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

friedman

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.

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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.

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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

difficult problems after the death of nuance

I have seen now some dozen people share this ProPublica map, about the use of restraining holds on school children, on various social networks and websites. It makes me sad, because this issue is sad. But the kind of reactions that are being provoked also make me sad, because they demonstrate the ways in which the world of sharing and likes and shallow understanding destroys nuance and creates a bogus conception of a black-and-white world.

It happens that I have some experience in this regard. For about a year and a half, I worked in a public school that had a special, segregated section for kids with severe emotional disturbance. Some of the students were significantly mainstreamed into the general ed population, but many couldn’t be, as they posed too much of a risk to other students and to themselves. Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood. I saw a student try to cut his own lip with safety scissors. I saw a girl tear padding from a padded wall and eat it; when she eventually had to be removed from the school via ambulance, she urinated on herself, rubbed her face with her urine, and attempted to do the same to paramedics.

Mental illness is powerful and terrible and that’s the world we live in.

Part of the response to this kind of behavior was restraint. I didn’t enjoy doing it; none of the staff did. Hated it, in fact. We were all trained in how to provide restraint as safely as possible, but that didn’t mean we were under any illusion: we knew that these techniques were uncomfortable and potentially harmful to students. Injuries to staff members were common. A fellow staff member badly broke her tailbone in the process of restraining a child, an injury that left her unable to work for a calender year. There was something gross about the euphemism “therapeutic hold,” and we talked about the trainings with black humor. I left, after that year and a half or so, because I could not take the emotional toll. There were women there who had been working with such children for over 30 years. I couldn’t make it two. The notion that these women were somehow callous or unconcerned about these children is ludicrous and defamatory. They had dedicated their lives to helping these kids, for terribly low pay. They had to watch these kids grow up and get shipped to the middle school level where there was no similar program. And we were the last stop, for these kids, before the state mental health system. That was the stark choice: if it didn’t work here, the only alternatives were either special private schools, which given that the students were overwhemingly from poverty, was not an option at all, or being committed to the state mental system, which most likely meant institutionalization and constant medication. Those were the stakes.

I have struggled to write about that period of my life for years, as I am still unable to adequately process the emotions I felt. I do know and will loudly say that the women (and besides me they were almost all women) who worked as teachers and paraprofessionals were an inspiration in the true sense, working quietly and without celebration to bring a little education and relief for children who life had treated terribly. They shame me with their dedication. To see them and people like them repeatedly represented as serial abusers who don’t care for if they harm children is infuriating, baseless, and wrong.

The question I have for someone like Heather Helen Vogell, who wrote this sensationalistic and damaging piece for ProPublica, and for all of the people sharing that map with breathless outrage, is this: what alternative would you propose? I am not kidding when I tell you that dozens of times, there was no choice but to physically restrain a child. The only alternative was to allow that child to badly hurt another or him- or herself. If you think that a 7 year old is incapable of badly harming another person, I assure you, you’re wrong. I have seen many people arguing that there is never a situation where such restraint is necessary, and  all I can say is that you’re ignorant, and that your ignorance is dangerous. To say that all children can be verbally calmed in all situations is to betray a stunning lack of understanding of the reality of childhood mental illness. Vogell mentions in passing that there are situations in which restraint is necessary, then spends thousands of words ignoring that fact. At every time when she is faced with a journalistic or stylistic choice, she opts for the most sensationalistic and unsympathetic presentation possible, minimizing the other side and failing to even pretend to have genuinely wrestled with the topic before coming to a conclusion. It’s not just that she insults thousands of nameless, faceless public servants who no capacity to fight back or even be seen as potentially-sympathetic human beings. It’s just lousy journalism, written for a clickbait culture, utterly credulous to one set of opinions and utterly dismissive of another. It’s an embarrassment.

Meanwhile, childhood mental illness continues to wreak its terrible havoc, and educators will be forced to make terrible choices. I hated restraining those children, but I saw with my own two eyes the incredible violence that mental illness made possible, and I do not for one minute regret properly restraining children when that was the only way to save that child or another from bodily harm. I invite Vogell, or any of the people loudly expressing their outrage, to take jobs in special education or child mental health services. You can actually get involved, you know. See it with your own eyes. Help actual human lives get a little bit better. See what choice you’re able to make when it is clear that you must intervene or allow injury to another person. But I’m afraid that takes more time and effort then launching a tweet.

