Weekly Pessimism vs Seth Godin, and “Famous Colleges” will outlive us all

I used to adore TED talks. I thought they’re the modern world’s answer to the old Lyceum movement. Bringing the wisdom of the our best and brightest to the curious masses, but in short and sweet format to accommodate our digital ADHD.

But the more of them I watched in my own field, the more I saw speakers butcher their subjects. Turns out they are rarely experts. Occasionally you’ll get someone on the cutting edge, but TED seems to select more for performance and theatrics than knowledge. Half of these talks are given by journalists who have only a modicum of experience in the subject, and most are wildly idealistic. The greatest sin of all is the scripted TED-brand performance. I feel like they should trademark it, with its dramatic pauses and hand gestures, a heartfelt anecdote to start it all off, a bit of pacing, some nice graphics; it’s like they’re given a formula. They have a TED hour on NPR now, and even without video, you can feel the sensationalism seeping through the speakers. Check this out:

Seth Godin is the perfect example of this phenomenon. He’s got the body language and formula down perfectly. He doesn’t seem to be any sort of expert in pedagogy, but he’s rich, personable, theatrical, and can carry a crowd. Most importantly, he’s idealistic, and wants to tell you about why the system is broken, but could be fixed if we just changed everything!

Let’s ignore the conspiracy theory level talk about how public education came about for the sole purpose of creating mindless factory drones. Maybe it had that effect, but to suggest the entire thing was orchestrated as a vast hidden scheme makes me wonder when we’re going to talk about the Illuminati or Lizard People. Instead let’s consider his eight-steps for fixing everything:

  1. Inverted classroom – One brilliant professor serving millions via online video, while the rest of the teachers of the world serve as glorified assistants at in-person recitation sessions? Sounds good for the guy at the top, but you’re killing diversity of thought. If literally two or three professors in the world teach each class, they control the entire curriculum, they emphasis what they consider is important, they ignore what they don’t, and they homogenize the learning of an entire generation. The recitation teachers could fill in some blanks, but at the end of the day you end up with an entire generation of intellectual clones. Also, I hate video lectures, if you miss one thing and you’re lost for the rest of the lecture. If you can’t interrupt to ask questions, or get the benefit of others doing so, you’ll have an inferior experience no matter how great the professor is.
  2. End Memorization – He seems to be going overboard, but yeah, that’s OK in moderation. We’ve spent time in our class talking about how unproductive rote memorization is. You don’t need your physician to remember all 185,000 drug interactions, but they should at least remember where the gallbladder is without having to look it up. The idea of never memorizing anything is a bit simplistic.
  3. End Prerequisites – Who could possibly think this is a good idea? We use spiral curricula in modern pedagogy for a reason: you need to have a basis in the fundamentals before you can dive into advanced stuff. That isn’t unjust or unfair, it’s just reality. You can’t go sit in the electrical engineering department’s graduate signal processing class if you have no math or physics knowledge beyond high school, you won’t get anything out of it.
  4. End specific degrees – we’re already moving towards interdisciplinary education, and again this is fine in moderation, but unless we live in a Star Trek like post-scarcity society without any obligation to work, you’ll need some defined skills to get a job. You cannot take nothing but poetry and art classes and then be a civil engineer.
  5. Measure experience instead of test scores – Nice in practice, easier said than done. In this part he also claims that resumes as a measure of compliance will become useless, but as with #4, as long as there are employers, those resumes will be useful.
  6. Teachers should be coaches – Huh, I actually like this.
  7. Incorporate work into schooling – I wish he said more on this.
  8. Death of the Famous College – LMFAO.

Those colleges were relevant when Byzantines controlled the Bosporus, and before the Aztecs even started building their empires. Think of all the incredible social changes the last 1000 years has brought; those colleges survived them all. The rise and fall of feudalism, the first limits on the monarchy’s power, the modern republic, the rise and fall of communism, the rise of modern capitalism, the renaissance, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of colonialism, the space age. Through it all, those colleges survived and flourished. I think they’ll outlive capitalism too.

