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.



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.

Why do American teachers stink at learning how to teach?

Via the Facebook page of Making Thinking Visible (Project Zero, Visible Thinking) comes an interesting article from the NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”

It turns out a big chunk of the answer is, because American teachers stink at learning how to teach. This stinkage is illustrated by contrast to the Japanese, who ironically got jazzed about American innovations in teaching theory and practice during the ’80s, and implemented them at the same time they were going nowhere in the U.S. The article, which is adapted from Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher, argues that although the U.S. is a leader in conceptual innovation and extraordinary experimentation, we do a particularly bad job of general implementation because we fail to actually show teachers how to do the exciting new thing. This has happened over and over again. In contrast again, the Japanese made a commitment to the change and poured tremendous institutional and peer support into training up the educators. So in fact Green’s thesis is that it’s not that we stink at learning how to teach, but at teaching how to teach.

No doubt this is true, or at least it’s a perennial complaint. But there’s something a little odd about the argument. The consistent theme of each iteration of innovation is to take an experimental attitude to teaching, and to commit to an open-ended process of discovery. The Japanese teacher offered as model is Takeshi Matsuyama. “At the university-affiliated elementary school where Matsuyama taught, he turned his classroom into a kind of laboratory, concocting and trying out new teaching ideas.” The idea is to set up a discovery-oriented environment, then let students figure it out for themselves.

So, why does Green think teachers themselves need something other than this? I realize there are all sorts of strategies that ‘facilitate’ this process – I’ve developed many by doing, learned others by paying attention and reading and making connections. There’s much more for me to learn, and plenty I’ve forgotten that I shouldn’t have. I could tell all this to apprentices. But again, the point of the method is self-discovery through recursive experimentation and research and reflection. It’s really the opposite of ‘we need to show these people how to do this algorithm’, which is precisely the old model that we’re trying to get over. On this view, we don’t at all need to show teachers how to do this. We just need to set them to the task and let them sort it out.

Well in actual fact, that hasn’t worked. Instead, confusion reigns and the reform collapses back into old habits. Which, as Dave Mazella keeps saying, have the substantial merit of not working in familiar ways that define the norm, reinforced and perpetuated by what Green calls the “apprenticeship of observation.” And since it’s clearly the case that failure is endemically acceptable – normal, in fact – in the American education system, so things remain. Would teaching the teachers how to teach change that?

I’m not sure. It’s the disposition of discovery and risk that’s missing; that would seem to be built into our system, but it was in Japan too. And it would seem to be simple enough – it’s a one-page handout, a blog post – to convey the concept of moving from an “I, We, You” to a “You, Y’All, We” classroom framework. Try it, work with it. Here’s a problem: “Without the right training, most teachers do not understand math well enough to teach it the way [innovator Magdalene] Lampert does.” But Lampert’s method does not require the teacher to understand math, yet. It requires the teacher to understand the process of figuring math out, which, as the math-in-the-wild examples in the article show, is available to anyone who accepts the need to do so and puts their mind to it. Again, the idea that there’s some special training teachers need here seems off-base.

Green tells poignantly of teachers trying to do it right, but instead taking the new script and jamming the old one into it.

And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones.

How could she have known? Well, did her students figure something out or not? Did they start getting right answers or not? Why were their answers right or wrong? Really, she has to be told that eventually the point is to get to right answers? She’s looking for a recipe, rather than paying attention to what’s happening. It’s not hard to know if students are learning or not, if you pay attention and think a little.

What’s needed is curiosity and responsibility. When teachers have these, all is well, just as when students have them, all is well. The Japanese (and Finnish, and exotic flavor-of-the-month) example show that this can, to a degree, be generalized. I’m not sure what it would take to enable this in the American setting, but years of failed innovation suggest it’s not a one-variable problem.

What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.

Book-burning: Censorship, ideology, and dissent

– is the perfectly good title my Chair Karen invented for my contribution (in April) to the local library’s “Fighting the Fires of Hate” events associated with a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Museum. I’m to talk, roughly speaking, about Nazi banned / burned books, which is not what we’d call an area of expertise for me. What to do, what to do.

Well, at the moment we’re in the part of the evening semester where our students in the ‘bad writing’ class are leading discussion on genres of bad writing they selected and researched. (Assigning ~50 ideally genre-representative pages for class reading, which has been an adventure.) Last night, the group that picked Nazi banned / burned books (yes, I prompted, but gently) was up. They picked Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) as the focus of discussion, and assigned the first 50 pages. Missing the points of ‘genre’, ‘representation’, and ‘selection’ a little, but it’s a work in progress.

After about five minutes of show-and-tell that was beginning to wind down into mumbling and paper shuffling, Patrick and I sprang into action to encourage a practice and salvage a learning situation. We zeroed in on the scene right at the beginning where the soldiers are getting double rations because about half of them died that day, and started to play the ‘so what?’ game. Why might Hitler have thought that was bad? “Well, it depicts the realities of war!” What realities? “Lots of guys die and supplies are sometimes scarce!” Yes. So what? Does anyone dispute that? Lots of French guys died too, but they won the war and didn’t produce a famous banned book on the subject. “But the men are miserable!” Yes. So what? “The war sucks and they know it!” Yes. So what? “This scene might cause readers to think critically and question the war.” Yes. So what?

