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Be smart, not dumb

Kudrow: Follow your dreams

We got home last night from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we celebrated Lizy’s graduation from Vassar.

Woo hoo.

Needless to say, the occasion prompted myriad thoughts and emotions, some of which we’ll share in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m still thinking about commencement addresses.

(On that subject, three posts down, I asked BloggEd readers to choose their ideal commencement speaker from a list of attractive candidates. Your votes skewed intriguingly with those of America, as reflected in a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll. America: 1, Warren Buffett. 2, Sandra Bullock. 3, Oprah Winfrey. BloggEd: 1, Buffett/Tom Hanks (tie). 2. Anderson Cooper/Nancy Pelosi (tie.))

Lisa Kudrow,  Vassar ’85, gave the address to the class of 2010, their family, and their friends. It was really good—smart, interesting, and substantially funnier than anything Phoebe ever said on “Friends.” But the message bemused me. Boiled down to three words, it was: “Follow your dreams.”

One of my problems was that Kudrow’s support for the proposition of dream-following was her own example. She told how she graduated from Vassar with plans and training for pursuing medical-type research, but within months kept hearing voices in her head urging her to become an actress. She initially resisted but ultimately succumbed, endured seven or eight years of apprenticeship and only the most minimal success, then finally broke through with a recurring part on “Mad About You” and then sitcom stardom on “Friends.”

The fallacy is that for every Kudrow, there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people who have a dream and never get it. Actually, writing that sentence makes me feel like a small mean person, so I will hurry on to another problem with follow-your-dreams speeches, a problem they share with the other main theme of commencement addresses, the admonishment to be aware of and responsive to the needs of your fellow humans, develop a moral sense, be a productive member of society, etc.

The problem is that while all these things are good qualities to take through life, they’re only tangentially related, at best, to a college education, the achievement of which, after all, is the reason for the commencement.

So, sitting in the beautiful setting of Vassar’s amphitheatre, listening to Kudrow and her fellow speakers, I began to muse about what I would say in the improbable event that I had been asked to speak to the graduates. Here is what I came up with:

I stand before your eager faces, your splendid caps and gowns, and the best advice I can give you is:

Be smart, not dumb.

When I first started teaching undergraduates, it was a little surprising how dumb they were when the semester began. By “dumb,” I don’t mean unintelligent. (Legions of people with high IQs and SAT scores are dumb.) I mean three specific things: not being curious, lacking general knowledge, and being prone to offer or blindly accept unexamined conventional wisdom and flat-out unsupportable propositions, as opposed to subjecting them to critical thinking and analysis.

It was a lot surprising, and pretty sad, how many students were still dumb when they walked out the door after the last class. I fear that many of you will leave this campus today in that same unfortunate state.

Where does the blame lie? I suggest we share it jointly, the students and professors.

It’s tempting to absolve myself of responsibility, and to tell the truth, sometimes I give in to temptation.  After all, isn’t curiosity an inborn trait, like red hair or nearsightedness, nurtured and cultivated, if at all, only at a very young age by your parents? And after all, it’s curiosity that leads to general knowledge. It prompts you to read books, or notice and wonder about things that pass before you as you go about your day, and look up articles on Wikipedia—and doing those things makes you know stuff, as if by magic.

Well, right, but the classroom is a little world, and in it we professors can “model” curiosity and mandate general knowledge about the subject at hand. Most important, we can and for the most part do build our classes around that critical thinking thing. It doesn’t matter what course or major. In science and math, you should or could have learned to distinguish an ingenious and elegant experiment or theorem from a shoddy and ill-constructed one. In history, you were taught to analyze primary and secondary sources and cast your judgment on the long-ago activities and motivations of men and women. In English, you learned the arts of “close reading” and argument. In every discipline, you were taught to train your eye on the text or topic under discussion, determine its intellectual worth, express your findings in that discipline’s language, and create something of your own that was new and good.

What I am asking you to do is extend these skills and habits of mind to your lives. Learn to recognize clichés and bromides, and do not accept them in place of real argument, sentiment or thought. If you find yourself thinking or expressing yourself in those terms, cast them out! Much better that you try to form an original and true idea, no matter how (seemingly) small.

Be skeptical (not cynical) of the many things you will be asked to agree with and believe. Politicians and pundits will constantly tell you what they think you want to hear. Scrutinize their statements and subtexts, and figure out what they really mean. No matter who is talking to you, think about what they’re really saying, and why.

Then there are the dumb commercials, dumb movies, and dumb reality TV shows that you will be exposed to. It’s not that you shouldn’t necessarily enjoy them. Just realize that they are dumb, and develop a sense of just how they are dumb.

And here is the most important thing. When someone sends you an e-mail describing an incident or offer that seems to good to be true, remember that dumb people send these on to their friends. Smart people check them out on snopes.com.

That is all.

Goodbye and good luck.

—Ben

Uhoh

Jobs and the class of 2010.

The class of '70, finally capped-and-gowned

I love this story in the NY Times about Boston University finally giving the class of 1970 a chance to march. Forty years ago, the “campus, like many across the country, was in turmoil, with strikes, sit-ins, building takeovers and fire-bombings.” So the school cancelled final exams and commencement, and mailed the grads their diplomas.

The Times reports:

At their own convocation on Sunday morning, class members — with their gray hair tucked under their caps and lifetimes of experience under their belts — strode across the stage in their fire-engine-red gowns and received their diplomas (actually, certificates, since their real diplomas had been mailed to them at the time).

