teachers, not entertainers

One of the things that I have valued most about my graduate education has been the level of attention my programs and instructors have brought to my own teaching. At both my MA institution and at the doctoral level, I’ve been part of programs and departments that take graduate teaching of undergraduates very seriously, and that have invested real resources in teaching graduate students like me to be better teachers ourselves. I can’t speak rigorously about other programs, but the professors and departments I’m familiar with have always treated graduate teaching as matters of great personal and professional responsibility, contrary to the stereotype about uninterested faculty.

Part of this training is participation in mentor groups with other graduate TAs, where we discuss syllabuses and assignments, share successes and failures, and generally support each other in the work of teaching. It’s been a great help to me not only as an instructor but as a researcher, too. Almost all of my peers in these groups have been very enthusiastic and dedicated, and I’ve had the pleasure of observing the classes of other TAs a half dozen times, always coming away impressed. One aspect of this teacher training that always worries me, though, is the common notion among graduate instructors that their pedagogy has to be entertaining. Often, my peers have expressed great anxiety that their students aren’t sufficiently entertained, and have spoken as if a lack of entertainment value is in and of itself reason to change a lesson plan. I get it; it’s hard not to want to entertain people you’re teaching, in any situation, and given that part of the graduate experience is the tacit, mutual understanding that the undergrads you teach have more power in the institution than you do, it’s an understandable desire. But I find it disturbing, because learning is not principally or even majorly a matter of being entertained, and there are many things that you have to understand in life that aren’t fun to learn.

Of course, I would also be disturbed if I thought that my teaching was never entertaining, and I work hard to make my pedagogy engaging and interesting. But those have to be orthogonal to the essential question of whether I think my teaching is effective.

At its worst, the notion that teaching always has to be entertaining is of a piece with the broader sense in which education has become yet another service industry, where students are actually customers, teachers are servants, and the only ultimate goal is to leave the customer satisfied– which is totally contrary to the historical and philosophical purpose of teaching, which is to help others improve themselves, most certainly including in areas they don’t particularly have interest in. You give up that commitment and you should simply stop educating.

This is not a “kids these days” type of argument. To whatever degree they feel entitled to be entertained all the time, it’s a product of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making. I have far more blame for capitalism, neoliberalism, college administrators, and parents than I do the students. But at the heart of it, there’s the necessary defense of learning as a kind of work, a kind of intellectual work that can and should be entertaining at times but will also involve a lot of thankless grinds and drudgery. That’s life.

I mention this after reading this post by Alan Jacobs, reacting to this unfortunate piece by Robert Talbert on laptops in the classroom. As Alan alludes, the idea that good teaching is always necessarily going to be more entertaining than whatever is on a student’s laptop seems, well, nuts. It would be great if that were true, but the world isn’t laid out that way. Trust me, often when I’m teaching, say, techniques for producing voiced interdental fricatives, I’d rather be shooting zombies on my computer. But there’s necessary work to be done. I’m reminded again of a friend who’s a mathematician who has told me that academic mathematics tends to be taught in a very traditional, analog way, with tons of old-fashioned professor talking at the whiteboard-style pedagogy. Because when it comes to that purest of the pure sciences, there’s a no-bullshit need to grasp the concepts, and the concepts are complex and not easily reducible, and you either sink or swim. Maybe it would be better if it weren’t that way, but it is that way. So that’s how they tend to do it.

This is what I was getting at with my post about difficult reading: not everything necessary or good in life is easy, and though everything in your culture militates against it, you are likely to find yourself a more fulfilled person if you are willing to forgo  convenience and entertainment for rigor and work. Sometimes!

Posted in Education | 9 Comments

Peter Beinart, still shameless after all these years

Since a new sexy war on Iraq is now being discussed, with “liberal interventionists” like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Samantha Power finally going ahead and collapsing any distinction between themselves and neoconservatism, the old war on Iraq has come up again. There have been, of course, several half-hearted spasms of apologetics from those liberal supporters of the war who, finally shamed by the rivers of blood, had no choice but to admit they were wrong. With some notable exceptions, those apologies were half-apologies, or non-apologies, or exercises in self-aggrandizement, or ways to continue to grind the axe against us left-wing critics of the war who were “right for the wrong reasons,” or similar. But these conversations, at least, were opportunities to talk about American destruction, and the limits of our good intentions, and our habitual collective punishment of the poor and the brown.

Much less discussed is the rhetorical environment in which the last Iraq debate happened, or failed to happen. And that, I can tell you from personal experience, was poisonous, and not just because of conservatives. Liberal hawks worked tirelessly to slander and degrade those of us on the socialist left who were against the war and who were absolutely, unquestionably, unambiguously correct to be. We were worse than wrong, we were naive, objectively pro-Saddam, anti-democracy, complicit in the oppression of the Iraqi people, indifferent before torture and executions, thoroughly anti-American, a fifth column. And the general attitude, from these liberal hawks, was that we were better written out of the conversation altogether than rebutted.

Nobody better exemplified the liberal purge mentality than Peter Beinart, who symbolically cast us out into the wilderness, invoking the Democratic party of 1948– that is, the proto-McCarthyites who redbaited socialists and their sympathizers out of the Democratic party, similar to the way Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats attacked the Socialist Party of America for opposing our entrance into World War I. In a 2006 dialogue with Beinart, Michael Tomasky demonstrated handily that a purge was just what Beinart had been advocating, and what everyone who read him understood him to be asking for, against Beinart’s limp objections. I read Beinart’s piece at the time — “A Fighting Faith,” he called it, which of course meant that he had faith that other people should be doing the fighting — as I read every liberal hawk in Slate and The New Republic and The New York Times and The New Yorker going to war against a left wing that knew America, and the world, far better than they did. And none of us on the anti-war left were under any illusions about what he or they meant.

Today, I read Peter Beinart arguing that we must be open and accommodating  to those Iraq War II hawks, when we talk about Iraq War III. You know. In the spirit of openness and fairness. Because that’s the right thing to do, to engage. To keep the dialogue open to a number of diverse viewpoints. To speak across ideological boundaries as friends. To listen.

Whenever I think it is no longer possible for the shamelessness, self-assurance, and moral cowardice of our national newsmedia to shock me, I am proven wrong.

The headline of that section of the Tomasky-Beinart dialogue is “Punditry Has Consequences.” Which of course is wrong, totally wrong, laughably wrong. We’re seeing how wrong it is today. If you are in favor of war, you will dine in the halls of power forever. If you grease the wheels for warmongers who have been wrong again and again and again, the Atlantic will let you set the table and cook the meal. If you are Peter Beinart, who tried his hardest to exile the people who were most right from the ranks of the respectable, who thought we should all be pushed out of the national conversation, to be purged from his sophisticated debate about who should die and when and why, and who watched as everything we said came true, you can turn around and ask for equanimity for those who were wrong again and again and again, without self-knowledge, without guilt, and without shame. That kind of clueless certitude is more powerful than a cluster bomb.

Hey. Peter. Maybe after you told everybody we shouldn’t get to talk last time, you don’t get to fucking say who gets to talk this time.

Posted in Rhetoric | 10 Comments

love and hate (but mostly hate)

It’s hard for me to think of a piece that I’ve agreed with more vigorously, this year, than this piece by Andrew Sharp on how annoying both Lebron James haters and Lebron James defenders are. And for more than just his take on the Heat and Lebron, but for how this dynamic plays out in so much of our culture. Here’s Sharp being… sharp:

That’s what happens with LeBron. I do it, too. We all take on this smug, sarcastic tone in LeBron discussions, because anyone criticizing him as a player is obviously wrong, and thanks to Facebook comments and Twitter mentions, it’s easy to find examples to make the backlash seem a lot more serious than it is.

It’s turned into this weird inversion of the outrage cycle, where there are more people outraged at haters than there actually are real, intelligent people who think LeBron sucks. We talk about how wrong the LeBron critics are, but I don’t know if LeBron’s had a real, credible critic in 24 months. (Skip [Bayless] is in his own category. That is performance art.)

The idiots are bad, but the smart people who take them seriously might be even more unbearable. This happens on Twitter constantly, and it trickles down to how we all view LeBron.

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t criticize LeBron for anything. You can’t say that LeBron’s cramps were obviously bad enough for him to leave the game, but, man, he sure was dramatic about the whole thing. You’re obviously ignoring everything he’s done to make his team great, and you’re part of the problem, and why does everyone hate LeBron so much, don’t people realize he’s never gotten a fair shake?

Personally, I recognize that James is a transcendent talent and a great player in every sense. I also personally have a hard time enjoying his game, in part because he’s just so good; he’s like a remorseless basketball death robot. My failure to find much joy in his game isn’t the same as not appreciating his game, or in doubting his greatness. I also don’t root for him, because I’m not a fan of his or his team. And what Lebron’s defenders have consistently failed to respect is the natural right for sports fans to like and dislike which players and teams they want to. Yes, there’s a lot of over-the-top, stupid, fundamentally incorrect criticism of Lebron, Chris Bosh, and the Heat. But if you’re getting on Spurs fans for making fun of Lebron for getting cramps, you’re getting on fans for being fans. Fans make fun of the other team’s guys! That’s how it works! And in general, sports fans don’t root for perceived favorites. Neutral fans pull for the underdog. If you’re complaining about that, you’re misunderstanding human nature.

And James has a lot of unforced errors. It’s not just the Decision or the petulant post-2011 Finals press conference that Sharp mentions. It’s saying that he could win the scoring title every year if he chose, which in a league with Kevin Durant, I’m not at all sure is true. It’s complaining about how he was robbed for Defensive Player of the Year in the 2012-2013 season by Marc Gasol. It’s degrading a Bulls ball boy for no reason other than that he could. It’s constantly complaining about his legacy, about how he doesn’t get enough respect, about how people should love him more. The thing is that even when his complaints are correct, it doesn’t nothing to help him publicly. It just makes people like him less. And it’s remarkable that, after 10 years in the league, he apparently still doesn’t have people in his camp to pull him aside and tell him that it’s not helping. Which, again, doesn’t discount what kind of basketball player Lebron James is and what he’s accomplished. I think it’s premature to call him one of the five best players already, but if you want to make the case that he’s already top ten, I wouldn’t argue too hard.

But Sharp is also right to say that this is part of a bigger phenomenon, which is what I was trying to get at with my post about Deadspin the other day. And it’s the way in which liking things seems to have become totally indivisible from disliking people who like other things. Everything that we like, it seems, has to function as a means through which we distinguish ourselves from other people– tackier, less interesting, more annoying people. Maybe it’s a matter of sneering down at rubes, maybe it’s a matter of raging up at pointy-headed elites, maybe it’s just Yooks vs. Zooks, but sharing what we like now seems less important than sharing who we don’t like. It’s depressing and exhausting.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Rhetoric | 4 Comments

in order to read, start reading

That post title might sound snotty, but I assure you that I mean it in just the opposite sense. I’m inspired by Corey Robin’s piece about riding the subway in order to find the time and space to read books, inspired by this essay by Tim Parks about how hard it is to read books these days. Both are well worth your time.

Corey says plainly that it’s the internet that has made reading harder for him, and I admire and value his forthrightness. That is the kind of claim we’re mostly supposed to be too cool to make. The internet has an immune system, a tendency to produce pushback and resistance to arguments not just about the drawbacks and downsides of endless internet connectivity, but to the very notion of moderation in our use. There is something about the habitual aspects of the internet, the “more, now, again” aspects, that couple with the vague sense of embarrassment we feel about constant internet use to produce a default posture of insecurity and defensiveness about these behaviors. People somehow feel judged about taking part in behaviors that are immensely popular and common and which have the blessings of the entirety of our capitalist system. For every essay by Nick Carr or Evgeny Morozov, there are a dozen that refute, rebut, and denigrate such concerns. But I think that Corey and others are right to say that many of us have lost the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time, to not constantly buzz between different tabs and devices and apps, constantly. I think it is hard to sit and read just one thing, and I think that is a shame, because there are types of pleasure (yes, pleasure) and growth that can only come with that kind of concentration.

But the good news is that you can get it back, and it’ll be easier than you think. Start  reading, and then be mindful of how often you’re distracted, how often you feel the need to whip out your phone, and how often you succumb to it. Keep track, and resolve to give in a little bit less. You don’t have to achieve unconditional victory. Learn to delay. Push it off a little bit more. Set a goal for yourself: I can only check my phone if I get through these next three pages. From this time until this time, I read words off of a page and do nothing else. Is it a little sad for a lifelong bookworm like me to have to set these sort of goals, to bribe myself, to need rules to keep reading? Sure, in a sense. But I keep reading, and you can, too. A good way to start the habit is just to find something compulsively readable, even if its readable in a way that sacrifices the depth that we often turn to books for. Michael Crichton works wonderfully for me in that sense, but whatever it takes. Young adult books can be great for this purpose. Whatever keeps you turning the page. And then you gather momentum and it gets a little bit easier and a little bit easier…. But there are individual moments where you’ll feel weak, and then you just have to decide: I’m making my mind up to do this.

My recommendation to anyone, but particularly to anyone who wants to restart their habit of regular reading of book-length work, is a project book.

Now already I know that some people will blanch; “project” sounds like work, and a lot of people endorse Alan Jacobs’s sensible advice to read at whim. Well, yes: what I’m advocating is a kind of work. But it’s a kind of work that’s designed to create pleasure, to be enjoyed eventually if not immediately. A project book is a book that you choose that, by its nature, cannot be read both quickly and deeply. It’s a book that intimidates you on purpose.  And given that Alan wrote a whole book about the importance and fun of reading books at a time when it’s hard to concentrate, I think he understands just what I mean.

The absolute key with a project book is that, to whatever degree possible, you have to turn off the part of your mind that cares about getting finished quickly. A project book is one that you want to take a long time with, often one that necessitates taking a long time with. And though so many of your instincts are going to militate against it, you should stretch out into that time. Get comfortable. Think of your project book as a long-term sublease, a place that you know you won’t live in forever but one that you also know has to come to feel like home. You want to take months, reading little chunks at a time. It might offend your bookworm nature, but I find it’s useful to make a regular appointment– for this hour, twice a week, I will read this book and ancillary materials about it. Think of it like appointment television, if that suits you. Learn to enjoy the feeling of not being in complete control over what you mentally consume all the time, a feeling that has become rarer and rarer.

A couple of examples of project books of my own include Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter on the nonfiction side and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco on the fiction side. Each is dense, occasionally deeply frustrating, and immensely rewarding, if you take the time and allow yourself to linger and work. Both have many parts that might inspire you to skim or skip — Hofstadter, the many algorithmic processes that he tells you to puzzle out and play with yourself; Eco, the long historical and theological digressions that go into great depth about obscure controversies of Christian doctrine and the definition of heresies. The very most important rule for these project books is that you don’t give in to your feeling that you should skim or skip. My brain says, Hofstadter will explain the meaning of the algorithm in a moment, so I don’t have to puzzle it out myself. My brain says, my interest in Eco’s book is really the murder mystery, I’m not so interested in the theology. But I shut those thoughts down, and I’m glad I do. I will never get the deeper understanding of what Hofstadter means if I don’t slowly puzzle my way through. The mystery of The Name of the Rose is inextricable from its dense history, and Eco’s intent is for the book to resemble, in the reading, the maze that is the beating heart of its narrative. Now, when I pick that book up, it’s as comfortable as an old shoe, and I know the work was worth it.

There’s lots of books that could be your project books, and only you can decide which qualifies. Any book that you’ve always wanted to tackle, but have been intimidated by, should be a potential contender. Reading the entirety of the Torah or the Christian New Testament, along with one of the many guides and concordances out there, would be an obvious choice. My brother has been reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a five volume edition (four main volumes and one volume of notes), averaging about a volume a year. Awhile back, many people approached David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a project. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century would make sense. Like I said, there are many possibilities. Just make sure it’s a book that you want to read, in some sense. It’s okay if a project book is punishing, but it’s not okay if its punitive. It’s work but not a chore.

The best advice for reading a project book, in my opinion, is actually advice for writing a book. Online you’ll find a ton of advice on how to finally write that book. The best of it can be applied to reading a project book. For instance: a little each day. Just as you shouldn’t set yourself a goal of writing five pages every time you sit down to write, you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew with your project book. Indeed, it’s as important to set a maximum number of pages as it is to set a minimum. Another piece of advice: all writing is rewriting. Well, often, the best reading is rereading. With GEB, I end up rereading a tremendous amount of the text. I have to, in order to really grok what Hofstadter is talking about in a deep sense. That could potentially be discouraging, if I were to keep the long-term goal of finishing in mind, so again, the essential move is to quiet that part of my brain. It takes practice, but it can be done, by anyone.

If you’re a big time reader, you’ll likely have other books that you read more quickly going while you slowly make your way through your project book. I will usually read another five or six books in the time it takes me to read a project book. Again, that’s fine: it exists in a different mental space than my other reading. Also, it’s OK if you stop for awhile! What happens a lot with these big books is that people stop, then feel guilty, then feel like they’ve gone too long without reading to pick it up again. But why would that stop you? If it’s been six days or six months since you last picked it up, you can still go back to it. Go back and reread as needed. It’s not like exercise, where you’re doubly discouraged by the loss of the progress that you had already made. Just dive back in and don’t feel guilty.

Some people will hate on all of this. “You’re doing it wrong” is the internet’s truest, most genuine expression of itself.  For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world. While reading Corey’s piece, I can hear the chattering keys of someone writing a think piece, “Well actually….” I don’t know why we’ve contracted this affliction but I hate it. I hate the urge people feel to deny the legitimacy of other people’s behaviors because they dislike the implied judgment of their own. Anyone who doesn’t want to read shouldn’t. But the notion that any act of serious reading is inherently done for show, to appear smart, is destructive and contrary to human satisfaction. My brother is sometimes loathe to admit that he’s reading Gibbon, because so many people will assume that he’s doing it for show, that he’s a hipster. (The most semantically empty term in the history of human language.) Forget all that noise and read what you want. Going through life restricting what you read because you’re afraid what others will assume about your intentions is– well, it’s almost as bad as going through life, making assumptions and judgments about why other people are reading what they’re reading.

“Pleasure” is a powerful word, and sadly, one that is very often employed in a question-begging way. There are many different kinds of pleasure. Not all book reading is for pleasure; there are many things I’ve read that I had to grit my teeth through, but I’m glad I did, because I became a smarter person in doing so. But I also want to advocate for the kind of pleasure that, sometimes, also asks you to grit your teeth. If we have to justify these less popular pleasures to those that are more celebrated in our current time, then think about a difficult video game you played as a kid. You may have played the same levels  endlessly, repeating the same movements again and again, getting better only incrementally and with great effort. You may have thrown aside your controller and said to yourself, “why is this fun, exactly?” But the payoff of finishing was worth it. And game designers in the indy scene have begun to make that kind of game again, because they remember and miss that kind of pleasure.

Books can be that kind of pleasure too. Some are faster, more directly and easily pleasurable, and I wish that everyone in the world could enjoy the feeling of reading voraciously, of not being able to put a book down. But if that kind of pleasure isn’t coming, you can scratch out another kind, too. Both riding a roller coaster and climbing a mountain can satisfy. The beauty of it is that all of it is for you. So much of what we do now, we do out loud, we do publicly. Reading is one of our last, best private activities, and I think that reading books is a deep and enriching pleasure that many more people could take advantage of and enjoy. Do it for yourself and for no other reason.

Posted in Literature, Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 36 Comments

respect and prestige

Adam Ozimek dings me, fairly, for being insufficiently rigorous in how I talk about cultural respect for teachers. So: I will cop to speaking too loosely about respect and satisfaction when it comes to this topic. Adam is right to get on me about this stuff, and I resolve to do better in the future. His methodological point is perfectly fair.

But I do not agree with his substantive conclusions!

While I take seriously the research Ozimek quotes about teacher job satisfaction, despite its methodological qualifiers, I’m afraid I don’t take public polling about respect for teachers seriously. Indeed: asking people how much they respect something in a poll is a pretty perfect example to choose if you’re thinking about the problems with self-reported data. In the abstract, when faced with a poll question, who is likely to say “I don’t respect teachers”? It’s like asking “are you a racist?” on a poll and expecting an answer that tells you something meaningful about the state of American race relations. What matters, in terms of popular respect, is exactly the distance between people’s professed respect for a job or set of workers in the abstract and how highly they respect that profession or those workers in their day-to-day lives. I get that this means that it’s very hard to investigate what respect is, empirically, and I don’t mean to foreclose the possibility of evaluating respect. But I just have a hard time believing that asking people whether they respect teaching will result in self-aware, honest answers. The notion that people should respect teachers is pervasive, and in that I’ll concede to Ozimek. But that also warps the findings of these types of polls.

