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.


Here at MU we’ve got a pretty generous student worker policy. Each of us can have one or more student workers if we can produce an explanation of how they’d come in handy. Their compensation is part of the financial aid package.

I’ve had several over the years. Their official title is “Igor,” pronounced eye-gore like the Marty Feldman character in “Young Frankenstein.” They’ve done various things for me, from rearranging my bookshelves by color to peer reviewing all my World History papers to bringing me up to speed on digital resources.

This semester’s Igor is an Albanian guy, which is fun because Gramsci (he tells me we’re spelling it wrong) was Albanian-Italian, and also because when my family lived in Italy in the 70’s we mythologized Albania (then a closed society) as a mysterious land of crazy geniuses. Which has, in fact, pretty much fit the few Albanians I’ve known.

OK, so on to the ‘fun’. Igor has been sitting in on one of my World History sections, to get a feel and make suggestions about how to improve the learning experience for students. He’s prepped me with a lot of great traditional teaching materials about 1914 (our topic at the moment). But it’s become clear that we’re not really on the same page about the project, which is no surprise and a learning opportunity for both of us.

I don’t want to be throwing traditional teaching materials at the students; I want to be guiding them in a process of figuring out how to find stuff for themselves. Igor has been impatient with the chaos of this process; he sees the students spinning their wheels and thinks we’re not really getting anywhere. But he’s very smart, and he pays attention, so he gets that I’m not going to be lecturing. What we need to do, he says, is package up the historical resources so they’re “fun” for the students.

Igor’s so far ahead of the game. It took me until grad school to figure this out. So much better than jamming the porridge down the students’ throats. Then it took me until I’d been teaching on my own for five or six years to become dissatisfied with it. It’s a trap. Yes, you win hearts and minds; you gain a positive relationship and a comradely process. Some learning does happen. But, once you go down the rathole of what students find fun, it’s almost impossible to get out. That fun sticks to what they already know and think like glue. Unless they happen to find learning fun, what they find fun and interesting is itself the cognitive / emotional limitation a higher education is meant to open out into new abilities, possibilities, and perspectives.

What I have to offer is not the laborious translation of history into their existing ludic frames. What I have to offer is whole new ways to have fun. The fun of understanding complex processes; of puzzling through ignorance to knowledge; of knowing what the hell you’re talking about. The fun of belonging in adult conversations, of being taken seriously for the quality of your insight and not just tolerated for the humanity of your personal opinion. The fun of a whole world bursting with interesting things, in which nothing isn’t interesting. Most of them don’t know this stuff is fun yet, because it’s not how education has ever worked for them. For some of them, the fun has been actively sucked out of learning. Trying to make learning fun in the ways they’re used to is not a solution to that problem.

Nowadays I try to make the process quirky and offbeat and informal in ways that are at least intriguing and non-threatening. But the fun doesn’t really start until they’ve hesitantly selected a topic and done some research and actually found something out. It’s then that the magic of education can slide in among the other pleasures of our lives.

World history in the tranches

My feeds have been flooded with anniversary stuff for the Great War (WWI, if you prefer) and I, in my usual catlike way when other people want me to pay attention to stuff for reasons I haven’t come around to myself, have been ignoring it. Also because I dislike the whole special occasion / anniversary approach to attention-getting, as if the reason things are worth attending to is because they happened some particular amount of time ago. And yes, I do feel that way about birthdays, including my own.

But also in my catlike way I eventually do come around when the thing actually is worth attending to. So I’ve decided, I think, to use the Great War and this burbling up of materials about it as an occasion to do something I’ve talked about before, which is to organize my World History classes around in-depth study of a year, in this case 1914. And since it’s an introductory class and meant to be a survey, I figured I’d add tranches at 1814, 1714, 1614, and 1514. The idea is to make sharp cuts into world history in relative depth, rather than the usual superficial textbook brushover. This is always my approach, but in the past I’ve made the tranches regionally and sociologically more than chronologically.

So I figured we’d start with 1914 and do sort of the standard survey together, using the course texts. Then branch out into group research projects around politics, society, economy, culture, and environment. The global scope is bound to be a confound, so we’ll have to talk about that and how to manage it, thinking in terms of regions and dynamics and, pragmatically, sources. They’ll be required to keep a process journal, and the first paper will grow out of it. Their job is to figure out 1914.

