Advice for new college students

by Harry on August 20, 2019

A couple of years ago the Midwest conference of the Junior State of America asked me to be their keynote speaker. I still have no idea at all why they invited me – it seemed and still seems rather unlikely. I stupidly agreed, and then agonized about what to talk about. The organizers suggested talking about how I got to where I am, but, although there are parts of how I got to where I am that are quite interesting, where I am is not interesting at all. Then, mercifully, the Thursday before the talk two of my students brought one of their friends to meet me in my office. (You can tell how exciting their lives must be!) And they told me to tell her my tips for how to get the most out of college. I was put on the spot and tried, desperately, to remember what my tips are. Fortunately, I did remember. And then I thought, oh, actually, I could talk on Saturday about how to get the most out of college. It’s something I know something about, and that would actually be useful to audience!

Since it is the time of year that some of our readers in the northern hemisphere are getting ready to welcome students to college (I am teaching a small first-year class, which I only do once every three years), and other readers are getting ready to send their kids off to college and, conceivably, one or two readers are getting ready to go off to college themselves, I thought I’d excerpt the part of the talk where I actually give the advice. About 2/3rds of the talk was about what the point of going to college is and I’ll skip most of that, but just say that the point that I gave them was to learn knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that will enable them to make a better contribution to the good of all of us; and to enjoy that learning itself. I know going to college has other purposes, but these are the ones that get neglected by the college recruiters, and school counsellors, and movies, that shape their ambitions about college.

Here goes with the concrete advice:

Work in the summers to support yourself, but during the school year devote yourself as much as you can to schoolwork. Bear in mind that while there’s such a thing as getting into too much debt, there’s also such a thing as working too many hours. Seek balance (Finding it is easier said than done).

Choose classes on the following bases: does the subject interest you?; how big is the class? (seek out small classes even if you are shy; especially if you are shy, because that’s how you’ll learn not to be); how good is the professor?

How do you know who’s a good professor?: Here are some questions to ask about them. Do they engage students? Are they open to a full range of disagreement? (Avoid professors who preach at you, unless you strongly disagree with them, in which case maybe you can learn from them). Do they make you write a lot? (if so, that’s a positive, not a negative) Do they seem to enjoy teaching? (plenty of people enjoy things they are not good at, but very few people are good at things they don’t enjoy). Find out from your friends. Or from your enemies if that’s the best you can do!

Some people enter college knowing what they are going to major in. That’s great for them. But it’s not normal. Most people have to find what they’re interested in. Beyond taking good classes, and really engaging with the material, to discover how interesting you find it, I don’t have lots of advice about this. But, don’t major in something you find uninteresting – you’ll be wasting time.

If you choose a professionally-oriented major, don’t restrict yourself to that major. Take classes in the liberal arts that will challenge and interest you. (See next point). Conversely, if you choose a liberal arts major, don’t restrict yourself to the liberal arts, take some professionally oriented classes to learn about professional fields. (This can be more difficult, because professional schools sometimes restrict enrollments to interesting classes to their majors).

The key skills you need coming out of college are to be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing, and to be able to work on solving problems with people you have not chosen to work with: take classes which give you the requisite technical skills for the field you want to enter, but also take classes in which you’ll do more abstract thinking and which you can’t necessarily see how they’ll be relevant to your career.

Go to office hours. Talk to the professor. Students say ‘but I won’t know what to say”. So here’s what to say. If the material is easy for you go and ask the professor for suggestions of a couple of other things you should be reading. If it is difficult for you, find one or two specific questions to ask about the material. Most professors actually want to talk to students in their office hours. Some don’t – but there’s no need to be embarrassed if that happens – if they are so self-centered that they don’t want to talk to you, they’ll forget who you are as soon as you leave.

For every hour in class spend two hours studying, when you are awake and alert.

Take classes with your friends, and if you’re in a class without friends, make friends in class, and talk to them (and your family) about the material you are learning about. The point is to make learning feel like leisure: doing schoolwork without feeling that you are doing it, which is what happens when you talk about the material with people you want to spend time with anyway. (I this is really obvious advice, but am surprised how many students don’t just automatically do it, and how few of them have been told to do this by their parents).

You are all interested in politics (This was the Junior States of America). Do yourselves, and the rest of us, a favor. Make friends with people you disagree with about politics. And about religion. And about particular issues. And who are from a different social class than you are. And who are from a different race than you. Exploit the diversity you find, to have a richer more diverse array of friends, and talk to them about things that matter. Learn that you can really disagree, and really argue, about things that really matter, with people who really are your friends.

Feel free to add, subtract, or substitute (which, I suppose, involves adding and subtracting). And to pass the advice on to people who may need it which, if you teach at a college, includes the first year students you will be teaching.

{ 64 comments }

1

anonymousse 08.20.19 at 1:13 pm

“Do yourselves, and the rest of us, a favor. Make friends with people you disagree with about politics. And about religion. And about particular issues. And who are from a different social class than you are. And who are from a different race than you. Exploit the diversity you find, to have a richer more diverse array of friends, and talk to them about things that matter. Learn that you can really disagree, and really argue, about things that really matter, with people who really are your friends.”

Your colleague, in an earlier post, describes the people with whom he disagrees (with regards to a European 16 year old) as ‘ignorant and vindictive.’

That sounds like a fun professor and environment!

I’d give them the opposite advice. Don’t talk politics. There used to be a standard piece of social advice: never talk politics or religion. In theory, college is the place where that isn’t the case: its an institution devoted to the free exchange of ideas. In practice?

Like I said: don’t talk politics. Keep your head down and get your degree. If politics comes up, nod and give noncommittal answers. You can talk politics with your friends (surreptitiously, of course), once you graduate- because employers are just as woke as universities, these days.

anon

2

Matt 08.20.19 at 1:21 pm

This is all good. But, I’ll also pass on the advice of legal philosopher Scott Shapiro, posted on twitter recently, for new college students: “Be very careful the first time you try tequila.” That, too, seems like good, practical advice to me.

3

Antoine 08.20.19 at 1:28 pm

1/ Set some time aside on a regular basis (weekly?) to spend time in the library with no special project in mind. This works best if the library is open stacks. Wander around , get a feel for the spatial organization of the library, and its mapping to actual topics and subjects, pull out books that seem interesting and just read at random. This may get you interested in topics you hadn’t thought about . If you read a book, take notes and locate references to other works in the text and in the bibliography that seem of special interest to you, in turn locate these works on the library stacks , and read through them etc . In short , browse the library like you would browse the web.

2/ Start thinking about and implementing some kind of system to organize knowledge that will serve you for the rest of your life. Written cards. Computer files with keywords . Use this system to record excerpts, references, thoughts on everything you read or come across .

4

Dave Heasman 08.20.19 at 2:15 pm

“Your colleague, in an earlier post, describes the people with whom he disagrees (with regards to a European 16 year old) as ‘ignorant and vindictive.’”

Those people being Andrew Bolt and Arron Banks I think he has a point. Don’t you?

5

Dwight L. Cramer 08.20.19 at 4:38 pm

On knowing what you major is–I think most people who go in ‘knowing’ what they are going to major in are wrong. My wife and I, and both our kids, changed majors–and everybody got through in four years (more or less). About ten years ago, I remember some kind of dean at an orientation for parents of incoming students (one of whom was our daughter) joking about the ‘pre-wealth’ majors, which he rather accurately summed up as ‘all too frequently delusional’.

6

Mike 08.20.19 at 5:47 pm

Make friends with people from different ethnicities, backgrounds, races, yes. On subjects of ethics and morality (politics, and possibly religion), I’d amend to “engage with, and be open to befriending”, as I think it’s important to put limits on how civil you’re willing to be with people whose viewpoints are harmful to some of those other new friends you’re making.

Also, take care of your mental and physical health. If this is your first time out on your own, keep in mind that nobody is watching out for you. This can be both good and bad; you have more responsibility for yourself than before, but you also have more ownership. Being able to walk to a campus health center and discuss topics that your parents may not want to talk can be valuable.

7

anonymousse 08.20.19 at 6:05 pm

“Your colleague, in an earlier post, describes the people with whom he disagrees (with regards to a European 16 year old) as ‘ignorant and vindictive.’”
Those people being Andrew Bolt and Arron Banks I think he has a point. Don’t you?”

You weren’t reading closely. ‘Those people’ were people over 60 (all people over 60) who disagree with Greta XXX (don’t know her last name) about global warming.

I don’t know who Andrew Bold and Arron Banks are, so I can’t comment on them in particular. But if disagreeing with the standard academic view with regards to global warming or Greta warrants being tagged as ignorant and vindictive (by your professor!), I think my advice to college students stands. Don’t waste your time with politics in college. Too narrow-minded a place for that.

anon

8

CP Norris 08.20.19 at 7:08 pm

Am I supposed to make friends with people who don’t acknowledge my right to exist? My family’s? My other friends’?

9

nobody 08.20.19 at 8:32 pm

I’d give them the opposite advice. Don’t talk politics. There used to be a standard piece of social advice: never talk politics or religion.

In a world where, on one side of the Atlantic, the dominant political force believes that only rich white conservatives should have full political and legal rights, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the dominant political force believes that intentionally causing avoidable food, fuel, and medicine shortages is a good thing, avoiding politics isn’t the option it used to be.

