draft 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
real lessons from fake universities
[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.
[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.
Give or take some changes, that 200 year-old Princeton University Catalog is the 2016-2017 Long Beach State University Catalog.
Larry & Sergey
[SLIDE] This is Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They met in college and started a software company.
[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.
[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.
[SLIDE] The guy in the middle is Richard Miller, the president of Olin College. One reason he’s 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.
I’m not sure what either of those distinctions would tell you by itself, but if you can put them together, I think you’ve created the perfect college experience.
In the past 12 years I’ve taught 4,695 students here at Long Beach State University. Through my art practice, I’ve also created a couple of “fake” universities that have taught me some real lessons about engagement in education. I’ve created Medici University for avatars, and Runaway University for International Students. In the past 8 years I’ve worked with over 1,000 avatars at Medici University, and in the past 2 years I’ve worked with about 200 international students at Runaway University.
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:
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.
Baby Boomers, Gen Xers & Millennials
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.
[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? When we privilege communication tools we believe in, like journal articles, over tools they believe in, like Snapchat, is this an act of colonialism?
You might think it’s ridiculous to compare a journal article to Snapchat.
But consider that The President of The United States was elected by Twitter.
And the only person who could have defeated him is Kim Kardashian, who has nearly 4 times as many Instagram followers as he has Twitter followers.
Preposterous? Maybe. But if you are unwilling or unable to accommodate the dynamics of contemporary culture, then you’re doomed to repeat the election cycle of 2016.
The title of this talk is Burn the University Catalog. I went to our university bookstore to buy a physical copy of the catalog. I thought I might take a cute photo of a burning catalog. Well, it turns out you can’t actually burn the university catalog because we don’t print them on paper anymore. Today our catalog exists only in cyberspace. The medium of the university catalog is 21st century! But what about the content? Is it still Princeton University in the 19th century?
People like Maria Montessori and Richard Miller have achieved remarkable educational results without doing most of the things that we might accept as pedagogical canon.
Of Professors & Coaches
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 at Princeton University.
Friday Night Live
[SLIDE] This is Craig Taubman. He created a service at a Temple in Westwood called Friday Night Live. One day the Rabbi said, Craig, I really want to thank you. You’ve invented a completely new service filled with energy and vitality.
Surprised, Craig replied, “all I’m doing is singing those old camp songs you taught us as kids.”
What I learned from Craig’s experience is that any text, no matter how sacred or profound, when handed down a few generations, becomes
just that crap they made us memorize in school
It’s the Maria Montessori lesson again. We learn by doing, not by listening. Sacred texts lose their power in a couple of generations. Students need to discover these insights for their own time. They need to chart their own paths.
A self-defined student path doesn’t have to be better than one in the university catalog. It only has to be of the student’s own choosing and design. The road might be be more or less traveled, but it must be a road that the student chooses for herself.
Long Term Solutions
I’d like to offer some Long and Short Term solutions. Long Term ideas for educators, administrators, and public policy makers. And most importantly short-term solutions for individual students who are in college right now.
First a few long-term thoughts:
Reforming K-12 is far beyond the scope of my experience! But I do hope K-12 can become less about Standardized Testing and more about student discovery. Machines already do, or will soon do, most of the tasks that students can prepare for with standardized testing. There has never been a better time for more individualized education and developing more individual creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
[SLIDE] This is Salman Rushdie, he said,
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives – the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change – truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
Rushdie was thinking about The Quran when he said that, but is his insight any less true of The University Catalog? Is our University Catalog the fountain of new thoughts? Or the road block?
Actions for Administrators & Educators
With the help of more individualized K-12 education, let’s build a 21st century University Catalog with more flexibility for students to define individual programs. Let’s have faith in our students to study their world and to define new, productive paths toward scholarship and leadership.
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?
Before I offer my immediate solutions, maybe we should ask if college students are ready to take more responsibility for their education? After all, the standardized testing we’ve favored in K-12 education hasn’t really prepared young people for self-reliance and open-ended thinking.
Here at Long Beach State we have about 36,000 students, about 1100 of whom are sitting right here right now. Are the 34,900 students not here ready for more educational self-determination? I honestly don’t know. How to work with them should be the 2nd thing on the list. But for the 1100 of you here today, I think just the fact that this is how you’ve chosen to spend your Sunday suggests that you’re plenty ready to chart your own path. Maybe you’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Let’s get started!
[SLIDE] Has anyone seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play 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.
Your adviser is not just someone to read the University Catalog for you. She is the ombudsperson between you and the catalog. The best advice I can offer you is to 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.
I have 6 tools to share with you that can transform your college experience. The first three, which I’ll detail in a moment, are:
- Within course Mods
- Independent or Directed Study
- Course Substitutions or Program Restructuring with your Departmental Adviser
The 2nd 3 are: #4: Make your education Project Based. #5: Make your education Project Based! #6: Make your education Project Based!!!
