The Springs of Creativity

chas-fischer-spring-co

I am talking about literal metal springs here, the things that bounce. What do springs (those metal bouncy things) have to do with creativity?

As I mentioned a little while ago, my great-granduncle Charles Fischer founded the Chas. Fischer Spring Co. in 1906. He invented and manufactured many parts and devices, including a delightful book prop that clasps onto the leg. (I don’t know whether Charles Fischer himself invented it—it could have been one of his sons—but his company patented and manufactured it.) I just received a comment about that very book prop! (Thank you, Joe Simpson, for writing!)

Before he founded his company,  he worked as a spring-maker. I imagine him tinkering with the springs and thinking of new uses to which they could be put. My argument here is that creativity–at least a certain kind–comes out of playing and experimenting with an actual subject or medium. You don’t teach or learn creativity in the abstract. People have been wringing their hands over the need to teach creativity in schools–but that’s a waste of hand muscle. Get the hands going with something, and then start tweaking it. Before you know it, you just might have something new in the works.

I’ll take a look at one of Charles Fischer’s inventions, the take-up spring, then apply this notion of “tweaking” to some simple R code.

I  imagine him making spring after spring while his wife was at home ironing and cursing the cord that always got in the way. (The retractable cord,  like the one in today’s vacuum cleaners, wasn’t invented for another few decades.) “What if,” they may have discussed one day over dinner (who knows–maybe they talked about these things, maybe not), “What  if a spring could actually keep the cord suspended up above, in the air, so that when you needed it, you could draw it in, but when you didn’t need it, your ironing could proceed unimpeded?” Lo and behold, he found that a spring could do just that:

take-up-spring-figures

You can read the description here.  He explains: “The invention is especially useful in taking up the cord of an electric iron, thus doing away with the inconvenience and annoyance of having the cord in the way of the iron when the latter is in use and permitting free use of the iron by the operator.”

So there you go–the daily work with springs, I imagine, allowed him to think of other things that could be done with them.

That, I believe, is often how creativity works. You’re doing something repetitive and routine, but within that repetition, you start thinking about other things that can be done. You try them out with your materials. You learn about what works and what doesn’t; you gain knowledge not only of the practicalities, but of the principles and possibilities. You try new things from there.

Now I’ll give a simple example of this from computer programming–something easy enough for anyone to try. I won’t do anything groundbreaking here; my point is that by starting to tinker with code, you can learn what’s going on and experiment with new things.

I got this code from “R by example.” It’s the first one under Graphs. (You can download R itself from The R Project for Statistical Computing.)

# Goal: To make a panel of pictures.

par(mfrow=c(3,2))                       # 3 rows, 2 columns.

# Now the next 6 pictures will be placed on these 6 regions. 🙂

# Let me take some pains on the 1st
plot(density(runif(100)), lwd=2)
text(x=0, y=0.2, "100 uniforms")        # Showing you how to place text at will
abline(h=0, v=0)
              # All these statements effect the 1st plot.

x=seq(0.01,1,0.01)
par(col="blue")                         # default colour to blue.

# 2 --
plot(x, sin(x), type="l")
lines(x, cos(x), type="l", col="red")

# 3 --
plot(x, exp(x), type="l", col="green")
lines(x, log(x), type="l", col="orange")

# 4 --
plot(x, tan(x), type="l", lwd=3, col="yellow")

# 5 --
plot(x, exp(-x), lwd=2)
lines(x, exp(x), col="green", lwd=3)

# 6 --
plot(x, sin(x*x), type="l")
lines(x, sin(1/x), col="pink")


Now, when you run it, you get this nifty series of graphs:

graphs

Now, let’s say I don’t know R (which is true). I’m looking at this and thinking, “Let’s say I want to show the same function throughout, let’s say sin(x), but over a different interval each time.” So I look for the line of code that seems to indicate the interval. That would be:

x=seq(0.01,1,0.01)

But I see that that’s also the default, and I want it to change each time. So I’m going to have it repeat for each graph, but I will change the middle number with each iteration. The adjusted code looks like this (I’m omitting the “lines” function since it isn’t needed now, and I’m making all the graphs blue):

# Goal: To make a panel of pictures of sin(x) at increasing intervals.

par(mfrow=c(3,2)) # 3 rows, 2 columns.

