Fire Your Academic Counselor, Hire Reddit

The University of Michigan can help its most at-risk students by firing the majority of its LSA advisers and paying undergrads to sit on Reddit, waiting to answer questions. It won’t do it, because that’s not a cliff any bureaucrat wants to die fighting on – but it demonstrates the university’s organizational deficiencies and mission-jeopardizing bloat. The University will continue to privilege not ruffling feathers above improved educational outcomes and equity.

On a sunny day, you can see how uncaring the bureaucracy is. Keep bringing us that federal loan money!

Caveat for the soft-hearted among us: yes, I know many advisors are good. We should not fire them. I said the majority, not all of them. Now let me speak some uncharitable truths:

Many advisers are academics who failed to obtain a tenure track position. As a result, advising is a cesspool of sinecures and spouses-of-faculty. Their primary motivations are not to help undergrads, but to fill seats in big classes like the U likes, and collect a check. This is why 1st gen students – or the otherwise disadvantaged, from poor households, uneducated households, bad city schools or bumfuck nowhere – get annihilated their first semester. They don’t have the social network or coalitions that higher SES (or more privileged, if you prefer) students rely on to make good academic choices. I’ll elaborate:

Low SES/1st gen students routinely wind up with an adviser who tells them it would absolutely be a good idea to take 17 credits, including Org Chem, Calc II, and Physics, their first term – or at bare minimum, fails to aggressively discourage it. They take advantage of these low-privilege freshmeat, who are used to being at the top of their class and have weird complexes about working themselves to death to prove their worth, to keep the U running, weeder classes full, and to maintain our comfortably profitable status quo.

Before I came to Michigan, my dad, himself a Michigan dropout, warned me: don’t listen to the counselors. I should have listened to papa Mark. My advisor deceived me into taking an unnecessary Spanish class (albeit with the excellent Professor Gonzalez), and he was utterly useless when I asked for his help in studying the Ford School’s requirements. He sighed at me and said, “I don’t know. You could check Google.” He was genteel enough to turn his monitor 30° towards me and pull up the Ford School homepage, though.

Again, I don’t think all LSA Newnan advisers are this incompetent. There are wonderful advisors who work there because they care about their students deeply, who work their butts off to protect and guide them. But that’s not most of them. Right now, every counselor offering bad advice or no advice is hurting a student. Crappy first year grades in important weeder classes can torpedo a student’s opportunities for med, dental and law school. This means another student, for whom the U purportedly serves, is losing an opportunity to advance their knowledge, wealth and stature in society. If we can’t count on higher-ed to not sabotage itself as a form of advancement, on whom can we?

Every day, an undergrad posts a question on the /r/UofM subreddit ( begging for advice. They do this because they know their counselor is, more likely than not, utterly and despicably useless. They look to their peers for counsel and trust them more. Most of these questions get ignored or go unanswered for dearth of knowledgeable students and time. Start paying some undergrads to chill on Reddit and answer these questions, to make the University of Michigan a better environment for students – especially those without powerful coalitions of peers and family to guide them – to learn.



On Micro-aggressions

We are talking about micro-aggressions in large measure because we have failed to deliver our large and growing humanity, particularly our humanity of color, from macro-aggression. Authors like J Chait kvetch about a culture of political correctness by dwelling on Obvious Fools in Ivory Towers without ever dealing with this fact. It underscores tremendous weakness on the part of big-L Liberalism– that is, the political philosophy committed to unrestricted speech, pluralism and a more hopeful view of epistemological breadth– to address this problem. I am speaking as someone who will hold big-L Liberalism as my political philosophy until the end of days.

Society– and I’m avoiding the word “civilization” because of its brutal history– is about working together. Working together allows us to make more awesome things we want, that make our lives better. That’s delicious food, fun video games, life-saving medicine, SpaceX rockets & Orange is the New Black. That is the productive wealth of our society.

This is where we are failing. We are failing to equitably distribute the gains to cooperation. That means we’re not sharing the productive wealth of our society in a way that justly reflects its origins. But worse, we’re failing to equitably distribute the tools necessary to induce productive cooperation. Poor ill-nourished people with no access to capital and no clear incentives to forge their skills through formal education do not produce as much wealth as educated people with supportive social networks and access to capital, credit and collective guidance.

We are leaving our fellow humans— our fellow Americans— behind. The people we are leaving behind are disproportionately black and brown and non-white. We are of course leaving behind a lot of white people too. But today I am talking about how we understand the rhetoric that a growing body of young POC marshall towards their political interests. Black incomes grew to near-parity with white incomes from the end of the Depression until 1979. In that year, they were only 3% different. Since then we’ve regressed back to roughly 1969 levels of difference. Things got worse. Big-L Liberals with whom I share a lot– like J Chait– seem not to understand this as they write about the supposed ascendance of PC culture.

We do not have equal access to opportunity in the United States of America. We do not equitably distribute and incentivize use of the tools of productive cooperation in the US. And our POC have even less access than they used to. They are angry about this. And they are right to be.

If you find talk of micro-aggression boring, show me your plans to fight this macro-aggression.


This Year

The fact that I have several endorsements for blogging on LinkedIn says more about the generosity of my friends (and the UX of LinkedIn, as well as the manifold problems of credibility and cost in signaling) than about me.

I am, in fact, bad at blogging.

I am a bad blogger for a couple reasons. The first is that I don’t like disclosing lots of details about my analytic processes. At least not in a way that leaves me as vulnerable as does writing a letter to the world. Hi, mom.

The second is that I don’t know very much about CSS and WordPress but I’m powerfully anal about style.

So I’m making an effort to disclose more and be more honest and to pick up a little CSS and HTML.

The title of this blog is Pivoting Towards Bethlehem. The name derives from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays named for a line in Yeats’s poem The Second Coming. Both are fantastic.

Slouching is something like a minority report on California in the 60s. (The Second Coming, according to a guy named Harold Bloom, is something of an apology for Russian counter-revolutionaries. Eek.)

Didion writes in the preface:

I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

(I’m copying this from the Wikipedia page since my copy is buried under a pile of comics at home, by the way.)

To believe in pivoting, in the startup world, is to have a meta-strategy: to be aware of one’s one lack of information, to respond to new information, and to rebuild one’s strategy (and product) in light of new facts. To pivot is to respond and adapt and come to terms with disorder.

It’s been a few months since I’ve worked well too. Maybe longer.

Time to pivot. Wherever I’m going– San Francisco, Battle Creek, Chicago– I’ll see you soon.


Old College Try

Moving to San Mateo in fifteen days with my team. Hoping for a seed offer this afternoon. Taking an enormous dump right now.

As Earl would say, “Don’t be too serious or you’ll end up delirious.”