Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

9/29/2005

Stop reading the title of this post!

File under: Sound And Fury, XX Marks the Spot. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:51 pm.

Lord knows you won’t find a less charitable critic of the “your shoes say so very much about you” school of thought than yours truly, but I find myself unable to reject, wholesale, its central tenet, which is this: what you wear can send a message to the people you interact with. For example, if you wear a t-shirt that says “touch my boobies“, you are sending the message that you would like someone to touch your boobies. Yes, you are. Oh, I know that you meant it ironically. And do you know what the horny eighteen-year-old who asked you out after he saw you in that shirt has a really good appreciation of, because he’s been paying extremely close attention in the remedial English class he couldn’t place out of? That’s right, irony.

More generally: if you don’t periodically find yourself thinking, “You know, the problem with the world today is that people read too damned much, perhaps it’s time to discourage folks from reading the stuff they see around them”, then maybe you ought to think long and hard before “[using] your body as a billboard“. Even - no, especially - if you’re only doing that for the purpose of (ironically!) “[showing] corporate America that you’re not one”, and by the way, if anyone who passed Doublethink 101 would care explain that one to me in the comments, why, I’d be much obliged.

Because here’s the thing: I am, for the most part, wholly uninterested in boobies. When I talk to women, I make eye contact with them the entire time, unless they’re gesturing with their hands, in which case I’ll look at their hands as well. I will not look downward. Again: I am wholly uninterested in boobies.

However, if my interlocutor has text printed across her tits, then yes, my gaze will move southward, and linger for as long as it takes for me to finish reading. DESPITE MY LACK OF SEXUAL INTEREST IN BREASTS. English text implicitly invites readers (see also, “society, literacy-based”) even when it explicitly reads “stay away”. You have to first read it in order to get the “stay away” message.

“The show is upstairs”? Fine. I’d never have even ventured onto the second floor in the first place if you hadn’t invited me there. And now? I’m pretty sure I’m not even interested in the show anymore.

(Although, it looks like there’s something going on on the first floor, if you catch my drift. Me, when I want someone to not look at my crotch, I wear something on top of my underpants. Even though that’s not politically progressive! Whatever.)

[Update: This is worse. If you ever see anyone wearing that first shirt, play dumb and ask him to check out that nasty-smelling vaginal discharge you just noticed. Hey, he offered!]

9/28/2005

This is why my little college-math-ed blog has so many readers:

File under: Those Who Can't, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:05 pm.

Because I am Everycollegeinstructor.

In U.S. report released this month, 40 per cent of professors who were surveyed said that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for university-level work. Further, the survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 56 per cent cited working with unprepared students as a source of stress.

Count me among both groups.

The rest of the article is essentially a quantitative, snark-free summary of everything I’ve written about teaching over the past year. Incoming university students, reports the Globe, are woefully unprepared for the demands of university; it’s hard to know how to deal with them; their high school grades mean nothing. Nothing new here, but I’m glad this issue is getting national attention.

Unfortunately, I think the remedies described in the article - more remedial classes! extra help for students who lack basic skills! diagnostic tests for students whose math marks are below 70% or whose English marks are below 80%! - are remarkably short-sighted, and contribute to the unfortunate trend of students paying universities to learn what they used to be able to learn in high school, for free. The main problem, as I see it, is an increasingly incoherent high school curriculum that is quickly diverging from the goals of a university education. And this problem won’t be solved until high school and university educators start talking to one another.

I’ve got a lot to say about this piece, and I’m finding that my thoughts are all over the place, so bear with me. Or don’t, I guess.

First, a quote from Ann Barrett, managing director of the University of Waterloo’s English language proficiency program, that dovetails with the experience of every single college calculus instructor who’s ever taught students who took calculus in high school:

“I have seen students present high school English grades in the 90s, who have not passed our simple English test.”

And the proposed reasons for this?

Some officials blame grade inflation at the high school level. Others say that in this primarily visual world, there’s little focus on the written word. And one professor points to the high school curriculum being so jam-packed with content that teachers have no time to instruct on the basic skills.

My thoughts on these, respectively, are: kind of, but that’s beside the point; give me a break; and ok, now we’re getting somewhere.

Let’s start with grade inflation, becuase it’s the most frequently-cited cause for students obtaining A’s in high school and flunking out of college. I stand by what I wrote on the subject back in January, but I think that the A-students-flunking issue is a lot more complicated than that. If grade inflation were the main culprit, then we could say that a student who gets an A has what may once have been considered C-level understanding of the material; that is, an A in 2005 is equivalent to a C in (say) 1995.

I disagree. My A-minus student does not have a C-level understanding of the grade twelve course that I took a decade ago, the one that prepared me reasonably well for my university math classes. He doesn’t even have a D-level understanding of such material. To say that an A-minus means anything in terms of a student’s understanding of the math they need to succeed in university is to say that there’s any correlation whatsoever between college level math and grade twelve math as it’s taught in BC. And there isn’t.

My student’s A-minus is a in fact pretty accurate reflection of his knowledge. My student does indeed have an A-minus grasp of the material taught in grade twelve math in BC. My student has acquired A-minus-level proficiency at storing formulas in his fucking graphing calculator and memorizing the solutions to homework problems so that he can recall them when he faces the test. He’s quite good at all that, really. It’s just that this proficiency would help him not one whit if he were to take a university-level math class, taught by professors who naïvely expect their A-minus students to be minimally numerate, not to mention vaguely proficient in reasoning mathematically.

Reducing this issue to grade inflation suggests that the problem lies in the evaluation of students, not in the choice or presentation of material. Absolute mastery of BC’s garbage grade 12 math curriculum doesn’t prepare students for university, because BC’s garbage grade 12 math curriculum is virtually disconnected from university. My colleagues and I have griped amongst ourselves about this, but as far as I can tell, there is no communication between high school curriculum developers and university educators. Tweaking grades won’t fix that.

On to the next idea - we live in a visual world, with little emphasis on the written word, so no wonder Johnny can’t read - am I missing something here? Did our world become significantly more visual in the last decade - a time during which universities have reported tremendous increase in unprepared students? The high school texts I’ve seen are jam-packed with the written word.

What I do see is this: I see students calling me over to their desks to ask about a word problem, and half the time me reading the word problem aloud to them is enough to answer their question. I see students skimming over paragraphs of text (not that I blame them) and then asking me what they really needed to read in order to solve the problem. I seldom see any indication that students are reading their textbooks beyond skimming over the examples so that they can match them to the homework questions. I’ve lost track of the number of students I’ve tutored, or fielded during office hours, who did not avail themselves of the indices of their textbooks. The reason they couldn’t show that two events were mutually exclusive was because they didn’t know what “mutually exclusive” meant, nor did they think to look it up.

When I was in high school, my English teachers routinely gave marks for producing drafts of essays. Producing the draft was worth half marks; the rest of our marks came from the quality of the actual essay. An incoherent essay could easily earn a B if the writer produced a draft. When I was in grade twelve, we had to submit one or more essays every week. There was plenty of emphasis on the written word; our ability to use it well, however, was virtually irrelevant.

Things have gotten worse in my home province, according to a former camper of mine. This camper was a brilliant math and science student; by his own account, he was “average” in English - and he wanted to improve. But he was having trouble doing so, because he was never assigned essays as homework. A few years earlier, he told me, teachers were reporting a rise of internet plagiarism. The school board’s solution: stop assigning essays for homework. In 2002, the only essay-writing experience that high school English students had, consisted of sitting in class for eighty minutes or so and producing an unedited, unresearched paper. It’s not hard to imagine a student who excels at writing those sorts of papers, flunking out of a class that requires long, researched papers.

There’s plenty of emphasis on the written word. There’s virtually none on developing the skills required to use it effectively.

Moving along - I am a lot more sympathetic to the third proposed explanation for the increase in unprepared university students: the emphasis on content over skills. Erin O’Connor, from whom I pilfered the original link, puts it well:

What [the article strongly implies] is that the problem stems in no small part from an ideology of progressive education that is famously hostile to skills acquisition (which requires such child-stifling practices as memorization, drill, repetition, and so on).

