Online Effects on the Brain

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UC Crisis and Education

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The financial crisis now hitting the University of California is the worst I have seen, and I have been teaching at UC Santa Barbara since 1980.  Certainly there have been other down times during this period but nothing like this.

I am particularly concerned about the effects of the proposed budget cuts upon the quality of undergraduate education.  That—high quality undergraduate education—is supposed to be one of the mandates of the UC system, but I fear that it is (and has for a long time) going to get the short end of the stick as financial adjustments are made for the current crisis.

Classes are being cut; instructors, especially lecturers, are being laid off.  Class sizes are sure to increase, and if teaching assistants are also cut back, large lectures will no longer have sections.

Students will still be expected and feel the pressure, for financial reasons, to graduate in four years, but with these changed conditions that will be increasingly impossible.

If you are currently a student in the UC system or have been (especially if you are at UCSB) I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on the crisis and any reflections you might have on the quality of instruction you received or are receiving.

For a little background on the crisis, you might check out: "I am for option 4."

TV Time

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David Foster Wallace, the novelist who recently committed suicide, wrote a pretty long and good essay on television's effect on writers of fiction. He thinks those effects have been rather grossly underplayed. One place in this essay he wrote something that gave me pause:

The U.S. generation born after 1950 is the first for whom television was something to be lived with instead of looked at. Our elders tend to regard the set rather as a flapper did the automobile: a curiosity turned treat turned seduction. For younger writers, TV's as much a part of reality as Toyota or gridlock. We literally cannot imagine life without it.... We have no memory of a world without such electrical definition.

As a person born before 1950 and having been raised without a TV set till I was ten or eleven, I have such a memory--of a world without TV. Not that I haven't watched plenty of it since. But that's not the point exactly. I tell my students that I don't understand them and I mean it. What I mean though has not always been clear. But this TV thing is part of it--of this difference I don't quite get.

At some elemental level because of those early years without TV I cannot quite step into a world of students who have known TV forever and for whom TV is part of what Wallace calls "reality." At some level I just don't feel TV is part of reality in the way a Toyota is or gridlock.

I must be bone headed. According to what I have read the only thing people do more than sleep is watch TV. They watch on average at least six hours of it a day (though perhaps the figures are changing some what with the internet.). But if you think of that--six hours a day!--you better get the feeling that TV is--how to say--a significant "experiential unit" in the overall fabric of reality that includes such things as work, driving to work, school, or other life shaping activities.

My students tell me they have bought things just because a celebrity they admired wore the thing they bought. This idea has never crossed my mind.

Wallace knows what my students feel better than I.

He writes:

We try to see ourselves in them [TV characters]. The same I.D.-relation, however, also means that we try to seem them in ourselves. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV because all the more attractive, a cycle which is great for TV. But less so for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identity with.
Well, I continue to struggle with teaching and learning. The whole thing has become harder the closer I get to not doing it anymore. And it's harder too because the pressure upon students now, more than ever, is to succeed. I can understand that what with the economy being what it is.

I have wanted to think of education as the development of the person and haven't always been able to say exactly what I meant by that though I tried to in writing "Self-Development and College Writing."

The other day I came across the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace was a novelist--some kind of genius, as a friend put it--who committed suicide recently. It's very down-to-earth commencement speech. He attempts to define and defend "liberal arts" education, as he tries to navigate the sea of cliches invoked by such an occasion. But part way through it he writes something that touches me and my notions of what education might be:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

I suppose this hits me particularly hard because just the other day in class, I was trying to talk with my students about something like this. We (or rather I) was trying to discuss D.W. Winnicott's idea about creativity and its role in daily life. For Winnicott, this type of creativity is essential to a feeling of wholeness and aliveness. He writes very strange and incomprehensible things trying to get at what he means. But I think what he means has something to do with what Wallace says when he writes about liberal arts education as learning "to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

The main point to be made here is that while we do construct meaning from experience, we don't know we are doing it. In Wallace's words, we simply fall into what he calls, when it comes to thinking or constructing meaning, the "default position." This position he explicitly says is "unconscious." These unconscious, default positions have something to do with Winnicott's false self. The false self, the ability to have one, is essential to social functioning. The well adjusted person has a solid false self; the problem is that those very adjustments supply the default positions for those ways of making meaning that go along with such a thing as being well-adjusted.

So we don't think about where our thoughts come from or even that they come from somewhere and were, where-ever that somewhere might be, constructed.

That's the point of liberal arts education: to constantly point to that fact and in point to that fact to suggest experience teaches us nothing. We construct its meaning and there are various ways to do that, those "various ways" having something to do with what Winnicott calls creativity.

In any case, I think Wallace's commencement talk should be required reading for all teachers of writing, and as we read we should ask, "Am I teaching writing in a way that encourages students to move from their default positions" or am I assisting in the production of a generation that will in adult life "be totally hosed."

Wallace's commencement address may be found at.

Education as Commodity

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Here's a good quote about education as commodity (what it is becoming) from the British scene from an online journal called Fast Marxism:

According to this logic, the university must provide a ‘service’ in which the student ‘consumer’ can measure the value of their ‘investment’ in quantifiable terms: from the ‘quality’ of the education they receive as measured in RAE and QAA scores to the ‘real world’ financial pay-off they can look forward to in the long term. The value of education in this sense can be seen as a straightforward instrumental means toward the no less instrumentalized end of improving one’s chances in the labor market. Universities must accept the need for “reform” - that is, the re-orienting from their original purpose toward training and honing the ‘transferable’ skills required by the ‘knowledge economies’ of advanced capitalism.

Thinking a thought

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It was a cold and wet day in Writing 1. 

We were discussing Karen Horney’s “Our Inner Conflicts.”  In the book she tries to define three basic neurotic strategies for dealing with deep, deep, deep inner conflict: the moving towards, the moving against, and the moving away.  The first seeks love, tends to avoid conflict, to be self sacrificing (all towards the unconscious goal of “safety); the second sees life as a jungle of all against all and tends to be aggressive and controlling (all towards the unconscious goal of “safety); the moving away moves away from conflict in the name of the of independence, seeking not to be dependent on any one or anything (all towards the unconscious goal of “safety”).

I asked students—understanding of course that in reality life is a lot more complex than any three types—to pick which type they tended more towards, or pretend to pick one in any case.  Describe the type using Horney’s theory and then provide examples from their own lives that illustrate or elaborate upon the type.

About half the class was present on that cold and wet day, so I made them sit in a circle and asked each student present to say what type they thought they were and then discuss their example.  I was half listening—because I sort of try also to listen around the edges of what they are saying—and one guy said he was the moving toward type (seeking to please others and win their approval) but then (maybe I missed something) he went on about how people are such jerks and so stupid.  So I said, I was lost and that he sounded more like the Moving Against type who sees himself as super strong and everybody else as weak or possible stupid.

Later another student read a quotation from her paper.  I am not sure if it was this one but something like it:

            …he (the moving towards type) persuades himself that he likes everybody, that they are all nice and trustworthy, a fallacy that not only makes for heartbreaking disappointments but also adds to his general insecurity.

Bingo, I said, and tapped the student on the arm (he was sitting right next to me) who had said people were jerks.  So this is what you meant; since as a moving towards type you want to see others as nice like yourself, you frequently find yourself pissed off at people when it turns out they are not nice. As a moving towards you project your own values on others; you idealize them and when the veil slips away and you see the warts you see them as jerks, etc, not perhaps because they really are jerks but because they were not quite the people you thought they were.

Bingo!  I said.  There’s a whole paper there.  Abstractions and examples make it possible for the teacher, who doesn’t understand much, to understand something.  It’s like a process.


Educational Erosion?

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I don’t pay enough attention.

But recently I realized that, with the professor’s approval, a student can enroll in a given course as late as the end of the second week of the quarter.  That means a student can officially miss 1/5 of a course and still receive credit for having taken it.

 Additionally as I previously noted, if a student has classes on MW this Winter Quarter 08 he or she will miss an additional two classes.

If then a student enrolls at the end of the second week and those two additional vacation days are thrown in the student can miss 6 of 20 courses (on a twice a week schedule) and still receive credit for the course.

Also here at UCSB the second and third weeks of the winter quarter are the weeks students, who must leave the dorms, head over to IV to sign leases for their housing for NEXT YEAR with the IV slumlords.  I hear students talking to each other over their cells about housing, trying to figure out both who they will live with next year and where. 

One student said he went out with three other guys and wanted to rent a place; the slumlords said, sure, but you will need to get your parents to co-sign, not just for you, their child, but for all the other people renting the place as well.  I have never heard of such a thing.  Is this legal?

The student shrugged.  It was just their way of getting rid of us till they found a group they liked the looks of better, he said.

And students in my Monday class—was that just yesterday—when I was beginning to feel sick and all lethargic—when I asked how they were doing honestly said they were wiped out because the first weekend of each quarter is a really big getting drunk weekend. 