Avoiding politics is only an option when everything will work out OK (or, at least with no humanitarian crises or systemic severe human rights violations) no matter who who wins the next election. This isn’t true anymore. Taking a stand is now a civic, and moral, responsibility.

As for general advice for incoming post-secondary students, any student on a professional degree/STEM track should take as many liberal arts courses as they are allowed. The world has far too many STEMlords who can write the next big-data AI-driven panopticon but don’t have the liberal arts grounding to understand why doing so would be a bad idea.

Any student not on a professional degree track should either switch to a professional degree track or quit and go to a trade school instead, especially if they’re paying US or UK tuition prices. The return on investment for non-professional degrees is very poor and the well-paying jobs that boomers insist are there for random BA/BS/other alphabet soup degrees exist only in the boomers’ imaginations.

10

Helen 08.20.19 at 11:39 pm

“Your colleague, in an earlier post, describes the people with whom he disagrees (with regards to a European 16 year old) as ‘ignorant and vindictive.’”

I can confirm, as an Australian, that Andrew Bolt is both ignorant and vindictive.

11

Alan White 08.21.19 at 12:03 am

Harry these are really useful suggestions.

One problem students have now is reading, and I mean reading at all beyond texting and such, which even then they truncate to the least intelligible bits. The world at large now so concentrates on video and audio that communication by larger texts via essays and books is not only largely bypassed, but creates a culture where extended reading is seen as a kind of character defect. You teach at an R1 where the average ACT is around 27 or so–but the vast majority of higher ed going on now is at institutions like my old one, where no “R” is appended at all, and entry ACTs average almost 10 points lower. Most R1 entrants have pretty good experiences with texts (that’s how they got most of that 27 ACT)–most others at so-called “teaching institutions” don’t, and that has a good deal to do with those around-20 and below scores. I assigned significant extra-credit in reading quizzes to try and see who would do required reading and encourage it in any case. Of course the good students–10% and less for me–would snatch some good points that they didn’t need anyway because they did the readings. Most of the others simply would not, even for brief assignments. Colleagues who actually required reading quizzes for credit in the course reported the same failure of most students to engage college-level texts. Most students I saw especially in the last decade of my career actively detested reading, and many freely admitted to that. Maybe this is an indication that ambitions to higher-ed have been taken too far in US culture, and that we’re attempting to educate people in old standards of literacy that fail to apply to most people anymore.

My point is that if we wish to push ahead with producing extensive reading literacy in most higher-ed students, we need to find some way to do that. I have no real suggestion about how.

But to see how far things like this have come, we can see that this has been coming for a long time. When I was a college student, if you’d have told me what’s happening now, I’d not have believed it. What if you asked me then: Hey Al, do you think we’ll see a day when we elect a President of the United States who not only lies just about everything, and hasn’t read a book before his election probably for the better part of two or three decades (though claims to have written some, though that turns out to be a lie too), and so doesn’t know history or geography, and only views and listens to videos and reads and writes only short text messages and never writes his own speeches at all? Think we’ll ever see a President like that?

I’d have laughed in your face. Well, apparently the joke’s on me, though I have lots of company.

12

Harry 08.21.19 at 12:08 am

“Am I supposed to make friends with people who don’t acknowledge my right to exist? My family’s? My other friends’?”

No. I don’t now what you are referring to. But are you assuming that everyone with whom you disagree substantially about politics denies you have a right to exist? (If so, I’d want more information to assess that assumption).

“Any student not on a professional degree track should either switch to a professional degree track or quit and go to a trade school instead, especially if they’re paying US or UK tuition prices. The return on investment for non-professional degrees is very poor and the well-paying jobs that boomers insist are there for random BA/BS/other alphabet soup degrees exist only in the boomers’ imaginations.”
The evidence does not support this claim: as Dwight Cramer’s dean understood!

Dwight: I don’t know whether it is ‘most’ people, but, yes, its a lot of them, and in my experience a good number of students who have been driven by school counselors and parents into pre-wealth majors that don’t suit them lose a lot of confidence and a good deal of time unless they are well-advised and supported. I think that’s a difficult thing for students to recognise through being given pre-college advice, though. Maybe some reading this thread will pick up on it….

13

ph 08.21.19 at 1:35 am

Excellent piece. Quick points. Maturation is a process. I don’t give first-year students any advice in the first few weeks. I give them specific tasks designed to build success and self-confidence. Most of us would rather see a sermon than hear one. All students participate in peer-interviews for the first week or two until each student has had an opportunity to exchange basic information with each other.

Topics outside the bounds of sensible discourse and which are likely to be regarded as unwelcome are covered by common sense and good manners – no direct questions regarding, politics, religion, sexual preferences, family-family health, and income; for example: do you go to church, have a girlfriend/boyfriend. General impersonal questions on these topics are fine: do many people from your town go to church? etc. Students must understand boundaries and respect the right of others to hold values, ideas, and opinions – short of actively and explicitly advocating violence of any kind.

Outside class students are required to log time spent engaged in developing required skills: eg. how much time spend learning about available information systems and databases. Which? How many hours per day, week? How well/often are students learning to improve skills using phones, or tablets?

Around week two, once the class is settled I explain that they, not I, will be doing all the work throughout the term; and that their success will determined by how well they apply themselves to completing a set of standard tasks. The logs of the first two weeks provide students will concrete evidence of how they manage time. We remind ourselves that time is finite – that wasting the first week of a fifteen-week term complicates the challenge of achieving success by adding to the workload and increasing stress.

Students must pre-read all text sources at least twice before we cover the material in class – page numbers circled and dated in pencil, which are peer-checked before I discuss all the cited activities with each student individually around week 4.

Finally, in my undergraduate major (Eng and Amer lit) students were expected to read/prepare for a minimum of 3 hours for every 1 hour of class time. Organization and time-management are the most effective ways to ensure a happy and successful university experience. I loved mine. Young people can be very mature if we lay out the challenges and opportunities for them clearly, and get them on task from week one.

Doing, not telling.

14

faustusnotes 08.21.19 at 1:39 am

Anonymousse, disagreeing with the standard academic view on global warming is the definition of ignorant. If you can’t call people who reject 50 years of scientific evidence “ignorant”, what is the point of having universities, science, or knowledge at all? When I was 17 my then-girlfriend, a born again Christian, decided not to accept her university offer because she didn’t want to learn evolution. This was the right decision for her: universities are places of learning, and there is no place in them for people who reject the basics of their discipline. If you spend 4 years at university studying biology and at the end of it you don’t understand anything well that’s a shame and a waste of your time and fees; but if you reject it because you refuse to accept the things you were taught, you’re ignorant and you should be told as much.

My advice for new students (probably of physics and maths especially) would be: everyone else in the room is nodding and acting like they understand shit, but in truth they’re all as confused and in the dark as you. When someone else asks a question and seems so smart and bright, don’t worry, they’re just as confused as you, and they were certain before they asked the question that it was a dumb question. Don’t compare yourself to others and don’t assume everyone else is sailing through the course when you’re struggling.

I give this as a pep talk at about the mid point of my intro to stats class, when half the class are really struggling . I remember vividly thinking everyone around me was so much smarter and understood so much more than me, and then learning that their marks at the end were no different to mine. It can be really self destructive to compare yourself to others when you’re still learning the field, and particularly for people from non-orthodox backgrounds (poor people, minorities, and women in physics) who have a strong sense of imposter syndrome, it can be very damaging to your confidence. So don’t do it!

15

ph 08.21.19 at 1:45 am

Sorry Harry, one point on the logs. These are completed in note form on B-5 paper in pencil and are submitted at the beginning of each class. I review all of these and either return them at the end of class, or in some cases keep them for a week for close review. Students receive no grade for their study logs. Normally, first-year students excel at this activity once they understand that they are in complete charge of their outside class work. It’s the second-year students who lose focus and often struggle. Anyway, great topic.

16

bad Jim 08.21.19 at 6:27 am

When I was a senior I found a message from God in the course catalog: an upper-division class, one quarter each of micro- and macro- economics, for “mathematically sophisticated non-majors”. It was a lot of fun.

17

J-D 08.21.19 at 8:35 am

anonymousse

I wonder whether perhaps you were the one who wasn’t reading closely enough. After all, you announce that you don’t know Greta Thunberg’s last name, and yet it was clearly stated in the post you were commenting on. So it’s possible you also failed to notice that the words ‘ignorant’ and ‘vindictive’ were both hyperlinked. They were hyperlinked to articles one of which was citing Arron Banks and the other of which was citing Andrew Bolt; so even if you don’t know who they are, if you followed the hyperlinks you could have found details of the attacks they made to which John Quiggin was reacting.

So, on a close reading (and the above evidence suggests my reading was closer than yours), it appears to me that John Quiggin was not suggesting that everybody over 60 is ignorant and vindictive (a particularly unlikely reading given that he is, as he announced, over 60 himself), nor that everybody who disagrees with Greta Thunberg is ignorant and vindictive, nor that everybody over 60 who disagrees with Greta Thunberg is ignorant and vindictive. He was suggesting that ignorant and vindictive are fair characterisations for some of the attacks made on Greta Thunberg (and, he wrote, other young climate activists), and therefore also (in context) for the people making those attacks (of whom he cited Arron Banks and Andrew Bolt as illustrative examples, so that readers can judge for themselves whether the attacks are ignorant and vindictive); and he was further suggesting that it is not a coincidence that these ignorant and vindictive attacks come from people over 60 (although not, obviously, from all people over 60 since, to repeat, John Quiggin is himself over 60).

