Sunday, February 28, 2010


Now that the Olympics are wrapping up, I'm finally getting around to the curling post I've been planning since the beginning. A couple weeks ago the men and women USA were among of the favorites to make the medal round, potentially even challenging host-country Canada for the gold. As it played out, the both USA teams collapsed, losing early and often on their way to last place finishes.

Nevertheless, my own interest in the sport remains unchecked. Unfortunately, as a recent resident of Hawaii and now northern California, I'm not really in a position to actually curl. But each winter Olympics I follow the sport closely and excitedly. Of course, curling is an easy joke target, especially with pants like this involved:

What I love about the sport, though, is not the brooms or the yelling. Or Norway's pants. All of those things are funny, but what makes the sport so fascinating is the strategy. Few sports are as strategic as curling, whilst still being physically demanding (and if you don't buy that, check out the linebacker-like sweepers for gold medalists Canada).

Curling shares the virtues of turn-based strategy games; where there is significant strategy in games like soccer, hockey, and basketball, the strategy of those games depends tremendously upon the ability of players to recognize the strategic situation at any given time. In curling - even with the 73 minute clock during the Olympics - everyone can tell what the situation is at any given time. Lapses in perception or concentration are rarely to blame for failure in curling; rather, it is failure in strategy which is most damning (and the frustration of a stone gone an inch too far).

The strategy of curling is intricate enough, on a small scale, but what makes the game so engaging is the strategy across a match. Not only does a team need to manage each end with foresight and guile (much like chess), but they also need to manage the entire match. Having the last throw in any given end is a huge advantage, and ends are limited. Scoring one is not always, it turns out, a good thing in curling because of meta-strategic concerns.

You may be surprised to learn, as well, that curling has stood the proverbial test of time. Though only recently reinstated into the Winter Olympics, the sport as a whole has been around for longer than almost any other sport currently played in the world. While no exact date is known, indications are that the sport began in Scotland sometime between 1500 and 1550. That, my friends, is at least 460 years ago. Soccer - in one form or another - has been around longer, but not much else has (with the exception of things like racing and fighting, which have been around longer than humans).

Now that the Olympics are over, I can't really urge you to watch curling. As a game that is hard to broadcast with commercials (though NBC, of course, managed), it is unlikely to break into even American counter-culture anytime soon. Alas, the new crop of curling fans that this Olympics - like every Winter Olympics - has created will have to wait for four more years.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nicht Diese...

Some old fashioned writing this Sunday evening (or Monday morning). A reflection.

There was a time when I kept a journal. As a high schooler, I wrote and wrote and wrote for no one but myself, trying out poetic devices, exploring thoughts on religion and love and politics, rarely, but occasionally, chronicling the day's events. In retrospect there was nothing all that peculiar about this habit of mine; after all, I was a teenager, and aspired even then to be an intellectual because of, and often in spite of, the community of peers that my private high school afforded me.

I say in spite of because there's a certain stigma attached to intellect in our competitive culture. There's nothing quite so satisfying as the smart guy who loses all the same, faced with the hard-working idiot. Mastermind has dark connotations, so too genius, in a more twisted and historical way. At the time - and maybe still today - I was caught in the paradox of intellect. Our culture honors the intellectual, but punishes and chides all the same. We value intellect, but we despise the person who recognizes their own intelligence.

Perhaps, more than anything, we despise the egotism of the self-promoter not because he is selfish - after all, there's a certain synonymity between "selfish" and "conscious" - but because he often refuses to acknowledge that, ultimately, there are always greater minds. In some sense, our fetish for specialization is a rebellion against the great minds of the great generalists throughout history, who strove to know as much as they could about as many different subjects as they could. "How dare they encroach upon my specialty!"

That's not the point, but I'm not sure what the point is. Even though I have become a writer of prose - after one time being a writer mainly of (poor) verse - I still hold a certain lesson from poetry dear: you don't have to have a "point." That's not fair to poetry, because most poems have a point in one sense or another, but there's a kind of beautiful chaos in the endeavor of poetry that prose simply cannot replicate. Even the most pointed and purposeful poetry is clothed, nonetheless, in a poetic diction, a formalism of meter and rhyme, that prevents easy unfolding. A poem may be compelling, then, but hardly in the way that a persuasive essay is.

Not all essays persuade, however. Sometimes they border on poetry. Indeed, John Dryden was one of the founders of the essay, and his Religio Laici, like the majority of his work, is in verse. Though perhaps that's poetry bordering on essay?

It is odd that we draw such a distinction, truly. Poetry comes from the Greek word meaning "to create." What difference, then, between Montaigne and Dryden, Plutarch and Sappho?

Ah, specialization is our specialty. Today we divide not just writing from poetry, but different kinds of writing and poetry from each other. The essay is a form distinct from the story, which is in turn distinct from the academic essay, the memoir, the novel, the novella, the biography, the autobiography, the treatise, the manifesto, the confession. Do we allow more experts, or fewer by such divisions? By that I mean, by splitting our brilliant writers into such camps, do we not maybe lose our brilliant writers?

That's not fair, either. A great many writers straddle such narrow definitions. Indeed, the best writers are the very cause of new terms and genres. The novel sprung into existence as a way to categorize the work of Cervantes, the essay for Montaigne. The same in music, where the Opera became a term necessary to characterize Monteverdi. The same in poetry.