In the broader view, I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American liberalism culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them; that there is no issue of such emotional and moral complexity that many people can’t reduce it to a black-and-white caricature; and that we have created a media which has made its financial best interest inextricable from destroying depth, nuance, and complexity. I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers. I do know that this is no way to run a democracy. And I also know that, years from now, when people like Vogell are no longer wasting a second of their time thinking about physical restraint of children who are a danger to themselves and others, the women in my program will be working, quietly and selflessly and for awful compensation, trying to help the children they are now accused of abusing.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 24 Comments

on Kevin Carey’s piece on the quality of American higher education

I have many issues with this piece on the quality of American colleges and universities by Kevin Carey of the ed reform shop the New America Foundation. Let’s dive deep.

Far from being complacent about higher education, America is the site of a perpetual crisis narrative about our colleges. Carey  writes, “While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices.” It’s incredible that someone who works in higher education policy circles can write this: since tertiary education has become a mass phenomenon in the United States, we’ve essentially never not been freaking out about it.

I’ve recently finished a chapter for my dissertation about the perpetual crisis narrative in higher education. Since the GI Bill resulted in a major expansion of access to college education, there has essentially never been a time when the federal government wasn’t getting involved in higher ed, and doing so under crisis rhetoric. The federal government has commissioned major reviews of higher education in the Truman administration, the Eisenhower administration, the Kennedy administration, the Reagan administration, the George HW Bush administration, the George W. Bush administration, and the Obama administration. The notion of a crisis in higher education is common to them. The reason changes — our colleges are unprepared for all of the WWII veterans who will go to school when they get home, we need better learning to fight the Cold War, we need to prepare students to win the space race, we need to compete economically with Germany/Japan/China, etc. — but the notion of a crisis is ever-present. Hell, A Nation at Risk is one of the most hysterical documents I’ve ever read.

And as Carey is surely aware, the last two presidential administrations have attempted to directly change the course of American higher education. The Spellings commission was one of the most direct attempts by government to date at enforcing a particular vision of collegiate education, this one driven by calls for “accountability” and standardized assessment. The regional accreditation agencies have responded, as they did with A Nation at Riskalthough not entirely as reformers would have hoped. Now, the Obama administration is giving this movement teeth, by tying access to federal funds to a series of rankings and making standardized assessments a large part of those rankings. Setting aside the wisdom or fairness of these proposals, they are the opposite of leaving colleges to their own devices.

Carey fails to account for socioeconomic and demographic differences — despite the fact that the PIAAC study provides information on that account. The most important part of doing legitimate and responsible educational comparisons– literally the most important thing– is making sure that you’re comparing like with like. In education research, student performance needs to be placed in context according to the major demographic factors that dictate educational outcomes, in particular income level and parent education level. Anyone reading this, I assume, has already read me go on about the power of these demographic factors at length, but for a recap I’ll just quote Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error:

American students in schools with low poverty— the schools where less than 10 percent of the students were poor— had scores that were equal to those of Shanghai and significantly better than those of high-scoring Finland, the Republic of Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. In U.S. schools where less than a quarter of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the federal definition of poverty), the reading scores were similar to those of students in high-performing nations. Technically, the comparison is not valid, because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools in the United States with the average score for entire nations. But it is important to recognize that the scores of students in low-poverty schools in the United States are far higher than the international average, higher even than the average for top-performing nations, and the scores decline as poverty levels increase, as they do in all nations.

This is hardly revelatory stuff; anyone talking responsibly about education must acknowledge the determinative power of these factors from the get go. And we know that completing a college degree is itself highly dependent on these demographic factors:

2-5a

source: the College Board

Now the PISA looks at how college educated adults perform on a test, not on if they finish college. But we have strong evidence that GPA performance in college is influenced by demographic factors. For example, a 1999 study of more than 5,000 college students found that personal background factors, such as parental income and parental education level, had a strong influence on college GPA.

But perhaps Carey would speculate that, against all sense, these socioeconomic factors wouldn’t affect PISA scores the way they affect GPA and dropout rate. But Carey didn’t actually have to speculate; he only had to listen to PIAAC! Here, from page 104 of  the PIAAC study:

Adults from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds have higher average proficiency in the three domains assessed in the survey, than those from disadvantaged backgrounds (socio-economic background is proxied by parents’ educational attainment). Score differences on the literacy scale related to socio-economic background are largest in Germany, Poland and the United States, while they are smallest in Estonia, Japan and Korea. After accounting for other characteristics, the differences in literacy proficiency associated with socio-economic background are substantially smaller. This is because an individual’s educational attainment often mirrors that of his or her parents.

