Monday, June 17, 2013

9 Rules for Networking

This is a summary of Penelope Trunk's Cornell Johnson Business School Talk 

Rules for networking:
  1. Know the rules (buy a book - work on what you're not good at)
  2. Figure out what people want and work to give it to them (manage time so you can chat)
  3. Know your weaknesses and accommodate (as an introvert, do one-on-ones)
  4. Network with interesting people (be nice and interested, not interesting)
  5. Believe that everyone has something interesting to teach you
  6. Don't be afraid to contact people out of the blue.
  7. Get a mentor (a wide range, including a white man and an Asian female) by asking interesting, relevant questions they can answer quickly (do this often and people will become invested in you)
  8. Comment on relevant blogs (join the conversation) to find people
  9. Rule of 3:
    1. Look to your future
    2. Networking is a lifestyle
    3. "Work" is selling yourself

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ode to Books and Cases

I love bookcases almost as much as I love staircases, from a design point of view. (I love it even more when they combine.) I love when they are combined as well. I remember lining up my Babysitter's Club and Boxcar Children and American Girl series just so in the bookcase in the playroom I shared with my sister. These books went on the top shelf, where she couldn't reach. I couldn't really reach them either, unless I stood on the couch.

Later on, we got another bookcase, and lined it with an encyclopedia set a relative gave us, as well as a series on different countries of the world, with statistics for each. I loved browsing those books, and had to stack my young adult novels double, for lack of room. I wrote a report extolling the benefits of ebooks for a 7th grade class, but inside winced at the thought of giving up paper novels. I loved the smell of new ones from Barnes and Noble, and was familiar with the smell of fusty ones that I got from the school library. You cannot spend much time reading and loving books without also falling a little bit in love with their shape and feel.

As an ex-pat, however, it made a lot of sense for me to get a Kindle. It's difficult to find books in English in Taiwan. Plus, if I continue to travel, putting a Kindle in my purse makes a lot more sense than mailing boxes of books. Yet that is what my boyfriend is doing right now. We have a bookcase in our living room, completely full, filled with books that my boyfriend took with him from home, books that people who left Taiwan left with him, and books that I bought in a spending spree at a closing Borders. He thought he might leave the books here, but then he thought that he wanted our kids to be able to read the books in the future. One of his favorite memories is of browsing the bookcases in his grandparents' home.

From one level to another.
I have memories too, of looking at illustrated fairy tale books, encyclopedias filled with photographs and graphs, and a particularly good green thesaurus that my mother had. Because of Google, the internet is very specific. You can search and find exactly what you are looking for. The internet is also full of links that allow you to wikiwalk, but try as they might, web designers cannot replicate the experience of flipping through the pages of a good reference book.

When we went to Costco recently, I thought about how I wanted that for my children, especially when they are small. While technology is great, turning physical pages and looking at non-backlit screens is important for young children.  Books are also by definition curated. A bookcase, by definition, is limited, and a limited choice is often less stressful. Of course, my boyfriend and I probably will squirrel away many books on our ebooks and computers, and probably invest more in books on art and other visual media. My 2nd cousin once removed told me of how she and her brother encountered Frida Kahlo in one of her mother's books.

That is why, some time in the future, when my boyfriend and I have children, we will have real books, and bookcases. I dream of putting books in ascending order; the picture books on the bottom where my children can reach them, and books on "serious issues" on the top shelves where they can reach when they are older. I hope that they will love toddling over to the bottom rungs to pull out their favorite story, that one day they will stand on their toes to reach for a book that interests them, and I hope that they will always strain to reach ever higher.

Staircase of Light
Besides, I think that as Millenials start getting more money and grow out of our hipster phase, we may start investing in books the way we invest in Facebook pictures and twitter posts—as in, we will use them as identity markers. Sure, we may read bodice-ripper romances on our Kindles, but we’ll keep The Omnivore’s Dilemma on our reclaimed wood bookshelves. Also, the pendulum may swing the other way when the printing industry starts to promote "Real Books from Real Trees for Real People."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Better Affirmative Action Analogy

I used to believe in meritocracy. As an Asian American, I was against affirmative action, at least race-based affirmative action. Class-based was okay. When confronted with analogies about our meritocratic race to the top, I was unmoved by descriptions of starving African Americans that had been chained up until right before the race. After all, it's been 150 years since slavery ended, though its effects are still felt today.

Therefore, I would like to present a better Affirmative Action Analogy.

One candidate (white) goes to participate in a foot race. His parents are not only supportive, but have made it clear, explicitly or implicitly, that he is expected to finish the race, if not place in the top 10. Why not? Everyone in his family has. All of his friends expect to. They have trained together every day since the 6th grade. His parents have paid private coaches to teach him and bought him expensive training sneakers and the best track shoes. The morning of the race, he is fed a power breakfast and driven to the starting line in an air-conditioned car. There is a celebratory lunch planned for after the race.

One candidate (black) goes to participate in a foot race. One of his parents, and some of his friends and family members are supportive. The other parent accuses him of trying to be better than his ancestors. Some of his friends make fun of him for participating. Others tell him there's no point. Studies show that he is unlikely to do as well as his white peers. Of those who are supportive, few have ever run before, and don't know how to support him. He has been training on his own. The morning of the race, he walks to the starting line because everyone is too busy or unsupportive to drive him there.

Does that mean that he should get some seconds shaved off of his score? I don't know. But I do think he should be under consideration for some coaching before the final race.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Don't Be This Guy Who Travels

There's this post that's going around, called "Date a Guy Who Travels." It contains some good values. Experiences are more valuable than things, but that's the rule for Millennials, not the exception. The curiosity for the world and knowledge of the poverty people have to go through all over the world are good qualities as well. Being flexible and adventurous, looking for possibilities and leaving the comfort zone are all qualities to be admired. There are some beautiful sentiments and beautiful pieces of writing in the post.

And yet it rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it because, as an ex-pat and sometime-traveler, I have known many travelers who embody many of the actions described in the post, if few of the ideals.

I have known guys who scoff at resorts when they have never been to a resort.

I have never known a guy who scoffs at vacations. Who does that?

I have known guys who dismiss travel guides because they, "probably know the guy who wrote them."

I have known guys who fail to realize that using a "travel guide" as a "reference" is redundant.

I have known many guys whose number of Facebook friends is negatively correlated with their number real friends.

I have known guys who have lived in Southeast Asia for years, but have never traveled in Malaysia. This has as much to do with the anti-drinking laws and Islamaphobia as it does with the relative expense.

I have known guys who are always announcing new things they've discovered in loud and enthusiastic tones, only to clam up if you'd already heard of them already or want specifics (in other words, have an actual conversation--which is why no one ever listens to their stories anymore).

I have known many guys who are too busy documenting an event for Facebook to actually experience it.

I have known guys who lived out of a backpack. I have known guys who claim to be backpacking when the only time they carry the backpack is to the taxi taking him away from the airport (on the way to the taxi to the airport, the hotel porter handles it).

I have known guys who pontificate about human rights and the squalor of developing countries, but are blind to the inequality and poverty on their own doorstep.

I have known ethnocentric guys who claim they're not because they've, "been to 43 countries."

I've known guys who have hiked up the tallest mountain in Taiwan, but were unaware that there are Chinese supermarkets in the U.S.

I have known guys who love being at home because their mom unpack their bags and do their laundry for them, but when they feel cramped, they leave again.

I have known many guys who marry a local girl they met on their travels, even though her English is poor and he never learns her native tongue. Conversely, I have known guys who only want to hook up with white girls when they travel.

I encountered multiple publications who know that artisanal, local handicrafts are the new status symbol. The new height of cool.

I have known guys who confuse instant-gratification with a happy life. Maybe it is, but they have never considered the meaningfulness of their lives.

I have known guys who live to build a persona for themselves through Facebook and twitter and their desktop photos

Traveling is great. Even though we live in a world where we can view satellite maps, documentaries, and other people's Facebook pictures that document life from all over the world, the world itself is still a book, and people who don't travel only read one page. It is a privilege now, as it was when St. Augustine first penned those words, but nothing replaces experiencing things first-hand. So travel, and enjoy talking and interacting with those who travel. But remember not all those who wander have lost their prejudices and pretensions.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Avenues: A Lesson in False Humility

Avenues is a pre-K-9 private school in New York City which purports to emphasize humility in its students; the school's mission statement is to craft students who are “humble about their gifts and generous of spirit." For $43,000 a year. All of my information is from the New York Times feature. I just had to post a response.

The Good

The school does seem to be an amazing opportunity for people who can afford it, at least at the lower levels.  Nancy Schulman, head of the Early Learning Center, understands why parents feel the need to ensure their children have organic, locally-sourced, gluten-free, culturally diverse snacks (it's a control thing). 4-year-olds get to view abstract art (an oddly appropriate time for them to learn about it) and Schulman, "brimming with excitement, explained how the subject matter and the field trip were perfect for the immersion classes. 'You can use the vocabulary in both languages,' she said, to learn about the art."

