Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

That’s a wrap

I just told a section of introductory World History they were going to make me cry, and let them out a half hour early.

Their second paper is due next week, so this week was for workshopping. My focus was on the analysis rubric: people, events, ideas, structures, dynamics. I had run through this several times over the course of the semester, not expecting them to learn it yet but just to get it familiar. (They don’t learn things until they need them for something. I’ve observed this over and over – we waste so much time teaching out of sequence with tasks! But I learned it first from Dyke the Elder years ago remarking that he’d had Calculus three different times but only learned it the third, because he needed it then for something else he was doing. Feynman says this in his famous lectures on physics, as well.)

Tuesday I asked the students to pull out their devices and look up structure and dynamics. Because the pump was primed, they found the ‘right’ definitions right away. We talked for a second about how these concepts could be helpful in organizing and making sense of the mass of information they’ve accumulated in their research. Then I pulled up one of their draft introductory paragraphs and we walked through it together, finding the people, events, ideas, structures, and dynamics it mentioned or implied. I diagrammed this all simply on the whiteboard as we went, and filled it up easily. I got the sense that this process really opened their eyes to how much was involved in even the simplest analyses.

Today we pulled up another paragraph, and with very little prompting they did the same exercise with it. The topic was Nazi propaganda, and the author had already figured out that their project was more about redirection than persuasion. By the end, we were talking about feed-in and feedback dynamics among citizens, the army, and the party. It was way cool.

I asked the whole group what they were learning for their own work from the discussion of their classmates’. One said it was seeing its research in a whole new light, as a way to figure things out rather than just amass and spout information. Another said it was now seeing a whole series of connections between its research and the rest of the class. A third chimed in that it was like we were writing a textbook together.

I asked if they wanted to workshop another paragraph and they said no, we’re ready. Which I thought was a good place to stop for the day.

A good problem to have

With an election approaching and heated rhetoric swirling in all my social and media feeds, I organized all of my classes this semester around the theme of Godwin’s Law. So that means it’s all Nazis, all the time for me this semester. Which can be wearing. But here’s an email I just got:

Greetings Dr. D,

I am having some trouble with my second paper and thought I’d reach out to you in an effort to sort out my thoughts.  Honestly I’m not even sure exactly what I’m going to be writing about, which I’m sure is 90% of the problem ::insert nervous faced emoji here::.  I know that I want this paper to talk about Hindenburg and others like him fearing Communism so much that Hitler was the “lesser of two evils.”  Those people did not want to lose their power or their property.  It was about their status and social position.  I want to talk about how that is just as important, if not more so, in contributing to Hitler’s rise to power.   I also know they thought they could use Hitler to their advantage, but I’m not quite sure what that advantage was.  Anyway, a lot of what I’ve read talks about these on the surface things, like the Treaty of Versailles, as the reason Hitler came to power (basically all the stuff I wrote in my last paper).  And although those things absolutely contributed, I think there were other things happening “backstage” that got the ball rolling, like the aforementioned power struggle.

Well there’s a good problem to have. I told this student to read back what it just wrote, trust what it had figured out, and go for it. Then, since this is a semester-long research project and I’m gradually nudging them past the people / intentions / events layer of analysis, I suggested that

Going forward, you’re absolutely getting into a complex systems kind of analysis. So the next layer after you get the intentions and trajectories of the various actors sorted is to see how those were emerging from and evolving interactively within the larger settings, at various scales.

I do not expect that to be fully self-explanatory in itself, but this and quite a few other students are getting to where they can collate a remark like this with a lot of other things I’ve showed them and we’ve talked about and practiced in class to scaffold up. Which is way cool.

After years of comprehensive education, these students came in pretty uniformly convinced “Hitler was a bad man” was fully explanatory. (From this starting point, “Hitler had some good ideas but” counts as critical thinking.) Three months of critical discussion, ignorance mapping, recursive primary and secondary research, paper drafting and workshopping, lather rinse repeating later, the puzzles have gotten quite a bit more worthy of human intelligence.

Reparations and denial

I had an interesting conversation in the race and ethnicity class the other day. We had just watched one of the great heroic historian movies, Paul Verhoeven’s “The Nasty Girl” featuring Lena Stolze.

Lena’s character gets herself and a lot of other people into a bunch of trouble by digging at the Nazi past of her nice little hometown, and so we were talking about anti-Semitism in the 1930s, exploring the idea that the past could be left to bury its own dead, as they say. It’s an appealing idea even to a professional historian, when the alternative is dredging up pain and ruining lives and just generally a lot of fuss.

The movie shows that local fortunes were built on the expropriation of the Jews. So I asked, what about people enriched and impoverished in the present because of historical injustice? One of the (white) students remarked that it would still make sense to move on, as long as there were some kind of reparations. It paused and got a faraway look about halfway through the word ‘reparations’. As a teacher I don’t take positions on such matters, so I just let the moment sit there.

Just now I was looking over Liam Hogan’s post “Debunking the imagery of the ‘Irish slaves’ meme” (first of a series). It consists of a helpfully curated series of historical images from the meme, along with properly researched reattributions. It turns out the myth of the Irish slave is an American equivalent of Holocaust denial, complete with preposterously repurposed ‘evidence’ to support the conclusion that there’s no legitimate beef and the ‘victims’ are just trying to get away with something at good folks’ expense.