Things were moving along, but the analysis was sticking on the idea that this was a starkly realistic and sensible portrayal of the war, and that was the problem. So we said, let’s take context seriously and accept for a moment that this was banned at a time (right away, 1933) when every adult knew already how tough war was. Millions of people died in the Great War less than 20 years earlier, nearly a million at Verdun alone. Hitler knew it, the Nazis knew it, Remarque knew it and everyone else knew it, many because they lived through it, if nothing else because they lost some relatives. Everyone did. There was absolutely no news in the losses and privations of war. So, what’s the problem? … Anyone?

OK, let’s notice that we agree with Remarque’s soldiers, and his implied perspective. We take for granted that war is factually hell, that lots of casualties are factually a problem, that supply breakdowns are factually a hardship. We sympathize with the soldiers’ bleak stoicism and opportunistic appetites. So instead, let’s imagine Hitler writing that scene, using the same facts. Half the guys die, the other half pig out on the extra supplies. What’s his take on this? How’s he feel about German soldiers whining about food and wolfing down the rations of the honored dead?

I swear that the room echoed with an audible click.

So we went through another round of ‘so whats’ that got us to something like an accurate account of Nazi ideology re: glory, honor, sacrifice, striving, progress, the Fatherland, in the process of which we drew in the next section of the text, in which ignorance, the hectoring of Kantorek the schoolmaster, and the pressure of peers and social expectations account for all those young ‘volunteers’, not a heroic sense of duty and indomitable Aryan will. So clearly Hitler and the Nazis were all about propaganda – all about clouding the minds of the young with high-sounding lies. All that work and we’re back to what everyone knows already about those Nazi scum, that they were ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies.

Back to context. Before class I’d pulled up on my tablet the University of Arizona’s Banned Books, 1932-1939 page (#4 on the Google search of ‘nazi banned books’ and found, but not used, by our student presenters). When it became clear that the analysis had gotten stuck again I read from “12 Theses Against the Un-German Spirit: A Propaganda Campaign of the German Students’ Association (Twelve Book-burning Slogans), as printed in the Voelkischer Beobachter, April 14, 1933:”

6. We wish to eradicate lies, we want to denounce treason, we want for us students, institutions of discipline and political education, not mindlessness….

8. We demand of the German students the desire and capability for independent knowledge and decisions.

So, we have a hypothesis that the Nazis were busily spreading lies and eradicating mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. And we have a passionate Nazi demand to eradicate lies and spread mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. Is the hypothesis supported? Should we at least consider the possibility that the Nazis actually believed they were in possession of a truth that any mindful, independent thinker would freely embrace, and that it was their opponents who were the ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies? Whose books were not just conveniently, but righteously burned?

There was more, but that’s the gist. And thanks to my students I now know, I think, what I’m going to be doing at my library talk.

Conditions of work

I’ve been struggling with this teaching/learning journal because it feels like judgment and so it feels like I need to write perfect little essays, which for me is a disabling frame of mind. But that’s not what it’s for – it’s a rough field journal. So I’m going to try to get over that feeling. In the meantime, here’s an overelaborated post by the ideal standards of the genre:

I’ve been reading a report on gen ed reform (pdf) originally produced at Portland State University. It’s got the merits of being research-based and giving a glimpse behind the curtain of the reform process. One of the really important drifts of it (this is in 1994) is the contrast of an exposure-to-content gen ed model and an orientation-to-learning gen ed model, with its corollary contrast of consuming knowledge and producing knowledge. Very roughly speaking, in the first model content is the input, in the second it’s the output of a class. (Of course it’s almost never that simple in practice.) Another really important drift of the report is that students ‘get’ a gen ed that involves them in improving their learning and thinking skills, while bitterly resenting a gen ed that feels like a bunch of arbitrary content hoops they have to jump through.

Today I started my two gen ed World History classes on the orientation-to-learning path. Our topic this semester is ‘conditions of work’, and we began today with Nzinga Mbemba’s famous letter to the King of Portugal, from the early 16th century. We were in a circle, as usual, about 25 students per class. Warmed up by taking roll for the Registrar, played with names a little bit to relax the mood, then asked them to open the book. On the first page of the reading several things were going on, so we did some meatball epistemology: what are they? An editorial introduction consisting of skinny context; a section of questions for reading; a source citation for the document; and the start of the letter itself. How might it matter to notice these distinctions – doesn’t ‘the book’ just say things?

We (that is, the five or six easy talkers in both sections and I) got pretty quickly to the perspective-shift between primary and secondary sources, which allowed us to talk about perspective, bias, and the ‘God’s eye view’. Since we’re all limited in our scope, where’s the truth? Some of it is in each perspective, they said, so we agreed that improved truthiness comes from bringing diverse perspectives together. So primary sources have privileged direct access to bits of the truth, whereas ideally secondary sources are working synthetically with bigger chunks of it.

So if that’s true, why didn’t Reilly, the expert editor of the volume, just tell us everything he knows? Why did he stop at two skinny paragraphs? Why are we reading this rich but undeniably partial source? Well, from the pedagogical quotes in the syllabus we’d talked last (the first) week about Confucius’ suggestion that good teachers give students one corner of a subject and expect them to find the other three themselves. Not just the content but its mode of acquisition is important – being told makes dependent learners, figuring things out makes independent learners. But also: even though his expertise gives Reilly’s understanding a real multiperspectival authority, he’s still neither omniscient nor personally experienced in his field (he has never been an early 16th-century King in Congo). When we join him in the direct investigation of the past we add further breadth and depth of perspective, and help to correct for the limitations of his own point of view, however well informed it may be. We are all in this boat together.

But what’s the payoff? After all, no one in the class is going to get laid, get a job, get a better car, or play football better because they know something about the Congo five hundred years ago. This is knowledge we have no interest in; we don’t care about it. It doesn’t remind us of us.

Well, maybe we’re just curious. But more compellingly, what happens when we try to figure out our own lives? We get bogged down in the myopia of overinvolvement. Our feelings get all jostled. Our prejudices hem us about. Apparently, caring and being interested are not reliable guides to quality knowledge. Maybe we can practice the skills of analysis on something we don’t care about; something in which we have no interest. And then we become people who can figure out stuff for ourselves, reliably and responsibly; which, I suggested, is how college education makes you somebody suited to the kind of job where you make your own decisions rather than obeying someone else’s orders.

In each section this all took about 45 minutes and we had about 20 left to look at the document itself. That was very, very interesting but I’m running out of brain for the day so it will have to be another post.

Imagination, identification, and learning

We’re often told that we learn best from people ‘like us’, with whom we share a bond of identification. Along the fortified borders of identity work this is supposed to mean the big trouble categories like gender, race, and class.

I’m not going to dispute the premise, or even its vulgar applications. Clearly some women learn better from women, some working class kids learn better from teachers who share that background, and so on. Also, some white boys learn better from other white boys, which is where the liberal fantasies attached to the empirical observation run into trouble. Because we very much want white boys to learn from women and people of color, don’t we. And we also don’t want white boys to be the only ones who can see past the ends of their own noses. Nor, of course, do we want our Gen Ed business or engineering or nursing students to come out the other side of our classes still thinking of history, literature and philosophy as the wonky preserves of impenetrable weirdos.

We’ve got to learn more broadly, not less, and that means we need to construct our identifications more broadly, not less. I’m not saying anything Anthony Appiah didn’t already take for granted when he was 6. But he and I have led charmed lives that immediately enabled a more inclusive imagination about who and what is ‘like’ us enough to learn from. I was lucky to have Gerald Durrell, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, and The Hobbit around when I was a kid. It never occurred to me you couldn’t learn from turtles, spiders, rabbits, and trees. Deliberation, patience, loyalty, and taking the long view, among other things.

I get that enabling a broader imaginative identification is more of a struggle for some folks. But still I’m fascinated that a culture busily churning out learning aids for children and imaginative entertainments peopled by plants and animals can also produce self-evident garbage about the identity-matching of teachers and students. Even that old bastard Kipling understood, in his hierarchical and racist way, that we can learn just fine from the Other. And I get that the discourses of identity and representation can be important leverage to open up spaces in education and society for people who are otherwise excluded. I get that there’s something existentially horrifying and materially disabling about a whole educational career that dramatizes the exclusion of people ‘like you’ from the positions of authority and status.

But that’s a devil’s bargain, a desperate shortcut. That ‘like you’ is a trap. The problem is not that ‘we’ are not represented in the world of learning. The problem is that we conceive ourselves too narrowly, and so we learn much less than we could, and should.

OK, so how does this cash out in my practice? Well, I can’t just come at my classes with exhortations to engage imaginatively with the Otherness of the past. They get plenty of scolding about their limitations; those just push them deeper inside their shells. And I’m certainly not going to do a little lecture in which I assure the black lesbian women that we’re more alike than they think. We are, but we’re not there yet. As always, imaginative identification has to be constructed, it can’t just be asserted by fiat.

A lot of what I do is just sidestep the whole issue of categorical identification. I don’t think it’s an issue, so I don’t make it one. I grant that the past is uninteresting (we have no ‘interests’ in it) to disable the usual defenses, then jump right in with intriguing material that’s obviously more complicated than that. Curiosity does the rest – it has to, unless you want to get into a mutually demeaning disciplinary regime of constant prodding and quizzing. But curiosity has to be enabled, which is where a classroom practice heavy in recursive questioning comes in. Every answer raises three more questions, and the mystery gets deeper the more of it we solve. This is not just process, it’s payoff, but there’s a big nut to crack here – our students have now been trained by several generations of positivistic educational assessment to think there needs to be a definite answer for an upcoming test. So here’s a place to talk about answers being more or less ‘robust’ rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but that’s another post.

So what’s the answer? I’m still finding out. But with some robustness I can say that anyone can be interested in anything by anybody as long as curiosity is engaged. And what engages curiosity is a kind of ignorance that’s readily fixed by finding out, plus an environment in which good questions are valued and good answers lead to more good questions.