three things you should know (according to Dr. K) vol. 1

A few months ago, I read this post in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It was written by a professor at Cornell who, after years of lamenting how his students didn't get his pop culture references to things like Laurence of Arabia, started a weekly, half-hour meeting where he talks about three things worth knowing.  Naturally, this blew up among my acquaintances on facebook; everyone thought this was such a great idea, and yes! we're going to try to do this at my campus, etc.  I was among them of course, but then nothing happened. Well, I was determined not to let it die.  This has been an unusual summer for the Honors Program.  Our new admissions procedure resulted in our admitting more Summer B students than in years past; we thought we should try to engage these students now, rather than waiting for the fall.  Thus it was a perfect opportunity for me to try out this idea.

We scheduled Three Things You Should Know (According to Dr. K), for Thursday, July 21, at 4:00 p.m. in our big conference room.  We ordered pizza (it's too hot for English tea in July in Florida (and yes, I know what the British advise about hot liquids in hot weather, but I'm not buying it)) had some soft drinks, and experienced technical difficulties (the sound wouldn't work).  We invited students via email and by creating an event on facebook.  We also decided to stream it live on UStream.

So what were the inaugural three things?  I began with some poetry by Wallace Stevens; I read Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, The Sun This March, and The Emperor of Ice-cream.  The last of these leads naturally to the band They Might Be Giants, as they used a part of a line from the poem in their song Pencil Rain.  Rather than talking about TMBG, though (who I love), I was planning on using them to segue to a discussion of early 80s jangly pop.  TMBG name-checks the great Winston-Salem band, the dBs, in one of their songs (and the TMBG song Hypnotist of Ladies sounds very dBs), and since I am a Winston-Salem native I wanted to take the opportunity to tell the students about them, and their contemporaries in town, Let's Active.  Really, Let's Active was mostly the founder Mitch Easter, who operated Drive-In Studio in his parents' garage.  A very famous band recorded its first single and EP there; maybe you've heard of R.E.M. and their song Radio Free Europe.  Anyway, I created a playlist on Grooveshark getting from Pencil Rain to R.E.M.'s Wolves, Lower (from the Chronic Town EP recorded at Drive-In); listen closely to the dBs and Let's Active songs and note how they sound a lot like the early R.E.M.; this is clearly Mitch Easter's influence.


Finally, I couldn't resist doing some mathematics, so I talked about the different levels of infinity (countable and uncountable--there are others, of course, but this is a good place to start).  I showed the students how the number of whole numbers and the number of fractions is the same, but there are way more real numbers.

Overall, I was pleased at this first attempt.  The plan is for this to be a weekly event in the Honors Program, beginning the second week of classes.  I'll be sure to post links and topics as we move on.

stress days

Somehow, the first three weeks of this semester turned into a bit of a stressful time here in the UF Honors Program. I managed to schedule three public events in the span of ten days, followed by a recruiting trip to Miami. I'm happy to be back mundane things like nominating students for the Goldwater Scholarship and scheduling courses. On Sunday, January 9, we hosted a screening of the film Race to Nowhere at the Harn Museum of Art on campus.  This documentary explores the dark side of America's achievement culture (a topic I've written about in this blog) and sheds light on the unintended consequences of our increased demands on our children.  Let's put it this way:  if an adult spent 7 hours at work, 3 hours at an after-work sports practice, and then went home to work another 4 or 5 hours, we'd call that person a workaholic. But we routinely expect teenagers (and even younger kids) to do this and more so that they will be "competitive" for college and in life. 

I know what you're saying:  "Isn't the Honors Program part of the problem?"  Well, yes, in a way, and that's one reason I wanted to host this screening and have a public discussion about it.  I think it's important to set goals and work hard, but it's quite another to do so for its own sake, for the purpose of documenting it for some external body.  My own philosophy on Honors education (and college in general) is that it should be for those who want to fully engage in the environment; if you don't want to, that's fine--it's not a character flaw.  We had a solid turnout and a lively discussion following the film; I was proud to be able to bring this to the Gainesville community.

Two days later, on January 11, the Honors Program hosted Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, to deliver a public lecture.  This was originally scheduled for October 27, 2010, but thunderstorms in Atlanta conspired against us and we had to reschedule.  All incoming first-year Honors students received a copy of Dr. Sapolsky's book, A Primate's Memoir, during Preview.  This book is the story of his experiences living with a troop of baboons in Kenya and it gives readers a real sense of what a scientist's life is actually like (it's not all lab coats and grant proposals). 

Dr. Sapolsky's lecture was titled Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease, and Coping.  His work with baboons has revealed great insights into the effects that stress has on humans (we're not so different, we and the baboons), and his talk focused on this.  Over 600 people crowded the Rion Ballroom in the Reitz Union, and they were not disappointed.  Clear, concise, and funny, Dr. Sapolsky has a real gift for conveying complex ideas to an audience.  He answered questions for 40 minutes afterwards and signed every book put before him. 

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Dr. Robert Sapolsky"][/caption]

On Tuesday, January 18, we hosted Kathryn Schulz, author of the book Being Wrong. I am using this book as one of the texts in our (Un)Common Reading Program this semester. These are one-credit courses based around a single book; they range from Moneyball to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Ms. Schulz is a leading "wrongologist" who will speak about her work at this year's TED conference. She spoke about error, its place in our lives, and how our failure to accept it as natural leads to all sorts of problems for us. I chose Ms. Schulz's book because, as a former Honors student myself, I know all too well how our students are terrified of making mistakes. This fear usually fades with age (I'm much better than I used to be), but in our youth it can be very intense. In the extreme, it can cause us to play things much too safe, never taking risks that might pay huge dividends. I hope the attendees and Ms. Schulz's lecture gained some valuable perspective.

[caption id="attachment_153" align="aligncenter" width="199" caption="Kathryn Schulz"][/caption]

Now, back to those courses and fellowship applications...
(photos by Josh McLawhorn)

The Menger Sponge

[brightcove vid=704923037001&exp3=111623825001&surl=,AAAAABGMt5Y~,W3tqT-mQ0BMX4lJgptCx-Scx7UJTATnN&w=300&h=225] My honors origami class assembled on Thursday, December 9, 2010, to complete the construction of the final class project: a third-level approximation of a Menger sponge. Each person was responsible for building their own Level 2 sponge; that takes 2400 business cards. We then took 20 of these and put them together to form the big cube. The end result is made from 48,000 cards, weighs 150 lbs, and is 4 1/2 feet on a side. Surprisingly, it only took a little over an hour to do the final assembly. I built the wheeled wooden platform it rests upon and it's on display in the lobby of the Marston Science Library on the UF campus.

I'm very proud of my class. They worked hard on this, and it shows.

Thanks to the Gainesville Sun for the video. Thanks also to the folks at Marston, especially Amy Buhler and Margeaux Johnson, for their help.

A New Year

It's been nearly six months since I posted to this blog, so I thought that late Friday afternoon would be a good time to bring everyone up to date on the happenings in the UF Honors Program.  The big news from the summer is that we moved our offices.  Our suite in Hume Hall was nice, but we are happy in our new home on the third floor of the Infirmary (Honors is in the "Nurses' Wing").  We are joined there by the new UF Center for Undergraduate Research, HHMI Science for Life, the McNair Scholars Program, and SEAGEP.  Please stop by when you get the chance. 

[caption id="attachment_110" align="alignleft" width="261" caption="The Nurses' Wing of the Infirmary"][/caption]

The question we get all the time is "What is happening to the old space?"  Well, glad you asked.  It is being converted into a study lounge for the residents of Hume and others in the Honors Program.  It will contain two small group study rooms, a conference room for student group use, and many comfortable chairs (like the ones in Library West) for individual quiet study.  The renovations are underway, and we hope to have the new space ready in time for fall semester exams.  Also, in collaboration with Dean Judy Russell of the UF Libraries, we will begin a pilot program to have a reference librarian on duty in the new study space three nights per week.  Most students, having grown up with Google, think they don't need a librarian, but I assure you that a good librarian (and UF has some of the best around) is an invaluable resource when it is time to write papers or perform literature searches.  I am excited about this new project. 

During Preview this summer, incoming first-year Honors students received a copy of A Primate's Memoir, by Dr. 

Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky, a biologist at Stanford.  Dr. Sapolsky studies stress and its effects on the body and our health; he is a recipient of a Macarthur Foundation "Genius Grant" among other honors.  He will be our guest for a public lecture on Wednesday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m. in the Rion Ballroom in the J. Wayne Reitz Union.  This is free and open to the public; I hope you will join us.


From the less serious side of things:  we had the Sweet Dreams Fire Truck at Hume to celebrate the end of the first week of classes.  The first 300 students to show up got a scoop of Gainesville's finest ice cream, courtesy of the Honors Program. 

[caption id="attachment_112" align="alignright" width="249" caption="Ice Cream!"][/caption]

We are grateful to the parents and friends of the Honors Program who support activities like this through their contributions to our Parents' Fund.
Finally, in the totally frivolous category, I was on Jeopardy! on Wednesday, September 15.  I did not win, as I ran into Roger Craig who had set the single-day scoring record of $77,000 in the previous show.  I had a good time, though, and made some friends in the process (Roger is a fellow Virginia Tech grad, as it turns out).  Just to prove I'm not making this up:

[caption id="attachment_114" align="alignleft" width="292" caption="Alex and Dr. K"][/caption]

 I hope everyone's semester is off to a good start.  Please stop by our new offices and say hello. 

the more things change...

