September 30, 2005


So I'm out of control busy right now with real life, part of which involves looking over essays that have been entered in a campuswide competition for a scholarship in leadership. They've been culled by our Student Affairs professionals into 15 finalists. The finalists were all required to write a 750-word essay, and the theme (I know you're going to be shocked) is diversity. Specifically the applicants must describe an experience where they demonstrated leadership that affected or increased inclusivity in the campus community. Let's just say my "buddy" M. OWES ME.

When I got the essays, I was joking around with Hublet saying, "Let me guess. We'll have The Gay Experience, The Black Experience, The Frat Experience, The Female Experience, The Latin Experience and The Republican Experience."

Just call me Cassandra, people. But it doesn't take a Kreskin to predict Student Affairs types.

Thus far I have soldiered through 4 of the 15 essays. Sure enough, the first one I picked out of the pile was The Gay Experience, which included more acronyms than the entire product catalog of IBM. It doesn't help that the acronyms are undefined, or that the main one--which I do understand, by the way--is unfortunately reminiscent of a really tasty sandwich. As I read I kept getting distracted by mental images of bacon.

The next one was a little weirder, because it was totally vague about what, exactly, the diversity challenge was, but I finally figured out that it could probably be subtitled "A White Chick Discovers Black People," although the chick in question never mentioned any overt differences in anything. Perhaps she is too afraid to type the words African-American or Black, lest she be labeled racist? Who knows? I sure as hell don't. Although I must commend her--not since Umberto Eco have I read anything that oblique, with strange veiled references to "enemies" and "divergent life experiences." The hell?

The next essay was The Frat Experience; specifically A White Frat Boy Discovers All Sorts of Brown People and is Amazed! Amazed! That They Can All Drink Beer Together!

And finally, I got to The Republican Experience, wherein one hapless soul who helped found a chapter of the ACLU on campus was actually surprised and bummed out when said chapter was co-opted by the more radical lefty student groups on campus. It seems he got involved mainly to counter the banning of an off-campus drunken bash that the city council had passed ordinances against. So he helped found them, served his term and left the chapter--not exactly a stellar leadership experience, if you ask me, but the most clearly written essay so far.

What I've noticed about these essays thus far is that we have a whole bunch of really earnest kids trying desperately to give me what they think I want to hear, and so we end up with 750 words worth of platitudes about diversity, and very little about the leadership capabilities of these students. Why? I think it's because most of these kids look for leadership roles because they genuinely want to help out and give back, and that ideas about "diversity and inclusivity" don't figure into that--helping is helping, right? So when they're asked to expound upon diversity, they twist and pad their experiences with pull quotes from Warm Fuzzy-ville, and completely obscure their own actions.

And so I soldier on, trying to (literally, in some cases) read between the lines to divine what sorts of leaders these students might be.

On the bright side, I've discovered I don't miss grading freshman comp essays anymore!

Posted by Big Arm Woman at September 30, 2005 02:50 PM

Mmmmmm - bacon!

Posted by: Unknown Professor at September 30, 2005 08:38 PM

The problem is the requirement is stupid. Ask instead for troublemaker qualities.

I've never had leadership qualities in my entire life. Leadership qualities are what troublemakers are there to guard against.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at September 30, 2005 11:20 PM

I am sad to see that so many kids lack enough self-respect to refuse to write those essays.

Ron, I had a discussion with my daughter about leadership earlier this month. She has just gone off to college for the first time and had a run-in with some RA's in her dorm, and discovered that the condition of having idiots in charge of her did not go away with her high school graduation. I told her that this revelation is the kind of thing that makes people like me, who would rather stick pencils in our ears, take leadership positions: it's the desire to see decisions made by somebody with some sense. And that she should think about it.

Posted by: Laura at October 1, 2005 09:25 AM

The in-charge guarantees you get idiots. It's a permanent condition.

The troublemaker is the only protection.

There ought to be courses in troublemaking.

I was described in one memorable merit review as having negative leadership, which, when a leader says it, means undermining authority.

How hard is it to undermine an idiot? I posed that question.

Of course it helps if you're actually right about things. This is achieved by actually embracing the goals that the institution claims to live by.

Goffman described that subversive more in _Asylums_ a sociological analysis of mental institutions (as a model of society in general, with regard to how stands are taken against control, in particular total control).

I don't know that anybody would argue that institutions of higher learning today differ from mental institutions in the 60s.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at October 1, 2005 10:51 AM

The problem is, the qualities that indicate effective leadership are qualities the Diversity Police are determined to eliminate from society. The best (well, most effective -- they can be evil) leaders tend to be domineering, focused types, and these types often are not into warm fuzzy things like making people feel all better about being "different" from someone else. Or if they are interested in this sort of thing, it's on the order of "how can I use this to effect my goal?" of being in charge and getting something done. Sociable, feeling-sensitive types also tend to end up as leaders, at least in our democratic, personality-driven system, but their techniques are not always as effective at getting things done -- though they are better at getting people to like them (c.f. Bill Clinton vs. George Bush).

