Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?


One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”


This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

The Springs of Creativity


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 book-prop that clasps onto the leg. (I don’t know whether Charles Fischer actually invented it, but his company made it, and it’s fun to use.) 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:


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.

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:


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:


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 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 2 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 3 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 4 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 5 —
plot(x, sin(x), type=”l”)

# 6 —
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.

For more on this, see my piece “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity” on the Core Knowledge blog. It discusses a brilliant piece by one of my former students. (The word “springboard” relates to the present discussion by coincidence; I didn’t know about Charles Fischer’s work at the time.)

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.

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.

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. I wrote about this (again in 2010) in my op-ed “Curriculum Should Precede Assessments” on the Core Knowledge blog.

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.”


A Lesson from the Power Pose Debacle

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing has thirty-seven million views. Its main idea is simple: if you adopt an expansive, authoritative pose, your actual power will increase. For evidence, Cuddy refers to a study she conducted in 2010 with Dana Carney and Andy Yap. Holes and flaws in the study have since been revealed, but Cuddy continues to defend it. Doubt fuels scientific inquiry, but in an era TED-style glamor and two-minute “life hacks” (Cuddy’s own term for the power pose), we find a shortage of such doubt on stage. It is time to tap the reserves.

Recently TED and Cuddy appended a note to the summary of the talk: “Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.” In other (and clearer) words: The power pose study has not held up under scrutiny. At least two replications failed; Andrew Gelman, Uri Simonsohn, and others have critiqued it robustly; and Carney, the lead researcher, detailed the study’s flaws—and disavowed all belief in the effect of power poses—in a statement posted on her website. Jesse Singal (New York Magazine) and Tom Bartlett (The Chronicle of Higher Education) have weighed in with analyses of the controversy.

Very well, one might shrug aloud, but what should we, irregular members of the regular public, do? Should we distrust every TED talk? Or should we wait until the experts weigh in? Neither approach is satisfactory. When faced with fantastic scientific claims, one can wield good skepticism and follow one’s doubts and questions.

Before learning of any of this uproar, I found Cuddy’s talk unstable. Instead of making a coherent argument, it bounces between informal observations, personal experiences, and scientific references. In addition, it seems to make an error early on. Two minutes into her talk, Cuddy states that “Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.” Which study is this? I have perused the Ambady Lab website, conducted searches, and consulted bibliographies—and I see no sign that the study exists. (If I find that the study does exist, I will post a correction here. Ambady died in 2013, so I cannot ask her directly. I have written to the lab but do not know whether anyone is checking the email.)

In separate studies, Ambady studied surgeons’ tone of voice (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of sound clips where the actual words were muffled) and teachers’ body language (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of soundless video clips). As far as I know, she did not conduct a study with soundless videos of physician-patient interactions. Even her overview articles do not mention such research. Nor did her study of surgeons’ tone of voice make inferences about the likelihood of future lawsuits. It only related tone of voice to existing lawsuit histories.

Anyone can make a mistake. On the TED stage, delivering your talk from memory before an enormous audience, you have a million opportunities to be fallible. This is understandable and forgivable. It is possible that Cuddy conflated the study of physicians’ tone of voice with the study of teachers’ body language. Why make a fuss over this? Well, if a newspaper article were to make such an error, and were anyone to point it out, the editors would subsequently issue a correction. No correction appears on the TED website. Moreover, many people have quoted Cuddy’s own mention of that study without looking into it. It has been taken as fact.

Why did I sense that something was off? First, I doubted that subjects’ responses to a surgeon’s body language predicted whether the doctor would be sued in the future. A lawsuit takes money, time, and energy; I would not sue even the gruffest surgeon unless I had good reason. In other words, the doctor’s personality would only have a secondary or tertiary influence on my decision to sue. On the other hand, it is plausible that doctors with existing lawsuit histories might appear less personable than others—if only because it’s stressful to be sued. Insofar as existing lawsuit histories predict future lawsuits, there might be a weak relation between a physician’s body language and his or her likelihood of being sued in the future. I suspect, though, that the data would be noisy (in a soundless kind of way).

Second, I doubted that there was any study involving videos of physician-patient interactions. Logistical and legal difficulties would stand in the way. With sound recordings—especially where the words are muffled—you can preserve anonymity and privacy; with videos you cannot. As it turns out, I was flat-out wrong; video recording of the doctor’s office has become commonplace, not only for research but for doctors’ own self-assessment.

It matters whether or not this study exists—not only because it has been taken as fact, but because it influences public gullibility. If you believe that a doctor’s body language actually predicts future lawsuits, then you might also believe that power poses are real. You might believe that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert” (Susan Cain) or that “the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors” (Ken Robinson). The whole point of a TED talk is to put forth a big idea; alas, an idea’s size has little to do with its quality.

