Standardized Costs & Unstandardized Benefits

Every educational organization falls in love with developing standards for processes or products at one time or another. We fuss over learning outcomes (like mental products) that can be documented and measured across classes, instructors, programs, and institutions. Standardization is a reductionist approach to the craft of education at the core.

The push always comes with the best of intentions; the good intentions tends to block out examination of the costs of standardized learning. The common arguments against standardizing education are the bureaucratic overhead and that standardization means losing any flexibility to meet students’ needs. I think there’s a hidden, deeper cost.

Standardized approaches to developing skills and building knowledge in our students means giving up specialization and unique experiences. No specialization for an instructor’s natural strengths, for regional interests, for the unexpected interests of a class. I know of a psychology professor who spends 3 weeks on the topic of sleep in his introductory to psychology class, a topic that usually makes up only a portion of one chapter. He’s a sleep expert, so he can connect it to many topics and delve deeply. I suspect his students are lucky to have that unique experience. But ... it’s non-standard. Another example, from Sam Pickering (2007): If a student wanted 120 credit hours of mathematics instead of General Education, what’s the harm?

We flock to superhero movies to watch individuals of mixed talents and skills form alliances to solve problems; this inspires us. No one looks to the cloned Stormtroopers and says, “now there’s an exciting collective of achievers.” Instead, we want Jedi and rag-tag rebels.

Besides losing unique student experiences, we may lose what is most special about teaching as a craft: our own inventiveness. In a time of limited resources, strict homogeny in our approach means what we have is tied to upholding standards. We need to be adapting what resources we have creatively, using those unique talents and abilities no one else can perfectly recreate.

Our country needs plenty of adaptability and diversity, and a reliance on programmatic outcomes may cost us the variability in depth and specialization that students need to be ready for whatever their future holds.

Letter to my teen boys

reposted from the day after Election Day, 2016

As a country we have elected a tax cheat and business fraud, a classic con artist, to be our president. He’s inexperienced, ill-informed, and not a nice person. It’s not likely to go well. But he is our next President.

Two things I need you to know. First, you do not have to be like him to be happy and do well in this world. It would be better if our political leaders were people we wish we could aspire to be, but this will not be one of those times. Work hard, be kind and considerate to others, and the rest will fall into place.

Second, our politicians do not embody “America” or what it means to be an American. They should, but they usually don’t. That belongs with us. How do you want America to be seen by others? That is how you behave. My image of an American is someone who shows grace and class, is empathetic of others and their struggles, and builds others up instead of tearing them down. When our leaders do not represent our values, it only means we have more work to do — forming bonds, representing others’ needs as well as ours, and sometimes, resisting. This will be one of those times.

You are great children and will soon be great men. Become who you want to be, not what our society has selected as a your model.


Growing up in southern California means spending a lot of time being driven around. It means sitting at four-way stops a lot, hanging for the opportunity to make a right turn. Every so often, while sitting for an eternity at a stop as a flood of cars moved past, my dad would say, “Here comes everybody and their brother!” The absurdity of this comment! Doesn’t ‘everybody’ include the brothers? Why are brothers singled out? I was waiting to make a turn the other day and I said, “here comes everybody.” A batch of cars passed and another appeared, and my son said, “and now here comes the brothers.” I guess I‘d been saying this too.

Every family has these sayings, collected from odd moments. Stupid jokes no one found funny until they are repeated and lose meaning, or ridiculous movie dialogue that stuck in someone’s ear. At the beach or a pool, my father would call out, “don’t get your feet wet!”, whenever my brother and I would make our way toward the water. We were obedient enough to pause before dismissing it, momentum ruined.

I asked my dad once where he gotten that particular joke from: he told me his dad. In one of the few moments as a teen when I unselfishly paid attention to the relatives outside my immediate family, I asked my grandfather from where he’d gotten it. He said from his dad. Four generations of a silly joke.

This is the nature of cultural heritability. If such small things as silly sayings can cross multiple generations, imagine the totality of what we pass on, in kindness, strength, and love.

Faster Than Others

"You can't stop progress!" -- Muriel's Wedding, 1994

Passing other people feels like progress. There's so little certainty about what our meaningful advances truly are--at work, at school, with family--that it's easier to judge ourselves using relative speed. Who has accomplished what, and by when? Am I behind, or lapping my peers?