Yes, the kids will be brought up to be bilingual: English and Mandarin. The one spotlight on a student of Avenues is, "Jackson, [who] emerged in checkered pajamas from playing a “Star Wars” game on a Mac and broke into a number of songs in Mandarin, including “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”He seems like a happy, well-adjusted kid.

The Bad

But how long will that last? Jackson's parents may seem both successful and reasonable, but how will they compete with the children of parents who demand the non-genetically modified, organic, locally-sourced, gluten-free, culturally-diverse raw foods snacks? Or parents that fret that their children can see, "the upper outlines of a homeless man’s backside en route to a playground." Worse yet, how will children cope when the school puts together a task force to investigate the safety of the school neighborhood in response? Humility indeed.

Of course, the homeless man incident is also referred to as "the buttcrack email," which goes to show that some people are laughing it off. I'm still concerned about the students when they get into high school though. Avenues does not have upperclassmen students yet, but they will. That's when the mental and physical health of students start to plummet; that's when AP courses, the SAT, and college applications hit you hard. Add that mix to the pressure cooker that is Avenues, and I'd hate to see the outcome. One of NYC's best child psychologists is on board. They're going to need him.

And let's face it. This school is charging $43,000 a year and is for profit. That may ensure premium service, but it's always a bit squishy when a school is for-profit. In reality, all schools are, but those who are openly so are at the mercy of parent and student demands. Also, humility?

The Ugly

Let's be honest. The best place for children of people who make enough to pay $43,000 a year in school fees to learn humility is the public school system. And not even the public school system in their neighborhood. They need to go to a low-income neighborhood public school. Or low-income neighborhood private school. But public school would be better.

Their parents would undoubtedly continue to be highly involved, and will model one or both of two things for their children. One is social activism. The other is failure. Either way, they will likely grow up to be more resilient, encounter real diversity, and grow up to be humbler human beings, if only because they will see how people without the benefits their families provide fare.

You know who would really benefit from the type of education Avenues provides? Children from low socioeconomic castes. On a purely practical level, I think they need Chinese more. Rich people can hire translators and language tutors, but the blue collar class workers may need Chinese to serve our future Chinese overlords. Or if not, as manufacturing is outsourced more and more to China, they may need to chase those jobs. Or they may need to interact with Chinese speakers or Chinese characters when they take inventory or transport goods from boat to shore. When I eat at Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, all of the dumpling makers I see through the picture window into the kitchen look Latino. Once, while grocery shopping in Hacienda Heights, I saw a Latino man speaking ebulliently with his co-workers in Chinese. I'm currently in Taiwan, teaching English to children of the rich and powerful. You know who, on average, has better spoken English? That's right, child vendors in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.

Or course, there are many other reasons children from low socioeconomic classes would benefit from an education at Avenues. The point is that they will never get anything close to that. As one commenter, cmhughes, notes, what they get instead is ducking under "police tape cordoning off the street to get into the building. A man had been shot in the head the night before and died; the police crime scene investigation unit van was still there collecting evidence . . . one young child . . . is very afraid of dying."

The Black Box Theater

The NYT feature, written by Jenny Anderson, makes much of the black box theater on school campus in which parents were having a forum on whether or not their children's snacks were appropriately non-genetically modified, organic, locally-sourced, paleo-diet, gluten-free, culturally-diverse, raw food, non-processed, and high class. A black box theater is a low-cost theater that consists of a flat floor and black walls (resembling a black box). It was developed for experimental theater, and should be able to represent anyplace and anything. Like the school, it is a seemingly progressive and democratic space that has been appropriated by those who claim to feel more, care more, and are the de facto elite.
Become certifiably humble at Avenues!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Commons: Allrecipes is not competing with your food blog

Whoever thought of the idea of emailing people a couple of weeks after they've purchased a book from Amazon to encourage us to write reviews: it works (at least for me). I wrote my first 3 reviews that way. If I were ambitious, I'd write more, and try and get on the Amazon Vine program, but I doubt that will happen. For one thing, I don't know if Amazon would allow me to review books that I didn't buy through them. Maybe I should post my reviews on Goodreads instead. Actually, what I should really do is write a thoughtful review of every book I read, post a preview on a public site, and then link to the rest on my blog.

Granted, I wouldn't shortchange anyone. All of the important stuff would be upfront, inverse pyramid style. But if anyone wanted more detail, they could click the link. I don't know if this is allowed.

