Saturday, January 31, 2009


Last month, Libby told me I am lucky. And I feel fortunate, but I don't think luck has a lot to do with it. This article explains why.

1. Lucky people frequently happen upon chance opportunities. But this is more than just being in the right place at the right time. “Lucky” people also have to be aware or the opportunity, and have the courage to seize it.
2. Lucky people listen to their hunches. In other words, they listen to their gut instinct. This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which argues that often our first instincts are correct.
3. Lucky people persevere in the face of failure. You’ve all seen that Nike commercial from Michael Jordan, right? “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
4. Lucky people have the ability to turn bad luck into good fortune.

I am an information junkie, not just information about my field or my interests, but information about opportunities. I am always scouring the net for info that might lead to something. I get this in part from my friend Amy. When I was in my first year of college, Amy (who'd been one of my best friends in K-12 but graduated a year early and went to Cornell, which I attended the next year) called me up to tell me that the library had just called her to ask her for an interview as she had applied for a job there. She had already taken another job and wasn't available, but she called me to let me know in case I wanted a job there. I applied and worked there for 3+ years very happily, and rose to the heights of Student Supervisor.

Amy made an impact on me. As a result of her influence, I try to be as generous and networky with my friends. But I also try to keep my eyes open for interesting possibilities.

I am not as secure in my hunches as Gladwell would have me. I tend not to like to make snap decisions. But I do make such decisions about people and am rarely wrong. Was I lucky in my contractor who worked on my kitchen? I don't know. I made a snap decision that he was the person I wanted to work on my kitchen. I knew the price he was asking and was willing to pay it. And I have to say, the work did not drag on. I think it was done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they did a competent job. We didn't have any Nightmare Contractor stories as a result, and that was the most important thing to me.

Most importantly, I think I do persevere in the face of failure. In 2000 I took a risk and left a great job and great boss for an opportunity to teach full-time. It blew up in my face spectacularly and I did three years in pris^H^H^H^HMaine as a result. But I kept looking for jobs in my field and also did a lot of self-examination, and I found the right job for me, a job that is incredibly family friendly and gives me freedom to pursue my interests. I think 3 and 4 go together; I wouldn't say I had bad luck in 2000. I made some choices that didn't work out. I guess some bad luck was that 9/11 happened. That was something I couldn't control, and it affected me deeply (as I used to work a few blocks from the WTC). I fell into a deep depression and several other things happened outside my control. But the good thing is that I was so used to looking for opportunities and making my own luck that I was able to see that my depression was the barrier to seeing opportunities and I was able to get myself the help I needed. I knew that the normal me saw opportunities everywhere, and if I couldn't find them, that's because something was wrong with my perception. And I was right. Once the Zoloft started kicking in, I started to see more clearly.

I've had an awful January, feeling down and making some bad (not really really bad, but bad enough I would change them if I could) choices. But I've been open to new possibilities, and I have a busy social schedule in February. I expect that the pendulum will swing the other way soon enough.

And it won't be luck. It will be me making that happen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Students Speak Up

Found an article on a local student-run survey of students and teachers in the Providence schools. Here's their web page.

When asked “I spend most of my time
in class working on dittos”, 83% of
students answered Always, Often, or

Data was similar for the question “I
spend most of my time in class
reading the textbook on my own”, with
71% of students answering Always,
Often, or Sometimes.

But did they ask how many students read the textbook before they come to class? Can you tell I'm having trouble with my classes not doing the reading again? ;)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Teaching Experience

How many courses have you taught?

I was reading Fish's column on "The Last Professor" and thinking about teaching experience. He observes that the corporate university gets rid of the experienced teachers and replaces them with inexperienced and/or adjuncts.

Anyway, that got me thinking about how many courses I've taught. I had to estimate: 3 per year in grad school. Two years of working as a writing consultant to the public policy program, so no classroom teaching. Then 2-4 courses per year while I was part-time then full-time running a tutoring program. 6 per year during my 1-year position. 2 per year during the two years I was part-time. And now in this job, I average 12 courses per year (though we have trimesters, so that number is slightly deceptive).

I counted 96 courses, and I'll hit 100 by the end of this academic year.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Unions, Tenure, Expertise, Outliers

Laura was posting on Gladwell's Outliers during Xmas break, so I read it and, like her, I was pretty underwhelmed. But I did find the concept of 10,000 hours of practice to be intriguing. Seeiming randomosity follows:

The Hudson River ditching (CNN videos).

Joy, via Deborah on If I Ran the Zoo.

Which reminded me of Doctor Who, "Everybody Lives!":

Pilot hero "Sully" Sullenberger:

"Chesley Sullenberger spent practically his whole life preparing for the five-minute crucible that was US Airways Flight 1549.

He got his pilot's license at 14, was named best aviator in his class at the Air Force Academy, flew fighter jets, investigated air disasters, mastered glider flying and even studied the psychology of how crews behave in a crisis.

Marcy/Emptywheel: "This miracle brought to you by America's unions"

Unions, whose job is to protect the workers they represent. Sometimes that involves financial issues/wages, and sometimes that involves insisting on safety regulations.

Gladwell on Outliers, quoting Daniel Levitin:

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

Tenure protects teachers who have experience. Maybe not quite that 10,000 hours yet, but tenure by its nature ensures that those who are practicing their profession have job security. (By the same token, we could argue that the very difficult training for future doctors also ensures they get a large number of hours of practice before they are allowed to be doctors.)

I'd favor lengthening the amount of time it takes to get tenure. But I'd also like to see some recognition that shiny brand new teachers are likely to, well, suck. It's not just about energy. It's about skills that you can hone only by doing the job for many hours, skills such as "withitness."