Category Archives: College – Getting In & Going To

Mirror Images: Teaching to the Test & Learning to the Test

  • It’s the high school way of doing things.  Standardization, box-checking, rubrics.
  • Teach to the test.  And, how could it not also be: learn to the test?


  • Night-before cramming, word banks coded into acronyms, memorizing a stock phrase for each term to be used on the test once and once only.
  • HSIALOALN: High School Is A Lot Of Acronym-Loving Nitwits.
  • Read the text (if at all) only after the teacher has shown in class what they will emphasize on the test.
  • Study the test by answering the textbook’s numbered questions at the end of each unit.  Scan the text until you find the keyword.  Copy down the relevant sentence, mildly rearranged, perhaps even remembered for later use on the test.
  • That’s the way the game is played — in high school.  That ends abruptly with college.
  • Teachers: Did we really think we would be teaching to the test and the team on the other side of the scrimmage line wouldn’t notice?
  • “It was a dirty game” both sides say.  “Who started it?”  “The other team!” both sides say.
  • Teachers: think of that flurry of activity when the new standardized guidelines are released.
  • “What do our masters up the food chain really mean?”  What do they really want?”  We have training sessions, workshops, and round-tables in how to grade by the rubric.  Prudent teachers often sign up to become AP or IB graders for a little bit of money and a whole lot of insight into what “they” really want.
  • If you can’t beat’em join’em.  It’s a strategy that’s worked for as long as we’ve thought strategically.
  • Every such system maintains itself by an incentive system of sticks and carrots.  “Do things our way or feel our pain directly through your personal interests, as they are fed those tasty carrots or struck with those stinging sticks!
  • Thus the exalted pedagogical art of divining what the higher ups really want, lurking behind the bright and shiny words of their mission statements.  “Look to the rubrics, young men and women!”  “Look to the insider insights into what they really want!”  During the Cold War, this sort of thing used to be called Kremlinology, divining the will of the always threatening powers that be.
  • Teachers: did you really think this covert reshaping of our pedagogic goals would go unnoticed?
  • Did you really think it would have no effect on the character and quality of the education we provide?
  • I offer no easy answers because there are none.
  • How does one keep one’s head above these inky waters?
  •  Ask a low-level bureaucrat in an imperial system of governance.  Ask a foot-soldier in the vanguard of an invading horde.
  • …or, try working “under the radar”.
  • Next: So, What’s a Poor Teacher To Do?  Teaching Under the Radar.

Under the Radar: a Short-Form Teachers’ Manifesto


  • In Answer to the Question “So, What’s a Poor Teacher To Do?” posed in the post “Mirror Image: Teaching to the Test & Learning to the Test” (with temporary link in the blog header above (background black), I say “teach under the radar”.
  • Try to do some good “under the radar”.  Spare an innocent, when you can.  Be flexible when it’s warranted.  We all have our own little tricks.  Call it enrichment; call it stubbornly individualistic ways of sneaking captivating content into the standardized units of knowledge hurried along on the great conveyor-belts of pacing guides, all driven by what I call the throughput model: view the student as an empty vessel to be stuffed at a predetermined pace with units of approved knowledge.
  • I think that’s the wrong model, for a variety of reasons.  Just one: it’s the model used by the McDonald’s corporation — provide a thoroughly mediocre, yet predictable, minimally nutritious and maximally health-code compliant product, recognizable anywhere in the world as tolerable, predictable, and safe, while neither a gourmet treat nor the most healthful and nutritious option.


  • I follow the watershed model: view the student as the possessor of untapped resources.  My job is to prospect for and ignite those powers, to challenge the student to look within themselves to their own resources, to recognize which among them need to be developed because they are strengths (often untapped) and which need to be developed because their insufficiency creates vulnerabilities.
  • Following this model, one doesn’t worry too much about the factoids (the things measured, by and large, in those standardized tests).  You watch for the watershed moments, you provide opportunities, occasions, and challenges to trigger them  Then, when they occur on their own schedule, not yours, you throw everything you have into fueling that flame.
  • Incidentally, this is the same technique for observing those surviving remnants of nature which covertly surround us all.  Trees tolerate our presence because we tolerate theirs.  But animate nature must be covert because we, human beings, are the great destroyers.  Four-legged creatures hide from our sight, many of the surviving species being nocturnal.  Legless creatures hide from us; the Bible tells us what to do to them.  We’ve eliminated the daytime two-legged creatures in our near environs, except for those who fly.