This certainly rings true in math, where I labour endlessly to disabuse my students of the notion that if only they memorized more formulas, more examples, they’d be doing a lot better in my class. The idea that there is a smallish set of basic skills that, solidly understood and correctly applied, will carry them through more difficult work, is alien to them. Pointing out that they can use material in Chapter n-k to solve a question in Chapter n risks an uprising. (True story: the precalculus 2 prof last year had a student in his office ask how to find a hyperbola’s asymptote. The prof reminded the student how to find equations of straight lines, and was met with a blank stare. “We did that last term,” she explained earnestly. “You didn’t show us how to do it this term.”) Last April, I talked to my then-department head to suggest completely reworking the curriculum for the terrible precalculus class. He was more than receptive, and took notes as I ranted. One idea that came up: teaching half the content, but taking time to make sure that students had a solid grasp on everything that was taught. It interests me, thought it doesn’t surprise me, that Erin and the English professor quoted in the article have come to similar conclusions about the courses with which they have experience: those courses too display an emphasis on content to the exclusion of skills that can be more broadly applied.

High school curricula are disjointed. We get a topic here, an application there - and we get nothing to tie them together. There’s no overarching theme for any course, no concept to unify the incredible mass of content. Students are understandably hard-pressed to recall any skills they learned in high school. And I can’t blame them for wondering, on occasion, “what’s the point of all this stuff?” I’m not even sure the people who designed their courses know.

At the end of the day, we’re left with two facts that are increasingly troubling, and increasingly at odds with one another:

1. High school students are discouraged from pursuing post-secondary options other than university; but

2. A high school education does not prepare one for university.

The first of these is seldom challenged among high school teachers and guidance counselors; the second is addressed at the university level alone. Unless high school and university educators start working together to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish, and how best to accomplish it, we’re still going to have unprepared students scrambling when they enter university, and we’re still going to have short-staffed universities rushing to endow them with the skills they should have acquired in high school. That’s not education; that’s damage control.

9/23/2005

Off the beaten path

File under: Home And Native Land, Talking To Strangers, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:04 pm.

I never got around to writing about my tour of the Gulf Islands last June.

* * *

The public transit system that serves the Gulf Islands is unreliable when you’re in a hurry, but it’s friendly and it’s free. During my forays onto Salt Spring and Pender, I quickly marked myself as an outsider by looking askance as would-be commuters faced me, their thumbs extended. I recognized that this was how Islanders got by, but I was raised in a city, where strangers were not to be trusted.

The three picnickers on Cortes Island were different, however, and I slowed down when I saw them. The oldest of the them thanked me for stopping, and told me that she wasn’t coming along for the ride, but that Megan and Katie appreciated not having to walk to the community hall on such a hot day. No problem, I replied; I was happy to help. But I wasn’t from around here; where, I asked, was the community hall? The woman pointed to a junction on my map - not far at all - and thanked me again. She paused before turning around, and then said to the other two, strapped into seatbelts in the backseat - careful the traffic when you cross the street.

I introduced myself to my passengers. They were sisters, as I’d suspected. Megan was nine, and Katie was seven, and they were going to the community hall to rehearse for a play.

* * *

I never met the host of the inn on Mayne Island where I spent a rainy night. I’d called the innkeeper a few nights before to reserve a room, and she’d told me that she probably wouldn’t be around when I arrived. But she’d leave me a note and a key in the mailbox, and I should make myself at home as soon as I got in.

When I got off the ferry, I headed right for the inn, but I didn’t see a sign. I stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the baker asked me my name. “Oh, she told me she was expecting you,” he said when I answered. “Inn’s right next door, behind the tree. It’s hard to see the sign from the road.”

I thanked him, and found the key. The $60 room I’d booked was larger than my apartment. It had huge windows on two sides, and I selected a bed adjacent to one of them. I awoke early the next morning; my host was nowhere to be found. I put some money and a thank-you note in an envelope, stuck the envelope under the door, and left.