Yeah, we had a behavior seminar at work recently, can you tell? It was actually kind of interesting.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at October 1, 2005 02:56 PM

Argh! You have html turned off! Must use preview.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at October 1, 2005 02:57 PM

"I am sad to see that so many kids lack enough self-respect to refuse to write those essays."

No, they lack enough money to refuse to write those essays.

Posted by: Michael at October 1, 2005 08:09 PM


Bravo! I think every college student eventually comes to realize that what he/she is being taught is mostly meaningless crap and that they and their parents have been the victims of a cruel hoax. The revelation happened for me in my Junior year.

I stuck it out, reluctantly, but the true leaders among the students probably drop out and move on at that point.

Posted by: snopercod at October 2, 2005 01:52 PM

What my daughter is being taught would be mostly meaningless crap except that she's majoring in biology (pre-pharm). I really encouraged her to go into the sciences, and that's why. She had some terrific English courses in high school, and that will have to do, because her freshman English class is all about male-dominated blah blah. "You warned me," she said.

Posted by: Laura at October 2, 2005 02:53 PM

and a side effect to the "meaningless crap"? The college students who buy into the idea that that is how college is "supposed" to be are so totally gobsmacked when they get to science classes and are actually expected to learn facts, and synthesize information, and write coherent sentences that are not entirely based on their opinions, that many of them cannot do it, or at the very least, complain bitterly about it.

I had a friend once get a comment (she taught a human biology class): "She expected us to know three different types of skin cells! That's totally unfair and TOO MUCH!!!!"


One thing I'm learning is that one of the best hallmarks of adulthood is realizing that most of the time, it's not all about you. Unfortunately, these kind of "The (insert whatever "marginalized" group here) Experience" essays only serve to reinforce the juvenile perspective that the individual writing should rightly be the center of the universe.

Posted by: ricki at October 2, 2005 05:23 PM


Obviously *you* can write a coherent sentence ;-) Your piece was very good.

I have a question. I have always *thought* that higher education was intended teach young people the skills they would need to qualify for the "better" kinds of jobs out there - you know, the ones where you get to use your brain in air conditioned comfort rather using your arms and back out in the weather.

(Maybe that idea was a cruel hoax, too, I don't know any more.)

These days, schools are cranking out graduates who *can't* put together a coherent sentence, know nothing about the physical world in which they live (other than man is destroying the environment), but can talk for hours about "diversity".

...and these fresh graduates are "certified malleable". By spending four years eagerly consuming ideas which run contrary to the natural instincts of mankind, they have demonstrated that they will believe whatever they are told by an authority figure. (Sure boss, I see *five* lights if you say so.)

My question is this: "Is this the kind of worker the American job market demands for the 21st century?...or does our higher education industry no longer serve the needs of its customers."

...or maybe the customer of higher education is no longer the student.

Either way, what does this say about the future of America?

Posted by: snopercod at October 3, 2005 07:48 AM

I teach history, and many of our students are stunned to realize they're expected to learn facts and be able to use them to form coherent essays. I'm sick to death of the "science is real education" mantra. Some of the best students I've had were English majors, and some of the worst were engineering majors. Vice versa, too. The common factor in the best students is a propensity for imaginative thought coupled with curiosity; the common factor in the worst students is a lack thereof. The major doesn't matter.

One other factor in academic: a willingness to work hard. Again, the major doesn't matter.

Posted by: Michael at October 3, 2005 10:17 AM

I would say a perverse curiosity is the most important thing.

Pleasing academics of any kind isn't high on the list.

You can, in fact, read and take pleasure in the same authors as academics, and have no interest in common with them.

I put it down to the forces of institutionalization. It kills curiosity. Hence you need a pervese sort of curiosity.

Or, otherwise put, embrace the claimed goals but not the actual goals of the institution, and pay the price.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at October 3, 2005 12:20 PM

Ron, you're being unnecessarily dramatic.

I took a course in microbiology at the local State U last Spring. Some of the information in the lecture and the textbook seemed a little sketchy to me and I wasn't assimilating it as thoroughly as I wanted, and I was curious enough to look for supplemental information online and in some of my college textbooks that I kept from >20 years ago. My curiosity did result in my better understanding the material, and there was nothing perverse or uninstitutional about it; I received an A in the course.

Posted by: Laura at October 3, 2005 01:35 PM

Same with me but I got F's.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at October 3, 2005 02:37 PM

Two questions.
1) What were the ones culled by the SA professionals like? Better or worse? Are you onlyseeing those that the SA people think are worthwhile?
2) How can anyone say anything interesting, develop an argument or story in 750 words? Thatís the size of a Krugman column which rather procves that point.

Posted by: Tim Worstall at October 15, 2005 05:56 AM