The pitfalls of self-selection

soldiers affixed to wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

This morning I went to the free lessons provided to members of the MIT Figure Skating Club, which I joined this year. The teaching is professional and attentive, and groups are small. Weekly attendance varies, though, and there is sub-par continuity.

Today Esther, the club founder, announced the start of lessons at 9:30am, and she directed absolute beginners to one teacher, beginners to another, the “somewhere between beginners and intermediate” to two teachers working together, and the intermediate to the fifth teacher. I swizzled over to the group with a lot of room for in between, where I consider myself.

The two teachers for that group, Susan and Alex, suggest we divide into two sub-groups: “If you can do the backwards crossovers well, skate with Susan. If you’re still working on them, skate with Alex.” I skated over to Alex’s circle. We warmed up by practicing forward moves around our circle.

At Alex’s signal, we switched to backwards crossovers. I practiced haltingly, stopped to watch the others, practiced some more, and watched some more. I looked over occasionally to Susan’s circle, too, to watch their attempts. (Often I can learn as much from my slightly better peers as I do from the instructor.)

Here’s one thing I noticed: every single skater, but for two in Alex’s group, was struggling with the crossovers in some way. The self-selection into groups, therefore, was according to a criterion that could be too loosely interpreted (if you can do moves “well” versus “still working on them”). Except for the two skaters who had (wrongly) sorted themselves into Alex’s group and who could do the backwards crossovers very well, we were all still learning, practicing, working.

Nothing bad came of this. We all got excellent instruction, including 1:1 coaching, and plenty of practice time. Still, perhaps the self-sorting could have gone better if Susan had said, “Skate with me if you can do the backwards crossovers in a fluid motion and are now working on the second push; skate with Alex if you haven’t gotten to the second push yet.”

This is recreational skating, so there is little at stake. However, think about how this happens in other educational contexts or at work. People are asked to volunteer if they are (self) perceived as “good” at something. “If you can draw, sign up for the graphic design committee,” or “If you have leadership experience, we need some committee heads,” or “If you’ve finished the homework, come work with your classmates who haven’t.” In every case, it’s possible that some not-very-qualified people who overestimate their own ability will end up in a high stakes position in which they’ll flounder. It’s also true that some very-qualified-yet-humble people will not volunteer for a role in which they could make a huge contribution to the group.

Last semester, for example, in one of the classes I teach in with students organized into project teams, I said to a student whose work I had seen, “We need you for the presentation slides. You have a sharp eye and a real sense of visual design.”

“Me?” she balked. “Oh, I just learned this stuff in a class last year.”

“Yeah, but it’s good.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she continued to protest.

Another student chimed in: “I’m good at graphic design. I’ll do it.”

The team elected the second student, who chimed in with great self-assurance, to design their presentation. It turned out fine; it was workmanlike. But did it pop? No.

This is an age-old problem: the egotistical will typically overestimate their abilities and the modest will underestimate (or under represent) them. As teachers or administrators, though, we must come up with more precise language and criteria to improve self-selection. We could also ask for examples and demonstrated skills.

more toy soldiers on wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

No middle, no satisfying end

Last night, I drove to Kendall Square to meet my friends Betsy, Sue, and Brandi for dinner at Miracle of Science. It’s the holiday break, so I haven’t been to MIT for several days. Through email, I have been staying in touch with colleagues, and I even heard from one of them that a recent student of ours had been killed on his bicycle at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, an intersection I know well and cross on foot at least twice a day. It’s busy; every vehicle and every person converges there.

I drove up Vassar Street around 5:50 pm and past the garage I typically park in. I approached the intersection, thinking of course about the accident and the student Phyo, who had been in the communications module of a chemical engineering class I’m involved in every fall. I thought about the last time I saw him, shortly after his graduation in early June ’10. He was still on campus, raising money for Camp Kesem by selling popcorn and doughnuts in the Stata Center. He had a warm, sparkling smile, and we enthusiastically talked about other grassroots ways of raising money — like selling popsicles on hot days —  and about his new job, which was about to begin.

“I wanted to tell you and Lisa and Professor Hamel that my presentation for the class helped me get the job!” Lisa was my fellow communications lecturer on the course, and Professor Hamel the engineering professor. That fall, we had a small and closely-knit group.

“Great! How so?” I asked.

“In my interview, they asked if I had any presentation experience, and I told them about my final presentation for the class, and they asked me to come back and do it for them. I did, and they liked it, and they offered me the job.” He looked happy and eager. Admittedly, he always did, and this was one of Phyo’s gifts.