Don’t do a big senior capstone project.
Do a hundred projects across the course of your college career! Here’s a secret almost no one ever tells you: the universe will not explode if you try a project before you’ve completed all the prerequisites. And when you do all those projects, grab a great piece of 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.
If you’re read Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, or seen the film adaptation with Brad Pitt & Jonah Hill, then you know that the insight Paul DePodesta shared with Billy Beane was that The Oakland A’s shouldn’t be buying players, they should be buying runs. By assembling a team of undervalued players, Beane & DePodesta’s Oakland A’s outperformed 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. I challenge you to assemble your own unique, project-based college experience. If the poor Oakland A’s can outperform the rich New York Yankees, then I believe that you can outperform the University Catalog.
I’ve talked to a bunch of psychology students who hate their statistics class. The faculty sort of say, “trust us, you’ll need this someday.” But what the students hear is, “this is hard, boring, and you’ll never use it.” What if you shifted to a project based approach? As a young psychology student, what questions do you care about? We’ve got 36,000 students on this campus, why don’t you ask them some questions? 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.
You’ll notice that in the end, the faculty were right: you did need stat. But you learned it when it was useful. It wasn’t faith-based education, it was results-based education. You weren’t, like a company that only orders inventory without ever manufacturing anything, stockpiling 16 years of knowledge inventory without making anything, instead you practiced Just-In-Time knowledge inventory, and learned what you needed when you needed it.
OK, to make your college education more project-based, let’s talk about Within Course Mods, Independent Study & Program Restructuring.
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.
In many courses you can bend the given activities to fit your personal goals. In other courses you might digest the syllabus and then visit your professor during office hours and offer her a deal: you believe you can accomplish the same proficiency by substituting your projects A, B, and C, for the projects or chapters or exams currently in the syllabus. You won’t always get a “yes,” but if you make a solid, compelling case, sometimes you will. Then you’ll not only be doing projects you care about, but you’ll gain valuable skills in negotiating with project leaders and in finding compromise.
[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. If you want to try 12 or 18 units of project work with multiple faculty members, talk to your Adviser, maybe the depth of your vision and her broad interpretation of the University Catalog can make that happen for you.
Doing a lot of independent coursework, realizing sophisticated projects, and finding everything you need to know to do them, is going to be a lot of work. More work than if you just settled for what’s obvious in the catalog. If you’re willing to take that much responsibility, and do that much work, you’ll be achieving in projects you really care about, and I hope you’ll also be having more fun than you’ve ever had in your life.
Every now and then you should ask yourself,
What’s the most important thing I could be doing right now?
If the answer isn’t college, then maybe you should go do that other thing instead. If it is college, then dive in with as much intensity and commitment as you possibly can. Don’t let anyone, anything, or yourself, stand in your way.
Course Substitutions or Program Restructuring with your Departmental Adviser
University catalogs vary widely in how specific they are. When I studied at the University of Hawaii, that catalog was remarkably flexible in terms of what you could study. Our Long Beach State University catalog is very specific in what courses you must take. Which brings us back to Alexander Hamilton. Just because the catalog says you have to do A, B, C, D, doesn’t mean that you can’t negotiate the interpretation of those goals. I challenge you to create your own program that will give you the 21st century skills to be a valuable participant in the culture of your time.
Mix work in different departments if that’s relevant for you. Substitute Independent Study for lecture classes. A lot of people put “self starter” on their resumes. For this to work you’re going to have to really live that. I’m asking you to ask for a lot of responsibility over your college experience. But you’re not alone. Your adviser, your faculty, your classmates, the professionals you reach out to, they can all help you plot your course.
Speaking of reaching out to professionals: do that! Everyone who today has a career you admire was once a student of some kind somewhere. Many of them remember that experience, and when you play the student card many of them will be surprisingly helpful. People who are otherwise inaccessible will often say “yes” when you say you’re a student at Long Beach State and you’d like to ask them a few questions.
Actions for Students
So here it is, starting tomorrow morning, my challenge to you is to make your education yours. It always was. But we’ve got giant educational bureaucracies with generations of sacred texts that hide that fact. I challenge you to make your education project based. To do projects within classes, to do projects in Independent or Directed Study classes. To restructure your program away from faith-based educational experiences and toward results-based education. 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!
Hi! I’m Glenn Zucman, a Los Angeles based Artist & Arts Educator. My work includes Representational-Abstract Painting, Graphic Printmaking, Video Installation, Robot Artists, and Avatar Identity. Most recently I’ve been interested in Public Art, Social Practice, and Civil Rights in Cyberspace. I’ve produced the Arts Interview radio programs Border Patrol for American Public Media, and Strange Angels for KBeach Radio. In the past 12 years I’ve taught 4,695 students at CSULB. Across this time I’ve come to believe that education cannot be taught by lecture, like pouring oil into an engine, but instead must be an individually discovered path.