Archive for August, 2011


Call to Action

We have discussed Gladwell’s purpose, audience, and credibility as an author.  We have
analyzed his methods and picked apart examples, anecdotes, and research that worked well and resonated with us and some sections and aspects of the book that did not.  We have identified Blink as a great conversation starter, and we certainly have started a lively conversation here.  These are all important steps, but what now?   Where do we go from here?  How can we move this open conversation toward action or change in our own individual lives, the lives of those in our community, or for the most ambitious, the world?  At academic conferences, we often call this next step beyond conversation as the “Nuts and Bolts”, what we can actually DO with new knowledge and understanding.  The last section of Blink’s Afterword is appropriately called “ A Call to Action” beginning on page 273.  In this section, he discusses how his original intention for the book turned out to be different than his understanding after publication and the passage of time.  If you have not read this portion, I urge you do so.  We don’t always get such insight and direction from an author.

As with many events, my time with you when presenting this book during Summer Orientation in June seems both shorter and longer ago than two months.   Regardless, there is no question we are rapidly approaching Fall Orientation in less than a week and the beginning of your semester.  So again I feel compelled to ask, where do we, not just as part of Gladwell’s overall audience, but as a defined learning community, go from here?  For example, there are some logistics. The book discussion group is coming up on September 6th, which is also the date the first copy of your essay is due.  You will also be asked to hand in a copy to your first year writing instructor, and the book will be incorporated in this class in some form.  What are your expectations at this point?  How have those expectations changed or not changed?  What concerns, questions, and/or insights do you have?

Until We Meet

So, as the other bloggers mentioned, we have come to the end of our blog time together. Reading your comments today and seeing the conversations taking place I can say that I am really excited about this group of incoming students here at UMD! I think you have all been engaged and thoughtful here in a myriad of ways. You have responded to questions that weren’t always easy and you have probed and explored the book Blink through personal and academic lenses. You have also given your peers thoughtful feedback and honest engagement with their ideas and this is truly exciting.

I can’t wait to meet you in person now! I find myself wondering which ones of you I will have in my classes and what your writing will look like, how it will grow and change through this semester? In short, I am looking forward to getting past the small tidbits of information I have about each of you now and getting to know you each as individuals in my classes.

So, enjoy your last week and we’ll see you soon!

 

Opening the Kimono

So this is my last blog entry and I face it with some regret.  There’s a lot left to talk about – we’ve only just scratched the surface.  Hopefully these conversations will carry over into your classes and you will continue to make deep connections to the material and to those around you.

But  I thought now might be a good time to reflect on my thoughts on this whole experience – the blog, your amazing reactions to posts, the school year, and what comes next.  And I will end by making you a promise and asking you to make one too.

After two months of focusing on Blink I think we can all see the benefits – and negatives –in thin slicing.  We’ve covered quite a range of areas.  There was a lot to dig into.

I found the blog to be inspirational in its own way.  (Yes, I know I’m a geek.)  It was wonderful to see students engaged with the material and each other, and the depth and number of posts was exciting.  It was nice to see you all fully invested in this project and your own academic career.  Some of the posts were mind-blowing with their insightfulness; their connections to society and self were wonderful to consider and contemplate.   You helped me see the world through your eyes and I thank you for that.

And I greet the school year with a bit of trepidation.  It is the end of the summer after all, and who likes that?  In just three weeks, we’ll be back to work, churning through new material and barreling toward new goals and deadlines.

But I will also consider this oncoming semester as a new opportunity.  Blink changed the way I think about things, the way I see things.  I’ll let you in on a secret – though it’s probably not as much of a secret as I think.

Your instructors thin-slice you too.

We look at the students sitting in the back row, slouched in chairs, hoodies pulled down over faces, and think those students don’t care about school, grades, etc.

We look at the students who sit in the front row as the good students – only over-achievers sit in the front row, right?

And we look at students who never speak up in class as disengaged; we think their minds are a million miles away.  They are happy to muddle through, caring enough to show up, but not enough to fully engage.

In other words, professors thin-slice too.  We make snap judgments that are not always right.  We are only human.

I’ve been fortunate to go through enough semesters to realize my assumptions are not always right.  I have had straight A students who slouch their way through the semester; I’ve had amazing work come from the middle row; and I’ve had students who dutifully sit up front leave with a less than stellar grades.

So as I wrap up blogging for this year, I’ll make you this promise:  I will NOT thin-slice.  I will not put my biased judgments on you.  I will not let previous experiences dictate the way I see you.

Will you promise me the same?

I hope so, because that is the only way we’re ever going to get beneath the surface and become the people – the scholars – we want to be.