18

Harry 08.21.19 at 11:38 am

J-D and anonymousse (and anyone else) — you’re welcome to continue discussion pertinent to the post about whether children should vote on that thread — I’ll be deleting comments posted to this thread that aren’t relevant.

19

Collin Street 08.21.19 at 12:28 pm

Get a job: you might not need the money, but you will need the employment reference.

20

anonymousse 08.21.19 at 12:33 pm

“Anonymousse, disagreeing with the standard academic view on global warming is the definition of ignorant. If you can’t call people who reject 50 years of scientific evidence “ignorant”,”

Surely you jest, Mr. Feynman! Forty years ago (1970’s) global cooling was all the rage!
But the broader point: you are planning on calling teenage classmates ‘ignorant’?
Go back to my point: given your behavior: wouldn’t it be wiser to just offer pablum in college, and reserve serious political discussion for another time?

“Am I supposed to make friends with people who don’t acknowledge my right to exist? My family’s? My other friends’?”

Harry sensibly already pushed back on this.

“When I was 17 my then-girlfriend, a born again Christian, decided not to accept her university offer because she didn’t want to learn evolution. This was the right decision
“…I think it’s important to put limits on how civil you’re willing to be with people whose viewpoints are harmful to some of those other new friends you’re making.”

for her: universities are places of learning, and there is no place in them for people who reject the basics of their discipline. If you spend 4 years at university studying biology and at the end of it you don’t understand anything well that’s a shame and a waste of your time and fees; but if you reject it because you refuse to accept the things you were taught, you’re ignorant and you should be told as much.”

Yes. If I study law, or English, or psychology, oe mathematics, I can’t have a contrary view of evolution because its ‘the basics of the discipline.’ Makes perfect sense. (or, to make it clear: what if you spend 4 years at university studying something other than biology: are contrary beliefs about evolution ok, or still worthy of ‘you’re ignorant’ interaction?)

So what do you think about your advice, Harry? Is this the Platonic dialogue you were hoping for? Does this comment thread mimic a healthy classroom environment? Based on this very thread: is talking politics a good, and healthy, and productive, thing? Which teenagers, and teenage beliefs, would you, as a professor, publicly label as ‘ignorant,’ as many of your colleagues seem willing to do? And if your colleagues do it, and you do it: how much political interaction do you expect in the classroom?

anon

21

Harry 08.21.19 at 1:41 pm

“So what do you think about your advice, Harry? Is this the Platonic dialogue you were hoping for? Does this comment thread mimic a healthy classroom environment? Based on this very thread: is talking politics a good, and healthy, and productive, thing? Which teenagers, and teenage beliefs, would you, as a professor, publicly label as ‘ignorant,’ as many of your colleagues seem willing to do? And if your colleagues do it, and you do it: how much political interaction do you expect in the classroom?”
Well, I don’t have the pedagogical duties or duties of care toward CT commenters that I have to my students. I would be embarrassed if classroom discussion turned out the way it does here, frankly. The snarkiness, and namecalling, get me down. Many commenters are frequently rude without being witty. Oddly, I don’t believe they would behave like that if they were face to face. And my students don’t. Ever. Typically the freshmen come to my classes and find it shocking that I expect them to disagree, and really disagree, with each other; and that I set things up so that they can’t help but do that. I try to teach them how to be respectful in disagreement, which involves giving reasons, not sarcasm and name calling. And that one can disagree, profoundly, and remain – and even become — friends.

Here’s a brief discussion of how I conduct myself. I have to say that, as far as I can tell, few of my colleagues, and few of the TAs, in my own department depart significantly from the practices I describe here. I know for sure that there are professors in other departments who do. But, for example, during a recent cause celebre, in which a PS professor was publicly attacked by a legislator for having a biased (against Trump) syllabus (which did, indeed, look biased), the College Republicans leapt to his defense describing him as an even handed and fair minded teacher. So maybe these practices are more common than some think.

https://community.acue.org/blog/giving-a-voice-to-students-opposing-views/

22

anonymousse 08.21.19 at 2:49 pm

Harry:
That is very nice to hear. Thank you.

anon

23

Puddleglum 08.21.19 at 7:00 pm

Thanks for this Harry—I shared it with my freshmen, and then noticed them introducing themselves to each other more than normal before the first class session this afternoon.

24

Chetan Murthy 08.22.19 at 5:34 am

anonymousse@20:
[edited]
“But the broader point: you are planning on calling teenage classmates ‘ignorant’?”

Yes [edited]. I spent my middle-school years being badgered by imbecile children in the lunch line who wanted to argue with me about evolution. B/c in Weatherford, TX, they don’t believe in obvious scientific facts. What did I do? Did I tell them they were imbeciles? No. I “argued” with them. Greater fool I.

As my friend R. once said [in our 9th floor apartment]: “If you believe the law of gravity i a social construct, I invite you to step outside (gestures to window) and find out for yourself”.

25

notGoodenough 08.22.19 at 8:31 am

Hello everyone!

If it would be OK for you (and the blog host), I was hoping you could indulge me a little and give me your thoughts about two separate points?

1) Discussion and disagreement in Universities

For me, I feel that the question sometimes asked “is it OK to disagree at Universities?” is a bit too broad, as things are quite context sensitive. It is important, I think, that discussion and disagreement happen in an environment where understanding is actually furthered.

To clarify this in (probably unnecessary) depth:

Firstly, I think it is important to consider the approach to disagreement. For example, I feel there is a difference between “I don´t agree, but I´m willing for you to change my mind if you present sufficient evidence”, “I disagree, and will never change my mind”, and “I want to disagree to troll you, and just make your life unpleasant”. To put it simplistically, I think there is a difference between discussing a disagreement when it is being made in an honest attempt to develop a better understanding, and when it is being made disingenuously.

Secondly, I also think how you approach disagreement is important. For example, I think it would be perfectly fine to go to your professor and say “hi, I´m not sure about topic X, do you have time to explain this to me, offer sources for further reading, etc.?”, while it would be less good to barge into their office and say “can you debate me on topic X right now” (as it is a little unreasonable to expect people to drop what they are doing to discuss things at your convenience), and it would be quite bad to stand up in the middle of class and say “you are lying about topic X, and I demand you stop this second!” (as that is quite antagonistic as well as being disruptive for all the other students).

Thirdly, what is the environment it is happening in? Is this a welcomed debate, or not? To put it simply, if I am hosting a debate club it seems reasonable to expect a disagreement, whereas it is less so if someone comes to my house at 3 in the morning and demands my time to debate topic X. If it is my job to host a discussion group, that is a little different to someone asking me to spend my own time doing so at their request. If I am posting my thoughts on a blog (like this, for example!), that is different to being paid to tutor someone. Or, to try and put it simply, I don´t think someone has an intrinsic right to demand my time – unless there is a contractual obligation of some sort, it is generally unreasonable to demand someone engages in discussion.

Fourthly, it is also quite important to think about the “level” this is happening at. In fact, in my experience, it seems as though there is often discussions regarding points of disagreement at universities (sometimes to a fault!). For example, as a 1st year undergraduate maybe I would be more seeking clarity in a professor´s tutorial group (perhaps a simplistic explanation was given in class, due to limited time, and I would ask about this and so have a longer, more detailed discussion “out of class time” which would illuminate matters), while as a PhD student I frequently would discuss and disagree with my professor (as I often understood the specifics of what I was doing more than they did) or undergo the process of peer review when submitting a research paper, and as a Post-doc leading a research team being able to defend my position in group meetings was considered a requirement of the job. Of course, I´d be expected to justify my positions (with evidence, sound and reasonable arguments, etc.), but I don´t think anyone ever prevented me from talking.

anonymousse (and anyone else who would like to chip in!), could you offer your thoughts on whether you think this is (in a sort of broad-brushstrokes approach) mostly reasonable?

As an open question, do people have thoughts on how discussion and debate happens and should happen, ways to improve to facilitate a good level of discussion with it falling into antagonism etc.? Obviously I am shaped by my experiences (i.e. UK science undergraduate, not US humanities), so I´d be interested in people´s thoughts and other perspectives.

Finally, as just a general comment – it seems to me that disagreement happens all the time at universities, between friends over a pint of beer, student clubs arguing over the hot topic of the day, all the way to well-respected experts battling it out in publications. While I am no longer at a University, I still take an interest and have yet to see sufficient evidence to warrant the belief that there is a systematic suppression of ideas, politics, etc. If people have such evidence, I would be interested to see it.

[Edited as you suggested, to facilitate a more coherent discussion thread]

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faustusnotes 08.22.19 at 12:07 pm

[Edited — you’re welcome to debate climate change on other threads]

Actually my advice to young people entering university now would be: don’t hang around with right wing people. Don’t be friends with them, don’t game with them, and certainly under no circumstances sleep with them. These people are destroying our planet, and if they get their way they will destroy everything that is good about our societies. Don’t give them anything good of yourself, until they reform and grow up. I wouldn’t have thought this was serious advice 30 years ago, but the world is dying and these people are killing it. If they’re going to drag us down with it we shouldn’t give them the consolation of pretending we think they’re nice people as they do it.

