Carl Zimmer gets a lot of email

And a lot of it is students asking him to do their homework for them. I get this too, and I sympathize — but Zimmer goes straight to the teachers to ask them what they’re doing.

It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.

And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.

I sometimes get a ittle flood of emails all at once, and it’s clearly from a class that’s gotten an assignment like that. More often, though, it’s single students, acting on their own initiative, thinking they’ve got an angle to getting a difficult concept explained with little effort on their part.

But I also see it from the other side.

I see a lot of students who freak out when I give them an exam question that isn’t neatly summarized for them in a text book — who come to college not having the slightest clue how to synthesize information. They’re often really good at regurgitation and the kind of mechanical skills that get emphasized on standardized tests, but coming up with something new? That’s too hard.

I often get these complaints (and they also show up in my student evaluations):

“But the answer wasn’t in the textbook!”

“You didn’t tell us we’d have to know that!”

“I looked all over my lecture notes, and you didn’t talk about that!”

That’s right, I didn’t, and it wasn’t in there. Sometimes it was somewhere in the assigned readings, but I didn’t mention it; sometimes you have to integrate a couple of lines of evidence to come up with the answer; sometimes the answer isn’t known by anyone, and you have to come up with the best answer you can.

I second Zimmer’s concern. Teachers, your students don’t need to learn how to transcribe information, they need to master the skill of expressing new ideas. Encourage them to interpret science creatively and go out on a limb now and then — that’ll serve them better when they get deeper into science.

By the way, teachers, could you please also kill the 5-paragraph essay? I hate those things.


  1. MrFancyPants says

    This was always my most frustrating thing when I was (very briefly) a graduate student instructor. Were I to assign a problem that was the same as everything that I’ve described, I’d be asking you to parrot. I gave you the tools, and then I gave you a problem to challenge you to show that you know how to use them. Yes, I know that’s hard. Learning is hard. If it were easy, it would be in a pill, not a series of years of close instruction with people who have done the same thing.

  2. says

    Some administrators pay a lot of lip service to making students think. But then comes teacher evaluation time — how can they tell that an assignment is making students think? If students are talking, administrators assume they are not talking about an assignment. If they’re reading, why can’t they be reading out of the classroom? If they’re independently doing anything while the teacher helps a small group or individual students, the teacher is “ignoring the average learners.” If the teacher is lecturing and carrying on a discussion, administrators will note only 8 of 30 kids asked questions, and wonder what the teacher did to turn off the 22.

    Essays? Those are too subjective, administrators say. There must be a clear rubric, and that rubric better not leave any room for the really thinking student to skip a few steps, like listing seven different resources, to get to an answer that, ultimately, is not on the test.

    Kill the five paragraph essay? We thought we were doing you a favor getting them to write in five paragraphs instead of a series of disjointed phrases that provide “the answers.”

    I hear you, P.Z. Some of the same problems I used to see in my college students. But I was supposed to teach social studies, not writing. I suspect biology teachers are expected to teach biology, not writing.

    No one in administration seems to get the idea that we should be teaching thinking in all classes. Thinking? Who has time for that? It’s not on the test.

    You know, in Texas, to pass the writing test, students have to keep their essays in the box. Writing outside the box is not graded. You’re lucky to get five paragraphs . . .

  3. Brian says

    Isaac Asimov had a memorable essay about this problem. He initially responded to such letters from students (typically with five cookie-cutter questions) with a pleasant reply. As his fame grew, he found that such letters became more frequent, often with a pointed mention of a deadline only a few days away. Eventually, the frequency got to the point where hardly a week went by without him getting such a letter. Finally in frustration he wrote back to one student asking him to first get his teacher to answer a list of five (very similar) questions. This backfired on him, naturally, as the teacher responded back with a very thorough set of answers to his questions, and then chastised him for replying so brusquely to a child. The teacher almost convinced Asimov that he was in the wrong, in fact — but in the final paragraph, the teacher wrote: “I hope that in the future, if you ever find yourself in such a situation again …” At that moment, all feelings of remorse evaporated.

  4. sciencemc says

    I teach high school science, and I’ve never heard of this trend. I would never exhort students to hassle professionals. You are right – I am fighting all the time to get past the “You didn’t spoon feed me that! How can I answer??” Too many students just want whatever will get them a grade, and resent attempts to get them to extend what they have learned. The only thing that seems to work is being a raging ogre at the beginning of the year, and setting high expectations early. Even that is only partially successful. By the time I get 11th graders (16-17 years old) they have been taught that they sit up and beg and teacher does the thinking for them.

  5. krubozumo says

    I think we have to admit that education is a little odd in the two contexts of a) delivering a service and b) contracting for said service. What it ultimately boils down to is that the student, who pays for the service of teaching, is deemed either successful or unseccessful by the evaluation of the persons s/he contracted for the service. So there is that aspect of the whole thing which it seems to me is upside down.

    On the other hand, there is some kind of ‘obligation’ on the part of the student to strive and aspire because it should be implicitly clear that learning is not like cooking pasta. In my opinion, several decades removed from the academic environment, the crux to any education is learning how to think about problems, put them into context and then go about solving them in pragmatic terms. That is simplistic, but it goes to the main issue here I think.

    I recall that as a grad I wrote to one or two prominent researchers in my field asking them for reprints of papers cited that I wanted to understand. Subsequently, because I was unable to pursue an academic career, and ill disposed to do so, I have had a few interactions with academics who by consulting with the likes of me, sell their services to a different class of clients.

    Throughout, the same truth has always prevailed. Whether confronted with an ‘academic’ problem the solution of which is known by a small elite group, or more realistically, confrronted with a problem that is exclusively of the real world, for which no one has any solution, the thing that ultimately solves it is a combination of disciplined thinking and creative exploration.

    I don’t know if it would be hard or easy to teach in a way that would cultivate the skillls that lead to new discoveries and comprehensions. I have the feeling that will not be quantified any time soon.

    I don’t mean to slam academia here, all I am saying is that it is imperfect and to a great extent it survives solely on the firm dedication of its tutorial staff.

    The world, everything we experience and imagine, is far more complex than anything we can manage and direct.

    In my opinion, the objective of teaching should be to teach how to learn. That skill can be employed for a lifetime. Widely.

  6. mildlymagnificent says

    Never fear! They can always sign up to a science forum and make their first post a screen shot or photo of the questions from an assignment or textbook. Strangely enough, we always insist on such students, anywhere from year 6 to college level, “show their work” so that we can answer specific questions. Usually we get a slightly bemused response that we have guessed that this was “homework”.

    This kind of student really, really doesn’t understand that they and. no one. else. is supposed to do the work. Others are only there to give hints or explain complicated details or point out errors to be rectified before submission. This is also a startling revelation to far too many.

    As for suggesting getting started on the always available wiki page? Oh, they’ve looked at that but they can’t see the answer they want – the answer that is given under a bolded heading when you scroll down the page. They seem unable to read even a table of contents to find what they’re looking for. I sometimes feel like Grumpy McGrumpyhead leading these innocents by the hand through the process, but it has to be done some time or another by someone or another, it might as well be me. Far better me, I suppose, than a real scientist or author with real work to do in the area.

  7. says

    Sometimes my inner cynic suggests that perhaps the students are in the right, here. They have thought about things in a problem-solving mode. And they realized: the world does not reward critical thinking, careful reasoning, or literacy.

    Who gets more admiration, a doctor who spent vast amounts of time and effort and money to get an education, or a sociopathic CEO who partied through a 4-year degree and got his job through family connections?

    Who’s more famous, a musicologist and composer who has a deep, scholarly understanding of music, or a media-made parasite like Justin Bieber?

    Who made more money, Xerox who invented some GUI and HID technologies, Apple who did the necessary R&D and testing to turn them into a real product (it’s amazing how limited the Xerox GUI was), or Microsoft who just blatantly stole from Apple? (And the process is repeating; Google blatantly stole the Android GUI from Apple, and Samsung blatantly stole the hardware design of the iPhone, and who do the geeks cheer on?)

    A really intelligent student with a high level of awareness is going to notice that the deck is stacked heavily against individual effort, and will coast as much as possible. It’s a bad thing for civilization, but it’s how we have arranged things.

  8. says

    Florida’s FCATs. State officials think teaching is rote memorization for a test.

    At least there they just hold rallies, put up billboards and anoint students’ desks with holy oil to try to get good FCAT scores. They’d probably never dream of telling the students to try to talk to an actual scientist.

  9. okstop says

    It’s fuzzy-brained edu-fads like this that make me thankful my discipline is not taught in high schools. Most of them, anyway.

  10. says

    Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, HP….

    All massive corporations steal IP, over-interpret (or lie about) IP law when it’s in their favor, exploit cheap and slave labor for manufacturing, and of course exploit their own customers too. Fanning a corporation is ridiculous.

    Apple gouges its own customers with insane profit margins. It gets them to line up en masse, camping out by the millions in order to be the first in their cohort (by a few days at most) to “think different.”

    Turning anti-consumerist impulses into lining up to overpay for the latest disposable gadget.

    They ALL suck. They’re ALL amoral. Apple is just often better at it.

    (rant off)

  11. consciousness razor says

    Who’s more famous, a musicologist and composer who has a deep, scholarly understanding of music, or a media-made parasite like Justin Bieber?

    A person’s not famous only for as long as they’re alive, right? Or more to the point, is fame in a person or in a culture?

    Assuming that can be settled, and assuming fame were a rational goal to have given the way society works, which one of the two sorts of people* ought to be pursuing differently, do you think that in a hundred years people will celebrate (or even remember) any particular piece of crap Bieber has performed?

    *The two sorts are those who divide people into two sorts and those who don’t, of course.

  12. lochaber says

    Seriously, probably one of the biggest reasons for me majoring in the sciences (right behind liking them…), was that I really didn’t have to remember much.

    I just had to figure out/learn how a given system/mechanism worked, and then apply that to what’s presented later on.

    Aside from that, I pretty much always got annoyed at the ‘will this be on the final’ type questions. I sorta understand them, but once I got past highschool, I was actually interested in the subject matter of most of classes, and questions about what will/willnot be on the final just detracted away from discussion of the (actually interesting) subject matter.

    I was still (and always will be…) a crap student, though….

  13. says

    I’ve had this happen so many times. The first few times I was truly shocked, I never would have even considered contacting an adult I didn’t even know at their job to ask them to do my homework. I once had a kid write me to tell me he wanted me to put him in touch with the first cancer survivor. I took the time to write him back explaining the many reasons that was impossible and some information about the history of cancer treatment. The little brat sent me a very rude email back still demanding I do the impossible for him. The second email I sent him was far less polite than my first and I never responded to a student emailing me to do their homework again.

  14. carlie says

    It becomes even more interesting of a problem when you teach online and know that students have access to everything, all the time. I’ve tried mightily to adapt the way I assess their learning to be very, very light on the “give me information” and much heavier on the “explain how this works and how you know it” kinds of questions. I tell them straight-out that I understand they have the entire world at their fingertips and plan to use it, and that’s ok, and that my single only requirement is that anything they give me be in their own voice, in their own words, that the only way I can assess learning is to see what comes out after the information gets processed through their own brains, so if I see any copy-paste they will immediately fail the entire assignment, even if it’s half of one sentence in a one-point question on a test.

    And yet, almost every semester, some of them do it it anyway. I guess I should be glad they’re only using websites instead of pestering the authors of websites directly.

  15. ChasCPeterson says

    By the way, teachers, could you please also kill the 5-paragraph essay? I hate those things.

    It’s a tool to encourage exacly the development of exactly the skills of critical thinking, rational argument, and organized presentation that you seem to want to see in your students. Like, the conventional sections of a scientific paper/lab report, the point is that that the rigors of proscribed structure actually encourage the writer to think more clearly,
    Agreed that by the time a student is in college, s/he ought to be able to move past the specific rules while retaining the general approach. Ought to. Maybe yours at the elite UMM can; it ain;t like that everywhere.
    Personally, I would love to receive a rule-bound 5PE from one of my students, instead of the amazingly disorganized and poorly thought-out lazy-ass shit they mostly submit instead.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a high-schooler, I once wrote to Asimov after reading an essay in which he lamented religious resistance to population control, suggesting he cite Luke 23:28-31 in such cases.

    I had not asked for a reply, and was amazed/thrilled when he sent back a plain white typewritten (but signed) postcard observing that the bible can be used to support just about every imaginable position, and therefore doesn’t effectively support any (my paraphrase).

    Asimov was already fairly well-known by then, and probably receiving a flood of mail. Perhaps he thought it worthwhile to encourage someone who was trying to make a constructive contribution, and not asking for help with homework.

  17. shouldbeworking says

    I’m a high school physics teacher and I hate it when I get a memorized solution to a problem. The student’s response to the poor mark is almost always “but that’s what the solution was for homework problem number …”. The students don’t believe me when I tell them there are an infinite number of scenarios for the finite number of theories. Their job, therefore, is to learn to analyze the scenarios before reaching for their calculator.

  18. mildlymagnificent says

    As for essay structure. I’m afraid that’s something that has to be taught fairly explicitly to students who don’t come to it easily or gracefully.

    (We’ve also found structuring writing to be a good way to winkle out those students you consider to have dyslexic/disorganised thinking type learning issues which weren’t obvious in their earlier years. Get a student to just write just a few sentences in their own words about a topic you’ve given them. Check for accuracy, then ask them to choose the best one to start a paragraph or a longer piece of work. Without fail, you can predict which students will choose the sentence that stands out as having the least chance of going anywhere. Sigh. Then you knuckle down to structure by numbers.)

  19. grunculus is me says


    Coming at this from a physics/engineering perspective, I see some merit in both sides of this. Of course people who have a major presence on the web get lots of e-mail. Of course some / most of the requests are selfish requests for help. Of course scientists and popularizers of science are busy.

    But so are teachers.

    If a science teacher gets direction from on-high to “use the web” or “use social media” to make their classes more “relevant”, then they’ll try to explain to their students how to do that. And often those instructions will be garbled or misinterpreted (sometimes deliberately so) by the students.

    Of course students should learn more than regurgitation of facts and turning the crank to solve problems. But how many of us had teachers who were good at teaching how to do that? I only recall a couple. How many of us, instead, had teachers whose attitude was “you learned this in kindergarten” (or even heard that literal phrase)?

    Good teachers are rare and are a treasure to be nurtured. Good teachers explain things clearly, and lead their students to make inferences. Good teachers also recognize that there are always “tricks” in the hard sciences for solving problems. Teachers don’t re-derive their subject matter on their own from first principles, they stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Explaining to students that there’s a standard method for attacking certain types of problems rather than “teaching to the test” is invaluable, but where are the teachers who have time to do that now? Too often teachers do not explain things like how to make the leap from “2+2 = 4” to “the sum of all integers from 1 to 100 is 5050”.

    Too many teachers also seem to believe that their course is the only one a student takes during the year. Everyone has constraints on their time. Learning a new subject shouldn’t be a scavenger hunt – the good teacher guides the class along the way.

    An excellent book on how difficult and yet how important it is to teach elementary physics well is Arons’ A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching.

    tl;dr version:

    Everyone is busy. Don’t put all the blame on lazy students. The educational system is too often presently configured to favor this process.

    My $0.02. I enjoy the blog. Thanks.

    (Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks – they were there when I typed it…)


  20. RFW says

    Equally annoying, and to much larger numbers of people: idiot sociology and psychology students who post their surveymonkey surveys in Craigslist forums. This is most frequent in the two gay-themed forums.

    Why not use CL in this way?

    A. Because it’s against CL rules and you are not special: the rules apply to you too.

    B. Because survey announcements are soon flagged into oblivion by forum regulars.

    C. Because any survey with self-selected respondents is not based on a random sample and hence any conclusions drawn from it are of little worth.

  21. Maureen Brian says

    Funny, that. We were given vast chunks of the writing of Addison and Steele (Founders of the Spectator – the original one in 1711) and firmly told that this was the standard to which we must aspire. We just had to use modern vocabulary, what we had learned ourselves and do it in our own words!

  22. RFW says

    @ 21 Grunculus is me:

    The difficulty you gloss over is that it’s the teachers job to answer students’ questions, not the scientists’. (Nor, for that matter, anyone else’s.)

    PS to earlier posting: A parallel situation involving CL involves the science students who ask for homework answers in the CL Science forum. The distressing thing about such postings is that sometimes the student clearly hasn’t got a clue about the subject. I’ve seen postings that amounted to how do you calculate an arithmetic mean?, for example. I suspect such postings emanate from students toward end of term when they finally wake up to the reality of next week’s final exam and, after frittering away the whole term heretofore, are now scrambling to catch up. Important message to students (and hence to instructors): it takes time and hard work to develop an understanding of any field, so be sure to do all the homework and attend all the lectures and above all else think about the meaning of the material presented to you.

  23. mnb0 says

    @19 Shouldbe: I am a colleague of yours – I also teach math – and I am with you. I phrase several questions of my tests deliberately in such a way that memorized solutions won’t work. My kids are a bit younger, 14-16, and when they complain they accept my answer. It also helps that the director of my school backs me.

  24. fmitchell says

    Another vote for the 5-paragraph essay … in high school, maybe the first year of college. The basic techniques have served me well in academia and business.

    The problem, though, is not every essay should be five paragraphs long. Sometimes the nature of the problem requires more than five paragraphs. Sometimes the amount of evidence or argument doesn’t fit neatly into single paragraphs. Conversely, sometimes the best arguments take up only a sentence each.

    Five-paragraph essays make a great starting point, but in the real world one must improvise on the introduction-body-conclusion, topic sentence, and thesis-evidence patterns to produce readable and sufficient answers. Like this one.

    BTW, I agree on bothering experts in the field. The only reason to do so is for cutting-edge research and answers not in any textbook or reference book, and only AFTER exhausting available resources.

  25. Peter B says

    For an essay on the subject the “Please do my Homework” I like

    In September comp.lang.c may still have obvious homework requests. Printing the first 20 members of the Fibonacci series is a common assignment. I responded to one such request using the function that directly generates Fibonacci series members. I sent it saying, “Your homework is ready.” Then went on to caution the student that he might be called before the class to explain how his program worked.

    I send rare messages to academics. I kept reading science types using “PI” and had no clue. Google had a million things about that irrational number, 3.1415927…. IIRC, I asked Harriet Hall from what “PI” meant because Google wasn’t any help.

    Harriet Hall: Principal Investigator
    Peter B: Thank you

  26. says

    I couldn’t agree more about the 5-paragraph essay. I grade for cognitive science, and the essays usually have a limit of 500 words, so there’s a ton of first-years who will write a 5-paragraph, and the result is they have next to no content. They’re told that they do not have to follow strict essay format, but of course they think that if they do, they will get a better mark. Then I have to go and explain that no, we don’t care about structure so long as it makes sense, and that anything which reduces useful content is bad.

  27. says

    @Marcus Ranum, #8:

    I presume you meant to quote the “Microsoft stole from Apple” and respond with “Apple stole from Xerox”. (Otherwise you make no sense.) There ought to be a Snopes page for that particular myth: Apple paid Xerox to use any intellectual property they saw while on a one-day tour of the building where Xerox was doing its GUI/HI development. The payment was a million dollars in Apple stock, which, at the time Xerox sold it, was worth ten times that. Apple’s developers took home some concepts and vastly improved them — Xerox’s GUI had no overlapping windows, no open/save dialogs or concepts of file management, and had only contextual menus. All the effort and research to actually turn the bits and pieces into a coherent GUI OS were done at Apple over a period of about 3 years.

    Then Microsoft, who tried to make a copy of the Mac and couldn’t even figure out how to make the mouse cursor work (really!), sent over engineers and insisted that they had to be shown OS internals to make Microsoft Word work. Apple’s management — which by this time no longer included Jobs, by the way — gave them 1-year NDAs because they assumed that one year would be enough lead time to make imitators irrelevant. During that year, Microsoft built Windows 1.0 but did not release it; the release date coincided exactly with the expiration of the NDA term. They paid nobody anything, and did no actual GUI research themselves. Technically legal, but ethically indefensible.

    And then you have Google with Android. They actually gave a semi-public demo of Android before anyone except the iPhone team and Steve Jobs got to see the iPhone; it wasn’t even a smart phone OS, just a feature phone OS. But Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board of directors and got to see the initial private presentation of the iPhone, and immediately told the Android devs that Android should be a smart phone OS and had them build it using concepts he saw at Apple. I’m not even sure it’s technically legal — there had been complaints about Schmidt being on Apple’s board already — but it was definitely ethically indefensible.

    But, hey, don’t let me intrude with doses of reality; go ahead and continue to pretend that Android isn’t a massive ripoff and Google isn’t a shadowy, evil corporation bent on invading everyone’s privacy. Let’s not pay the company who actually does the research and testing, let’s pay the people who rip their ideas off directly! Surely that will make the world a better place!

  28. says

    @Consciousness razor, #12:

    Who’s more famous, a musicologist and composer who has a deep, scholarly understanding of music, or a media-made parasite like Justin Bieber?

    A person’s not famous only for as long as they’re alive, right? Or more to the point, is fame in a person or in a culture?

    Ah, but posthumous fame is chancy and the smart kids know they won’t get to experience it, there being almost certainly no afterlife. All the effort and learning involved in becoming a scholarly-but-unpopular musician (or whatever else) boils down to a lottery ticket which you would never even get to see pay off if it pays off at all.