But relative speed is an illusion. The arc of our lives is unpredictable, making the meaning in our lives unknowable until time has lapped us.

Live for now; leave the question of "progress" for those times when you can look back and see the trajectory of life.

Failing Fatherhood Gracefully

Father of two, master of neither

If we are privileged enough to see it happen, fathers become moot, with a new task to gracefully accepting it. Beyond letting go, it is abandoning control; accepting that the children seem to have figured out themselves just fine.

Children subsume us. They overcome us en route to becoming more than us.

Living Without Consequences

The quantity of the elevators in big city hotels is both impressive and an obstacle to navigate. Will I find several pods of elevators spread around the lobby or lobbies? Do the banks of elevators on each wall go to the same set of floors, since some won’t? Which elevators require a room key to open? Which elevators will let you on but take you only to some of the floors?

At a conference in a hotel in downtown Chicago, the attendees used the east and west banks of elevator doors in the largest pool of elevators to get to their presentations. There was a bank of a half-dozen elevator doors to the north that no one seemed to use. After a day or so of attending, I witnessed a young couple, attached at the hip and wearing casual clothes, glide to the north doors. Without looking at anyone in the busy lobby, their elevator door opened and up they went to some set of floors kept from everyone else.

My intuited sense, accurate or not, was of an extremely privileged young couple having access to pathways and options that others did not. This is no surprise; some form of this has probably always been the case in human society. It's a particularly acute problem in our current era, and most of us frame it as a problem of inequality in opportunity without merit. Without equal funding and opportunity in education, for example, the country could miss out on a child from an unexpected background who would become the next great political leader, or scientist, or artist. We limit ourselves when we structure social tiers of access in advance of any real understanding of an individual's capabilities and interests.

While this is a normative view, I suspect it's not the entire problem. Living a life without real consequences due to luck or good fortune may mean an inability to evaluate real-world options clearly. When no critical feedback is present, what learning or personal development occurs? When boundaries do not exist, what need is there for creativity and imagination? When I look at most of our political leaders in the U.S. today, I see a class of individuals who are functional in that they get by, but are completely incapable of forging any kind of lasting coalition or improvement. An impotent ruling class of empty status.

What can be the legacy of someone who had every resource available to them and yet was only mediocre?

Overhead Gaps

When I started college teaching, overhead projectors were the popular way to show slides. Email was around but course management systems like Blackboard hadn’t come into place yet. I used to ask students to assign themselves a code name and I would post their grades by printing out my Excel spreadsheet, sorted by code name, and taping it to my adjunct office door.

I had folders and folders and folders of overhead transparencies. (“Overhead transparencies” are plastic, clear sheets made specially for overhead projectors, and you had to have special markers for them. The ink was permanent, so while it was fun to write and draw in color, mistakes were a huge time waster. Most transparencies were not computer printed but made by hand, so transparencies were a peek into the personality of the presenter.) It was super easy for them to come sliding out of a folder and cascade over the floor. I knew a guy who kept all his transparencies in protective sleeves in huge 3-ring binders. During presentations, he would hold a binder in his left hand with the prongs open as he flipped between sleeves to throw onto the projector with his right. It looked both impressive and obsessive at the same time.

Overhead projectors were lit internally by conical bulb that would die without warning. Common advice for people who were interviewing for jobs at the time was to pack a spare overhead projector bulb in your briefcase in case the bulb of the machine you were using went out during your talk. Supposedly whipping out a spare bulb and installing it in front of the committee would impress them greatly. It’s fun to recollect the crap technology we used to put up with in order to do our jobs.

Back then, I was closer in age to my students. I had earned a Master’s degree, but the six or so years difference didn’t feel large. I would read material from the text and found I could frame the reading to the students readily. I remember thinking, “I can make this make more sense to them than the author, I know where the students are.”

This is no longer true. I have studied more and experienced changes in the field and my life, while revolving door of young adults has continued to culturally evolve. I no longer communicate to students who seemed like myself, but to “students,” of another time. Some professors adapt better than I; some have eagerly moved to adopting gender pronoun neutral policies, for instance.

What had been an act of publicly sharing has become an act of translating. I hope I’m up to the challenge over the cultural drifts time brings over the remainder of my teaching career.