So to summarize I am trying to teach something to students who are allowed back into their living area less than 24 hours before the actual start of classes.  During that first week, they must locate their classes, attend them, correct problems in scheduling, move back into their dorm rooms, and stand in long lines buying books.  The following week, especially if they are freshmen, they must go out to IV and try to find a place to live for the following year.  In the meantime, at least half of the students feel obligated via peer pressure to get drunk as skunks the first weekend of the quarter.

I do no feel this environment is particularly conducive to what I think of as education.

Further Screwed

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Well, the beat goes on and the UC sinks further in my estimation.

According to an article in the student newspaper student fees (officially UC students don’t pay “tuition”) went up 85% over the last six years.  And Lieutenant Governor Garamedi, as well as, Lillian Taiz, President of the California Faculty Association, had the nuts to say the obvious; while students are paying more—all those undergraduates—they are getting less and less for their money.

That’s clear to me.  There are not enough teachers, back logs are building up all over campus; students can’t get the courses they need to complete their damn majors.

And at the same time they are trying to up the minimum number of units a student must take per quarter from 12 to 14.  And somewhere I read about a new rule that would penalize (probably by making them pay more) students who take less than 15 units a quarter.

So where’s all that money going.  To make up for previous budget cuts, one is told.  Oh, yea, while all over campus new buildings are going up like mushrooms, and they are proposing now to increase chancellor’s salaries by 33% over the next three years.

You’d think students would take a look at the situation and just say, NO!  Because they are getting royally screwed.

But they are just students.  They are here and then they are gone.  More and more, it seems they want to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.  That suits the UC since they want to increase throughput, thus the increase in the number of units per quarter, and rules about penalizing students who go over the unit level necessary for graduation.

And of course the students’ parents want it over with too ASAP because of the debt piling up….

Going to the UC these days is way too much like a forced march through Siberia; all you want to do is survive.

No wonder then students sit in my class slacked jaw, glassy eyed and looking at me like my very existence was an imposition on their lives. No wonder I can’t engage them, or get them talking, or fired up over the importance of learning to write well, and, heck, the fun one might have doing it.  I need to stop feeling like a failure and realize I didn’t make this mess.  

Here’s another article disputing the claim in the New Yorker that our educational system represents a meritocracy.  So much depends on how one defines merit.  Take your SAT scorches.  One finds in this interview article:


Selectivity is virtually defined by institutional average SAT scores, and so the SAT remains the most powerful mechanism by which elite institutions create a pool of “credible” candidates. Examine the College Board’s annual data on the relationship between SAT performance and the class status of students’ parents, measured by family income and parent education levels. The data are astounding, showing that high school seniors with highly educated and affluent parents can expect to score hundreds of points higher than students from far more modest social and economic backgrounds. For example, the average SAT score of students whose families earn between $30,000 and $40,000 a year is 1436. That’s compared to the average of 1656 for students whose parents earn $100,000 or more — a 220-point difference.


This is the statement of a guy named Peter Sacks who recently published a book: Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.  He disputes the claim that the educational system, at least at this point in our sordid history, acts as a social economic equalizer.  By the way, Sacks praises the UC system for having moved away from a dependence on SATS.

Fleecing Students

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A student gave an oral report on financing of student debt. Turns out it’s an 85 billion dollar a year business.   Not exactly chump change.  She decided to look into the topic because she will be graduating in a matter of days with 45,000 dollars in debt on her back as she walks down the aisle. She had to finance her own education she said.  Her parents had managed to help her two older brothers but by the time it got to her and her younger sister, the larder was bare.  So she had to take out student loans, and she had run up credit card debt, and she had to start working.  Well, her attendance in my class has been irregular.

Mostly her report focused on hearings in New York on the collusion between college and universities across the country and the major lenders, like B of A, and Citibank.  Seems that when a student goes to get a loan at the school, he or she is given a list, created by the school, of preferred lenders.  Lenders the school prefers for whatever reason.  Turns out the reasons have to do with outright kickbacks, payoffs, as well as free vacations to some exotic spot for the whole damn financial aid office.  So for these perks, the lender gets put on the preferred list, that sometimes has only two or three lenders listed, and as it turns out 90% of the time students pick one of the lenders on the list given to them by their school.  They make the mistake in other words of trusting the people at the college of their choice.

This is fairly disgusting. 

I really don’t know where to direct my anger.  At the fact, companies and colleges have systematically set about fleecing students, or the fact that student have to take out such huge loans at all. 






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