From the "What may you expect to 'get' from the program?" section of the UF Honors Program Student Handbook, 1985 edition (recently uncovered in some boxes in storage): "Perhaps more important, however, are the less tangible benefits.  In the long run the most lasting reward for an Honors student may be the satisfaction of having studied with excellent professors, having been stimulated by the best students who have been your associates both in and out of class, and having met and overcome intellectual challenges."

The more things change, the more things stay the same...

To me, the passage above is exactly why one should want to be in the Honors Program.  For the atmosphere.  For the intellectual engagement.  For the opportunities the staff can help you find and take advantage of.  Not because you've "always been an honors student" or because you think it will look good.

It's Preview time on campus, which means that about 6000 new students are invading Gainesville to register for classes, get their university common reading program books, have their Gator 1 cards made; you know, all the fun stuff you do at summer orientation.  The incoming Honors students are put into one cohort, and at 9:30 a.m. on each session's day 1, I walk over to the Union with one of the program's advisors to give some words of welcome.  I never plan these, and their tone varies depending on how much coffee I may or may not have had or by how angry I am at the local school board's decision to implement a uniform policy (and that's all I have to say about that).

Anyway, being a little uniform-angry and caffeine-deprived this morning, my remarks took a slightly darker tone.  I asked the assembled group why they were coming to college.  Blank stares.  Really, no good reasons?  One student said to get out of her parents' house.  That's fine; I understand that reason.  So I launched into my philosophy of why one should go to college, and before I knew it I was exhorting them to not go through the experience with blinders on, narrowly focused on maintaining that perfect GPA so they can get into medical school.  I found myself talking about failure a lot, and how they shouldn't be afraid of making a mistake once in a while, and that perhaps they might be better positioned for life and professional/graduate school with a well-rounded 3.8 rather than a standard narrow pre-med 4.0.  I spoke about taking some intellectual risks and stepping outside comfort zones and visiting the art museum.  And as I walked back to Hume I couldn't help thinking that while I meant everything I said, that maybe it was a little confusing.

When I began graduate school, the math department at Duke was implementing a new kind of calculus course.  It involved a lot of project-based work in which students would have to write lab reports (like a chemistry lab).  I was a TA for this my first semester, and I discovered that the students hated it.  I don't think it was a bad idea, but it was just completely foreign to them.  They were not at all used to learning mathematics this way and so they resisted, at least passively.  The truth is that I found it weird, too, and I think it came through in my teaching style.  I only lasted one semester as a TA for that course; I got moved over to the more traditional courses in the spring.

So I think my spiel this morning was a bit like that calculus experience.  Today's students are molded into a certain mode of thinking, one of constant achievement and documentation of said achievement.  Suggesting to them that maybe they shouldn't worry so much about those types of measures is completely foreign to them, and as I've pondered this all day I wonder if I wasn't making a mistake with my pontifications.

But then I remembered that there were a few smiles in the room, and as a professor (which is what I am in the end) I've learned that's the best you can hope for.  So, come next Monday, it's once more unto the breach.  I'll never get the message across if I don't keep putting it out there.

what i said at the Phi Beta Kappa induction

Good evening. I'm honored to be speaking to you today as you join us in our nation's oldest and most distinguished honor society. You are the newest chapter in Phi Beta Kappa's 233-year history; welcome. You've no doubt noticed that the University of Florida's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa is the Beta of Florida. The Alpha belongs to our friends up the road in Tallahassee, and that dates back to their history as the women's college in the state. Without a doubt, they will never let you forget it, and I feel your pain. I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Virginia Tech, which, like UF, is the land grant institution (aka "Cow College") in Virginia. Now, since this honor society began in Virginia, at the College of William and Mary, back in 1776, it's natural that there would be many chapters there. That's true, and the University of Virginia received its chapter long before Tech, but to make matters worse, Tech's chapter is the Mu of Virginia. A cow college with the mu chapter. Certainly an excellent joke on us.

As director of the Honors Program at the university, I've become familiar with all sorts of honor societies, both at the university and high school level. Some are well-known, others obscure; some legitimate, others less so. It seems that there's an honor society for eveything these days, and our nation's culture is drifting toward one in which everyone is honored in some way. Once upon a time, just about the only pre-college honor society was the National Honor Society, of which I'm sure most of you were members. Well, now there's the National Junior Honor Society for middle school students, and I was shocked to discover recently that there is now the National Elementary Honor Society. I don't really remember what I was doing when I was eight years old, but I'm pretty sure it did not involve padding my resume with memberships in specious honor societies.

There are at least two things wrong with this trend, in my view. The first always reminds me of the Pixar film, The Incredibles. There's a scene in which the son, Dash, who has the power of super speed, has gotten in trouble in school as a result of using his abilities. His mother is admonishing him in the car on the way home, and at one point tells him, "Everyone's special, Dash," to which he responds, "Which is just another way of saying nobody is." Well, they are both right of course, but Dash hits it on the head. As I review applications for the Honors Program or some of our scholarship programs, I see lists of credentials and honors as long as my arm, and the fact is that it is rather difficult to distinguish one student from another. Each of these students is special, but we've obscured that with the sheer quantity of honors we shower on them.

But that's not the real problem with the proliferation of honors in our society. The truly insidious part of all of this is that it is a symptom of a bigger issue in our culture, what I call the culture of striving, of making achievements ends in themselves for the purpose of documentation. And that's what I want to talk to you about today. I hope to persuade you not to strive, but, rather, to live.

Now, I don't mean that you shouldn't be successful. It's entirely natural to want a certain level of professional satisfaction and material comfort. We all want to have a job we like, a nice home, a loving family, etc., and there's absolutely nothing wrong with working hard to achieve those things. I do it, too. But you shouldn't become a slave to it, nor should you do it to please your family or impress your neighbors.

At this point, I'd like to have an interlude in which I read you a poem. This may seem strange coming from a mathematician, but I'd like to think I embody at least some of the liberal arts spirit that Phi Beta Kappa celebrates. It's called The Summer Day, and it was written by Mary Oliver, one of the greatest living American poets.

Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean--- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I shared that with you for a couple of reasons. First, it's just a beautiful poem, and I rarely make it to the end without choking up, and I'm a firm believer that we all need a minute or two of beauty in our daily lives. But it also has a didactic purpose---its central theme is that perhaps the most important thing you can do in your life is to pay attention. Not to mundane things like watching the road when you drive and keeping your checkbook balanced (I only do one of those, by the way), but to the smaller, more intimate places in your life.

It's not meant to be interpreted literally. I don't think you should spend everyday "idle and blessed,""strolling through the fields" (although you should do that once in awhile). The grasshopper is a metaphor for the small, quotidian items that are easily pushed aside, especially if you are too engrossed in your pursuits to stop and notice those common things that make life truly worth living---a cool breeze, the smell of gardenias in the spring, the gentle touch of your spouse as you both struggle to wake up in the morning. The poet reminds us that life is short and exhorts us to figure out what we want to do with our brief time on this planet.

Our current focus on success, on competing in the new millenium, is, in many ways, the antithesis of this message. The last three decades have ushered in a new era of every-man-for-himself, win-at-all-costs individualism, in which success and failure are measured by how much money we make, how many things we obtain, how many honors we garner. This is as old as civilization, of course, but never in history have things been so quantified. We reduce our children to test scores and numbers of community service hours performed, and judge them (and their teachers) successes or failures as a result. We discourage risk-taking, focusing instead on training people to find the "right" answer. We all but force them to strive, rather than to live and learn and explore and mature.

Again, let me say that I am not suggesting that you not work hard. Accomplishing anything takes hard work; talent is the easy part. But what I am suggesting is that you stop trying to succeed, that you not make success the focus of what you do. Rather, pursue the things you love, work hard to hone your talents and to put them to good use, and a good life will likely follow. No guarantees, of course, but a pretty high probability. But setting out to be a "success" will always leave you unfulfilled because you'll never be enough of one to satisfy you.

The capital T-truth (I borrowed that from the late David Foster Wallace, who was a really good example of what I'm talking about) is that in your adult lives you will find it all too easy to slip into a mode of striving. You'll be in graduate or professional school, or working in your first job, and if you are not careful your desire to achieve will consume you. Being products of the modern American educational system, most of you slip into this mode by default. We've been setting up hoops for you to jump through since you were in pre-school, and you're all quite adept at it by now. And since we've given you trophies and ribbons and accolades every time you made it through, whether it was a ring of fire or not, you've grown accustomed to praise, and, like all human beings throughout history, you like it.

But here's the rub: the real world doesn't actually work that way. Many of your future achievements will go unnoticed, viewed simply as you doing your job. In all likelihood you will, at some point in your life, work really hard for something and not get it. If you view this as failure, if you are too wrapped up in it, if your sense of self-worth relies on the successes and the associated accolades, then you will be doomed to a long life of frustration.

If, instead, you make your focus the simple act of living, of getting up in the morning with the intent to give it your best shot, to work hard at the thing you love, without worrying about success at the end of it, then I promise you that Thoreau's prophecy will come true: "If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

So I will repeat Mary Oliver's question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Will you strive, or live?

You did not earn an invitation to Phi Beta Kappa because you strove for one. That is my favorite thing about this honor society---it is almost impossible to try to become a member. It happens because you are a well-rounded student of the liberal arts, one who appreciates math, science, history, literature, and language. You are being inducted into this group because you have the capacity to pay attention to a broad range of things, including those things that often go unnoticed. So I am optimistic that you will choose to live.

Again, congratulations, and to borrow once more from David Foster Wallace: I wish you way more than luck.

what i said at visitation day

Good morning. I am Dr. Kevin Knudson and I'm the director of the University of Florida Honors Program. On behalf of the students and staff of the program I would like to welcome you to UF. I tend to wring my hands over speaking in public, not because I'm nervous about getting up in front of a crowd, but because I want to say something substantial. So forgive me if this is a little heavier than you were expecting; maybe I'll tell you a joke at the end.

I'm here today to tell you some things about the program and my general philosophy of honors education. I am a graduate of an honors program and as a professor I've been involved with honors for most of my career, first as an instructor at several institutions, then as an associate director at my previous university, and now as the director here at UF. I've seen a lot of changes in honors over the last 20 years, but the core principles remain the same.

I am a mathematician, which by default means that I love numbers and algorithms and things that can be quantified. As the director of a program that chooses students based on various numerical data---SAT, ACT, numbers of AP or IB courses, GPA (way too many acronyms here)---I can easily get absorbed in studying the numbers, looking at averages, developing algorithms to reduce an application to a single number that can be put on a list and ordered. After all, that is what mathematicians do; we look for order where it isn't always apparent.

But I am also a poet. Not good enough to quit my day job, or even to devote too much time to it, but it lingers in the background. It's this side of me that wants to cast aside all the data and ignore the lists of credentials as long as my arm, and curl up with some essays in an attempt to figure out what makes our potential students tick, to read between the lines of data to find the essence underneath. As proud as you should be of all your accomplishments so far, they are not what you are; not even close.

So much of our educational system today is tied to quantitative measurements of so-called student achievement. What this usually comes down to is tracking how well students perform on certain standardized tests and labeling schools and teachers as succeeding or failing based on the results. I don't disagree that it's important to keep track of these things. Tests can be a useful piece of information when trying to find order in the complicated system of education. I suppose it's not completely illogical to hold schools accountable if the majority of their students fail these competency tests. But the unintended consequence of this, as we are all becoming painfully aware, is that students are taught to pass the test. Some students are better at this than others. Every student in this room is quite adept at passing tests; indeed, it's one reason you were invited here today. You've successfully jumped through every hoop put before you.

The Honors Program is not a series of hoops. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it is the antithesis of that. A modern university education requires certain cold algorithmic activities. During your time at UF you will become intimately familiar with terms like "universal tracking" and become quite adept at navigating what is sometimes a rather complicated place. You will probably spend a great deal of time thinking about your GPA and figuring out ways to make yourself more competitive for graduate or professional school. You will wonder if you're doing all the right things because, frankly, the educational system has led you to believe that's the only way to proceed.

But I'd like to think there's another way to approach your four years in college, some poetry to offset the mathematics, and that's what the Honors Program is about. An honors student comes to college to take an education, not to receive a schooling. To do this, you must open your mind to the endless possibilities in the world around you. Don't treat college like a vocational school with a job waiting at the end. Don't treat each class simply as a collection of facts to be memorized, regurgitated, and forgotten; think about how each builds on the ones that came before it. Ask questions. Challenge unproven theories if you think you have a better one (but make sure you can back yours up with real evidence).

You also need to learn to sit still and quietly ponder. Watch a spider make its web, and not just for five minutes. Take an hour. Notice the precision with which she works, the way she formulates a plan and follows it through to the end like her life depends on it (because it does).  Spend a whole morning on your next trip to the beach looking for shells. Not the big, obvious cockles, but the small, colorful spirals of snail shell that you find only after sifting through handfuls of sand. Hike up a mountain (or in Florida, a hill), and when you get to the top sit down and listen to the wind blow. And while you're doing so, give yourself permission to think about nothing at all. That's important, too.

So how does the Honors Program help you with this? In the classroom, we offer you smaller, more intimate classes with some of the best faculty at UF. Some of these are fairly standard---calculus, physics, etc.---but others are on specialized or interdisciplinary topics you won't find anywhere else on campus. You will be challenged to think and push your intellectual boundaries. Socially, we provide you the opportunity to live in the Honors residential college in Hume Hall. It's the newest and nicest dorm on campus, and the Student Honors Organization sponsors all kinds of activities and service opportunities. You will be surrounded by people who want to engage fully in their educations, and I promise you their enthusiasm will rub off on you. In terms of academic support, you will have access to our exceptional staff of advisors in addition to your major department or college advisor. You can drop by in the afternoons or make an appointment to talk to someone about just about anything; we handle everything from solving scheduling problems to helping you navigate your existential crises. And when it's time to think about the future and internships and graduate school, we can help with that, too. Never be afraid to come and talk to us about an idea that you think might sound crazy or impossible to achieve. You will most likely be met with the response I heard from my honors advisors as an undergraduate: "Why the hell not?"

I'm often asked, "What will I get from Honors?"  The best answer I have for you can be summed up in one word: opportunity. That is what we have to give: opportunity to learn, grow, and mature. But it is up to you to take it.

That's all I wanted to say today. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.

reader mail

So, I got an email from an 8th grader.  I'm not sure how I feel about this since I think that's a little early to be researching college options with any real seriousness.  It also reinforces my burgeoning manifesto-in-preparation that we're putting too much downward pressure on the whole system.  That is, with the emergence of pre-IB programs in middle schools, how much longer will it be before we have pre-pre-IB programs in elementary schools, and then the inevitable pre-pre-pre-IB track in daycare?  We were joking about this in the office; the young children of the staff need to get enrolled in preschool AP A-B-C's class to get ahead of the game. All joking aside, though, I thought I'd share this email and my response.  Actually, I've decided not to include the actual message at all for privacy reasons, but I'll summarize.  The actual note was quite sweet.

From: xxxxxxxxxxx Sent: Tuesday, March 02, 2010 12:10 AM To: Knudson,Kevin P Subject: Question from Middle School Student

Dr. Knudson,

    Hello.  I'm in the 8th grade at a school in another state, but I am a huge UF fan and am really interested in attending.  I'm involved in multiple sports and clubs at my school, and I'm taking all honors courses now.  I've signed up for all honors courses in high school next year, and my past experiences have made me ready to handle all the stresses of my curriculum.

I'd like some advice on what I should focus on in high school to be ready for college.  I'm thinking of majoring in journalism.  Any tips would be appreciated.



And here's my response:

Dear xxxxxxxxxxx, 

Since you’re sending me emails after midnight on a school night, I’d say my first piece of advice is to get more sleep.

In all seriousness, though, I’m glad to know that you’re thinking about college and trying to make some preparations.  These are big decisions.  The University of Florida is a very good university, and in a few years when you’re applying to colleges I encourage you to take a long look at UF.  But there are also some very good universities in your own state, and the surrounding ones, and even in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and I suggest you keep your options open for now.  You have some time to figure out which place is right for you.  Visit some universities in the next couple of years.  Check out some colleges’ sites on the internet.  Talk to your parents about it.

It sounds like you’re a serious student with good time-management skills.  That is probably the best indicator of future success.  I’m sure that if you keep pushing yourself academically by taking a challenging, but not burdensome, curriculum you’ll be in good shape.  As for specific courses, I’ll leave that judgment to you and your advisors.  It’s true that students are taking more and more AP courses these days, but don’t take them just for the sake of taking them, just to add another line to your resume.  It might sound strange coming from the director of an honors program at a major university, but I am wary of students who have too many honors.  It seems disingenuous. 

My primary piece of advice is this:  figure out what it is you love and pursue it with everything you have.  Talent is the easy part; it’s as common as dirt.  Success comes from taking that talent and honing it through practice.  You say you have a passion for writing.  Do you do it every day?  Not for school, but just to do it?  Do you read a lot?  Which writers do you admire?  What sort of writing do you want to do?  Even in the field of journalism there are many options---investigative, special interests, etc.  Think about these things and find your answers.  The rest will take care of itself.

But most importantly, take time to still be a teenager.  Since you’re in 8th grade, you’re just 13 or 14 years old.  As important as it is to think about your future, it’s just as important to live in the now.  Spend time with your family and friends.  Continue to play sports and develop your hobbies.  Remember that you’re still a kid, and you have time to figure it all out.  Don’t stress yourself out now---you’ll have your entire adult life for that.

If my calculations are correct (and I hope they are since I’m a mathematician), you’ll be entering college in the fall of 2014.  At that point I’ll be entering my 6th year as director of the UF Honors Program.  Maybe our paths will cross.

Good luck.

Dr. K

I've been reading scholarship applications lately.  Lists of credentials as long as my arm.  AP Biology in the 9th grade.  Really?  That seems a little early to me.  If the course is truly the equivalent of a college biology course, then there's no way the typical 14-year-old should be able to do really well.

Ah, you're going to say to me, "Well, we're not talking about typical 14-year-olds here.  These are honors students."  True enough, but I have some interesting data for you.  The president of the Mathematical Association of America, David Bressoud, was at UF a couple of weeks ago talking about preparation and participation in college mathematics.  It was an interesting talk, and I won't tell you the whole story (if you'd like to see the slides, you may retrieve them here).  But here's one point that stood out to me:  In 1982, 5.1% of American high school students were taking calculus in high school.  I'd say that's pretty accurate.  When I took calculus my senior year (1986-7) in Winston-Salem, NC, there were only about 150 students in the entire county (about 3000 seniors) taking the course.  In fact, it wasn't offered at the eight individual schools; we had to drive to a central location to take the class.  Twenty-five years later, in 2007, the percentage nationwide was up to over 15%.  As one of my colleagues in the math department put it, it's not as if the gene pool has gotten that much stronger in those 25 years, so what's going on? (One further comment on the percentages:  the population of the U.S. grew substantially in those years, so the absolute number of students taking calculus in high school has really gone up.)