Since I was a high schooler, I have learned a great deal about how little I know. I expect that, now, at a still-young 24, I have a great deal more to learn about how little I know. What is insufferable about intellectuals, it turns out, is not how much they know, but how little. Socrates was killed for it.

A turn of phrase, a turn of phrase. I have collected, in my short life of reading, a great many connections and associations - many of which are historical, and most of which are European, with occasional Hawaiian or Buddhist allusions mixed in - which allow me to express myself without expressing myself. That is another of the intellectual's tricks, and perhaps the heart of the poet's art. T.S. Eliot's Wasteland would not have gotten far without tricky, intellectual allusions. Nor would Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (the longest inside joke in history, perhaps). "Oystery Gods gaggin' Fishy Gods."

For a long time, between high school and graduate school, I stopped writing. Oh, I wrote for classes at St. John's, and I would occasionally pick up a pen ruefully in the time in between then and Stanford. Poetry, never, but occasional essays, arguments for why surfing matters - a concept that only fellow surfers will understand - or a history of the beautiful Platonic romance that closed my Freshman year of college.

Perhaps that is the object of these wanderings. The last of my poetic fervor expended itself in the poems composed for two women. The first, an illusive goddess who rekindled in me the concept of love - albeit in my hoity-toity (spelling?) way - sending me into thralls unmatched by any but my first (and less Platonic) romance. The second, my one-month-from wife, who is so much more real and wise. No goddess - for how long do such relationships last? - but instead a life. There was one poem each way, with Jericha, and that was enough. Indeed, those first poems probably say more about our relationship - even now - than anything else we could write (just as toddlers already display so many of the personality traits they will have as adults).

I suppose, for me, there is too much poetry in living for me to write poetry. I have become polemical, instead, arguing fiercely for a position on education, music, politics, or culture. Usually arguing a position untaken, or untakeable, and explaining why it should not be so neglected. A natural contrarian, I have become, who can turn "because" into "in spite of" and back again. To what end? It profits me little that I oppose so vehemently a great many things which are simply "the way it is." Why oppose, for example, specialization? It leads to such a beautiful, functional world. Why oppose citation? It leads to such easy access to knowledge. If only it were so simple.

I oppose simplicity. Or rather, I suppose simplification, which likely means I oppose myself as a writer. The vast majority of my writing - and probably all writing - is an attempt to simplify, to make expressible the inexpressible nature of being. If writing is an argument, then the most direct, simple argument wins, and the writing that best takes the complex and makes it appear simple will always be favored. I am opposed to sophistry, you might say, even though I will acknowledge that I am as good a sophist as can be found. That's perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory, for there are a great many sophists in this world better than I.

When I allow myself to write honestly - or, at least, without regard for how complicated a narrative I weave - I find that I use the word "perhaps" with astounding frequency. Perhaps. It's a versatile word, but what it does more than anything is act as a crutch. There is no better word for avoiding conclusions than perhaps. Perhaps there is no better word for avoiding conclusions than perhaps. See the difference? One is certain, the other... Perhaps.

Judicious use of "perhaps," (and "seems," and "this suggests," and "I think," and "possibly") might be a mark of intellectual rigor, laziness, or both. Judicious use of perhaps might, also, be my least poetic trait as a writer. Good writers avoid pointless, empty words like "perhaps." It means nothing. Or it means everything.

Now I'm stealing from Demetri Martin* (I run the gamut; Socrates to Important Things), which perhaps indicates that our winding road is nearing its end. What is that end? Hard to say. What the journey? Equally hard.

* To wit: 'Sort of' is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It's just a filler. Sort of - it doesn't really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after 'I love you' or 'You're going to live.'

Nicht Diese Tone, I titled this blog, and though I addressed it in my opening post (gulp, five months and about 60 posts ago), perhaps a return to that theme is in order. The title is German, meaning "not these tones." In retrospect, why a negative? Of all the phrases from Beethoven's Ninth, why this one? I suppose it's the contrarian in me, the intellectual who doubts the value of intellectuals; the liberal who despises the term "liberal;" the musician, astrologer, and student who wants to be everything and, sometimes, just wants to be nothing and play computer for six hours. How to describe these qualities ("and this, and so much more"), how to 'fix myself in a formulated phrase'?

There was a time when poetry was written, and though it is still written, what magic is left after the placing of such lines as "All truths wait in all things," and "It is impossible to say just what I mean." Ginsberg was reduced to a string of "Holy, Holy, Holy ..." Perhaps profound in its own right. Perhaps too self-indulgent.

But we live in self-indulgent times, which I also oppose, and also embody. Maybe paradox is the real lesson. Maybe it always has been. Or rather, maybe paradox and order, chaos and structure, sway ever across some abyss of human meaning. Death, there's the real question, the ultimate contrarian, and the hardest thing for a contrarian to oppose. And yet we have a society built around death (or built around a religion built around death, to paraphrase Nietzsche). Those poems that haunt me and inspire me sit on that precipice. Prufrock, a poem afraid of death, Song of Myself, a poem of celebrating life. Of all the paradoxes of being, that may be the most poignant, and, ironically, the most taboo in our modern age.