Later, on page 113:

The largest difference in both literacy and numeracy proficiency between adults with at least one parent who had high levels of educational attainment (i.e. from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds) and those with both parents who had low levels of educational attainment (i.e. from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds) is observed
in the United States and Germany (57 and 54 points, respectively). These are also the countries with the lowest average literacy score among adults with neither parent having attained upper secondary education. In contrast, Australia, Estonia, Japan and Sweden show the smallest difference (28-33 points) between these two groups of adults. These countries also feature relatively higher scores among adults with neither parent having completed upper secondary education.

In other words, in a piece criticizing the higher education system of a country of great socioeconomic inequality, based on data from a study, the author failed to mention that the study identifies that country as having a large impact from socioeconomic factors. It’s incredible that Carey failed to disclose that; it borders on dishonesty. I could easily see the Upshot running a piece that leads with this information — American Literacy and Numeracy Highly Influenced By Socioeconomic Background, Study Shows– if that was how the data was being spun. To not point out the impact of socioeconomic differences on PISA scores when those differences are laid out by the study’s authors is a major failing.

America is an unequal country, and our educational outcomes are unequal for this reason. That’s not disputed by this data, but rather supported by it.

Carey acknowledges that American students come in lower, then ignores that fact. Carey points out that our primary and secondary students lag far behind in PISA scores, meaning that they come to American colleges and universities further behind their international counterparts. Yet Carey continues to take American universities to task for not reaching parity with international peers. He’s looking at a comparison where some systems have a large head start and then complaining that our system doesn’t win the race. He writes, “Instead, Piaac suggests that the wide disparities of knowledge and skill present among American schoolchildren are not ameliorated by higher education.” But how could they be ameliorated if other country’s students are continuing to learn too? Again, what this data suggests is not that our schools are doing a poor job but rather that  student-side factors are more determinative of educational outcomes like PISA scores than school-side factors. 

Simplistic numeracy tests are very poor measures of college learning; better assessments, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, show strong student growth. It’s essential to say: the PIAAC study is not intended for the purpose that Carey uses it for. The study is not intended as an assessment of collegiate learning. For example, on page 118, the study says, “The formal education system is not the only setting in which the skills assessed in the Survey of Adult Skills are developed. Learning occurs in a range of other settings, including the family, the workplace and through self-directed individual activity.” And it’s entirely unclear to me that the kind of numeracy and literacy items the PISA uses are an appropriate mechanism to test college students. Do you remember taking a class in “numeracy” in college? You can’t get on schools for failing to teach students things they didn’t intend to teach them. 

In contrast, I think an assessment system like the College Learning Assessment+ is probably a better gauge, in part simply because it’s designed for the purpose of measuring college learning. There are deep problems with value-added modeling, and while I am a qualified supporter of the CLA/CLA+, there are some issues with it as well. (Unfortunately for my dissertation research, it seems that not being an unqualified supporter makes it harder to get access to information. But that’s a discussion for another time.) But it’s an instrument that’s far more suited to this kind of comparison than PISA scores, and one that tries specifically to show how these different skills work in concert, rather than separated and deracinated. Take a look at this regression of CLA scores over SAT scores.

SAT vs CLA

What we see here is encouraging: the gap between the two regression lines is large, indicating that American college students are learning a great deal in school. Indeed, you can read about this learning at length in the Council for Aid to Education’s paper “Does College Matter?“However, we can also see that the gap between those who start out the lowest (on the left) and those who start out the highest (on the right) is not made up by college education; the gap is just too big. Again, this comports with my point above and with my broader take on education as a whole: schooling works, but it can’t close gaps caused by demographic differences, in large measure because those at the top keep learning as well. I don’t doubt that many other countries would have students who end up higher on the CLA+ than ours do — but I also don’t doubt that they’d start out higher, as well. And I also don’t doubt that there are structural economic reasons for this advantage.