I reckon that can take us up through midterm. When we come back, they’ll divide into research teams for each of the other tranches, back to 1514. The second paper will relate to the first – somehow, based on where their knowledge and curiosity has gone. There’s something each one is figuring out at this point, another, even deeper tranche. The final paper puts the first two together and transforms them by developing the connection, whatever it is.

I want to use Haraway / Dumit’s ‘implosion’ technique John McCreery connected us to at Dead Voles. I especially want to do Dumit’s knowledge maps and ignorance maps. In my experience focusing too much on reflexive epistemology just confuses most students and shuts them down, but we can at least get at how knowledge is constructed actively and recursively. I also want to keep working on getting more of the ’roundtable’ experiences I’ve discussed before into the class. The first section sets up well for roundtabling the synchronic perspectives assembled (and not) by the war; the second, for exploring shifting (and not) perspectives over time. I think this part of the agenda pushes the implosion analysis toward perspectives as its most likely objects, but I’m going to be flexible about that if students’ curiosity is drawn to other kinds of objects.

This is pretty much the plan of the course; how it works out in particular will vary for the usual constitutive and interactive reasons. I’m at least a week out from doing the syllabus, though, so I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions!

P.s. – In an earlier moment I was finally going to let my frustration with the “Hitler-was-a-uniquely-bad-man-who-hoodwinked-the-gullible-Germans-and-personally-killed-lots-of-Jews” papers I sometimes get, accelerated by hysterical public pronouncements by official persons that Obamacare is just like the Holocaust, direct the class into an in-depth examination of those hypotheses in all their historical inglory. I’ll just do that next time, unless someone talks me out of it or something better comes up.

Taking refuge in the facts

My colleague and department chair Karen came to one of my world history sections today. She was there to do a formal evaluation for our new merit pay system, but when she got up to speed on what we were doing, she also jumped in and participated impromptu, as Virginia Woolf, in a roundtable with Elizabeth I and Nelson Mandela. (I was Emma Goldman but didn’t join a roundtable in this particular session.) It was a fine time.

Karen and I debriefed afterwards, and she made an observation that really helped me understand what I was trying to accomplish with the roundtables. Even though I’ve been doing them for years, to be honest I’d always thought of them as something of a soft gimmick, mainly useful to change the game and extract a drop or two of value from the end of a long semester. Karen helped me put my finger on why I had a feeling that they were at least potentially something better, and more consistent with my teaching objectives.

The roundtables are discussions among three or four students performing historical characters that they have researched. The model is, very loosely, Steve Allen’s old tv show, “Meeting of Minds.” That show was scripted, and consequently pretty dull. But the task for the students in the roundtables is to know their character so well that they can perform them on the fly in an open-ended conversation with unexpected partners for about 15-20 minutes. Today, as always, they did this with varying levels of expertise, gusto, and skill. Karen’s observation was that, as she put it, even the least inspired students were “driven to refuge in the facts.”

It’s true that through the years I’ve tried various things to keep the students from doing that awkward little icebreaker where, like a really bad tv drama or the world’s dullest party, each dramatis persona enters and stops the action by making an earnest declaration of her backstory and motivation. I can get pretty frustrated and disappointed about that. But from Karen’s perspective, what was happening was that the students were defaulting at a much higher and more productive level than usual. We struggle around here, as in so much public discourse, to get students to focus on anything that might count as a fact. When faced with demands for evidence, they default to silence, or declarations of their beliefs and raw feels. From this perspective, students who are taking refuge in the facts are a real level up.

How did it happen, and how did I miss it?

Well, first a little story. I was walking by a colleague’s classroom awhile back, and I heard it earnestly explaining to its students how to alphabetize a Works Cited page. Now, I have no doubt that the students are capable of generating strategic incompetence at this mind-destroying level. But I think catering to that is not just to stare into the abyss, but to jump in and take up residence. I think the students are perfectly capable of figuring out how to alphabetize, and how to write relatively cleanly, and how to cite sources, and all the other little chores of academic responsibility, without a lot of modeling and prompting and cajoling and reminding and general teachering. I tell students those things are like the ante in poker. You’re not even in the game until you’re doing that stuff, and you’ve got to play to win. Get in the game.