Memories of Nobody

Now what? There I was at the Oslo airport waiting my next flight to a place where it would be my home of two years. The United World Colleges in Norway was perhaps the only place where I felt some kind of freedom.

I could chose to study what I wanted and select my own classes. I was shocked and scared. I wouldn’t have to take 16 subjects. My brain was like a cocktail infused with knowledge I might never find a purpose for.  How far could an Albanian student with a broken English and Italian learned from cartoons go? Well I had to catch up somehow and attended a bunch of English courses. Let’s get back to the freedom part. The student body was composed of students from all over the world. It was like an oasis of peace and understanding. I shared room with a Palestinian, an Egyptian, and a Haitian. One would think that it was all like a green field with grass, rainbows and unicorns. We would get into heated debates over world events, and ideas. Sometimes we would end up trying on breaking the system. Creating student organization opposition groups and mocking the student organization and opposing their administration ass kissing rules. One has to stay busy when living in middle of nowhere. I did put my chemistry lesions to work by creating smoke bombs and causing panic in Model UN Security Council meetings. I was the organizer of the event. Even though I got into trouble.

The professors were addressed by the students by their first name, despite the academic achievements they had. The teacher-student interaction was at a level I could have never imagined. At home the professors are seen as this high figure of authority and having any kind of social interaction with them, was unseen. We would get invited to watch a soccer match or for diner at our professors place. They would cook and even do the dishes. I had to admit that I was a little surprised when my Canadian math professor would bring his famous carrot cake to class and often he  would spent all night baking. That is indeed a good way to keep students excited to be in a math class. The classes were organized in a matter where every student could give his contribution to the lesson. Much more like Carl Dykes round tables. The new Arthurian model.   There was not such a thing as the teacher’s favorite, not as far as what I experienced. The students weren’t separated into good or bad ones. They could choose the subjects they would like to study instead of having to take 16 different subjects a week. All students had to study the IB (International baccalaureate) despite of their levels of English, and their place of origin. Students with low level of English were placed into ESL English classes. The course was designed to help students with low proficiency of written and spoken English. I observed that the UWC in Norway focused its area of study in the Social Sciences. They would have good history, politics, economics, and human rights programs. Sciences were popular but not as much, I figure that the college was trying to better represent the Norwegian state by reflecting the Norwegian education type into theirs.

One of the things that amazed me the most, was the creation of NGO’s and Projects. These NGO’s and Projects were student run. I volunteered for an NGO named Do Remember Other People and I would fund rise for them by selling souvenirs to the Norwegian local community. The funds gathered would support a school for disabled students in Ethiopia. We would pay the rent of the school and the salaries of the teachers. It felt quite accomplishing to be honest. For the first time I felt that my work as a volunteer meant something. I haven’t found such a thing in no other place.

“Good” student “bad” student.

I have been through three educational systems. I have attended a private liberal primary school in Albania where languages such as English, Italian, and German were mandatory for students to choose from. Where students were divided into bad and good students, the good students would sit on the front rows next to the teacher, and the bad students would sit on the back row. I sat somewhere in the middle. What really means to be a good or a bad student though? Where my professors too lazy to dedicate time to some students who had learning problems? As I mentioned before, I sat somewhere in the middle of the classroom. The “bad” students were sitting by the tables on the back row and the “good” students on the front row closer to the professor and the blackboard. I wasn’t considered a good or a bad student. Let’s just say I was somewhere in the middle. Hence, the place where I was seated. If I look back at the sitting scheme, it reminds me of where Bart Simpson from “The Simpsons” sat in class, and how he influenced the grades of the students around him.  The farther a student sat from Bart the better were the chances on getting a good grade and passing. I wonder though if that is what my professors had in mind. Dividing the students based on categories and only paying attention to the ones who they thought was worthy of their attention, and simply ignore some students who according to them had no perspective in life.  As an average student I often felt out of place. My professors would always tell me that I have lots of potential, and that I’m just lazy.  “If you could just try a little harder and not hang out with your friends on the back row you can be a great student” they would often say. I hated when they told me that.  I did enjoy getting in trouble just like the “bad” students. We would skip classes and go out for a smoke or an occasional beer. But that little escape from the professors iron fist wouldn’t last long. There would always be someone who would snitch for a better grade.

“An ongoing myriad of structures”

For the past few years Dyke the Elder and I have been more or less working on a paper about teaching complexity. We haven’t found a home for it yet, and in the meantime I’ve been gathering data in the form of student journal entries from the class demonstration and discussion of a Calder-style mobile.

Here’s one of those I just read. This is a student who engaged immediately and continuously with the class, and so was well-primed for the epiphany it describes by the time of this discussion, just before and after midterm break. I think there are signs here beyond textual assertion that a transformation is occurring. In fact, I think it’s visible even in the diction and vocabulary shift in this entry. This student is clearly pretty rough around the edges, but in the end it pulled together a semester’s research on the hystory of hysteria into a cogent, well-informed, and perceptively analyzed final paper.

Today in class we discussed variables and how they affect our situation. For example, when your driving do you have a control on all of the variables around you? The answer is no. you don’t know if there’s a drunk driver heading your way, or the person in front of you is texting and about to stop short at the light, you don’t know if someone is going to run the light and t-bone you….but you don’t consider these variables. So each situation is an even[t] with various structures within it much like driving. At this moment came the epiphany that there are an ongoing myriad of structures occurring within any given situation of our lives. The mobile represents the connections between the variables and structures that make up the events of life.