The notion that economic competitiveness is dependent on performance on educational metrics is broadly assumed by relatively unproven. As is very common with reform types, Carey argues that we need to fix this supposed crisis because educational performance is strongly tied to economic performance. This is ed reform boilerplate, but it’s never been clear to me how strong the evidence is. I think having a highly educated workforce is probably a good thing economically, but I think we should be clear: American education has never been good in international comparisons, even during boom economic times. Often, people assert that we’ve fallen from our perch as the world leader in education. But not only were we never the best, we’ve never been close to the best. In a comprehensive review of the evidence, David E. Drew demonstrates that as long as people have been making rigorous international comparisons of educational outcomes, the United States has done very poorly. This was true in the 1960s, it was true in both the boom and bust times of the 1980s, it was true in the go-go economy of the late 1990s. Whatever the relationship between student test scores and the economy, it’s not a simple one.

There is a conversation to be had about the quality of our higher education system. I think leaving research out of that conversation, as Carey does, is nuts, particularly given that he’s specifically invoked our economic well being. And surely there is a difference between prestige and the quality of undergraduate education. But I don’t think using the PIAAC data is a  responsible way to approach the question, and I think Carey has failed to address the central problem of comparing like with like in educational data. I worry that he began from a particular conclusion and looked around for evidence to reach it.

Posted in Education | 4 Comments

quote for the day

“There’s a whorish desperation to even the very few halfway-decent writers today. You either write about the same tripe everybody else writes about—Game of Thrones, Hillary Clinton, Silicon Valley, whatever new subculture is offended by its lack of persecution, a sports star, a wealthy rapper, the Tea Party, the new iPhone—or you make a stunt out of not doing that specific thing: Dark Matters: A Gamer Woman’s Journey Through a Year Without Using Light Bulbs In a Very Dark House, etc. The paucity of aesthetic morality throughout global civilization dulls the wits of even the sharpest satirists at The Baffler and The Onion.”

- Ken Layne. Yowza.

Posted in Prose Style and Substance | 3 Comments

people, not instruments

Here is a response from Karl Steel. Please take a moment and read it. I am only asking to be judged for what I actually believe and what I’ve actually said, and I have never said, suggested, or implied that race and gender are not wholly unique sites of oppression, or that solving those oppressions belongs anywhere below our highest priorities. I merely said that I don’t believe left-wing discourse, as currently constituted, ignores race and gender issues. Don’t confuse my claims about attention with claims about efficacy. Saying that there is a lot of attention focused on race and gender is a wholly different claim than saying that we’ve got them covered. Indeed: it’s precisely that tendency to mistake intention for effect that muddies these discussions.

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 spend so much time now articulating what I don’t believe and haven’t said that I have no time to articulate what I do believe and intended to say. Each of us is the sole determiner of what we believe. For the love of god, please stop trying to find convoluted ways to accuse others of saying things that are plainly wrong or offensive rather than rebutting what you find wrong about what they actually think. We can’t win that way. We can’t.

mural100401b003_lg

Above is a mural by Marela Zacarias, the gifted left-wing muralist. In the early to mid 2000s, Marela was a close comrade and friend of mine in the anti-war movement. Like many people I knew in my daily activism days, I’ve lost touch with her. And as with many of them I wish I hadn’t. I mention Marela because, while I have no right to define her politics for her now, not being in touch with her, at the time she was a Marxist. Not just a Marxist, but a far more educated and orthodox Marxist than I ever have been. In that, she was just one of many, many women and people of color who have taught me about socialism, communism, and Marxism. And yet I find people like Marela are written out of existence every day by those who suggest — as there are many who do — that socialist, communism, and Marxism are only the province of white men.

This is ugly for several reasons. The first is that it plays into a very disturbing trend I’ve noticed of white liberals and leftists essentializing and instrumentalizing people of color as a kind of rhetorical tool. So, so many political arguments on the left today devolve into white people attempting to assert who is a closer friend to people of color. I don’t think that this can possibly be a means to  achieve racial justice. Instrumentalizing human beings is ugly business. And in the zeal to assert that one is in closer solidarity with people of color very often prompts people to draw a narrowing vision of what people of color can be. At my old blog, I often fought with my commenters about the phenomenon of black conservatives. When they would instrumentalize blackness and talk about a default black political identity, I would point to black conservatives and ask why they didn’t count. And while the people arguing with me were too politic to come right out and say so, it was clear that what the ultimately thought was that black conservatives weren’t “really black.” In that way, a supposed stance of anti-racism became a way in which white people defined black political identity. That’s just a terrible way to behave.

