Tim Gunn on needing to be a student to be a teacher

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am a great fan of second acts and taking on new challenges at every stage of your life. One of my favorite popular mentors, Tim Gunn, just took up fencing. The video is utterly charming, but it also shares some great insights about the relationship between learning and teaching:

But it’s not just the sport that has added so much to Gunn’s life. He found a relationship with Morehouse built not just on fencing but their shared love for teaching.

“Tim and I have so much to talk about. I spent 29 years in a classroom, about to do my 15th season of Project Runway, plus ancillary, related things. We talk about the challenges of communicating, directing, guiding, correcting,” Gunn says.

My favorite part is the section where Gunn describes his moments of frustration and loving how he is hating fencing, when it gets hard, and when it feels like he is not making any progress. Research projects should be like this: they should stretch you so far and hard that you are ready to quit a dozen times. That’s one way research helps with teaching: it reminds a teacher of what it feels like to learn, of trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing–and the utmost necessity of trying again.

Critiquing and Love, advice from Deirdre McCloskey

My first real scholarly idol, economist Deirdre McCloskey, was interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education for their Scholars Talk Writing column. I have no doubt that McCloskey remembers me not one jot, but I knew her as Don, before she transitioned, and I worshipped the ground he walked on as one of my professors who was both, a) brilliant and b) stuttered (worse than me, even). I didn’t think anything really of it when Don announced he wished to undergo gender reassignment, but man, the libertarian turn has been trying for me. 🙂

That said, still an amazing, adventurous scholar I admire madly for never being boring.

There is a statement in her interview in the Chron that made me hold my breath with the generousity of it:

The key is to love your colleagues. You have to be together long enough to get over the academic pose (“Heh, I’m the expert here”) and learn to listen. Love is important, and often overlooked. Love makes it possible for the writer whose work is being tested to accept criticism gracefully, since she knows it is meant in love. Men don’t grasp it, usually. They are so busy competing that they don’t realize that what actually works is cooperation. Whoops — sorry: gender candor alert.

Kurt Vonnegut tears it up

I’ve been very sick, and I am doing too much, which is when I get terribly tired and discouraged. Today I read this fiery piece and it made me smile.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

And still on the subject of books: Our daily sources of news, papers and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books can we find out what is really going on. I will cite an example: House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger, published near the start of this humiliating, shameful blood-soaked year.

and

What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without a sense of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it all their own?

Pat Conroy on teachers

We lost writers Pat Conroy and Umberto Eco the last two weeks. I am not prepared to discuss Eco because In The Name of the Rose was a life-changer for me, and I always hoped that Eco would simply live on forever as a reward for giving me, and so many others, such joy. I have liked Conroy’s fiction more than his nonfiction.Other writers seem to hate the nonfiction, but I particularly loved the My Losing Season and The Books of My Life. I think Conroy was so unabashedly sentimental about books in the latter that it bothered literary writers. He was supposed to connect with books intellectually; we all are, or we are doing it wrong. But that misses the emotional and aesthetic education books provide long before we get around to thinking about them more dispassionately. (It also assumes that the emotional and aesthetic do not overlap or inform the intellectual; or at least, the way I just framed it does.)

Anyway Conroy’s essay about his lifelong friendship with transformative teacher Gene Norris is one of my favorite essays. Norris taught black boys how to drive and celebrated their accomplishments loudly and ridiculously. He let the fatherless, like Conroy (who had father, but a brutal one), imprint on him and became the father they never had. This is so messy–and so generous–that I can’t even begin to write about it myself. Anybody, man or woman, who does this for a kid that isn’t ‘theirs’, is love in the world manifest.

I got caught up reading Conroy’s blog after his death. It is a sweet and sentimental blog, and it’s worth reading. This quote about teachers strikes me as particularly apt:

Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.

Advertising between learning moments…well, sucks, actually

I am trying to learn more about music and the like in my free time, and I have a really nice beginner’s college text that, naturally, uses pieces of music to illustrate the concepts in play. Since this is a library book, I don’t have access to the cd-rom that is meant to accompany the text. However, I have been using YouTube to listen to the clips I am supposed to learn from, and it’s fine, to some degree. The MOOCers may have a point–all that stuff is online and free, and why not use it?

But…and this is proving to be a large objection for me…every time I fire up a clip to listen to, I have to sit through the advertising. Again and again. I never really minded YouTube advertising until I started to want to compare one piece to another…only to have to listen to HEY YOU, BUT THIS THING in the middle of the listening/learning/comparing experience.

Maybe I should do that in my classes. Yes, I know, we are taking about MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison, but hey, let’s take a moment to hear from our sponsors…

Eyugh.

Anyway, I am trying to learn about changing meter from this bit here. Sorry for the stupid ad.

Crapping in your drawers at the *merest mention* of no football

Ranking schools tends to be both hideously subjective and biased, and therefore, bull crap, at just about any level you choose to do it. But a writer with the WashPo decided to start looking at some of the top-ranking programs in their index of high school at what they might all find in common, and on a whim, he asked if they had an 11-person football team. 67 of the top 100 didn’t.

Before I start I should say that I agree he doesn’t show a trend; I agree he hasn’t eliminated lots of other possible explanations. I would also point out that journalists don’t. That’s why they are journalists and not social scientists. The howls from the comments are, however, over the top, as the Big Brainz of the internet hand out lectures on research design to this guy/crap in their panties at the *MERE MENTION* that football isn’t the greatest thing that was ever great in the greatest greatest great thing for students to do list.

