On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On substitutes.

On substitutes.

When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley.  He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.

Then Jess decided to become a school teacher.  He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym.  As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.

His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class.  The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”

Everybody knew Jess was great with kids.  He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude.  But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.

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Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year.  As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway.  There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.

With experience, most people get better at this.  I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher.  She learned how to read and work a room.

And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room.  But there are still problems.

In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities.  Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk.  Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.

In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher.  (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.)  These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.

Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.

Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.

During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk.  The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet.  Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).

When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do.  I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly.  Those are students she’s grown familiar with.

High school is a stressful environment.  And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.

But, what’s a little worse than high school?  In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?

Oh.  Right.  Prison.

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One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards.  These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks.  Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.

When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt.  When a substitute enters a prison, people could die.  According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,

As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.

Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.

The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further.  When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.

In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime.  After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled.  Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since.  For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:

The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said.  “Dude was supposed to go home the next week.  What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language.  They stabbed him out of fear.”

A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.

I teach at our local county jail.  During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe.  According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things.  A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window.  Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody.  It was a scary place to be.”

Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom.  But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.

I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment.  When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.

Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons.  If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that.  And there’s sentencing reform.  With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.

But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

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Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

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proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

Our lives are often shaped by unplanned events.  We have big dreams – I wanna be a fire fighter when I grow up! – but then the unexpected happens and our whole course shifts – my counselor helped me get through a hard year, and now I want to do the same for others.

Undergraduates seem particularly susceptible to this sort of sudden swerve.  Perched on the cusp of adulthood, everything feel momentous… and many are in a position, for the first time in their lives, to make their resolutions stick.  In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, an undergraduate inadvertently attends a review session for the certified public accountant exam and decides that this is the heroic career he was destined to pursue.

frank drawing
This dude is probably not prepared to make decisions that will reverberate for the rest of his life… and yet. Anyway, this is me, freshman year of college.

19537_27p1pIn Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a slapdash decision changes a life:

You were only supposed to take four classes, but when I found out they didn’t charge extra for five, I signed up for beginning Russian.

This logic made me smile – at my university, too, students were supposed to enroll in three or four classes each quarter, but a fifth was free as long as you gathered a sheet full of signatures (as was a sixth, as long as you didn’t insist on receiving a grade or credits toward graduation).

Indeed, being a cheapskate steered the course of my own life, too.  Like the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot, I chose my class schedule with an eye for value, enrolling in as many classes as possible, always choosing the highest numbered course from each subject I was interested in (having mistakenly assumed that bigger # in catalog = more learning).  Worse, a woman I was attempting to woo liked studying with me, so during my sophomore year I signed up for all her classes in addition to my own; at the end of that year, I’d completed all the requirements for a chemistry degree.

Toward the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I figured why not do more school?  I applied for graduate school… in chemistry, because that was my undergraduate degree.  All despite never liking chemistry.  My plan, before I’d arrived on campus, was to study mathematics, economics, and philosophy.

Whoops.

But the woman I had a crush on sophomore year did briefly date me.

100_1822
This dude? Still not prepared… and yet. This is me, first year of graduate school.

Back in the world of Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist soon develops a similar life-altering crush on a student in her haphazardly-selected Russian class:

On Thursday, I got to Russian conversation class early.  Only Ivan was there.  He was reading a novel with a foreign title and a familiar cover: the illustration showed two hands tossing a bowler hat in the air.

          “Is that The Unbearable Lightness of being?” I asked.

          He lowered the book.  “How did you know?”

          “It has the same cover in English.”

          “Oh.  I thought maybe you knew how to read Hungarian.”  He asked if I had liked the book in English.  I wondered whether to lie.

          “No,” I said.  “Maybe I should read it again.”

          “Uh-huh,” Ivan said.  “So that’s how it works for you?”

          “How what works?”

          “You read a book and don’t like it, and then you read it again?”

UNBEARAB.gifI can understand why someone – especially a female character – might not like Kundera’s book.  Yes, it depicts the way an out-of-control state can derail someone’s life… but so much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being depicts an entitled protagonist behaving rakishly toward women.  I happen to like this book, but only because Kundera, by revealing events out of sequence, includes a transcendentally beautiful description of where love comes from.

