TEDxCSULB Final Draft

final draft #2 of my TEDxCSULB talk for Sunday 9 April ’17 at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State University

Burn the University Catalog

lessons from alternative education

photo of Cousin Ellie & Cousin Kirra at Cousin Mike's home in Three Rivers, CA. Ellie & Kirra sit on a table in Mike's backyard
Cousin Ellie, age 7 (8 today)

Cousin Ellie

[SLIDE] This is my cousin Ellie. She’s 8. One week ago today, Ellie’s mom, my cousin Cece, walked into her kitchen to find a stool in front of the stove. On top of it was Ellie who’s too short to work at the stove otherwise. She’d melted chocolate in a double boiler and was coating almonds with it. Cece looked at this scene for a moment, and finally, in confusion asked,

How do you even know what a double boiler is?

To which her 8 year-old daughter replied,

It’s easy! I learned it from Martha Stewart on YouTube.

The day Cousin Ellie started learning culinary arts from the top chefs around the globe, was the day I realized that Cousin Ellie and our University Catalog are not living in the same century.

a young woman giving her dad a "gimme five" sign
Gimme 5! / image: LH Wong
results of a Google Image Search for the words "University Catalog"
University Catalogs

5 Schools: Princeton, Montessori, Olin, Medici & Runaway

To better understand how The University Catalog, and our approach to education, can empower students here in the 21st century, lets look at 5 schools: Princeton University, Montessori Schools, Olin College, Medici University, and Runaway University. Lets look at how this university can be ready for Cousin Ellie when she gets here in 2027, and even more importantly, lets look at how current students can improve their education right now in 2017.

Princeton University
Princeton University

[SLIDE] This is Princeton University. 200 years ago they wrote the American University catalog. If Windows or iOS is the operating system of your laptop or phone, if the Constitution is the operating system of the United States, then the University Catalog is the operating system of The University. The many colleges and departments of the university spend years working out the details of curriculum and degree granting.

200 years later, aspects of that old Princeton University catalog still exist in our 2016-2017 Long Beach State University Catalog.

Larry Page & Sergey Brin on roller skates
Larry Page & Sergey Brin

[SLIDE] This is Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They met in college and started a software company.

CD4112 Jul 07, 2008 - Mountainview, California, USA - MARISSA MAYER, VP of Search and User Experiences, Google is photographed on the Google campus in Mountainview, CA on July 7, 2008. From the high-tech scene, there has risen a new crop of accomplished female CEOs in a male-dominated industry. (Credit Ima
Marissa Mayer

[SLIDE] This is Marissa Mayer. She’s the CEO of Yahoo today, but for a long time she was a vice president at Larry & Sergey’s software company. Marissa Mayer said,

You cannot understand Google, unless you understand that Larry & Sergey were both Montessori kids.

A quotation from former Google Vice President Marissa Mayer, "You cannot understand Google, unless you understand that Larry & Sergey were both Montessori kids"

photo of a 1000 lire bill featuring an engraving of Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori

[SLIDE] This is Maria Montessori on the 1000 lire bill. She developed an approach to education that emphasized independence, freedom, and respect for a child’s natural development. She believed in a constructivist or discovery model of education where students learned by doing, not by listening to lectures.

Richard Miller, president of Olin College, in the middle of a panel discussion
Richard Miller, flickr / EpicenterUSA

[SLIDE] The guy in the middle is Richard Miller, the president of Olin College. Olin College admitted its first full class in 2002. They have some unusual ideas:

  1. No tuition.
  2. No tenure.
  3. No departments.
  4. Everything, including the curriculum, has an expiration date.

One reason Richard Miller is proud of Olin College is that it’s the only engineering school that ranks in the top 20 on both of 2 different questions:

1 – students say they’ve never worked harder in their lives.
2 – students say they’ve never had more fun in their lives.

Adriana Maciel smiling and holding a 4x6 index card with a drawing of her CSULB ID card on it
One of my students, Adriana Maciel, holding a drawing of her Student ID Card

[SLIDE] 4,695, 6, 61. Students, continents, countries. In the past 12 years I’ve worked with 4,695 students here at Long Beach State University. Here’s one of them, Adriana Maciel, a Future Scientist. I’ve also created a couple of alternative institutions. In the past 8 years I’ve worked with about 1,000 avatars who hail from 6 Continents, at the VR campus of Medici University, and in the past 2 years I’ve hosted about 200 international students from 61 countries at Runaway University, aka, my house.

Samuel Jernigan discussing work with a crowd of students
CSU Long Beach, College of the Arts (COTA) School of Art (SOA) Ceramics student Samuel Jernigan discussing his work with my Introduction to the Visual Arts students in the School of Art’s Gatov Gallery

[SLIDE] These are some of my Long Beach State University students visiting the galleries at the School of Art.

an aerial view of the 6.5 hectare virtual campus
Medici University campus

[SLIDE] This is an aerial view of the Medici University campus. The campus sits on 6.5 hectares of virtual land, with most of that space being given over to individual student studios where they pursue projects of their own design.

selenium-toned photo of 3 avatars in conversation at a coffee shop
The launch of “MU Creativity” magazine

[SLIDE] These student-avatars are at one of the Medici University coffee shops. They’re discussing the launch of a new University Magazine, and the avatar on the left has just been appointed editor of the magazine. You might notice that 2 of the avatars are smoking. Unlike Long Beach State, Medici University has not yet adopted a tobacco-free campus policy.

avatars gathered in a plaza and listening to a visiting artist talk
Visiting Artist Talk

[SLIDE] At the center-top of this image is a small, seahorse avatar, which belongs to RL Los Angeles artist Micol Hebron. Hebron is giving a Medici University Visiting Artist Talk.