But it should be. As long as the links are not spam, this would be a great way to get the best of public knowledge, while still allowing people to self-indulge express themselves on their own blogs. Think of Allrecipes.

Allrecipes is my go-to site if I'm looking for a dish. It has tons of recipes, and it doesn't make you look at 20 (albeit sometimes gorgeous) photos before you can look at the actual recipe. Plus it allows you to convert the serving size and move from US (British) measurements to metric. It even has nutritional information at the bottom! Most important, it has ratings and reviews. If I really like a recipe blog, then I'll trust that anything posted is delicious. But even that doesn't replace a comment that is liked by 50 and references at least 3 other comments regarding changing the amount of pepper to add. Sorry recipe bloggers, you lose.

That doesn't mean they should stop blogging their own recipes. It just means they should ALSO POST ON ALLRECIPES. If you think about it, it's great advertisement, if their dishes (and photos and writing) are really that good. Hey, if food companies can promote their products on allrecipes, I don't see why food bloggers can't promote their blogs. Wikipedia says they promote such practices. And go ahead and post on and and Food52 and Epicurious and all of those other social-networking food sites I don't even know of. (Actually, I don't think you can post on Epicurious, but they have an awesome name and it was the first recipe site I used regularly.)

Sidenote: My subtitle for this post is that Allrecipes is not competing with your food blog. I considered adding that it's not competing with your cookbook deal either, but maybe it's competing with your cookbook deal. But that's more the internet's fault, and you can't blame the internet for that, because people still get cookbooks published based on their food blogs on the internet all the time. I guess that goes to show that cookbooks aren't really about cooking. They're about personality and food porn.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Plethora of Storylines: A Feast for Crows Review

I just finished A Feast for Crows, or at least I finished Arya and Sam's parts. I felt bad about skipping ahead, since I value residing cover to cover, but it's hard to leave a cliffhanger chapter when you know you're not going to find out what's going to happen for 12 more chapters.

What I found at the end though, was that my skipping around reflected George R. R. Martin's choice to split A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons not by timeline, but by characters. I thought that his choice of who to put in which book a bit odd though. Characters are getting further and further apart, geographically, but I would have stuck to known entities in Affc, such as those in King's Landing, the Wall, Dorne, maybe Meereen. That would have left only those who were going on quests, but more importantly, those who all those at home are wondering about. That way Jaime and Cersei would continue to wonder about Tyrion, Jaime might wonder about Brienne, Jon would wonder about Sam, and we could all wonder about Arya, Brandon, and Sansa.

I'm not sure why the book was split the way it was. Maybe an editor went through it, marked all the ones that mentioned crows feasting, and said: those. I've never seen such heavy-handed references to the title before, though (maybe because of the references) I did get the idea of the decay left over now that the war is at a hiatus. I also think that if A Feast for Crows had followed Jon, that would have been an interesting play on how the Crows are doing.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Questing and Traveling

Quest (n.): a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something: a quest for uranium mines; a quest for knowledge (

A quest is traditionally a journey, for one seldom gets what one wants by standing still, but nowadays quests take place in one place (usually New York City), whether for a job, for a partner, or for a good public school. The hero doesn't stand still; she (or he) runs around, often in circles. It's a rat race.

Maybe that is unfair. Stories don't only take place in the City Where Nothing Is Ever Good Enough The City that Never Sleeps. Stories can take place wholly in a small town, where the moving is of the souls, usually towards each other, whether in new love or healing old hurt.

Traditional quests though, are about moving and searching and encountering things stranger and greater than seen at home. What is the purpose of questing? What are we searching for when we travel? To see from different perspectives? Perhaps to find a different place, because one never belonged anyway. Either way, you always come back changed.

I am starting to like the quotes on Mindbloom, or at least my collection of them. Among quotes devoted to treating your body like a temple, eating well to live well, and treating the earth respectfully are quotes related to the usefulness of art, imagination, and books. I need more quotes about books. Books are a wonderful way to travel, not only through places and on quests, but through other people's eyes.

A sociology professor at my university once quoted a man who said, "I don't read books. I live them." I don't see why one can't do both. So that is what I am trying to do. I want to live a life worth writing about. I hope it won't be a tragedy, or even a drama. But I do hope it might be a travelogue. My AP Literature teacher confused the hell out of me by asking us (while we were studying Heart of Darkness) what the point of a travelogue was (and then never telling us). I have thought long and hard about what the point is. I still don't have the answer.