In truth, I have little to contribute to such looming questions as "what is the meaning of life?" Ultimately, I resist the question as unsophisticated, at least as it is commonly asked. No, ask it like Eliot, for then it is complicated enough to warrant my austere notice. Or something like that... The true story is, I first recognized the terrible power of the fear of death watching, of all things, Stargate SG-1. How's that for a paradox? What can I say, after all, that is profound?

Nicht Diese, indeed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Intellectual Property

How can you own an idea?

I know, that's a prompt for a middle school discussion of copyright, but that doesn't mean it's not an important question. Indeed, we have a whole cultural and legal mechanism that allows us to "own" ideas, but the very concept of intellectual property has a far from clear history. Even today, there is a large ideological rift between open intellectual and artistic resources on the one hand and proprietary resources on the other (and, as is common in such debates, the more "practical" side of the argument has co-opted the language of the more idealistic, so that things like Facebook, Twitter, and Google get called "open" when they decidedly are not).

Long before any modern debate, however, Plato confronted the very issue, matter-of-factly stating that, when it comes down to it, owning an idea is essentially impossible. As soon as you hear someone else's idea, understand it, and express it to yourself, it becomes yours. And thank goodness, because the number of original ideas floating around is very small (and those few truly original ideas that do exist are likely insane). There's a particular myopia in believing that any of our ideas have never been thought of before or elsewhere, or even that seemingly new ideas don't come from a huge, continuous background set of repeated ideas. The world is, after all, very old, and people have been on it - and have spoken and written - for a great many generations. There are, at present, well over 6 billion people on the Earth. So show me a completely original idea. And, what's more, show me an idea that is owned.

Of course, we have a cultural and economic model - as I mentioned - for "owning" ideas, but it has nothing to do with where ideas come from. Intellectual property, like the first forays into physical property, is the domain of the socially and culturally adept. Indeed, one might look at the University (or the Record Label, for that matter) not as a way of generating new thoughts, but as a way of ensuring that you publish your thoughts, protecting your intellectual property. It doesn't matter that most researchers in every field are heavily dependent upon each other and upon the mass of research and theory that predates them, because they have a system of intellectual property built around them to keep all but the most determined students out. Participating in the free flow of ideas in academia, in other words, comes at great cost (all of the journals and reviews and books that academics are forced to produce so that, ironically, their employers can afford to pay for all of the journals and reviews and books they need to provide their faculty). Some academics fight this commercialized view of ideas, but it's a tough fight. After all, their own survival depends, to large degree, on their intellectual property.

Owning ideas, however, contributes to social injustice. When access to the best and brightest is limited to the most able to pay, it's no wonder that rich begets rich and poor begets poor. Meritocracy is maintained, perhaps, in the sense that it is much easier to become a meritorious leader when starting off able to afford and willing to pursue an education. The "American Dream" notwithstanding, there is a strong sense of caste in the United States that rests, in most part, upon our inability to provide free access to the one resource most at the heart of learning: ideas (we might also say wisdom, but that's a more complicated word).

From an individualistic perspective, there seems little point in coming up with ideas if other people have already had them (unless, of course, other people didn't publish them), but that seems to me a mistake. A society with open access to ideas will perhaps produce more redundancy, but will also therefore produce a citizenry ready and able to adapt their thinking to particular situations. New ideas may be few, but the peculiarities of any one problem may require a precise combination of ideas (and skills) heretofore untried. At the very least, the processes (and there are many) of problem solving are ideas that no one should "own," and yet problem solving is so rarely taught.

Ultimately, we are all constrained by the culture of intellectual property, but I believe it is worth it to ask questions of the system sometimes. Indeed, if there was more critical reflection going around, we might find that much of what we do "because we have to," we don't actually have to do.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Meaning of Grades

One of the biggest assumptions of our education system is the need for graded assessment, or evaluation. For many colleges, grades and SAT scores make up the entire admissions process. For policy makers, the debate centers around how to improve those scores, taking for granted that they are good measures of learning.

I would argue that the main thing grades assess is a student's ability to get a good grade, and the main thing a standardized test score assesses is a student's skill in taking standardized tests. How many students generate strategies for getting a good grade that have nothing to do with learning? I know I was one, even though I was never as grade-motivated as many of my peers. Likewise, how many people take test-prep courses or work with tutors not so they can learn better the content of tests like the SAT or GRE, but so they can develop test-taking strategies?

The problem with placing evaluation of students above assessment - and then making those evaluations determining factors in student's lives - is that doing so obfuscates the purpose of education for students, and therefore undermines their desire to actually learn. Considering the competitive nature of most evaluation (in order for some to succeed, many more must fail), it is no wonder that students begin to play their appointed roles as "drop-outs" and "failures." How many brilliant minds do we lose to frustration, both among said "failures" and among the "achievers?" How much creativity and critical thinking is stomped out because, in the end, those things are hard to evaluate?

I do not believe that assessment should be abolished, by any stretch. Teachers, whether wittingly or not, are constantly assessing their students. Even a lecture hall with 100 undergraduates and a single Professor has some level of assessment built in ("ah, look who's asleep in the back again"). Most teachers will tell you that they know - usually early in the course - who in their classes gets it, who doesn't, who needs extra help, who is a trouble-maker, who's passing notes to who, and who they can trust to run down to their office to pick up a forgotten hand-out. Most teachers are excellent assessors of their students.