There was a note posted on the front door. It was dated two days earlier; I’d obviously missed it when I arrived. In the same formal script that had appeared on my note was a message: I will be out of town all week. If you would like a room at the inn, please see the baker next door.

* * *

Denman Island is the flattest of the Gulf Islands, and as such, it is also one of the most cyclist-friendly. There are bikes everywhere on the island - in the many parks, in front of the community school, in the middle of driveways. Unlocked, all of them.

“You can’t leave your bike unattended for a minute where I live,” I remarked to the owner of the bed and breakfast. “I lock mine even when I’m just running in and out of a store; otherwise, someone would take it for sure. It’s amazing that you can trust that no one would do that here.”

She shrugged. “People take bikes here, too,” she said.

“And you still leave them like that?” I said, gesturing toward the trendy mountain bike that was propped up against a tree.

“They take them, but we always end up finding them sooner or later,” she said. “I know what my neighbour’s bike looks like, and so does everyone else. Someone finds a purple hybrid near the Hornby ferry, they know it’s his.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s an island. How far could they go?”

9/19/2005

And Now, Some Name Dropping

File under: When We Were Young, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:58 am.

When I was ten, I was enrolled in some sort of an after-school drama class for kids. There were about a dozen-odd of us in the group, but the only ones whose names I remember were this girl from my school who was a really good artist, and Ben Mulroney, son of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The play we presented at the end of the class was some holiday schtick about a poor family that ends up almost missing Christmas but is then saved at the last minute by the generosity of…I don’t remember. Anyway, I played the mom, and Ben Mulroney played the dad. Unfortunately, Ben Mulroney came down with the flu just before the big day, so I ended up having to play the mom opposite one of the other drama students, a girl who wasn’t Ben Mulroney’s official understudy and who consequently had to read Ben Mulroney’s lines from the script onstage. The drama instructor assured us that this sort of thing happened all the time in real life, but I still felt cheated. It didn’t make a difference in the long run, though. Fifteen years later, Ben Mulroney had parlayed his acting experience into a successful career as the host of Canadian Idol, and, not to brag or anything, but let’s just say that no one ever made a negative remark about my posture or diction during any of the dozen-odd times I delivered that lesson on factoring trinomials.

The drama class was in the fall of 1988 - the fall during which Brian Mulroney was re-elected with a second majority government. A day later, my drama class met, and naturally the election was the main topic of conversation. Being ten years old, I didn’t know anything at all about the politics involved, aside from the fact that well, my parents didn’t vote for him, but I felt I needed to say something positive to Ben Mulroney, because it’s rude not to acknowledge things like your father getting a second mandate to govern the country. And so I said to Ben Mulroney - and, I’m warning you here, you should probably start cringing right now - I said, Tell your father congratulations from me.

And Ben Mulroney, bless his heart, smiled graciously and said something like, Thank you, I will, as opposed to Like he gives a shit what you think, which would also have been correct. Because Ben Mulroney, age twelve, was a perfect gentleman.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah: he sure didn’t get that from his father.

9/17/2005

What passes for success

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:06 pm.

I realize that I don’t post many stories about my positive experiences with students. Part of it is because those experiences don’t require the sort of catharsis that the horror stories demand. Part of it is that my darkly comical style of writing doesn’t lend itself to expositions of, like, students actually learning stuff from me. And part of it is because sometimes, the success stories depress me even more than the failures.

I’ve been tutoring a high school kid for the past two months. The kid’s in grade 12; when I met him, he was doing math at a grade two or three level. This is not an exaggeration: he couldn’t add or multiply single-digit numbers without a calculator. And this wasn’t just rustiness, as this inability extended to not being able to compute things like 6+0, 5*1, or 3*0. In other words, he didn’t know what numbers were. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t solve linear equations, add fractions, or make heads or tails of the most simple word problem.

I met with him every other day, two hours at a time. And, to his credit, what he lacked in mathematical skill, he more than made up for in persistence. He worked diligently, if not terribly successfully, on his homework. We spent a lot of time on the basics - fractions, simple algebra, the meaning of equations. We also spent a lot of time - far, far more than I’d have liked - on how to use the fucking graphing calculator to perform tasks that every student should know how to do with a pencil and paper.

