Uncomfortably Quiet Classrooms

       Quiet classrooms have driven me crazy all my life. Not where kids don’t talk to each other during class–that’s a good thing–but where the teacher asks questions and no one seems to have any inclination to answer. Don’t get me wrong, the suck-ups and the self-important are rightly reviled, and I’ve come to realize that raising your hand to ask questions during class is a fundamentally self-absorbed exercise.
      But when good teachers do the favor of asking questions and trying to facilitate class interest and involvement, why do I see so many students leaving them hanging? What’s the point of showing up to class if we’re just going to be passive consumers of information? There’s nothing we can get from a lecture in which we sit quietly in the back that we can’t get from a MOOC or a YouTube video.
       I suppose it’s reasonable that some students are too self-conscious to say anything, but that shouldn’t stop them. We’re learning, stupid ideas happen. But it seems more and more that students don’t speak because they really don’t have anything to say. The internalization and manipulation of ideas is hugely important for real learning, and if that’s not valued it’s a huge blow against creating the leaders of tomorrow. And that’s a huge problem.
       On a personal note, sometimes I do end up being “that guy,” who needs to shut up for a full five minutes and the class move or let other people have a turn to speak. That’s me crossing the boundaries of etiquette, and it’s my responsibility to fix that. But as a rule, I’d rather be the loudmouth with the ideas than the rock.
                                                                      Come on Ariels, get back your voice.


Outrage has been an often-present emotion in the wake of the recent national/international tragedies. Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and recently the Charlie Hebdo attack (there have been several other major incidents that we haven’t really heard about). Don’t get me wrong, all three of these events were outrageous. But just  like getting stressed doesn’t help us get our work done, getting outraged doesn’t help change the system. I’m not someone who can talk with authority about overcoming adversity, but I know about self-imposed stress very well. And just like stressing out over our work makes it harder to get work done, holding onto our outrage makes it harder to become better people.

But it’s worth considering that many times we (as people) get outraged because it feels good, just like getting stressed feels good, and because it allows us an immediate, reactive response. Unfortunately, outrage often robs us of our motivation to understand the deeper forces at work. I know for a fact that I really, truly, do not understand the forces behind anti-black racism in America. Not in the sense that “I don’t understand how people could be so cruel,” I understand that quite well, but in sense of having a real perspective on how we got to where we are as a culture, country, and people. As a white male, I will probably always have limitations on my ability to understand race related issues. But I’m getting closer, because I’m slowly putting in the work, time, and drained emotions to understand. Understanding requires the grind, just like everything else. Outrage incites us to respond to whatever tragedy/injustice occurred just nowand agitates us into wanting to take some big, drastic action to show ourselves and the world we mean business. This is the kind of thinking that convinced the country to support the invasion of Iraq after 9/11. It’s no good.

Just like stress, outrage is a natural human emotion. But it’s only once we’ve learned to manage our outrage that we can work towards understanding, and eventually towards solving the deeply entrenched problems the world (and America) has.

7 Tips for Minimizing Distraction While Working Online (College Student)

The Internet. Beautiful, enlightening, engaging, distracting as hell. This is known. Here are some easy ways to make staying focused less awful.

1) Always use a minimized web browser with the margins adjusted so you don’t see ads, news, or clickbait. This is especially important on Facebook or online newspapers/magazines, but useful for essentially every site you’ll ever visit.

2) Open Evernote (if you don’t have Evernote, get Evernote) and keep it in the left or right 20-30% of your screen while you read, watch videos, or do whatever you do (This will perfectly fill the 20-30% of empty screen remaining after you’ve minimized your web browser)

3) Whenever you’re about to click on a hyperlink, always right click and use the “Open New Tab” option. This eliminates the need to use the “Back” key on your browser, which is ridiculously distracting (not to mention slow).

4) Somewhat ironic after #3, but always keep the number of tabs you have open as low as possible. Lower number of open tabs = more focus. Of course, if you’re researching something you’ll need multiple tabs open, but close those which aren’t applicable to your immediate train of thought.