Instead, I'll just share a few of my favorite quotes about traveling.

For Perspective and Education
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." – Henry Miller
"Travel far enough, you meet yourself." – David Mitchell

For it's own Sake 
“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula K. Leguin
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
"To travel is to live." – Hans Christian Anderson

Miscellaneous: For Adventure, Renewal, and to Seek
"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." – Anon
“You lose sight of things… and when you travel, everything balances out.” – Daranna Gidel
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

Friday, April 5, 2013

7 Rules for Writing in the Internet Age

Bora Zivkovic wrote an article posted in the Scientific American has some tips on how to break into science writing, but it has good advice on how to write, or get read, in the internet age. His original piece is a mine of useful links, but I'm posting a summary below for my own purposes.

1) Find a niche:
"Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic" (18).

2) But show your writing versatility:
"Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you" (17).

Also, see this prezi.

3) Don't worry about what's hip:
Blog with some regularity, even if it's just a few links, but you don't have to blog every day. Your readers will find you if they like you Make your blogs as long or as short as you want.

4) Practice:
Writing, of course, even if it's not something you publish, but also reading. How do writers accomplish their goals. Emulate them until you develop your own style. Pay attention to what editors change about your writing.

5) Get some training:
In addition to full-on master programs, there are summer workshops. You can also try an internship.
Educate yourself about writing ethics. Build credibility by citing your sources. Moderate your comments and be present to respond to comments occasionally.

6) Promote yourself:
Don't be afraid to write for free. Nominate yourself for awards. Submit to contests. Make a nice homepage with a simple URL that contains links to everywhere else you are present on the web.

"Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts."

As for managing social media, Zivkovic recommends choosing two that work well for you (probably twitter, a professional facebook account, and google+ for the heck of it) and managing those, but also get accounts at other ones that can link back to your homepage.

7) Collaborate instead of compete:
Before, newspapers had to compete for readers. Now, there's so much competition that media outlets need to make allegiances with other media outlets with similar goals. After all, there's so much bad stuff to wade through, the best way to get your message out is to get other people to recommend it--if you recommend messages of similar caliber. This makes sense. Previous advice on how to get into blogging suggests that you comment on other blog posts and post a blog roll. It's also a good idea to join a group blog or do guest posts. Attend some events and network.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mindbloom Review: Grow Your Productivity

I just did some floor exercises. Usually, I would continue surfing abyss of the internet, not even really reading anymore, but scanning, but I was smart enough to recognize the diminishing marginal returns. That, and I wanted to water my poor tree.

You see, in Mindbloom, every time you complete a task that you've set yourself, a little rain cloud hovers over your tree and your tree gets 5-10% more water. Of course, your tree also needs sunlight, which can be accomplished by you viewing your inspirational quotes and pictures once a day for a 10% sunshine boost. If that's not enough sunshine for you, you can also add inspiration to your inspiration roll.

I like Mindbloom. I came across in lifehacker. It's like a productivity game. When I tried to get one of my friends to try it though, she asked me if I was trying to ruin her life. That's because "productivity game" is an oxymoron, and the danger is that you can sucked into the game part instead of the productivity part. You can also hack your own game. It is fun though, like Sims for your real life (which means that it caters to the superego instead of the id). Why get satisfaction out of making your Sim wash the dishes when you can grow a virtual tree by actually washing the dishes?

My boyfriend would make fun of me for the above statement, but Mindbloom works fairly well for me. I'm not interested in culling through quotes, pictures, and music to find the perfect montage of inspiration (though there are some nice quotes in there). This can actually be a downside, because my tree is skewed in terms of its water/sunshine ratio. I really just want to water my tree though. I get sad when its leaves turn brown (or red), even though I swear I've been more consistent about my goals than usual (maybe I'm just setting the bar too high?).

That's one of the nice things about Mindbloom. It has a built-in calendar so you can go back and check how consistent you've been completing your tasks. It can aid you in your quest to form a habit (research shows it takes 21 days).

Mindbloom can also replace your to-do list, as long as your to-do list has a lot of repetition built into it. You probably need a separate to-do list  though, for more specific tasks or tasks that you'll only do once (unless you just want an excuse to add it and water your tree).

Mindbloom is also tapped into the most motivating factor of productivity: the observation effect.