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Laura Bolick 08.22.19 at 3:33 pm

One of the biggest challenges about university life is being away from home for the first time. It can instill students with a sense of freedom that goes to their heads or it can overwhelm them with a sense of fear and loneliness. This is such common theme that there are countless helpful articles with ideas for dealing with a sense of missing your home. I wrote one for international students who come to study abroad in London for the first time. It applies globally.

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Dave Heasman 08.22.19 at 4:17 pm

“Forty years ago (1970’s) global cooling was all the rage!”

No it wasn’t.

29

LFC 08.22.19 at 5:58 pm

I think it’s hard to give one-size-fits-all advice, at least in the U.S. context (given the diversity, on a number of dimensions, of institutions and students), though some of Harry’s points, e.g. on going to office hours and getting to know your fellow students, do apply pretty much across the board.

Anyway, here are some pieces of advice many of which are aimed specifically at students who enter college with serious academic interests (esp. though not only in the social sciences and/or humanities), whatever their career aspirations are.

(1) Do not drop the study of foreign languages in college, even if your high-school studies have been enough to let you satisfy whatever foreign-language requirement may exist at your college/university. Individual circumstances and aptitudes vary and this advice can be tailored to fit them, but the general point holds.

(2) Unless you were a super-efficient reader in high school, you’ll need to become a more efficient one in college to get the most out of the reading and studying you do (even if required reading loads on average have decreased over the last few decades for undergrads, which may or may not be true but I would guess is probably not true at the so-called elite institutions, though I’m not sure). This doesn’t mean speed reading necessarily but rather some basic things like knowing how to get an overview of a book or article before plunging into the details, knowing when to read really slowly and savor something versus when to take a different approach. In this connection, Timothy Burke’s advice on “how to read in college,” available at his blog site, is probably worth a look.

(3) On similar lines, and following somewhat on Antoine’s well-taken comment @3 about browsing the library, learn how to do research if you don’t already know. Everything is not available on the internet (though increasing amounts of material are). Librarians give advice sessions on research; go to one of them. (When I was in college a long time ago, I was handed a mimeographed set of pages by Barrington Moore called “advice on reading, writing, and using the library,” or something like that. My copy has faded to near-illegibility and it’s a pre-digital-age thing so in some respects outdated, but I’m sure there are contemporary rough equivalents of it [though perhaps not written by scholars of Moore’s stature]).

(4) Reinforcing one of Harry’s points, a main consideration in choosing courses should be who is teaching them (largely ignoring this point is one of the many things I did wrong in college). If you know someone is a really good teacher — and you will find this out through the grapevine or otherwise — take or consider taking his/her course, even if it’s on a subject that you think you’re not all that interested in.

(5) For that relatively privileged group of students who don’t have to work during the term, this is probably the last time (or one of the last times) in your life when you will have no obligations other than being a full-time student *and* when the daily time-consuming demands of life that affect most everyone else are at a minimum. You have to find the right mix, for you, of work and play (not that the two are always mutually exclusive), of exercise/sports/whatever vs. sitting at your desk, of staying in the ivory tower versus getting out into the world (in one way or another). There likely won’t be time to do everything you might want to do — e.g., internships, multiple extracurricular activities, volunteering, etc. — so you’ll probably have to make some hard choices about your time and how you use it. Try not to constantly compete with and compare yourself to others, but just find your own path. Easier said than done probably, but worth trying to do.

30

some lurker 08.23.19 at 2:06 am

@20, on the off-chance you are being facetious…

https://youtu.be/m-AXBbuDxRY

This is from 1956 and there are ample references to carbon’s impact on the atmosphere even earlier in the 20th C.

31

notGoodenough 08.23.19 at 8:02 am

Although I´m not sure my advice will be that useful, I will just make a comment from the UK perspective.

1) Consider a broader education

As far as I know, there is no really mixing of courses in English universities the way there is in the US. This is, in some ways, a pity as it precludes a broader approach. Consequently, if students are interested in this, maybe consider going to university in Scottish university – the Scottish degree is 4 years (rather than 3), and (if I recall correctly) the 1st year you select three subjects, the 2nd two, and 3rd and 4th one. This allows taking some complementary (e.g. physics and chemistry) and some different (e.g. English literature and biology).

2) Work on developing methodology

As many people have alluded to/said directly, in many ways the information you learn is less important that the approach to understanding something new. As frequently new challenges arrive in life – often completely unrelated to your studies – having a good methodology and epistemology is important (and makes you less susceptible to misinformation). While I´m pretty sure anyone can be fooled, developing ways to mitigate this as much as possible is key.

3) Examine what you want to get out of it

This sounds a bit dreadful, but I think we have to realise that education in England is very expensive. While I wish it were still feasible for the average student to do a degree “just for fun” or because they love that subject, I think it is also not unreasonable for them to ask the question “what do I get out of this?”.

This is a result of the ongoing commercialisation of education (which I could rant about at great length given space!), and I don´t think it is a good thing at all, but I can´t find it in myself to blame any student who says “well, I need to do X to get a job, rather than studying Y because I am interested in it”.

Of course, a case could be made that you are more likely to be successful if you are doing something you love – which is something worth considering….

4) Meet people

After university, it is difficult to meet people (outside of work, etc.). This represents a great opportunity to meet people with different backgrounds, beliefs, etc.

The degree to which you want to engage is up to you (for example, if you a LGBT and your local religious studies group is pretty abusive, well I don´t think anyone will blame you if you prefer to avoid them), but it is a good opportunity to get exposed to ideas which are very different to what you may be used to.

5) Discover yourself

It is very trite, but also true, that this is a chance to develop yourself a bit more. You will most likely leave behind all the people who have defined you while you were at school, and now you can (in a relatively safe and supervised environment) explore who you want to be. Keep in mind that this doesn´t have to involve drinking 20 pints in a row and throwing up!

More to the point, it is a chance to be more confident, to explore ideas and behaviour you wouldn´t have previously. And, worst case scenario, you´ll probably be leaving everyone behind regularly, so if you don´t get on with someone you don´t have to put up with them long term.

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anonymousse 08.23.19 at 4:02 pm

““Forty years ago (1970’s) global cooling was all the rage!”
No it wasn’t.”

“@20, on the off-chance you are being facetious…
https://youtu.be/m-AXBbuDxRY
This is from 1956 and there are ample references to carbon’s impact on the atmosphere even earlier in the 20th C.”

Read below. Note: I’m not arguing that he was right in 1975, or that he was right (or wrong) to debunk his own article in this article in 2014. I’m simply arguing that the article that he is referring to (that he claims to have written) actually exists!

https://www.insidescience.org/news/my-1975-cooling-world-story-doesnt-make-todays-climate-scientists-wrong

“As my friend R. once said [in our 9th floor apartment]: “If you believe the law of gravity i a social construct, I invite you to step outside (gestures to window) and find out for yourself”.”

Now do it for Creationism/Big Bang Theory: (for example: “If you believe the Big Bang theory is a social construct, I invite you to travel back in time 10 billion years and find out for yourself”. That’s the best I can do. Show me up-make a better one! Maybe you can talk to your friend R. for a good one!)

NotGoodEnough:
Look at this comment thread itself and see if it is an inviting environment in which to discuss political disagreements. You basically have it right:
“Finally, as just a general comment – it seems to me that disagreement happens all the time at universities, between friends over a pint of beer, student clubs arguing over the hot topic of the day, all the way to well-respected experts battling it out in publications”
As I said; have political discussions with your friends- the broader environment known as ‘college’ (which I interpreted to be political science or contemporary events classes, given the advice in the original post was being given to a student group of political activists) will look more like this comment thread than a pint of beer with my like-minded buddy.

“…for example, if you a LGBT and your local religious studies group is pretty abusive, well I don´t think anyone will blame you if you prefer to avoid them).

If you are conservative, or a believing Christian: how does this comment thread look: inviting or abusive*? That’s college.

*”Don’t hang around with right wing people. Don’t be friends with them…”
“But the broader point: you are planning on calling teenage classmates ‘ignorant’?”
Yes “
“I think it’s important to put limits on how civil you’re willing to be with people whose viewpoints are harmful to some of those other new friends you’re making.”

anon

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Collin Street 08.23.19 at 9:09 pm

Anon, my politics — and this is a genuine belief for which I can provide evidence — is that you are crippled by a socialisation deficit and intractable cognitive problems and that the only realistic way to make you “”better” is to utterly smash your self-esteem through a gulag-type program and then try to put you together “better” afterwards, something that I figure has a bigger chance of killing you than working.

This is a political belief.

You… probably do not want to be friends with me.

You would probably resent being told to be my freind, that cutting yourself off from me was just you being precious and all that shit.

But…. that’s what you’re doing. Only difference is that you’re swapping “me” and “you”. Which doesn’t make it valid.

(and that you need this pointed out to you is the socialisation problem that needs fixing. Again, what’s happening is that you’re treating yourself and your experiences as special and more important…. which is fine for guiding your choices but not something you should impose on others. And when you examine your other political choices you’ll see the same pattern of expecting other people to preference your desires over your own, which in turn is a result of a poor understanding of the relationship of yourself and others… and fixing this is, well, pretty likely to kill you. So we don’t. All I think should be done to attack your self-esteem is to subject you to 0
posts like this, which won’t work.