5) If you don’t want to delete the 20 tabs you have open because you feel like you’ll use them but don’t want to bookmark them, move all the tabs you’re not using that instant to a new window, and then minimize that window. You’ll still have all your resources 5 seconds away, but it’s a lot less distracting than looking at 20 tabs.

6) If possible, post to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter via your phone if you have a great thought/picture you just have to share (it happens). You scratch the itch to post but are protected from getting sucked into social media world. That being said, in general your phone should be on silent and in a different room.

7) Only check notifications on Facebook every few days. 95% percent of them are useless. The only ones remotely worth check is if someone has commented/started a discussion on something you have posted. Of course, the better solution is “only go on Facebook every few days,” but I’m quasi-addicted like the rest of us.

Stalling and Restarting

As college students, despite our best intentions, we all fall off the study bus for a couple of days sometime or another. Maybe you go out drinking to blow off some steam Friday night and end up with a vicious hangover which can only be cured by going out again Saturday night (I’ve heard it happens). Maybe you fall into the Netflix pit Friday night and don’t emerge until late Sunday afternoon wondering where the weekend went. Or maybe you decide to take a well-deserved weekend to camping or do something else to get away from the intellectual space for awhile.

Whatever the reason, it can be hard to get back to focused, motivated, and distraction free (it’s also hard to get there). I’m just getting over a 72 hour cold, and since I reliably conform to the male stereotype of being utterly useless while sick, I haven’t done anything remotely intellectual for the past three days. Which poses a problem, since I have four (short) papers to write this weekend, but my mental spaces which would normally be buzzing with concepts and quotes from books are instead filled with endlessly dialogue/monologues from The Wolf of Wall Street, Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, and The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco. Add in the fact that I’ve been indulging in a lot of Facebook checking and YouTube video watching (things I normally strictly limit), and it’s no wonder that even though I’m 99% illness free, I’m still not myself.

The good thing is, getting back into the rhythm of working (AKA living, if we want to be honest with ourselves) is a learnable skill, and college is the easiest time to do it. Of course, you might be one of those remarkable kids who genuinely had their shit together in High School, but those types are rarer than we might imagine (bear in mind, “having your shit together” includes having a clear, long-term sense of direction in life and a strong sense of who you are, in addition to getting all your schoolwork done at a high level). It’s in college that we have (fairly) developed minds, stable psyches (hopefully), and still have low enough levels of responsibility-induced stress to make minor mistakes and not have them effect us that much. And the more ingrained our work ethic and productivity habits become now, the more confident we become in our ability to maintain a clear focus, a disciplined work ethic, and a sustained sense of creativity.

Picking Between Two Selves

Recently I had to participate in two and a half hours of laboratory studies for a psychology class, all of which focused on self-perception and unconscious prejudice.

I could have breezed through each study without giving the questions much thought, but given the heavy subject matter, I decided to answer as truthfully as possible. But this proved difficult, since the questions themselves were designed to force impossible choices.
An “either/or” section forced me to pick between mutually bad options like:
I think I’m a special person” or “I think I’m nothing special
I consider myself above average” or “I think other people are on average superior to me
I like to be the center of attention” or “I like to be left alone
Of course, I could have gone either way with all of these questions, as could many of us. They need context to answer correctly.
How can I say “I think I’m special” when it’s a clear violation of humility? But how can I say “I think I’m nothing special” without contradicting the equally real pride I have in myself? I could make it work if I was allowed to qualify each answer and say something like “I think I’m special in the sense that I have unique potential, but I realize I’m ultimately just one of over seven billion humans who are more or less the same.” But the point of the test is that there is no context, and you have to make a decision knowing that choosing one part of yourself means rejecting the other option.
After a couple hours of this, it becomes a disturbing experience. It’d be easy to walk out of the testing center and forget about the whole thing, but I think the turmoil is important to remember. Sometimes we have to pick one side of ourselves, even when it contradicts another.
The truth is, I’m arrogant, self-righteous, self-doubting, and alienating and competent, determined, compassionate, and humble, all at the same time. But when it comes down to making real decisions about how I act, in real life, I’ll always have to pick one over the other. It’s hard and I’ll pick wrong a lot of the time, but that’s what life is.
That’s what’s honest.