In short, that’s all trivia not to get lost in. I want students to figure things out – to discover, to interpret, to analyze, to organize and convey. You can’t even get to there from Schatzi, Brunhilde comes before Scheisse, Otto von. So what I want from the roundtables is a really rigorous commitment to understanding a historical person so fully that it becomes possible to react to unexpected lines of conversation as they would have. And what I often get is little biographical narratives and statements of principles. And I’m disappointed by that, especially after a long, grueling school year. But as Karen reminded me today, the arc from facts to understanding is much shorter and more doable than the arc from comma splices to a recognizable QE-1.

Karen reminded me, or more accurately minded me because I’d never thought it through, that the roundtables give each student both an expertise and a responsibility about that expertise. They are tasked with knowing their characters, and have to bring what they’ve got to a social situation that doesn’t work without their active input. Furthermore, by throwing their characters out of their comfort zones on mismatched panels with unfamiliar interlocutors, the cognitive bar is raised and the bottom level of remotely adequate engagement becomes that ‘refuge in the facts’ Karen identified. They have to at least know enough to babble out some true things. And they have to do that under the pressure not of regurgitating those facts, but actually conversing with other persons who are pursuing a line of discussion. Which means they have to do something with those facts: search for relevance, interpret, and present the perspective of a historical other in at least that rudimentary way. Well, I can live with that as process work.

Conditions, resources, strategies, charette

This has been a trying semester in my World History sections. The students have so far barely shown any signs of connecting to the conceptual rubric, which is conditions, resources, strategies. Two sets of papers have been thinly researched data dumps or gee-whiz History Channel handwaving. As far as I can see, I’ve set up all the same conditions I did in previous, more successful semesters, but the outcomes have been quite different.

Of course students bring conditions with them, and then act (or don’t act) as both conditions and resources for each other. I’m not seeing much sparkle out of that part of the dynamic this time around. I think it’s also fair to say that my own energy has been a bit low, for various reasons, not least of which the effects of routinizing a set of pedagogical strategies that worked their magic before as exciting experiments.

I could have just accepted the last batch of papers as evidence of a grim fate; I’ve seen many colleagues go that route. But I decided to get stubborn, refuse to accept the papers they’d given me as finished work, and make this week about an intense workshopping process. I told them it was optional and they could leave if they wanted (none did). Today we focused on getting the c/r/s analysis functional, and Thursday we’ll work on getting serious about research.

So for today’s sessions I went back to a strategy that’s worked before (thanks to John McCreery for this), the charette – basically an intense group brainstorm used a lot by design types. So I started by soliciting spitball definitions of conditions, resources, and strategies onto the board. Easy; the definitions aren’t the problem. Then in each section I pulled up a paper basically at random and we all read it on the projection screen. They got into small groups, and I gave them lots of sticky notes and the instruction to fill each one with a condition, a resource, or a strategy that they’d seen in the text or subtext of the paper they’d read. When they were done they plastered a white board with the notes, then I set them as a large group to organizing the notes.

The usual suspects did the actual shuffling, but the level of focused attention from the whole group was impressive. As the notes went into condition, resource, and strategy columns, arguments started to bubble up about whether the plague was a condition or a resource, or whether farmland or the Reichstag fire could count as a condition, resource, or strategy depending on how you looked at them, and how Germany’s unstable conditions made Hitler and Hindenburg resources for each other, and so on. In one section I had to prompt the students to pull some of the notes together into a focused analysis, in the other they did it spontaneously. In both, they did it with no difficulty. This had not happened in any of the papers. I pointed this out and there was lots of thoughtful nodding.

Should I have done this at the beginning? I’m not sure it would have worked then; there was clearly a scaffolding that they just hadn’t figured out how to assemble yet. Maybe before the second paper rather than after it, since it’s clear that all of the walkthroughs of this kind of analysis in class discussion hadn’t sunk in as doable practice. Well, we’ll see if this does either, but I’m encouraged.