  • Many more of our winged cohabitants surround us than we realize.  Only a few species dare to be easily seen.  The rest take cover in the foliage.  Learn to recognize the calls of the common ones.  Then you’ll hear the other calls when they’re present, on their schedule, not yours.  To learn to see the nature all around us, we must learn to hear their voices, on their schedule, not ours.
the leaf-litter toad


  • It’s the same with our students — and all the more so, the more they are, in their deepest souls, thirsting to learn!
  • Be less concerned with herding students into the “right” answers, and more concerned with igniting their desire to seek mastery of the procedures that set them on the trail of the truth.  In its most comprehensive sense, that means critical thinking, the procedures for understanding and monitoring the ways in which credible claims are made in the various disciplines.


  • And while each discipline has its own internal rules to follow to produce its kind of credible knowledge, there must also be a higher-level form of critical thinking which adjudicates between the separate disciplines and their different kinds of claims (see Mommy, Where Do Agents Come From? for a theory of knowledge tour).  But that is usually only motivated by having achieved a bit of mastery in more than one discipline, raising the question of the powers and limits of each, and of which exerts the stronger draw, or of how to balance the different demands when drawn by more than one.
  • Be open to questions.
  • Never be afraid to say “I don’t know”.  Every discipline ascends from one level of mastery to another; every discipline descends into levels of technical detail that no one but the specialist need know.  Never pretend to know what one does not know, for either reason.
  • Never place an absolute chasm between your knowledge and theirs; if teaching is a real art, it courses over a continuous pathway from the novice to the expert.  Our job as teachers is to illumine that pathway, not to disguise it.
  • Next: So, What’s a Poor Student To Do?  Learning Without Limits, or The Limits To Your Dreams.