The problem is, those dozens of qualities and skills that teachers assess constantly are narrowed into a single evaluative measure. A to F. What's more, most of those qualities are cut out of the evaluation process. What matters, come grade time, is not a student's work-ethic, or his trustworthiness, or his interest in the material, or his sense of humor.* What matters is how well he 'gets' the material, and how well he is able to navigate the structure of the evaluation the teacher chooses.

* I choose these in particular because of Valentine's Day. We "assess" our lovers largely on these criteria - as well as a few others like attractiveness. In our culture, it seems perfectly natural that the criteria we place at the heart of love - which we tend to say is one of the most important activities in our lives - are ignored by our education system. Indeed, a culture that designed things like sense of humor and trustworthiness and appreciation of beauty into their education systems would seem unsophisticated and barbaric to us. It seems just the opposite to me.

Because we need to be able to communicate student abilities across vast distances of time and space, we transform the myriad assessments a teacher makes of her students into a single letter. The necessity for this is a social one: we need to know how good the student is doing, and we don't have time to listen to the full report. A state senator or school board member especially can't sift through thousands of pages of teacher write-ups, nor do teachers have time to write reports about each of their hundred or more students. The system is what it is because, on some level, it has to be just that.

Education reform is uncommon. Our system is very similar to what it was one hundred years ago, and despite the noise made by just about every presidential candidate, it is likely to resemble its current form for decades to come. Digital technology is a disruptive force, to be sure, just like the television was. The pervasiveness of the Internet and mobile phones might effect the delivery of educational materials more than TV ever could have, but the content and the evaluations are likely to remain much the same. Indeed, if anything the downsizing of the role of the teacher - the transformation from teacher to computer - necessitates an even more rigorous protocol of traditional multiple-choice and true-or-false tests.

I believe that digital technology can have the opposite effect, but only if educators strive to use it in a more progressive way. On the way to doing that, however, there are a great many steps. One is developing technologies - or implementations of technologies that exist, at least - which undercut the need for an evaluation-driven system. I don't believe that means that computers will do the assessments that teachers once did; rather, computers can deliver content and learning environments in a way that students don't see as evaluative or, strictly speaking, educational. How many students of my generation have learned a significant amount of history though computer games, for example?

Another important step is transforming attitudes about education. Education and teaching, as words, should give way to learning (indeed, not all cultures differentiate the three: imagine if we believed teaching and learning to be the same thing). The role of formal education should be questioned, not on the assumption that it will be abandoned, but rather with an eye towards its purpose, and whether technology can help it better fulfill that purpose.

Ultimately, I believe the highly-structured system of homework, test (or essay), grade that we've developed needs to change, and that modern technology makes possible - but not necessary - that change. Education researchers have been fighting that fight for a century (with a remarkable lack of success), as have many teachers and - unwittingly - a great many students. Politicians, businesses, and parents, however, tend to resist change (painting in exceptionally broad strokes), not for any good reason, but because either it's too politically risky, because they like discrete and scalable evaluations, or because that's the way they did it when I was a kid. After all, you gotta learn to buckle down and do your homework so you can get an A so you can get a job so you can have money so you can send your kids to 'good' schools so...

Alas, perhaps challenging the assumptions of education involves challenging the assumptions of a whole culture, an even bigger task.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Allusions Confirmed

Since most of my woefully small readership are friends and family, I suppose I owe something of a "what's going on" update at some point. Of course you've heard of my impending wedding on the 21st of March, but odds are you know nothing - or close to it - of my coursework here at Stanford this (and last) quarter, except what I have alluded to in my posts.

Stanford's quarter system is different from what I am accustomed to, and the result is the proverbial "fire hose" that many graduates treat with nostalgia. While the environment here is not as immersive as that at St. John's - perhaps because not everyone is reading the same books at the same time - it is more hurried, more demanding. Most courses meet once a week - twice at most - for ten weeks. That's only ten meetings to get a whole curriculum across.

Fall quarter was exceptionally busy for me, this quarter has been even more so. First quarter I was enrolled in a somewhat ambiguous number of classes. By that I mean, I was enrolled in three "proper," 3+ unit classes, but also three 1 unit classes and a 2 unit class. Seven classes in total is a lot, but since four of those did not ask for much work outside of showing up every week, it was a manageable load, and on the whole I logged 16 units (which put me comfortably below the 18-unit maximum). It would have been more manageable had I not been simultaneously applying to the PhD program that links to my Master's program.

This quarter is different. I'm enrolled in fewer classes, but my units add up to 18 even. I'm noticing that 18 units is quite a lot, especially because 17 of those come from classes, and only one from my 10-hour-per-week internship. Ten hours of internship to one unit of credit is not a favorable ratio.

Besides my internship - which is split oddly between a local private, Catholic high school and Stanford's own charter school - I'm taking four proper classes. One of those classes is in the English department, and I am happy to visit twice a week with a collection of students who are, without exception, English or Modern Thought students. The course is called "Biography and Life Writing," a source of amusement for people like me who know some Greek. The Professor - Carol Shloss - is a Pulitzer finalist and National Book Award winner, and so the experience has been tremendous, if different from what I'm used to (the discussion is heavily weighted towards our professor). This class, however, constitutes five units of my 17, because it requires essentially one book's worth of reading each week. That's not so much that it's undoable, but it has certainly been more than enough given my other courses.

My most enjoyable education class - and my 3 unit, and therefore "least work" class, in theory - is called "Understanding Learning Environments." Co-taught by Ray McDermott and Roy Pea, it's a romp through the modern history of learning theory. Of course, in ten weeks we can only go into so much depth, but the actual point of the class has been not so much to digest and debate the history of cognitive sciences, but to understand Ray's peculiar characterization of culture, what learning really is, and why we education students bother at all.

I am also taking a four unit "Introduction to Data Analysis" course focusing on the use of statistics in education and social sciences research. On the whole, the course has been more or less a review of my AP Statistics class from high school, but seeing as it has been a while since then, the course has been worth the time its lengthy assignments require. From a professional standpoint, at the very least, it is valuable to have taken a quantitative research course (I took an introductory qualitative research class first quarter).

Finally, I'm enrolled in a course taught by Denise Pope for the second straight quarter. Denise is the author of Doing School, a phenomenal piece of research that blows up a number of assumptions our culture makes about high achieving students. On top of being an excellent researcher, Denise is an excellent teacher as well. Her course this quarter is "Curriculum Construction," which is, of course, at the heart of the educational process. What makes the course great, however, is the active meta-cognition that Denise and her TAs engage in. Her course is a living example of curriculum construction, and as we strive to build our own curricula - the capstone project for the course - for a real-life site, we are encouraged to reflect upon the curriculum of the course itself, as well as other courses we know of, are taking, have taught, and so on.

Of course, all four of these courses assign a significant amount of reading, and so I'm spending a significant portion of my time pouring over biographies, old psychology articles, and academic debates about curriculum design. On top of that, there's my internship, which, early in the quarter anyway, involved some politics that I think I had better not speak of too loudly. Beyond even that, I've taken on writing two curricula (in addition to the required one for my Curriculum class) on the side for summer workshops I'll be teaching come June. I'm actually quite excited about those curricula, because one is a kind of Johnnie-esque writing curriculum designed for high schoolers who are interested in diving deeper into their own experience with language, and the other is an introductory sabermetrics course designed for, well, nerdy baseball fans. Exciting though those are, they remain an added bit of work on top of an already full plate.

If you've done the math, you'll note that I haven't mentioned one unit of my 18 yet, and that is because I haven't mentioned my LDT Seminar. Seminar is not much work, for the most part (occasional readings, and a lot of housekeeping), but it is also worth mentioning that by the end of this quarter I have to write a draft of a proposal for my Master's project. Drinking from a fire hose indeed.

Monday, February 8, 2010


I've been hesitant to do this, but I there's a great deal of stuff on the Internet that I read that some of you may like, but don't know about. So I'm going to link to some of it. Give it a read, or don't, but I promise it's all interesting.

First off, Pitchers and Poets on Bill "Spaceman" Lee.

If you haven't heard, the Globetrotters are going to play on ice. Joe Posnanski finds that funny enough, but Generals coach Red Klotz - perhaps the losingest coach in history - offers the best quote ever and makes the Poz really laugh.

The Onion takes on the New Orleans Saints and ESPN in one fell swoop.

You may not be surprised to learn that Ralph Nader is taking none-too-kindly to the misrepresentations of Mr. Howard Zinn that are flying around.

While we're at it, here's a Counterpunch from before the election (yeah, over 15 months ago). Matt Gonzalez - who was Nader's running-mate in 2008 - showing why he was almost Mayor of San Francisco (he's quite bright).

Fangraphs is breaking new ground in the Sabermetrics world, again. This first assay is imperfect, but the potential is tremendous.

Finally, let's close with George Siemens and his thoughts on the need for more meaningful innovation in education. To hell with "the System!"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What's the Problem?

Kumu Keahi, a friend and teacher in Honolulu, gives a lesson to his students about his "Problem-Solution Algorithm-Matrix." I'm not sure exactly if I have the hyphens in the correct places, but you get the idea. The goals of this lesson are many, but the most important bit is the end, where he implores students to be leaders because it is leaders who act, rather than simply sitting back and arguing or contemplating forever.

Keahi says there are five steps to problem solving, and ties each to a level of thinking and development. The steps are as follows:
1) Recognize that there is a problem - "This is something even a cockroach can do," Keahi says. "You turn on the light, and the cockroach says, 'whoa, that's a problem,' and scurries into the corner."
2) Identify the problem and its source - This is, as I recall, high school-level thinking. More on that in a second.
3) Enumerate possible solutions - This, Keahi says, is more college-level thinking.
4) Select a solution - You can see where this is going; this is graduate school-level thinking.
5) Act - Here, of course, is where Keahi springs the leader bit on his students. Those previous levels do not mean that you need to go to grad school, because leaders are the most important thing.

I don't think Keahi means to insinuate that we should act without doing a good job identifying problems or selecting solutions, because it is something of a truism that action without reflection or strategy often results in making things worse. It is no accident, too, that educated people often struggle to act, because one of the marks of education is a recognition that simple solutions - solutions that are easy to act upon - often have unintended consequences. A simple example would be the standards movement in education: standards were designed as a way to make sure every student was reaching a certain baseline of knowledge. The real outcome, however, has been a high-stakes, test-based system that reinforces socio-economic boundaries rather than blurs them. That was never the intent, but it has been the outcome.

While I think Keahi's lesson is quite valuable for teenagers, I'm not convinced the problem-solving process is actually so linear (nor am I convinced that Keahi would claim it is). The second step, in particular, is trickier than it seems. Identifying the problem is a matter of much nuance and skill, and in fact failure to so properly is the cause of many failed solutions.

The "" at Stanford believes in user-centered design, and emphasizes identifying the problem, not by simply contemplating, but by asking users. One might cynically suggest that this kind of design thinking leads to "discovering" problems that don't really exist (consider the Snuggy, or any other infomercial product) by mis-emphasizing needs,* but on the whole it's a fairly good system. There's a certain attractive subtlety in asking users what they want, and then comparing their words with their actions and emotions to determine their needs.

* What I mean is, it's easy to watch someone with a blanket and decide that they really don't want to get out from under it when answering the phone. Indeed, the person might even be able - with prompting - to articulate this need. More interesting, however, are the unarticulated needs that are perhaps subtler and larger-scale. I believe the would be interested, not in reinventing the blanket, but in reinventing the phone. But I don't really know. Either way, you can see that defining the problem here is tricky; which is why it is treacherous to let marketing decide the problem for you.

User-centered design, however, does not always work in education. Indeed, formal education would not exist if the "users" (students) could articulate their needs. Educators believe, by necessity, that they not only have material that students need to learn, but that the students will not be able to identify what that material is on their own. That might sound draconian, but think of it this way: what second grader would choose, of his own free will, to learn to read, to write, to do arithmetic, and to share? Perhaps those things would come naturally by contact with a literary, mathematical, and socially complex culture. But perhaps not.

As we get further along - as students are given more choice in the form of "elective" classes - there remains an external push for students to continue taking math, English, foreign language, and - in some blessed schools - art and athletics courses. While much could be said about how those courses fail, it seems fair enough to say that educators as a whole have a better sense of how important those subjects are to future happiness and success. From the other perspective, there are many students who wish they'd paid more attention in Spanish class. There's a certain irony here: students only realize how much teachers have their best interests in mind after they're out of school. Regardless, there seems to be general agreement that teachers can identify the problems of education better than the "users" can.

The contrarian in me, however, wants to point out that this has lead to an under-emphasis on student opinion. A great deal of education research and policy concerns teacher practices, administrator opinions, community biases, impersonal standards, and parent involvement. Where, in all of that, are the kids? User-centered doesn't have to mean students know what they need to learn. It could, alternatively, mean that students have a good sense of why they aren't learning. Indeed, they might have more to say about themselves than tests ever could.

The challenge, here, is that students have a hard time articulating what they dislike about school. What's the problem? School sucks. That's not a good dialogue. Rare is the researcher who, like Dr. Denise Pope at Stanford, decides to follow students around and comes up with a mutually agreeable conclusion.

Pope's Doing School highlights one of the great many problems in education - and this is the bigger issue; there is never only one problem. Where much research focuses on what's wrong, Pope's research question was the opposite: what's going right at good schools, and with good students? She followed around five students over the course of the year, shadowing, doing interviews, and avoiding teachers, parents, and administrators. She wanted the student perspective, and she got it.

What did she get? Well, she went in trying to find out what was right, but she saw instead something deeply wrong. All of these "excellent students" she followed were unhealthy and unhappy. They cheated. They competed mercilessly with their classmates. They never actually remembered the material they were meant to be learning. They were, in short, "doing school."

In a competitive education system, it's easy to look at the people who fail. Competition necessitates failure,* and it is easy to see the racial and economic biases that predict that failure. Many education researchers and reformers, therefore, target the failing schools. What they ignore is the successful schools and successful students where, as Pope discovered, students are miserable, and not learning a thing.

* And don't you forget it. A great deal of hand-wrangling is done over "failing schools." Standardized tests are designed to produce a curve. Schools, in short, are supposed to fail. Either policy-makers who make a big deal of this are very clever, ignorant, or both.

I know, I know. Poor kids! They aren't happy! But they still get to go to Harvard and Yale and make a good living when they're older. Ah, but that's the issue, really. They are not really being prepared to succeed later in life. While there is perhaps some corporate value to employees who know how to "do school," there is also value in students who love to learn. Indeed, beating the love of learning out of students - teaching stress, frustration, and cheating instead - produces future employees who don't know how to work together, who are wary of each other's success instead of doing good work themselves, and who are afraid to be creative and take risks for fear of losing their secure spot. Companies across the country are complaining that there aren't enough good employees graduating from America's schools, despite the fact that school admissions are getting more and more competitive. So how do we define the problem?

I've looked at one particular issue here, but hopefully you can see how this is much broader. In any social structure there are almost always problems, but defining those problems can be very difficult. Indeed, there are often contradictory problems at play, or problems that are contingent upon a certain ideology (for example, the price of health care might seem a problem to one person but not to another, depending on ideology).

