Perfectionism

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.

“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.

Feedback and learning from instruction:

It’s been a funny semester. More than usual, it seems to me, there are two groups of students: the ones who worked through the process and are going to do fine; and the ones who didn’t, and won’t. In response I’m drafting a new section for the syllabus, titled ‘feedback and learning from instruction’. Here’s what I’ve got:

I expect, trust, and need you to learn from instruction. We can only go forward if we’re not constantly circling back.

I want you to succeed. I love when you succeed. The whole class is designed to get you to each requirement with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. The syllabus addresses all of the fundamentals. Class time will include instruction and practice of historical investigation: topic and question development, research, and analysis. You will get the knowledge you need from your own research. In effect, the whole class is a massively integrated system of feedbacks for you to use to raise your level and succeed.

If you wait to learn until I address you personally, you will have missed out on all that, and you may not succeed. There’s little point in repeating instruction you’ve already ignored once, or in giving you personal new instruction if you have not yet engaged with the instruction you’ve already received. The way to do better is to do what you’re being taught, to grasp the logic of that instruction, and to surpass it creatively. I can help a lot with that if you exert your effort and intelligence to master the basics. If you don’t, my personal feedback to you is this: exert your effort and intelligence to master the basics.

Of course this is a fool’s errand. The students this is aimed at are the ones who aren’t reading the syllabus. If they were, they already wouldn’t be doing the bonehead stuff that stimulates this reply. And making the syllabus longer with more sections and verbiage just makes ignoring it more and more likely.

But as Rachel says, it expresses clearly my thinking about the teaching / learning process and sharing of responsibilities. She thinks I should put it right up front. And a disgruntled student who rolled the dice on ignoring the process and didn’t like the outcome might be pointed at this, at which point Rachel imagines they might actually feel a little sad. Which I certainly do in those cases.

Your attention please!

As part of the department’s ongoing self-assessments, my friend and colleague Rebecca sat in on one of my World History sections yesterday. It was a good experience, and I learned something I might never have noticed about my own teaching otherwise.

We were doing peer review and workshopping of drafts for the second paper. I’ve been working with a rubric of the research and writing process that starts with a topic that is “freaking interesting,” leading to curiosity, leading to questions, leading to research, leading to answers, leading to new questions, leading to evolution of the topic … and so on until it’s time to report something out. So then the paper rubric is TOPIC, QUESTION, RESEARCH, FINDINGS.

Across all my classes this semester, this seems to be doing a particularly good job of lighting the light bulb that these papers are works of curiosity and discovery, not dull exercises mandated by an arbitrary authority. We had some of that in this class too. One of the students reluctantly volunteered its draft, afraid as usual to lose face. We looked it over together; it was a decent data dump (which for this student was a significant improvement). So I started asking questions. What’s your topic? What do you find interesting about it? The student started to explain difficulties it had had in finding direct reference to its area of concern in 1515. It turns out, that’s because it wasn’t something they were concerned about then in the same way we are now. They handled it this other way instead. I said, that’s freaking interesting! You figured something out – maybe that’s the paper! Then Rebecca said, sometimes it’s the holes in the evidence that are interesting – how can we figure out what was in there? Light bulbs all over.

A few other students started to join in the questioning. I made space in the draft document (I was projecting it up front from Dropbox) and wrote three sentences summarizing the topic and question as it had emerged from the discussion. I said, how’s this look? Game changer. I said, isn’t this just what you said? Yep. So I asked the rest of the class, what’s there to learn from this for the rest of your drafts? Get clear on what your topic is. Figure out what you’re curious about. Decide what your research shows you about that. What do you know, and how do you know it. Say those things!

We talked about the linear style of supporting a point with evidence, and the more elliptical style of walking around a topic looking at it from various perspectives, gaining understanding without necessarily bringing it to a particular point. This student’s project seemed to fit the latter style better. Again, light bulbs. Rebecca then picked up a cue the student had dropped in passing that opened up one of those strolls, a dimension of the topic the student had seen and noted without really thinking through. Light bulbs.

Throughout this, several other students were joining in with questions and observations. In a couple of cases I mentioned their topics and asked them what they were getting from the discussion that could help them with their work. We did several mini-versions of the topic / question / research / findings q and a. At the end I said, you can do this, right? And everyone gave a confident nod.

A good day at the office. OK, so what about attention? Well afterwards, Rebecca remarked that sitting in the back of the classroom had allowed her to observe how the students directed their attention, especially what they were doing on their laptops or other devices. She said the class started with only a few of the students apparently paying attention. As it went along, some of those dropped out and others dropped in. All of the class was tuned in at one time or another, but not all at the same time. And she said, I realized Carl doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t need them to pay attention the whole time. He just wants them to pay attention some of the time.

I cracked up, because she’s absolutely right, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought that through as an intentional practice. I’ve evolved that from seeing how classrooms work from both the student and teacher perspectives. Rebecca and I talked about the research showing that most people can’t sustain focused attention for more than 10-15 minutes. We can wish otherwise, but it’s never seemed like a hill worth dying on to me. So for important instruction like yesterday’s, I loop back through the same lesson again and again, reframing and retargeting it, calling in attention every once in awhile to bring the key points into focus. As long as the students tune in every so often, they’re going to get at least a corner of the lesson. And as Confucius said, if students can’t find the other three corners for themselves, the lesson isn’t worth teaching.