# Now the next 6 pictures will be placed on these 6 regions.

par(col=”blue”) # default colour to blue.

# 1 —
x=seq(0.01,1,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 2 —
x=seq(0.01,2,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 3 —
x=seq(0.01,3,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 4 —
x=seq(0.01,4,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 5 —
x=seq(0.01,5,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 6 —
x=seq(0.01,6,0.01)
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

And here are the resulting graphs (how pretty):graph2

The tinkering, you see, has just begun. I can fiddle with the colors, bring in a second function, and do all sorts of other things. Even at this basic level, as I do this, I’m learning code while at the same time thinking up new possibilities.

In short, creativity is not elusive or amorphous. It has to do with fiddling around within forms and structures and then pushing outward to something new.

Happy New Year to all!

Image credits: The ad at the top is my own copy, which I purchased on Ebay. The patent figures (Pat. No. 1,578,817) are from the United  States Patent and Trademark Office. The graphs were generated in R.

Note: I made a few minor revisions to this piece after posting it.

Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

Are 96 Percent of Managers and Executives Extraverted?

sidebarIn various places I have seen the startling assertion that 96 percent of managers and executives self-identify as extraverts (in other words, that self-identified extraverts almost fully dominate management positions). I do not believe it. I have worked in education, publishing, computer programming, and counseling; most of my bosses, from managers to executives, tended toward introversion, at least in my perception. So I wondered whether this figure accounted for all fields–and where it came from in the first place. I decided to find out. I reached the conclusion that the 96% figure needs major qualification.

I found the explicit claim–along with a cited source–in a Harvard Business Review article by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann. A sidebar in the article states: “Whereas just 50% of the general population is extroverted, 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities.” The source: Deniz S. Ones and Stephan Dilchert, “How Special Are Executives?” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2009. This paper examines determinants of executive success by analyzing the scores of a sample of 4,150 managers and executives on a personality test and a test of mental ability.

I was able to access this paper through the Columbia library database. Unfortunately it doesn’t give any information about the sample; instead, it directs the reader to an earlier paper: “see Dilchert & Ones, 2008, for sample description.”

I tracked down the second paper (Dilchert and Ones, “Personality and extrinsic career success: Predicting managerial salary at different organizational levels,” Zeitschrift für Personalpsychologie, vol. 7 [2008], 1–23.). I had to pay a fee for it, but I wasn’t going to stop now. Here’s what I found (on p. 6):

Participants were 4,150 individuals who completed a personality inventory as part of an assessment center. Of the total sample, 1,819 individuals were applicants to a managerial position and 151 individuals were considered for a promotion, and thus completed the personality inventory under selection conditions. In addition, there were 2,180 managerial job incumbents who completed the inventory for developmental purposes. All participants also completed a demographic form and provided information on their current employment status and employment history.

Wait–so the participants were taking the assessment for a job-related purpose: for employment, promotion, or development. The results were then used as data. The stakes were high, in other words (especially for those applying for employment and promotion), and their responses were initially not anonymous. This could well have influenced the responses.

Moreover, they all took it at a particular assessment center. This suggests to me that certain professions were not included: professors, academic administrators, principals, artistic directors, librarians, computer programmers (who manage their own teams), self-starting entrepreneurs, head physicians, and others.

In addition, the personality test was the Global Personality Inventory, which is geared specifically toward the workplace. Scores on this test may or may not correspond with scores on a Big Five inventory. The 2008 paper states:

The GPI is a thoroughly developed inventory backed by empirical evidence that supports its reliability and criterion-related validity for use in managerial assessment (see Schmit, Kihm, & Robie, 2000). Reliabilities for the Big Five facet scales typically have been reported to range between .65 to .88 (Schmit et al., 2000) and .58 to .88 (ePredix, 2001) in managerial samples (mean reliability across scales .73 and .75, respectively).

