Category Archives: college

Elif Batuman, “The Idiot”

What a novel!  The best I’ve read in quite a while.

One thing I like:  the way this book takes what’s become a standard bundle of complaints against “literary fiction”:

It’s about overprivileged people with boring lives.  Too much writing about writing, and too much writing about college campuses, and worst of all, too much writing about writers on college campuses.   Nothing really happens.  You’re expected to accept minor alterations of feelings in lieu of plot.  

and gleefully makes itself guilty of all of them, while being nevertheless rich in life and incident, hilarious, stirring, and of its time.

Maybe “hilarious” isn’t quite the right word for the way this book is funny, very very funny.  It’s like this:

“Ralph!” I exclaimed, realizing that he was this guy I knew, Ralph.

Whether you find this funny is probably a good test for whether The Idiot is gonna be your thing.

Given this, it’s slightly startling to me that Batuman wrote this essay in n+1, which endorses the standard critique, and in particular the claim that fiction has been pressed into a bloodless sameness by the creative writing workshop.  They bear, as she puts it, “the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory.”

What kind of writing bears this stamp?

Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes”—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.

So what’s weird is that Batuman’s writing is exactly the kind that the creative writing workshop leaps to its feet and applauds.  OK, there’s no leaping in creative writing workshop.  It would murmur appreciatively.  Her sentences are pretty damn whittled.  Also clever.  Scenes don’t overspill, they end just before the end.  Batuman’s writing is both crafted and crafty — but not anorexic!  Anorexia isn’t denying yourself what’s needless; it’s a hypertrophy of that impulse, its extension to a more general refusal.

Batuman is really excellent on the convention of the literary short story cold open, which is required to be:

in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead.”  …. A first line like “Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner” is supposed to create the illusion that the reader already knows Lorraine, knows about her usual coffee, and, thus, cares why Lorraine has violated her routine. It’s like a confidence man who rushes up and claps you on the shoulder, trying to make you think you already know him.

Her paradigmatic offender here is the first line of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

about which she says:

All the elements are there: the nicknames, the clauses, the five w’s, the physical imprisonment, the nostalgia. (As if a fictional character could have a “greatest creation” by the first sentence—as if he were already entitled to be “holding forth” to “fans.”)

To me this all starts with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which all of us writers read the hell out of in high school, right?  Surely Batuman too?  No kid can read

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

and not say, oh, that’s how you do it.

Anyway, I’m mostly with Batuman here; once she shows you how it works, the trick is a little corny.  Maybe I already knew this?  Maybe this is why I always preferred the first line of, and for that matter all of, Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to Kavalier & Clay.  Here’s the opening:

At the beginning of summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.

In medias res, yes — but not so overstuffed, just one piece of information (the gangster!) presented to start with.  No names.  The word “transact” — boy, there’s nothing I like more than a perfect placement of a boring word.  I think it’s a lot like the first line of The Idiot:

“I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.”

Except Chabon focuses on rhyme (summer-father-gangster) while Batuman is all scansion — perfect trochees!


Of course there are a lot of reasons I’m predisposed to like this.  It’s about bookish, ambitious, romantically confused Harvard undergrads, which Batuman and I both were.  There are a lot of jokes in it.  There are some math scenes.

There’s even a biographical overlap:  Batuman, wrote her college novel right after college, just like I did.  And then she finished her Ph.D. and put the manuscript in a drawer for a long time, just like I did.  (I don’t know if she carried out the intermediate step, as I did, of getting the book rejected by every big commercial house in New York.)  And then at some point in the run-up to middle age she looked at those pages again and said words to the effect of “This is not actually that bad…”

So let me say it straight; The Idiot makes me think about the alternate universe where I stayed a novelist instead of going back to grad school in math, a universe where I spent years working really hard to sharpen and strengthen the work I was doing.  This is the kind of novel I would have been aiming my ambition at writing; and I still wouldn’t have done it this well.  The existence of The Idiot releases me from any regrets.

(I don’t have many.  Math, for me, is fun.  Writing fiction is not.)





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Death to the 529 / long live the 529

Obama flip-flops faster than I can blog!  Prezzo has already walked back his proposal to change the 529 college-saving tax break, but I have a post about it queued up, and by gum I’m gonna publish it.

Here’s the plan that just got shelved.  From now on, capital gains on contributions you stow in a 529 plan won’t be tax free anymore — they’ll just be tax-deferred, as with a retirement plan.  In essence, it takes away a tax break whose benefit flows predominantly to high-income families (some 529 money is held by middle-income parents, but under Obama’s plan the $500 or so they’d lose on their 529 was more than offset by an AOTC expansion.)

OK, this Congress is as likely to roll back a tax break for high earners as they are to rename Reagan National Airport after Pete Seeger, so this isn’t actually happening, but I’m just saying, that’s the plan.

People are mad, and feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. My FB feed, populated by dutiful savers like me, is full of ire. Mark Kantrowitz, in the New York Times:

He went as far as saying that the proposal could be characterized as a broken promise. “People saved money in 529 plans because of the expectation that the favorable tax treatment would continue,” he said.

But why does the New York Times let Mark Kantrowitz say this when it’s plainly not true? I saved money in a 529 plan. And the favorable tax treatment for that money will continue. When I take it out, I won’t pay a dime on any capital gains.

For money I put in later, it’s another story. But so what? If something’s on sale today, nobody’s breaking a promise to me when it’s not on sale tomorrow. I guess it’s strictly true that the proposal “could be characterized as a broken promise.” But it would be better to say it “could be characterized as a broken promise by people who don’t mind characterizing things as different things.”

A broken promise would look more like a state government defaulting on money it owes the thousands of middle-class taxpayers whose pensions it mismanaged.


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Wisconsin puts the MOO in MOOC

UW-LaCrosse started it, launching an online math course, “College Readiness.” with the help of a grant from the Gates Foundation.  A lot of the energy around MOOCs has centered on advanced courses:  machine learning, business analytics, and so on.  The kind of thing that gets funders and nerds excited.  But funders and nerds are already educated!  If MOOCs are to provide the educational equity they promise, they’ve got to do it at the low end — giving kids access to a better math course than their understaffed, underresourced high school can provide.  Is there a demand for basic, unflashy math instruction online?  Seems like it:  a thousand people have signed up, twice as many as UWLC expected, including an 83-year-old and an 11-year-old.  Those are much smaller numbers than Coursera gets for its sexy machine learning course, but I’ll bet the gap in number of finishers will be much narrower; this course is an “I need to,” not an “It would be cool to.”

And now UW-Madison has gotten into the act, announcing yesterday that UW would be offering four courses with Coursera, two to start this fall.

Readers:  would it be a good idea, a bad idea, or some combination of both, for me to propose to teach a number theory MOOC?





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Ten-second tragedy

Two undergrads sitting against the wall this morning outside Ingraham Deli.

First undergrad:  “So, what are you going to do with your life?”

Second undergrad:  “Good question!  (very long pause)  I think I’m applying to journalism school?”


Should Harvard offer a “good enough, but no room” certificate?

There are people who think that the information conveyed by a Harvard diploma is almost entirely made up of the fact of admission to Harvard; that is, that Harvard graduates on average have no more skills than students who got into Harvard but chose to go somewhere else.

I’m not one of those people.  But it got me thinking — the fact of admission certainly conveys some information.  And there are unquestionably lots of students who the admission office feels are academically strong enough to attend Harvard, but who don’t make it into the entering class.

What would happen if the admissions office offered exactly this certification?  A signed piece of paper saying, “At age 17, student X had credentials which would have made academic success at Harvard very likely, had there been room.”  Would that be a valuable piece of paper for a 22-year-old to have?  Would it be in Harvard’s interest to offer a certain number of certificates of that kind?

Related question:  can a student who gets into Harvard, but goes to a lower-ranked school (say, for financial or family reasons) put on their CV that they were admitted to Harvard, but declined?  Something about that strikes me as strange.  But why?  Isn’t it useful information for a potential employer?

(Note:  obviously the above applies with any elite university in place of “Harvard.”)

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Online education and creative writing workshops

More about on-line education.  One hesitation people have, of course, is that it’s easier to dephysicalize some forms of education than others; and that if higher education gets redefined as something that happens online, the parts of higher education that don’t survive that transition get redefined as “not part of higher education.”

But what about creative writing workshops?  Right now, these sit somewhat uncomfortably inside English departments in universities.  What are you paying for when you pay tuition to attend a fiction workshop?  (I was lucky enough to go to a program with funding, but I think most MFAs don’t work this way.)  I think you’re paying to  have a known novelist read and think carefully about what you’re writing, and you’re paying to create some official sense that This Is The Year I Write My Novel.  (This last part might be the most important.  Of course, you could write your novel any time!  But having paid a great deal of money with the intent of doing a thing focuses the mind on the task extremely well.  Freud always said this was why he charged so much; he didn’t need the money, but the patients needed to spend it.)

What happens if a novelist decides to offer a writing workshop via Google Hangout, to 12 people, charging them much less than university tuition but enough to meet his expenses?  Like, say, $3K a person?  Does that work?  Or, since most novelists probably don’t care to run their own small business, what happens if a startup company collectes well-known but poorly paid novelists and runs the marketing/payment processing side of things, in exchange for a cut?

It’s not clear this is interestingly different from existing distance MFAs like Warren Wilson.  Certainly I don’t think you can scale up the offering of “serious and admired writer X read my work closely” to hundreds of thousands of people, which I suppose is a reason it might continue being possible to charge serious money for the service.

An online workshop wouldn’t reproduce what I got out of my MFA program at Johns Hopkins, but I was a special case.  I was on break between college and graduate school, I was pretty sure I was going to be a mathematician my whole life, and I really needed to be something else for a year.  The people I saw every day that year were writers, the professors whose opinions I valued were writers, the people I drank beer with and argued with and dated were writers.  And by the end of the year I was able to call myself a writer without feeling like I was half-kidding; not because I’d written a draft of my novel but because I’d lived in Writerworld for a year.


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Several attacks on the previous post

As promised, a few attacks.  I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll have thought of several more.  Oh, and also, I meant to link to this Crooked Timber thread about Coursera, with a richly combative comment thread.

  • I, along with lots of other people who succeed in traditional schools, love text and process it really fast.  Other people like other media.  Streaming video isn’t the same thing as talking to another person, but it’s plainly closer than text, and talking to another person is the way we’re built to take in information.  If streaming video weren’t a useful means of educational transmission for a substantial fraction of people, Khan Academy wouldn’t be popular.
  • Some people would say that we could get by with many fewer scientists that we have now, without compromising the amount of meaningful science that gets done.  That seems too simple to me, but I just want to record that it’s a belief held by many, and on that account maybe a small NSF-funded garden of science is sufficient to our needs.
  • Online credentials, whether from Udacity or future-ETS, could in principle lead to a massive gain in global equality.  Nothing is stopping 300 people from China and Brazil from being among the 500 people Google hires.  I was going to say the same thing about inequality within the US but here I have to stop myself; my sense is that massive availability of online resources has not e.g. made it just as good to be a 14-year-old math star in Nebraska as it is to be a 14-year-old math star in suburban Boston.  Reader comments on this point welcome, since I know there are lots of former 14-year-old math stars out there.
  • More on within-US equality; it’s easy to see gains flowing to kids whose parents are rich enough to buy them a prep course or just buy them the time to spend a year at home studying.  On the other hand, this seems no less rich-kid-friendly than the current system, in which kids whose parents can afford college graduate debt-free, and the rest, who still have little choice but to attend if they want professional jobs, spend decades of their working life chipping away at a massive debt.
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What, if anything, is the future of the university?

My colleague and Wisconsin Institute for Discovery director David Krakauer says it might look a lot like WID:

Inspired by such successful endeavors as the Santa Fe Institute, MITs Media Lab, the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, new cross-disciplinary centers and initiatives such as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery are designed to overcome many of the obvious limitations of the aging departmental models, which at worst can act as an impediment to creative thinking and synthetic endeavors, and whose reward and promotion mechanisms often exclude some of our most creative minds. Many of these centers — like our most successful technology companies — recognize the power of social life, building cafes, restaurants and lounges directly into the research environment.

But lots of other people think the physical university, at least apart from a few elite schools, is 100% a dead letter, thanks to our new ability to offer courses online at scale.  Maybe the future looks like Khan Academy, or Coursera, or Udacity, whose founder, Sebastian Thrum, foresees only 10 institutions offering something called “higher education” 50 years from now.

But what will this thing be?

Keep this in mind.  The ability to distribute information at scale is not new, though the Internet makes that information vastly more widespread and, in the long run, cheaper.  You don’t need to take a course online to get that information, and it might not even be the best way.  For instance, why watch streaming video?  There’s a competing channel which is massively faster, more flexible, random-access, which moves at the students’ own pace, which is accessible to speakers of every language, and which is trivially searchable: namely, text.  Streaming video has its uses, but streaming video is television; text is the Internet.  And text on every imaginable subject is already available on the Internet, to everyone, for free.  Getting that information into the hands of every person in the planet with a mobile device is a solved problem.


Information is not what Udacity is selling.  And it’s not what existing universities are selling!  What we sell, of course, is a credential; a certification, backed by our expertise, that the credentialee has mastered some body of knowledge.  At Stanford, they sell that credential to students to help them get jobs.  At Udacity, they’re planning to sell the credentials to businesses, to help them select employees.  And in a global sense, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin and everybody else are in that business too, because we operate as part of a grand compact between ourselves and the business community.  They have agreed that a substantial chunk of the American population will spend four years in college instead of devoting their labor to increasing the GNP, and I assume this is because they believe in the credentials we offer; that students who complete college are better at their jobs, and students who do better in college are better than students who do worse.

We sell credentials; and with the receipts obtained from those sales we educate students and we do research.  Udacity hopes to be able to credential just as well (more precisely:  maybe just as well and maybe not, but in any event at such larger scale that they provide more information to employers) and to use the resulting revenues to educate students.

But why does education need to be involved?  For a few fast-moving topics, Udacity may be able to claim that their lock on the most au courant experts means they’re offering something no one else can.  But most topics aren’t fast-moving in that way.

What I wonder is whether the future of education won’t look less like Udacity and more like ETS.  Education is expensive.  Assessment is cheap.  I don’t think future-ETS can provide assessment as accurate as Udacity can.  But the nature of disruptive technology, if I understand it correctly, isn’t that it provides something better; it’s that it provides something cheaper and faster which is good enough.  The toniest companies of the future might want to see a certificate from Udacity; for everybody else, future-SAT will do.

Not that this is necessarily bad news for Udacity, or for education!  Something like Udacity may not need much capital to persist; it can carry on as a boutique operation, serving Google or Google’s successors, and still have enough resources to deliver on-line education to millions of people all over the world.

It’s mostly bad news for research, I think.  Because the link between credentialing and research is even more contingent and breakable than the link between credentialing and education.  Udacity, as far as I know, is not going to pay people to do research in mathematics, or biology, or physics, or history, or linguistics.  Those tasks are, at the moment, part of the universities’ missions, but not part of their business model.  There doesn’t have to be a massive research apparatus in the United States; for most of our history, there wasn’t one.

So there’s one future to contemplate.  No scientific research except for the small, product-directed gardens within companies and a slightly bigger garden funded by the federal government, the latter no doubt a constant target for budget cuts, like PBS.  Kids start work at the end of high school, and those who can find the time study for the future-ETS placement test so they can get a better job.  How does that sound?

Important note:  I am ambivalent about the correctness of much of what I’ve written here; I am posting this as an experiment, to see what happens if I work out thoughts in public.  Next post will consist of attacks on this post, the correctness of which attacks I’m also ambivalent about.  Special attention to be paid to the superiority of video to text, and the advantages the version of the future described above might have over the status quo, especially as concerns global equality.

Important note 2:  Before commenting, please listen to “God Save The Queen,” as I did before beginning this post.  It’s sort of a mental prerequisite for talking about the future.

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Intrigue in the Harvard personals

Harvard Magazine:  “I read it for the articles,” as they say, but there’s a monthly gem that often goes unnoticed:  the personal ads!  Yes, there are still people who take out personal ads in print media.  And here’s one from the most recent issue:

Professional, loving Jewish-Italian family, Brookline, MA,  with mature, beautiful and accomplished daughter age 21 seeks applicant for position of son-in-law.  Must be at least 21, family and career oriented with great expectations.  No political tests though occupants of Zuccotti Park need not apply.  Applicants and/or parents send resume to [address redacted because I know some mischievous types read this blog.]

Can this be real?  Is there any chance the poor daughter knows her parents did this?  Are they just going to, like, leave the resumes fanned out on her childhood desk for her to find?  I cannot lie, I am tempted to write these people.  But surely whatever I’d find out would either be boring or something I didn’t really like knowing.

Also, isn’t “occupants of Zuccotti Park need not apply” a political test?



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Are math departments better at recruitment than elite financial firms?

Via Bryan Caplan, Lauren Rivera at Northwestern studied hiring practices at top financial, law, and consulting firms and found some surprises:

[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious… In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.

I’m not sure what those four schools are, but they exclude some pretty good undergraduates:

You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

And don’t neglect those extracurriculars:

[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular “passions.” They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies… By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.

All this stuff sounds bizarre to people outside the world of corporate recruitment.  And it is natural for academics like me to read this and silently congratulate myself on our superior methods of judgment.  But surely there are things about our process which would seem just as irrational and counterproductive to people outside of academic mathematics.  What are they?

It might make more sense to concentrate on graduate recruitment as against tenure-track hiring, since then both we and the financiers are talking about recent BAs with little track record in the workplace.

(Linguistic note:  “Counterproductive” is surely a word that people would deride as horrible managementese if it weren’t already in common use.  But it’s a great word!)

(Upcoming blog note: At some point soon I’ll blog about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I just finished, and which is the reason the credentials of financial professionals are on my mind.)



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