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Harry 08.23.19 at 9:29 pm

“As I said; have political discussions with your friends- the broader environment known as ‘college’ (which I interpreted to be political science or contemporary events classes, given the advice in the original post was being given to a student group of political activists) will look more like this comment thread than a pint of beer with my like-minded buddy.”

I don’t agree with this: as I said, I think people behave differently in person, and my experience, at least here, is that students are reluctant to judge and criticize. It might be different at places with a larger concentration of students who enjoy substantial class privilege. If you talk to conservative students here (which I do), although some certainly feel somewhat alienated, they do not feel mistreated by most of their peers. in the classroom, we’re obliged to draw out disagreement and difference and show that it can be engaged in a way that is respectful and friendly.

“If you are conservative, or a believing Christian: how does this comment thread look: inviting or abusive*? That’s college.”

Again, I don’t think it is, though again some institutions probably seem different. The idea that leftwingers should refuse to engage conservatives in college is, obviously, extremely imprudent. I do think some people commenting on CT believe they cannot learn from anyone who disagrees with them, but even they must believe that people who disagree could learn from them. Fortunately, again, my experience of student here is that hardly any think they have nothing to learn from people who disagree with them. Taking that a step further, and ensuring that they have the interactions through which mutual learning can actually occur is what I am recommending.

35

Collin Street 08.23.19 at 9:33 pm

Which is to say:
+ you think everyone has an obligation to be friends with you
+ you don’t think you have an obligation to ve friends with everyone
+ this special casing of you is reflected throyghout your politics
+ this reflects a major mental problem
+ if you won’t fix it yourself all we can — and chose not to — do is smash you into a million pieces and see if you can be put back together better, if at all.

And the reality I think even you have to acknowledge is that sitting across the table from me, knowing that I think these things, isn’t something you’d enjoy or should be forced into. So it goes.

36

Harry 08.23.19 at 11:13 pm

Nobody’s telling or forcing anyone to be friends with anyone. That would be a mistake and might be wrong. I phrased things as an appeal to self-interest and a request (“do yourself and the rest of us a favor”). And, of course, you wouldn’t say all that in that tone to anyone you met in person. You’d discuss things with them, and discover that they’re people whom you disagree with, not psychotic monsters. And they’d discover the same about you.

37

ph 08.24.19 at 12:34 am

Being unable to disagree with others and engage with them intellectually or socially without risking infection of some sort is exactly the kind of thinking that best describes the “dark ages.”

We need embrace the strongest critiques of our own positions in order to better understand our own arguments. That’s why some of us go to university. That’s why universities maintain traditions of debate.

Here’s Jerry Fallwell Jr. inviting Bernie Sanders (Satan) to address students at Liberty University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5ZB8Lg1tcA

Watch the first five minutes and tell me Sanders is wrong. Only the intellectually weak or fearful refuse to engage with others. To stick our heads in the sand, preach to the choir, is to learn nothing and add nothing to what can be a rich intellectual life.

I much prefer, btw, Sanders 2015 to Sanders 2019.

38

LFC 08.24.19 at 2:06 am

Most people who disagree with conservatives do not share Collin Street’s belief that conservative views stem from a cognitive impairment; rather, they (and I include myself here) think conservatives are wrong or in some cases probably ignorant or misinformed, but not cognitively impaired. And the notion that 19 and 20 year olds with differing political views should not talk with each other about politics is, to be blunt, ridiculous.

39

J-D 08.24.19 at 7:13 am

anonymousse

If you are conservative, or a believing Christian: how does this comment thread look: inviting or abusive*? That’s college.

1. I’ve just searched this thread for every occurrence of either the word ‘conservative’ or the word ‘Christian’, and that search produced no examples of abuse directed at either group. Your three quotes were as follows:
”Don’t hang around with right wing people. Don’t be friends with them…”
The reason faustusnotes gave for this advice was that right wing people are destroying the planet. It seems to me that it’s clearly abusive to describe people as destroying the planet if they are not, in fact, destroying the planet. I guess even if people were destroying the planet they might find it abusive to be described as destroying the planet. So I guess the remark can be considered abusive of right-wing people (even if it may possibly be justified abuse), and I guess also that people who think of themselves as ‘conservative’ would experience abuse of ‘right-wing’ people as abuse of themselves. So score one for you.
“But the broader point: you are planning on calling teenage classmates ‘ignorant’?”
Yes “
Chetan Murthy expressed a willingness to describe as ‘ignorant’ people who deny evolution. Describing people as ‘ignorant’ is not always abusive, but I guess sometimes it can be. It’s not clear that this is one of those instances: but in any case, Chetan Murthy was applying the description to evolution-deniers, not at conservatives as such and not at Christians as such. I would guess that many evolution-deniers would find discussion at Crooked Timber a hostile environment (although a few might find it an invigorating challenge), but there’s no basis for generalising from that to conservatives or to Christians.
“I think it’s important to put limits on how civil you’re willing to be with people whose viewpoints are harmful to some of those other new friends you’re making.”
Nothing in Mike’s comment indicated which were the harmful viewpoints being referred to, so there’s no basis for concluding that they were conservatism in general and/or Christianity in general.

One dear friend of mine is a believing Christian. I’d hazard a guess, from my knowledge of her, that the kind of discussion that takes place here at Crooked Timber would not be her cup of tea, but not because she’d find it abusive of herself.

2. This comment thread is not college. There are lots of conservatives and lots of believing Christians in college, and whatever is going on in this comment thread is no valid basis for a conclusion that they are the targets of abuse in college any more than anybody else.

40

Moz of Yarramulla 08.24.19 at 9:40 am

Some of the best parts of my university experience came from stepping outside my normal boundaries (and not just academically). Some people were very patient with me, helped by my tendency to read and think before speaking, but I also learned to listen better (at least in an academic context).

By the end of my time at uni I was a habitual vistor to interesting lectures in course I was not enrolled in, and enrolled in a few because the lecturer was good. Outside of prefessional courses where there are few choices and a real need to focus on your chosen speciality, I agree that choosing courses based on who teaches them is well worth while.

Also, it’s worth getting jobs outside your comfort zone if you can afford to do that. Drive a truck, work on a construction site, temp in a lawyer’s office, whatever you don’t normally do. Again, this might be the last time you can do that without losing an awful lot of money. Me deciding at age 40 to spend a year working as a bicycle mechanic had a huge opportunity cost (but was also a very rewarding opportunity… not all value is measured in money).

41

Faustusnotes 08.24.19 at 9:55 am

Anonymousse, could you please clearly state whether a person studying biology and refusing to accept evolution is ignorant? Is a person studying medicine who refuses to accept vaccination facts ignorant? If not, what term would you prefer to use for someone in the academy who rejects basic facts and principles taught in the academy?

I will also point out to you that the movie Soylent green (1973) had global warming as it’s assumed future and this was so in line with established understanding of science at the time that no one has ever commented on the fact. Your global cooling claim is ignorant.

42

anon/portly 08.24.19 at 10:23 pm

39 J-D

The reason faustusnotes gave for this advice was that right wing people are destroying the planet.

I don’t think this is quite true, or completely clear. Presumably, he thinks his advice will have some sort of an effect – I would assume that he believes it will improve the situation vis-à-vis planetary destruction, but it could also be simple retribution or for that matter to hasten the destruction of the planet.

I don’t say this to be snarky, at all – surely the idea that when you get to college, you should treat people who think differently than you do with contempt and disdain (maybe not completely fair to the various advocates for this on this thread, but is it that unfair?), is maybe problematic, in multiple ways? First of all, what about efficacy? Does treating people this way actually “work,” in the sense of having the intended effect? It seems to me that you’re giving people a good reason to reject your views and to have a greater attachment to their current views, or to views the opposite of yours. Why would you want to do that?

Especially consider this if we’re talking about 18 or 19 or 20 year old people. Some of them will change a lot, ideologically or philosophically, in the coming years. It seems to me that if you really care about an issue, you want to give people reasons to think that your side is the side of the angels.

Also consider the effect on yourself – treating people with contempt and disdain can become a habit or reflex, maybe.

Also consider that for the effect to work, doesn’t it have to be apparent to the other person? “I was going to ask you out or be your friend, but have decided not to because of your politics.” If nothing like that is ever said, and it seems like kind of an unusual or odd or tricky thing to say, how will the other person even know? Also I wonder, if the attraction or friendly feelings developed in the first place, and to any real depth, how often in practice a person will actually follow through on their “strategic” behavior.

Also consider that faustusnotes is conflating two obviously different groups of people. I can understand thinking that there is a group of right-wing people that are destroying the planet – people with wealth and influence and so on. I can’t understand thinking that the right-wing person three doors down in your dorm is destroying the planet, because of the views that happen to currently reside in his or her head. Nothing is that simple.

In my own time hanging around universities and many very brilliant people, many of whom thought quite differently than I did (or do) and were sometimes pretty far to my left (and right sometimes also), I met some that were ungracious, but never any that were ungracious for what seemed to be reasons of political calculation. The further left ones, especially.

