The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.

One quibble about Chris Nodder’s UX Fundamentals course

[For Rob] All in all, Chris Nodder’s User Experience Fundamentals for Web Design course on was very helpful for getting me to think about how I would like to approach building a web-based product/service (more on that later). But one bit of advice Nodder mentions twice over two hours bothered me enough that I woke up this Saturday morning irked by it, so permit me to get this off my chest.

Did you catch how he buttresses his tip to keep web copy short and simple by citing “the Oppenheimer study”? Apparently, the study proves that readers tend to judge authors who use complex language as being of low intelligence. As someone highly sensitive to matters of language (and who knows that there are studies and then there are “studies”), I looked up the article. READ IT. Really.

Of course: websites that are trying to get visitors to take action in some form or another should be clear and concise. And I agree that academic writing should not be pretentious or stilted. But please let’s not cite the Oppenheimer study to argue these points.


Finding what you look for

[For Candice] Have you been making your way through the articles in Emerging Adulthood? There is one particular article (I won’t publicly say which, but you can probably pick it out) whose authors seem to set up their experiment just so by identifying what to them are the most salient variables related to the behaviors of emerging adults, and then lo and behold, their surveys confirm their hypothesis. Do social scientists shy away from surprise in research?

Work, currently…and life (sort of)

So remember when I balked at Gerald Chertavian’s advice to double whatever amount of networking I was currently doing? Well, it’s happened. In the past couple of months I’ve been invited to join groups in the nonprofit and youth development spaces, and I also finally signed onto Meetup. My calendar is populated by events, and I recently realized that when it comes to setting up coffee dates, I’m no longer always the asker! My schedule is still as irregular as ever, but I’m doing really well on my resolution to stick my neck out a little further this year, both socially and professionally.

A lot of the events that I’ve been signing up for have been educational. I’m giving myself the business and technology training that I never got and never in my life ever thought I’d need. Thankfully, New York City is a wonderful place to be for budding social entrepreneurs. I get access to a lot of free and affordable workshops through places such as the NYU Reynolds Center, Goodnik, Be Social Change, Skillshare, and the Foundation Center.

Consequently, my reading list has changed considerably from my grad student days, when works of literature, philosophy, and critical theory populated my bookshelves. These days, I’m leafing through books related to entrepreneurship and articles on youth development. Since I’m far from saturated in these topics, almost all the reading I’ve done on marketing, developmental and behavioral theory, product design, etc. has been useful. But useful isn’t necessarily enjoyable, and it’s this fundamental change in my relationship to reading that I miss the most about my time in literary studies.

Before I actually graduated I had this fantasy that I would be able to devote so much time to all the great works that I’d never gotten around to reading (i.e., almost all of Shakespeares’s historical plays). I think that I was anticipating a lack of intellectual stimulation post-graduation. The reality is that I spend so much of my waking time thinking about how to build out Minds On Fire (and filling all the gaps in my knowledge in order to make it happen), that when I do have time to read for fun, more often than not, I find myself picking up whatever assorted piece of middlebrow literature or mass paperback I find in my building’s informal book exchange. It’s easier to squeeze in a few pages of undemanding prose here and there, since even my long subway rides are usually reserved for work reading.

Come to think of it, my entire relationship to language itself seems to have changed. Even the writing I do on a regular basis is a far cry from the long-form academic pieces I got so used to producing. And while I used to be able to get away with reading a carefully crafted paper in front of a large audience (seriously, this is how 99% of academics do conferences, and when they write well, I found it quite engaging), now I actively have to work on my public speaking and presentation skills. Though my tendency is toward long, meditative sentences, I now have to package my ideas in digestible, bullet-pointed morsels.

On balance, however, this is a really interesting phase to be in. I’m still enjoying the research and development part behind the scenes, but as I’m beginning to meet more and more like-minded people in the nonprofit and social entreprise spaces, and it’s surprising how much I’m liking that aspect of my work, as well.