No, seriously, I can envision a time when robotic manual labor and AI mental labor are so cheap that literally everyone has everything they could possibly want, and even then, those colleges will be around. Humans are social animals, and outside of the insects, all social animals are concerned with status. So long as those colleges grant status, they’ll have relevance in any society. And don’t tell me there isn’t a real difference in quality either.

The claim that attending such a college has “no relevance to success or happiness” is also bullocks. Don’t tell me that attending Oxford isn’t significantly associated with higher success rates than attending State. Of course there is a variance in outcomes, but overall there is a huge association between attending an elite college and success. Happiness is another story, but I would imagine there is at least some correlation between it and general success, money, status, and comfort in life.

He concludes by saying that we need to kill two false ideas:

  1. Great performance in school leads to happiness and success.
  2. Great parents leads to great performance in school.

Which is odd, because I think both of those are some of the most self-evident truths in education. Yes, Dave Thomas didn’t finish high school, founded Wendy’s, and ended up being extremely rich. But variance aside, in general someone who finishes high school will be more successful than someone who doesn’t, and someone with an MBA from Harvard will probably do even better. Is there really a debate here?

As for the parents, isn’t parental involvement strongly associated with success? Same goes for stability at home. If you find a kid who goes hungry every other night, or suffers from abuse or neglect, the last thing they want is to play around with an Arduino to make art. Helping these kids out is incredibly difficult, but let’s not pretend that we live in some fairy-tale world where having great education-minded parents isn’t an advantage. If anything, we should devote resources to helping the kids who don’t have such parents, instead of telling them it doesn’t matter.

Asking the question “what school is for” is invaluable, and Mr. Godin does have some good ideas. He really does. If he simply gets people thinking about the issue, he has done a great service. But, man… does this smell like the naïve idealism of a layman. Does Mr. Godin have any pedagogical credentials at all? His biography suggests he is a marketing executive that made a lot of money during the dotcom era, and now writes business self-help books. Perhaps we should take all of his advice with a grain of salt.


I’m at the end of my second semester of teaching. I like the way class has gone this fall. No major snafus, and the students are clearly interested and seem happy. I’ve seen their work improve. They speak up in class.

I’m at the end of my third semester as a PhD student. I have seen a lot of school throughout my life. Before coming to VT I was a student and employee at a community college, a small liberal arts college and a big university in New York City. In K-12 I was in public schools in multiple different districts, was homeschooled for a period of time, and went to an experimental, arts-focused private school for a few years.

At that school, we called teachers by their first names and nobody got grades. When I went to college for the first time, I had no idea what a GPA was.

Now my life is devoted to knowledge — the production, pursuit and dissemination of it. My students call me by my first name, but I haven’t had to explain to any of them what a GPA is. I think they have a better idea of what “knowledge” is than I do.

A lot of our readings in GEDI have emphasized a progressive, future-focused approach to teaching. Generally, they reflect a critical perspective on old-fashioned teaching methods, including any view of the academy as an intellectual silo — an ivory tower, protected from the exigencies of the real world. Hierarchies should be diminished, transparency and open-endedness should be encouraged. Although I’ve been critical of a lot of our readings about tech and education, in a wider sense, I support the vision of this course. My own pedagogical practice affirms these values, and it always will.

I have looked at this final week’s readings for a message I can take forth that specifically regards a state of affairs that perhaps none of us could have predicted — the political climate that has evolved over the last year or so, which is impacting education profoundly. Seth Godin’s discourse on bravery is applicable here.

He writes:

“Can risk-taking be taught? Of course it can. It gets taught by mentors, by parents, by great music teachers, and by life. Why isn’t it being taught every day at that place we send our kids to?”

That last question is mostly rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway.

There’s a difference between school and everything he lists above. A mentor, a parent, a music teacher, and life itself are all conceptualized as singular entities. Each establishes its own rules, and the context in which young people are subject to them does not stipulate that those rules are being negotiated and undermined by other rules. School rules reflect the broad, multilateral entity that is a school, which includes the multiple functions schools serve. School rules are subject to checks and balances by many different parties. Any bravery that gets condoned within a school setting cannot challenge its most fundamental premises, and thus does not reflect the quality of bravery it takes to truly make a difference out there in society.