  29. says

    The 5 paragraph essay is where good writing begins and should be mastered by the middle of high school, and can be used as a spring board for better styles. But I despair when college students can’t even do the 5 paragraphs. What were they doing for the past 6 years? So I vote to keep it as a basic building block of writing. On a related note, the quality of the essay question is also very important. The phrasing of the question can invite either critical thinking or regurgitation. I so disliked teachers in HS that asked me to ‘list’ things, or ‘describe the events of” and then took off points if I listed too many!

  30. carlie says

    Much of the problem is that we don’t just not value education in society, we actively make fun of it, and even schools jump on the bandwagon. Look at how many college degree programs advertise where and how many of their graduates get jobs rather than how well the graduates learn to think after. It’s all the same pie. Students don’t value education because no one else does and they’re smart enough not to throw in effort needlessly.

  31. magistramarla says

    When I was teaching, I was “instructed” by an AP to make absolutely sure that everything on my tests had been seen word for word at least once by every student. A parent had complained about her poor baby’s grades in my class. The goal was for the school to be perceived as having a high passing rate. Whether the students learned to think for themselves or learned to apply what they had learned to questions that were different from those that were presented in the textbook or in class was irrelevant.

    Of course, this was in Texas, where teaching critical thinking is frowned upon.
    I gagged when I recently read that the same high school has been named as one of Newsweek’s top high schools in the country. The school brags that this is because it has an excellent record of graduation rates, high scores on standardized tests and outstanding college acceptance rates. We teachers knew that those graduation rates were “creative math”. Every freshman class would be huge (sometimes over 1000 students). Usually, by the time those students graduated four years later that number was reduced by a third. The students who had “disappeared” were rarely listed as drop-outs. They would be listed as “transferred to another school” or “withdrawn for home-schooling”.
    As for those college acceptance rates, I often saw students, even those from the top ten, who washed out of four-year universities and returned to attend the local community college. Even our top students tended to need remedial work in college. (sigh)
    Parents should never trust the statistics cited by Texas schools.

  32. ChasCPeterson says

    Then I have to go and explain that no, we don’t care about structure so long as it makes sense, and that anything which reduces useful content is bad.

    If you were to clarify all this ahead of time, it would be better for everybody.
    You don’t even have to call it an “essay” if that confuses people.

  33. says

    For those already complaining, an those who want to know more, I strongly recommend reading the late Richard Mitchell’s The Graves of Academe. It’s an excellent read, and it demonstrates that these problems are not exactly new, merely growing worse. It’s out of print, I believe, so most of you won’t be able to get a nice print edition like I have, but you can read it for free online. In summary: he began to notice these issues decades ago, concluded that the problem was systemic, and decided that if the problem was systemic then those in charge of creating and staffing the system — the people who teach Education as a subject — must be at the root of it, and observed them. The book alternates between entertaining and infuriating.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Five paragraphs??? Must be an American thing. I was taught the introduction-body-conclusion structure, but never was I told that the body should have 3 paragraphs or that examples should be arranged from strongest to weakest (perhaps the opposite, in fact).

    I think we have to admit that education is a little odd in the two contexts of a) delivering a service and b) contracting for said service. What it ultimately boils down to is that the student, who pays for the service of teaching, is deemed either successful or unseccessful by the evaluation of the persons s/he contracted for the service. So there is that aspect of the whole thing which it seems to me is upside down.

    That’s not “education”, it’s specifically university education in specifically the USA. Elsewhere, students pay much less or nothing at all; they don’t feel like they own stuff or stuff is owed to them, and their parents would die of shame before going to a professor and whining about a grade.

    Apple gouges its own customers with insane profit margins.

    As I keep saying, what you pay for in an Apple product is the sticker that says:

    “Made in China
    Designed by Apple in California”

    For an essay on the subject the “Please do my Homework” I like

    That’s awesome.

  35. David Marjanović says

    If you were to clarify all this ahead of time, it would be better for everybody.
    You don’t even have to call it an “essay” if that confuses people.


  36. anchor says

    Zimmer is right.

    Eons ago when I was at school, it was a given that I as a student should bear the responsibility of understanding a given course and researching it at a charming place that was called a “library”…to the fullest of my time and ability.

    Back then it was assumed that the student bore at least half the responsibility of acquiring an education. A good teacher is only a guide. Learning anything requires a serious and enthusiastic commitment to the friggin’ subject involved. School is not a filling station where knowledge is putatively poured into otherwise empty vessels (= student heads) like so much viscous syrup. It takes hard work to be genuinely good at anything.

    Students: Your teacher or prof can’t make you a master. You have to assume the responsibility…and quit trying to equate your understanding with a grade or degree.

    I also suspect this long-brewing pop state of affairs today is seriously instrumental to the peculiar state of affairs why people like that moron anthropologist at Stanford (sorry, do not know how to link to PZ’s recent post on that particular) are ever more frequently given the badge of expertise where none exists.

    Earning a degree used to denote hard-won expertise in a field one is genuinely interested in advancing. Now the primary purpose of acquiring a degree seems to hinge primarily upon “achieving” better job prospects. That’s so wrong it chokes me up from the pit of my bile to think on it.

  37. anchor says

    @Brian #3:

    I well remember that Asimov essay.

    On Isaacs side, (having lived in that distant epoch myself) imagine how grotesquely brutally tedious it must have been to attempt to respond to letters with nothing more than a typewriter and the US mail.

    We today verily whine a great deal over conditions our predecessors would consider to be a fucking paradise by comparison.

    And look how we handle our current technological assets: its nearly enough to justify suicide. (I don’t do “head-desk” thang – I just freeze solid in a posture of horror)

  38. says

    @David Marjanović, #36:

    Five paragraphs??? Must be an American thing. I was taught the introduction-body-conclusion structure, but never was I told that the body should have 3 paragraphs or that examples should be arranged from strongest to weakest (perhaps the opposite, in fact).

    It’s not an American thing, or at least if it is it’s a recent American thing. I’m an American, and I was taught what you were taught. (And I must admit that I was annoyed by the mindless enforcement of the form by some of my teachers, because as Godric von Falkenrath said in #28, there are contexts where it’s more important to put in a lot of “body”, and “Introduction” and “Conclusion” paragraphs are basically just a waste of space and time.)

    @Jafafa Hots, #11

    Apple gouges its own customers with insane profit margins.

    Ah, you must be one of those people who break down the latest model of each smartphone, price each component, and then complain that Apple charges more than the raw cost of parts. Because, you know, R&D, software development, tech support, and advertising are all free.

    Apple’s profit margins are somewhat high, but not ludicrously so unless you really enjoy “paradox of thrift” economics. They pay decent wages to their direct employees, and even though practically all the hardware companies use FoxConn (in fact, I first heard of them because Linux geeks were complaining about their BIOS chips in PCs) and only Apple gets blamed for FoxConn’s treatment of workers, Apple is basically the only tech company which has responded to the criticism by making real demands of FoxConn’s management.

    Apple is not perfect, or even close to being so (I could give you several pages of complaints about their behavior), but at least they aren’t the other PC manufacturers, who pay as little as they can, do no R&D or serious product development, shamelessly rip off ideas whenever they can, and survive only by undercutting each other — and who are now discovering that when you race to the bottom, you won’t be happy to win (look at what’s happening to Dell, for example). And they aren’t the hypocritical Google (with its acquisition of Motorola), the awful anti-environmental and insular Samsung (who doesn’t really like you if you aren’t Korean), or any of the other cell phone makers. (Fun fact: despite the perception that Apple is overly litigious, most of the lawsuits Apple has been involved in since the introduction of the iPhone have been other companies bringing suit, not initiated by Apple.)

  39. WhiteHatLurker says


    I teach high school science, and I’ve never heard of this trend. I would never exhort students to hassle professionals.

    I get hassled like that by fellow professionals. (Some are former students and perhaps feel that I should have taught everything knowable in a 3 credit hour one-term class).

    I have not heard of this venerable “5 paragraph essay”, though I think I understand what is be driving at. It wouldn’t work in my field.

  40. krubozumo says

    DM at #36

    More or less my point exactly. You were right to constrain it to the U.S. as well. Like everything here we look for the price tag before anything else.

    Then again, there is another level of indoctrination that transcends the educational system.

    The U.S. is packed full of believers.

    Reality is not a matter of opinion.

  41. Nerull says

    Apple’s library of ridiculous patents is not really an indication that anyone stole anything. I would challenge someone to come up with a phone that doesn’t violate them. Remember, it can’t be rectangular, and it can’t have icons. Nor can it have a search function that searches contents of the filesystem. Apparently, these are things Apple has invented and owns completely.

    The resemblance between an iPhone and a Samsung phone, or iOS and Android is incredibly superficial at best and can only seriously be claimed as “theft” by someone who has never used them but partakes a little too heavily in the kool-aid.

    A company owns a patent on BRCA1 and 2. Human genes. They didn’t invent them. They didn’t discover them. Does this mean that your body is stealing from this incredibly innovative company, or that our patent system is horribly broken?

  42. David Marjanović says

    Oh yeah, somebody holds the patent on the progress bar, and Microsoft pays them royalties.

  43. Sili says

    The resemblance between an iPhone and a Samsung phone, or iOS and Android is incredibly superficial at best and can only seriously be claimed as “theft” by someone who has never used them but partakes a little too heavily in the kool-aid.

    I’ve had a Samsung for a coupla years now, and I still can’t work my students’ Iphones.

    But damn I can I curse at the inbuilt calculator! Why carboncopy something that may have been state of the art in the 70es? It’s utterly useless in the hands of the kids.

  44. says

    By the way: my deepest apologies to everyone for the way this subtopic has partially derailed the discussion.

    @Nerull #43:

    If you don’t like the way Apple has stockpiled patents, and tried to take them out on everything, then that’s too bad, but that’s what the legal system says you have to do in order to enforce IP on computer products. You can blame the judge who let Microsoft off for making Windows a ripoff of the Mac for that; it’s where the whole “you know it’s a ripoff and I know it’s a ripoff but if you don’t have patents you can’t enforce it in court” thing became a definite precedent. (The Open Source movement ought to be grateful for that, by the way: practically every open source GUI — and a majority of the project concepts — is a ripoff of a proprietary product which would be illegal if blatant ripoffs were actionable.)

    The “rectangular with icons” suggestion is just an outright lie, again, and you ought to be ashamed. The complaints raised by Apple against Samsung — which is most of what the anti-Apple crowd references — involved specific dimensions, design, and packaging similarities which were fairly blatant. (And they keep doing stuff which suggests that “copy the iPhone” really is their internal strategy.) The fact that Google spends more money on lobbying than any other tech company (more than the next two biggest spenders combined in 2012, and 9 times as much as Apple). But hey, that doesn’t mean they’re a bunch of evil creeps you shouldn’t trust, does it? (Technically speaking, no. It’s more the way they love to invade privacy, ignore intellectual property — look at Google Books vs. authors for a non-tech example — and are behind a vast amount of intrusive and ugly online advertising that makes them a bunch of evil creeps you shouldn’t trust. The lobbying is just a symptom.)

    Meanwhile, Google — by way of their acquisition, Motorola — has been caught charging Apple special, extra-high rates on FRAND patents (which is a very well-established legal no-no), ordered to stop by the U.S. courts, and refuses to stop. But folks like you never, ever under any circumstances complain about this.

    And, of course, if Android and iOS are so obviously utterly different, as you claim, then how come Google and Samsung both have tried to sue Apple over similarities? Obviously, somebody is drinking some kool-aid in the handy “Android” flavor (tastes just like the “iOS” flavor, but contains 20% less flavoring material).

    As for the patent system being broken: sure. It’s terribly, terribly broken, particularly for software and genetics. Many of the patents being awarded and the legal decisions being made to enforce them demonstrate very clearly that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has no clue about technology and that most judges — in particular the ones on the Supreme Court — are unable to cope with any technology more advanced than a typewriter, and rule by default in favor of large businesses. That does not mean that Apple should have to pay for R&D for the whole industry by letting everyone make blatant ripoffs of their work (and, in the field of human interface research these days, they basically are doing so) or that patents should be abolished outright as a lot of people claim. The notion that intellectual property should be abolished is on a par with the big-L Libertarian notion that environmental regulation should be abolished, and is just as silly.

    @David Marjanović, #44:

    That patent was held by IBM, who actually stands a reasonable chance of having invented and used the concept. Just because an idea seems obvious in retrospect does not mean it was obvious beforehand; the basic idea of telephony, for example, seems childishly obvious to us now — that doesn’t mean it was trivial to think of before telephones existed. And since IBM almost certainly actually used the thing, unlike many of the patent troll companies out there, it isn’t so insulting as you might think.

    In any case, it’s moot because the patent in question has expired, and you can bet Microsoft isn’t paying royalties any more. (Makes me wonder, though, because Apple was certainly doing progress bars at least as early as 1983, which would be a demonstration of prior art since the patent was issued a decade later. Then again, patents for things which are actually put into practice immediately sometimes end up being delayed like that. It’s a symptom of brokenness, but not anything new in this particular case — the original U.S. patent on the idea of a car was similarly issued long after the fact.)