Midway through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a sad passage included several seemingly unimportant details:

Three years after moving to Paris, [Sabina] received a letter from Prague.  It was from Tomas [her former paramour]’s son.  Somehow or other he had found out about her and got hold of her address, and now he was writing to her as his father’s “closest friend.”  He informed her of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza [Tomas’s wife, whom he’s treated shabbily through most of the book].  For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver on a collective farm [because, despite his successful medical career, the new regime would not let him practice].  From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.  The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline.  Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp.  The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition.

We live.  We die.  This passage would seem a tragedy – an ill-maintained vehicle was the death of them (from the final pages: [Tereza] recalled a recent talk with the chairman of the collective farm.  He had told her that Tomas’s pickup was in miserable condition.  He said it as a joke, not a complaint, but she could tell he was concerned.  “Tomas knows the insides of the body better than the insides of an engine,” he said with a laugh.  He then confessed that he had made several visits to the authorities to request permission for Tomas to resume his medical practice, if only locally.  He had learned that the police would never grant it.).

And yet – a stray line, which I thought unimportant when I read this passage, suddenly blossoms into romance in the book’s final chapter: From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.

Four pages from the end:

          “Seeing you in that dress makes me want to dance,” the young man [whose dislocated shoulder Tomas had just reset] said to Tereza.  And turning to Tomas, he asked, “Would you let me dance with her?”

          “Let’s all go and dance,” said Tereza.

          “Would you come along?” the young man asked Tomas.

          “Where do you plan to go?” asked Tomas.

          The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

This moment – brought coincidentally about, because who could know that this young man would dislocate his shoulder?  That he would want to dance?  That he would know a nearby bar where they could dance and drink and spend the night? – is special.  Finally, after years of marriage, this is the beginning of Tomas and Teresa’s honesty with one another, their happiness and their love.  Which we, the readers, know because of that stray line earlier.  Kundera lets us watch the first night Tomas and Teresa go dancing together, after coyly embedding the knowledge that they would repeat this experience through the rest of their lives.

          “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

          “Surgery was your mission,” she said.

          “Missions are stupid, Tereza.  I have no mission.  No one has.  And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

So, yes, I liked The Unbearable Likeness of Being… but only for this moment, this sudden twist that Kundera enacts inside a reader’s brain.  Without this – considering only the plot, for instance, or the characters – the book wasn’t for me.

But I can understand why the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot considers lying.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being is very popular – especially at Harvard, where she was attending college.  During my sophomore year, someone published a list of most-purchased book titles at various collegiate bookstores.  The woman I was wooing felt extremely dejected after she saw this list.  She’d chosen to attend Northwestern instead of Harvard because the former had admitted her for a 7-year combined undergraduate & medical degree.  The list made her think she’d chosen wrong – that Harvard was the place for cultured human beings, and Northwestern appropriate only for over-earnest Midwestern strivers.

The most-sold book at Harvard’s bookstore?  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  At Northwestern’s?  An organic chemistry textbook.

s-l225.jpgI have to admit – I contributed to this problem.  I bought a copy of that organic chemistry textbook.  I took the class my freshman year, when I foolishly bought texts for every class I was taking and stumbled back to my dorm crestfallen after forking over $450.  I was so appalled that I resolved to never buy another textbook… which I stayed true to until I bought a text for the grad-level microeconomics series my junior year.

When I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’d borrowed it from the library.

In Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist one day decides to write an email to Ivan from Russian class.  This first email spawns a long correspondence: an electronic simulacrum of romance.

Batuman’s style resembles that of Tao Lin’s Taipei (which in turn resembles Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises).  We are drawn into a privileged world through the sheer accumulation of detail regarding the characters’ day-to-day lives.  In Lin’s and Hemingway’s novels, the characters take drugs and muck up their romantic lives – in Batuman’s, they skip class, teach the less fortunate, and muck up their romantic lives.

All brought on by what?  The sudden realization that a fifth class would be free.  When we look back, it becomes glaringly clear: such small decisions set our paths!

On Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

peggyPeggy Orenstein claims in the acknowledgements of her new book that she is “difficult to be around.”  I don’t believe her.  Her tone throughout Girls & Sex is charming.  She covers topics that could make a reader squirm, but she so consistently sounds like your witty & understanding best friend that the whole book flows easily.

Maybe she was denigrating herself in the acknowledgements because she puts her best self into her writing (she did qualify that “difficult to be around” with “while I am engrossed in book writing”), but I suspect she’s just being humble.  She couldn’t have drawn such honest & trusting material from her interviewees if it was true.

cinderella ate my daughterAnd I’ll have to read Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter next.  Just the other day my own daughter picked out a dress to wear and announced she was a princess — it took a five-minute conversation to convince her that it might be more fun to roar around as a DINOSAUR PRINCESS! than to waif it up as the regular humanoid kind.

Throughout Girls & Sex, Orenstein discusses problems with the way young people, especially females, learn about & engage in sexuality.  She had many conversations with young women about what they were doing, and why.  What she was most surprised by is how badly these women wanted to talk with an adult.

Instead of adult conversation, these young women usually relied upon the internet.

Orenstein is not against the idea of pornography.  Explicit depictions of human sexuality could be a positive influence on people’s lives.  But the young people she spoke with have found adult conversations about sexuality to be very inaccessible, and pop pornography, with its narrow focus on female performance over pleasure, to be all too readily available.

unnamedPornographic actors don’t behave the way they do because it’s most fun.  Their goal is to create a product that holds visual appeal for consumers.  Pornographic actor and animal activist Zara Whites described this in an interview: “With women — who I really love to make love with — in the movies I don’t enjoy it as much because when you’re giving head you have to keep your head at an angle so the camera can see what you’re doing”  (quotation from the bio at zarawhites dot com, unlinked because of unpleasant & decidedly NSFW images at the top of the page — somewhat exemplary of the problems with pop pornography). The actors purposefully put themselves into uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the camera.

This leads to physical contortion.  Sex that proceeds wordlessly.  Acts that matter more than people.  Mechanical pistoning of parts between semi-anonymous bodies shaven & stylized to evoke children (super-upsetting, this last aspect.  In a world rife with child abuse, entertainment designed to normalize the sexualization of children is not okay).

If the only venue for young people to “educate” themselves about sex is pop pornography, they’ll wind up with a very distorted outlook.

Meat_Loaf
Meat Loaf.  Not that I hold him to blame.

Unfortunately, most teens in the United States don’t have other opportunities to learn.  My school taught “sex ed” yearly, starting when I was in fifth grade.  I was taught that “the underwear zone” is dangerous unless you’re married.  In eighth grade sex ed, our gym teacher (later fired for making lewd remarks to & leering at his female students) had us watch & write an essay about Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” music video.  I think my essay said sex was dangerous because you might have to marry someone you don’t like.

Not until my junior year of college was I given advice that wasn’t garbage.  A friend lent me Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, and, oddly enough, this book taught me most of what I’d need to know.

The protagonist describes an incident from his college days when a woman he met on the train invited him to share her hotel room:

haruki murakamiI was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward.  I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said.  “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she throw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so.  Just average.”

She smiled.  “Same with me.  I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree.  Which makes me average, too, I suppose.  You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded.  She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

. . .

“OK, consider this.  Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car.  And the two of you will take turns driving.  Which type of person would you choose?  One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied.  “What we have here is very similar.  Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important.  What’s important is being attentive.  Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride.  Being alert — I think I was starting to get it.  For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

. . .

I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time.  Later in life I realized how wrong I was.

As it happens, Orenstein sat in on a sexual education class in northern California where the students were given this same advice.  The instructor, Charis Denison, told them,

“There’s this useful thing around consent: Any good lover is a good listener.  And a bad listener is at best a bad lover and at worst a rapist.”

Blunt.  But true.  In Orenstein’s words,

There was no denying it: [Denison] was explaining how to have sex.  It was the worst nightmare of conservative policy makers realized.  Yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that, if Holland is any indication, is needed to combat pop porn culture, reduce regret, and improve teens’ satisfaction when they do choose to have sex (whenever that may be).

Giving young people access to real sexual education is an important step towards a better world.  But institutional policies won’t change everything.  As a parent, I thought that Orenstein’s analysis of the statistical differences between first sexual experience in the United States and Holland was the most valuable section of the book (seriously — if you’re a parent, pick up a copy and read her seventh chapter right away, “What If We Told Them the Truth”).

The most important thing I learned from Girls & Sex is: talk to your kids.  About everything.  Discuss what you want, explain why your household has the rules it does, and be willing to change your mind.  In Orenstein’s words:

It’s not just about sex, though — according to [sociologist Amy] Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in [the U.S. versus Holland’s] conceptions of how teenagers become adults.  American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones”.  We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use.  We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family.  Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.

Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, but which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.”  Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives.

As individuals, we can’t fix everything.  Assault on campus?  It won’t vanish.  There are calculating serial offenders.  But even their actions are enabled by the inebriated hookup culture we’ve fueled with sex ed classes that teach people to be ashamed of desire.

We can make things better, though.  Especially as parents.  The way forward is clear.

We have to talk.  More importantly, we have to listen.

On paying teachers for value added.

On paying teachers for value added.

I loved standardized test days when I was in school.  Instead of sitting in class being lectured at until the teacher noticed I was doodling again and booted me to the office, we’d all sit in the cafeteria, spend maybe ten minutes filling in bubbles, then get to doodle in peace.

The tests themselves were dull, but my friends and I enlivened them with our “points per minute” game.  By jotting down the time we finished every section, we could compare ppm scores for bragging rights even when everyone flat-lined at the same perfect score.  And all those freshly sharpened #2 pencils balanced out the funky smell of the cafeteria carpet.

testBut I understand that, for students less recalcitrant than I was, the ones who might actually learn something during regular instructional days, standardized tests waste time.  And the current barrage of tests don’t even fulfill their purported goal.

You want to pay good teachers more for doing their jobs well?  Great idea!  Most schools currently use a payscale that only rewards teachers for the total number of years they’ve been in the business.  This is a cause of several problems, like older teachers having trouble finding new jobs because their salaries would be too high, and talented young people not wanting to go into education because their starting salaries would be so low.

BW teacher pay blog post_graph 1.JPG
This graph is from Brandon Wright’s excellent post about teacher pay.

Unfortunately, many otherwise reasonable people latched onto the mistaken idea that you could measure each teacher’s “value added” with a whole boatload of standardized tests.  This makes school worse for basically every kid who isn’t like me, since they’re stuck taking too many pointless tests instead of learning.  And, worse, the metric doesn’t even work.

I’m not sure everyone involved in this discussion even understands what “value added” means.  Here’s a quick definition: let’s say you have a product that’s worth 100 dollars.  Then you change it in some way.  If the product is now worth 110 dollars, you’ve added 10 dollars of value to it.

Simple enough, right?  If you’ve ever watched one of those cheesy TV shows about flipping houses, you’re probably an expert.

2972440288_bb9e17b32b_zThe example I like to start with is shipping.  Apples at an apple orchard might be worth two dollars a pound.  Anybody who wants an apple has to go to all the trouble of driving there.  But if someone loads them into a truck and brings them to a grocery store near people’s houses, the apples might be worth three dollars a pound.  Transporting apples from where they grow to where people eat adds value.

Another example is assembly.  Most companies that sell computers don’t manufacture their own components — maybe you’ve been stuck at a coffee shop with some hipster dude explaining that your Macintosh computer is full of Chinese parts that Apple raises the prices of.  But that’s a valid business model.  They buy pieces and put them together into a functional device.  Of course they charge more for the resulting computer than the aggregate cost of the components.  They’ve added value by assembling it, making it so that even relatively clueless people can buy a computer and know that it’ll work.

So, teaching?  A teacher has a set of students, and the hope is that these students change during the year.  They might gain factual knowledge, or critical thinking skills, or the ability to work with others, or the ability to sit quietly in uncomfortable chairs and follow directions like mindless drones.

That list is a good segue into the first problem with the way people talk about “value added” for teacher pay — the idea doesn’t mean much until you specify what, exactly, you value.  What’s the purpose of public education?  By attempting to measure “value added” with a standardized test, you’re asserting that we send kids to school to improve performance on standardized tests.

Given how infrequently most adults take standardized tests in their day-to-day lives, I imagine this isn’t what most people think the purpose of school should be.

6956509317_770512683b_zIf we don’t care about how well kids learn to fill in bubbles nice and dark with a #2 pencil, then what should we value?  Well, we might care about workforce productivity, in which case your “value added” metric should track students’ eventual salaries or lifetime earnings.  Maybe we want to make people into better citizens, in which case we should measure how often people volunteer, or how often they vote, or what percent of students stay out of jail.  Maybe we care about something as ethereal and hippy-dippy as happiness, in which case we could use surveys to assess well-being, or look at how many former students are married, or track how many commit suicide.

Or course, most of the metrics I’ve suggested can’t be measured immediately.  With a bubble test, you zip ‘em through the scantron and five minutes later know how well everybody did.  With happiness, or eventual salary, teachers would have to wait several years to know the whole amount of any “value added” bonus to their salary.  To my mind, that’s fine — I think more industries should use long-term performance rather than short-term gains to assess bonuses — but maybe that seems weird to you.

Those long-term metrics should also hint at the fact that “value added” calculations would be incredibly complex.  If you’re looking at somebody’s eventual salary, how do you know whether it was great work on the part of their third grade teacher, or their fifth, or their seventh, or their twelfth that gave them the skills they’d need?

It’s not an impossible math problem.  Just tricky.  This kind of multivariate regression isn’t feasible except when churned through by computers.

But I think it’s good that the math is so clearly difficult.  Because the idea that you could assess “value added” with a standardized test given to students at the beginning and the end of the school year is bizarre.  Among other problems, the “test at the beginning, test at the end, calculate the gains” idea ignores differences between students.

the-weeping-womanA student with learning disabilities will probably gain less than average each year, independent of teacher quality.  A gifted student will probably gain more than average, again independent of teacher quality.  The teachers do matter, of course.  If you gave both Pablo Picasso and me some crayons and a piece of construction paper, his drawing would probably be better than mine.  But he’d add less value to that piece of construction paper than he would’ve been able to add to a canvas, if you instead gave him a canvas and some oil paints.

A meaningful “value added” metric for teaching would ask, “How much did this student gain, compared to what he or she would’ve gained if taught by an average teacher instead of this particular teacher?”

Again, I want to stress that this is a very complicated math problem.  But not impossible, as long as you have a population of many teachers and many students to obtain data from.  You’d need to find some criteria to match students to one another.  That way you can say, “This type of student usually gains this much during third grade when given an average-quality teacher.”

231011361_4a4a257a60One difficulty in sorting people this way is determining what matters.  What attributes define a student’s type?  Do you include parental income as a variable? A near-meaningless childhood IQ test?  Do you sequence every student’s genome and include genetic factors (Good Lord I hope not — even including ethnicity seems politically suspect — but that’s the sort of thing you’d want to consider)?

Your data would also be best if each teacher had a range of student types.  This is very different from how most classes are currently organized.  When I was in school, all the special education students were tracked together and had one set of teachers, all the “gifted & talented” students were tracked together and had a different set of teachers.

Tracking would make an accurate calculation of “value added” more difficult.  Still not impossible, but less statistically robust.

Maybe that’s fine — it’s reasonable to assume that there are some teachers who’re good at working with gifted students, and can help them gain a lot, who might flounder if they worked with special education students.  I think the reverse is less likely to be true — because special education is harder, I bet most teachers who are good with special education students could do well by other students, too.

With a real “value added” measurement, I think you’d see that.  But if the powers that be cling to the mistaken notion that you can assess “value added” by measuring a difference in test scores between the beginning and end of the year, without considering that each student is unique, you’re instead going to conclude that all special education teachers are terrible.  Their students gain less!

You’ll guarantee that those teachers doing the hardest work are rewarded least.

Whoops.

As it happens, this exact same misconception about “value added” is making medicine worse, too.  If you’ve had your full dose of feeling dismal about what we’re doing to education, you should take a few minutes and read Saurabh Jha’s lovely post about this problem in medicine, “When a bad surgeon is the one you want.”