43

J-D 08.25.19 at 6:41 am

anon/portly

It seems to me that faustusnotes is clearly advocating not engaging with some (perhaps not clearly defined) group of people, and possibly one or two other commenters would take a similar line. However, choosing not to engage with some people is not the same thing as treating them with contempt and disdain. I can think of a few people with whom I have shared workplaces over the years and with whom I would not choose to engage, but (as far as I can recall) I didn’t treat those people with contempt or disdain. I can think of a few commenters here with whom I would not choose to engage, but that’s not the same thing as treating them with contempt or disdain: my reason for choosing not to engage is that, on the basis of my experience of past attempts to do so, I have concluded that future attempts are extremely unlikely to benefit anybody (not me, not them, and not anybody else either). On reflection, that seems to me wise general advice: I think everybody should expect over the course of a lifetime to have the experience of encountering people and finding that there’s nothing to be gained by engaging with those specific people, and generally speaking the wise course in those situations is to avoid engaging with those people. I don’t think that’s the same thing as advocating contempt or disdain.

44

anon/portly 08.25.19 at 6:16 pm

However, choosing not to engage with some people is not the same thing as treating them with contempt and disdain. I can think of a few people with whom I have shared workplaces over the years and with whom I would not choose to engage, but (as far as I can recall) I didn’t treat those people with contempt or disdain.

Well, I can’t tell whether I agree with this or not. As we meet people, some of them are nutty or dull or schlemiels, and some of them we want to keep at arm’s length, and so on. And I can imagine their politics being an element of this – if upon meeting someone, I quickly got a sense that they were nutty in a Trumpsterish or Wokesterish direction, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would be motivated to seek greater engagement with them.

But I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met where I liked them, they liked me, they were fun and enlightening to be around, but then their politics put me off, so I disdained to engage with them. That seems to me to be the upshot of what faustusnotes is suggesting. The advice to not engage with someone is only meaningful if you would have engaged with them, absent the advice.

So, if “choose not to engage with them” really means that you liked them, you found them enlightening and interesting and so on, but then you rejected them over their politics, at least at first glance that seems pretty shallow. But if “choose not to engage with them” just means “I didn’t want to engage with them,” then sure.

I am probably wrong about the “contempt,” but I’m not sure. Maybe faustusnotes would say that intrinsic to his advice is that you’re sending a message to the person. “Your politics are contemptible” seems like a reasonable interpretation, possibly. But maybe he’d say that you’re not sending a message, or trying to alter their views, you’re choosing this strategic behavior (not engaging with people you would otherwise have engaged with) for other reasons. Maybe he’s just saying that people with the wrong politics have a tendency to be people you later regret engaging with. Obviously I am unsure about the reason.

45

J-D 08.25.19 at 10:06 pm

anon/portly

I suppose more than one interpretation of faustusnotes’s advice is possible, but the one that seems likeliest to me is: ‘people with right-wing politics turn out not to be fun or enlightening or otherwise worth engaging with, so once you find out that somebody has right-wing politics, don’t waste any more of your time on them’.

46

faustusnotes 08.26.19 at 1:52 am

Anon/portly asks:

I don’t think this is quite true, or completely clear. Presumably, he thinks his advice will have some sort of an effect – I would assume that he believes it will improve the situation vis-à-vis planetary destruction, but it could also be simple retribution or for that matter to hasten the destruction of the planet.

I don’t think that my advice will have some kind of effect, or that it will change anything about right wing people. But I have watched for 30 years as right wing people have lied and blustered about every single important thing happening on the planet. I have right wing friends from years back who, though they have moderated over the years (for example one now graciously “accepts” global warming), I still watch as with depressing regularity they latch on to every single lie the right tells and repeat it. Most recently one of my right wing friends was defending the US concentration camps within a day of AOC using the word, because that’s what right wing media told him to do.

These people aren’t thinking, they’re ignorant and they tell lies all the time. It’s fine if you want to spend your time hanging out with ignorant liars, but after 30 years of watching these people lie our nations into economic crises and illegal wars and an ever-increasing spiral of cruelty towards asylum seekers, I don’t see why I should burn a single calorie of effort dealing with them anymore. Yes when I went to uni I got advice like the above – meet people with different views, be nice to right wing liars – and where has that got the world?

Being nice to these people takes a little bit of your energy and a little bit of your soul, and over 30 years of us being nice to them, all that has happened is they have become more strident, more cruel and more dishonest. Engaging them has not changed their minds or made them more moderate, it’s just made them think they’re nice people. They aren’t, and they won’t become nice through any effort of ours.

I fell for that stupid advice 30 years ago and spent 30 years hoping that being nice to these lying liars would somehow convince them to stop being lying, vicious liars. So after 30 years of biting my tongue as these people recite every vicious piece of right-wing propaganda they can get their hands on, being uncomfortable as they spout racist or sexist or ableist shit, putting up with their bad humour and their incorrect science and their complete lack of interest in anything that isn’t about rich white westerners, I give up. And I certainly wouldn’t be advising any young person to spend the next 30 years of their life squandering even a tiny iota of their soul on these people, as the planet slides into chaos.

Don’t make the mistake my generation did of squandering your calm, your peace of mind or your kindness on people who just want you and the planet you live on to burn.

47

ph 08.26.19 at 3:04 am

“If you don’t like everyone, you can’t sell anyone.”

Liking most people and liking most situations is easy if we try.

That is something I tell my students. And it’s much, much easier to negotiate through life by finding something we like, respect, and admire in everyone we encounter. That way I can focus on this part of the beneficial aspects of our negotiated time together and offer sincere complements and feedback, where applicable. Each of us has our own special ugliness, (and in enormous amounts if we’re sufficiently myopic). So what? That gets me nothing.

As a pure intellectual exercise I make it a point of finding ten things I like or admire about the people who possess or display tendencies which I can easily find irksome. And once I do that, I can learn from anyone. Lucky me! I don’t have to like, respect, or be interested in everything about anyone. Every serious student should cultivate that skill.

Conservative or religious people worth avoiding – Einstein; Martin Luther King; all African-American religious churches and their work in oppressed communities (believe in God -hate drugs); the Dalai Lama; Marshall McLuhan; Buddhist monks who fight oppression across Asia; Methodists who do the same; Catholic nuns and priests aiding the poor across the globe; all Jews, Muslims, and Christians; Sikhs, all aboriginal peoples and their cultures, etc. etc.etc. and everyone who prays, worships at, or visits a shrine, temple, holy site, all those animated by faith or who simply believe in the divine beauty of creation. – Garbage people, each and everyone of them. Give them all as wide birth and for the sake of our future keep them out of universities and schools. What a world view! Yuk.

48

JAFD 08.26.19 at 4:04 pm

As my father told me before he drove away…
“Never play cards for money with anyone who doesn’t have to work for a living.”

49

anon/portly 08.26.19 at 5:43 pm

My suggestion in the penultimate sentence of 44 (which J-D also suggests in 45) turns out to be correct, I think. However one thing I did not anticipate is that faustusnotes, to my mind at least, isn’t really talking about “friends” so much as people I would not refer to friends but more as acquaintances. “Acquaintance-friends,” perhaps. He refers to “effort,” a concept I associate much more with acquaintance-friends than with genuine friends.

I can kind of relate to his examples. Generally speaking, if someone comes out with something I think is obviously untrue or nutty, I think it can be helpful to respond, if I respond in the right way. Usually that means, for me, pointing out things that the other person isn’t aware of. I find it best to ask questions, to which you know the answer and they don’t.

To take one of his actual examples, if someone was defending Trump’s immigration policy vis-à-vis the treatment of would-be immigrants, I’d probably just be quiet, since although I’d strongly disagree, I don’t know that I have any useful points to make. I don’t really have a good enough knowledge base of the trend of death and suffering over time. I couldn’t quiz them. On the other hand I think I can speak against anti-immigration ideas more generally. I can sympathize with faustusnotes if he’s hearing crappy stuff like that all the time; I’m not.

On the other hand, I can’t at all relate to this:

Being nice to these people takes a little bit of your energy and a little bit of your soul, and over 30 years of us being nice to them, all that has happened is they have become more strident, more cruel and more dishonest. Engaging them has not changed their minds or made them more moderate, it’s just made them think they’re nice people.

I just don’t have the slightest idea of what he’s talking about; this seems fine in theory maybe but has nothing to with real life, as I’ve lived it or observed it. I have for example a friend who can be a bit of a right-wing nut. He’s very religious. But he’s my friend! He’s a very interesting and generous person. Of course he’s really not very political, he’s into books, film, theatre. (He’s a member in very good standing of a group film blog). I’ve learned way more from him than he’s learned from me. He may not even vote, for all I know, and he certainly doesn’t donate large sums of money to evil right-wing causes, so I can’t think how anyone would think his presence in the world is making the world worse. I can only think of ways in which it’s making the world better.

One time he came out with the idea that since the church only takes 10%, there was something wrong with the government taking more than that, and I was able to immediately explain to him that no, you’re thinking about taxation the wrong way. There are these goods called “public goods” that you want to buy, and can only buy them via taxation. He got it right away! He’s not stupid. Who has stupid friends?

I also have friends or acquaintance-friends who I think can be nutty in a left-wing way. Some of them seem at times to be appreciative of arguments I make against their points, as they are generally people whose background is more “artsy” or “techie” than academic. They tend not to know or understand economics or public policy ideas (left wing or right wing) very well. In general, I can’t think that of people where I’ve put in effort that I have regretted.