The Limits of Your Dreams: Farsightedness & Nearsightedness

The real magic-carpet ride: genuine education
  • By farsightedness I mean what you can envision.
  • By nearsightedness I mean your ability to plan achievable steps today to start you on your path.
  • If you lack farsightedness, you’ve put a ceiling on your dreams.  You’re aiming for the ordinary.  You are part of the mass, even if part of an elite, high-income part of the mass.  History will shape you rather than you it.  Every culture breeds its elites to live, spawn, and die, without leaving a trace, except that of representative, interchangeable units of the host culture.  In economics, they call these actors price-takers, as distinct from price-makers; the mass market determines their prices and their choices.
  • If you lack nearsightedness, you are a dreamer rather than a doer.  You will float through life, dreaming away the time and resources with which you could have built that future you dreamed of.  You live in the land of the lotus eaters.  Time will pass you by, and as your aging dreams fade, the pleasing daydreams upon which your ego feeds must become ever more enchanting and ever farther from your daily reality, until you have lost all touch with reality, a legend in your own mind, but in no one else’s.
  • You must be an Odysseus, passing between the Scylla of enslavement to the institutions and conventions within which the resources for success must be mined and the Charybdis of righteous isolation, alienation, and ultimate insignificance.
  • You must work within the institutions which are the gatekeepers to success in any field without becoming the empty canvases upon which those institutions, and their functionaries, paint their institutional needs.  You must use them for your ends rather than being used by them for theirs.
  • Now, it is right that you should be somewhat wary, hearing this from a 64-year old high school teacher.  Let’s just say I’m a late bloomer.  With your whole careers ahead of you, learn from my mistakes, and take a faster, surer path to your future.  If you have a dream, begin now, in however small a way, to lay the foundations of that dream, by planning small achievable steps, each one of which brings you nearer to that distant goal.
  • Rule #1: Determine for yourself how things really work.  Listen attentively to those more experienced than you, but don’t take their generalizations for truths unless you can demonstrate to yourself that their truths hold up to the intensest scrutiny you can bring to bear on them.
  • Rule #2: Speak your whole mind, with its reservations about their presumed truths, only to those you judge to be truth-seekers without a careerist agenda of their own.  Genuine intellectual integrity is rarer and more precious than brilliance.  Never presume that it’s there unless you see clear signs that it is.
  • Rule #3: Never stake your happiness on a distant goal.  Distant goals may never be achieved, and may transform in ways beyond your current imagination as they come closer to fruition.  To tie your happiness to a goal that may not be achievable, or not achievable in the romanticized vision you have of it from a great distance, is to set yourself up for disappointment, disillusionment, and misery.  Find the activity for which the journey is fulfilling whether or not you reach the promised land.  Because it is only the journey that you experience at first-hand at every step of the journey; the destination only exists in your imagination, until you have arrived.
  • Always remember, your “Indies” may turn out to be a whole other continent than the one that sparked your dream.
  • Remember, too, that Moses never saw the promised land.  Your pioneering path may open up horizons for those who come after you, and unless you can take joy in that, what joy can any achievement bring?  Live well, set an example, and clear a path for those who follow; that is how humankind makes the world a place worth living in.
  • Rule #4: Begin early building small platforms for further achievements which you alone control, beyond the say-so of any institution.  Do this alongside your work within institutions.  You won’t be able to avoid preexisting institutions completely but you never want to depend entirely upon them; every safe haven needs an escape hatch.
  • Rule #5: Have a small and surely achievable, yet still worthy and satisfying dream, alongside your big dream.  Great achievements cannot fill the emptiness of hollow souls.  Make sure to have a dream fit for a decent but modest human being, one that is certainly achievable if only you make the effort, alongside your big dream.  We all need the nourishment of modest but achievable dreams, even while we chase the big ones.  The American Dream is just such a modest and achievable dream; let it be your sufficient dream, while you pursue the big one.
Living the Dream Plan B - Big
                                                                                My personal motto

College, the Real Deal: Keeping It Local

Hedgehog Brimming with Self-Confidence

This is a college undergraduate CGHS super-senior’s perspective on handling some of the monstrous unknowns of the college years. From my 5-year (going-on-6-year) college experience, studying locally, living with family and commuting saves SO much money. Once one jumps the economic hurdle  with financial aid, loans and family assistance, the struggle in deciding what exactly to do can lead to unwelcome self-doubt.

This post aims to give practical advice and encouraging insight for those embarking on formal, post-secondary education.


“P” is for Parents

Tiger Mom

 If one has parents who are willing and able to support a college student, then it is worth putting up with their house rules for a few extra years. I struggle significantly with defining myself as an adult craving independence while under my overprotective parents’ roof. It’s hard (not gonna lie) but I remind myself that I am privileged to have a Hispanic family that wants me at home forever. On the bright side, I receive free lessons in humility I would otherwise miss living alone. Most importantly, I spend more time studying to build a career and less time depending on a low wage job that barely pays to meet daily needs.


Fancy or Not


Going to community colleges and local universities may not give a resume the fancy-schmancy “Oomph” most students are pre-conditioned to pursue. Let me tell you, a fulfilling education can be acquired nonetheless. Nobody looks at where you got your Associates or Bachelors from. Should I repeat that? NOBODY LOOKS! NOBODY CARES! And if they do, they’re snobs who don’t deserve you. As long as it is a nationally accredited school, students who put forth maximum effort receive the resources necessary to succeed wherever they go. An overpriced school will use the same exact textbooks as a less expensive one. You wanna go to an Ivy League? Save it for grad school.

At the end of the day, a university is a business.

If they take advantage of the statistical numbers you provide for them, then likewise take advantage of the opportunities available:

  • Apply for an Undergraduate Research Grant.
  • Join a club you don’t hate.
  • Build positive relationships with the faculty and staff.
  • Plan ahead for scholarships

These little things provide the limited experience level of a student with extra fortification.


Fake the Confidence

Look Ma, No Hands

How does one narrow down their academic passions if there is major indecision? The first thing I did was fill up all of my elective credits to test every department available and see what I liked best. It didn’t work. Time was up and I was still stuck. I liked it all and was at risk of paralyzing my future education. I’ve seen friends drop out simply because they could not make up their mind. Then they got married, had kids, and were dead broke leeching off of some basement… Fear of Falling into their Fate led me to lock in an answer and stay committed.

There is no self-help, quick fix phrase out there to help you decide what to major in. It just takes a surge of confidence.

Study what you love. If what you love has a bad rap for not providing Self-Sustaining Stability (like say: The Visual or Performing Arts), then double major and add something “safe.” Make yourself indispensable for employers by expanding your discipline beyond one rigid academic silo.

I’m studying Art and Communication. I love everything about it. Once I got over the shame-stereotype that my major is not perceived to be as “academically rigorous” as a lawyer’s, I finally treasured who I was becoming. The passion that you have, WATER IT! No one can take that away from you.


Cheese for Dessert

Cheese for Dessert

No human can tell you how to define yourself, SO whatever you do…

DON’T define yourself by:

  • what your GPA is
  • what your test scores are
  • whether or not you got scholarships
  • where you got accepted
  • what Uncle George’s opinion is of your major
  • how long you take to graduate college.
  • what your “significant other” is doing after graduation

There’s so much more than that. After you really try, relax and have confidence in who you’ll become. Discovering that is — literally — the best.


Scaling Dreams to Realities

  • Worry to scale; be happier!
  • We need dreams.  Never let them die.
  • People who let their dreams die are prime candidates for addiction, abuse of others, and dogmatic, hate-filled ideologies.  Those are the ones who turn their anger outward.  Turning anger inward  can lead to self-loathing and suicide.  Withdrawal leads to a middle-aged life of quiet desperation.
  • But dreams need constant reworking; social and psychological survival depend on adaptation, just as much as biological survival does.
  • Dreams need long-term aspirations, middle-term targets, and short-term incrementally achievable goals.
  • As long as you have a flexible vision for the middle- and long-terms, focus on continuous, incremental progress in meeting your short-term goals.  Let your sense of personal satisfaction grow from that.  Don’t measure yourself by the gap between distant goals and present realities.  Measure yourself by forward progress in meeting short-term goals and advancing toward middle-term targets.
    • But don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Remain flexible, adaptive, and open to refining and redefining those longer-range targets and aspirations, as your growing experience deepens your understanding of the opportunities and threats on the paths you’re exploring.
  • In short, to keep your dreams in perspective, measure them by progress in your position and your capabilities, not by how far you yet remain from becoming master of your chosen universe.
  • If I can do it in my 60’s, you can do it in your teens and 20’s.
  • This reflection was occasioned by writing a post on my own unrealized dreams  (“Why I’m Not a College Professor”).  If I think about it from the POV of where I am not and what I’ve missed, my mood grows sour or indecisive; but, if I think about how I am continually improving my position, my life, and my capabilities, my mood grows sunny.
  • Needless to say, the sunnier disposition is both more fun and more productive.
  • My position and power improve on a daily basis.  Where will it all end?  I don’t know.  But I like where this is going…
  • Moral: scale your ambitions to your present capabilities, and your direction will be continuously upwards and your mood continually upbeat.

