Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Books on Vocational Reflection

I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it.  It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon.  I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.

Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers.  This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book!  But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development.  It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.

Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of  books.  I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below.  Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world.  The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).

It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie.  These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation.  It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.

Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area.  The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others.  In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book.  However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing.  They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived.  In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers – Kevin Hazzard

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23/ This book came from the @artofmanliness #podcast a few months back. Talk about an exhilarating read! I identify strongly with the author, Kevin Hazzard, as he spins his memoirs of life as an Atlanta paramedic in "A Thousand Naked Strangers." His listlessness and feelings of being unchallenged, not knowing just how much potential he had in him, or how far his limits went, are things I've grappled with recently. A lot of what he wrote resonates with me, but his tale also serves as a caution: Am I on the right path? Am I willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Am I strong enough? Can I hack it? Will I choke? It's a trial by fire in the purest sense and a book I intend to revisit. #reading #books #selfimprovement

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Doctored – Sandeep Juhar

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/29 – my trip to Scotland threw my reading schedule off, so I haven't finished a book since before I left. I picked this book up in the spirit of Larry Smith's advice to read broadly in your passions when looking at career options. Since I'm considering paramedicine, I thought this would be good to check out. Juhar writes a fantastic reflection on the 5 or so years after he finished his formal medical training, and the stress and burnout he experienced as the realities of a medical system with misaligned values is forced upon him. Money, family, and values all weigh him down as he is forced to work within the private medical industry in Manhattan. I very much enjoyed his prose and story. I'm very happy I picked this up from the library. #reading #books #selfimprovement #medicine

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I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – Tony Danza

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-/32 I'd Like To Apologize To Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza. This was a spur purchase I made while browsing books on sale from Audible. I figured I could relate to his experiences, having just finished my first teaching experience this past year (albeit at the college level). The book was a lot more engaging than I expected! I felt absorbed as Tony told his story of his year teaching high school 11th grade English. While initially the set-up for a reality show, the experience quickly morphs into a huge learning experience for Tony as he learns what it means to be a teacher and what it takes to be effective in reaching students. It's a humbling story, and I am glad to have learned from it. @tonydanza #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #teaching #education #memoir

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Total Recall – Arnold Schwarzenegger

*Note – I include this mostly because of his telling of his time as a body-builder and actor.

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-/30 – Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a kid, I was into his movies. After I started getting into exercise, I got more into his bodybuilding achievements. While I didn't follow his political career, his recounting of his Governor years was quite interesting (though personally I enjoyed the first two acts of his career more). The book was quite long, but I enjoyed the story and got some good advice out of it. My only critique is that parts of the end felt more like he was writing the book for damage control of his personal life and career (i.e. his infidelity and son). Still, I'm glad I listened to the story. #books #reading #selfimprovement #audiobook #nonfiction #autobiography #memoir

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A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston

 

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

 

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

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-/31 – Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. This is a good book, not because I have any affinity for Nike shoes (I don't think I've ever owned a pair) but because it's a great story. The skeptical part of me knows that Knight controls the narrative, so as a narrator we can't fully trust his objectivity as he tells his side of some of the bad events in Nike's early years. Nevertheless, even if he's stretching events to make himself look good, the lessons of his missteps are worth learning from. That, and the charisma his prose evokes, made this a gripping story to listen to and one of my top reads this year. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #management #business

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Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

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-/35 – Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. I love love love this book! I've already recommended it to a few friends because it's that good. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, gives us an account of his early life and the history of Pixar up through 2014. I grew up watching their movies, so getting the behind the scenes stories was fascinating. The best part, though, is his reflection on what did and didn't work. From his experiences, he draws out lessons for running a company and promoting growth, sustaining output, ensuring transparency, and fostering creativity. The book is captivating and one that I plan to add a physical copy of to my shelf. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #Libby #kpl #library #memoir #pixar

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The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande

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-/29 – The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, the ideas are good and he has some good insights into the process of making good checklists for complex situations, like medicine. On the other hand, I was really hoping for a more technical dive into the fields he discusses that involve the uses of checklists (aviation, medicine, and construction). It felt like his attempt to make the material accessible also made it superficial and too easily digestible; that he deliberately didn't go deep in order to push out an easier book (not accusing him of it, just the feeling I got from it). Still, I am glad I read it, and like Koch's 80/20 Principle, I have already tried applying concepts and learnings from the book to my job. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction

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Better – Atul Gawande

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-/8 – "Better" by Atul Gawande. This was a great listen. I first checked out his book, The Checklist Manifesto, a few years back. While I enjoyed it, I felt it lacked a certain depth I had hoped to have had in diving into the origins of some of the checklist systems he discussed. "Better" is the kind of book I had hoped for "Checklist." This is the book of a craftsman reflecting on his work. He muses on many critical areas of medicine and asks how doctors have tackled the idea of being better. Here, he runs the gamut of behaviour changes, adapting to impossible situations, monetary incentives ruining practice, the need for diligence, and a few other valuable essays. While he's a surgeon, he explores fields outside of his own to see what kind of lessons we can learn from their stories. The book is packed with valuable insights, which is unfortunate because I blasted through the book fairly quickly, so not all of it had a chance to stick while I mulled it over. A reread for sure! #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship

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Complications – Atul Gawande

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-/17 – Complications by Atul Gawande. This is the third or fourth book I've read from Gawande. I first encountered him in the Checklist Manifesto, but like his last book I read I really enjoy his reflections on what it means to be a doctor. Something about the gravity of the work speaks to me, and his reflections on the gaps in what can be known by people expected to have all the answers is fascinating to me. I should seek out books by other authors in professions that spark deep reflections on the training and expertise intersecting with the quest for mastery. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #medicine #reflection #craftmanship #memoir #surgery #Libby #kpl

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Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Livestreaming For My Students

Last week, I tried a new tactic to engage with my students.  I was inspired by two workshops I attended during Conestoga’s annual E3 (Employees for Excellence in Education) Conference.  The first workshop covered how to write good assignment prompts, with clarity and purpose in mind, and the second covered strategies for writing for online courses.  In the course I manage online, my students were preparing to submit their first major philosophical paper, and historically my students do poorly on the writing side.  I largely attribute this to it being their first time trying to write a philosophical paper and their only exposure to this point was either essays in high school or non-philosophy essays for other courses in college.  After sitting in on these two workshops, I reflected on what I could do, in an online course, that would improve my student’s ability to write.  It’s challenging to engage with online students for two reasons:

  • first, you (almost) never meet your students face to face, so you lose the ability to use tone, voice, inflection, and body language to convey information, and
  • second, online courses are atemporal, which means you don’t engage with your students at the same time.

An idea I’ve been kicking around for some time is creating a video for my students as an added bit of content for the course.  The problem with this option is it’s still fairly static and easy for students to skip if they feel it doesn’t contribute to improving their assessments.  It also goes in one direction, where I speak at my camera rather than engaging with the students.

However, I’ve been mulling over another option.  I have borrowed a web camera from my podcasting partner, I have a good microphone, and I delivered a webinar with a live Q&A in the middle of May.  I considered running a livestream last semester, however when I offered the option to the students, I had no requests for it.  But this semester, I decided to set it up and run it, regardless if students attended or not.  At worst, it would be a wasted hour of my time.  However, the benefits would be two-fold: my students would have a chance to interact with me and ask me questions about their assignment, and it would give me practice with a new skill set.

I picked a date and time, figured out how to broadcast (in the end, I went with Twitch, but next time I’ll test out YouTube Live) and went for it.  I had 4-7 students drop in, which is fairly low engagement, however the questions were really good and I had a lot of fun actively engaging with students again.

One unfortunate thing was I didn’t set up the system to auto-record, so I don’t have a copy of the livestream to review or upload.  I ended up recording a second (static) video to cover the main points so that my students had something to reference when they were completing and submitting their essays this past weekend.

It was a good experience and I plan to run at least one livestream per semester moving forward.  I have yet to grade the papers, so I don’t know if I had a material impact on their performance, but in time I hope that my students will get better with the added direction I can give them.  I also now have a video that I can post to help them think through the process of writing a philosophical paper.  If nothing else, it’s good to build handy resources and have them available for your students.  My goal is to help my students improve their thinking and writing as a result of taking my course.  Even if their papers are 1% better as a result of my direction, it’s worth it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Give Business Card” As A Default Action

I had a strange realization last week.  I am now at a point in my career where I need to make “give business card” a default action for when I’m out and about, but not for the reason you may think.  Under normal circumstances, I feel it’s relatively rare that I have to give out a business card.  In most instances, my role has been too small and insignificant to warrant it, but also because I don’t really buy into the culture of swapping business cards with people in an effort to ‘network.’  I have been promoted to a new role, which entails more responsibility and autonomy when it comes to business meetings, but I’m still getting used to the idea of thinking of myself as an administrator or a manager.

