demographic. “I think I’ll have a job in 10 years that looks very similar to the one I have now.”

And he gets to have regular, off-the-record meetings with U.S. presidents.

This is one of those enduring questions: what would it take to get an NYT columnist fired? I mean how many times can Tom Friedman fart out the identical column before somebody at the Times wonders what they’re getting for their money? And, of course, both Friedman and Brooks have made some consistently horrible predictions about foreign policy, with Friedman adding a bit of moral hideousness that should be grounds for firing in and of itself. Ah, but they’re columnists at the Times. They are at the pinnacle of their profession! But I see journalistic tenure as a broad phenomenon. As we’ve recently been discussing, having been totally wrong about the most important foreign policy question of the last 25 years, and being implicated in the hideous consequences, has done essentially nothing to harm the job security of those who supported the Iraq war. They have not only not been fired, they’ve often been invited back to support a new war to fix the old war they were already wrong about.

And it goes on. You can plagiarize and write favorable pieces on foreign regimes for money and maintain a professional career and prominence in the media scene. You can beat the drum for war again and again, get duped by a lying source, and falsely claim that an attack is imminent and not only remain employed, but be considered a favorite of many other journalists. You can make a number of absurd, utterly wrong predictions about war, push the racist IQ argument before calling takebacks, and sit on your comfortable perch at the same website for years. You can be a Wall Street crook and get banned by the SEC, get people working low-wage jobs fired out of entitlement and spite, and run a series of increasingly-inane Forrest Gump-style ruminations on why the world is a weird old place, and remain a titan of awful clickbait “journalism.” You can be whoever is in charge of Salon’s web design and not be fired from a cannon into the sun.  I could go on and on: the world of professional journalism and punditry is full of people who have made bad predictions, violated media ethics, plagiarized, lied, taken money for positive coverage, or just repeatedly done shoddy work, and maintained their personal and professional standing in the industry.

As a critic of education reform policies and rhetoric, I am constantly reading journalists and political writers arguing that teachers need objective, external review to ensure that they are doing high quality work. (Including, of course, from David Brooks, who has the incredible shamelessness to complain about inefficiency from a position where he faces no review by his own admission.) And I just want to laugh: what objective, external review are politicos subject to, exactly? What systems ensure that incompetence or unethical behavior are punished in an industry that still runs off of editor word-of-mouth, personal connections, and Klout scores? I don’t know what the system of accountability is supposed to be, but I do know that in a political world where Jeff Goldberg still gets to be seen as dispensing wisdom from the mountain on the subject of the Middle East, that system isn’t working. I don’t doubt that for many at the bottom of the food chain, professional political writing and journalism are precarious, risky propositions, but it seems that once you’re in, you’re in, and there’s no shaking you out. Maybe instead of going after teachers and academics for having too much job security, journalists and writers should put their own house in order first.

Posted in Education, Popular & Digital Writing | 13 Comments