Friday, October 24, 2014

The Verdict on Human Nature: A Lament

The jury is in.

Centuries of debate about human nature have come to an end.
Are we, at our core, kind and altruistic, or self serving and basically shit? 

That used to be a debate.  A legitimate question for discourse.  A rhetorical arc from Locke vs. Hobbes to Annie vs Jeff[1].

But we have adjudicated it. 

The conclusion, it turns out, wasn’t philosophical, it was empirical.  A grand social experiment tested these dialectical hypotheses, revealing which obtained.

We call that experiment the internet.

People are who they are when the social enforcement mechanisms are suspended...or as we like to call it, under the cover of anonymity.

The internet is a place where people are who they are.  YouTube comments do not represent a few crazies.  They are a good empirical sample of the human condition.

And what do we find there: racism, sexism, anti-religious vitriol, anti-irreligious vitriol, ad hominem, bullying, intimidation, and every other way that a human can degrade not only another human's attempt to make something in and out of the world...but to degrade the human doing the making.

And then there’s Twitter.

How do we negotiate power imbalance without external enforcement?  How do we handle power imbalance when we can handle it any way we want?

Felicia Day doxxed for expressing fear that she might be doxxed for speaking out?

Christ have mercy.  Grant us wisdom and courage to be who we aren't.

[1] Ref.  Community

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tiffany's Top Ten: Study Advice Part 2

My friend Tiffany is an English Professor at a great school (bias alert - I have a degree from there).  She is the author of the recent book "The Future of the Word", which I am half way through and loving.  I e-mailed her to get her thoughts on my 10 study tip thoughts, and she generated her own.  I just decided to run it as its own post.  Also, I may have riffed once or twice in footnotes:

When I think about undergraduate experience, the thoughts are really much different than about grad school or beyond.  Here are some random thoughts from a teacher of undergrads and from my various regrets, etc.

1. Stay at school for the whole four years. 

If there's ANY WAY, don't fast track it. Gotta have time for the discoveries that happen when you take the courses you don't think you'll like, etc. etc.

2. BUY IN. 

If you can, at all possible, try to get at the nerdiness and geek out about whatever course or thing you’re doing--to not think of something as for a grade, but for as much as possible to give in to it on ITs terms, not yours. 

Example:  if you actually thought of taking the foreign language as a chance to learn the language rather than get a particular grade or fulfill a requirement--if you decided that yes, the love of the Trinity inheres in the magical translatability of the gospel and in the love across cultures, and that therefore, you will learn a LANGUAGE, not a textbook, then you would perhaps consider the following:  try church in the language; do some geeky conversation table in the community at the local library; read Bible in both languages; radically, publicly, and awkwardly practice it, etc. etc.  Do extra drill and practice, even try starting to write or worship in the language--not to get an A in Spanish 103, but to find the glory of the Lord in the multiplicity of languages, etc. etc.  And that metaphor applies across disciplines, I think.

3.  Show your buy in during class in the following ways: 

(1) If you can nod sincerely (not nod off) during class, DO IT.[1]  Teachers teach better when they feel the buy in. Indeed, sometimes I feel like I’m giving myself totally to the people who nod or show buy in, trying to teach specially for them

(2) If you can, visit office hours at least twice a term per class.  It helps YOUR buy in and, (forgive this vulgarity) I think people who visit office hours get better grades than they would have without (basically, the teacher, hearing your story, begins to BUY IN to you even more than they already do or would). 

4.  If you get stuck, MOVE YOUR BODY. 

I have heard countless stories about people trying to stick it out, stick it out, sit there until they crumble into dust in order to study, but often, exercise of a kind works out a problem, opens you for revelations that you won’t get if you try to just brain power through it. 

Poet friends tell me of, after a fruitless day of trying to power through, having even the WALK TO THE CAR be enough to open them to revelation.  One friend had to stop on the side walk and get out paper and pad right there on the concrete because the solution to the structural problem had, as it were, sort of showed up without him, as soon as he moved.

5. That whole getting off the media thing is for reals.

Serious. Trade Facebook (or whatever sites you go to, I know, Facebook is for grammas now) passwords with a friend, then change your friend’s password (and vice versa) for a week.  Use or other browser aids to keep you from that terrible track. 

