Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2015/ Going Through the Motions

Going Through the Motions

To appease my anxiety I decided to spend the rest of the year scanning in old papers. I am currently working through a box of old school assignments. Looking at this stuff twenty years later is stirring up a lot of memories and thoughts.

As a student I thought I was a competent creative writer and essayist, and being obsessed with grades I tended to do well on assignments. But I wasn't competent. These assignments are terrible! I had always wondered why my English marks were worse than my marks in Math, and now I know why.

Part of me is grateful that my teachers allowed me my delusions of being a competent writer, because writing was very important to me. Part of me shudders, because if it had been my decision I would have chosen English and not Computer Science as a major in university. What a disaster that would have been, both academically and for future employment prospects.

In truth I am not rereading much of what I wrote back then. In addition to being bad writing these assignments make me remember what a conceited jerk I was in those days. A few years ago I finally realized that public self-denigration was actually self-indulgence -- that announcing my worthlessness to other people was just a mechanism for drawing attention to myself, and of fishing for compliments. I am self-indulgent to this day, but at least I have the presence of mind to be embarrassed by it occasionally. Back then I had no such restraint, and I am astonished that others put up with me at all.

But in having no restraint I was also a better writer than I am today, because I was brave enough (or oblivious enough) to write fictional pieces and even the occasional poem. I have not written fiction for years, and I doubt I ever will. That feels like a loss.

In high school we were given "Writing Folders" which consisted of three pouches. They were for "Rough Thoughts", "First Drafts", and "Finished Work" respectively. Decades later I can see the value of organizing writing in this way, and I can see the value of drafting and refining work. Back then I put content into "Rough Thoughts" and "First Draft" folders, but I was going through the motions. I was a Marksist. Going through the motions earned me marks, and getting marks was what I cared about. Good grades meant I was a good person; bad grades (anything less than an A) meant I was worthless and should never have been born.

I wish I had learned the lessons of editing and revising work back in high school. It was wrong for me to get high grades in my classes when I had not learned those lessons, but every system of evaluation can be gamed, and we high school students did our best to find every loophole. When we were required to write first drafts, I would dash off an essay at the last minute, then vandalize the printout with a ballpoint pen an hour before the assignment was due. My focus would not be on reflecting about the work, or making serious attempts to improve it. My focus would be on producing the output that we thought would get me good grades. And why should I have spent effort on reflecting and improving the work, when it was utterly meaningless and would never be read outside the context of the classroom? Supposedly revising work would make me a better writer in the future, but I did not care about the future; I cared about getting high marks so that I would get into a good university so that I would get a good job so I would not starve in the streets. And sure enough, getting into university ended up being more important than being a good writer. Obnoxious as it was, gaming the system was probably the right strategy.

I feel a lot of compassion for my high school teachers -- both for putting up with me and for awarding high marks to reams of mediocre student assignments. I can see signs that sometimes my teachers were going through the motions as well, leaving the kind of surface comments that indicated they were no more interested in reading my assignments than I am in rereading them today. They critiqued sentence structure and footnote formatting as much as (more than?) the underlying arguments or the broad effectiveness of thise arguments.

On the one hand, my writing from high school and university was pretty bad. I doubt I would be as charitable as my high school teachers were towards me then. On the other hand judging my writing from high school by the same standards I judge professional writing is also a mistake. We do not expect Grade 1 students to write essays as effective as Grade 10 ones. Similarly we probably should not expect high school students (or even undergraduates?) to write as well as professional writers. Ideally we would judge a student's work in terms of how much that student's writing improved over the course of the year. But even that metric is gameable; students would deliberately submit their worst work at the beginning of the year, and then improve their work in small meaningless increments throughout the term. Goodhart's Law is alive and well.

Yes, calling my early work terrible is yet more self-indulgence. It was mostly terrible. It was not uniformly terrible. I found one essay comparing Viking, Egyptian and Christian beliefs that was surprisingly good. Naturally, I don't remember writing it at all.

I feel that my writing was least terrible when I was having fun with it, when I was letting my creativity run free instead of obsessing over grades or maintaining my personal brand of relentless pessimism. I think my teachers saw some of that too, but nobody made that lesson explicit, and I do not know how long it took before I finally internalized it.

Going through this old work makes me feel mad and nostalgic and confused. I cannot help but look at this work through the lens of John Taylor Gatto, who critiqued schooling as a mechanism for teaching compliance. Those who comply with authority do well in school, and those who see that the cake is a lie are punished. As a Marksist and a coward, I complied with authority at every opportunity, but in the process I robbed myself of learning many of these lessons these writing classes were supposedly teaching me.