There are at least two things going on.  First, No Child Left Behind has made American education a race to the bottom.  Teachers have to spend the bulk of their time preparing students to pass the mandated standardized tests.  I don't blame them for this; it's what the law requires and school funding is based heavily on student performance on these rather arbitrary assessments.  Moreover, the administrative tasks associated with teaching are expanding exponentially (my sister-in-law could fill you in on that), forcing teachers to spend too much of their time verifying that they are teaching (rather than actually teaching).  Really, it's remarkable that our kids have time to learn anything, and I'm grateful for the hard work most K-12 teachers put into their jobs.  I've certainly been pleased with my son's teachers here in Gainesville.

One unintended consequence of this is that students at the upper end of the achievement spectrum are often left twiddling their thumbs.  This creates a need for honors and AP courses as a mechanism to keep them from getting bored.  That's fine, and it's not new.  I was in these classes all the way back in the early 80s, although, again, back then there was one such class in each grade level in the entire school (and in elementary school I had to be bussed out of my assigned district to get to a school which had the class).  It's much bigger now, and I think it is at least partially attibutable to the lowering of the bar that must go on to comply with NCLB.  Again, one must ask:  is the gene pool really that much stronger now?  Are students really that much smarter?

I don't think so.  The real problem, it seems to me, is that we've trained students to seek credentials.  We teach them how to take tests and reward them for doing well.  We've told them that they should work hard and take the most challenging curriculum available and take as many AP courses as possible to show college admissions officers just how worthy they are.  At first this comes off as just simple encouragement, but eventually it becomes a competition, and an unhealthy one at that.  So of course more students are going to take more AP courses, whether they're really ready for them or not.  Having taught college students for nearly 20 years, I can claim confidently that at least half the students I encounter show up ill-prepared for college calculus.  Most of these students will tell me that they took the course in high school.  So there's a serious disconnect.

The College Board is not blameless in this either.  When I was in high school in the 80s, there were only a handful of AP courses available---calculus, American history, European history, physics, chemistry, biology, English language, and English literature.  There may have been a couple more.  Now we see things like AP human geography and AP psychology.  Why?  Is it really essential for a high school student to study psychology?  Add to that the new designations the College Board hand out, like "AP Scholar with Distinction," which I think means getting a score of 3 or better on 3 exams.  Is that really something to trumpet?  I did that, but I didn't get a certificate for it (nor do I think it's necessary). 

There has been a massive proliferation of "honor societies" at the high school and college level.  Aside from the standard National Honor Society, it seems that just about every discipline now has its own National Honor Society to go along with it:  Spanish, French, Latin, Art,...  There's Mu Alpha Theta (for mathematics).  What do these mean?  Why do they exist?  I think I was in the Spanish National Honor Society in high school, but I cannot remember a single meeting or activity.  Which is not to say that individual chapters of these organizations at particular schools aren't active, but I'm dubious at best.

I'm reminded of what is, in my opinion, the best Pixar film, The Incredibles.  At one point, Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl) is in the car with her son, Dash (super speedy), and she tells him that "everyone is special."  Dash replies, "Which is just another way of saying no one is."  So by creating all these honors, we've leveled the playing field in the sense that it makes it pretty difficult to pick out the really exceptional people.  Plus, so many of them seem vacuous.  Here's a humorous take on it.

So as I'm reading applications I have to look for the nuances.  What's interesting about this person?  Are they just gathering accolades for the sake of it?  Luckily, there are essays attached, and that often says a lot more than a list of credentials.  It's not easy.  Wish me luck.

Dr. K goes to China

I took a week-long trip to China with a few of my colleagues at the University of Florida in mid-January.  The group was headed by Dr. David Sammons, Dean of the UF International Center, and we went to discuss various issues of interest to the University---exchange programs, technology licensing, developing training modules for Chinese officials and businessmen.  UF has an office in Beijing, and we based our visit there.  We also took an overnight trip to Yingkou to sign a cooperative agreement between the University and the city.  It was exhilirating, fascinating, and exhausting. Day 1.  We left the Gainesville airport, bound for Atlanta, at 7:00 a.m. on January 13.  I'm not a nervous traveler, but I hardly slept the night before, out of anxiousness more than anything.  I fell asleep on the plane.  We had a three-hour layover in ATL, which was uneventful (of course).  We were waiting on Korean Air 36 to take us to Seoul on a 747.  About an hour before boarding, like something out of the glamorous days of 1960s air travel (if those ever existed), a phalanx of Korean flight attendants clad in silk robin egg blue blouses with matching scarves tied around their necks swept through the terminal, ready for duty.  They gathered in a circle to discuss their responsibilities and went on board to get things prepared.

The flight was uneventful, and interminable.  It's fifteen hours from ATL to ICN.  I will say this about Korean Air:  it is the nicest airline I've ever flown.  There was sufficient legroom (in coach!), something I'm unaccustomed to at 6' 2".  The food was excellent (Bibimbap for lunch!); the in-flight personal entertainment system had more than enough movies to keep me occupied (I watched Extract and 9 (the animated movie, not the musical)). 

After a dazed, sleepy, two-hour layover in Seoul, we took the two-hour flight to Beijing, arriving at 8:20 p.m. on Thursday, January 14.  After clearing customs and getting to our hotel (the Beijing Friendship Hotel), we finally got to our rooms around 10:30 p.m.  All I could do is go to bed.

Day 2.  Beijing gets into your lungs.  From your hotel window you can see the haze of pollution, sometimes so thick you can't see 100 yards. And this is in January.  I was told that summer days are worse, the smog so thick you can barely see the sun.  As you leave the hotel lobby and venture outside you feel the sting in your nostrils.  Sometimes you can smell it, too. 

Parts of town are sleek and modern; others are dilapidated remnants of old Soviet influence.  Glittery shopping malls with Western brands  (and Western prices to match) stand in stark contrast to the run-down offices and apartment buildings.  Cars clog the streets, jockeying for position, defying rules of traffic etiquette, and rarely crashing.  Pedestrians do not have the right of way and crossing the street becomes a life-threatening activity. 

On the other hand, the subway is clean and easy to navigate.  The one-way fare from any point in the system to any other (except the airport) is only 2 RMB (that's less than 30 cents).  Taxis are incredibly cheap---fare to the airport was about 100 RMB (15 dollars); an equivalent trip in the U.S. would have cost at least $50.  Hotels are the same---our five star hotel cost about $110 per night (including breakfast), about a third of what a similar place would run at home.

And the food, abundant and cheap, is incredible.  Chinese food in the U.S. is ok, but it's heavy-handed, designed for American palates.  The real deal is much more subtle.  Everywhere we went we were treated to fantastic feasts.

Our first day in Beijing (Friday) started with a visit to the University of International Business & Economics.  We discussed exchange programs, and also their interest in tapping UF's expertise in Latin America.  China has increased its activities in the region in recent years, and they need as much information about the business climate as they can get.  This was discussed in more detail during our afternoon meeting at CCPIT (China Council for the Promotion of International Trade).  We were all getting sleepy by that point (jetlag), so my most vivid memory of the visit was the meeting room itself.  Very formal, with two chairs at one end for the heads of the delegations (Dr. Sammons in our case) and rows of chairs on either side for everyone else.  Tea is always served at any meeting in China, with someone coming in every few minutes with additional pots of hot water to recharge your brew (aside:  I'm not a tea drinker, but I do like the green tea they serve most places in China; I even brought some home for my wife).  From CCPIT we went to the airport for our side trip to Yingkou.

[caption id="attachment_67" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Dr. K talking about Honors at UIBE"][/caption]

(Additional remark about the day:  we ate lunch back at our hotel, in a TGI Friday's.  You heard me.  I don't even eat there in the U.S., and there I was having a bacon cheeseburger and fries at one in Beijing.  It was convenient; we're not proud of it.)

We flew China Southern airlines from Beijing to Dalian (a one-hour flight), where we were met at the airport by a representative of the Yingkou foreign affairs office.  He had brought a van for the two-hour (!) drive to Yingkou.  I fell asleep on the ride through the dark, deserted countryside.  We finally arrived at our hotel around 11:00 p.m., and our escort had been kind enough to phone ahead to the hotel to have some dumplings ready to be sent to our rooms.

Day 3. Yingkou.  After breakfast at the hotel (excellent), we were taken on a quick tour of the new industrial zone in the city.  I'll say this for China:  they think big.  They decide to develop an area and they do it, no wasting time.  It's still mostly empty fields, but at the local development agency, they have a scale model of how it will all look, along with a 3-D movie presentation showing how awesome life will be for everyone who lives there.  The model fashions the city into a new Seattle.  Maybe.  Here's the view from my hotel room:

[caption id="attachment_69" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Yingkou, as seen from my hotel"][/caption]

The pollution is pretty bad.  Smokestacks belch filth into the sky (thanks, Sting).  The wide, Soviet-style boulevards are lightly traveled (in contrast with Beijing, where traffic is awful).  We were taken to city hall for our meeting with the director of the science and technology bureau, a young, dynamic man with big plans for turning the city into an industrial hub.  After that, we went to the city's formal meeting room, where Dr. Sammons signed a cooperative agreement between UF and the city.  Exchanging of gifts followed (this happens at every meeting in China; I got lots of swag).  Then lunch back at our hotel.