Anyway, I want to reiterate what I think is my real point, the “efficacy” or what works one. To me the spirit of the “there’s something wrong with right-wing people” advice is not only something I find difficult to relate to, with regard to life as it’s actually lived, it’s also just plain bad advice. “Let’s make the world a little worse and more petty” is bad advice. Whereas the spirit of the last paragraph of comment 34, which I can totally relate to, as far as life is actually lived, is great advice. “Let’s make the world better and less petty” is great advice.

50

faustusnotes 08.27.19 at 1:39 am

Yes anon/portly, it’s clear that you don’t understand. Let me try to explain.

When I have sex with someone – whether it’s a lover or a one night stand – I give something of myself to them. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. But if I discover that they’re a racist, or someone who hates poor people (i.e. the person I used to be) then I feel hurt and disappointed and I don’t want to give them that thing anymore.

When I game master for people I put in a lot of effort, I give a lot of creativity and energy to make the game good for them. In my campaigns – like Flood or Compromise and Conceit – I put in a lot of effort to develop a political and moral framework, to inject some kind of coherent worldview and philosophy, and to make a vision of a world that my players can enjoy. Of course all players are lazy idiots so I don’t expect too much, but I don’t want to share that political and creative energy with someone who hates the (real) world and wants everyone in it to burn. Why would I use my spare time to construct an enjoyable imaginary world for them when in their spare time they’re trying to destroy the real world I live in?

In particular now with a lot of my western friends, I spend time with them when they visit Japan and I have to help them with interpreting, with organizing, with understanding the basics of how the society I live in works. If they repay that with racist assumptions about my friends, colleagues, lovers, gamers, kickboxing buddies – why would I put that effort in?

To say you give something of your soul to someone in a friendship, or that you make effort, isn’t to say that this is a bad thing. It’s a good thing, and the joy of giving to your friends and lovers is why we have them. Even at kickboxing I put in all I can to make the experience good for me and to give my training partner the respect and effort they deserve – the kickboxing world demands it and if I didn’t appreciate that demand I wouldn’t be there. But why would I put in that effort for someone (say, a Japanese middle-aged male training partner) who thinks I should go back to the country I came from? Why would I put in that effort for someone who thinks that all the social stuctures that make it safe and fun to do – shared public spaces, universal health coverage, clean water – should be abandoned? In Australia I trained for a while with a complex right wing teacher who had a lot of Alan Jones-type views and I always felt like I was giving him more than he deserved – why should I respect this guy’s gym and his demands of me when I know that if he knew my politics he would want me dead, as he sometimes said about left wing people? So I drifted away from that gym to one where my basic humanity would be respected.

That’s what it’s basically about. Right wing politics is a politics of disrespect, of hatred for anyone who isn’t white and male and rich (or in Japan, a particular shade of yellow and male and rich). It tells us that nothing we have to offer is worthwhile and all our beliefs and feelings and values are bad, but then it demands we respect it in the very private spaces it aims to destroy (through breaking basic concepts of consent, through making consensual play impossible, and making sex dangerous) and in the public spaces it aims to degrade (by making only racist speech possible, by destroying shared public bonds that make shared spaces safe and fun, and by undermining the welfare systems that enable us to participate equally in public spaces).

So my message to young people would be – don’t participate in those spaces (private or public) with people who will take your effort and your kindness from you, and then spit in your face. Don’t fuck that MRA no matter how bored you are, don’t share your gaming imagination and spirit with that libertard, and don’t shed blood and sweat on the training ground with that right wing thug. They don’t deserve it, and while they’re demanding you respect them and engage with them now, the first chance they get – and as soon as it doesn’t harm their interests – they’ll drive you out of those spaces and do whatever they can to grind you down. So don’t give them what they desire, and give your soul, your kindness and your energy to people who matter.

51

Harry 08.27.19 at 3:03 am

faustusnotes:
People are complex. Young people aren’t fixed. And if young people on the left take your advice we’re all buggered.

52

faustusnotes 08.27.19 at 4:25 am

I’m not convinced that young people aren’t fixed, Harry. I’ve seen precious little evidence that conservative white people will change, at least not in any meaningful way. And that’s fine if people want to – as I did – spend years engaging with obdurate rightists who refuse to accept simple facts about the world. But 30 years later they’ll be asking me “why didn’t you warn me I’d spend my whole soul on this worthless project?” So I think they should be warned of exactly how hard it’s gonna be, and how fruitless.

53

faustusnotes 08.27.19 at 6:09 am

Also Harry as an afterthought – we are buggered. The planet is done. It’s too late to fix and the wrong people are in charge. It’s too late to engage with these people now, and time to start apportioning blame.

54

notGoodenough 08.27.19 at 6:53 am

@ faustusnotes and Harry 50 – 52

Just to throw my own handful of grit into the works….I think you both have good points.

Harry, it is true that unless we talk to people in good faith, there can’t be a conversation. And then everyone will end up sitting in their own bubbles talking past each other.

faustusnotes, on the other hand has a good point about not engaging with people in a way that will burn you out.

I think, perhaps (and maybe I’m completely wrong on this, so apologies in advance if I am), but this seems to be the difference between strategy and tactics?

I think Harry is just saying, as a general principle, if it is possible to talk to people then try. I don’t think they are advocating that we give up our hobbies, friends, family, etc. in order to do so – just in a sort of “matter of course” way, so as to avoid ceding the floor (as it were).

On the other hand, I think faustusnotes is essentially describing the spoon theory* (if I am not too far wrong?). In short, we all have a limited amount of mental fortitude – don’t spend it needlessly.

TL;DR: interacting with people is complicated, and largely a matter of personal judgement. Do your best to have a reasonable discussion with people, but for the sake of all you hold dear don’t put yourself in a position of harm.

I hope that that isn’t misrepresenting either of you too badly, and I apologise in advance if I am.

*as a side note, I found this an excellent analogy for understanding mental and physical disabilities, and really helped me address some (but unfortunately probably by no means all) of my unthinking biases.

55

J-D 08.27.19 at 8:43 am

anon/portly

Who has stupid friends?

Father Ted? The Vicar of Dibley? Rocket J Squirrel?

Lots of people, I should think.

56

J-D 08.27.19 at 9:54 am

Daryl Davis is African-American. He wanted to arrive at a better understanding of how people could hate him when they didn’t even know him. He was able to find opportunities to talk with members of the Ku Klux Klan. Some of them, as a result of their experiences with him, have abandoned their white supremacist views.

Far be it from me to insist that people must follow this example. But it is possible.

57

J-D 08.27.19 at 9:57 am

faustusnotes

Also Harry as an afterthought – we are buggered. The planet is done. It’s too late to fix and the wrong people are in charge. It’s too late to engage with these people now, and time to start apportioning blame.

Putting it on a personal level, if I had medical advice definitely confirming that I had a strictly limited time to live, I think I could better things to spend my remaining time and energy on than apportioning blame.

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faustusnotes 08.27.19 at 12:52 pm

Yes J-D, Daryl Davis was able to draw some KKKlanners away from their madness. While he was putting all his energy and effort into that, America was drifting to fascism, and now has trans women being murdered on the streets, an open white supremacist in the presidency, and concentration camps for migrants on the southern border. Do you think his energies were well spent? Is it possible that while he was focusing on these extremists, all the people on university campuses and journalism networks and house parties for rich lobbyists were busy normalizing those right wing activists’ climate change denialism and structural racism by being friends with them and making them feel – and be seen to feel – like decent human beings? Perhaps if instead we had spent the last 30 years telling these people we won’t hang out with them at parties, won’t talk to them about their lurid fantasies, and won’t listen to their race war bullshit, and most of all we won’t share their lives or fuck them, they would have learnt some actual shame.

Even the example of fucking people from the other side of politics shows the shocking one-sidedness of this position. While I’m being asked to put out for some stupid racist chick because we shouldn’t ostracize the evil amongst us, what are right wing men doing with their cocks? MRA nutjobs are openly advocating not sleeping with feminists (this is one of RooshV’s core points in his early years). Meanwhile undercover cops in the UK were sleeping with animal rights activists, getting them pregnant, leading them into relationships – then planting evidence and setting up arson attacks so that those same women and their friends would go to prison. Then the undercover cops disappeared and left the women they didn’t send to prison confused and heartsick.

But yeah, we should be friends with these people and the men who put them into those positions and still support them because there’s hope for them! If we just share a bit of our souls with these monsters, give them time that we could spend doing something more productive and less unpleasant like biting our kneecaps, they’d just see the light.

I have spent so much of the past 30 years of my life in unpleasant, uncomfortable situations with right wing people who think that their sexism, their racism, their class prejudice and their hatred for anyone different to them is acceptable to air in my company. When I was vegan I watched as a vegetarian girlfriend of mine was reduced to tears by the constant attacks of red-faced right wing men – at a birthday party! I have spent so many hours trying to gently lead conversations away from the bugbears of the right, or politely find ways to tell my friends or gaming partners or kickboxers or colleagues that the thing they’re saying is not true and obviously a lie from fox news. And now as the planet burns we’re expected to be patient with them (as some people are doing on the other thread here) as they continue to recite 20 year old bullshit and sing songs about how none of this shit is happening. Does that make you feel like you aren’t smeared in other people’s shit? Because you are being smeared in other people’s shit, and you shouldn’t pretend you aren’t.