I had the green light at the intersection, so I couldn’t stop and sit in the car for a few seconds and contemplate the accident. On the corner, I glimpsed a memorial: a white bicycle and some candles. I parked my car nearby so that after dinner I could walk back to the corner and stand closer to it.

From across Vassar Street, Dec 30, 9:30 pm

After a long dinner and dessert and walk with my dear friends, we embraced and parted. Over dinner, I had told them about the accident. As the three of them got in one car, parked on Mass Ave closer to Miracle, I said I was headed to the memorial. Brandi asked, “Should we go with you? Are you safe?” I smiled inwardly, not afraid of the neighborhood, and thinking it was ironic to be worried about strangers when trucks were a proven hazard.

Honestly, my feelings about Phyo’s death were almost dream-like as I walked back toward the Institute, and I was motivated more by curiorisity: What does the memorial look like? Who made it? How was it personalized? Continue reading

Flimsy, flimsy ego

rubber band heart, found by Grace on table, June 9

The ego can only bear so much.

On Sunday — skates tied, blood sugar checked (low), juice box drunk, and gloves on — I stood for a few minutes at the entrance to the Babson ice and watched the activity. There were about 8 young girls in shorts, heavy tights, cute sweatshirts, and lush ponytails jumping and turning and skating backwards with precision and verve. There were an equal number of adults in black track pants and black parkas standing near the boards, studying the girls. Occasionally, a girl would skate over to one of the adults and listen to instructions. Sometimes, the adult would demonstrate, beautifully, what s/he wanted the girl to do. The girl would do it.

And there was me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, hesitating. I had already paid my $30 to get on the ice for freestyle/practice time, and I had an appointment with Fred, who was already out there with a young girl, about halfway through the 80 minutes. I had arrived intending to practice. I stood there, losing my nerve.

As I told my friend Rosemary last week, as we stood in front of the shelf marked “Buddhism” in the Trident, my internal dialogue, for better or worse, is turned up pretty high. (I’ve heard this called “mind chatter.”) Sunday, as I stood at the gate to the Babson ice, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Nothing can come from it.”

“But I am doing this,” myself said to myself. I began.

As I skated, I was overcome with intense self-consciousness, and not of the good kind. I imagined myself getting in the other skaters’ way — the real skaters — and so I tried to stay out of their way. I imagined that one coach, a woman about my age, was giving me the hairy eyeball, as if to intimidate me off the ice.

I practiced the easy things, not wanting to make a mistake among the masters. I scolded myself. I propped up my ego by remembering something Grace once said when I was skating with her and confessed to doubts about my ambition. “Mom!” she said. “At least you’re out there and not sitting on the bleachers!” I practiced harder things.

I imagined again that hairy eyeball turned in my direction. I mentally constructed some believable excuses and apologies I would give to Fred when my appointment with him began.

Get a hold of yourself, Jane. Think other thoughts. Continue reading

How to cheat on college reading

I stood at the reserves desk in the library where I could check out the assigned reading. This was in the fall of 1985; I was a junior in college; and this was before the age when text could be digitized and placed on the web. When professors assigned readings, students had to buy or borrow a physical copy of the text to read it.

Kathleen M., a senior who was passing through, saw me and walked over. She was funny, and I liked her. “What are you doing?” she asked me.

“Obviously, I am getting ready to do my reserve reading.”

“No one does the reserve reading,” she remarked. She smiled.

“What?” Wait a minute, I was thinking. She’s a brilliant student. (Kathleen went on to a top-tier law school.) Don’t all good students do all the reading? I did all the reading. It was killing me.

“Only read what you need to, is what I mean,” she said.

To me, reading meant starting at the cover, turning to the first page, reading the first word, and reading every word until I got to the last page — all the while taking notes — and doing this for every item on the professor’s list. Kathleen explained that I should look at the syllabus, see what was coming up next in class or exams or papers, and skim what seemed most relevant to what the professor was covering. “You can kinda tell from the syllabus,” she added.

The librarian returned, and I took the folders full of photocopied book chapters back to my table. I got out the syllabus and looked at lecture topics and exam and paper descriptions. Indeed, it was all right there, a set of clues as to what to read (and what to skim or even skip) embedded in the class schedule.

I didn’t read all the assigned reading word-for-word, that night or ever again. I figured out how to read what I needed to. This was a paradigm shift for someone who (a) loved (and still loves) to read and (b) took some pride in her academic duties.

Interestingly, I became a better student at that moment because it prompted me to start managing my work, as opposed to simply doing it, and I also believe I learned more. I also started talking more in class, which helped me learn more and become more visible.