Write the dissertation

Lacking a passion project was the very worst condition to be in as a graduate student. At first it’s liberating to be able to explore different concepts and areas of study. It’s like a dream for the intellectually curious. But soon the process of trying on and discarding topics gets wearisome. And then it becomes frustrating. And it isn’t too long before it becomes absolutely soul-crushing because all the books you’ve read (and you’ve read plenty), all the little ideas and pieces of knowledge you have rolling around in that expansive mind of yours—they all amount to a hill of beans.

What matters is having an idea that drives you, arriving at a unique vision, and finding your voice. What matters is producing material evidence of that singularity because you believe others would like to experience it. Sure, the world will keep on turning if you dropped out of grad school. But assuming you went into a doctoral program for all the right reasons, if you ask for my advice, chances are I would talk you into staying. Here’s why: Continue reading

A very nice tribute to teachers

I’ve written before about Freakonomics‘ Stephen J. Dubner and his blog series on the value of college. The economics professors he interviewed were able to address issues such as the cost of a college degree and how that weighs against the prospective earnings of college graduates. They were also able to draw direct connections between the amount of education that a person receives and his productivity and happiness. But there was one question about the value of college that none of them were able to answer, and that is how college transforms students (a pet topic of mine). For this, he had to turn to three college professors who taught in the History, English, and Media Studies departments at his alma mater. Each professor taught a course in which Dubner experienced a transformative moment that helped shape who he is today. He brought all three of them together to talk about those lessons he still carries with him, and what resulted was this delightful and heartfelt podcast. It touched the student in me who would love to have the opportunity to bring together all my favorite teachers to thank them for those formative lessons. And as an educator it was a gentle reminder that we can never know when and how we affect the lives of the people we teach.

Humanities in service of others, pt 2

This post elaborates on an idea I wrote about last week, namely that framing the intellectual work of the humanities as a service to others (other people, other disciplines, other causes) might free us from the current bind of fixating, either positively or negatively, on the uselessness of the humanities. The word “service” might sound sacrilegious, but humanities scholarship—as interested as it is in the arts—is not itself art, so why should it have the privilege (I almost typed the ‘luxury’) of uselessness accorded to the arts?

Let’s not even raise the issue of university funding and employment. Let’s talk about the marketplace of ideas. Great ideas are not only intellectually sound, but they are, in the academic parlance, “productive.” That is, they break new ground, provoke debate, suggest further areas of study, and even reanimate fields that have gone fallow. Come to think of it, great ideas often may not be bulletproof, but they still possess the power to create something of a cottage industry across different disciplines. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.)

The truth is, although humanities scholars tend to be allergic to the word “useful,” the currency in this economy has an undeniable use-value (valuable, as Marx defines it, “only in its use”). In fact, academics are trained to spell out the use-value of their ideas to interested audiences. This work entails describing the state of their research area(s) to date; explaining how their particular intervention promises to shake things up; and then suggesting further questions for others to tackle, in light of their contribution. In this way, an academic publication doesn’t aim to be the last word on a topic, but an invitation to engagement.

This consideration brings us closer to what I mean about putting humanities “to service,” although commonly scholars generally think primarily about serving colleagues in their field or related disciplines. What does it look like when the humanities are put in service of “outsiders”? Here are the examples that I promised in my last post: Continue reading

Wrestling with difference

Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner recently did a two-part podcast on the true value of a college education. While part 1 gives convincing evidence for a strong correlation between one’s health, wealth, and level of education, part 2 takes a much harder look at the economic costs of a university education and, intriguingly, tries to get a handle on exactly what students learn when they go off to college. As someone who has been thinking about this question for the good part of a decade, I get tired of hearing the old chestnut that college “teaches people how to think.” It’s lazy and vague, and frankly, I can’t see how that would persuade people to fork out increasingly higher tuitions for their children’s education if they themselves haven’t had a transformative college experience. For this reason, I really appreciated how Dubner pushed his guests to spell out what they themselves got out of their college experiences, and what they hoped would stay with their students long after they’ve earned their degrees.

Continue reading