School rules and standards change from class to class, year to year, department to department. A school is a collective. When you’re in school, the rules that govern you — whether explicit, as in the rules listed in a syllabus or university handbook, or implicit, as in social etiquette norms — are vulnerable to change.

In this sense, schools are more like societies than they are like a mom or dad or the person who teaches you piano after school and doesn’t have to answer to the rules of any higher administration, because they’re a private contractor. But in a more important sense,  schools are different from societies. Even though both are governed by multiple purposes, requirements and contracts, schools generally have a more cohesive and comprehensible internal logic than anything which goes by the name “society.”

Schools can’t, ultimately, reward students who are brave in the sense of transgressing the very rules that define them. That’s paradoxical. This is why it’s hard (if not impossible) for schools to teach true, authentic bravery, bravery that isn’t just symbolic (like the “bravery” of playing devil’s advocate in debate club).

Heroic people in society can go to jail. Schools can’t support the development of that much audacity.

Or can they?

I think schools can teach bravery if they understand students first as citizens, as actors in society, before it sees them as students. Only then will they support the character development necessary to be audacious, to meet the world where it is today — crazy, paradoxical, unjust, and — to get real here — extremely scary.

Seth Godin tells us that “school was invented to control students and give power to the state.” He gives us a sort of People’s History of the Current State of Schooling and offers ways that educators can change this.

Hot on the heels of a tax bill that, if it passes, will seriously damage the state of higher education — we must change this.

If the classroom has a natural kinship with the real world, we must learn how to instill bravery in our students. Not so they stand up here  — not so that the terminal point of their brave intentions manifests as disrespect to fellow students or instructors while they’re still ensconced in the quasi-realism of undergrad life — but because the unique function of schools is to train citizens in the practices of being a good citizen. That sounds rather old-fashioned, but “good citizen” is a really loose term. It recognizes that no matter what you do, you act to make and change society. It recognizes that adulthood is defined by service to others. Ut prosim; selflessness.

Schools train children to become adults (in this definition of adulthood).

I’m going to end with a question for everybody. How can we preserve what is unique about schools and teaching — what has made it so that we formalize education, rather than dissolving education into the flows and practices of “real” life — while reframing our teaching practices to cultivate brave citizens?

Because now more than ever, that’s what we need.


No More Broccoli

My dad is an Episcopal priest. We moved to a new church when I was about 16. It is a medium sized church in Upstate New York, and one of the first sermons he gave there was about getting rid of “Broccoli Church.”

Sit down. Shut up. Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.

Church, for many, is a place you go not because you want to, but because it’s good for you, your parents made you, or your parents made you and therefor you’re going to force your kids to go as well. You sit in your pew, sing when required, respond when required, and be quiet when expected because it’s good for you. My dad wanted to change that. He wanted projects and events that people were excited about participating in and that would help the community. The congregation rallied behind this message. Families got involved. They planned and put on events. Ministry wasn’t only coming from the pulpit, it was coming from the congregation as well. For Christmas that year, the congregation gave my dad a bottle of Heinz ketchup and the label read, “Can’t Help Broccoli.”

This class has been about ending “broccoli school.”

Sit down. Shut up. Read this. It’s good for you.

We want education to come from all sides of the room. We recognize that students have the ability to teach each other, and also teach us (the instructors). We want students to be motivated by the projects they are working on. We want students to put forth their best work because they want to, not just because we control their grades. We want students to become the best engineers, critical thinkers, critical readers, mathematicians, soil scientists, landscape architects, food scientists, and whatever combination of whatever else they can be.

There’s no one way to do this, though. You don’t need to radically change the physical appearance of your classroom. You don’t need to have everything done on a computer. You don’t need to do away with lecture completely. You don’t need every single project, activity, or reading to have a direct real world application. Vegetables are gross, but they are still good for you.