A formal Chinese lunch is a strange affair.  Everyone sits around a big circular table equipped with a large glass lazy susan on which the wait staff place the food.  There's lots of toasting.  I'm not used to drinking at lunch, so I took it easy, but after a few toasts it does take effect.  The food was incredible; I can't remember everything I ate, but I will say that you should imagine the best Chinese food you've had in the U.S., and then think of something 10 times better. 

After lunch we visited a solar panel manufacturing plant. One of our colleagues is an engineer who has invented a new technology for increasing efficiency of this process, and so there's a real licensing possibility there.  From there, we drove back to Dalian for our flight back to Beijing.  Excellent noodles at the airport snack bar.  Back to the hotel in Beijing.  In bed at a reasonable hour for a change.

Day 4. Sunday.  We took a day trip to Tianjin, about 120 km from Beijing, to visit Florida International University's campus at the Tianjin University of Commerce.  This used to be a two-hour train ride, but not anymore:

This modern bullet train travels at over 210 mph, making the trip from Beijing to Tianjin in 30 minutes.  A first-class ticket costs 69 RMB (about $10) each way.  The seats are comfortable, the ride is smooth, and you can have all the bottled spring water you want. 

Our meeting with the FIU folks was interesting.  The university has set up a program in hospitality management there, in cooperation with TUC.  FIU faculty go over to teach for a couple of months at a time, and TUC splits the tuition with FIU.  Everyone seems happy with the arrangement.  After our meeting, we were again treated to lunch at a very nice restaurant by the university's Party Secretary.  It's easy to forget that China is an authoritarian state when you're just going about your business.  But then you try to open up facebook on your laptop, or google "communism", or watch a video on youtube, and you're snapped into reality in a hurry.

After our train ride back to Beijing, we were all wiped out and still full from lunch.  For once, we were in our rooms by 8:00 p.m.  I watched a little Chinese TV (believe it or not, kung fu movies and their version of MTV), and went to bed.

Day 5.  In the morning, we visited the China Scholarship Council to discuss ways to get more excellent Chinese students to UF.  Pleasant conversation, and I scored a very nice tie, too.  They have tons of money to support their students; are you listening Congress?

[caption id="attachment_72" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="UF visits the China Scholarship Council office"][/caption]

The afternoon was actually free for me.  Dr. Sammons had some business to attend to regarding the logistics of the UF center in Beijing, so I and a couple of my colleagues took the opportunity to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  We had to pass through security to get onto the Square; I guess the government doesn't want anything to happen there again.  There are barricades all around it, so you can't just walk onto it from the street without meeting a guard.  There are security cameras on every pole, pointing in every direction.  My colleague, who is Chinese, was a little melancholy about it.  He told me that most Chinese citizens have more or less forgotten the 1989 uprising since their lives have improved dramatically since then.  I guess Marx was right after all: the government just needs to give the masses an opiate (religion in Marx's time, money and entertainment in ours).

The Forbidden City is way too big to see in a couple of hours.  It's all the more impressive when you realize it was built in 15 years in the early 1400s.  Every building is ornate, filled with thrones and lavish living quarters.  Of course, that's tempered by the huge portrait of Chairman Mao on the front:

The temperature dropped while we were there so that by the end of the visit, we were chilled to the bone.  We took a taxi back to the China Agriculture University (where UF's office is located), and had dinner at the swanky hotel adjacent to campus.  Righteous Peking duck, among other delicacies.

Day 6. The penultimate day began with a visit to the Beijing Foreign Studies University, China's top language school.  Over 370 alumni have gone on to be ambassadors.  They've recently added international business to their curriculum, and are turning out exceptional graduates.  We discussed exchange programs, Latin American training programs, etc.  A very fruitful conversation.

The rest of the day was consumed with getting ready to leave---checking out of our hotel and traveling to the airport.  We left Beijing at 9:20 p.m., bound for Seoul, arriving after midnight.  We checked into a hotel near the airport, ready for the return flight to Atlanta.

Day 7. As long as the first day.  Flight from ICN to ATL only takes 13 1/2 hours instead of 15, but it's still way too long to sit in one place.  Two more movies.  As much reading as I could take.  Lots of music listening.  But mostly anticipation for being home.  A week is a long time to be gone anymore.  I miss my family after a couple of days. 

Overall, a really good trip.  I learned a lot about higher education in China, and I hope to expand opportunities for UF students to visit there in the future.  I think this was one area where Richard Nixon got it right:  we ignore China at our peril.  Plus, it's a nice place to visit.

academic rhythms

I never left school, not really.  I went off to Winchester Elementary in Memphis in 1975, passed through ten schools in two states over the next 12 years, and followed that up with college, graduate school, postdoc, and now third tenure-track job.  For me, new year's day is in late August.  Late December/early January is a time to relax the mind and recharge. As a member of the regular faculty for all those years, I became used to staying at home once exams and grading were done.  Any work that needed doing could be accomplished just as well at home in my pajamas (note: I don't really wear pajamas; I was just going for a good cliche/metaphor).  The quiet, lonely corridors of the math department are no place to be this time of year.

Now as exams are winding down, students are leaving, and faculty are disappearing, I'm at the office.  I like my role as an administrator, but this week is making me nostalgic for my old life.  Next week will be worse, I'm sure, as the university will still be open.  I've never been a fan of the 9 to 5, an opinion reinforced by those summer jobs I endured in high school and college.  That's one of the reasons I went into academia (not the main one, but it is nice not to be chained to a desk).

Old habits are hard to break.  Stopping nail-biting is one thing, but convincing yourself that decades-old behavior patterns are no longer to be followed is tricky business.  Thirty-five years of the same rhythm makes for a very nice comfortable rut, and it's not easy to get the wagon out of it. So I guess I'll just have to develop new routines.

Barring some earth-shattering topic coming up that compels me to blog, this is likely the last entry for this year.  Thanks for reading, happy holidays, and I'll see you in the new year.

weird viruses, football, end of the term, etc.

My apologies for the radio silence.  I've had a strange couple of weeks.  Just as I was getting over the cold I picked up on my D.C. trip I came down with a very strange virus.  It started with chills, but no fever.  And I mean chills.  My teeth were chattering, but the thermometer read 97.9.  Then the fever started, and the night sweats, and I woke up last Monday with a temperature of 102.4.  I went to the doctor and he didn't have a clue.  His first question, after looking at my ears, nose, and throat and finding nothing was "Have you been out of the country lately?"  As in, had I visited the tropics or Africa?  He suspected West Nile or one of its relatives, prescribed nothing, and sent me home to tough it out. As the week went on, I developed some other symptoms (deep muscle pain, abdominal rash) that resembled dengue fever.  This virus has been seen in Florida lately (albeit further south), so maybe that was it.  In the meantime, we traveled to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, where I was responsible for the bulk of the cooking.  I felt well enough by Thursday to do it, and so I spent a few hours roasting the turkey and making some of the sides.  Ellen and her sisters helped, too.

By Tuesday of this week I felt more or less back to normal and was back at work.  I had to make some tough decisions about course scheduling for next fall, irritating some people in the process.  That's probably a post of its own, so I'll skip the details.

As I'm now discovering, end of the fall semester means only one thing at UF: the SEC championship game.  For the second straight year UF will play Alabama in what amounts to a national semifinal, the winner advancing to the BCS championship game (probably against Texas, igniting controversy about leaving some undefeated teams out of the picture).  I will not go on record with a prediction (although I have one).

It is interesting to work at a university with a 50 gazillion dollar football budget (that's the official number; I looked it up).  Sports are given too much priority in the Southeastern Conference already, but at a school like UF it grows to almost absurd proportions.  I like college football as much as the next guy, but I try to keep it confined to Saturday afternoons (and usually to the Virginia Tech game).  That's impossible in Gainesville.  Football mania pervades every aspect of life here.  The Tim Tebow hero worship is astonishing.  The middle-aged men standing on the sidewalk outside the practice facility watching afternoon drills fascinate me; have they nothing else to do?

Contrast this with a couple of schools (Northeastern, Hofstra) who in the past month have cut their football programs altogether.  Granted, they were never going to make a lot of money from football (they were probably losing money, really), especially since they played in the FCS division (what we used to call Division 1-AA, you know, the one with the playoff instead of the bowls).  But, faced with worsening budget problems the presidents of these institutions decided it was no longer in the schools' interest to spend a few million dollars per year to support it.  Hofstra isn't cutting the money from the budget, rather it is redistributing it to bolster financial aid and other academic programs for students; you know, the primary things a university is supposed to do.

But I guess it's unfair to level similar criticism at a large BCS conference university.  The athletic program pays for itself; it's not as if the provost has to take a share of the state funding and use it to pay for coaches and facilities.  There are plenty of other critiques to be made about athletics (e.g., the "student-athlete" myth), but I won't make them here because the truth is that I don't really care that much.  Maybe that's horrifying coming from the director of the Honors Program, but I can also see the whole enterprise for what it is---entertainment.  It's fun.  Students like going to football games.  Athletics provide a connection for alumni.  A good football or basketball team can do wonders for student recruitment.  Whether it's a net positive or negative, I don't know. 

So, to those who think college athletics will bring the downfall of the American university system I say, "Lighten up."  And to those who get way too invested in the whole enterprise, starting, etc., I also say, "Lighten up."  As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

writing manifestoes

I'm not trying to continue the last post's sports theme (I know, too much baseball), but I've been thinking about Jerry Maguire lately.  Everybody remembers Tom Cruise yelling "Show me the money!" into the phone at Cuba Gooding, Jr., and how funny Cuba was (for which he won the Academy Award over the more-deserving William H. Macy (you remember his cringe-inducing performance in Fargo, right? )), and how cute Jonathan Lipnicki was, and how everyone learns their lessons about life and love and heart by the end.  But to me, the best part of the movie is the first 10 minutes in which Jerry writes his manifesto (and gets fired for it--I guess there's a lesson in that, too).  He stays up into the early morning pouring out everything in his head about what's wrong with his business and how it could be fixed.  Of course, those fixes challenged the status quo, and if the s.q. is powerful enough (as it usually is) it will do its level best to crush those challenges.  Of course, Jerry wins in the end, both spiritually and financially, so the takeaway is that you should always follow your heart in such matters. I don't disagree, but manifestoes are dangerous things.  By now you've figured out that I must be working on one of my own.  I have several minor ones already (just ask my Facebook friends about my strong stance on the toilet paper over/under debate), most of which are just that:  minor.  I can go on for hours (well, minutes anyway) about how life is too short for cheap beer.  I am firmly opposed to flavorings in coffee; you can keep your stinking hazelnut, thank you.  But these things don't count.  They are merely a 40-year-old's crotchety opinions, a sort of pre-Andy Rooneyish commentary.   

No, this one is more substantive.  I was hired by UF to bring a new perspective to the Honors Program.  I've been here for 4 1/2 months now and I've formed some opinions.  Strong opinions.  The question now is what to do to change those aspects of the culture that I find disquieting.  Inevitably, they must be written down and circulated, manifesto-style.  Resistance from some parties is likely to follow.  I've gotten generally favorable responses to the little bits I let slip in meetings, but you never know how a cohesive whole will be received.

I guess I'll know for sure if I get invited to lunch at The Swamp by a Bob Sugar type.  Stay tuned.

self-organizing behavior

Well, baseball season is over. The Evil Empire won. To quote Rogers Hornsby, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." I'm not quite like that, but I'll be happy when the Cardinals begin their pursuit of the 2010 world championship. Most of my students respond to my fondness for our national pastime with disdain. "Baseball is boring," they tell me. Maybe. It is a slow game. One September in graduate school my fellow geeks and I took the new first-year students to the old Durham Athletic Park (yes, the place they filmed Bull Durham) to watch the Bulls. At one point in the second inning the Russian woman sitting next to me turned and informed me that "this is the most boring thing I've ever seen!" I resisted the urge to come back with a jab at soccer, opting instead to explain the cultural significance of the game and how a night at the ballpark, complete with peanuts and Cracker Jack (and beer---not sure how that got left out of the song), is the most American of experiences.

And really, I don't see how baseball is more boring than, say, football. There are similar long stretches of inactivity between plays, lots of arcane rules, etc. The NFL drives me nuts---every game is either a blowout or a mad scramble to the end in which the last two minutes are all that matter. Yawn.

Some of my fondest memories revolve around baseball. As a boy my dad would take me to the old Tim McCarver stadium in Memphis to see the Chicks play (that's short for Chickasaws, by the way; they were the AA affiliate for the Montreal Expos). As an eight year old I ran freely around the park; parents didn't worry about safety as much then. Sometimes we'd bring along my friends Mike and Bill and we'd chase after foul balls and eat ice cream from those little batting helmets. I don't really remember the games so much, but I loved the atmosphere.

Twice, my dad took me to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play. We'd plan our trips for those weekends when they would play a double-header (two games for the price of one, unlike the nefarious day/night nonsense they do now). I saw Lou Brock steal bases. Keith Hernandez played first base. One time, Stan Musial showed up to the park to sign autographs for free (Hall of Famers used to do that); he signed a ball and a program for me. Unfortunately, he used a blue felt tip pen, so the ball faded away in time despite my best efforts to preserve it by keeping it in the dark. I still have the program, though.

I saw Barry Bonds hit home run number 758. I was three days too late to see 756; I had purchased my ticket months earlier as part of planning a business trip to the west coast. When I bought it I figured he'd have already broken the record by the time I got there, but he went into something of a slump in July and I started to get excited that I might actually see Hammerin' Hank's record get broken. Alas, I was in Anaheim at the Angels-Red Sox game on the Tuesday Barry hit his home run. By the time I got there on Friday, AT&T Park was half-empty, the throngs satisfied and no longer interested in seeing the aging, embattled star.   I count myself among those who think Barry's record is illegitimate, but I also think we're deluding ourselves if we think that Babe Ruth wouldn't have used steroids if they were available.  Bonds's chase made for good theater, though.  Plus, it's fun to sit next to drunk guys who taunt players who have showed up on the Mitchell Report (anyone else think it's odd that Bud Selig got a Nobel laureate to do a report about something like steroid use in professional baseball?).  I was at the Yankees-Rays game last month where Alex Rodriguez, in the sixth inning alone, went 2 for 2 with 2 HR and 7 RBI, setting an American League record.  The Rays fans next to me chanted "A-Roid, A-Roid" every time he came to the plate.  (aside:  the Major League record for RBI in one inning is held by Fernando Tatis, a Cardinal at the time, who hit 2 grand slams in one inning against the Dodgers in 1999.)

I used to fantasize about being a pitcher in the bigs.  During summers spent at my dad's place I would stay up to ungodly hours of the night (he worked 3rd shift) pitching mock seventh games in the World Series.  In my dreams I had a fastball in the high 90s, a very effective change-up, and a nasty slider that would leave guys like Reggie Jackson looking foolish as they flailed wildly at my amazing pitches.  In reality, I played little league one year, in which I rode the bench, played the obligatory one inning per game (always in left field), and went 0 for the season (although I did reach on an error once).  Even today, as an adult, my fastball tops out at 52 mph.  I never had a chance.

I didn't give up on the game, though, and spent countless hours playing catch and pick-up games in my neighborhood.  We often used tennis balls and no gloves as we played 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 games.  We'd have to use "ghost runners" after hits so we could go back and bat again when we got through our abbreviated lineups.  In one apartment complex we lived in, my friends and I played in a particular field adjacent to a road with speed bumps.  The rule was that if you could hit the ball on the fly past the nearest speed bump (maybe 250 feet away) it was an automatic home run.  My biggest moment of baseball glory came the day I managed this feat, clearing a semi trailer parked in between me and the bump.  I was legendary, for 15 minutes anyway.  Nowadays, I have to stick to the softball slot in the batting cages.  Last week I tried the slow pitch baseball machine and could barely make contact.  I think it really is true that the toughest thing to do in sports is to hit a major league fastball.

But this post isn't some maudlin story about missing my relationship with my estranged father or longing for my youth.  A thousand words in I'm finally coming around to my point.  It's this:  my friends and I spent lots of time hanging out and organizing our own games.  No one did this for us.  Today's kids have no clue what this is like.  We just moved to Gainesville from Starkville, Mississippi, where some people claim tee-ball was invented (there's some controversy about that).  Our house was about 100 yards from the town's baseball complex; on spring nights we could hear the clank of aluminum bats and frantic cheering from our deck.  Sometimes I'd walk over to see what was going on and I found four-year-olds playing tee-ball.  Four-year-olds.  When I was four I was playing with Hot Wheels in the dirt and snapping Legos together, not participating in organized sports.  By the time kids are eight (or even seven), they spend their summers on traveling teams traversing the southeast playing baseball.   It never occurred to me to play little league until I was nine.  These kids could not organize their own pick-up game because they've never had to; everything has always been organized and planned for them.  From the time they are able to play with other kids we set up play dates.  As soon as we can get them on to a team, we do it.

Just today, one of the assistant directors in my office got an email from the mother of an eighth-grader (in a pre-IB program (!)), asking which high school she should send her daughter to so that she'll be most competitive for admission to UF.  Whatever happened to just going to school?  And then coming home and rounding up a pick-up game?  As my wife's Facebook status read yesterday, "There's too much striving going on and not enough living."  I'd like to teach my son to just live, but every time I don't advocate for him I feel like a bad parent because I know everyone else is obsessing about getting their kids the best teachers in the best magnet program in the best school that sets them up for the IB program that will prepare them best for the best college so they can get into the best graduate school and have the best life that anyone ever had.

Except it cannot work that way.  It's just too much to live up to.   The world is a random place and there are too many variables to account for.  Preparation and planning are nice, and I encourage it to a point, but sometimes you have to just  let people figure it out for themselves.  And if you don't start fairly early then you're raising a kid who can't make phone calls to the registrar's office himself, but has to get dad to do it.  And he will because he always has.  Vicious cycle.

Ants self-organize out of necessity.  They build elaborate structures all by themselves, with no supervision.  Maybe it's time to let the kids be ants, at least a little.

thinking about school...

Having a 10-year-old boy is fascinating.  Really.  More than anything, it's a practical lesson in genetics.  You remember all those 2 x 2 grids you filled out in seventh grade science class where you could predict eye color based on the eye color of the parents?  Well, those sorts of things work with just about every physical and psychological trait you can imagine. It's also humbling, because you get to see those things you dislike about yourself manifesting themselves in your progeny.  Take one of my negative traits, for example: laziness.  No one ever believes this about me since I seem to work so hard.  I'm very responsible when it comes to getting things done on time.  I will suck it up and do things I despise (I'm looking at you, yard work) because I know they need to be done.  And so far, I've been fairly successful in life.

As a boy, however, I couldn't be bothered.  I might do my homework on the bus on the way to school.  That report we got assigned three weeks ago?  I might start it the night before.  The eighth grade science fair project?  Ditto.  (That one is real, by the way.  I turned in what was quite possibly the worst science project ever done by an eighth grader.  To give you a sense of how bad it was, I used a gift box to manufacture a triptych on which I recorded my "results" with a ball point pen.)  So, yeah, I was kind of lazy and unmotivated.

More than anything, though, I was bored.  Fast-forward thirty years and I'm confronted with a modern-day version of a 10-year-old me.  That math homework:  he doesn't need to do that.  The story about his family:  meh, he'll get around to it.  It was especially bad when we lived in Mississippi (in fact, it was probably the single most important reason I started looking for a new job), where my son could sit there all day, doing nothing, and make the best grades in his class.  Gainesville is a different story; he actually has to pay attention and work here, and that's been a, shall we say, difficult adjustment for all of us. 

All of this got me thinking about one of the best essays I've read in the last 10 years.  It's called Against School, and you can find it here.  When it appeared in Harper's, I mentioned it to one of my friends in the history department and he agreed that it was one of the most correct things he had ever read.  So, read it now, and we can continue.

Done?  Good.  Maybe you doubt the veracity of Gatto's assertions about public education being designed to produce a massive, docile work force.  Perhaps you find it difficult to believe that leading public intellectuals would be in favor of a system that doesn't commit to the full development of children.  Woodrow Wilson's quote is particularly chilling, I think.

But you cannot doubt his assertion that our modern system churns out people who age but do not grow up.  This might sound lovely in a Peter Pan kind of way, but it's really insidious.  Why do we go to school for 12 years?  There's so much repetition that all the information could be handled in about 8.  I'm not suggesting that we should put 13 year olds to work, but couldn't we make their time in school more challenging and interesting?  No Child Left Behind means some kids have to wait, and if you've ever waited on a kid to catch up to you, you know how frustrating an experience that is.  And frustration leads to boredom.  And boredom leads to checking out.

Hence the emergence of gifted programs in public schools (and their counterparts in higher education, honors programs).  Some people denounce gifted education as "elitist."  I think their complaint is that super-smart kids will achieve on their own, and that we shouldn't waste scarce public resources on providing "extras" for them.  But I assert that if you're truly concerned with egalitarianism then you should support programs to make school interesting for every student, and not simply try to get as many kids over the lowest bar as possible.  Won't that just lead to a dumbing-down of the people?

Oh, wait.  If you believe Gatto's assertions, then that's precisely the point.  I have my own opinions about NCLB which I won't share here because they will just come off sounding like partisan carping, but what I hope we can all agree on is that the current system puts way too much emphasis on standardized testing.  We are turning out a generation of really excellent test-takers.  But can these students solve problems?  I mean real problems, not just finding the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

Well, some can.  And I think it's mostly the kids who figure out early on that maybe school is just a series of hoops to be jumped through, and that if they jump through the hoops as efficiently as possible they can spend more time doing the things that interest them.  Take my son, for example.  You can't stop him from doing something he's interested in, but if he even catches a whiff of hoop-jumping going on he'll turn off in an instant.  That's the biggest problem we face (his mother and I):  convincing him to just jump through the damn hoops so he can get on with the real business of life. 

But it sure would be nice to not have so many hoops.

(Afterword:  Reading back over this post, I realize it rambles.  A lot.  As in, I really needed an editor on this one.  I'm not even sure what my point was, and it seems a bit like some sort of Bill Hicks-type rant (without the obscenities), but I'll post it anyway because (a) I spent 40 minutes writing it, and (b) sometimes it's fun to read rambling stuff.  Plus, I'm coming down with a cold which is making me lose focus, so, hey, give me a break.  I'll be more coherent next time.)

blogging the NCHC meeting--live from Washington, D.C.

It's been two weeks, I know. I have a theory that blogging rate is an exponentially decaying function. Anyway, I'm in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), and feeling very patriotic. I hit most of the memorials yesterday, got grossed out by the water quality of the reflecting pool, etc. National Gallery of Art today. Oh, and the conference, too.

Actually, it's a bad idea to have such a conference in a city like D.C. There's too much to do. That is, you kinda just want to blow off the meeting and head over to Ford's Theatre or the Air & Space Museum or the Capitol or any number of other cool places. Last year this meeting was in San Antonio, which is a fine city but let's be honest, once you've been to the Alamo and strolled on the River Walk you've pretty much done it all. Next year it's Kansas City (which I'm actually excited about because of the Negro League Baseball Museum) which I guess doesn't have the same cachet as D.C.

The last time I was here as a tourist was after my freshman year of college. I came with my parents; none of us had ever been to D.C. and we wanted to see what there was to see. What's remarkable to me now is how some of it hasn't changed (e.g. Air & Space Museum). I realize history doesn't really change much, but you'd think there might have been some updates in 20 years.

As a nineteen year old my favorite memorial was Mr. Jefferson's. It's not easy to get to on foot, but the location is superb. It's late October and the leaves are burning yellow and orange; the tidal basin is awash with color. My forty year old knees resisted the climb up the marble steps, but we all made it to the rotunda and stood there reading the excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's pledge to rail against the tyranny of the mind. I felt a surge of my old youthful idealism returning. It never really left, but it is buried deeper now, pushed aside by the pragmatism that comes with age.

Jeffersonian in my youth, I'm more Lincolnish now. Our third president may have been our greatist idealist, but our 16th was our finest realist. Everyone at the Lincoln Memorial stops to read the Gettysburg Address; it's probably the most famous presidential speech ever given. But this time I made sure to read the second inaugural address, and it nearly moved me to tears, especially the line about wringing one's bread from the sweat of another man's brow. As a middle-aged man I appreciate the skill it took to keep it all together even as it was about to fall apart. Lincoln had the eloquence, intelligence, and moral force to reunite the divided house. Of course like most people with those skills, he was murdered for it (see also King, Martin Luther). Those people who try to claim that Ronald Reagan was our greatest president always crack me up; they need to pay a visit to the west end of the reflecting pool.

So you're probably wondering if I've even paid attention to the NCHC meeting, what with all this philosophizing about our presidents and all. Well, yes, I have. I listened with great interest to someone at one of our peer institutions talk about their admissions procedure, so much so that I may steal it next year. I got some good fundraising tips. But I also sat through some sessions that devolved into gripe sessions and hand wringing about how busy these people are and how burned out they're getting, etc., etc. I don't study that. If you dislike it so much you should quit. One piece of advice I got when I started this job is that you should always be prepared to walk away. The moment it's not fun or challenging anymore it's time to move on. My main beef with this whole affair is that it's too negative, too much like a group therapy session. So I'm dubious about the value of the whole thing.

But I do appreciate the chance to reflect on things. So thanks for bringing me to D.C., NCHC.


I'm sitting in the Jacksonville airport waiting for my flight to Chicago and thinking of David Foster Wallace. I also thought this would be a good time to try out the Wordpress app on my iPhone. (Seinfeldian aside: I hate cell phones but I love my iPhone. Really.) I figure it's better than listening to Wolf Blitzer's report on "how to cheat death" (I'm not kidding). Why David Foster Wallace (henceforth referred to as DFW)? He was the most gifted essayist of my generation. Read "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again" or the piece about the porn convention in "Consider the Lobster" and you'll understand. I never made it through all 1000+ pages of Infinite Jest, but I admired the audacity of its existence. Some people found DFW's style, what with the page-long footnotes and all, irritating. Maybe. All I know is I haven't ever laughed so hard at someone's observations about the world, and I grew up devouring the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

DFW committed suicide last year. Apparently he suffered from depression and I guess he just reached a sort of breaking point. It made me sad (though not as sad as Vonnegut's death); most of my intellectual heroes die too young (see also Hicks, Bill).

Anyway, the reason I always think of DFW when I'm waiting in some transitory place is the graduation speech he gave at Kenyon College a few years back. You can read it here. It's long, but it's really worth the time.

Naturally, I think DFW is right on the mark here. The point of a liberal arts education, or an honors education at a large university, should be to teach you how to have a rich internal dialogue so that you can navigate the tedium of adult life. He's exactly right that much of life after college consists of dealing with a lot of little tasks that have to get done to keep things rolling along. No matter how much you like your job, you'll spend inordinate amounts of time sitting in traffic or on the train or in line at the grocery store or the bank or whatever.

I'm ashamed to admit that sometimes I just stand there and look at the tabloids and glamour magazines. Or I'll get out my phone and play solitaire. Or surf facebook. At least now I can blog (FWIW). But I wish I would do more. I hate to let DFW down.

reward programs

It occurred to me that I promised to write about the UF Honors Program and my thoughts about honors education from time to time, and I've not yet delivered on that.  So, without further adieu... I had dinner with about a dozen honors students last week as part of the new monthly program I started, Dine and Chat. (aside:  this needs a new and better name.  I didn't want to steal from anyone else and go with something like "Food for Thought".  Anyway, if you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.)  The premise is that a faculty member (in this case, me) meets with a small group of students to share a meal and discuss some topic of the prof's choosing.  I went first because it was easy to organize myself, and also because I wanted to get some quality, detailed feedback from current students about the State Of The Honors Program.  Among the topics we discussed were small classes (like), Hume Hall (like), lack of sufficient numbers of honors courses (dislike), and many others.  We went simple and had pizza in the classroom next to the Honors office; two hours later we finally wrapped up.

Here's the fundamental problem I face:  the University of Florida is a very good university.  The average SAT for incoming freshmen this year is something like 1960 (this means little to people of my generation for whom 1600 was perfect, but it translates to approximately 1290 under the old system).  That's the average.  The minimum score to be invited to apply to the Honors Program is 2070.  That's a pretty small difference.  Like, a you-didn't-get-enough-sleep-or-had-a-mild-cold sort of difference.  So the question I put to the students was this:  what should Honors even be at a university like this?  When the gap between "honors" and "non-honors" is so small, what distinguishes the program?

I don't think we came up with a satisfying answer (again, if you have one I'd love to hear it).  I think what it is now is a community of bright, highly motivated students who share some common interests and have the occasional intellectual conversation.  Maybe that's what it should be.  I don't know.

But one student did say something that sort of took me aback:  the Honors Program gets billed to high school students as a "reward program" for being good students.  And I don't think the rewards are intellectual as a rule.  We offer very good specialized advising, help in preparation for prestigious scholarships, priority registration---excellent services all, but not much to push the mental envelope.  So it's like being bumped up to first class:  you've earned enough frequent flier miles (high SAT scores), there's a seat (bed in Hume), and you've expressed interest (you filled out an extra application) so we'll give you the upgrade.

Something about this bothers me.  It should be a challenge to get into an honors program (wherever it is), but more importantly it should be a challenge to complete an honors program.  All those services are nice, and I don't think they should go away, but shouldn't an honors program expect something rather than just provide something?  Shouldn't the goal be to add something to the college experience, something real?

During orientation, I tell students that I hope they are coming to UF and to the Honors Program in particular to become interesting people.  I guess that's what we should help them to do.  Figuring out how is the tricky part.  I'll keep you posted.


Friday afternoons seem like a good time for blogging.  It's 3:19 p.m. and I am disinclined to start something new this close to the weekend.  Plus, I haven't posted anything in over a week, so... I've been thinking a lot lately about entitlement.  No, not the government handout kind (although there is probably a blog post there somewhere), but the personality disorder afflicting so many of my fellow Americans.  I was helping my son with his math homework earlier this week; here was the assignment:  Estimate by rounding.  526,391 - 184,767

Those aren't the real numbers (and it doesn't matter for my purposes here).  As a mathematician, I immediately recoil in horror at this problem.  The directions are entirely too vague.  How am I to round off?  To which place?  I see at least six correct answers to this question:  341,624; 341,620; 341,600; 341,000; 350,000; 300,000.  Which one is it?  Do you know?

I don't know, either.  I'm pretty sure it's not the first answer since that's the exact difference and I was supposed to round first.  It's also probably not the last one since that seems much too brutal a truncation.  But there are clear arguments in favor of any of the others.  In the end we settled on 350,000 (well, my son did and I didn't contest it).

Imprecision is the bane of the mathematician's existence.  I suppose our tendency (some would say compulsion) to frame problems exactly drives others nuts in their interactions with us.  This also leads to some of us having superiority complexes (but again, that's yet another post for another day).  We use the word "trivial" a lot and have a unique talent for making people feel dumb.  Not me, of course; I'd never do such a thing (intentionally at least).

Anyway, the more I pondered this seemingly innocuous homework assignment the more irritated I got, and it got me thinking about the way we teach kids today and the resulting consequences when they get to college.  I'm not going to go on some tirade bashing K-12 teachers, because I (a) believe it's one of the most difficult and underappreciated jobs in the world, and (b) I don't have any better solutions.  But I will say this:  I think this homework problem is at the root of many of our educational problems today.  The imprecision of its statement allows for at least six correct answers.  The chances are pretty good that even a kid who doesn't know exactly what's going on will find one of them.  Hooray!  Everyone's right!  No one feels sad or inadequate.

Except they're not right.  I claim there is no correct answer to this question since it hasn't been framed properly.  Maybe I'm just being too rigid, but I don't think it's unreasonable to state things clearly and expect a certain answer.  And I don't think there's any shame in getting it wrong.  But if you're never wrong, then you're always right (right?).  This way of thinking can get embedded in a kid's psyche.  "I'm always right.  I'm awesome!"  And it's true that my kid is awesome, but he's also nothing special.  None of us are.  We are all just trying to get through traffic and the line at the bank and the checkout at the grocery store and pick up our dry cleaning and get to the restaurant and wait for a table and...

I don't count more than you; you don't count more than I do.  But if we're never wrong, we start to see things differently.  "Well, I know I'm not wrong, so you must be."  Pretty soon, you have a society of people who think they're entitled to everything they want, when they want it.  There's no hard work, because every answer we provide is correct.  And when there's no hard work, we get soft.

And softness leads to entitlement.  So here we are.

there's only one thing that matters

  I will resist the urge to chime in on the whole President-Obama-"indoctrinating"-our-youth drama because I want to talk (write) about what I think is missing from education today.


My wife attended Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (the Hokie in me had a hard time typing those words) back in July; during her visit the class took a field trip to Monticello. Aside from the picture-postcard view from the back porch and the beautiful green linoleum flooring (Ellen is an artist and notices these things), what struck her most is that Thomas Jefferson, a man who had written the Declaration of Independence, a man who had been President, referred to himself later in life as a "farmer". As in, signed his name "Thomas Jefferson, Farmer". Imagine "Bill Clinton, Law Professor" or "George Bush, MLB team owner". Not going to happen.

Ponder that for a moment. Put aside all the political and moral ambiguities surrounding Jefferson (slave owner, etc.), and consider that he realized that all that matters in the end is the unglamorous business of living, of getting your hands dirty and making something real. As a side note, I'm intrigued by how the Presidential personality has evolved over time; it takes a raving egomaniac to want to be President today. Two hundred years ago they were just trying to be free from colonialism.

Which brings me to my theme: making. I'm a mathematician. I theorize. I play logic games all day. I teach these to my students in the form of calculus which they may be able to use to figure out the trajectory they should use for launching water balloons. Maybe they can figure out simple harmonic motion or heat flow. But I make nothing. Nothing real, anyway.

One semester I decided to teach a class in origami. I'm not one of those crazy origami guys who fold armadillos out of a single sheet of paper. Nor am I interested in folding a crane from a square piece of paper 2 mm on a side (this really exists, by the way). No, I just decided it might be fun to take 15 students and some paper and see what we could do. Aside from being fun I figured it would be an interesting change for all of us to see what happens when we decide to make instead of just talk.

I've never had so much fun teaching a class in my life. Being a mathematician, I decided to keep it geometric. We made some simple figures, learned how to divide a strip of paper into any odd number of equal lengths, even folded a crane. But the big one was a Level 3 Menger Sponge, built from 48,000 business cards:

[caption id="attachment_21" align="alignnone" width="199" caption="photo by Joshua Skinner"]photo by Joshua Skinner[/caption]


You can see some people in the background; that should give you some sense of the scale.  It's 4 1/2 feet on a side and weighs about 150 lbs.  It took 16 people over 400 man hours to complete.  It's only the third or fourth one of its kind in the world.  That's pretty cool.

But the best part of it was the making of it.  We had a blast.  Word spread that we were doing it and I was flooded with requests from students for me to offer the course again (I did, but we didn't build another sponge---I couldn't imagine what we'd do with another one).  It was then that I realized that we all have a deep-seated need to make.  Even if we've forgotten that we like it (just like most people forget they like math), our brains want us to go there.  We evolved opposable thumbs for a reason, and not just to make Mario Kart easier.

Ellen and I talk about this a lot.  She's a book artist, which means that, among other things, she makes books by hand.  As in folds the paper into folios, sews folios into signatures, and cases signatures into books.  We've gotten so used to books that no one understands when she hands them a handmade book that it wasn't done with a machine.  But her students get it.  They can't wait to ditch the computer and make something with their hands, to get back to the dirty work that made them fall in love with art and design in the first place.

Really good engineers don't get that way just because they're good at math and physics.  They succeed because they like to use their hands to build and design things.

Architects, too.

Writers work hard, at least good ones do.  They write (or type) it over and over until it's right.

Musicians.  Well anyone who has ever played an instrument knows how much making there is there.

Bricklayers do some of the most beautiful and exquisite work you've ever seen with their hands.

I'm not suggesting that my little origami project is equivalent to the hard work of farming or laying bricks (two jobs I appreciate but wouldn't really want to have), but the act is important.  We have to remind ourselves sometimes that there's more to life than theorizing.

We all crave it.  We all want to make.  And that is what we've lost through our addiction to screens and our society's devaluing of trades.  As much as I might grouse about it, when I'm done with one of the many home projects I'm tackling these days I always feel a sense of pride, my making jones satisfied.

academic exercises

I'm a total nerd.  Can't help it and don't want to change it.  Even though I'm a mathematician, I've always had a soft spot for poetry (writing and reading).  Mary Oliver's work brings me to tears. Anyway, my friend, the poet Robert West, has taken to challenging us on Facebook to reinterpret famous poetry and novels as haiku.  First up was W. B. Yeats; here was my entry:

Politics (after W. B. Yeats)

I would totally be listening to these dudes, but that girl is hot.

And, in the Faulkner category:

I never finished The Sound and the Fury. Too disjointed to read.

Your entries are welcome.