Why I’m Not a College Professor

Ideal World Road Sign

  • Not a tenured one, anyway, and without that, it’s not a living wage; you’re a migrant brain-picker.
  • Immaturity, arrogance, and an idealistic dreamer’s misperception of how the real world works — to throw out a few words.
  • Ironically, I find this encouraging as I am now, as I approach retirement — humbler, more cautiously observant, and altogether more Machiavellian than I was as a young man.  A few words of clarification:
    • Immaturity.  I have always been a late bloomer.  Yes, I’m 64 and still blooming.
      • Will you still need me?  Will you still feed me?… when I’m 64?  That is the question to which my blogging endeavor seeks the answer.  Let the dice roll!
    • Arrogance.  I wasn’t so much arrogant as rather too full of myself, convinced that my talents and inspiration would lead me inevitably to success!  All I had to do was not sell out!  The classic mantra of the ambitious hippie.
      • “Alas, poor hippie Counter-culture!  We were an overloud minority that lorded it over the silent majority of the time.  And look now.  Karma.  Payback.  Turnabout is fair play.  What works for you against your opponents will work for them against you.
    • Idealistic dreamer.  I knew perfectly well that Academia was no more an assemblage of disembodied pure spirits than any other human community, though less parochial and more stimulating.  And I am mostly a Machiavellian in observation,  yet in practice still more of a Kantian.  But at least now I see it coming, and, though I am not prepared to become a ruthless master of expediency, I can now and then arrange that when things fall into place, they do so to my advantage.  Call it passive-aggressive Machiavellianism.
  • Now, before we continue… a warning!
  • Ah, gentle reader, stay alert!  Be wary of the acrid taste of sour grapes, the cloying reek of self-justification.
  • It’s easy to attribute one’s failures to external factors.  I hope I will avoid that here, but you be the judge.
  • I like to think that I’ve better learned the art of the After-Action Report (see post of that title).  What did I do right?  What could I have done better?  What can I learn before my next attempt to raise my chances of success?
  • Publish or perish is written over the entry gates of Academia.
  • I submitted four articles for publication, with these characteristics:
    • They flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the discipline.
    • I did not closely follow any well-established line of interpretation.
    • I submitted only to top-tier journals.
  • Remarkably, I got 2 “leaners” out of 4.
    • Here’s the publication peer review process.
      • Submitted articles must pass first through the journal’s editor, who functions as a gatekeeper.  The editor weeds out articles obviously not suitable for publication in an academic journal generally, or their journal in particular.
      • Next the editor selects 3 professors from his journal’s reserve of established academics to review the article.  Each of them judges it to be worth publishing, arguably worth publishing, or not worth publishing.
      • In case of a tie, a vote of 1-1-1, it goes to a 4th, reviewer, who breaks the tie.
    • So, I made it twice to the final, 4th, reviewer, but not past.
  • Unremarkably, I didn’t get published.
  • After-Action Report (in retrospect; I didn’t do this at the time, not with this clarity):
    • What did I do right?  The general quality was good, or I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did.
    • What could I have done better?
      • I should have submitted to journals the same way students apply to colleges — applying to reach journals, match journals, and (relatively) safe journals.
      • I should not have frontally challenged mainstream views.
      • I should have focused more on getting a foot in the door, not on being true to myself.  “To thine own self be true,” as Hamlet knew better than I did, is great advice, once your position is secure — but until then, it is more prudent to keep a low profile and to keep your hole cards to yourself (the more so, the more you feel a new path is called for).
    • What could I learn to increase my chances next time?  I’ll present this as a series of rules to play by:
      • Understand the game as it is played.
      • Enter sideways, not with a frontal challenge.  If you mean to challenge the conventional wisdom of those into whose ranks you seek entry, do so in a veiled way; save bolder moves for when you are less vulnerable.
      • Clothe yourself in the authority of the current insiders, until you are an insider.
      • Aim initially for small victories.