Swaying back and forth, they spontaneously sang “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” They bopped and shimmied off the stage to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Attorney General Erich Holder gave the commencement address and told the assembled crowd of grads, “I love you all.”  Then,  “gesturing to the class of 1970, sitting right in front of him, he said, ‘But these are my people.’”

–Ben (class of ’75)

Bullock

Commencement season commences. This is a particularly meaningful one for us at the BloggEd joint because Lizy will be commencing to depart from Vassar just eight days from today. The speaker at her commencement will be none other than Lisa “Phoebe” Kudrow, the pride of the class of ’85. I have faith that she will go light on the ditziness.

At my school, the U. of Delaware, the speaker will be Catherine Bertini, a leader in the fight against world hunger. Swarthmore, Gigi’s employer, doesn’t normally have a speaker; honorary degrees will be awarded this year to biologist Bonnie Bassler; educator and labor leader John Braxton ’70; Morehouse College president Robert Michael Franklin; and actor and author Stephen Lang ’73 (better known as the badass grunt in “Avatar.” Knowing Swarthmore kids, at least a couple of them will have messages written in Na’vi on the top of their mortar boards.)

As for Maria’s college, Yale… well, let’s see what their website has to say:

By tradition, Yale does not have a Commencement speaker, although an exception is made when a sitting president is awarded an honorary degree, as was the case in 2001. Class Day, which takes place the Sunday before Commencement, features a notable speaker chosen with suggestions from the senior class. This year’s Class Day speaker is former President Bill Clinton.

Glad that’s cleared up.

Clearly, not every college can secure its dream speaker. But what if it could? The latest edition of the Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll has a question about the ideal commencement speaker. Vote below, and see if your choice jibes with that of the country at large. (And no, you may not write in Tiger Woods.) I’ll give America’s choices in the first Comment–no peeking.

Worn hyphen out prof

Illustration by Ellen Lupton for the NY Times

I have just finished grading sixteen (16, in AP style) student news articles about University of Delaware admissions trends. My conclusions:

1. Sixteen (or 16) news articles are too much to grade in one day.

2. Hyphenation is a lost art. If I had to mark up one “out of state students,” I had to mark up a dozen.

And don’t get me started on apostrophes.

—Ben

Every professor's nightmare

Back in September, Maria posted on the phenomenon of laptops in the classroom, specifically students’ laptops running Facebook or e-mail or Ebay or whatever. She asked for my comment and I said, a la Jack Benny, “I’m thinking about it.”

Part of my reluctance was that at that point, I hadn’t really experienced this trend. Well, now I have. For some reason, this semester I’ve seen a 200 or 300 percent increase in classroom laptops–from one or two per 20 students in the past couple of years, to four or five or six now.

Much of the commentary on the issue, including an NPR report that aired a couple of days ago, has focused on the dopiness of websurfing while a professor whose substantial salary is paid in large part by your substantial tuition dollars is sending profound insights in your general issue. That’s not so much my problem. As Fredrick Lawrence, dean of George Washington University Law School, said on NPR, “Daydreaming did not start with laptops and passing notes did not start with instant messaging.” I used to doodle in class or glance at a magazine; the world did not end. Lizy websurfs while watching a movie she is intently interested in; she apparently absorbs all of it.

I actually have two problems. The first is active typing, rather than occasional clicking. Not only is it rude, but it’s incredibly distracting to my middle-aged mind. It’s why for a couple of years I have banned texting in the class. Of course, on one of the few times I admonished a student about this, it turned out she wasn’t texting but searching on her smart phone for a fact I had just said I was curious about.

The other thing is that while I understand students’ doing other stuff during a lecture, for the most part I don’t conceive of my classes as lectures. What I generally teach is the set of writing, research and thinking skills required for journalism or other kinds of writing. As a result, I want the classroom to be a somewhat dynamic place. My biggest challenge over the years is my sense that students come in with a passive rather than active attitude–thinking of themselves as content recipients and me as a content provider. My main task is to get them to participate mentally and vocally, and that will definitely not happen if they’re occupied with the screen in their lap.

Rest assured, I am not tempted to reproduce the YouTube clip where a professor smashes a laptop.

Nor do I want to spend the time figuring out how to block wifi in the classroom, as some profs have apparently done. (And anyway, there is no way to block solitaire.)

But I am seriously thinking about banning laptops next semester. What do you think?

—Ben

*For an amusing discussion of the origin of the question “Threat or Menace?” see this site.

I recently noted growing murmers that America’s legion of unpaid interns are being exploited. On Wednesday, the U.S. Dept. of Labor issued a “fact sheet” designed to clarify “whether interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the services that they provide.”

As I read this document, the short answer is: Always.

The key provision relates to the duties interns perform. A longstanding Labor Dept. rule holds that employer must derive “no immediate advantage from the activies of the intern.”  The new document expands on this, specifying that unpaid interns shouldn’t “perform the routine work of the business on a regular and recurring basis,” and should not in fact be “performing productive work.”

Instead, the employer should provide  “job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close of regular employees.” And, ideally, “the  intern performs no or minimal work.”

Does that sound like any internship you have ever been aware of? Me neither.

The document doesn’t mention anything about enforcement. Presumably, companies won’t change their practices until the first big penalty gets imposed. When or if it comes down, I will report back to you.

—Ben

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