6. Consider the talks and plays and concerts that are available in your department and across disciplines on campus to be PART of your education and budget in time to see the experts (even if you haven’t heard of them) that your professors spend great amounts of time and institutional (and sometimes personal!) money to bring in. 

7.  Try to remember that there are two ways that God has given us to serve him, married and single, and that both are good ways. 

Try very hard to remember that.  I wish I would have thought about the first way much less during college.  I think I would have been able to do more good work and do better work, if I didn’t assume that my whole life was pointing toward marriage (ok, sex. Mostly sex, and because I’m sort of a Christian traditionalist, marriage.). 

8.  Consider that colleges invent lists of requirements in and across disciplines for a reason and don’t think you’re too good to benefit from the wisdom of those who put together those lists. 

I bucked this SO SO many times—in undergrad, for instance, I took “Theology and Oxford Christian Writers” to fulfill the theology course requirement for general education—basically so I could read as much Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis as I wanted to.  I screwed myself out of systematic theology at a Christian college because I thought I was too good for the required course.  HUGE mistake.  Huge. 

And not just for theological reasons—it works in other disciplines too. In grad school, I made my own prelims reading list—another disaster that I’m still paying for. Oh, and by “don’t think you’re too good to benefit,” I mean both that you should take the courses that are required, AND that you should BUY IN, rather than doing the minimum possible.[2] 

9. Don’t underestimate the extent to which all disciplines fundamentally rely on writing.[3]

Learn, in college, not just how to write, as if it were a universal, but rather learn how to LEARN how to write in different fields:  by acquiring subject matter knowledge, knowledge of the genres that writers in the field tackle, knowledge of writing process, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of the discourse communities in which you’ll be writing.

10. Start every single day reminding yourself practically and tangibly (on paper, on your knees, in song, out loud) some version of John 15’s assertion that without Christ, you can do nothing.

Footnotes by stanford

[1] This also works during Collegelife talks.  Seriously.  Teacher-learner energy is a feedback loop.  And I am more motivated to put in the extra time to prepare the next one if i had the sense that the last one mattered to someone.
[2] I also have regrets with respect to this.  I endured modern physics.  In retrospect, it should have been my favorite class.  15 years later I devour all the modern physics I can – it is one of my 4 or 5 favorite topics (which is saying something given the length of that list).  But then it didn’t seem sufficiently practical to warrant my attention at the time.  I wish I had asked “why is this required and how could it capture my imagination.” I had a similar experience with at least 3 other classes in undergrad.
[3] As a full fledged STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) nerd…let me say…Yes!!!  STEM is not exempt from this advice.  It took me 10 years to learn the technical writing skills I should have picked up in an undergrad class.  Every profession writes.  And also, for some of us, writing is a mode of thinking.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Study Tips: Ten Thoughts on Optimizing the Academic Life

This week I’m giving a talk on cultivating ‘disciplined curiosity,’ which makes a case from the book of Daniel that studying hard, even when the work is tedious or dull, can be part of Jesus following, God loving, faithfulness. 

It may or may not have included a clip from everyone's favorite song about Ashurbanipal.

The talk focused on the ‘why’, of taking studies seriously, but did not expand on the ‘how’.

I have no formal training on pedagogy.   But I have studied a lot, so I thought I’d pass along the results of my anecdotal experience.
Here are my thoughts on how to discipline curiosity and thrive academically in undergrad:

1.  Understand the Concept of Flow and the Value of Momentum.

Momentum is the currency of all creative work.  Whether you are writing a paper, or solving a problem set, or generating a lab report, or learning a language, 90, consecutive, undistracted minutes are much more valuable than 90 minutes interspersed with 30, or 60, or 90 minutes of ‘study breaks.’  

Creativity isn’t magical or mysterious.  Our brains are wonderful and even mystical organs, but they can be trained.  Creativity inhabits a mental space psychologists call ‘flow.’ The key to productivity in and after college is to learn how to create and sustain flow.

2. Create Sustained Undistracted Time Windows

The environment for flow is a substantial, but tractable, block of undistracted time.[1]  I think for most people it generally works best if it is in a regular, predictable time and space.   

Predictability and structure may seem like the opposite of the conditions for creativity, but creativity is a discipline not an emotion.  

If you learn to create a habitat for creativity, it will become a regular companion.  Buy a timer,[2] set it for 60 minutes at first, then 90, then 120 and, don’t go online or check e-mail.   See if you don’t learn to create and sustain momentum.