7 people from different countries jumping in the air in front of a large world map
“Students” at Runaway University, an alternate experience space for International Students and Travelers.

[SLIDE] Here are some “Runaway University, Los Angeles,” or “RULA”, students from France, Germany, China & The United States hanging out in the RULA Map Room.

people gathered in a small workshop setting
Jacek’s “Laughter Workshop”

[SLIDE] This is Jacek from Poland, he’s teaching a RULA “Laughter Workshop” to students from Korea, Colombia, Argentina & South Africa.

Mehdi in the Sonthofen Ski Lodge at RULA
Mehdi speaking about the geography & culture of Algeria

[SLIDE] This is Mehdi from Algeria giving a talk on World Geographies & Cultures Day. That Sunday we had talks by students from Algeria, Honduras, Malaysia, Pakistan & Turkmenistan.

Let me tell you about something I’ve never done at Medici University, never done at Runaway University, but do every day at Long Beach State University:

Take Attendance.

If you have to take attendance, you’ve already failed. Attendance is a coercive tool used to promote bodily presence from students who are ambivalent about their studies. I dream of a college experience so compelling that no one ever has to take attendance. I dream of an active, project-based education where students can honestly say that they’ve never worked harder in their lives, and that they’ve never had more fun in their lives. At that university, you’ll never have to take attendance.

EDU ’17

What is college in 2017? For starters it’s largely Baby Boomers and Gen Xers teaching Millennials. Millennials live in a different century and in a different reality from earlier generations.

Hennessy Youngman speaking at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Hennessy Youngman

[SLIDE] This is Hennessy Youngman. In 2011 he told an audience at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago,

It doesn’t behoove an emerging generation to placate the worldview of those who came before them.

My question for those of you who are educators is, are we asking our Millennial students to placate our world view?

Southern Utah basketball huddle during a time out
Players & Coach, flickr / Bob Palin

What if we fired all the University Faculty? What if we fired all the Professors, and then hired them back as Coaches? A good coach is an incredible resource. She might make the difference between winning and losing. She might change your life on the court. She might change your life off the court too. But no matter how important a good coach might be, the thing inherent about the Player-Coach relationship is that it’s the players who are on the court.

Our Millennial Generation players are on a court that in many ways they understand better than we do. They’re on a court that wasn’t anticipated 200 years ago.

photo of Ian Rothman in a basketball t-shirt
Ian Rothman


[SLIDE] The tall guy is Ian Rothman. He’s the grandson of one of my mom’s closest, lifelong friends. Ian teaches Middle School in Los Angeles. Ian and some other young teachers are focused on Project-based learning and students setting their own goals.

I’m not sure how many current college students are prepared to take control of their own education, but with young teachers like Ian, and the support I hope they get from school districts, by the time Cousin Ellie starts college in 2027, she and her cohort will not only be prepared to be self-directed, they will demand it.

Since we already know Cousin Ellie is going to demand it, why don’t we start now to build a 21st century University Catalog with more flexibility for students to define individual programs for careers that don’t even exist yet. Let’s have faith in our students to study their world and to define new, productive paths toward scholarship and leadership.

a student with a megaphone speaking to a crowd of fellow students
CSULB Students in the Free Speech Area

Immediate Solutions

All of which is great if you can wait a generation or two. But what if you’re in school today? About 3/4s of you here at TEDxCSULB are current CSULB students. A better education for your kids would be nice, but what about a better education for you today?

poster from the Broadway musical Hamilton


[SLIDE] Hamilton! What does a smash Broadway musical have to do with the university catalog? A lot it turns out. The first major political dispute in American history was between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson believed in “strict construction,” that the government could only do precisely what was spelled out in the Constitution. Hamilton was a “broad constructionist” who believed that The Constitution was a living, flexible document that could and should respond to the times. It turns out that interpreting our Long Beach State University Catalog is a bit like interpreting the United States Constitution. And, like Alexander Hamilton, your Departmental Adviser might be a broad constructionist.

Photo of the exterior of the University Center for Undergraduate Advising located in the Horn Center at CSU Long Beach
University Center for Undergraduate Advising

Your adviser is not just someone to read the University Catalog for you. She is the ombudsperson between you and the catalog. Visit your adviser early and often! Even if you’re undeclared or thinking of changing your major, you can go to The University Center for Undergraduate Advising and get fantastic help.


The most important advice I can offer students is to make your education Project Based.