My dad didn’t stop giving sermons. He didn’t tear up the pews and place them in a circle. He did, however, engage with the congregation outside of the service. Before the service on Sundays, after the service on Sundays. He met with parishioners on the weekday mornings and evenings. He added more than he took away, and I think that’s an experience we can learn from. Add more to your classroom; don’t just take away. Engage with your students; build a rapport. Jig saws will work some places, and not others. Lectures will work in some cases; and readings as well. The more tools you add, the better prepared you’ll be. Work on perfecting the craft of teaching, not perfecting the application of theory.




Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)

After being introduced to diversity statements in class two weeks ago I have been on the look form them.  A few days in an email advertising an Assistant Professor of Soil Microbiology position at University of California Riverside another mention of diversity statements.  Until this semester I had never heard any of my professors, friends… Continue reading Corn teaches us about diversity (or the consequences of the lack of diversity)

Devices everywhere and not a drop of knowledge gained

About once a year, I take a trip with friends to the Smokey Mountains. We rent a cabin and spend a long weekend catching up, and driving the local mountain roads. One of the interesting side effects of the trip is that it’s a long weekend of being nearly totally cut off from the outside world. Our usual cabin and a lot of the Smokey Mountains are out of the range of cell towers.

The number of times while sitting around chatting and a question is asked at least half the group subconsciously grabs for our phones, a handful get the phone out only to make some statement as they remember “oh yea, no signal…” and put the phone away.

The classrooms are much the same, students packed to the gills with devices, all of them active and rarely are they all on the task of education. To stress the difficulties their devices place on education we run discuss the issue of task switching and run an exercise. We have the students draw two lines on their paper, we start a timer and have them write above the first line write “task switching is a thief” and below the upper line write “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20” and then their time of completion. For the second round they have to alternate a letter from the sentence and a number and then time of completion. Inevitably almost everyone’s second time is significantly slower. Even with the evidence of the detriments of trying to multitask in front of them, they still do it. Some become so engrossed in their devices that I can even sit down next to them while they do anything but coursework and they don’t notice.

Having all of the access to information we have with these devices is great, but only if its used responsibility. I frequently see students who are spending class doing anything but paying attention who wind up missing information and asking me to fill them in later. We have tried a number of methods to encourage them to use the devices for class, but some just want to waste their time in class.

This is earth and I’m not alien

Diversity, especially ethnic diversity, always seems to be a new thing to me considering the majority of the population in China is Chinese. We were taught that China is made of 56 ethnic groups, and together we formed this harmonious society. But before coming to US, I only knew a few people from minority ethnic groups, and they looked exactly like Han people (the major race of Chinese) with similar lifestyle. In this sense,  the only “foreigner” I met in my first 18 years was a native English teacher. So most of the times, we Chinese people believe that we “are non-racist in the sense that most are not aware of our own multiethnic background and care little about it“.

Things changed rapidly the moment I arrived in US. I did not expect to become “nonresident alien” as if I came from outer space with the UFO. This title definitely confused me in the first few days and made me feel that US is not a great “melting pot” as advertised. I started to think about my ethnic background for the first time in my life. Fortunately, I was not treated differently as an “alien” during the first semester in VT. Surely the language and culture differences hit me. But after some adjustments in the following few months, I gradually get used to the new environment and made lots of new friends. As I walked through the campus, I could see faculty, staff, and students coming from different backgrounds and places and forming a robust and welcoming community.  By the end of the first year (2016), building an “inclusive VT” became one of the major goals in our university. The ultimate target of “inclusive VT” is to make sure that “inclusion and diversity is infused throughout Virginia Tech“.

A inclusive VT recognizes our diversified background and washes away any potential labels, “alien” for instance, to bring all members in this community as one. This is extremely important to higher education since we need a diversified and inclusive campus to “makes us smarter“, as Katherine Phillips believes. With different backgrounds, we saw things from various aspects and approach to questions in different ways. New and creative information can be brought into discussion, and potentially it is the key for solving the puzzle. Personally, I benefit a lot from this diversified campus and have multiple projects with all kinds of collaborators. The inclusive environment can help you find the strength as well as weakness of yourself and make best use of your merits. As a result, we can have a harmonious living environment with a enhanced working/research efficiency. I just hope this inclusiveness is not limited in VT or higher education but all over the US. As the most powerful country in the world, US should be famous for its inclusiveness instead of the tragedies, for example the one happened in Charlottesville. I do not want to talk about any politics involved, but treating people with different backgrounds as “aliens” is only isolating yourself.