The way I gamed marking rubrics makes me anxious that there is any way to evaluate coursework effectively. So much of my schooling workflow consisted of:

I very rarely used the feedback from these assignments to improve my work or become a more effective writer. Once in a while I would get a bad numerical grade which would make me furious. THEN I would pay attention to the commentary. But so long as I was being placed in the proper academic box ("good student") I didn't care about reflection or self-improvement at all.

Similarly, when I have taught courses my students did not care much for the feedback I had to offer. In first year classes the students obsessed over marks. In my volunteer teaching (for example, with the KW Freeskool) grades were nonexistent, and so those who were not already internally motivated did not do much work at all.

Ever since reading Gatto, I have believed that the ways marks and feedback are used for credentialism -- to put students into boxes that determine whether they "pass" or "get a certification" or "get into a good university". Furthermore I feel strongly that such credentialism is actively detrimental to learning.

But I cannot help but believe that schooling did something. When I was in high school students complained that schooling was worthless and that we were going through a bunch of busywork for a piece of paper, that if not for that paper it would be irrelevant whether we went to high school at all. I ought to agree, but I don't. Maybe I agree that high school is an inefficient way to learn, and I could have spent my time more effectively. Nevertheless I enjoyed high school in ways I do not enjoy my life now, and I believe that somehow I did end up learning things from it.

I was exposed to a wide breadth of subject matter, and I remember fragments of that material to this day. That sounds trivial but I think it is important: schools focus our attention on subjects that we would otherwise ignore. Outside of school I have almost never made the time to learn subjects that seem interesting but are outside my day to day life.

I think my writing did improve over the years, although that may have been merely correlated with brain development and not causative of it. I can point to one course which I feel really did change my writing: a second year Expressive Writing course I took in my fourth year of undergrad. The course emphasized the basics of modern writing style: cutting out adverbs, employing parallelism, shortening and simplifying sentences. Each week we would be assigned short writing exercises to practice these concepts. Every few weeks we would meet with the professor or his TA (outside of class!) to critique our writing together. I remember thinking that out-of-class individualized meetings seemed like the weirdest thing ever.

Even though I was collapsing under the load of fourth year computer science courses that term, I distinctly remember making the time to be as creative as I could during the weekly exercises. Probably I was influenced by the fact that we read some of these exercises out loud in class. I don't think I spent more time than usual in rewriting drafts of things, but I distinctly remember applying the lessons I had learned in class to those writing assignments.

I do not know whether internalizing lessons from that course improved my writing, but it certainly changed it. My high-school self would have rebelled against taking such a prescriptivist approach to writing; in high school I wanted to be untainted by conventional wisdom about writing, and I wanted to invent a brand new, incredibly effective writing style out of whole cloth. Given that I failed to invent some new writing style, maybe getting better at conventional writing was a good tradeoff.

I had taken writing courses all through high school. I had even done in-class oral critiques the year before. But the expressive writing class I took in fourth year worked in a way previous writing classes had not. Why?

Part of the answer was that I was engaged, and I actually put effort into doing the work. Part of the answer may have been a lack of evaluation: I cannot remember the weekly assignments being assigned numeric grades, and I think at the end of the class a bunch of us received the same mark. My best guess is that I learned by doing, and that following up on earlier work via in-person evaluation helped.

In high school I spent one summer writing a play. It was going to be produced by the high school Drama Club, so we workshopped and revised it. The writing was not just an assignment to be thrown in a box for twenty years; it would influence other people. I am unreasonably proud of that achievement, even though it was not Marksist.

Similarly, I was unreasonably proud about scoring highly on the Grade 13 Descartes Mathematics competition. That did not come for free; I spent a different summer working through practice questions. There was no ongoing evaluation of this work, but I still put in effort and found some internal motivation to do it.

I previously wrote about some high school presentations I also view as accomplishments. Once again these were not last-minute assignments that happened to earn me high grades; our class put real effort into making those presentations as good as they were.

Outside of schooling I learned to fix bicycles by volunteering on a regular basis for Reycle Cycles.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that when I am engaged tasks become more meaningful, and when I put in time and effort into learning then I learn better. The question is whether this can be formalized into classwork, or whether Goodhart's Law is doomed to ruin everything.


Because this entry is not long enough already (clearly I did not retain the "conciseness" lessons from my expressive writing class) here are some lessons I feel ripped off about not learning in high school. Many of these were lessons supposedly on the curriculum:

Here are some lessons that maybe I did learn at appropriate times:

Here are some lessons I wish I had not learned: