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.

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.

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.

The freedom of speech in the international spectrum

The freedom of speech is one of the most important articles of the constitutions of most countries in the world. The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Furthermore many constitutions are based on the freedom of speech, for instance the Constitution of the United States. According to Oxford Dictionary, freedom of speech means: the political right to express/communicate any opinions, ideas without censorship or restraint. When we talk about the freedom of speech we also talk about the freedom of expression which sometimes is been used synonymously but it includes and an act of seeking receiving and imparting information and ideas. The freedom of speech is the basics of a democratic state, but does the freedom of speech means that you can say anything or share any kind of information that you might poses even if it risks the integrity and the secrets of a country? This essay will focus more on the case of how does the freedom of speech effects the international relations. To be more specific, I will focus more on the case of WikiLeaks and with its founder Julian Assange and Eduard Snowden of the NSA.
WikiLeaks is an international, online and nonprofit organization whose aim is to publish secret information and classified media unknown from the public, from anonymous sources. For instance the website has published valuable information concerning the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those articles have made the front page of many newspapers around the world. According to Wikipedia and the Guardian, some of the releases of information included documentation of war expenditures and holdings in the Afghanistan war and also the website has leaked documentation about the corruption in Kenya. You could read more about the amount of the information that WikiLeaks has shared with the public. According to WikiLeaks website, its goal is “to bring important news and information to the public… one of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” The founder of WikiLeaks has seemed asylum to Ecuador and he currently lives at the embassy of Ecuador in London, UK. According to The Independent, Assange is being holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in an effort to avoid Extradition to sweeden where he is under investigation for alleged sex offences. The reason why Assange is under the diplomatic protection of Ecuador is that he believes that the claims for his extradition to Sweden are a ruse so he can eventually be sent to the US for trail over the leaking of formerly secret US cables. Despite the fact the authorities deny this claim of Assange. The department of the US state was considering a charge under the Espionage act of 1917 says the Washington Post. How can a man who doesn’t hold the U.S citizenship be charged from the department of state and the pentagon for Espionage? Assange released diplomatic cables that offer unvarnished insights into the personal tendencies of world leader. Is the journalists job to share and distribute the news and this right is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Would the state department interfere with the freedom of speech by accusing Assange for Espionage? That’s yet to know because up until now the founder of WikiLeaks is under the diplomatic protection of the Republic of Ecuador.
Now to continue with a recent event of a violation of the freedom of speech, this had a big impact on International Relations. Edward Snowden a former CIA and NSA employee leaked information to the Guardian; the British newspaper published a series of information that revealed programs such as the interception of the U.S. According to the Guardian who published Snowden’s leaks, “the world now has a debate about the dramatic change in the contact between state and citizen”.
Snowden provided proof that the government of the United States is spying on its citizens by putting the entire population under some form of surveillance, then again the government charges him with spying. Now is obvious that everyone with a digital life could be under surveillance. Is it morally correct to spy on your own people and on your allies? The evident ambition is to put entire populations under some form of surveillance, this is what Orwell warned of and we the people should not accept this in a democracy. This for many people brings the bitter memories of the communist rule. It seems like everyone wants to get into the bandwagon and spread the propaganda.
“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude… They can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis… to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer”. – Edward Snowden
Snowden has applied for political asylum over to 20 countries but most of them have refused his application, some of them have said that the applicant must be present in the country he is applying for asylum. The US administration and specially Vice President Joe Biden had pressured the governments of these countries to refuse his petition for asylum. This way the US administration is interfering with basic human rights by pressuring other countries into refuse the asylum applications sent by Snowden. According to ABC News he is currently living in Russia and he is under the Protection of Vladimir Putin, “he claims that Snowden, the alleged leaker of NSA surveillance secrets, can stay in Russia as long as he stop harming American interests”.

A classroom visit, 2/15

One of my colleagues from another department visited my second World History section today. It also teaches large intro sections to mostly non-majors, and was looking for a different perspective on the process.

Other than talking about how odd and sometimes unilluminating a single visit to an active / interactive classroom can be, neither of us made any particular preparation, and I just went ahead with my usual m.o., which is to go in with a rough idea of what I want to get at that day, a couple ideas about how to do that, and a commitment to guiding and prompting rather than dictating.

I opened by asking if they were ready to start talking about the papers they’ll eventually need to be doing. Got a positive on that, so then I asked if they’d rather get in the big discussion circle or stay in rows with me recording the conversation on the board. Even split in those expressing a preference; I broke the tie for circle, because I’d done rows the section before.

The energy was good; we bantered a bit as we rearranged the classroom. Then I asked them what would make an analysis they had to write or read a good one. This got some eyes to glaze over, and some fairly generic responses from others. Hit the high points, truth, create interest, the 5 Ws, that sort of thing. Sadly I noticed that none of our prior conversations, let alone the extensive guidance in the syllabus, were yet processing as available accounts of our project.

Judging the question too abstract and out of context at this stage of their introduction to the standards and practices of quality analysis, I brought up the Super Bowl. What would make an analysis of the game a good one? Instantly, fans expressed their biases. I asked leading questions about whether we could learn much about the game from people committed to one side or the other. (The end-game of this, after a couple turns, was to point out that the problem was not so much the partisanship itself as the way it influenced selection and interpretation of information – making ‘high points’ a tricky standard for good work.)

Somewhere in here, my colleague (who to my delight had jumped right in as a participant) chimed in with the observation that not everyone cared even a little bit about the Super Bowl. So we explored the question of whether ‘interest’ worked well as a reason to learn about something. A silent student I called on turned out to be paying attention, and suggested that a ‘to each his own’ approach might be perfectly alright. So I talked about knowledge silos, and discovered that drawing impromptu silos on the board is tricky business. A couple students studying the history of mathematics and the history of firefighting (in 1915, our focus for the first part of the term) talked through how their projects might actually be of mutual interest, and from this we extracted curiosity and making connections as other reasons to attend to knowledge not otherwise immediately ‘interesting’. We further agreed that just slinging work at a requirement was soul-crushing, and that making the process substantive and meaningful was worth some effort in itself.

I’m compressing a lot of backing, forthing, redirecting, and awkward-silencing into a (semi-)coherent narrative from a particular perspective, or in other words, doing what I was trying to get them to start thinking about.

Eventually I suggested we had most of what we needed to construct an outline of the elements of a good analysis. What I got back this time was a little better albeit still pretty generic: organization, a focused point, cause and effect, credible sources. Credible sources? Judging that this gave the conversation a chance to resolve from frustrating abstraction into satisfying concreteness I pounced, and redirected to a student who hadn’t said anything yet. What’s your topic? Physical education. OK, everyone, what would this writer need to show you to earn your attention and respect? A question; something to be figured out; understanding of the times and their issues. Because another student asked, we talked about whether ‘obesity’ or even weight management was any part of physical training in the early 20th century, and agreed we didn’t know yet.

Are we interested in what we think is important, or what they thought was important? Them, clearly. What would that take? Credible sources. How about some examples? Health journals; medical journals; government policies and standards. Long conversation here about whether historical sources are stably reliable. Files get lost or destroyed, but also interpretations change. Did historians fifteen years ago worry about obesity? Another student who hadn’t spoken yet said, no. People then were just fat, it wasn’t an issue like we know it is now. (We know?) So, interpretations of history also have a history.

Time’s up! Find a primary source for your project, and bring it next time. Some good eye contact from people who seemed to know what I meant, and why, but we’ll see. I don’t expect to get this sorted out all at once.

How did this all look to my colleague? We’ll talk later; I could only guess now. It was typically friendly while running off to its own class, but it’s hard not to worry that the procedings looked like a bunch of talking around in circles with no definite accomplishment. Which, in fact, it was. What I hope, and expect from prior experience, is that a lot of the loopiness comes from this all being a completely foreign mode of engagement with learning for many of the students, and that gradually as they take refuge in the comforting definiteness of their own research projects, they’ll do so with a dawning sense that there’s something of value and unsuspected depth there. Again, we’ll see.