Graduation advice: be willing to fail

In the last 24 hours, I have had three reminders that we are in graduation season. The first was an email from an old friend of mine, who has just finished a masters degree. We knew each other years ago. She found my blog through Facebook and found herself wandering around my website, reading my CV and seeing where life had taken me. She wrote to me about how she felt like she had gotten a bit disconnected from her own interests, and her passions, and how seeing what I have done with my life reminded her of them and inspired her to get back to the basics.

It was a kind gesture of her to share these thoughts with me. I struggle with knowing whether or not to publicize my rather bizarre but certainly busy life. I know I have a number of privileges. I've made some good decisions, but I've also benefited from certain structural opportunities and in some cases been just down right blessed. I sometimes worry that sharing my experiences with other people could be alienating or frustrating to some who don't have the opportunities that I have. Her email suggested the opposite, that being more open with others about my own life can assist rather than discourage. This was an encouragement to me.

The second reminder was an op-ed in the NYT this morning, the graduation speech that a former professor would give if given the chance. He had four pieces of advice: 1. "Earn Everything" 2. "Don't be a 'city doll" or in other words, don't be jealous of those who can ignore step one and land a sweet gig right after graduation, 3. Actively attempt to help the poor, and 4. "Think for yourself."

Many people feel they are situated to give advice to college graduates, but few offer something new. Although these points aren't all that radical, they struck me as unusual and well-timed graduation advice. Who is not jealous of the friend who lands a sweet job right out of school, and begins earning huge sums of money to do relatively meaningless work? It is appealing at some level to have work that stays in the office, and lots of money to play with after hours, and real weekends and evenings where you are not always working. Nevertheless, now that I have, in a sense, "arrived" at the job I have been headed towards for a decade, I can say with honesty that I'm glad I had no money in my twenties, that I traveled and consumed huge amounts of information and that I did not find myself in my first real job until the age of twenty-nine. Now I have a job that sends me to Morocco for my summers, and allows me to counsel students in a critical moment of decision making, and pursue my intellectual interests. In sum, I'm starting to be far enough from graduate school poverty to feel like it was a good decision.

This position seems confirmed by a third article from VOX "How Wall Street recruits so many insecure Ivy League grads." The article looks at a variation of the city doll, the investment banker who has come out of an Ivy League school. The article is an interview between Ezra Klein and Kevin Roose, the author of a new book about investment bankers. Roose suggests that people who take jobs as investment bankers are people who fear taking risks and want economic stability above all else. Becoming investment bankers for a few years allows them to postpone making the difficult decisions about what to do next.

(The article also talks about people for whom investment banking is a good thing: those who have a reason to be there, or those who just love the industry. I'm interested more in the people who go for reasons to avoid risk. The article argues that the industry can really destroy these people by eliminating their ability to think creatively).

Back to the idea that some people become bankers to postpone difficult decisions, though. This argument interested me a lot because I am frequently concerned that undergraduates go to graduate school (or law school) for exactly this same reason: they want to delay making a decision about what next. They want someone to hand them a checklist that says what the next step is (study for the GRE, take the LSAT). They are afraid to fail. What the NYT op-ed was saying though, was exactly that. Go and fail! Try a few different things. You will be a much better human being, and long term you may even be more likely to be successful because of what you learn through failure.

Putting these three things together, I'd say that it can really feel like you are headed in the wrong direction when you are in the midst of failure. I considered leaving graduate school on multiple occasions. Many of you know the many other life paths that I have considered. So I guess I'd say, in conclusion, if you are very concerned that you have taken a risk that didn't pay off, you may be in a better position than you thought you were. And if you have taken the easy way out, avoiding making adult decisions while seeking the privileges of adulthood, you may find that you are very unhappy. Both are difficult roads, but the light seems brighter at the end of the first tunnel. I'm glad that I took the path of risk.


Recently in the Times: the social sciences

Yesterday, Savage Minds Backup  (SMB) posted an excellent response to Nicholas Cristakis's recent op-ed in the NYT on the need to "shake up"  the social sciences. In it, he countered Cristakis's argument that we need less of the traditional social sciences and more cross-disciplinary work with the argument that in fact we need more, much more,  of the traditional social sciences. SMB marshaled some horrifying stats on the funding of the social sciences. We all knew they were low, but we didn't know they were that   low.

SMB uses the NSF as an example case. Of the organization's 5.5 billion USD to spend on research, the social sciences and behavioral sciences split  242 million USD, or four percent. Of that, the social sciences receive just 92 million USD (less than 2 percent of the NSFs budget). SMB concludes that for more innovative social science, we need much more funding. Beyond that, he barely mentioned that the discipline of Political Science has been deemed "not a science" by Congress and therefore no longer can receive NSF funds (95 percent of the discipline's federal funds).

SMB's point is well taken, and the lack of funding is certainly the greatest challenge facing the social sciences in the twenty-first century. But there are aspects not considered by Cristakis why individual social scientists may not want to risk inter-disciplinary work, as he suggests. I would ask him the following questions,

1. Are the natural sciences under attack from their own universities? A huge number of social science positions have been transitioned to adjunct, assuming that their only duty is to teach students, not do research. 

A 2007 article from the NYT reported: "Three decades ago, adjuncts — both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track — represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private. " Today, post financial crisis, the numbers are surely higher.

Scholars who are not neatly situated in their discipline risk losing their positions to adjuncts. 

2. Are there more opportunities for natural scientists who cross disciplinary boundaries? Certainly it is the opposite for social scientists. Despite the lip service to inter-disciplinary work, those scholars who do it will struggle to find venues to publish, and will therefore struggle in their tenure and promotion processes.

3. Are the teaching loads similar for social and natural scientists? I'd like to meet a biologist who does research at the same time as teaching a 4-4 course load with no TAs. Most natural science courses at universities at the undergraduate level are massive affairs, stocked with TAs and multiple choice exams. The professor need only show up and give a lecture he has given many times before and manage his TAs. He probably never grades a page in his life. I'm sure working with graduate students is more hands on, but still, it highlights the very different daily responsibilities that detract from work beyond just the course load.  

There are other questions to ask, but a blog post is not the place to do it. SMB's main conclusion, that Cristakis really doesn't know the history of social science nor understand the current conditions is certainly evident, but what does that say about social science's efforts at PR for themselves? We have to find a way to make our contributions and challenges  better understood by others both inside and outside of the academy or the situation will certainly not improve.

Today in the Times... teaching math vs. reading

In raising scores, 1 2 3 is easier than a b c

When I first started mentioning articles that interested in me in the NYT, I did not anticipate it becoming a daily phenomenon. But lately the newspaper has been doing a lot of interesting reporting on educational politics and pedagogy, and that is one way I'm hoping to use this blog: to collect interesting articles on education. Hence the frequent NYT posts.

Today's piece is not surprising, but the situation it highlights is surely an interesting topic for conversation, debate, and certainly research. The article discusses how it is easier to catch students up in math than in reading.

Part of that is certainly because reading teachers aren't teaching reading anymore, are they? They're teaching reading and critical thinking and rhetoric and grammar and five paragraph themes. At a fundamental level, math teachers teach students a certain kind of logic, while reading teachers are expected to teach students how to think.

And this is where education collides with politics. All subjects are not equally politicized and for good reason. How students think will influence future political contexts. Authoritarian regimes have an interest in having skilled mathematicians and engineers. But are critical, engaged, informed citizens a goal of authoritarian regimes? I don't think so. Sometimes I don't think they are goal of democratic regimes either!

The other issue, highlighted by the article, is that math proficiency is much less influenced by your home environment than reading. As Geoffrey Borman, a UW professor and one of the interviewees in the article said, “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations.” Your ability to use language is influenced by your exposure to it, and school is simply not enough. Your language will reflect those you hang out with and what you read. Your math skills are much more determined by your teacher at school.

My first instinct about this is that much more time should be spend in school on language-related skills than math skills but that is obviously not enough of a solution. My second thought is, boy was that Dorothy Sayers on to something with her article "The Lost Tools of Learning."

I'll just leave it at that for today and perhaps write on Sayers tomorrow!

Today in the Times... Reforming Education in Thailand

Thailand considers reforming its authoritarian educational system.

My dissertation examines how education has been used for authoritarian ends in Morocco, so I read with interest an article this morning in the NYT about Thailand's current conversation over educational reform. The article highlights several significant points:

1. Educational reforms have path dependent effects: changes made to educational curriculum can continue shaping individuals long after the conditions in which those reforms were made have passed.

In the Thai case, educational style is rooted in the military dictatorship established in the country in 1972. The country experienced a period widely viewed as democratic in the mid-2000s, but returned to military dictatorship after the coup d'état of 2006. Its curriculum is deeply rooted in authoritarian values, even as the country's political space opens.

2. Education in authoritarian contexts is distinctly undemocratic: I know this is obvious, but I think the political science literature has done very little to examine this. Sometimes I get the impression some political scientists think any education is better than no education. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

In the Thai case, students are beat with bamboo canes, can have their hair cut or dyed publicly at school if it does not meet rigid dress code standards and the curriculum is rooted in rote memorization. “School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” one student said.

3. Schools are the training grounds for citizenship: again, obvious. But in a system where students are expected to "bow, bow, bow" to their teachers, and never articulate their own arguments nor learn to evaluate others' arguments, how can a democracy function? where else do people learn to be critical?