Um yeah. No intellectual problems there. One of the first rules of research might be to examine yourself when you have that reaction (hello, transit) to the suggestion that something isn’t as wonderful as you think it is. “OMG YOU CAN TOTES HAVE A GREAT ATHLETIC PROGRAM AND ACADEMICS” they howl. Of course, it’s possible. But it’s also possible that, for schools of limited size and resources, they really can’t invest in football and are better off with sport programs that require fewer resources than football. It may be the exalted position of football in American society leads school management to begin to emphasize those programs disproportionately; the parents and students become overly focussed on the sport instead of on health and play when they invest in football, whereas nobody really cares of your water polo team sucks as long as the kids get exercise and have fun and everybody is merely pleasantly surprised if your girls volleyball team has a fabulous season. It may be the male-worshipping culture of football isn’t all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips for creating more supportive (since this high school, read “less sociopathic”) peer relationships in school where female physical activity and male physical activity are treated like…activities….instead of male physical activity being treated as The Most Important Thing Ever.

It strikes me as perfectly reasonable to ask what a small school might gain by eliminating an activity where they will always be at a disadvantage in favor of pursuing things that might matter to them more.

Going to college is not mandatory: Dr. S’s guide on life choices in one simple blog post

There, I said it. If you don’t want to be in my class, I’d prefer you not be there. I am not a jailer. Nothing is mandatory. There are many paths, and many places to learn.

This news story is making the rounds, and ZOMG it totes proves that higher education is a totes ripoff, I totes tole ya…except why, exactly, we need a ranking system to explain to us that people who major in art, education, and the humanities at tiny second-tier schools are worse off is a bit beyond me. We know this. We’ve known this for years. We pay teachers shit salaries. Artists struggle. The humanities have been a luxury item for decades.

But, hey, uncovering the major shocking factoid that a degree in art from Clodhopper University doesn’t pay is super-big news. Save all that money (that you don’t have) and put the money in stocks. Because, you know, the people who wind up going to Clodhopper U had that money sitting around.”Shall I invest in stocks today, or go to community college? I need Slate to tell me.”)

There are any number of conditions under which a person shouldn’t go to college:

1) If you have to get into serious debt to do it and you are looking to college to pay your way out. I don’t know why everybody thinks it is news, or why the people who point it out think of themselves as special geniuses, but getting into massive debt for anything other than an extremely durable asset or a major increase in human capital is not likely to pay out. There are people in the world who can buy $350,000 cellos for fun even though they don’t play; there are people who can buy $350,000 cellos for whom it actually makes good professional sense to do so (professional cellists). For the rest of us, it would be financial idiocy. You wouldn’t buy a washer and dryer at 25 percent interest. You might at 2 percent. To figure that out, you do the math against the laundry mat. I wish higher education were free for everybody who had the talent, motivation, and interest. But it’s not, so do the math.

If you want to be in college because it’s fun to learn, you know what you want, and you can do it without getting into unrecoverable debt, or you don’t mind the debt, then that’s another thing entirely.

2) If you don’t want to go. I am not listening to any wah-wah about “My mom and dad are making me go.” Please. Get a spine. If you really, seriously have no idea what you want to do and you don’t want to continue your education, then ask them to help you by fronting your first month’s, last month’s and a deposit on an apartment of your own and then get out there and hustle if you think you’d rather do that. College will still be there if you think you want it later, and you might find you like doing something else enough to stick with it without going.

And parents, OMG, please don’t force your kids to go to college by refusing to help them get set up on their own. I am 100 percent behind saying “no” if the answer to not going to college alternative involves kids who think they are going to sponge off you indefinitely. But a person in college who doesn’t want to be there will find a dozen ways to not get anything out of being there, and in the mean time, you are writing tuition checks. So yeah, if little Bobby doesn’t want to do anything besides smoke pot and play video games, you have to realize there is really nobody at college who will force him to do anything besides smoke pot and pay video games. Do you want to pay tuition while he does that, or would you rather not?

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “college isn’t worth it” when people send wee Bobby to college because he isn’t “ready” to live on his own and, thus, should go to college. That is insanity. The drug trade is alive and well on college campuses, binge drinking is everywhere, and nobody will force wee Bobby to grow up in college. Most colleges and universities are terrible, and exceedingly expensive, babysitters.

3) If a tech libertarian bazillionaire gives you $100,000 to start up your own company. By all means. Again, if it doesn’t work out, college will still be there if you blow through your $100K and fail. You can learn in many places.

4) If you can get the training you want on the job and you can get hired. Why not? College is really fun, but if you can apprentice with somebody and it’s something you want to do–again, college will be there later if you don’t like what you are doing. I repeat: you can learn in many places, and if you do not want to be college, then figure out it on your own. Again, you may find you like being apprenticed to a carpenter, electrician, or hairdresser. Every plumber who has come to my house seems to be genuinely happy in his or her work. That’s the idea. Making a decent living doing something you don’t mind getting up to do strikes me as close to heaven as anybody but the extremely fortunate get. You don’t know what you want until you try many things. And once you learn how to do something, you can, if you are entrepreneurial, start your own business.

I’m not the sort of person who thinks every university needs to survive to the end of the 21st century. I think there are enough people to support what I do. I believe in markets. If I find myself out of a job, I’ll have to do something else. No clue what. But I am going to barf if I hear any more about the “higher education bubble” or any more whining about “having to go to college.” You want to go to college, great. You don’t want to? Don’t. Lots of people do fine if they don’t; lots of people fail if they do–and vice versa. The general numbers about being better or worse off for going to college are general numbers and don’t tell you your future, it’s as simple as that. You could be the person who majors in music and who winds up starting a multi-million dollar label. Or the person who winds up teaching piano at an elementary school. One is more likely than the other, but still.