At the moment, I am meant to be identifying a "learning problem" to design a solution around for my Master's project. This, I'm finding, is a terribly complicated process. There are so many problems, many of which interrelated, that it makes narrowing difficult. I'm not worried about finding something - indeed I can see a great many small-scale things I could work on - but I am worried that whatever I do settle on will be either too broad or too narrow. I feel I need, more than anything, a broader sense. While I might articulate a small, sub-problem, I still need to define the big problem that most motivates me, and I find myself vacillating on that issue continuously. I might as well ask why I am in education at all. My answer is to multitudinous to define in a sentence.

The burden of complexity is that it is, well, complicated. "What is the problem?" is too simple a question.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Basketball and Soccer

Fresh off of watching the Denver Nuggets dismantle the Los Angeles Lakers (in Los Angeles, without Carmelo Anthony), 126-113, I want to talk a little about two sports that I find oddly similar. Neither is my favorite - baseball has no equal, to my mind - but both nonetheless have a certain gracefulness that baseball lacks. Baseball, after all, is a sport organized around some confluence of poetry and mathematics, instinct and strategy, individual competition and team coordination. Those things exist in other sports, too, but in baseball events happen discretely, and are therefore measured with a precision unequaled in any other sport.

Ahem. I'm trying not to get sidetracked.

The object of both soccer and basketball is to score by putting a round ball into a goal. Of course, in soccer there is a goalie protecting a goal that is quite large, and it is not uncommon for neither team to score over the course of a whole 90 minute match. Basketball, on the other hand, is prone to scores like 126-113, especially because each basket is worth 2 or 3 points, instead of just the one.

Nevertheless, the essential similarity is this: both games involve a great deal of dribbling and passing, with nuanced offensive and defensive systems designed to allow players to take a good, high-percentage shot. Both games require tremendous stamina, because they involve running - and often sprinting - back and forth almost continuously.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the games is scale. Soccer is an epic game, a kind of war of attrition, requiring stamina and focus, and, at the decisive moment, sudden speed and agility. A team might spend the better part of a half-hour wearing down at their opponents, trying a pass from the flank or working through the center of the field (pitch, as they call it in England), only to see each attack thwarted by a well-organized defense. Finally, when someone makes a mistake, they might get a real chance to score, but even then a striker must maintain his composure, or else see the goalie turn away his shot.

Basketball, by contrast, is an explosive (and, in a very real sense, American) game. It is about quickfire scoring, jumping and sprinting, steals and hard fouls. The clock stops in basketball - unlike in soccer - but only just (unless the game is on national TV, in which case it stops for needlessly long commercial breaks). On the whole, it is speed and agility not at select moments, but always, with stamina and focus coming into play as the game wears on. Whereas in soccer you might ask, who will have the speed and agility to break free at the pivotal moment (taking stamina and focus for granted), in basketball you would ask, who will have the stamina and focus to come through in the final quarter, when the game is truly decided.

It is worth noting that, especially at high levels, soccer is also a game decided in the last "quarter." The final 15 minutes of a soccer match see the most intense play, and often the most goals. Some teams, indeed, are organized around this principle: play slow and conservative for 75 minutes, try to keep the score at 0-0, then explode at the end (after making your substitutions) to secure the win. Many basketball teams play in a similar style, though of course such a strategy has an obvious foil. Consider the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, who often rested LeBron James late in the game because of the tremendous leads they managed to gain in the first three quarters.

You could also say that both games share similar drawbacks. Officiating is notoriously difficult in both sports, and is therefore the subject of much grumbling among fans. On a related note, players from both sports have acquired a reputation for complaining and over-exaggerating potential fouls in order to get calls in their favor. The reason, in both sports, that this practice is so widespread is its effectiveness; in sports where officiating is difficult, it pays to be a good actor and "help" the officials get the call right.

Is there anything to make of these similarities? Probably not. More than anything, it helps to explain why basketball has internationalized so well. It is not absurd to say that basketball is the second most popular sport internationally (behind soccer). While there is not the diffusion of talent in basketball that there is in European soccer - or even in baseball, where excellent leagues exist in Japan and South America - countries around the world, and especially in Europe, have embraced basketball.

It is somewhat surprising, then, that soccer has not infiltrated the United States. Of course, to many Americans it is "boring" and "slow." It is not American Football, after all, with 11 minutes of action during a 4 hour game...

Sarcasm aside, soccer is a subtle sport, but, more than anything, it is a difficult sport to advertise during. That, more than anything, has kept it out of the American mainstream. American sports thrive on the commercial break, and any watcher of the Beautiful Game knows that the commercial break is taboo during a soccer match. As a result almost every European team wears sponsorships directly on their jerseys - something American sports fans roundly reject. Really, it's just a cultural difference, but it has helped keep soccer off the airwaves in America. That, and the awkward time difference between here and any of the major leagues (the MLS is not a major league).

Soccer has made inroads, however, just as basketball has made inroads into Europe. The United States national team made the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Just last year they defeated world #1 Spain in the Confederations Cup. This June, they find themselves in a very winnable group in South Africa, joined by Slovenia, Algeria, and England.

