On the right are some of my roles and responsibilities, and below are the last ten entries of my Notes on writing, learning, technology and other miscellanea.
Economics professor Robert Franks of Cornell finds that having students come up with an interesting question about something they've seen and use economic principles to answer that question helps them learn economic concepts better.
The assignment is my response to the distressing finding that six months after having completed a standard introductory economics course, students are no better able to answer questions about basic economic principles than others who have never even taken economics. In standard courses, hundreds of concepts — many of them embedded in complex equations and graphs — often seem to go by in a blur. In contrast, grappling with questions that students care about appears to be a far more effective learning strategy. And that’s in no small part because the problems they pinpoint are so intriguing.
Students are always wondering, actually worrying, about what they should major in. They've heard the mindless mantra that they should pursue their passion. Actually, I think having a "passion," if someone actually has one, is an illness, or at best an unsustainable goal. As I wrote in Passion vs. self-motivation (See also Creating passionate learners and Passion: A deceptive concept):
Passion is like candy: Momentarily pleasurable, but unable to sustain one's endeavor for any length of time.
For most, worrying about finding "the major" and "the career" is a waste of time because they're not going to figure it out. (What they might do in hindsight is to consider that the grass was greener in other disciplines.) My own career path, if you can call it that, exemplifies this. That is, although I enjoy my present job, I never knew what I wanted to do. Well, perhaps, I didn't. When I was 18, I was considering majoring in physical education as I did enjoy sports and exercise. However, my favorite high school teacher, who meant well, said, "you can do better than that." This was in the days when physical education majors were stereotyped as dumb jocks. Who knows? Perhaps if I had gone into physical education, I might have branched off into sports training or professional coaching.
Anyway, I got a degree in secondary education with teaching fields in biology and science. (My favorite teacher had taught biology and science.) Yet I really had no desire to teach at that time. However, I had always wanted to know how to fix my car. So, I joined the army and entered a 17-week course in automotive maintenance. (If I hadn't joined, my number was coming up and I would have been drafted into the infantry.) After training, I went to Wiesbaden, Germany, where I became the company clerk (a secretary), which I actually enjoyed. However, as I never applied my automotive training, I quickly forgot it.
After that, I tried college again, this time for computer science. I stayed a year, but somewhat discontent, I considered the military again as it was all that I knew. However, the army said this time I would have to go infantry. So, I turned to the navy, which trained me to become a Russian linguist.
Seven years later, becoming somewhat discontent again, I went back to college, this time majoring in electrical engineering at UT Austin. It was sort of interesting, but a year later, I signed up for a summer class of classical Greek (5 hours a day of class time over the summer for 12 credits). It was more than challenging, but it was also more interesting than EE, so I changed my major to classical Greek (along with studying Latin and Hebrew). I enjoyed learning dead languages. Still, it wasn't interesting enough to continue at the graduate level.
So, I switched to TESL (teaching English as a second language), got my master's, and taught for four years at the English Preparatory Department of Marmara University in Istanbul. The students worked hard, and they were a delight to teach.
Eventually, however, I wanted a change, so I returned to UT to pursue a PhD in TESL simply because I didn't know what else to do. After a year-and-a-half of that, I considered going to medical school and took biology and chemistry courses for a year, but soon realized that I didn't want to continue to memorize massive amounts of facts for the next six years, then have years of sleep loss as a medical intern, and more loss of sleep when being on call as a doctor. (I also considered getting a degree in accounting, but after one class, decided not to.)
So, I switched back to my PhD program, finished it, and finally arrived at Kean University where I've been since 2002. It's a good job, and I like it. But I've enjoyed all of my jobs (and majors). Sometimes I wish I'd taught or stayed an extra ten years in the military or finished computer science or become an accountant because in each of those possibilities, I could have retired some time ago. No doubt, I would have continued working in some other job, but I would have had the freedom of not having to do so.
What's clear from my own path is that I have never found a "passion" for anything. Rather, I enjoy what I'm doing at the moment for a period of time and then want to try something different. In a related article about not having a passion, Chana Joffe-Walt concludes:
Pursuing a passion — especially if it's a popular passion — often doesn't pay very well.
In other words, forget about having a passion, but be practical. Perhaps, if you do have or develop a passion, then do it in your spare time unless it can pay the bills. Instead, focus on enjoying what you're doing at the time and becoming absorbed in it, which itself leads to satisfaction (read Flow). Then, if something interesting opens up (as long as it can pay the bills), try it out.
Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson write on the effects of interrupting the brain by trying to do more than one thing at a time.
Barbara Maranzani reviews famous literary hoaxes:
- The Hitler Diaries
- The Education of Little Tree
- Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, written by himself
- a mortgage deed supposedly signed by William Shakespeare
- Clifford Irving's biography of Howard Hughes
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion
- The Donation of Constantine
Benj Edwards writes about the need to repeal the anti-circumvention section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because
It unfairly dictates how consumers can use electronic products they own, and it jeopardizes our cultural history while providing only marginal protections to copyright holders.
The Chronicle has a good article on the difficulty of finding a job in academia and its costs: Ph.D.'s Spend Big Bucks Hunting for Academic Jobs,With No Guaranteed Results.
David Cope, professor emeritus, has created a program called Emmy (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) that can create music that can't be distinguished from that of the great composers. The three essential aspects of this musical creativity program is that music creativity (and all creativity) is a recombinant process, the program rests upon resolving the tension between the two "forces" underlying music, and the program has heuristics that allow it to go against its own rules and innovate.
Thomas Basbøll writes about the nature of a paragraph, adding
No amount of "technique", principles, rules or "elements of style", will get you around the basic need to practice. Writing forty paragraphs this way will take you twenty hours. I simply can't think of a better way to spend twenty hours learning what that might teach you.
For other links to his writing on writing, see Notes on Writing Papers.
Matt Welsh, former professor of computer science at Harvard and now a software engineer at Google, argues, "Grad students: Learn how to give a talk":
It is difficult to overstate how important presentation skills are for academics. This is about much more than "being a good teacher" (which is a nice trait to have, but not actually that important for an academic's career in the long run). There is a huge division between the professors who are influential leaders, and those who are also-rans. In almost all cases that I can think of, the professors who are very successful are also good speakers, and good communicators overall. They can give good, clear, funny talks. They can engage in meaningful conversations at a technical level and at a personal level. They have a strong command of English and can use the language effectively to communicate complex ideas. So I claim that there is a strong correlation between good communication skills and overall research impact.
I would argue that there is a strong correlation between good communication skills and overall success in any career. First off, remember that the available research suggests that GPA (or even having an MBA) has almost no correlation with success. Now, just google "communication skills and success in careers" to see how others consider it important. And some research shows that although employers consider problem-solving skills the most important, communication skills (especially writing) are also important (Floyd & Gordon, 1998).
Floyd, C. J., & Gordon, M.E. (1998). What skills are most important? A comparison of employer, student, and staff perceptions. Journal of Marketing Education, 20(2), 103-109.
In response to the question, "Is there a danger that storytelling could die?" Tahir Shah responds,
Of course, there's a danger that storytelling could die, but I think it only changes its form. ... storytelling has evolved, and it's TV, videogames ... the Internet ... a new revolution in storytelling.