3. Track Your Time and Budget Your Hours

How many hours a week do you study?  If you don’t know the answer to that question ±3 hours you are probably working reactively rather than proactively.  Time is a commodity, and if you are going to spend it wisely, you need to budget it.  Here’s my recommendation:

i.            Lay out a week in your favorite medium (graph paper, calendar, Excel, dragon skin and the blood of a newt,[3] medium doesn’t really matter).[4]  

ii.          Subtract a healthy amount of sleep. If I was to make one change in the many regrettable study practices of my undergrad, I’d sleep more.[5]  

iii.         Then block out the non-negotiable activities that are ‘above the line,’ activities that you prioritize before academics.  For me, in undergrad, it was church, participation in Intervarsity large and small groups, and, in my senior year, a Saturday date with my girlfriend.[6]  For some this will include exercise, close friendships, a sport or club.  With the rising costs of school, for more and more students, this includes non-trivial hours, working to pay the bills.  If video games or television are non-negotiable, budget a reasonable (and I would argue, a reasonably brief) time for them, and then stick to the budget.  Sabbath is a good principle here.  Make time for rest[7] and protect it.  

iv.        Then find the blocks of time for work and study.  Mark some in stone as non-negotiable, the same time and place where you are not likely to be interrupted by friends or internet, and make others flexible in time and place, experimenting with what is most conducive to flow…but assess that critically and don’t self-deceive.[8]

v.          Whatever you are doing, be fully present.[9]  Don’t watch Netflix during study time.  Don’t worry about the test while you are enjoying time with friends.  Just like with money, if you make a budget and stick to it, it not only keeps you from wasting the resource, it makes enjoying the part set aside for fun guilt free.

4. Find a Study Group for Problem Set Classes

This one is particular to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).  A good study group can be hit or miss in the humanities, social sciences and even the descriptive sciences.  They can sometimes waste more time than they save for reading, essay exam, discussion, and term paper based classes.  But for classes based on problem sets (Math, Physics, Chem…) find a study group, or make one.  The best study groups meet at the same time each week to tackle a regular problem set, early enough before it is due so that you can each visit office hours to get help on problems that you get stuck on.

It is ideal if there is someone else in the group as good or better than you at problem solving.  Often if there is at least someone of your caliber in the group, you will figure out different problems or different parts of the same problem, saving time.  But a study group is valuable in STEM even if you are the strongest performer in the group.  As long as the others don’t simply copy your work, if they solve the same problem even with your approach, they can verify your solution independently (or catch mistakes).

5. Go to Class…Always…and Early

Class is the best use of your study time.  There is no better return-on-investment for your time than going to lecture.  The time cost of reconstructing the material from a class is almost always much too high to make missing  class worth it, even if you have a test in your next class.

Also, if you get to class 5-10 minutes early and review the previous class’ notes, you will get more than 5-10 minutes of value from that time, because it is close enough to the first introduction to plant it more firmly in your memory, and because it will help you understand the new material (that will, presumably, build on it).

6. Notes > Text

This might not be true for English, but in all the STEM classes I took, and most of the liberal arts classes, the professor was far more interested in what he or she told me than what the book had to say.  In many cases the professor has forgotten what was in the book.  I have a very close friend whose GPA jumped a full point when she stopped spending all her time reading the text and really metabolized the notes. 

Granted, this is a tip for grad chasing rather than learning, but it is best if your learning manifests as grades, and your time is limited.

And while we are talking about grade optimization rather than learning, the best thing you can do for your grades is to read the syllabus, carefully, paying attention to the percentages, and apportioning your effort accordingly.

7. Stop Telling Yourself You Work Best Under Pressure…Seriously, Just Stop
“I work best under pressure” is self deception.  Work under a deadline is rushed and unreflective.  What you are experiencing ‘counterfeit flow’ is a truncated version creative productivity that comes from finally giving yourself a small, sad, exhausted block of undistracted time.  But you would have had the same experience, only sharper and more productive and more creative, if you had given yourself the same block of time a week earlier, in the morning or mid-day.  

Necessity is the friend of productivity but the enemy of creativity.