He’s two thirds of the way through the course now, and he’s pulling an A-minus.

And he’s learned a lot in this class, and I’m glad that his effort will almost certainly earn him the C he needs by the end of October. But little of what he knows falls into the category of “mathematics”; the bulk falls under the umbrella of “tricks that will get a student through a grade 12 math class in BC.” He’s vaguely familiar with basic algebra now, but he still falters when simplifying an expression (”Am I allowed to cancel out the x’s in (x+5)/x?”). He cannot immediately identify which methods to use in solving an equation - he’ll use the quadratic formula if someone tells him he’s dealing with a quadratic equation, but he needs that push. Meanwhile, he’s a whiz at using his graphing calculator: he’s mastered all of the fancy features, and can program all of the rules into it. (He’s managed to fit, in the calculator’s memory, examples of every type of question he might see, along with solutions.) After each test, he purges both his calculator’s memory and his own of everything we’d studied in the previous chapter.

Two weeks ago we wrapped up the trig unit, which vexed him even more than the previous four chapters had. Following some introspection, he was able to identify the source of his frustration: why, he wondered, did those bastard curriculum designers make him do this shit? Didn’t they know that the TI-83+ could neither do proofs, nor provide exact values of sin (pi/3) and the like? During one particularly trying session in which I was explaining, for the third time, how to find those values, he declared that he wasn’t going to learn “that triangle shit”, and I found myself, for the first time ever, raising my voice with a student. He relented. He got an A on the trig test. The next week, reminiscing, he asked, “trig - we did that already, right? Was that the stuff with the logs?”

Last week we started on the combinatorics chapter, and I braced myself for the damage. Combinatorics, unlike most of the rest of the course, requires some creativity: formulas are few, and variations on themes are many. Every question must be read carefully, and even the simplest ones require students to think about how to set them up. However, my student took to this section surprisingly well, and found it to be a lot less stressful than the others. He even asked me some questions that were related to the material, and not just to how to pass the next test.

The last section of the combinatorics unit covered the Binomial Theorem, which provides a shortcut for expanding expressions of the form (a+b)^n. I always thought that this material was the easiest part of the combinatorics chapter: it’s completely algorithmic, and demands no creativity.

It does, however, demand a knowledge of basic algebra.

“Here’s what we’re going to do in this section,” I explained. “We’re going to find a shortcut for expanding things like (a+b)^n - n is a whole number.”

“Which whole number?”

Sigh. We’ve been through this, many times. He always gets tripped up by questions that require him to generalize anything, even slightly. Has to do with skimming over the directions, and failing to understand that variables…can vary. Last month’s lesson didn’t sink in, apparently.

I explained it again. “N can be any whole number,” I said. “We’re going to introduce a formula that will let us expand (a+b)^1, (a+b)^2, (a+b)^3…and (a+b)^n for any whole number n.”

And away we went. We had worked out the first several lines of Pascal’s Triangle on the previous page, and I made sure that that was accessible as I had him expand the powers of binomials the long way.

He started having trouble with (a+b)^0. “Zero?” he asked. Even though he’d raised things to powers of zero in the chapter on geometric series. And the one on exponents. And a few others.

“What’s anything raised to the power of zero?”

He reached for his calculator and tried a few values. Frustrating, but at least he knew that he could figure out the answer by trying some values. He hadn’t known that in July. “One,” he declared.

The expansion of (a+b)^1 proceeded without incident. He was just as quick to give an answer for the next one: “(a+b)^2 = a^2+b^2,” he said.

We’d gone over this one a dozen times in the previous month. He’d made that mistake a dozen times. Each time we went over the basic rules of algebra, and tried plugging in numbers for a and b that showed that (a+b)^2 doesn’t always equal the same thing as a^2+b^2. But that was last month. He was supposed to know this still?

And it wasn’t over. You mean ab and ba are the same? So we can collect them? And we can’t collect ab and a^2? Why not?