Okay, there has to be a better name for it. But people do tend to perform better when they know they are being watched. More importantly, if you have a companion who pushes you keep up a habit (as opposed to agreeing with you that it's better to sleep in than go jogging), or even push you to do more, you are more likely to succeed. Plus, it might just look bad to have a dead tree in your backyard. Mindbloom also allows you to send rain or sunshine to your friends if you've accrued enough seeds, which serves as a kind of virtual encouragement.

So that's the good. Now for the bad. Like I said, I don't like the inspiration gathering aspect of it. It might help some people, but it doesn't do much for me. Plus, adding new inspiration is a potential time-waster. My other critique is that Mindbloom doesn't have a button to let you water your tree more than once a day for the same task. For example, when I finish writing this blog post, I get to water my tree again. But what if I write two blog posts? If I work on Chinese for 10 minutes (one of my set tasks), I get to water my tree. But what if I work on it for 3 hours (which is really what I should be doing)? Of course, I can get around that by setting another task, like "write two blog posts," but then my tree might suffer because I never write two blog posts in one day, and the extra task makes my leaves bigger, which means that it needs more water.

Hopefully Mindbloom can add a feature that allows for watering more than once for a task a day soon. If not, it's not a big deal. My main issue is that there is no real ipad/iphone app for Mindbloom. They have a version called Bloom, but it doesn't sync up with Mindbloom on your computer, and it seems designed to get money out of you. I don't grudge them that much for it. After all, the company has to make money somehow. Unfortunately for them I won't be participating in it.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I'm going to water my tree.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Teach (Private School)?

Why teach at all? Why teach when it takes so much time and pays so little money (even taking into account the two months off)? Why teach when the people you manage are held hostage there, not by income, but by law? Why teach when your students may have little to no respect for you or your profession?

There are some standard answers. To pass on knowledge. To engage intellect. To challenge. To inspire. As if those things were exclusive to teaching.

If you teach at certain public schools, you can say even more. To ensure a basic human right. To mitigate the existence of institutional barriers. To provide a safe and nurturing environment.

But why teach at the private school level? Sure, the money's better, but not that good (it's still teaching). There isn't necessarily a guarantee of a better home environment, though the behavioral issues will be different. A higher standard of intellect is expected, usually (or a higher rate of grade inflation).

Why teach with the knowledge that some students hate your guts, simply because you've done your job?

There are ways to console yourself. You can engage in some form of mudslinging. You can say that you're better than them, and say that they'll get theirs, when they get into college or the real world and can't perform. Unfortunately, poetic justice is just that--poetic. It is symptomatic of literature not because it reflects real life, but real desires. The truth is, a mediocre or failing student of mine will live a more comfortable life than me, simply because he or she was born into a family with more money than mine (just look at George W. Bush).

It's not just the greater opportunity my students were born with that will aid them, it is also their willingness to take what they don't deserve. Despite Aristotle's attempted conflation of goodness and happiness, it just isn't true. Nice guys often do finish last. It seems so unfair that while I am trapped in a cage of my insecurities, my own harshest judge, they are in a bubble sustained by the idea that they can do no wrong.

But happiness is overrated. When I was studying Aristotle in college, I did take issue with happiness being the highest possible good. I tried to think of an alternative, but the best my aspiring intellectual self could come up with was wisdom. I wasn't sure why wisdom should be a higher goal than happiness, but it appealed more to me. It was something I would be willing to suffer for. After all, isn't ignorance bliss? Wasn't I actually toiling through the readings for class while others partied not just so I could get better grades and a better job, but because I wanted to understand the material? (The truth is I enjoyed most of the readings, so it was still about my personal happiness.)

Happiness studies have really flourished. I, too, am suspect to the craze. I want to be happy (or happier, or happy on a more consistent basis). A lot of happiness research was covered by Penelope Trunk, who ultimately decided that happiness lost to being interesting. So maybe I am teaching not because it will lead to a more comfortable, stress-free life, but because it is intellectually stimulating and creatively challenging. That's a good argument. Except that I could get a job that is intellectually stimulating, creatively challenging, pays more, and makes a more perceivable impact.

Emily Esfahani Smith really hit on it.* We don't do things to be happy. We procrastinate to be happy. We go on vacation to be happy. But happiness is not most people's primary motivation. We all want fulfillment, which for most humans means meaning. Meaning for a a large section of the population (I hope) is integrity, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Public school teachers go to work hoping to catch kids, to raise them up. Sometimes all they can be is a stepping stone. Private school teachers go to work to try and prevent kids from being corrupt. Maybe the best we can hope for is to be a stumbling block on their way to asshattery.

*or her source, Roy Baumeister, did