You might work fastest under pressure, but real learning requires time to reflect, and creativity is a middle-distance race not a sprint.[10]  You are most productive when you capture a state of flow (see #1) which usually requires regular, predictable setting of undistracted time.
8. Work While You Aren’t Working…By Working Ahead
Most creative work happens when you aren’t actively working.  While you are eating or exercising or at a job or talking with friends…shoot, I once dreamed the solution to a physics problem.  But you can only take advantage of the ‘work when you aren’t working’ phenomenon if you start early enough to have the basic ideas you are working on in the cognitive hopper for a while before the deadline.[11]

If you have a paper outline in your head, you will fill it out while you walk to class, then when you sit down to work, momentum is close at hand.
9. Ask Yourself “Why Did my Professor Find this Subject Interesting Enough to Dedicate her Life To It?” and Then Try to Contract the Virus.
Your professor dedicated her life to this topic.  At one time or another she found it that inspiring.  Surely there is enough beauty and value in there for you to squeeze 4 quarter credits of attention out of it.  And if your professor is seriously done, like out to tenure pasture done, long past inspiring anyone, then try to figure out what is so enchanting about the topic that your TA is committing her future to it.

You don’t have to make the topic your vocation, but you’ll have a lot more energy for the quarter if you find the secret to their passion.
10. Experiment with Academic Generosity.
I’m convinced that generosity is the most powerful prescription for worry and discontent.[12]  The problem is that we generally think of generosity in terms of money, and undergrads have none of that…in fact, given the loan situation, most undergrads actually have negative money.

But the most precious resources in undergrad are time and GPA.  Experimenting with academic generosity, giving time and donating insight when your time and insight can make the difference for someone else.  This will deconstruct the competitive power of the academic life.

So that is my eccentric, anecdotal top 10.   

I also reached out to some of my professor friends to ask them.  I posted my friend Prof. Rich's, Prof. Teresa's, and Prof. George's thoughts in the comments and rolled Prof. Tiffany's thoughts into a second post here.

What about you?  Please share some of yours in the comments.[13]

This post was written while listening to In the Aeroplane Over The Sea[14] by Neutral Milk Hotel

[1] I have a friend who used to work in increments of ‘one laptop battery’ (which used to be just over two hours).  For him, that enough time to achieve flow, but stopped  for a break before the point of diminishing returns.
[2] Like a real, life, physical timer.  Don’t rely on an internet timer, because you want to be going to the internet as little as possible.
[3] Actually, dragons are apex predators, so even in an imaginary world, commoditizing their pelt is probably morally dubious, and if you are handling dead newts, be aware that the contain one of the most toxic neruo toxins in the animal kingdom.  Maybe better to go with a molskine and a pen…or at least sheep hide and frog blood.
[4] I use software for this, but I’ve had friends tell me that is weird
[5] The sleep deficit I ran made me exhausted in class, so even though I was there, I had to re-learn the material and had horrible notes, and when I tried to work, I was too tired to be creative.  It is a physicalogical reality.  You are more creative when you are well rested.  Red bull does not provide the same brain chemicals as sleep…espresso does not consolidate and reinforce neural pathways.  Sleep is part of learning.
[6] My now, wife.  This was the best investment I made in undergrad.
[7] Rest gets confused with as entertainment.  In your very limited non-work time, make sure to actively choose activities that are life giving.
[8] If you don’t have enough time in iv, revisit iii and your definition of ‘non-negotiable,’ or lower your academic expectations and be cognoscente of the future costs of that decision.
[9] This was my friend Tiffany’s approach to her first year of Grad School at a top 5 English program (where she measured the reading she had to do that year in meters).  I stole it, and it has served me well.
[10] I think the ‘marathon-not-a-sprint’ metaphor is overused and mostly inaccurate.  If an all nighter is a sprint, by simple temporal upscaling, writing a paper carefully and reflectively over the course of 2 weeks is a middle distance race, something like an 800m or a 1600m.  Nothing in the quarter system is a marathon, but it’s also better if it’s not a series of sprints either.
[11] This may seem to contradict my advice to ‘be fully wherever you are’ but it doesn’t really.  The ‘be fully present’ principle is about worry and distraction.  If you have learned why your topic is fundamentally interesting or even beautiful, thinking about it recreationally does not violate the boundaries of Sabbath.
[12] I actually did a talk about this.
[13] I have reached out to some of my professor friends to provide a few thoughts of their own.
[14] It was also written IN an aroplane, somewhere over Nevada.