Do you speak English?

I am international student from Nepal and I have been living in the US for about 5 years now. Over the course of these 5 years, I have had several experiences of being stereotyped based on how I look. Recently, as I was working in my office, an IT support person showed up as a response to the help desk ticket that someone from my office had put in. I was the only person in the office when he came and the first thing he asked me was, “Hi, do you speak English?”

I was very shocked. Although I have been a many time victim of racial stereotyping, this one greatly frustrated me. How could someone make an assumption that I couldn’t speak English just by looking at my skin color? Firstly, he well knew that he was at a Graduate Student Office and any graduate student at VT should be able to speak English having met the English proficiency requirements for admission at VT. What furiated me even more was that, when I answered a “YES” to his question, he gave me a surprised look and said “Oh!”

Many other times many people have asked me where I was originally from, how I was able to speak English well despite being a foreigner and how I didn’t have much of an “accent.” Some people don’t even think that its important to ask and make a direct comment such as “You are from India, aren’t you?” I think that some people find great joy in making assumptions and creating stereotypes, or as Shankar Vedantam would say that our “Hidden Brains” would like to do so.

I agree with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that people create stereotypes from a single story and it may not always be their fault. I think children from very young age should be taught and told stories about different places, people, and their cultures and that all humans are equal despite some differences, so that they don’t create stereotypes with a single story. Specially, parents and teachers have a great role in this.

I keep thinking of what I could do, as a future faculty, to promote diversity and make the learning environment for students more inclusive. I might not be able to bring in a whole lot of changes but I think even trying to practice what is already on the papers will help foster a welcoming and affirming environment. Here are a few things that I would try to do to promote diversity and inclusion as a faculty:

  • Make sure that I understand the needs and expectations of my students in the classroom.
  • Maintain a respectful and safe environment and speak up or take actions against any misconducts. I would be careful about what I speak and would try to reflect diversity and inclusion in my words and actions.
  • Create an environment where students feel free to share any issues (either in person or anonymously).
  • Bring up conversations and share ideas related to diversity and inclusion with other colleagues in the department.
  •  Serve in committees that work in diversity related issues and try to promote their events.

I would like to hear from you as well. What would you do to create and inclusive learning environment in your classrooms?


PS: I saw this on the news recently (many of you might have already seen this) and thought it was interesting:


If Only

‘Stereotypes are dangerous not because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, taken from her TED talk on the danger of single stories, reverberate around my brain. I begin to realize the grandeur of this statement. Single stories miss the essence of humanity, nay of life itself.

My perspective comes from that of a biologist. And looking at nature, I can tell you one thing: diversity is fundamental. How do I know? There are over 1000 species of jellyfish. And that’s just an example. If diversity wasn’t a good thing, it wouldn’t be here. That’s how natural selection works. In fact, the whole system would fall to pieces like a flimsy jigsaw puzzle on a bumpy car journey without it.

Thinking of these ideas in an academic context, diversity increases the quantity, and much more importantly, the quality of research output at all levels of focus (within a lab, within a department, within an institution). It’s not rocket science; you’re less likely to do something stupid if you have multiple perspectives assessing the problem at once. The single story in research is the recalcitrant professor who operates a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards collaboration.

The single story in teaching is the rigid syllabus, the standardized exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners et cetera. In this case, we often generalize out of pure laziness; it is a much more straightforward task to teach 30 clones than it is to teach 30 individuals and so we treat them as such. The convenience of viewing an audience as one however, does not justify the indirect result of denying people’s identities and alienating large swathes of the room. The fact that we have acknowledged the problem shows how far we have come; the fact that it is a problem show how far we have to go.

Diversity is one of the key constituents of life, and embracing diversity requires empathy and tact in equal measure. In her talk, Chimamanda also reminded me of my love for Rudyard Kipling, and thus it seems fitting to let him sum up:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
then you will be a Man, my son.’

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