What would my professors have thought, if they knew I was suddenly reading less and sometimes skipping reading assignments altogether? As a college teacher now, I know that my colleagues and I put together our syllabi with great care and think and talk about what readings are fundamental to the course. When I taught at Simmons College, I recall one long lunch date with a political science prof during which she spoke agonizingly about her students’ failure to do the reading. “You’re a writing teacher. You must have them read stuff,” she said. “How do I get my students to read?” Continue reading

A feedback lexicon

Leave it to others to run marathons.

I, instead, participate in another endurance sport: the writing of miles and miles of comments on student writing.

In the past two weeks, in addition to having to submit the final report (with data) on a grant project I collaborated on, I wrote substantial comments on 40 essays and 28 research posters for two summer projects. There was so much to do in a short period of time that last Sunday morning I was sitting at my laptop at my dining room table at 7 a.m. to begin a day’s work.

My comments are typed, so I have a record of them, and for each project I copied and pasted them into one file to look at them for good language for future comments: Did I come up with a tactful yet straightforward way of saying, for example, “This has no evidence”?

Although I continuously referred to the rubric, I had no way of knowing, however, if there was any consistency to my comments as I was doing them. So I turned to Wordle to see if there were any patterns, and I hoped that what Wordle revealed in its illustration of my feedback lexicon would have some relationship to my intentions. Before I created the word map, therefore, I wrote down a list of terms I thought/hoped I used more frequently.

You can see the Wordle of my top 50 words as the illustration at the top.  Most of the words have to do with writing features or issues (e.g., paragraphs), although some of them have to do with the topics students were assigned to write on (one topic was information privacy and the other the college rankings system). I’m relieved to see that there is some relationship between my key words and what I recall of the rubric.

And there is also some relationship between the words I recall using most and the words I used most. Here’s the list of terms I wrote down before doing the Wordle, with some comments on their appearance in the graphic:

  • information (appears first on my list and is prominent in the graphic)
  • readings/sources (“articles,” “readings,” and “sources” appear in the graphic)
  • summary (strong in the graphic, too)
  • propose/proposal (ditto)
  • illustrate (not in the graphic, although “example” is)
  • some/more (not in the graphic)
  • understanding (not in the graphic)
  • synthesis (not in the graphic)
  • detail (in the graphic, quite small)
  • citation (not in the graphic)

So, one disappointment in my comments is that the word “synthesis” does not appear in the graphic of my top 50 words. One of the requirements of the summary prompt was that use of sources be synthesized. Ideally, I would have commented on whether or not a student did that in each essay. Perhaps I used synonyms (e.g., integrate or weave), but I may have missed a chance to emphasize this important terminology, which should become familiar to a college writer early on. Same for the word “citation” — I wish that it, or acknowledge or attribute or cite, appeared on the list of top 50. (It’s possible that source/readings/articles/use in some combination are how I addressed this in the comments, though, and all four of those appear in the graphic.)

And yet I do see some terms on the graphic that are really important in academic writing: argument, paragraph, structure, examples, reader, problems, topic, and even essay.

I did this as a reflective exercise. In future comment writing, I might try this midstream as a kind of quality control: am I hitting all the notes I want to hit? what could be dropped (my use of the tentative “might”)? what could be more emphasized (the word “idea”)?

Skating story, told and retold

This week, for the first time in a year, I saw my friend Lisette, who is like me a teacher and unlike me a former college athlete. Around the time I started teaching college writing (eight years ago), she said to me, “It’s good to do one new thing every semester that gets you out of your comfort zone.” This was an idea she had picked up, I think, from her college volleyball coach.

On Tuesday afternoon at the playground, I told Lisette and her oldest son Griffin about a little skating accident I had recently, and how the coach made me get back on the ice as soon as I could stand again.

It’s good to have friends and coaches that prod you to take risks, especially when you are not naturally inclined to some kinds of them.

And, of course, I had to write about my fall. Find the story, published here.

Pillars of civilization

We unloaded the two busloads of Brookline fifth graders in front of the State House. Driving up Beacon Street, with all but the gold dome hidden by trees, I had not seen the huge Bruins banner hanging from the ballustrade and down over the portico.

Massachusetts State House, June 20, 2011 @10am

Our bundle of children, parents, and teachers stood on the sidewalk as the buses pulled away and left us. I leaned over to one of the other parents and murmured in her ear, “Ah, those twin pillars of civilization, politics and sports.”

Squinting, she nodded and agreed: “Especially in Massachusetts.”

This was the first stop on our Boston architecture tour. The teachers ran it like a quiz show with points for correct answers.

Teacher: Who was the architect of the State House?

Students: Charles Bulfinch

Teacher: Which English building did he imitate?

Students: Somerset House

Teacher: Who, in 1802, covered the wooden dome with copper?

Students: Paul Revere

Teacher: Why was the dome painted black during World War Two?

To this question, there were many responses, all guesses. One student answered poetically: “It was a dark time.”

Only the parent chaperones, all in their 40s, knew the answer to this one, having heard of the wartime practice of blackout. None of us, though, had ever lived it.

It was a bright, hot day at the end of the school year. Summer beckoned. The dome sparkled. Among the lucky, we feared nothing more than sunburn, lost lunch money, and a dawdling child. Our leisurely tour through Boston history — a stand-in for the American struggle for independence — began.


oak seedling and acorn relic

This fact once had a hold on me: that a baby girl is born with about 1 million ova. When my daughters were infants, I would stare at them, trying to grasp the reality that future grandchildren, if I were to have them, had gotten their start as cells inside my body. And the baby that I was diapering, was watching play with her toes, was soothing to sleep had a package of potential life inside her.

Contemplating this, I had a feeling not unlike the one you have when you stand in front of a mirror holding another mirror, and hold it in such a way that you see yourself reflected on and on and on and on.

Even as the babies grew into children — the daughters and the son — and their once physical connection to me was lost, I held on to the idea that cells that had originated inside me remained inside them like traces, souvenirs, relics. At the same time I felt perversely proud of my body (for doing what it does sort of automatically), these immigrant cells felt like losses to me, too, as though they took something from me.

My contrary feelings and ideas about my old cells residing in my children were so pressing that I of course had to write a poem about them. An early version (not the first draft) looked like this:


       for a daughter

Cheeks full. Lips
dripping pearl. You
have sucked

me soft.
What I had—
sinew leaping
blood replenishing
bones toughening—
spent.  Clean shell
I cultivate urge:

grow, colony, grow!
Multiply and billow
like yeast yet keep
my relic.

Moored boat,
patient seed, egg
inside me inside she
(my harbor, my flower),

remain, and divide.

Later, perhaps years, I dug the poem out and revised and revised it. I was going through a period of loving the cooler voices of poets like Mark Strand and Louise Glück, and I was a little embarrassed by my exclamation and stacked images. Continue reading

What goes into grading

By this time of the semester — classes ended, presentations watched, final paper drafts discussed — I feel as though my teaching is done.

And yet, I’m not done with the semester because I’m still grading.

There’s a lot of it to do, and it’s hard to get motivated because I feel as though the students’ attention and energy has moved on. Yeah, they are still taking exams, but they are already looking forward to the summer and perhaps to next fall. So, what is the purpose of my careful reading of and comments on their final papers? Why all this time spent on the minute calculations of the final grade? Seriously, it can take me 15 hours for each class (I have four) to read the final papers and put the whole thing to rest. Is there any relationship between that time spent and student learning? Continue reading

Student success, my reward

Social Q's column, NYT, 4.24.2011

This weekend Eli and I will finally do some baking and thank-you-note writing for the high school teachers who wrote him the recommendation letters that helped him apply and get accepted to colleges. The baking (chocolate beet cupcakes?) is a way to recognize their labor with ours. In his notes, Eli can let them know he has decided to attend UVM out of the various schools he was accepted to.

Perhaps it’s that time of year, but I’ve been wondering about the outcome of some recommendation letters I wrote for students over the winter for internships, etc. or the personal statements I helped them revise last summer and fall for grad school applications.

On Sunday, the Social Q’s column in the New York Times published a query by a college student confused about the protocol of thanking her professor for a letter he wrote. (See photo of clipping above.) Must she thank him a second time, after learning that she got the internship? Philip Galanes, the etiquette expert, replied, “Your professor will be pleased to hear that you got the gig… [because] your success is part of his professional reward.”

Dear Students, it’s true. We teachers are invested in your futures, just as physicians are invested in their patients’ health, and parents in their children’s well being and independence. It’s not that we are so self-effacing that we have no lives of our own — of course we have lives — but you’re like our garden. And because the processes of growth, despite all our knowledge of them, still seem so magical and the signs often imperceptible (children, like plants, seem to grow and develop overnight in the dark), it really is thrilling to see evidence that you are flourishing.

Yesterday, after a delay of almost a year, I got an email from a student who told me the outcome of his MD/PhD program applications. Together we had worked on his personal statement, he writing and I responding. He told me he has been accepted to a desirable program. Having worked with him on that personal statement, I know what this means to him.

What it means to me? I have an ego, too: In the collective work of educating young people, my individual contribution matters.