In Thailand, the new education minister, trained in the US, is interested in moving towards letting students think more independently, though his support seems distressingly conditional. He remarked, "We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

4. You can't always get what you want, and neither can the regime: The Ministry of Education can change the national curriculum, but whether its implemented on the ground depends on its relationship to teachers, principals and other bureaucrats.

In the Thai case, one vice principal interviewed in the article seems likely to ignore reforms if he thinks they are too drastic. He was clear with his views, “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”

Today in the Times... an editorial on the common core

Editorial on New Public School Curriculum

I applaud the NYT for taking an interest in nation-wide educational reforms and I am grateful that they ask for a year of grace for teachers making this transition.

But I'm still waiting for the perfect editorial on public education.

It would go something like this:

Gentle Readers,

We applaud recent reforms intended to bring more rigorous standards to the public school curriculum. At the same time, we lament the reform's inattention to the structural issues that give rise to many of our system's challenges.

Our schools are desperately in need of more resources. In particular, there is a need for an immediate shift of one percent of the nation's budget away from defense and toward education. This would dramatically increase the resources available to the next generation of leaders. A large amount of these funds should go to increasing teachers' salaries. Teaching is already an enormous challenge, why must it also be a serious financial sacrifice?

Secondly, we send students to universities to get a liberal arts education, but our public schools look like factories for creating employees, for sorting those who deserve a liberal arts education from those who deserve nothing but a vocation. Suzanne Pepper, in her masterful work on education in authoritarian China, describes it this way, "Schools did not develop talent as much as they performed a sorting, labeling and certification function that was, by reason of the educational inflation also under way, more than sufficient to meet the cognitive requirements of most jobs that most school leavers would fill. Through meritocratic values - with grades allocated for performance and promotion for grades - schools were therefore legitimating the present and future status of all who passed through them" (2000:29).

Schools teach people their place in society, and help employers identify potential employees. Is that what we want from them? Our students study math, science, social studies, history and literature. But what about all of the other aspects of being a human being, about which our schools are silent?

We should admit that we do not prepare students for most of the challenges they will certainly have: managing their finances, cooking for themselves, dancing at weddings, maintaining their cars or marketing themselves in the age of social media. We act as if students are more likely to have to estimate the length of a hypotenuse than to pay their electric bill. Think of how much more engaging schooling would be if American history were taught through the lens of pop music and the music industry, if home economics were required for all students and actually taught them life skills like how to maintain a budget or save up for a car, if disagreements between students were seen not as disciplinary problems but as opportunities for talking about healthy relationships.


[Significant Newspaper Editorial Staff}

I know what my critics think: all of these things should be learned in the family, and that is certainly a valid critique. At the same time, the most effective lessons are taught in multiple locations and I'll be honest, I don't care if my kids can calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle.

Today in the Times... what PS can learn from Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's latest projects

I first encountered Ai Weiwei's work at the Tate Modern in London. I walked in and found his giant pile of sunflower seeds. I balked. "Modern art is so lame sometimes," I thought.

But then I read the description of the project, and the attention that had gone into the creation of it. I watched an interview with the author and those who participated in the creation of the project. And I marveled. And I fell in love with Ai Weiwei. The work captured the subtle forms of resistance of those who live under authoritarianism. The sunflower project highlights the ways that authoritarian symbols can be re-purposed and given new meanings by subjects.

Today the NYTimes has a review of some of his latest work (see link at top of page to see the pics). The pieces attempt to capture his time in detention under the Chinese authorities in 2011. The scenes depict Weiwei showering, eating, and sleeping under the watch of two guards. I think they are a brilliant illustration of life under authoritarianism.

The article touches on a few very important issues:

1. The effects of authoritarianism on individuals:

“China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams,” Mr. Ai said. “This state’s best minds have been wasted by this high ideological control, which is fake. Even the people who are trying to use it as a tool to maintain power or stability know that this is a completely fake condition.”

2. Similar to Political Science, art itself can abstract to the point that it obscures:

“Can political art still be good art?” Mr. Ai said. “Those questions have been around for too long. People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify humans’ emotions from the real world.”

3. The article also alludes to the difficulties of defining the boundaries of what is art:

"Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said in general, “Weiwei has been looking, in the years since his detention, for a way to use art to talk about social issues in a way that still codes and functions as art.” The metal rods from Sichuan, he said, are “a good example of his search for this middle road between overtly political and purely formal.”

In my own experience, political science theories about authoritarianism abstract to such a degree that it becomes possible to forget that real people live under these systems. Authoritarian subjects experience fear, paranoia and rage that must be silenced. One of my long-term goals is develop a syllabus on the politics of authoritarianism that marries recent scholarship with other art forms that capture day to day life under such a system and adds more texture to what can become a sterile study of a system of horrific abuse. I am planning on including some of Ai Weiwei's work.