What to do? Questioning Cuddy’s statement, and statements like it, takes no special expertise, only willingness to follow a doubt. If TED were to open itself to doubt, uncertainty, and error—posting corrections, acknowledging errors, and inviting discussion—it could become a genuine intellectual forum. To help bring this about, people must do more than assume a doubting stance. Poses are just poses. Insight requires motion—from questions to investigations to hypotheses to more questions.  This is what makes science interesting and strong.  Science, with all its branches and disciplines, offers not a two-minute “life hack,” but rather the hike of a lifetime. With a mind full of doubt, one can make it.


Note: I originally had the phrase “two-minute life hack” in quotes, but Cuddy’s actual phrase is “free no-tech life hack.” She goes on to say that it takes requires changing your posture for two minutes. So I removed “two-minute” from the quotes.

Beyond the Introvert-Extravert Divide

Over at New York Magazine, Drake Baer has been challenging the introvert-extravert dichotomy with vigor. “‘Introvert or Extrovert’ Is the Wrong Way to Define Your Identity,” declares one October article; an article from July has a similarly bold title (“Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life“). In both articles, and in some earlier pieces, Baer emphasizes the complexity of personality and the influence of occupation and context. I would go even farther than he does—for instance, I am skeptical of the Big Five model of personality—but I applaud his combination of boldness and subtlety.

The introvert issue has been so overhyped that it swept other discussions into its hot air. It created a “groupthink” of its own. In 2012, a few months after Republic of Noise came out, I was interviewed for an Education Week article on introverts in the classroom (as was Susan Cain). When speaking with Sarah Sparks, I emphasized the distinction between solitude and introversion. Solitude is essential to education (in some way and in some form) no matter what your personality type. Instead of trying to make the classroom amenable to introverts (who are a highly diverse bunch, with a wide range of preferences and needs), pay attention to the subject matter. It just isn’t true that “introverts” prefer online discussion to class discussion. If you are approaching the subject keenly, your class discussion will not be dominated by table-thumping loudmouths anyway. People will have to think, because there will be something to think about. Of course you should pay attention to the students—but for their ideas and unique qualities, not their type.

But these points were left out of the article;  Sparks and other reporters continued to present issues in terms of introverts and extraverts. I have wondered why. It seems part of our country’s tendency toward polarization. It isn’t so far removed, in other words, from the climate of the election. It is all too easy to identify yourself with an oppressed group (in this case the introverts) and let someone else tell you who  you are and what you need. Someone shows up who seems to tell your story, explains how you and your kind have been mistreated, and promises a revolution.

But maybe this isn’t quite your story; maybe your personal oppression (to the extent that it exists) comes from many places, including the self; maybe liberation lies not in an uprising of your personality type but in good independent thought. I don’t mean that one should reject all alliances, but no alliance should demand a reduction of the mind or soul. There should be room to challenge not only the dominant train of thought but its underlying suppositions. There should be room to say, “this isn’t quite right.”

I see Baer’s articles as a promising step in that direction. A shout-out to Melissa Dahl too.

Note: I originally mistitled the first Baer article; the error is now fixed. Also I changed “Big Five theory” to “Big Five model”; stay tuned for more on this.)

Formal and Informal Research

I have been thinking a lot about formal and informal research: how both have a place, but how they shouldn’t be confused with each other. One of my longstanding objections to “action research” is that it confuses the informal and formal.

Andrew Gelman discusses this problem (from a statistician’s perspective) in an illuminating interview with Maryna Raskin on her blog Life After Baby. It’s well worth reading; Gelman explains, among other things, the concept of “forking paths,” and acknowledges the place of informal experimentation in daily life (for instance, when trying to help one’s children get to sleep). Here’s what I commented:

[Beginning of comment]

Yes, good interview. This part is important too [regarding formal and informal experimentation]:

So, sure, if the two alternatives are: (a) Try nothing until you have definitive proof, or (b) Try lots of things and see what works for you, then I’d go with option b. But, again, be open about your evidence, or lack thereof. If power pose is worth a shot, then I think people might just as well try contractive anti-power-poses as well. And then if the recommendation is to just try different things and see what works for you, that’s fine but then don’t claim you have scientific evidence one particular intervention when you don’t.

One of the biggest problems is that people take intuitive/experiential findings and then try to present them as “science.” This is especially prevalent in “action research” (in education, for instance), where, with the sanction of education departments, school districts, etc., teachers try new things in the classroom and then write up the results as “research” (which often gets published.

It’s great to try new things in the classroom. It’s often good (and possibly great) to write up your findings for the benefit of others. But there’s no need to call it science or “action research” (or the preferred phrase in education, “data-driven inquiry,” which really just means that you’re looking into what you see before you, but which sounds official and definitive). Good education research exists, but it’s rather rare; in the meantime, there’s plenty of room for informal investigation, as long as it’s presented as such.