Getting back in shape, embracing glasses, tech features, student orgs, and flirting with zombies.

-When you’re first get into (or back into) working out, it’s counter productive to kill yourself the first day. You’ll feel like shit for the next 2-3 days (or more), and it’ll kill your motivation without significantly increasing the speed at which you get back into shape. You’re working out to increase your quality of life (I assume), self-flagellation and self-punishment have no place in that.

-If you’re going to be doing any substantial amount of reading, chose glasses over contacts, even if don’t like how glasses look. This took me a while to learn but I’m much better off for it. I can concentrate longer and think more clearly (or at least it seems like that). Plus, glasses have become part of my “Tribal Wear,” as defined by Olivia Fox Cabane in her book The Charisma Myth (I can now be easily identified as a heavy reader from my appearance). If you’re a college student, you’re in school to read and to learn. It’s fine to look the part. 

-Take time to understand all the features of the tech platforms you work on, even if they’re not necessary directly applicable to the work you do 90% of the time. Knowing the ins and outs of a program helps you get a better sense of what each program is capable of, and builds confidence by removing the “stranger in a strange land” feeling. Sites and apps I’ve benefited from deliberately exploring include include common social media sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and WordPress (hey-oh!), but also fundamental applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Photoshop.

-Student run organizations tend to have less-than-optimal cultures, organizational structures, and levels of professionalism, even though they could be amazing. “Less-than-optimal,” of course, is a euphemism for “shitty.” I’ve been fully involved in five different organizations in the last 10 months at Davis, and peripherally involved in three more. So while I’m not an expert, I feel I have a decent sense of how university organizations operate, which is: not well. This is really unfortunate, because student run orgs have the potential to be amazing.

Among the most common problems:

1) Lack of clearly defined roles. Not just for leadership positions, but in defining what the responsibilities of normal members are (and aren’t).

2) “Political” management systems. Bear in mind that in this context, “political” means “bitchy and obnoxious,” not pertaining to governance.

3) Lack of means to nurture new members, no sense of how to develop a novice (at whatever) into an expert

4) Lack of social integration for new members

5) Lack of understanding about what “leadership” means (hint: It’s not about ordering people around. The tyrannical potential of 19-year-old kids given the slightest wisp of power is astounding).

Frankly, it’s amazing to think that bureaucratic responsibility-shifting can happen in an organization with twenty to thirty members, but it does. Obvious, this is a very underdeveloped thought that I’ll need to continue to work on. The take-away message is, positive cultures, well designed structures, and high-standard norms don’t create themselves. It’s easy to think creating a well-managed, fair, organized, fun, organization should be “common sense.” But it’s not. (Disclaimer: I’ve had some great times in most of the Orgs I’ve been a part of. They just have a lot of room for improvement)

It’s really hard to talk to people who are seemingly not interested in anything. It’s not even a problem of “we have different interests” incompatibility, which is unfortunate but understandable. It’s people who are (seemingly) not into or passionate about anything at all. I learned to stop asking people some permutation of the question “What do you want to do with your life?” when I was 19, because I think it’s reasonable to not have a clear answer when you’re in your 20s.

Since then, I’ve replaced it with the question “What are you interested in?” which I think is pretty fair. But amazingly I often still get awkward psuedo-answers or blank stares in response (it’s worth mentioning that these interactions always make me feel like I have Aspergers). I’m not sure if I’m still asking an unreasonable question (?), if people have secret passions they don’t want to share with me (I hope that’s the case), or if there exists a sizable percentage of the college population that just doesn’t feel particularly passionate about anything. If so, this is a problem beyond my in-between-shots-in-the-kitchen small talk.

Trying to Understand and Issue? Pursue Deep Thinkers, Not Loud Yellers

One of the best decisions I’ve made over the last several weeks is to eliminate 90% of the online sources I read from, and dedicate all my focus to the remain 10%. This means reading primarily autobiographies (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr), and deeply reading a select few modern authors (Ryan Holiday, Robert Greene, Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin). I’ve then been able to supplement these core readings with websites that offer a broad wealth of surface knowledge (Brainpickings.org, KhanAcademy.org, Wikipedia.org).

