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Friday, June 21, 2019

Alan Brinkley, an incurious historian

Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley has died.

I took his lecture course on US history from WWI to WW2. I found his lectures very informative and clear, but I also got the sense that he dismissed historical interpretations to the left of the centrist historical consensus without really considering them.

When Seymour Hersh published a big takedown of JFK in 1997, Brinkley wrote a review for I think Newsweek or Time -- I can't find it online. I was a bit shocked that he dismissed most of Hersh's accusations -- the assassination attempts JFK and RFK orchestrated, the mob connections, the womanizing -- as old news, as if the public already knew as much of it as historians did, or as if it didn't matter.

He also dismissed conspiracy theories about the US military knowing in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack. I think he's probably right about that, but as I recall, he said it without even a sliver of doubt that we know everything everyone involved knew half a century ago, and without acknowledging that the attack solved a huge political problem for the military which could have provided an incentive to look the other way -- even unintentionally.

The distinction I'm making is subtle. I've never seen convincing evidence that the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory is correct, and I think people convinced of it are not thinking rigorously. But that doesn't mean that there is no convincing evidence of the theory. In particular, I think institutions have a powerful way of creating convenient blind spots that let a group of people act out intentions that no individual may be conscious of. There is evidence that the military at the time not only wanted to enter the war, but desperately wanted a decisive causus belli to sway a reluctant public into full-throated support for the war. And there has been lots of criticism by military tacticians since that points out how bizarre it was for the military to assemble so many targets in a single location without preparations for defense. Does that mean the military specifically knew of that specific attack? No, but it may mean that there was a practical strategy either not to apply the normal amount of precaution, or to tempt the Japanese military into a political and military tactical error.

In short, in both of these areas, I think there is much there that a curious historian can and should engage. But Brinkley seemed to find these areas of inquiry unworthy of consideration, of focus or of respect. I think that's a mark of poor history scholarship.

But I was also looking for excuses to criticize my professors in those day... and probably still am!

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Should teachers instruct kids to use "academic language"?

A colleague sent me a link to a lesson guide about teaching students "academic language".

His reaction was horror, especially at lines like:

When they hear themselves “sounding smart,” it is a source of excitement and motivation in the classroom.

A few scattered thoughts:

First, I share my colleague's worry that focusing on "sounding smart" sends the exact wrong message, as if only the elite have complex or worthwhile ideas, and as though the goal is to imitate the elite's worst and most superficial traits rather than developing complex thinking and articulation organically.

That said, I think one thing to keep in mind is that some of us, including me, come from backgrounds where we can take many educational privileges for granted. Growing up, I could take for granted that I would be immersed in language and knowledge that would make me familiar with a wide vocabulary and a wide breadth of experience. I could take for granted that I'd have decent ability to adjust my phrasing and terminology to match formal or academic situations.

This isn't just a matter of learning some rote rules--it means the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly. For instance, in my programming work, when I write a bug report issue, I know to be specific and explicit because I'm very familiar with how hard it can be to parse someone else’s casual and vague language, even when they know exactly what they mean. To my colleague, I'd ask them to imagine if I wrote in an issue just that something vaguely “worked”, as opposed to writing more specifically “I was able to see the user’s profile” or whatever. My guess is they'd feel left in the dark a bit.

I’m a bit playing devil’s advocate, because I share a lot of my colleague's reservations about this type of approach. But I think it’s worth noting that there are specific pieces of knowledge and experience that are not available to many learners, if teachers are not specifically introducing them. To skeptics, I'd challenge them: are you so sure it does the students a service to act as though it’s ok if they never learn or experience this background information, or only learn it if they organically come to the intention of learning them?

Still, I agree this piece is awkward. I think much of the point doesn’t need the “academic language” framing to hit on something valuable.

One of the most valuable learning experiences I ever had was to write a regular opinion column in my college newspaper, because my editor insisted that I present my thinking clearly, and wouldn’t print it until it was good--at least, good at presenting the argument that I set out to present. I had had no idea how little rigor I was applying to my own thoughts, and how much I had a tendency to hide behind vagueness, rhetorical tics, and assumptions.

I think it’s hugely valuable to be forced to be more specific about what you mean, and I don’t think that needs to be a question of academic context specifically, though I can see how that could be a convenient entry point to it. A lot of this piece is really just talking about learning to write, which requires organizing your thoughts, examining what you said against what you meant, and empathizing with a reader who doesn’t have extra context.

A hard thing about prescriptive academic proposals is that most of the time, it’s possible to imagine some teacher and student for whom the proposal would work well. And, it’s possible to imagine others for whom the proposal would get in the way of authentic learning.

I think it’s hard to summarize the quality of a proposal overall; a more valuable step might be to imagine situations where it would and wouldn’t be appropriate, and try to add it as a tool to your toolbelt, and also to remember the inappropriate version so as to avoid it.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Thoughts on Bird scooters

Just tried a Bird for the first time, in Mexico City of all places. (Kind of symbolic that innovation would be embraced more avidly here than in the hand-wringing cities I've lived in the US in the past few years.)


1) My daughters (7 and 10 years old, I'm sure this violated the terms) had such a great time riding it back and forth that we spent over an hour, just on one block.

2) It was super easy to ride and I felt very, very safe. My daughters got the hang of it quickly. They had a few close calls with pedestrians, but they're kids. Kind of made me resent the adults who crash into people and ruin it for the rest of us. 

3) The same speed felt a little scary on the scooter that would feel completely normal on a bike. This makes me wonder if I'd ever use one for commuting if a bike were available.

4) It seemed like the highest speed was unnecessarily fast. I was surprised it goes that fast; setting the max speed a bit lower would make me feel better about everyone else riding then.

5) The price is great, and I could try it for a buck. I love paying as I go without having to worry about subscriptions and such. The least you can possibly spend on Citibike is like $10 which I think is exclusionary and also the wrong upfront pitch.

6) the brake felt stiff and hard to reach, even for my big hands. My daughters could barely pull it at all, and it didn't seem to have anything wrong with it.

7) The wheels are just big and bouncy enough; it really rode well on CDMX's cracked sidewalks.

All in all, an amazing (and belated) experience! I hope the Boston area gets these.

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