[End of comment]

Not everything has to be research. There’s plenty of wisdom derived from experience, insight, and good thinking. But because research is glamorized and deputized in the press and numerous professions, because the phrase “research has shown” can put an end to conversation, it’s important to distinguish clearly between formal and informal (and good and bad). There are also different kinds of research for different fields; each one has its rigors and rules. Granted, research norms can also change; but overall, good research delineates clearly between the known and unknown and articulates appropriate uncertainty.

Update: See Dan Kahan’s paper on a related topic. I will write about this paper in a future post. Thanks to Andrew Gelman for bringing it up on his blog.

“That boatman am I”

floydsrowFor the past four days, at the ALSCW Conference, I have been in my element: presenting poems and papers, listening to others, leading seminars, participating in other seminars, and conversing seriously and jovially about literature. The talks, poems, fiction, music (including Floyds Row, pictured here), and keynote speech woke me beyond the usual waking and dreams.

It wasn’t just a matter of intellectual thrill. Here was a chance to go back to past readings and memories, learn about works I had not yet read, take in cadences and inflections, and participate thoroughly. I heard people read their own and others’ work; speak on Homer, Euripides, Pindar, Ovid, Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, Rilke, Woolf, James, Milton, Orwell, Hardy, Housman, Shakespeare, Stickney (from whom the title of this blog post comes), and others; and point out details, meanings, structures, and gestures. I read two poems (“Afternoon Visit” and “The Nose’s Arrest“); presented on Gogol’s “The Nose,” my translation of Venclova’s “Pestel Street,” and Cortázar’s “Final del juego“; and led a seminar that burgeoned into discussion (during the session and afterward).


Now back to the book and the books. I start the tenth chapter this week.

Let Daydreaming Daydream


Painting: “11” by Karen Kaapcke, an entry in the 2016 Atlas Art Contest.

I have written about daydreaming numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here in the blog, see here in Republic of Noise, and see my story “The Diagnosis“). I have daydreamed all my life; since infancy I was able to absorb myself in something simple for hours. I was kicked out of ballet class at age six because I would dance around the room instead of following directions (and was completely unaware that I wasn’t following directions). I was terrible at sports involving quick reactions, because my mind was on other things.

Generally I like being this way. It slows me down but also allows me to play with ideas, words, sounds, images. I am usually working on a story in my head over a period of months. It may not be anything I write down; I simply enjoy working out the details and carrying it in my mind. At other times, I work on projects or just let the thoughts wander.

All of this goes to say that I have some experience with daydreaming. Usually, when I read discussions of it, I find that they are slightly on the wrong track. They seem to focus on how daydreaming helps or hinders productivity (or so-called “creativity,” which is usually meant as corporate creativity). This carries two questionable assumptions: (a) that mental processes are valuable only insofar as they serve productivity (and so-called “creativity”), and that if we just found that key to productivity and creativity, people would be ever so much more productive and creative.

So it was somewhat refreshing to see Emily Reynolds’s New York Magazine piece “Everyone Should Make More Time for Daydreaming.” After that iffy title, the piece hit some good subtleties. Challenging the assumption that daydreaming is “a waste of time,” Reynolds cites some research and commentary suggesting otherwise, and goes on to say that daydreaming takes different forms, some helpful, some not. But not all daydreaming has to boost your output, she notes:

But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.

All fine and well, except for two things. First, there was really no need to cite Kaufman here; is the idea to give her statement a kind of scientific glow? Something from Dante or Emerson (for instance) might have worked better.

Second, I am not sure that daydreaming should be practiced deliberately. That seems to turn it into something else. Reynolds advocates some kind of “mindful daydreaming”–a combination of whimsy and awareness–but isn’t that already second nature to some people? If people set out to do this for the sake of becoming more creative, wouldn’t that corrupt the endeavor?

There is something wrong with the search for a “key” to creativity (or productivity). The people clamoring for it are not typically yearning for more poetry; no, they want more creativity on the job, in the service of profit. It is creativity on someone else’s terms. Also, they neglect the interaction of subject matter and creativity. Creativity exists only in relation to something. The best way to increase your creativity is to immerse yourself in that subject. You will start thinking about it, playing with it, imagining its possibilities, daydreaming about it. You won’t get there by trying to become more creative.

In his scathing (and brilliant) article “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank writes that “the literature of creativity [is] a genre of surpassing banality” in that it exemplifies conformity, not creativity, and is directed not at artists, musicians, actors, and writers, but at the professional-managerial class. Reynolds’ piece certainly doesn’t fall in this category, but it could step more boldly outside the trend.

In short: It’s good to recognize that daydream is not just a waste of time–that it is essential to some natures and endeavors. But there’s no need for daydreamer-chic, daydreamer mindfulness training,  or Amazon (Inc.) treehouse daydreaming sessions. Let daydreaming do what it does best: take its own way.