Besides, if we’re talking about a talent shortage in the way typical of reform rhetoric, then we’re necessarily talking about elite perceptions of the field. Ozimek has repeatedly denied to me that the Ivy League striver types that are at the pinnacle of American aspirational culture have a low view of teaching as a profession. But we can let the people within those institutions speak for themselves. Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan — who, I presume, Ozimek would recognize as knowledgeable on this topic– says that only a minuscule percentage of Harvard students study education, despite the fact that almost 20% of Harvard students apply for Teach for America. And Walter Isaacson, who as president of the Aspen Institute has plenty of exposure to both educational research and elite culture, is quoted as saying there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.” That’s reflected in institutional behavior: Cornell has stopped providing undergraduate teacher training. That actual institutional behavior tells us far more about what elites think of teaching than polling could.

In 2009, Ezra Klein quoted Sarah Fine, an Ivy League graduate who went into teaching and noted a broad lack of respect from  her peers:

One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: “When I tell people I want to do it, they’re like, ‘Really? You really still want to do that?’ ” Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. “I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them,” she says. “In the world we live in, teaching doesn’t cut it.”

If teachers themselves and people considering teaching perceive a lack of respect, that is a problem for solving a talent shortage even if polls say that people respect teaching.

The Teach for America phenomenon — and I consider TFA a mess, ethically and politically — is indicative of the broader elite attitude towards teaching: something that you do briefly as a matter of charity or obligation, but only for a little while. Sure, they’ll go to a failing Mississippi school district to teach for a couple years, but then it’s off to be a programmer or advertising “creative” or whatever other high-status position they are destined to do for real. (By the way: Massachusetts schools, powerful unions and strong tenure protections and great metrics; Mississippi schools, far less unionization and weaker job security and terrible metrics. Once again, the impact of demographic factors outweighing institutional  and policy differences.)

None of this is really a problem for me, as I don’t think our problem is a talent shortage. For reformers, the same question I asked originally still applies: how do you solve a talent shortage without making the profession more appealing, when in fact you’re removing one of the key benefits of that profession? And given the breadth of these topics, we’re talking about replacements in the hundreds of thousands. It’s a question I’m still waiting for a coherent answer to. The notion that we can improve education by getting rid of bad teachers presumes that we’ll be able to replace them with those who are more competent, and in great numbers, in an American political environment where raising taxes to increase teacher pay is untenable. I don’t see how that’s possible. There’s no bullpen, no bench, and I struggle to understand the faith that we can attract and train thousands of new teachers that can actually produce better metrics than the people they’re replacing. Not without paying them more, a sadly foreclosed option in a time of austerity.

Posted in Education | 13 Comments

never apologize for being a casual sports fan

So with the arrival of the World Cup at last, I want to endorse the virtues of liking a sport just as much as you want to and when you want to. I am a classically casual American soccer fan: I watch the major international tournaments like the World Cup, the Euro Cup, the Confed cup, etc. I’m not casual about it during those tournaments; I’ve been reading predictions and analysis of this tournament religiously for weeks, and I have a good grasp of the major players, contending teams, group dramas, and so on. But I don’t follow club soccer; I just find all of the leagues and associations too hard to keep track of, and it’s still too difficult for a guy without cable to consistently watch games.

I’m thrilled for my American soccer fans who do follow league and club play religiously, and I wish them a great Cup. But I feel no shame at all for just following the international teams. (Even while I acknowledge the conventional wisdom that the best club teams play at a higher level even then World Cup football.)

There’s a similar phenomenon with sports fans who only follow the playoffs. Hockey is notorious for having fans who are only interested once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. With baseball, I get excited for the first couple months, then the unbelievably long slog of the season saps my interest and I only get interested again in September. I watch a lot of NBA games, but I definitely get more interested after the All-Star break. In contrast, I watch the NFL religiously throughout the season, and college basketball with nearly the same consistency. I think part of it is simply a matter of fewer games, so each game counts for more both in terms of championships and in emotional terms. But either way: those are my habits and I’m unashamed of them. I’m not doing anybody any favors if I try to force myself to follow sports that I’m not naturally interested in.

I highly recommend it. Like what you like, in sports, and like them just when you want to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Deadspin’s counter-narrative problem

Deadspin is, by my lights, the most important and successful blog in the history of the medium. What blog has been more influential within its sector of the media? What other blog has had a larger impact on the subjects it covers? Even the traditional media types who hate Deadspin the most read it religiously. They have to. That’s success. And it’s a very necessary success because of two enduring realities of the sports media: a) the ubiquity of stupid loudmouths in the ranks of sports reporters and b) the utter dominance of ESPN, which is so powerful and self-involved that you need an insurgent force like Deadspin to counter them with asymmetrical warfare and insoucience. And they’re very good at it.

Lately, though, I’ve been bothered by the tendency of Deadspin’s writers to find whatever appears to be the dominant narrative– which they often refer to explicitly, as The Narrative– and pick the exact opposite side. So if the national narrative is that performance enhancing drugs are a plague on sports, people at Deadspin tend to argue that PEDs aren’t a big deal. If the narrative is that Alex Rodriguez is a huge jerk and cheat, people Deadspin argues that he’s unfairly maligned. If the narrative is that baseball has unwritten rules that are part of the game and have to be honored, then people at Deadspin go on at length about how they’re all bullshit. And since your average fan dislikes the Miami Heat and hates the idea of their adding Carmelo Anthony to an already dominant team, of course, people at Deadspin think it’s a great idea. I wrote a comment that I thought was a very reasonable point about how this might undercut competitive balance, and I was swiftly rebuked by one of their bloggers. (They’re underdogs against ESPN, but in my experience Deadspin is not above big-timing and bullying people themselves.)

The thing is that I very often agree with them, and it’s often refreshing to get these perspectives. They’re right more often than wrong. Lord knows, I’ll take any opportunity to read people opposing Skip Bayless. The problem is that picking up the conventional wisdom and arguing literally the opposite is very rarely a way to really approach a situation critically and usefully. And Deadspin is so (deservedly) influential, their tendency to gravitate to the perfectly opposite opinion of the conventional narrative spreads out into the broader sports media world. I think that’s a mistake, and it leaves people vulnerable to a simplistic contrarianism that doesn’t make us much smarter or better informed.

Meanwhile, the phenomenon of the Heat as a wedge between fans and elites in the media is part of my least favorite aspect of sports today. Once a haven against the social and cultural positioning that seems to be all anybody cares about anymore, sports are now right in the thick of it. Everyone postures and positions themselves on every issue, looking to demonstrate that they’re better than other people who think conventional, populist things. The NBA has become a league for snobs. It’s the FreeDarko effect, where loving basketball is insufficient, and you have to love it in a different way from all the rubes and squares. You have to be evolved or advanced or whatever other conceited synonym. TrueHoop and Grantland are essentially professional rooting sections for the Heat. Glamour market bullies are celebrated and small market fans are dismissed as unimportant. It’s an ugly, class-based dynamic.

This is how we live now: any difference that can be represented as indicative of who and what you are will be. The smallest and least significant consumption differences become matters of incredible importance to your personal definition. And everything about you is always posed in opposition to other people, either the squares and the regular jerks who are beneath you or the snobs and elites who you think are sneering down from above you. Culture war in everything. Culture war in everything.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 14 Comments

Jacobinghazi, tragedy and farce

I don’t know who came up with this, but it’s the truth.

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the broken logic of getting rid of teacher tenure

School reformers have scored, in their view, a major victory in their efforts by winning a key court battle against teacher tenure. (Through the financial power of a Silicon Valley oligarch, naturally.) Unfortunately for the reformers, getting rid of tenure can’t fix schools– especially by their own logic.

Let’s walk through this step by step for clarity’s sake.

One major source of disagreement within educational debates is the size and scope of the problem. Among other things, I would point out that the United States has never been a leader in education or close to it, and that when our deeply econonically unequal student population is normed for economic class, our students perform quite well. But let’s focus on the very bad outcomes at the bottom of our distribution, which almost no one questions. So people like me contend that these problems are related to structural economic and sociological factors within our country. And I particularly argue that the most sensible and empirically supported position is that student-side factors are far more determinative of outcomes than teacher- or school-side factors. Who you are as an individual and who your parents are has far more to do with how you perform in educational metrics than what school you go to or teacher you have. I would argue that most people, even those who prefer ed reform policies in the abstract, assume that fact intuitively as they go about their lives. And we see this is a basic fact about education: individuals can and do move around the distribution, but for the most part, outcomes are fairly static. High kids tend to stay high.  Low kids tend to stay low. Again, I think that this comports with intuitive and lived experience.

School reform types, on the other hand, ascribe very high determinative power to teachers and schools when it comes to student outcomes. They believe that student outcomes are more or less the product of teacher and school inputs. And they believe that our very poor outcomes for the bottom of the distribution are poor because of bad teaching. Further, they believe it’s hard to fix this problem because teacher unions have made it hard to  fire bad teachers. Additionally, there’s the Matt Yglesias-style argument that poor parents lack the economic power to move to school districts with good teachers. I think that gets the causation precisely backwards, but it’s a coherent set of arguments. The solution, these reformers argue, is to give principals and administrators broad latitude to fire teachers, which they will take advantage of, and we will then hire more talented, more dedicated people to fill those roles.

Set aside my disagreements about where educational failure comes from and focus simply on the logic of getting rid of tenure: it’s bizarre that people who think that the problem with teaching is a talent shortage are cheering for a decision that makes teaching a less attractive profession. High school teachers make a median of about $58,000 dollars a year, elementary about $56,000 a year. Salaries top out, for the best paid in the country, at around $85,000. Meanwhile, the median salary for lawyers is about $114,000 a year. Even the lowest paid attorneys make just a little less than the median elementary school teacher. The top performers in the legal world, corporate lawyer types, can easily earn in the millions of dollars a year. And this is all true despite an enormous labor crisis for lawyers in the post-financial crisis world. Surgeons and physicians make close to $200,000 a year, with primary care physicians making close to a quarter of a million dollars a year and specialists making even more. I could go on.

Part of the deal for teachers for years has been accepting lower salary– and, increasingly, little respect, particularly from the media– in exchange for job security. With the demise of tenure, that attraction would be gone. So that’s suppose to get more talented people into the system… how, exactly? I cannot understand that logic. Teacher attrition is sky-high, with best estimates of between 40-50% leaving the profession within five years of starting. That amounts to something like a thousand teachers quitting for every school day of a given year. Anecdotally speaking, most successful, Ivy League striver-types do not consider teaching as a serious option. But why would they, when there’s so many more remunerative, less stressful, less emotionally grueling, and better respected options out there? If your argument is that a profession’s problems stems from a talent deficit, you should be doing everything to make the job more attractive, not less.

Now there’s a standard bit of argumentative kabuki that happens when this point is brought up: people announce that they would be fine with trading  tenure for higher pay, a kind of more money for less job security swap. I have heard that from people all over the ideological and political map. The problem is that we’re not going to get higher pay, not on anything like a system-wide scale. Paying teachers more would require more revenues and that would mean more taxes. What’s more, American public schools are funded primarily through local and state taxes. Does anybody think that we’re going to get broad and coordinated state and local tax increases across the country to pay teachers more? Anybody? We can have a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of a swap, but it’s irrelevant, because we’re not going to get the additional pay part and essentially nobody really thinks we are. That makes this “concession” very frustrating for me. It’s a concession that isn’t. Instead, what we’re likely to get is the demise of tenure and the same bad pay and lack of respect relative to other professions. How does that possibly jibe with an effort to hire a ton of talented and hard-working people into teaching?

And this, really, is the broader problem for ed reform types in general: they are pushing an agenda that requires them to attract and keep talented and dedicated people to teaching as a lifelong profession, and in order to create the kind of national change they want, they have to do so on a vast scale. But their preferences have the effect of making teaching a less desirable position, and more, their constant scapegoating of teachers contributes to a deep, class-ridden perception that teaching is not a profession worthy of admiration or respect. Every time reformers blame teachers for massive social and economic problem, they make the job less appealing to potential educators.

I think ed reformers have badly misidentified the source of poor performance among our poor students. But more, I think the logic of their movement just  doesn’t make sense. I wish that all of these neoliberal reformers would think like neoliberals and consider the cold logic of incentives. And I would ask the big media types to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about why they didn’t go into teaching, and why so few of their elite peers did, either. They might find themselves reconsidering the value of those who go into teaching and stay there.

Posted in Education | 20 Comments

cautionary tales: “from my place of lack” edition

“From my place of lack,”

- Sameer Pandya, “The Spelling Bee: America’s Great Racial Freaks and Geeks Show

No, man. Just no. Great piece, overall. But nothing good can ever come from “From my place of lack.”

Posted in Prose Style and Substance | 1 Comment

did Nir Rosen deserve an expectation of privacy on Twitter?

In 2011, after Laura Logan was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square, the journalist Nir Rosen said some deeply ugly things on his public Twitter feed. He suggested that the attack was somehow a way for Logan to compete with Anderson Cooper, and said that it would be funny if a similar thing happened to Cooper. His tweets swiftly received broad public attention, prompting widespread outcry and his resignation from his position at NYU. I’ve heard little from him since.