Brad Pitt & Jonah Hill as Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta looking at a large matrix of numbers on a white board
Moneyball / kingofwallpapers.com

In the book Moneyball we’re exposed to the idea that The Oakland A’s shouldn’t be buying players, they should be buying runs. By assembling a team of undervalued players the Oakland A’s manage to outperform the New York Yankees with only one-third of The Yankees budget.

Lets substitute “classes” for “players”, and “projects” for “runs”. Your college education should not be about buying classes, it should be about accomplishing projects. If the poor Oakland A’s can outperform the rich New York Yankees, then I believe that you can outperform the University Catalog.

a view of statistics on the dashboard of this website

Psychology students sometimes tell me they hate their statistics class. The faculty sort of say, “trust us, you’ll need this someday.” But the students hear, “this is hard, boring, and you’ll never use it.” What if Psychology was Project Based? What if you surveyed fellow students about a question you care about? Then you’ve got 6 binders full of data. What are you going to do with that? How will you understand what your data has to tell you? You probably need to learn some stats. But now you’re learning stat not because, trust-us-you’ll-need-it-some-day, but because I-need-it-right-now-to-answer-a-question-I-care-about. At this point you might take a class, read a book, hang out in faculty office hours, or watch a video. How you learn stat is not as important as the fact that you learn the tools you need to answer the questions you’re asking today. You develop whatever skills are necessary to complete your project.

And when you do all these projects, grab some Free & Open software like WordPress or Ghost, and make a website. Share with the world the power of your successes and the insights from your failures.

Image from Television show Charmed
The Power of 3

3 Tools

I have 3 tools to help make your college experience more Project-based:

  1. Within course Mods
  2. Independent or Directed Study
  3. Course Substitutions or Program Restructuring with your Departmental Adviser
Eric Singer using a laptop and other devices in a live performance
Eric Singer / watsonfestival

Within Course Mods

[SLIDE] This is Eric Singer, the founder of L.E.M.U.R., The League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. Eric was a Computer Science student at Carnegie Mellon University. In every CS class Eric took at CMU there were assignments to create databases, explore programming methodologies, and so on. Assignment after assignment Eric’s classmates completed those assignments by developing Financial Tools, Information Technology Tools, and other creations. For every CMU CS assignment, Eric created a Musical Tool. He didn’t even need instructor permission to change the assignment, because he completely satisfied the assignment, he just bent it toward the domain he cared about.

black-and-white photo of a geometry teacher at a blackboard
Mr Torsten, not Mr Potter, image: Creative Commons Flickr / Blondinrikard Fröberg

[SLIDE] I couldn’t find a photo of my high school geometry teacher Mr. Potter, so this is a photo of Mr. Torsten, somebody else’s high school geometry teacher. But Mr. Potter was my high school geometry teacher. At our final he gave us a sheet with 27 questions and instructed us to do the 1st 25 only. He explained that Mr. Barron, the other geometry teacher, insisted on including the last 2 just to see if anyone could do them, but that they were really over our heads, and that he’d just grade us on the 1st 25. Being young and cockier than I remember, I asked Mr. Potter if I could just do 26 and 27, and skip the 1st 25. Mr. Potter said OK. I aced that class.

For sure there will be faculty members who won’t let you renegotiate their syllabus. But some will. See if you can substitute projects for exams. See if you can develop your skills in negotiating with “project leaders.” AKA “faculty.”

Students wearing headphones and participating in a large scale performance work across the CSU Long Beach campus
Heidi Schuster, The MP3 Experiment

Independent Study

[SLIDE] This is a project one of my students, Heidi Schuster, created, called The MP3 Experiment. You too can create your own projects in “Independent Study” or “Directed Studies” classes. Find a faculty member you connect with and ask to work with them. This is a chance to work with someone in your field, to define your own problems, and to discover your own solutions. You’ll find these special course options typically numbered 490-something. They’re often limited to 6 units. What about more than 6 units of Independent Study? Negotiate with your adviser!

photo of a woman wearing a "Parental Advisory" t-shirt
Oops… not this advisor! / image: Lennart Takanen

Course Substitutions or Program Restructuring with your Departmental Adviser

[SLIDE] OK, that’s the wrong advisor, but with your University Departmental adviser, you might be able to negotiate class substitutions. Summon your inner Alexander Hamilton and negotiate the interpretation of the goals in the catalog. Make the case for classes and Independent Study that you care about. Take classes in other departments. Design your education, for your career, in your century.

photo of Cousin Ellie & Cousin Kirra at Cousin Mike's home in Three Rivers, CA. Ellie & Kirra sit on a table in Mike's backyard
Cousin Ellie, age 7 (8 today)

Actions for Students

So here it is, starting tomorrow morning, Cousin Ellie and I are challenging you to make your education yours. It always was. But we’ve got giant educational bureaucracies with generations of sacred texts that hide that fact. We challenge you to take ownership of your education, or any other work you do, and to make it project based. And when you’ve posted your 1st project on your new website, send me your URL. I’d love to see what you’ve achieved!

Thank you.

No. Words:

  • 2nd draft: 3258
  • final draft: 2434
  • final #2: 2513

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