Second, I think it just does a kind of intellectual and spiritual violence to people to deny that they exist for short-term political expediency. I have known hundreds (hundreds) of post- or anti-capitalists in my life who were people of color, women, transgender, or gender queer. I have known dozens of women of color who were Marxian or Marxist. I have known Indonesian socialists, Nigerian communists, and Peruvian Maoists. I have known people raised in inner city America who can cite chapter and verse from the Manifesto. None of this should be a surprise to anyone, not in the world of Che Guevara, Mao, and Alexandra Kollontai. Nobody who understands the history of radical black nationalism, South American independence movements, African anti-colonialism, or Southeast Asian history should make these mistakes.

None of which means you have to be any flavor of socialist or Marxist, and none of which means you have to believe that socialism or Marxism are best, or best for women or people of color specifically. Just argue what you think is best, for whatever groups and identities you think you have a responsibility to advocate for. But argue honestly, and if you’re white, give up on the temptation to treat people of color as a rhetorical bludgeon.

Now please stay tuned for a multi-part series from somebody or other, “deBoer declares white people most important, says socialism no place for people of color.”

Posted in Rhetoric | 20 Comments

it’s hard to have self-awareness, especially about yourself

Timothy B. Lee, going after Jill Lepore’s wonderful takedown of the cult of disruptive innovation:

One of the big problems with the theory of disruptive innovation is that its originator, Clay Christensen, faced a conflict of interest that we might call the “Innovator’s Dilemma” Dilemma. In the introduction to his 1997 book, Christensen wrote that “colleagues who have read my academic papers reporting the findings recounted in chapters 1 through 4 were struck by their near-fatalism.” Over and over again, the book described how businesses tried and failed to cope with the problem of disruptive innovation

Yet as a business professor at Harvard, Christensen’s job is to provide business advice to (and train future leaders of) large, incumbent businesses. Telling your clients that they’re doomed is bad for business. So Christensen has faced a strong temptation to soft-pedal his own theory.

As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Ah, but here’s Lee later in that article:

In contrast, web-native organizations like BuzzFeed and Vox Media don’t face this kind of dilemma. As web-only publications, we earn 100 percent of our revenue from our website and so are completely focused on doing a style of journalism that works well on the web. That doesn’t mean compromising our editorial integrity — we’re just as willing to trash our advertisers and owners, when doing so is merited, as our newspaper competitors. But it does mean that we’re comfortable experimenting with lists, cardstacks, colorful headlines and other innovations that help our work stand out on the web. And it means that we’ve erected the wall between editorial and advertising in a more sensible place, allowing close collaboration among writers, designers, and technologists.

In other words, Christensen’s protective attitude towards his own financial best interests make it difficult or impossible for him to be an unbiased observer, but for Lee, well…. Only human! I would be no different, I think. It just seems to me that, if the theory of disruption is sound, it’s likely that it would threaten those who assume they are immune to it most of all.

I also continue to wonder if online publishing is going to come up with some sort of broad response to ad block. Because that stuff is an existential threat.

Posted in Tech Stuff | 15 Comments

some stats stuff

1. Statistical error is inevitable and necessary. Error, in its generic usage, pretty much always means that something has gone wrong. But statistical error refers instead to the natural variation in a distribution and the consequences of that variation. If I take a sample of some quantifiable variable, like height, and I find an average or other measure, there is always going to be some difference between the average we calculate from the sample and the true average of the population.(If we use inferential statistics to try and predict a particular measure, the difference between that prediction and an observation is called a residual.) Error is OK! If we have an adequate sample size, an appropriate and genuinely random sampling mechanism, and we use appropriate calculations of variance and error, we can often reach responsible quantitative conclusions that we can express with great confidence. Not always! But often.

2. Bias is neither. When people hear “error,” what they often think naturally of is bias. Bias refers to systematic problems of data collection or sampling that cause discrepancies in descriptive and inferential statistics that cannot be accounted for with measurements of error or variance. If I decide to measure the average height of Purdue students, but I only sample from players on the basketball team, that’s bias. And bias is a big problem.

3. Not everything is normally distributed, but averages (almost) always are. The normal distribution — the bell curve — is at once fundamental to statistics and not always easy to grasp. I can’t do a good job of explaining it all here. I do want to say, though, that there is a kind of misunderstanding about the normal distribution that’s easy to fall into. Lots of times people ask why things have to be normally distributed– why would nature require things to be distributed that way? But the normal distribution is less a product of nature and more a product of our conceptions of big or small and average. First, some things aren’t normally distributed. If you sampled how much people had gotten paid out in car insurance reimbursements in the last year, for example, you’d likely find that the biggest number would be at zero, then a gap for common deductible sizes, then clumps of payments past those cutoffs.