In neither of the papers do I see the figure of 96 percent; perhaps Grant, Gino, and Hofmann extrapolated it from the normative data and data on variability. Let us assume, though, that the figure accurately reflects the test results. It does not reflect the managerial and executive population as a whole, for three reasons:

  1. The test seems to have carried relatively high stakes (in comparison to a test administered purely for a study);
  2. The test was administered at an assessment center that may not be used by all professions and fields–thus the sample may be skewed;
  3. The instrument itself is designed specifically for the workplace; the extraversion score may not match scores on other personality tests. In particular, the questions may involve more context-specific details.

So, instead of saying that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraversion, I recommend saying, “On a Global Personality Inventory administered, at an assessment center, for employment, promotion, and professional development purposes, 96 percent of managers and executives gave responses suggestive of extraversion.”

One implication: The extent of the tilt toward extraversion in management may depend strongly on the field.

Another implication: It is important to look into claims of this sort.

Image credit: Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” Harvard Business Review, December 2010.

Update:  People continue to cite this misleading figure.

Are College Professors Responsible for Student Learning?

aliceI learn a heck of a lot from Andrew Gelman’s blog–not only his own posts, but the many interesting and substantial comments. It’s one of my favorite places on the internet right now (granted, I have low tolerance for “surfing” and tend to focus on a few sites). That said, I find myself questioning some of his arguments and views, particularly about measurement in education. Now, I am not about to say “learning can’t be measured” or “tests are unfair” or anything like that. My points are a bit different.

In an article for Chance, vol, 25 (2012), Gelman and Eric Loken observe that, as statisticians, they give out advice that they themselves do not apply to their classrooms; this contradiction, in their view, has ethical consequences:

Medicine is important, but so is education. To the extent that we believe the general advice we give to researchers, the unsystematic nature of our educational efforts indicates a serious ethical lapse on our part, and we can hardly claim ignorance as a defense. Conversely, if we don’t really believe all that stuff about sampling, experimentation, and measurement—it’s just wisdom we offer to others—then we’re nothing but cheeseburger-snarfing diet gurus who are unethical in charging for advice we wouldn’t ourselves follow.

They acknowledge the messiness and complexity of education but maintain, all the same, that they could improve their practice by measuring student learning more systematically and adjusting their instruction accordingly. “Even if variation is high enough and sample sizes low enough that not much could be concluded,” they write, “we suspect that the very acts of measurement, sampling, and experimentation would ultimately be a time-efficient way of improving our classes.”

I agree with the spirit of their argument; yes, it makes sense to practice what you proclaim, especially when this can improve your teaching. Of course assessment and instruction should inform and strengthen each other.  Still, any measurement must come with adequate doubt and qualification. I think they would agree with this; I don’t know, though, whether we would raise the same doubts. I see reason to consider the following (at the college level, which differs substantially from K-12):

While still moving toward independence, students are more in charge of their own learning than before. Ideally they should start figuring out the material for themselves. What is the class for, then? To introduce topics, organize the subject matter, illuminate certain points, and work through problems … but perhaps not to “produce” learning gains, at least not primarily. On the other hand, the course should have adequate challenge for those at the top and support for those at the bottom (within reason). Introductory courses may include additional supports.

Also, a student might deliberately choose a course that’s too difficult at the outset (but still feasible). Some people thrive on difficulty and are willing to let their grade drop a little for the sake of it. The learning gains may not show right away, but this does not mean that the teacher should necessarily adjust instruction. If the student puts in the necessary work and thought, he or she will show improvement in good time. Students should not be discouraged from the kind of challenge that temporarily slows their external progress.

In addition, there are inevitable mismatches, at the college level, between instruction and assessment. (This may be especially true of the humanities.) If you are teaching a literature, history, or philosophy class, your students will probably write essays for a grade, but your teaching will address only certain components of the writing. Students have to learn the rest through practice. Thus you will grade things that you haven’t explicitly taught. (Your course may not deal explicitly with grammar, but if a paper is full of ungrammatical and incoherent sentences, you still can’t give it an A.) This may seem unfair–but over time, through extensive practice and reading, students will come to write strong essays.

Since September 2015 I have been taking classes part-time, as a non-matriculated student, at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at JTS. In my first class, I was far below the levels of my classmates. That was what I wanted. I studied on the train, in my spare moments, and at night. (I was teaching as well.) I flubbed the final presentation, relatively speaking, not because I was underprepared, but because I prepared in the wrong way. I ended up with a B+ in the course. The next semester, my Hebrew had risen to a new level; the course (on the Psalms) enthralled me, and I did well. This year, I have been holding my own in the course I longed to take all along: a year-long course in advanced cantillation. If the professors had worried too closely about my learning gains, I wouldn’t have learned as much.

On the other hand, in the best classes I have taken over the years, the professors did great things for my learning. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much, or gained the same insights, without the courses.  The paradox is this: to help me understand, the professors also let me not understand. To help me progress, they sometimes took me to the steepest steps–and then pointed out all the interesting engravings in them. It wasn’t just fascination that took me from step to step–I had to work hard–but they trusted that I could do it and left it largely in my hands.

Granted, not all students are alike, nor are all courses. In an introductory course, students may be testing out the field. If they are completely lost, or if the course takes extraordinary effort and time, they may conclude that it’s not for them. A professor may need to respond diligently to their needs. There are many ways of looking at a course; one should work to become alert to its different angles.

In short, college should be where students learn how to teach themselves and how to gain insights from a professor. While helping students learn, one can also hope, over time, to simulate Virgil’s last words to Dante in Purgatorio, “I crown and miter you over yourself” (or to accompany them to the point where, like Alice, they find a crown atop their heads.)

Image: Sir John Tenniel, illustration for the eighth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1865).

Note: I revised the fourth paragraph for clarity and made a minor edit to the last sentence.

The Cat and the Candles

hanukkahOne of my two cats, Minnaloushe (pictured here to the left) is named after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon.” The other, Aengus, is named after Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (not about a cat, but fitting all the same).

Minnaloushe and Aengus show some of the complications of personality. Minnaloushe is friendly to everyone–rushes up to strangers and rubs against them–but does just fine without company for long stretches of the day. Aengus, on the other hand, hides from people he doesn’t know but craves and seeks affection from the select few (including Minnaloushe, who sometimes plays with him, sometimes rubs up against him, and sometimes pushes him away).

Despite appearances, I’d say Aengus is more “extraverted” than Minnaloushe, in that he seeks company more determinedly. But he’s also reserved and selective in his affections, which makes him, well, complex and difficult to define. If cats are difficult to define, what about humans?

I got myself sidetracked here; I meant to talk about Minnaloushe and the candles! Just before I took this photo, Minnaloushe was gazing at the candles with an expression of awe (or something that looked like awe to me, given my tendency to read into things). But now both cats seem oblivious to the fire. One is bathing, the other sleeping. So, if this suggests anything about humans, I suspect we experience, from moment to moment, only a fraction of the possible awe. But even that much is quite a bit.

“Mozart, 1935” and Candle-Lighting

For some reason, as I think of the upcoming Hanukkah candle-lighting, I find myself remembering Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935.” What could the two have in common, other than winter?

The poem begins,

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

“Play the present”–this seems directly opposed to playing Mozart; the sounds of the present are rough and rude. One might think Stevens (or the speaker in this poem) is urging the poet to adopt the language of the street.

But something different seems to be at work here. Mark Halliday comments,

A different poet–one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)–having turned to face the “angry fear” of people, would feel that his poem’s project must be to explore “this besieging pain” and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. “Mozart, 1935” is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake.

If this is so (and the interpretation seems both sound and illuminating), what does the poem suggest that poems can do?

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

There is something extraordinary happening here in this repeated “thou.” (It should be read in the context of the full poem.) Halliday again:

Stevens’ earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others’ experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word “thou,” which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a “you” among “yous.” Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”

This is not a matter of rising above the crowd, but rather of rising up through the self into something beyond one’s immediate perceptions and capacities. To be the “voice” of the “besieging pain” is not to imitate or reflect it. The pain, up to this point, has noise but not voice; to become its voice is to inhabit a great soul.

This takes me, in a way, to candles.

To light a candle is not to express flimsy hope in the face of a broken world, a noisy street. Nor is it to “rise above” the world. Nor is it even to endure. The candle hints at the possibility of “thou”–of a dignity that faces the world with full intensity of form. When I look at a candle’s flame, I am entranced by the upright quivering; it seems at instants that the quiver is mine. Of course that is my imagination–but without imagination, a candle would be just functional, a thing that could help me see around a room.

What on earth does this have to do with Hanukkah–a minor holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and, according to tradition, the miracle of lights? I am not proposing any special interpretation here. Rather, in this cheerful festival, where the candles stand by the window, there is a chance to form and fortify a relation to the world.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

Gibberish Not Too Long Ago

A recent Onion piece begins, “BROOKLYN, NY—Staring in trembling awe at her suddenly blank desktop, local woman Chelsea Greene was reportedly presented a rare chance at a new life Tuesday after accidentally closing her browser window with 23 open tabs.”

It occurred to me, as I read this, that it would have been lost on me if I had  read it in high school. In particular, my ignorance of three words–or, rather, their  particular meanings here–would have thrown off the sentence so badly that I would not have been able to make head, tail, or middle of it.

Moreover, I would have thought I knew the meanings of the words. Desktop, browser, tab–they wouldn’t have seemed obscure.

  1. “desktop”–At the time, this meant nothing other to me than the top or surface of a desk. A “suddenly blank desktop” probably meant a desk that had just been cleaned, or whose “toppings” had been swept off. (Desktop computers existed but were not well known–and the word “desktop” as a computer descriptor had not entered general vocabulary.)
  2. “browser”–I would have thought of this as someone who browses. Perhaps a “browser window” was a window near a desk, for those who wished to look either into their own library (in an adjoining room) or out onto the street. Maybe a “browser” was someone who stopped working now and then to observe the goings-on.
  3. “tabs”–I suppose those are the little clamps that hold a window shut. Why on earth would a window have 23 of them? Maybe it’s a window that springs open unless clamped tight shut; so, since the tabs were open, it must have taken an act of extreme clumsiness to fling the window shut by accident.

So here’s what I picture: Someone, maybe a parent or spouse, is mad at Chelsea Greene for keeping a messy desk–and, in a fit of indignation, flings everything off the desktop. Stunned, Chelsea looks out the window, only to find that she has somehow flung it shut, maybe in the heat of anger or revenge, fling for flang. But this very emotion reminds her that she is still alive–that although she has “closed” the window, life has in fact “opened” itself to her, showing her, once again, that other people’s judgments need not dictate how she lives, and that her desk matters to her, even if things pile up upon it. If Chelsea had known of the Big Five, she might have said, “So, I scored low on your conscientiousness test, but not on my own; after all, I am here at my desk.”

Note: I added a little to this piece after posting it.

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).

 

Thank You, USPS Workers

post-officePostal workers get a terrible rap. One hears of employees “going postal,” or bins of mail getting dumped, or other outrageous things. Stories of USPS courtesy, helpfulness, and patience don’t get big press. I wish they did.

Over the years, I have gone to the post office hundreds of times–with letters, packages, overseas mailings, delivery slips, and more. From the post office on W. 125th St. (10027), for three consecutive years, I mailed copies of CONTRARIWISE to Italy, Turkey, England, China, and numerous U.S. locations. If I were on the other end of the plexiglass barrier, I would have lost patience with myself.

The USPS staff courteously helped me through the process. When I came with piles of packages, they took the time to process each one correctly. In addition, they explained my options, gave me good advice, and wished me a good day afterward. I could tell that it mattered to them to see the mail through.

In holiday-ish times of year (particularly December), I come to the post office in a whirlwind, only because I haven’t managed to send my packages earlier. Time and again, including today, the staff have taken my packages in hand and seen them calmly onward.

Regular mail is nowhere near obsolete; the long lines at the post offices attest to this. People still need and want to send tangible letters, packages, and documents. The workers understand this and do all they can to help. Not only that, but they throw some cheer into the mix. For this I lift a hearty thanks.

Image credit: Foursquare.

Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”