Liking What I Like

My last post brought up questions about author credibility and intended audience.  One question was the following: “Considering this kind of audience one Lundsford calls a ‘whole audience’, how effective is Gladwell’s appeal?  Which examples, anecdotes, studies, and cultural references are most effective for you as a member of his multiple or whole audience and which ones are least effective?” 

In criticism of Blink, David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist, questions what he perceives as Gladwell’s assumption (at points in the book) “that our brains are like computers”.  In his 2005 review of Blink for The New York Times he asks,  “Isn’t it as possible that the backstage part of the brain might be more like a personality, some unique and nontechnological essence that cannot be adequately generalized about by scientists in white coats with clipboards?”

I  had a similar question regarding the omission, in cases, of the role of personality and personal preferences when reading about Kenna and the Pepsi Challenge, in particular, which to answer my own question from above were less effective examples for me as part of Gladwell’s whole audience.  I guess I don’t particularly “like” being told why I “like” or don’t “like” something.  I’m aware, for example, that there can be very talented musicians who I can appreciate as talented, but who are not my particular cup of tea, so to speak.  Maybe I just don’t have a preference for their style of music.  For me, no amount of, for lack of better words, “brain science” could prove that all of my preferences can be reasoned out or generalized about in all cases.

 Now, this is not an endorsement for any product, but I LOVE Coke and I dislike Pepsi.  I recognize this as a personal preference, and I know some people feel the opposite.  I would like to think that no matter how many times market researchers tried to trick me, even if I had to choose based on a hundred samples, I would pick Coke each time, although this, of course, would not be consistent with the group research.  Even if I didn’t for reasons that have to do with the difference between two samples and multiple samples or any other trickery, to me, in my day to day life, this means very little because if I was in a restaurant and the server gave me Pepsi instead of Coke, I would know,  I would not like it regardless of the reason, and I would not drink it.  I know market research is expensive and important for companies because they are looking to make the most profit, but for me, pretty much the only thing Pepsi could do to make me like it better is make it exactly like Coke, and what would be the point of that?

Were there examples that left you feeling like you were being unfairly characterized, defined, or grouped or any parts of the book that are not working for you as much as others for any number of reasons?

Defying the Stereotype

In response to the last post, I began to wonder about what happens when people defy their negative stereotypes? In the case of the West Memphis Three, a town decided that three men were guilty, wrongly accusing them based on shaky evidence and in essence, letting the real killers go free. But, this week I read an open letter to the American people by Warren Buffet in the New York Times which made me feel cautiously hopeful towards a group I normally  view with a negative bias. That group is the self-proclaimed “mega-rich.” In the article Buffet, who is purportedly the second richest American, advocates that the U.S. government “stop coddling the rich” with low taxes and tax breaks.

Effectively, he breaks down some of the myths that are circulating around our nation–that if the rich pay higher taxes they will stop investing and stop creating jobs. Using historical context as his proof, he argues that even when taxes on his income bracket have been much higher in the past, economic growth still progressed. In fact, things were better economically. His argument is logical and passionate and espouses a view that we owe it to each other to pay our fair share to support our own community. He even asserts that his rich friends are decent, civic-minded individuals who want to pull their own weight.

See, here comes my biased judgment. The mega-rich are altruistic? The mega-rich aren’t just asking for more and more special considerations? Is it possible that even the richest Americans have had enough of the imbalance we’ve created in our country? I always assumed that it was these rich folks who were at the helm, directing our government puppets to help themselves get richer. Hmmm…

I came away with a few questions from this article. Who is Warren Buffet and is he accurate in his assessment of his own group? What does it mean that even the mega-rich are feeling like enough is enough? What exactly is the purpose of lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans and who is it serving exactly? Was I wrong about a billionaire?  Or is Buffet just a noble individual amongst a greedy majority? Often in Gladwell’s book I feel like snap-judgments are something that are enacted “on” someone else. Where is the agency of the individual to defy the social role they’ve been handed?

My question to you is, when you are being thin-sliced (which happens to all of us), what do you do about it? How do you prove them wrong? Can you? What do you have to say about Buffet’s letter in such a context?

 

Thin Slicing Turns Tragic

For the past several weeks, we’ve discussed thin-slicing as it pertains to academic life; my colleague Professor Whittingham has also discussed the Amadou Diallou case, when thin-slicing and race collided to result in tragedy.  Today I want to discuss a case that has been going on for the past 18 years, a case where thin-slicing had similar tragic consequences based on nothing more than the way three teenagers dressed and the music they liked.

In 1993, three eight year old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas.  Within days, the police had arrested three teenagers for the crime – Jesse Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols.  When the police were asked to rate, on a scale of 1-10, how confident they were that these three had committed the crimes, they responded, “Eleven!”  The whole town cheered.

It came out during the trial that these three young men were picked up by police because they were “odd.”  Damien Echols had a funny first name, a name he chose because, police claimed, he wanted to be Damian from the Omen horror movies.  (He actually chose the name to honor Father Damien, the Catholic priest who worked in Hawaii with the lepers – Father Damien was later sainted by the Catholic church.)

Damien and Jesse and Jason also liked heavy metal music – Metallica, to be exact.   They wore black clothes.  Damien was Goth before Goth was popular.  He had long hair.  He acted “funny.”

 

 

These three were peculiar.  They were scary.  They were different.   In West Memphis, Arkansas, with no physical evidence to tie these three to the crimes, that was enough to arrest them for murder.

All three were convicted.  Jason and Jessie got life sentences; Damien Echols was sentenced to death row.

Today, eighteen years, two HBO documentaries, and one investigative book later, Damien, Jesse, and Jason were set free.  They walked out of jail today as free men.  Here’s what Damien looks like now:

 

 

He looks pretty “normal,” doesn’t he?  Today he just might fit right in with the rest of the citizens of West Memphis, Arkansas.    What a difference 18 years makes.

I believe that thin slicing put them in jail.  It helped an entire community make a rash decision and justify their actions in convicting three teens of murder.  Once the town was able to identify the bogeyman, they could rest easy again.

But it all went horribly wrong.  The real murderers were never found.  These young men went into prison at 18 years old.  Today, they walked out at 36 years old.

Being different – being unique – is a right we’re supposed to enjoy in this country.  But what we can’t control is how people view us.

So what do we do about that?  Is there anything we can do about it?

Back to Basics

Since the very first posts, we have analyzed Gladwell’s PURPOSE in writing Blink with some mention of other contributing parts of the writing situation: AUTHOR (credibility and position) and AUDIENCE.  The writing situation is discussed at greater length in  Chapter 5 beginning on page 43 in the required first year writing handbook, The Every Day Writer by Andrea A. Lundsford.  Since all parts of a writing situation contribute to the success of the work, let’s look at the other two a little more.

1.)   I think we all can agree the audience Gladwell addresses is broad.  Almost anyone can go to a local bookstore or get on Amazon.com and order a copy of his book in print or even for their Kindle.  The subject of decision making is a pretty universal topic and relates to pretty much everyone.  Because his audience is not an audience that can easily be characterized it would be considered a multiple audience rather than a simple audience.  He therefore has to appeal to a wide range of people with differing opinions, backgrounds, understanding, abilities, and experiences.  Considering this kind of audience one Lundsford calls a “whole audience”, how effective is Gladwell’s appeal?  Which examples, anecdotes, studies, and cultural references are most effective to you as a member of his multiple or whole audience and which ones are least effective, possibly considering some of the following:  Warren Harding, Kenna, the Getty kouros, Vic Braden and the tennis serve, the Millennium Challenge, Cook County Hospital, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the Aeron chair, the Gottman experiments, and the Pepsi Challenge.

2.)   Who is Gladwell and why is this important?  For example, Gladwell is a best selling author, a journalist, and a staff writer for The New Yorker.  He has written other well received books, four New York Times best sellers in fact, and perhaps most notably, The Tipping Point (2000).  Gladwell is NOT a scientist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a research marketer, a food expert, a military expert, or a police officer.  How credible is Gladwell?  Try to use specifics to support your response.

Keep in mind, as I mentioned in my last post, there is room for disagreement here, but there are no right or wrong answers.

Problem Solving

Some of the most important skills you will be asked to use in your classes and in the university are your problem solving skills. Some of our problem solving skills are inherent. I think this is worth celebrating. Our minds are able to size things up in an instant to help us make decisions. We are actually built and programmed that way and it is amazing. Gladwell didn’t discover these facts but he does us a service in illuminating them, in taking them out of the specialized, scientific community and into the public sphere where we all have access to the ideas.

In particular Gladwell points to success in people who are “very good at what they do and all of whom owe their success, at least in part, to the steps they have taken to shape and manage and educate their unconscious reactions” (16). One of the ways that we problem solve is through association. In chapter three Gladwell says “We make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us” (77). We have discussed here how those associations can be problematic because they are subject to our experiences and our biases but what about when they are useful to us? What does it take to be a good problem solver?

In the previous post many of you discussed how you associated math with being difficult. More so, many of you associated your own evaluation of yourself based on what a teacher told you or led you to believe about yourself. Surely you will bring some of those associations with you but also you have the opportunity to makes new ones. If pairing is a way of synthesizing information together, how do we learn to play with it a little bit? When we break some of our associative powers apart and also when we rebuild new pairing skills, we learn something. Below is a link to a song that does just that–makes associations with some pairs of things. What if we changed the lyrics to the song to reflect new pairings?

What are some things you associate together in your learning? What if you made a list and then looked at new possible associations? For example what do you pair with reading, writing, math, history, dorm rooms, cafeterias, college? If math is scary, difficult or boring, what if we instead began to pair it with words like challenging, rewarding or exciting? Can you think of examples from your own life?

Clueless

We’ve spent the past few months talking about rapid cognition, first impressions, and the dangers – and benefits – they can uncover.  One area of Gladwell’s book that really spoke to me was in the final chapter, the section entitled “Small Miracles.”

Gladwell writes, “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.  Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious,” (252).  The emphasis placed on that passage is mine.

To piggy-back on what Professor Whittingham wrote about regarding racial bias, I want to talk about the subtle influences that have biased me, and have you consider some of the influences that have biased you.  I want to go beyond looking at the societal pressures that have influenced us – race, class, gender, etc. – because they are discussed fairly frequently.  I want to reflect that view inward, to you individually.

An example:  I have always said that I am not good at math.  No big surprise, there – I DO teach English, after all.   But that perceived math deficiency was something I struggled with for most of my life.  Then one day, I went to an interview where I had to take a math test.  I dreaded every minute of that exam.  During the actual conversation portion of the interview, the Human Resources Director asked, “So, what is your greatest weakness?”  The answer was easy.  I said immediately, “Math.  I’m terrible at math.”  She looked confused and I soon discovered why.  I had scored a 99% on the math test.  I was stunned!

It’s been an experience that has stuck with me for years, but after reading Blink, it became clear to me why I thought the way I did.  I had relied on my first impressions of myself.  I had to have math tutors all through middle school; I was placed in remedial math classes in high school.  I had been “trained” to think I was bad at it – I undermined myself for decades because someone once said to me, “You’re not good at math.”

Take a moment now to turn your consideration inward.  What is your first impression of YOU?  What experiences (both internal and external) have given you the impression you have of yourself?  How accurately do you see yourself?

Agreeing to Disagree (at least sometimes)

In any academic conversation there is room to raise questions, disagree, and debate as long as it’s done respectfully, and you try to remain as informed and open as possible.  Although Blink has often been identified as a “good conversation starter” in previous posts, it is interesting how much agreement there has been about the various topics and examples.   With that in mind, I would like to revisit one of the more complicated and possibly more divisive examples in the book covered in Chapter 6: the shooting of Amadou Diallo.

I remember clearly when this incident happened; perhaps I remember it so well because I’m from New York or maybe because in 1999 when it occurred, I, like Diallo, was twenty-two.  I would graduate from college that year and was very involved in social justice and racial justice as I still am today.  I remember when Bruce Springsteen first performed his song “American Skin- 41 Shots” in honor of Diallo and how controversial it was, even prompting a proposed boycott of his concerts and music by police officers and criticism from then mayor Rudy Giuliani.  The following are links to the full lyrics from the Official Bruce Springsteen Website and a video clip of Springsteen performing the song in New York City in 2000:

http://www.brucespringsteen.net/songs/AmericanSkin.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lkpQg8GB8k

Now, looking back more than ten years later, the incident seems much more complex than I had originally perceived it to be.  I can see Gladwell’s point when he states the shooting “falls into a kind of gray area, the middle ground between deliberate and accidental” (197).

There are certain things that might make this example more divisive than others:

1.) The situation regardless of whether you see it as an accident, an example of poor decision making, or a racially charged murder led to an innocent man losing his life.  A loss of life, rightfully so, brings up emotion that makes it difficult for someone evaluating the police officers’ actions to be objective.

2.) Diallo was black and an immigrant.

3.) Police officers hold a position of power.  When a person in power makes a bad decision the consequences tend to be greater, so they tend to be held to a higher standard.

4.) There is also a lot of context one must consider when evaluating this example of decision-making.  It’s almost impossible to look at the example alone without considering different scenarios that could have played out and past history.  A police officer or officers encountering a suspicious person, acting suspiciously, in an area where a lot of crime occurs, and that person actually turning out to have a weapon or be engaging in some kind of illegal activity, is certainly not unprecedented.  A very recent case, occurring only last week on August 2nd, involved the death of two police officers from Rapid City, South Dakota, Nick Armstrong and J. Ryan McCandless.  The scenario played out somewhat similarly to the Diallo case, at least in the beginning, when Officer Armstrong, Officer  McCandless, and another officer approached and questioned four suspicious subjects at an intersection when one of the subjects pulled out a concealed gun and shot all three officers with only one surviving.

What is your take on the Diallo shooting itself and/or Gladwell’s choice to include it in a book about decision making?