“He’s a nice Aboriginal. Doesn’t ask for money like most.” “I hope he doesn’t spend his busking money on alcohol like the other abos.” “I’m going to teach my sons to get written consent before they have sex.” “I can’t trust a man who doesn’t have children and doesn’t drive a car.” “You better wash your hands when you get back to the station” (this last from a cop talking about the one victim of Ted Bundy’s who escaped and ran naked down the street desperate for help). I remember driving down Oxford street very late at night on the way home from role-playing with my GM, and he said casually “I used to come down here gay-bashing when I was younger.” No shame, no sense of wrongness, just a simple fact of his younger years, like drinking too much or something.

But yeah we should advise young people to make friends with these people and burn out their souls on them the way our generation did. Let’s do that!

59

faustusnotes 08.27.19 at 12:56 pm

And J-D your terminal illness analogy is way off the mark. It would be more like if you had a completely curable but otherwise fatal illness, you had the diagnosis and the brain scans and the prescription for a cure but your neighbour was stopping you getting to the pharmacist, and your family were telling you should put out for your neighbour because he’s a nice person but he’s just a bit misunderstood.

You’d be rightfully pissed in that situation, and you would be apportioning blame. And you wouldn’t be being nice to your neighbour. So why should I be nice to some right wing thinktank jockey who still believes in the laffer curve and some bullshit 1998 denialist junk about “the pause” and is always reciting crap about “cancel culture” and campus PC? You want me to give that dude my time, put heart and soul into being nice to him? Why would I do that?

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LFC 08.28.19 at 5:45 am

@faustusnotes

If sociological wisdom as filtered through the media is to be credited, then the situation, at least in the U.S., has in the past few decades gone in the opposite direction than the one you decry: i.e., there are fewer interpersonal connections between people with different political views than there used to be, especially in informal social settings. This in turn probably reflects some self-segregation as people apparently tend to prefer living in neighborhoods (and towns and cities) with people of similar political views. (My own neighborhood, for ex., is quite diverse ethnically/racially and to some extent economically, but not politically.)

Also, fwiw I see the causes of Trumpism as mostly structural and rooted in political and economic developments of several decades’ standing for which blame probably has to be shared fairly widely, rather than being solely or primarily a result of ‘evil’ individuals, though no doubt they have played a role. In that light, I frankly don’t think all that much hangs on what advice is given young people about how or whether to engage with people with different views. (And in any case I doubt anyone seeking such advice is reading the thread at this point.) That said, given the apparent trend toward self-segregation, I don’t think the current generation of students is in any danger of wasting 30 years of their energy and “souls” in efforts to befriend or convert people w whom they disagree, or more specifically people who want to burn the planet, etc.

61

J-D 08.28.19 at 9:55 am

faustusnotes, did you miss the bit where I wrote ‘Far be it from me to …’?

I’m not telling or even asking you (or anybody) to ‘put out for some stupid racist chick’ (or to do anything else). I’m not recommending being friends with any particular people, or sharing a bit of one’s soul with any particular people, or spending time with any particular people, or anything at all.

I’m not even suggesting that the strategy Daryl Davis adopted is the best or most effective or that it’s better than other ways he might have chosen to spend his time or even that it was a good idea at all. (He himself makes clear that the reason he started out was to satisfy his own curiosity, which isn’t a bad motive, but is essentially one of concern with the self, not others.) My only point was that some of the people he came in contact with changed (not all of them; he explicitly affirms that some people won’t change). I could instead have mentioned people who have changed not as the result of contact with people like Daryl Davis, but (apparently) largely by themselves (although obviously we’re all affected in some way to some extent by the people we come into contact with), people like Ray Hill and Ingo Hasselbach (I’m sure there are other similar examples, but those happen to be two whose books I’ve read and who I know have pages on Wikipedia).

It’s a fact, contrary to what you appeared to be suggesting, that sometimes Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists change. I don’t suggest that this is something that it’s wise to rely on or that it’s an important part of any strategy for improving the world. It may not be a fact of much importance. But a more accurate understanding is always better than a less accurate understanding.

Yes J-D, Daryl Davis was able to draw some KKKlanners away from their madness. While he was putting all his energy and effort into that, America was drifting to fascism, and now has trans women being murdered on the streets, an open white supremacist in the presidency, and concentration camps for migrants on the southern border. Do you think his energies were well spent?

Well, I don’t think that a main reason that trans women are murdered in the streets is that Daryl Davis made an unwise choice of how to use his energy.

But I also don’t think, I should probably emphasise, that the bare fact that hateful people do sometimes change (with however low a frequency it may be) is in any way a mitigation for the horrible, appalling experiences you have been through, or impinges on the legitimacy of your outrage. The experiences you describe are outrageous and appalling, don’t think I’m disputing that.

It would be more like if you had a completely curable but otherwise fatal illness, you had the diagnosis and the brain scans and the prescription for a cure but your neighbour was stopping you getting to the pharmacist, and your family were telling you should put out for your neighbour because he’s a nice person but he’s just a bit misunderstood.

If I were in that situation I would not put out for my neighbour (it feels odd writing that, because there’s no way that’s what my neighbour wants anyway), and I also would not be thinking my neighbour a nice person.

But I still hope I’d find better activities on which to spend my limited remaining time and energy than apportioning blame. I hope I’d be able to find better people to spend it on than that horrible neighbour. After all, regardless of anything my neighbour (or anybody else) does, I do have to die some time, and I can’t see the percentage in aiming to die angry, bitter, or vengeful.

62

faustusnotes 08.29.19 at 2:37 am

LFC, you write:

the causes of Trumpism as mostly structural and rooted in political and economic developments of several decades’ standing for which blame probably has to be shared fairly widely

but I think this completely misses what is going on, and by seeing the rise of Trumpism in this light you make allowances for the behavior of evil individuals which will lead you to continue to fail to combat what they are doing.

The rise of Trumpism reflects an upsurgence of racism in America, and the mainstreaming of extreme racism by specific, identifiable individuals on the right. Trump’s election victory is due to a mixture of specific interventions by individuals in the supreme court to ensure voter disenfranchisement and the protection of violent racists from proper legal oversight, which in turn enabled Trump to win the last election (with the help of Russia) and thus secure the supreme court. Recall that a crucial supreme court seat was held open by a single individual – McConnell – and another one became available because of the dodgy resignation of another individual (a judge) whose son was in up to his neck in Trump’s money laundering, and that seat was filled by Kavanaugh, a rapist who was deeply involved in the Clinton impeachment.

These people have stitched up our democracy, and they did so with the help of a small number of elite evil individuals – your Murdochs and Bobos and the like. They’re backed up on the ground by mosque shooters and synagogue murderers who are all part of the same milieu. None of this has anything to do with the kind of structural causes that we on the left like to fight and to ameliorate – economic disadvantage, disenfranchisement of poor workers or any of that. It’s a straight up racist, fascist attempt to seize control of the state and burn any aspect of culture that opposes it, and treating it as another socioeconomic phenomenon will lead you to failure.

I mean look at what has happened in just the last few days both on this blog, on the wider internet, and in the real world. On this blog, anonymousse has been engaging in the classic two-step while decrying the fact that people don’t want to talk to him; on the wider internet, Bret Stephens tried to get a left wing professor sacked for a simple joke despite having written repeatedly on the evils of left wing cancel culture; and in the real world Boris Johnson announced a plan to prorogue parliament and force brexit through for his rich buddies, aided and abetted by a single rich individual (the Queen) who could have said no; and back on this blog Dipper continues to sing the praises of this kind of anti-democratic wannabe tyrant while simultaneously ranting about the importance of democracy.

None of this is about class or structural phenomena: it’s an anti-democratic takeover of our political system by fascists who want to take control of it and use it for their white brethren. It’s the culmination of 30 years of culture war, not class war, and every time we tried to treat these people like genuine political interlocutors who were nice but misguided, we fucked up. But they had our number the whole time, and now they have us in their sights. But some people hereabouts want us to run another 30 years of falling for the same scam.

63

J-D 08.29.19 at 9:00 pm

faustusnotes, you don’t seem to have considered the possibility that a situation in which racism is promoted by people holding positions of power is partly a product of structural political and economic developments.

I find it possible to believe, at the same time, (1) that the choices made by holders of power are influenced by a political and economic context not entirely of their own making and (2) that the choices made by holders of power are still choices, which they could have made differently, and for which they are morally responsible.

I want to learn more about the political and economic context because I desire a deeper understanding, not because I want to excuse or palliate the evil choices being made by powerful people.

For example (one of those you mention): it is true that the Queen could have refused Boris Johnson’s request for prorogation (I doubt it would have done much good if she had, but it was still possible for her to do so), but it was never a realistic expectation that there was any chance she would. If you understand how the system works, you can recognise that, and not pin any hopes on a fantasy; if you don’t understand how the system works, you can get caught, disadvantageously, by surprise.

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LFC 08.30.19 at 5:40 am

faustusnotes,
I understand where you’re coming from, I just happen to disagree w certain aspects of your analysis and approach. That said, like J-D, I have no interest in excusing particular individuals or making allowances for them, nor is “nice but misguided” a description of how I view extremists. And you can have the last word, since I think this will have to be my last comment in this thread.

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