I thought Rosen was a good journalist, at the time, and I thought the incident on the whole was a shame. But I wept no tears for Rosen. What he said was despicable, and as a seasoned, adult journalist speaking in a public  forum, he should have known better. Things said in public, on a deliberately, explicitly public forum like a public Twitter feed are subject to public review. If Rosen wanted to express those thoughts privately, he could have set his Twitter feed to private, or contacted people he knew via any manner of private communication. He didn’t. Instead he used a medium that has the deliberate and intrinsic intent of generating publicity and engaging in public dialogue, and because what he  said was so ugly and so deserving of legitimate criticism, he has paid a heavy social price.

We are now once again fighting over whether tweets on public Twitter feeds are public. I would say as I’ve always said: that tweets are public is a “this is true” statement, not a “this should be so” statement. Whether or not we think tweets on a public Twitter feed should be available to public review is irrelevant: they are. Anyone with a web browser can see them, and you naturally and necessarily have an audience of however many people follow you. That’s reality. You cannot expect that a medium can be used for public dissemination of your opinions and your work while simultaneously expecting no one to repeat, link to, share, react to, or criticize what you say on that medium. The very idea is unworkable.

But let’s suppose that we set that aside for a minute and agree that people have an expectation of privacy about what the say on Twitter. Doesn’t it necessarily follow, then, that Nir Rosen was terribly wronged? If that is the standard, surely he has an equal claim to that right to Twitter privacy. So to the people saying that it’s inherently wrong to link to tweets, do you think that Nir Rosen enjoyed that same protection? How can the answer possibly be no, given the arguments that people are making?

I have a funny feeling that the answer will in fact be no, from the self-same people who are insisting that public Twitters are private. Which again gets to fact that there appears to be literally no expectation of consistency in principle when it comes to these fights. Just as the notion that men have an obligation to shut up and listen when women talk about feminist issues only applies when it’s certain  women speaking, the notion that public Twitter feeds are really private only seems to apply to certain people, and to be based on no meaningful principle whatsoever. Which, aside from the poverty of integrity involved, is a surefire way to lose the people who actually have to be convinced in order to make the world a safer place for women.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 58 Comments

what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote

If you repeat “mocked raped threats” or “minimized rape” or whatever on Twitter enough times, people on Twitter will believe it’s true. Because people are dumb. So: you must keep insisting on the truth. Here is what Amber A’Lee Frost  actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

That is the opposite of minimizing rape; that is the opposite of mocking rape threats. It is literally the opposite.

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

You can lie about what she said. You can lie about what she said, Christopher Carbone. You can lie about what she said, Adam Kotsko. You can lie about what she said, Josh Foust. You can all keep lying. What did Amber A’Lee Frost actually write?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

Does the dude from Newsweek who wrote this know that this is what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote? Does Robert Farley know that this is what is being represented as “mocking rape threats”? Why is the actual sentence nowhere to be found in this Twitter storm? Why are people not engaging with the actual sentence she actually wrote? Why are they dissembling and hiding from what she actually had to say, if not because they know that what she wrote does not constitute mocking or minimizing rape threats in any way, shape, or form?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

If you are fighting this battle, insist on dealing in reality. Force people to tell you how, exactly, saying that we should use serious language to discuss a serious topic like rape threats amounts to minimizing that topic. Point out that, in fact, what she wrote is the literal opposite of what she’s accused of writing. Put it to them directly: what does your conversation have to do with what she actually wrote?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

That’s the truth.

Update: Here’s Elizabeth Stoker:

unorthodox views can, especially for women in left academic feminism, result in precisely that form of discipline: withdrawal of community, overwhelming assassination of character, a very sudden onslaught of negative feedback and demands for apology. It strikes me that this method of disciplining members is another symptom of the problem Amber gets at in her article: the community is not so concerned with what is true or false as with who is good and who is bad

Unorthodox views are punished via phenomena like the Twitter storm, and that’s what’s happened to Frost, and Stoker thinks that’s unfortunate. OK? Cool. And here’s how Sarah Kendzior characterizes that:

Last RT is re: Elizabeth Stoker, who said that I had to be “disciplined” through “character assassination”, as I received rape threats

I do not have words. I simply do not have words to describe that.

Update II: Putting comments to bed on this one.

Posted in Uncategorized | 102 Comments

which women deserve the protection of feminism?

Jacobin published an excellent piece by Amber A’Lee Frost. I would love to discuss the piece, because it has a ton to say about empiricism and the left-wing and how we talk about research. But I can’t, because it’s been swallowed by yet another bullshit controversy.

In her piece, originally, the line “And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats” included a link to a tweet by Sarah Kendzior in which Kendzior complained that a “bro” had sent her rape threats. Frost was arguing that, as a jokey diminutive, “bro” is not appropriate when discussing rape threats, because rape threats are so important. In other words, she was saying that rape threats are very, very serious business, which she would know, since as a woman she lives with the ambient threat of sexual violence. Kendzior complained, vociferously, about the link to her tweet. It was swiftly deleted, without argument. But Kendzior, and a growing Twitter mob, pressed on. Their charge: Frost was “mocking rape threats.” I find that, simply, a direct and unambiguous misrepresentation of Frost’s point. Frost was arguing to take rape threats more seriously, not less– the opposite of what she is accused of. You can read Kendzior’s side here. You can read Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig with contrary opinions here. Ultimately you’ll have to adjudicate that argument yourself.

The bigger question this controversy brings up is simple: which women deserve the protection of feminism?

Megan Kilpatrick, an editor at Jacobin, argued as I am that Kendzior has been misrepresenting Frost’s point. Because no woman with an opinion online goes unpunished, Kilpatrick was swiftly, crudely, and constantly attacked. See, because Kilpatrick is a woman, she is required by this style of “leftist” to have certain opinions, and since she violated that expectation, she has been and continues to be attacked, being accused of not caring about sexual violence against women. In these insults, arguments that Kilpatrick is a bad feminist go hand in hand with sexism against her. Take, for example, Sexism-Enabling Defender of Feminism Christopher Carbone, who claims that Kilpatrick is okay with Jacobin “endangering a woman’s life.” (!) Carbone then went on to mock Kilpatrick’s supposed lack of expertise, bragging that he has 14 years of experience as a journalist. In other words, a dude writer belittled a woman educator and writer because he’s such a big deal in big deal journalism, which is about as straightforward an act of mansplaining sexism as I can imagine. Carbone is far, far from alone, among these he-man male feminists mocking, degrading, and condescending to Frost and Kilpatrick. Because feminism.

Stoker pointed out that all this has the effect of forcing women into a box– Frost, and now Kilpatrick, are being told that they are bad feminists or, ludicrously, actually misogynists for failing to fall into immediate line with Kendzior. The message of this Twitter mob is that feminism means women are not free to form their own opinions, not about the right language to discuss rape and rape threats, not about the public nature of public tweets, not about how to honestly criticize others in a productive way. Feminism, to this Twitter mob, means that all women fall in line or are ostracized. As Stoker writes, “unorthodox views can, especially for women in left academic feminism, result in precisely that form of discipline: withdrawal of community, overwhelming assassination of character, a very sudden onslaught of negative feedback and demands for apology.” For pointing this out, of course, Stoker immediately became a target herself. A pro-life Catholic (though still a self-identified leftist), Stoker is an easy target, and they lined up to come after her. Apostasy has to be punished. I think Stoker is terribly wrong about abortion, and I’m no fan at all of the Catholic church. But to see her called a conservative, an anti-feminist, a misogynist… these insults are ridiculous and untrue, and palpably sexist, in their assumption that Stoker has an obligation as a woman to hold any particular point of view at all.

In the name of feminism, then, three women have for days had men lecturing to them about what it means to be a woman who fears sexual violence. I’ll let you marinate on that one for a bit.

So: does Frost not deserve the same protection, under the name of feminism, as Kendzior? Does Kilpatrick not deserve those rights? Does Stoker not deserve those rights? Why do the dictates of feminism not protect them from being lectured to by men?This argument resulted in the typical phenomenon of men telling other men to “shut up and listen” because Kendzior is a woman and is giving her opinion. Why do the women who disagree with Kendzior not receive the same benefit, I wonder? Why are the many men attacking them not themselves compelled to shut up and listen? Because this has nothing to do with feminism, and it has everything to do with teams. It has everything to do with the Great Twitter Outrage Game, which is waged for publicity, for social positioning, for digital strokes. That none of those things contributes one iota to a more just, less sexist, less violent world does not occur to the people involved.

That some women seem to lie outside of the protective sphere of feminism should be clear to anyone whose ever navigated the progressive blogosphere. Megan McArdle is the most glaring example. In liberal Democrat blogs and comments, it has been open season on McArdle for a long, long time. I have argued with Megan about a ton of things, for years, but the way people talk about her in these supposedly feminism-friendly environs turns my stomach. I have always cultivated a combative atmosphere in my comments section, out of the conviction that there is value in real, harsh debate. I allow comments about myself that are, well, not kind. But every time I write about McArdle’s work or she shows up in comments– every single time– I feel compelled to warn commenters that I will ban them if they say sexist stuff to or about her. I have to. I am forced to. There are others. Kathryn Jean Lopez, SE Cupp, Hanna Rosin, Michelle Goldberg, pretty much any woman who has ever written for Reason…. If I wrote out a list of my disagreement with these women, it would take hours to complete. But under the most basic principles of not only feminism but simple, human fair conduct, they deserve to be protected from attacks that border on sexism or step right into sexism, and six years of experience in arguing online tells me that they aren’t.

What this whole incident has revealed is that this is a cross-ideological phenomenon: whether Marxist or conservative or anything in-between, if you are a woman whose opinions do not jibe with those of the self-appointed owners of feminism, you have no right to expect to be shielded from sexism. Feminism no longer applies to you. If you think differently, they’ll sick the pathetic male “allies” like Christopher Carbone to mansplain at you for awhile.

Nothing happened to the benefit of women or to feminism, this weekend. None of this made the world a safer or more just place. Patriarchy was not attacked, in any way. Rather, a small group of vocal people put their own self-interest, and their interest in martyring themselves, ahead of principle and of practical political victory– which is what actually matters, in a world where reactionary power wins simply by doing nothing. And that is indicative of privilege, the privilege enjoyed by people who don’t care that they diminish our capacity to generate outrage when they blithely throw around terms like “the pro-rape left” to describe feminist women, who have so overused the term misogynist that people don’t take it seriously anymore, who have started controversies over such minor or nonexistent slights so many times that potential allies roll their eyes at us and stay away in droves. They have spent the finite capital of outrage and attention with no regard for the cost of that waste. Only the comfortable could care so little about actually winning that they sacrifice real political gain to self-aggrandize. Those who are not privileged require actual results, which means that they care, desperately, about political efficacy, the kind Frost was writing about, the kind we badly need to discuss.

Meanwhile, sexism rolls on, hurting women– Marxist women, conservative women, liberal women, libertarian women. If only the people who think they own feminism cared equally for all of them, and not just for those who tell them what they want to hear.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Rhetoric | 6 Comments

everybody’s a little scared of the Gates Foundation

Last fall, I worked as a research assistant for the late Linda Bergmann. Linda was a brilliant academic and a great mentor; her particular area of of expertise was writing centers, where students of all levels come to work on their writing with expert tutors. I’ve long felt that writing centers are a symbol of what the university can be at its best, with students and teachers collaborating to improve work from a whole variety of departments and disciplines, on texts ranging from freshman compositions to doctoral dissertations, from poetry to resumes. Linda’s work, as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, flowed from Purdue’s Writing Lab and the Purdue OWL, and she was talented and dedicated at all of it.

I worked with Linda on a project that was attempting to port some of these virtues to the digital space. The project is ongoing and involves many researchers, so I won’t discuss it in depth. But at the time I was working on it, I was also diving into the growing media reports of resistance to the Common Core. I was inspired, in part, by the growing perception that the Common Core was being forced from above, without proper vetting or public debate, and in a way that cut the most important stakeholders– parents and teachers– out of the loop. More, I was interested because of the influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on this sweeping, rapid adoption. Doing educational and pedagogical research, talking with ed research in person and online, the Gates Foundation is unavoidable. Their influence is everywhere, and many people worry about what that means for the future of American education.

Then, literally an hour or two after I had been reading up on this type of concern and criticism, Linda mentioned in passing that the money they were paying me was Gates Foundation money. I had been working for the foundation without even knowing it.

I should say from the outset: it is absolutely a good thing that they provide money for that research, and all the other research they fund. As a grad student whose financial situation got a little bit easier thanks to that funding, I’m personally grateful. And while it’s essential to the integrity of any research that there be a firewall between the funders and the researchers themselves, I don’t pretend that organizations that fund research have no legitimate interests in the direction of that research. I’d rather this money be out there in the system than not. But there’s a certain size threshold beyond which that kind of influence can become something pernicious. With its incredible size, and the swiftly declining research support of governments in an age of austerity, my fear is that the Gates Foundation long since crossed that threshold.

I bring this all up because of this great piece of reporting by The Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Laton, on the way in which the Gates Foundation was able, with disturbing ease, to implement the Common Core throughout much of the country. I encourage you to read it in full. There’s two points I want to stress. First, that the evidence to support the claim that the Common Core will result in learning gains is thin on the ground. As the WaPo story reads,

Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor who is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Common Core was “built on a shaky theory.” He said he has found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement.

“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.

This is in keeping with a much broader divide between the rhetoric of education reform and the results of ed reform programs. So many of the boilerplate policy preferences of the ed reform movement, from charter schools to eliminating teacher unions to merit pay, have seen inconclusive or negative research results, and yet that never seems to pierce the elite conversation. Layton:

Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, says the Gates Foundation’s overall dominance in education policy has subtly muffled dissent.

“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” Greene said.