Which is the really exciting thing. Come June 12, the World Cup will kick off for USA soccer with a match against England, their first World Cup head-to-head since the USA pulled off a huge upset in 1950. Needless to say, this is a huge match for USA soccer. Even if you're not a soccer fan, I recommend putting down the date. Think of it as a really long basketball game, without the clock stoppages and commercials, and with a much bigger - but harder to score on - goal.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Leechfield, Texas

The following is a short "position paper" from my Biography and Life Writing class (about which I may say more, later). It's about Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, an excellent and disturbing true-story of a childhood in 1960's East Texas. I will warn that the paper may not make much sense if you haven't read the book, but perhaps it will serve as a motivation to that end.

At the top of the page: Texas, 1961; Colorado, 1963; Texas Again, 1980, as if those places and dates were sufficient to mark the events of The Liar's Club. The gruesome humor of a Leechfield afternoon, the irony of a Colorado mountain town standing in for New York... How else could these be described? Perhaps every book is, ultimately, the product of the culture – or the confluence of cultures – by which its author has been shaped, but it is at least somewhat surprising that the horrid Leechfield from which Mary Karr issues could be midwife to any literary impetus. It seems the stuff of stories, not the maker of them. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that there is no Leechfield, Texas on the map.

Recalling her grandmother's (celebrated, at the time) death, Karr writes, “Something in me had died when Grandma had, and while I didn't miss her one iota, I keenly felt the loss of my own trust in the world's order” (106). The death of a close relative is common enough for a girl of seven to confront, and this quotation is obviously the reflection of an older woman who understands the innate, chaotic frustration of such a death. But this seven year old witnesses, too, her mother's insanity – both as she nearly drives off a bridge during a hurricane, and as she “set fire to the whole world” (245) and threatens her daughters with a butcher knife – and is the victim of an unreported and, to her seven-year-old self, inexpressible, rape. Nevertheless, Grandma's death occupies so much retrospective narrative, whether as a way of explaining the bonfire to follow or on its own merit as another in a string of insupportable experiences.

Karr follows the above passage with this: “Leechfield itself would make you think that way – the landscape, I mean. You needed to watch out for the natural world down there, to defend yourself against it” (106). Of all the descriptions we have of Leechfield – as one of the certifiably ugliest places on Earth, as “one of the blackest squares on the world cancer map” (293), as the home, almost by necessity, of the Liar's Club – it is this Darwinian, animal reality that is most at the core of Karr's childhood. Almost all of what lives in Leechfield is poisonous, as if only the poisonous could survive. Losing trust in the world's order, as Karr puts it, is almost inevitable in a place so naturally disordered. When a gun is an essential part of life solely for protection from the litany of dangerous wildlife running about, it's a wonder there's not more Nervous going around. Add in muggy swamp heat and the odd hurricane, and one sees how out-of-place Karr's Yankee mother – who wants to identify herself above all as a New Yorker – was in such a home.

What is the role of culture in forming a personality, or – perhaps synonymously – a neurosis? For Karr, the East Texas twang, “fixing to” get things done, or lying as a matter of course becomes embedded into her self. The humor of awful she carries around like a stoic, and where anger does float to the surface of her narrative, it feels almost incidental to the mere fact of telling a story. That, it seems, is the essence of the Leechfield culture she is undeniably a member of. Though on the fringes of what is tenable for the nuclear family (even in Leechfield, the Karrs are Not Right), the conditions for insanity are an inescapable part of the Leechfield society, from the climate to the rubber-necking neighbors.

That Karr changes the name of her home is unsurprising, given her father-trained penchant for storytelling. Her words on the vignette she developed to describe her Grandma's death apply equally here, as throughout the book: “It's a clear case of language standing in for reality” (48). Leechfield, the very name, truly does “stand in” for the squalid reality of whatever her hometown actually was called. In some sense, Leechfield stands above whatever that real name is, being too perfect a descriptor to pass up. The stuff of stories.

What backwards fairy-tales, then, issue from Leechfield? If people are the product of their cultures, what culture acquired a young Mary Karr? A liar's culture, we might say, or a survivor's culture (certainly a quality her sister Lecia adopts). Or, perhaps encompassing both of those, a blue-collar, union-man culture. A culture of Nervous and Not Right, we might also say, or a culture of alcohol. Finally, we might very well call it a literary culture, not because it is the cradle of any Nabokovian eloquence – he would be more out-of-place than Mother by a long shot – but because it has an eloquence all its own, bordering on Homeric in emotion. Sing, Goddess, of the
ate of Mother.

Yet this is no epic poem, no glorification of Fate and War and Death. There are capital letters here, still, to be sure, but they dot more mundane words. There is a rhythm to the language, too, but it is not the dramatic meter of poetry. One is tempted to call it more human, but that's an empty phrase, because the epic poem is also human. Rather, Karr's
Liar's Club is unequivocally modern, and Texan. The catharsis here is not the archetypal vision of the fall of a social better, but rather it is the personal reflection turned into a liberation. One can only imagine writing in such vivid detail of Charlotte's Web turned to a pedophile's blow job.

It is the lies and the humor and the horror of Leechfield (a place the family can't help but carry with them to Colorado) that make it so story-worthy, so able to turn from whatever its dull Texas name really is into something more superlative. And why not? The ugly, swampy reality of such a place might not seem worthy of note, but that such cultures exist reaffirms the need for fiction in all its guises.