The point of my pickiness is to remove all the transitory and low/moderately important stuff from my intellectual diet and focus on high quality information. Even though I do 95% of my reading online, I’ve found the majority of my study still focuses on printed books (only now I read them via a digital medium). This is not to say there’s anything worth reading on blogs or sites like everydayfeminism.com or thoughtcatolog.com, but neither can lead me to sort of deep understanding I seek.

Since I like lists, I’ve subconsciously (consciously now) broken the reading available online into four different “levels.” What we want to do, provided we’re reading for deep understanding and to become educated, confident thinkers, is to read higher up on the list whenever possible.

Level One: unqualified blog posts, clickbait-y online magazines: Buzzfeed

Level Two: educated layperson posts, through a site but requiring no qualifications and minimal quality screening: Upworthy, Thought Catalog, Medium. Also includes the majority of online magazines: Huffington post, Slate, ect.

Level Three: Blogs of a select few thinkers I like, trust, and respect, articles in premium newspapers (New York Times, The New Yorker)

Level Four: rigorous, well-researched books, autobiographies of notable people

Let’s say I want to understand black/white race relations in America. At the absolutely bottom level (Level One), I can go on Facebook or Twitter and click on a link in which a layperson tries to explain (which in some situations might be too lofty a word) racism to me. The next level up (Level Two) is to read an article like this: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/white-men-dating-black-women/, which is good content, written by an educated layperson, but doesn’t help me understand the roots of the issue (of course, a lot of Level Two writers have no idea what they’re talking about: http://spotmegirl.com/how-fit-shaming-is-the-new-fat-shaming/). Pretty much every self-help or list formatted article is in this category. Level Three would be to read someone like Charles Blow at NYT, who has an informed, expert opinion http://www.nytimes.com/column/charles-m-blow. Lastly, Level Four would be to read the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, Maya Angelou, and a bunch of books about the civil war http://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan-holiday/2014/04/319406/, Jim Crow, and everything that has happened since.

It’s only when I spend some serious time reading Level Four work that I can develop an understanding and appreciation for the issue. The problem is that level 2-3 and three sources suck me in and tempt me to spend more time on them than is helpful. Seriously, can you go scroll down Huff Post’s “Black Voices” section http://www.huffingtonpost.com/black-voices/ while reading every headline and not desperately want to click on 4-5 of them?

The problem is that even if I spend all day reading The Huffington Post, I still won’t be any closer to understanding the roots of black/white racism in America. And understanding slavery and the black/white racism that came out of it is really important as an educated American. Even if you have no interest in healing black/white inequity (you should), the issue is fundamental to understanding American politics, culture, and capitalism, as well as understanding human behavior as a whole. I’m still far from an expert on the issue, but from the limited reading/thinking I’ve done, I feel confident asking and answering several hugely important questions about humanity and America:

Was a legal and socioculturally accepted system of dehumanization, cruelty, physical/emotional torture, and subjegation of innocents built almost entirely because of economic incentives?

Is capitalism a strong enough motivator to cause good, intelligent people to abandon, ignore, or rationalize away deeply held morals?

Will people overwhelming maintain the opinions and support the actions of their demographic, even if they’re blatantly immoral?

Will people insist on believing what they were raised to believe, even if rational evidence glaringly suggests otherwise?

Do the majority of people more or less conform to public opinion, specifically the opinions of their peers?

Does a 200+ year system of genetics-based sociocultural subjugation disappear in one or two generations?

What are deeply embedded social and political power structures willing to do in order to maintain their superiority?

One gains the ability to ask and answer these questions by doing Level Four reading. That sort of power is worth the work. It means getting off Facebook and Twitter (duh), Buzzfeed, and Upworthy, but also limiting one’s time reading The Huffington Post and The New York Times, and focusing on the timeless texts written by/about highly accomplished dead men and women.