Last week, I was in a coffee shop to grab a quick bite to eat before a meeting.  The cashier saw that I was wearing a jacket with our school’s logo, and he excitedly asked if I was a student or employee.  I let him know that I work at the college, and he asked in what area.  When he heard I work in the school of engineering, he proudly told me that he received multiple acceptances into our mechanical engineering diploma programs.  Since the coffee shop was dead, he then launched into a mini history of his background – he was born in east Africa, immigrated to the Middle East, did secondary school in the US, and now has his visa to study in Ontario.  He told me some of his education, that he had top marks in design in high school, and even has a portfolio.

His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he left a strong impression on me.  He sounds like a great kid, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his studies.  I told him where he could find me on campus, and he said he’d find me in the future.

I realized as I was driving away that I had missed the perfect opportunity to give him my card and promise to follow-up if he had any questions.  I want to see him succeed, and if there was anything I could do to help, I’d gladly try.

Rather than seeing the business card as a way of helping myself, I should put more emphasis on seeing the business card as a way of helping others.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Grading Drift

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of grade drift recently. My brain usually turns to grade drifting at the end of each semester as I evaluate how objectively I have scored the students. If you’ve never taught before, what I call “grade drift” is the tendency for an instructor to allow their grading standards to drift as they grade an assignment. I’m not sure how prevalent this is for assessments that are concerned with exact answers, such as math, science, engineering, programming, etc. But in assessments that deal with qualitative or creative responses, it’s common for you as an instructor to change your evaluation thresholds as you make your way through the pile of papers.

There are a few reasons why this happens. In my first courses, my grades would drift if I didn’t have a sufficiently robust marking guide to help me narrow down the kinds of answers I was looking for in a student’s response. Now that I’ve taught the course a few times, I know generally what I’m looking for and can go through the assignments with a checklist of items. This form of grade drift is usually related to lacking experience in teaching and grading, especially if your course delivery isn’t tied to your course learning outcomes.

However, there is another reason why your grades might drift. On the one hand, you want to approach your evaluations as if they are objective – that there are clear right and wrong answers. After all, your grading should be defensible, and one way to defend the grade you grant is by pointing to an objective standard. However, on the other hand, you want your evaluations of your student’s work to allow for imagination, creativity, and novel connections between ideas. You also want your evaluations to acknowledge that your classes have unique compositions of people, with their own experiences and their own progressions through your course. Just because you teach the same material each semester doesn’t mean your students progress through it at the same rate. Different students will take the material differently, which means the average response you read through will be different for each cohort of students.

This means that some groups will be “better” than others in how they perform. You can choose to penalize the students for not meeting an abstract standard that you’ve set, or you can meet the students where they are and make it your goal in the course to improve their performance as you go.

I know that some instructors will take the first approach. They will believe their teaching, evaluations, and courses are reflective of an external, eternal, objective standard; they don’t think they are being arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that these are also instructors who believe that a 70% in their course is “like a 50% in other courses” (a literal thing I’ve heard said by a peer). I think this approach is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to pass a course. When a student passes a course, it means they have met the minimum requirements of the course learning objectives. Anything above that should reflect varying degrees of competence and mastery. If your course is designed so that a student is only “just” meeting the standards with anything above a 70%, you haven’t calibrated the course or your expectations very well. At an undergraduate level, your job is to elevate your students, and improve their abilities while meeting the program learning outcome objectives.

I find myself on the other side of this issue. I understand what the goals are of the course I teach, and my aim is less concerned with ensuring my students can adequately explain all the theory they are exposed to in the course. Instead, my goals is to make my students better thinkers and writers from where they enter my course to their exit. If they can explain Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy by the end, great! But I won’t lose sleep if they can’t. My course is a general elective, and that means I’m supposed to round them out as students and people. I care less about them absorbing my esoteric knowledge and instead I care more about them learning how to think, reason, and communicate their ideas clearly.

And that’s why sometimes my grades drift as I score the student’s rubrics. I start off with some ideas of where they could be, then I calibrate my grading to meet them at their level. It’s a little more work for me, but I think it better captures the student’s performance.

As indicated above, there are a few strategies for overcoming this, such as having a clear rubric and clear notes on what you are looking for.  Also, marking all the students on one question, one at a time, rather than marking an entire submission will make it easy to compare student fairly.

While this is an unfortunate thing (the students like to think they are being objectively evaluated) this will happen as you come to understand the natural curve of your class.  You can either grade your students to one standard, or you can reflexively respond to your class’s own knowledge and aptitudes.  If your course objectives are clear, then you can feel free to adapt your grading to match the student’s progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan