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Individualism, Urbanism, and Our Changing Psychology

If the books we write mirror the people we are and the societies we create, then analyzing the books we’ve written over the last two centuries should reveal some interesting insights about how we’ve changed and who we’ve become. And that’s exactly what we find in a recent article from the Atlantic: “200 Years of Books Prove That City-Living Changes Our Psychology.”

books (550x367)

The article looks at new research that used Google’s technology to analyze the words in books written over the last 200 years. Check out the article for some fascinating graphs on how changing vocabulary correlates to the rise of urbanism over that same time. (The title of the article, though, suggests that urbanism caused these changes in how we talk about ourselves, when it appears that the research itself demonstrates mere correlation. A common mistake.)

Among the more interesting findings:

  • We’ve seen a notable increase in the language of choice and decision, corresponding to a marked decrease in words like “duty” and “obligation.”
  • “Give” is on the decline, while “get” is much more popular.
  • Words denoting obedience, authority, and religion have declined steadily.

None of this is terribly surprising, but it’s interesting to see it demonstrated through a quantitative analysis of our own literature.

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Flotsam and jetsam (8/16)

HT Jim West

HT Jim West

Good Reads

  •  What Is the Unforgivable Sin? So when troubled souls come to us anxious about having committed the unpardonable sin, what shall we say? (The Gospel Coalition)
  • Are We Letting Kids Online Too Early? The biggest problem experts like Toyama see in the implementation of educational technology is that it is often viewed as an end unto itself and not a tool through which to achieve broader learning goals. (Daily Dot) 

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Avoid Bulimia Academosa (Start Strong #2)

Have you ever thought about how many of our metaphors for learning have something to do with eating? You consume knowledge. Teachers plant ideas and nurture minds. An interesting concept is food for thought, and a good book feeds the soul. I could keep going, but you get the point. Learning is a lot like eating.

studying learning cramming test preparation

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you can also draw some interesting connections between unhealthy eating and unhealthy learning. You should avoid a steady diet of junk food in each, although the occasional treat is just fine. You need to use what you take in or you’ll end up being fat and lazy. And, of course, I recommend avoiding starvation if at all possible.

But the unhealthy analogy I want to focus on is the classic binge and purge approach to learning.

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Start Strong #1: Find Your Sweet Spot

I used to play a lot of tennis. I wasn’t very good, but I could hit the ball. Kind of. Sometimes I’d hit it with the frame of the racket, which usually resulted in the ball careening over the fence and getting lost in the nearby bushes. Or I’d hit it with the strings at the very edge of the racket, spinning the racket in my hand and bouncing the ball straight into in the net. Every now and then, I’d even hit it with the handle of the racket, which is a real accomplishment. But every once in a long while, I’d hit it dead center, flinging the ball back at my opponent with incredible force and just the right amount of spin. For one moment, I’d feel like Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. I’d found it: the sweet spot.

When you hit the sweet spot, you get things done.

tennis (500x364)

Every student needs a sweet spot: that place where you just get things done. They’re hard to explain and they’re different for everyone. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few: a local diner, a spare bedroom, a coffee shop, and even an airplane. Right now, my sweet spot is my backyard. My wife bought some sweet Adirondack chairs, it’s far enough from the house that I don’t have wifi, so it’s perfect as a distraction-free workplace, and the weather has been fabulous. Of course, that’s not going to work long-term, so I’ll need to come up with something else soon. The point is: sweet spots come in all different flavors. Don’t assume that it’s an office or a library somewhere. If that works for you, terrific. If not, find something else.

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Flotsam and jetsam (8/14)

animals with mislead names

Good Reads

  • The Root of Evil: It is common in the secular West to run through a list of such episodes—the Crusades, the Inquisition, Aztec human sacrifices, the European Wars of Religion, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and so on—and conclude that religion has a peculiar tendency to lend itself to violent acts.
  • ‘Like’ This Article Online? Your Friends Will Probably Approve, Too, Scientists Say: If you “like” this article on a site like Facebook, somebody who reads it is more likely to approve of it, even if the reporting and writing are not all that great. But surprisingly, an unfair negative reaction will not spur others to dislike the article. Instead, a thumbs-down view will soon be counteracted by thumbs up from other readers.

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Don’t Start the Year with a Cat on Your Head

I woke up this morning to a cat. On my head. Or, more accurately, a cat leaping with surprising force next to my head and then sprawling on my head. Not good. My mornings are important. They set the tone for the rest of the day. Being shocked into wakefulness as a feline-shaped asteroid tries to send me the way of the dinosaurs does not bode well for the day to come. (By the way, how is it possible for such a light and nimble animal to shake the bed so hard when he jumps on it? Evil must weigh more than I realize.)

evil-cat (500x429)
As I said, I’m annoyed by this because the way I begin my day makes a huge difference. If I start off in lazy mode, pressing the snooze button fourteen times or maybe just sipping coffee and reading some light fiction all morning, I’ll stay in pretty much that same mode for the rest of the day. And there’s nothing wrong with that: some days call for large doses of laziness. But if I’m facing a day when I need to be really productive, I need to start differently, get the wheels turning early. And when I start the day with cat-on-head, I should avoid other living beings at least until after lunch.

Beginnings matter. They set the tone for what follows.

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a student, and one that I see students (and professors!) repeat every year, is not starting well. You may think that you can ease into things and not really get the ball rolling until a few weeks into the term. After all, professors aren’t usually mean enough to hit you with the tough stuff early. So you don’t need to hit your stride until late September at the earliest.

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Flotsam and jetsam (8/12)

time travel

Good Reads

  • Fasting in an Age of Fast Food: Not only can this teaching be neglected and unknown, but it can also be shunned as somehow leading to legalism; the rationale being that it’s an “Old Testament” doctrine. What I want to explain here is not only that this is a biblical teaching and practice, but one that is so relevant in our time.
  • Why the Trinity can’t tell us about gender: Once we commit to the task of finding triunity in human relations, we enter a zone of free theological construction that lacks specificity, guidelines, and doctrinal seriousness. And we are very likely to bring to this task the resources at hand, the things that we already are most committed to and passionate about.
  • Commentary: The Frightening—But Biblical—Moral Logic of ‘Breaking Bad’: , the show runs on a frightening moral logic: No one gets away with anything. Breaking Bad revolves around the least fashionable concept imaginable: wrath. It offers something quite different from the fatalism of The Wire, where things start off ugly and pretty much stay that way. In Breaking Bad, things get steadily worse.

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6 Academic Resolutions for the New Year (part 2)

goals purposes academic resolutions planning objectives

With the new school year about to start, we’re discussing six academic resolutions you might want to consider for getting the most out of the opportunity. Yesterday we looked at the first three: grades, relationships, and health.  Here are the rest.

4. Ask Questions

The way we approach education, it sometimes feels like  memorization is the key to learning. It’s not. Questions are.

Most people think the value of a question comes with the answer. And there’s some truth in that. Obviously, if you don’t know something, asking and getting more information is a good idea.

But I think the real value of a good question comes from thinking up the question in the first place. Coming up with good questions requires you to engage the material deeply, reflect on its significance, and wonder what to do with it. A good question makes you think.

Questions have value long before you get an answer.

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Flotsam and jetsam (8/9)

fear the cow

Good Reads

  • Families, Flourishing, and Upward Mobility: It is certainly true that this dream easily slides towards idolatry. It can become a nightmare of crass materialism and selfish ambition. But we shouldn’t confuse idolatrous perversions with more humble aspirations of families to simply enjoy a mode of economic security that is conducive with flourishing.The Invention of Teenagers: Historians and social critics differ on the specifics of the timeline, but most cultural observers agree that the strange and fascinating creature known as the American teenager — as we now understand the species — came into being sometime in the early 1940s. 
  • The $4 Million Dollar Teacher: Tutoring services are growing all over the globe, from Ireland to Hong Kong and even in suburban strip malls in California and New Jersey. Sometimes called shadow education systems, they mirror the mainstream system, offering after-hours classes in every subject—for a fee. But nowhere have they achieved the market penetration and sophistication of hagwons in South Korea, where private tutors now outnumber schoolteachers.
  •  The Invention of Teenagers: Historians and social critics differ on the specifics of the timeline, but most cultural observers agree that the strange and fascinating creature known as the American teenager — as we now understand the species — came into being sometime in the early 1940s.

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6 Academic Resolutions for the New Year (part 1)

When are we finally going to face the truth that we’ve all known since we were kids: no one cares about January 1. Really. It’s just an excuse to extend the holiday parties for another week, eat too much, stay up late, and wake up the next morning wondering why you did that yet again.

We all know the truth: the real New Year begins with the new school year. That’s a date that matters. Moving from December 31 to January 1 affects nothing other than remembering to change the last couple of numbers whenever you write the date. Starting a new school year, though, that’s big.

academic resolutions new year

(This is obviously true for students, teachers, and parents. But I’ve noticed that it’s even true for many people who don’t fall into any of those categories. I think it has to do with the formative impact of living with the school calendar through all your growing up years. Even after school, you still think Fall marks something truly new in a way that January never could.)

So I think it’s time that we just recognized the reality. It’s unlikely that we’ll get the government to change the calendars any time soon, though that would solve the problem of those awful hyphenated school years (the 2013-2014 school year…ugh). But we can still celebrate in our own way by realizing that now is the perfect time to make New Year’s resolutions that matter.

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