That problem would not be nearly as acute if not for the size and power of the Gates Foundation. And this is point number two: above a certain size, funders like the Gates Foundation become a problem even if they have all the best intentions. I don’t doubt for a second that Bill and Melinda Gates personally, and most of the people who work for the Foundation, have all the best intentions in what they do. But then, the history of the ed reform movement is a history of the failure of good intentions.

There’s a palpable sense of worry among a lot of education researchers and people in the education nonprofit world, around the Gates Foundation. They’re just so dominant in funding and, through funding, influence. That manifests itself in a fear of publicly criticizing the foundation and its policy preferences. That may be a small fear, it may represent itself subtly, but if you multiply it across the broad world of education research and policy, it can have a major impact on what gets studied, how results are reported, and what is considered realistic policy. It’s easy to make this sound like some kind of explicit corruption, but it’s not that simple or that easy to judge. It isn’t so much a matter of people saying “I want that sweet Gates cash, I better get in line on charter schools.” It’s a matter of identifying what kind of research gets funded, of worrying about funding in the future, of recognizing that plummeting state and federal research dollars can make private foundations like Gates the only game in town. It’s not sinister, on either side of the equation, but it can have pernicious effects.

It’s also a matter of access. Layton describes Gates becoming frustrated and angry when pressed on questions about how the Common Core was implemented. It seems strange to me that he would grow flustered by what are very common concerns about the standards. But then I wonder: how often does he really encounter strong rebuttals to his own preferences in day-to-day life? There is a tendency for rich and powerful men to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. And I think that’s what I worry about most, when it comes to these people at the elite end of the policy spectrum. Are they hearing the kind of criticism of ed reform policy they desperately need to? Does Gates understand that the dominance of demographic factors in educational outcomes is one of the most powerful and consistent findings in the history of education research? Has he seen the research that undercuts claims of sweeping gains from charter schools or merit pay? Has Obama? Has Arne Duncan?

I am not “against” the Gates Foundation. I think that the commitment Bill and Melinda Gates have made to dispersing their immense fortune in charitable ways is remarkable and admirable, however strongly I feel that philanthropy is not a substitute for government intervention. There are some educational projects that have been spearheaded or funded by the Gates Foundation that I find very admirable. But there’s also a set of policy preferences that they push that seem immune to evidence. The tendency of educational technologies to have no meaningful impact on student outcomes is another consistent research finding, and yet the notion that technology will solve our problems is so intrinsic to the Gates Foundation that I doubt they can ever come around on that issue. We’re sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into tablets and ebooks and smart whiteboards…. And yes: some people are getting very, very rich off of this expenditure of public funds. Will it work? We have to have researchers who feel comfortable and free to say no, if that’s what their research shows.

I don’t mean to overstate the case: such negative research is published regularly, and for all of its faults, the structure of our academic institutions, particularly tenure, helps researchers to feel confident in reaching conclusions that are contrary to the interests of entities like the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and the Department of Education. But for graduate students, for adjuncts, for those not yet tenured, for those worried about funding for the future, size alone can be an implicit threat that changes behavior.

None of these problems would be problems if not for the relative size and power of the Gates Foundation. If there were entities of comparable size, if government funding for research was more certain, if Gates was just one powerful force among many, there would be far fewer potential negative consequences. I will be completely upfront in saying that I am opposed to the education reform movement, because I think its proposed solutions don’t work, because I think it is captured by the profit motive, because I think it reduces complex social problems to simplistic, moralizing narratives, because I think it scapegoats teachers, because I think it’s an impediment to social progress. But there’s nothing illegitimate about foundations and nonprofits and individuals pushing for ed reform policies. What’s dangerous and unfortunate is when they are able to dominate the conversation without skepticism, review, and contrary evidence.

As it stands, well… read Layton’s piece. Bill Gates dictated one of the biggest changes to education policy in this country’s history, and though it was expensive, it was not hard. We all of us, left-wing and right-wing and center, have to ask ourselves whether it can possibly be healthy for a system made up of students, parents, teachers, and administrators to be so radically changed without the input of essentially any of them. We need to ask who owns our educational system, and why.

Posted in Education | 16 Comments

Sturgeon’s Law and challenging art

Look, I won’t belabor the current fight about Young Adult fiction, because anyone who’s read me on these topics before probably already knows more or less where I stand. I will say that I am an unabashed fan of some YA fiction. Diana Wynne Jones remains my favorite author. Ever. I wrote, a long while back, about why I love some YA fiction.

But only some, and that reading only takes up a little of my reading time. Because there’s a whole lot that’s out there, and yes, there are certain kinds of artistic and aesthetic pleasures that are vanishingly rare in YA fiction, and those pleasures, difficult or challenging or labor-intensive or discomfiting or not for everyone, are worth pursuing as well. Which gets to  really the only central point that should ever be made about these types of controversies: it is never shameful to love something, but it is always shameful to love only one thing, or one kind of thing. And the problem, with the cultures that spring up around these faux-forbidden art forms like YA fiction or romance or comic books or sci-fi, is that the endless complaints about being oppressed or disrespected contribute to the tendency to like only those things. To read nothing but romance, to read only comic books, to read only sci-fi. And yes: that is childish. That is indeed shameful. I’m told that there are people who read through The Lord of the Rings and the flip right back the beginning when they’re finished and start again. That’s not fandom, that’s pathology.

Everybody wins in this current controversy, really. Because people don’t actually like it when they think their preferred art is universally beloved. Raging against the notion that they’ve been disrespected– that’s what they actually like. Just observe their behavior.

If you want your favorite genre or medium to be more celebrated, you should insist that it get better. Alan Jacobs invoked Sturgeon’s Law in this instance. But I actually think that Sturgeon’s Law is precisely the problem with these discussions. Yes, it’s totally true: most of anything is crap. The large majority of every genre or medium is bad. But 90% implies that every genre and medium has an equal admixture of good and bad, and I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t. Look at video games. Of course video games are art, and the very best aspire to the heights that all great art does. But the median video game is absolute trash, as art. By the aesthetic, narrative, thematic, and emotional criteria that we apply to all art, the average video game is just a failure. When 90% of the product you put out there takes remorseless killing as its central focus, that’s not hard to achieve. And while the percentages are better with YA fiction, it’s still the case that so, so much of what gets professionally put out there is terrible. Which is not an insult to the people who read the genre or the people who make the best of the genre. It should instead be a call to get better. But you can’t make that call if you simply say, hey, 90% of everything is crap. That’s just phony egalitarianism.

As I’ve said many times, I simply do not recognize the world that people are talking about now, as though pleasure is forbidden and challenging art is inescapable. But you’ve heard that from me a thousand times.

There are pleasures that can be had in art that cannot spring from that which puts out its lips to be kissed. The art that begs you to love it is fine. We need it. I need it. But it’s the other kind of art that needs defending. That art needs friends. It needs critics. It needs professionals to tell people why they should get outside of the comfort zone, why the work is worth it. But that kind of criticism is the kind that is dying fast, not the kind that takes The Fault in Our Stars seriously. That’s reality.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 4 Comments