But many, many things are normally distributed, and generally, the more variables contribute to a given quantitative result, the more likely the distribution is to be normal. Think about it this way. Think of the times you’ve seen someone walking down the street who was unusually tall or unusually short. What makes that height unusual? Why did you take notice? Because extremes are rare. If height was evenly distributed across the spectrum, you’d be no more surprised to see a 7 foot tall person than you would be to see a 5’8 person. What the normal distribution says is that, for normally distributed variables, you’re going to find very few at the extremes and a large clump near the average, and further that there is a certain portion of the distribution within defined spaces around that average. (Defined, that is, by the standard deviation.)

Why would height be normally distributed? Well, think of all the various factors that contribute to height: several different genes, nutrition, childhood health, random chance. The odds of all of them breaking in the direction of being short or tell are very low. Suppose for the sake of example that 10 genes contribute to height. (Totally making that number up.) If there’s a 50/50 chance that any one gene is expressed in the shorter or taller way, we could easily calculate the odds that all 10 ended up being short or tall, and those odds would be quite low. Instead, most people would expect some short, some tall, and wind up near the middle. That doesn’t make very short or tall people impossible. With billions of repetitions, you get extremes. That’s how we get Yao Ming. But Yao is what we call a “three sigma” outlier– that is, he’s three standard deviations or more away from the average. That means he’s way rarer than one in a hundred. 

Even things that are not normally distributed themselves, however, have normally distributed averages. Meaning that if I took a sample of 100 Americans and measured them on a non-normally distributed variable, they wouldn’t be normally distributed themselves. But if I took another 100 Americans and measured them and noted the average, and then another hundred and another hundred, then laid them out on a distribution, the averages would be normally distributed themselves. Think about what an average does: it pulls in the extremes. So you get a clumping effect that makes averages fall into a bell curve even when underlying distributions don’t. That ends up being hugely important for inferential statistics like regression.

4. Averages often need standard deviations to be understood. We use averages all the time by themselves, and they can be useful and necessary. But frequently, we need to combine them with measures of spread to really understand them. An average (arithmetic mean) is a measure of central location. That means we’re using a distribution and trying to represent it as a single data point. That can be potentially very misleading. Suppose you own a restaurant and you want to do a customer satisfaction survey. You use a scale from 0-10. What if the average is 5? What should you do? Well, it depends. If everybody is grading your restaurant around a 5, you know you’ve got a consistently mediocre establishment, and you’ll want to improve in a certain way. But if the votes are all clustered around the extremes of the spectrum, with lots of 0s and 10s, you’ll also get an average near 5. But how you interpret that result would be completely different. You might have a great night waitstaff but a terrible day staff, or you might be getting bad produce and meat on a certain day of the week. The average can’t help you by itself.

The standard deviation, a measure of spread, can help make the average more meaningful. The standard deviation is a measurement of the variance that’s calculated in such a way so that deviations on either side of the average don’t cancel each other out — so that a high and low difference from the average don’t combine to show up as zero difference — and so that it can be easily compared to the mean. So in the above example, the first situation might have a standard deviation of 1. You would know, in other words, that about 68% of the survey respondents rated the restaurant between 4-6. On the other hand, the second situation’s standard deviation would be closer to 5, telling you that the average couldn’t really be trusted.

5. The proportional relationship between a sample and its population is irrelevant to standard error. This one is a mind-bender, but it’s true. Given a reasonable definition of a sample, and given that the sample is really random, a sample size of 100 is of the same accuracy no matter if the population is 100,000 or 100,000,000. The calculations of standard error are exactly the same. A 100 person sample is just as accurate a predictor of the total population of Fargo, the total population of North Dakota, the total population of the United States, and the total population of the world. (Again, provided that sample is a truly random sample from each of those populations.)

That’s not true if your sample is a significant percentage of the total population, but then that’s not a real sample, and in most cases, you could never get a sample that’s a significant percentage of the population of interest anyway.

6. The value of adding more observations to your sample diminishes exponentially. In the formula for calculating a standard error (which is what gets you those polling margins of error you see every election season), the is placed under a square root sign, which means that the power of adding more observations to reduce error decreases exponentially. For this reason, your first 100 observations give you about as much positive effect on your margins of error as the next 900. This is part of the reason you rarely see giant sample sizes in human subject research; the value to your accuracy is just too low compared to work and cost.

Posted in The Discipline | 9 Comments