Living the Dream Plan B - Big

My Chequered Past

Whitey Bulgerjpg

  • Job history, that is. I’m not the Hidden Imam of the Irish Mob.
  • So why does a student of philosophy go to B-School, become a stockbroker, become a computer programmer, get a PhD, and then teach high school?
  • Good question. It’s not like it was a plan or anything.
  • To put it in perspective, I was ABD (All But Dissertation), something of a professional student, without a clear focus as to how I was going to wrap up my PhD, coupled with the growing realization that positions in my field, traditional political theory, only opened up when the previous occupant left feet first (aka in a body bag), as more and more of my comrades paddled off in the Law School lifeboat for philosophers without job prospects. (And a steady stream of my former students with a flair for what I do are taking the Law School lifeboat still.)
  • My next move was to get accepted into UChicago’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) during the night, while in daylight hours I worked as a journeyman stockbroker trainee. (My GSB course in Microeconomics gave me the credentials for later teaching AP Macro at CGHS.) I got through three Quarters of that before the combined effort proved too much, and I dropped B-School for the stock market.
  • My timing couldn’t have been worse; I became a full-time stockbroker, on commission, just in time for the 1983-84 bear market. There were 4 of us entry-level stockbrokers with desks side by side, in what we came to call, in the hallowed tradition of gallows humor, Death Row, as the bear market lumbered on in its ursine way.
  • I could have stuck it out, but when I realized that retail stockbroking is not so much explaining risks and rewards to investors as goosing macho guys into acting in the broker’s best interests, I wanted out.
  • “Let’s get back,” I thought, “to something with a rational basis. Let’s learn computer programming.” You must be getting the picture, by now, that I have quite the chequered past, as far as job history goes, pretty much the opposite of a lifelong Japanese sarariman.
  • Hence, the MS in CompSci from DePaul. I specialized in AI, partly because it was the sexy, coming field (although it hit a 20-year doldrums about when I arrived), and partly because I was still more the intellectual than the jobseeker.
  • In 1986, when I graduated with my degree in CompSci, there were only two job markets for AI, San Francisco (Silicon Valley) and Boston (Route 128). Chicago was halfway between: nowhere.
  • I did get one bite from a Silicon Valley firm, Intellicorp, a maker of expert systems. I was flown out for an 8-hour all-day interview, 30-60 minute interviews with people across different departments.
  • My guide for the day, charming Donna, seemed like a friend, until she ambushed me at lunch. We went to a local Chinese place, and I ordered, my all-tme favorite Chinese dish: Moo Shu Pork. It’s kind of like a Chinese taco, and therein lay the unseen danger. Lay out a flat round rice pancake (much like a tortilla), heap onto it the savory combo of stir-fried pork strips, water chestnuts, golden needles (dried lily flower buds), wood ear (a disk-like fungus that grows on dead trees), etc., liberally dabbing the pancake on one side with hoi sin sauce (Chinese BBQ sauce) and hot mustard on the other. Now, roll it up, and don’t let go til you’re done, because (just like an over-full soft taco), all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. As I bit into this nostalgic treat, friendly, charming Donna asked me to draft a randomizing algorithm on my napkin. Lunch ruined, and a body blow to my job prospects. Dunn’s Rule #1 for seeming-friendly job-interview lunches: order a no-brainer meal from which you can quickly detach yourself.
  • I was almost, but not quite, what they were looking for. They wanted a Technical Joe, a think-fast-on-your-feet fixer and debugger for showing off their wares at technical trade shows. I was a plan-it-out program designer (but not out of Stanford or MIT). They kept me hanging for 3 months, long enough for me to turn down a standard COBOL programming position at several $1,000’s more than I utlimately settled for.
  • I did finally get a job, after 31 job interviews. I was overqualified, which meant that they all knew I would not be long content with a slow-moving entry-level position — and companies hate to train people so they can leave for greener pastures.
  • I was the first hire of Arthur Andersen (a now-defunct consulting firm of the Big 8, now reduced to the Big 4) at Chicago Title Insurance. One of the roles consulting firms play is to “restructure” an unproductive IT department, blowing out half the staff, which puts the remaining, more productive half on notice, and hiring in fresh recruits, like me.
  • I worked there for 3 years. Good income. OK life. But doing something I was OK at, while watching the driven people who loved it, or whose lifetime goal was climbing the ladder (the Arthur Andersen way) was all I needed of a mid-life crisis.
  • Back to my first love.
  • And that’s why my Gables students know me.
  • (Half the story, anyway. Future post: why I’m not a college professor, or, at least, not one on tenure track earning a living wage.)img_20180605_145239493