Anyway, enough. My point is: in the BC high school math metric, this is A-minus work. A good graphing calculator and a mediocre short-term memory are sufficient to achieve excellence in high school math classes; most students will take the path of least resistence and develop little else. Grades of C or higher are required for the college program this kid’s trying to get into. Grades of D in this course are sufficient to gain entry into the precalculus class I taught at Island U last year. If a failure to grasp basic algebra doesn’t stand in the way of getting an A-minus, then what on earth does one have to know in order to get a C? Or a D? Why not just eliminate the middle man and admit anyone into a college math class, rather than wasting everyone’s time on this extended TI-83+ how-to seminar? This sort of thing is part of why I usually have little sympathy for students who claim that, no, really, they do know the material, it’s just that they do badly on tests. In my experience, it’s more frequently the opposite: they do far better on tests than their actual understanding of the material reflects. And then they sink like stones when they take a college class with me, in which I design the tests and don’t allow them to use their graphing calculators.

Well, not all of them sink. I had a student last year, who earned a C on the first test and then quickly adapted to my expectations. He had the aptitude to do so; it’s just that he’d never been required to use it to full capacity. He pulled an A-minus on the final exam, and wrote me a note at the end. I transcribed it, and I go back and read it every now and again when I’m particularly frustrated:

I hope I did as well on this exam as I think I did. I know it took me awhile to get going this term, but I worked really hard and I finally feel like I get this stuff. I always used to do well in math class in high school, but you actually made me think. Even though I got good marks in math class before, I feel like this is the first time I really learned math.

Thank you.

I guess that’s success. I expect a thank-you from my current tutee, who certainly would not have achieved the required C without me, and who will almost certainly get or surpass it next month. But I doubt I’ll feel all that good about it.

9/16/2005

It surprises no one that the last letter in my Myers-Briggs type is a ‘J’

File under: Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:51 pm.

John at Toilet Paper With Page Numbers, one of the most underappreciated blogs around, has an excellent post about the importance of just making a bloody decision already, rather than continuing to do research ad infinitum until one is confident that enough information has been gathered. Like, in general. John quotes from a variety of folks who are better-read than I, and who are consequently able to make a stronger case for decision-making than the typical clenched-toothed, raised-voiced demand to MAKE UP YOUR GODDAMN MINDS AND ACT FOR CRYING OUT LOUD to which I have been known to resort on more than one occasion. I’m going to quote at length, because there’s a lot of good stuff here.

Here we go: John, going straight for the jugular, starts out by proclaiming that “[l]eadership counts. Even in the absence of total access to information.” (John, are you sure about that? Have you put enough thought into this that you can confidently - oh, nevermind.) He then continues,

If…omniscience were possible, human organizations still could not attain the requisite efficiency to use the information effectively for good or ill. In any human organization, information is passed through layers of management and across functional silos. Each silo and each layer has its own preconceptions and ambitions.

This last bit is key. There’s a misconception that I’ve, um, encountered purely hypothetically, that holds that as long as everyone is communicating clearly, and as long as everyone has complete information, then everyone will agree. This is true in math - and it’s part of why I love the subject - but it’s not true elsewhere. People aren’t blank slates. We all come with our own data and filters.

John then quotes from a book review by Photon Courier, who writes favourably on Dietrich Doerner’s The Logic of Failure:

One very interesting angle explored by Doerner is the danger, in decision-making tasks, of knowing too much - of becoming lost in detail and of always needing one more piece of information before coming to a decision. He posits that this problem “probably explains why organizations tend to institutionalize the separation of their information-gathering and decision-making branchs” - as in the development of staff organizations in the military.

It also explains why individuals tend to self-segregate along these lines, and why the sets of intellectuals and effective leaders are virtually disjoint.

Photon Courier also mentions a study that aptly illustrates the law of diminishing returns as it applies to information gathering and decision-making:

In a study done many lears ago, a researcher asked psychologists to evaluate a particular individual (Joseph Kidd) based on writen information. In the first stage of the experiment, he gave them just basic information about Kidd. In later stages, he gave them more and more information about this same person–first, one and a half pages about his childhood, eventually, a detailed account of Kidd’s time in the Army and his later activities. After each stage, the subjects were asked to answer a 25-item test about Kidd.

As the the psychologists got more and more data, they became more and more confident in their judgments. But objectively, the judgments didn’t get any better. The overall accuracy remained pretty constant at about 30 percent.

I often like to point out that deciding to gather more information is often much more than a means of postponing a decision - it’s a decision itself. You’re (passively) deciding to take the time to gather information and to mull things over instead of…actively making a decision about the issue at hand and getting on with other things. And it might not be worth it.

I minored in philosophy as an undergraduate, an experience that was worthwhile if only because I’d never otherwise have read William James’ essay The Will To Believe, which I encountered in a philosophy of religion class. Alas, I can’t seem to find this essay online (thanks to jhr in the comments for the link). In it, James argues compellingly that agnosticism is a false position for anyone who cares about the existence (or not) of God. A decision, he argues, that is live (that is, it has some subjective appeal to the chooser), forced (it’s either/or - there’s no third option that arises by avoiding the decision) and momentous (vitally important in the relevant context) needs to be made within a limited time frame - and it can’t always be made on strictly intellectual grounds. There’s no avoiding a decision, but excessive waffling can lead to making the wrong one. This essay, by the way, did little to change the way I viewed religious belief (James argues in its favour), but it did much to change the way I lived.

The ‘J’ in the title of this post, by the way, refers to judging, as opposed to “perceiving”:

Judgers prefer to come to decisions and move on. They can feel betrayed if a decision is “reopened”. They are prone to hastiness, but get things done.

Which is a nice segue into a personal anecdote to shed some light on why I feel so strongly about this. I’m sticking this one way at the bottom of this post, by the way, in the hopes of minimizing the number of people who were actually involved in this who are still reading. This one took place a few years ago, when I was working for a more-or-less nonhierarchical organization in which most decisions were made by consensus. For the most part, this was a great working environment, at least during the 99% of the time when there were consensi to be found. But there was one issue on which the twenty (20) or so of us on staff were utterly polarized. So we talked about it. And talked. And talked some more. We usually held staff meetings once a week, for an hour or two at a time; when this one issue arose, we held meetings every single day. A few undecided people in the middle shifted slightly to one pole or the other as a result of these talks, but by and large, we were all set in our ways after a certain point. We eventually compromised by deciding on an “average” outcome that lay somewhere between the two extreme viewpoints. (As the viewpoints spanned a one-dimensional space, this was a workable solution.) Everyone came out of this sort of pleased. There was some tension, to be sure, but we were all on speaking terms.

A few days later, some new information entered the picture (sort of - I personally thought that this information was more of a rehashing of old information, but that’s neither here nor there), and one of the higher-ups decided to reopen discussion. And I felt betrayed. With no small amount of effort, and anger, I summoned my energy to reiterate and redevelop all of the points I’d just made at the previous round of staff meetings. And we held another round of staff meetings, every lunch hour. And we got really stressed over this. And then, finally, we came to exactly the same decision we’d come to a week earlier.

This left everyone upset, and even the most ardent supporters of our non-hierarchical decision-making process lost some faith in it. Another of the higher-ups had the idea of creating a subcommittee of five staff to whom we would defer difficult decisions in the future. Five staff members, selected in such a way that each position on the staff was represented among them, were suggested as possibilities. Capital idea, I said, but I was concerned about the composition of the subcommittee, which in its suggested form contained some of the biggest wafflers from the ordeal that had inspired this proposal in the first place. Most worrisome was the fact that the person who’d reopened that discussion was among the five proposed members. I wanted decisive people on this subcommittee, I said; otherwise, it would be useless.

To which I was informed, and I shit you not, that it was beneficial to have a diverse decision-making committee, and that in particular, we should strive to have both decisive people, and indecisive people on it. And it was thus, and I’m not about to question the judgement of the powers that be, but let’s just say that I don’t think that the decision-making subcommittee has made a single momentous decision since its inception.

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