The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back

The Adjunct Revolt: How Poor Professors Are Fighting Back

by Elizabeth Segran

Can a budding labor movement improve the lives of
non-tenured faculty—and, in the process, fix higher education?

Mary-Faith Cerasoli has been reduced to “sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps,” The New York Times recently reported. Is she unemployed? No, in fact, she is a college professor— but an adjunct one, meaning she is hired on a short-term contract with no possibility of tenure.

A spate of research about the contingent academic workforce indicates that Cerasoli’s circumstances are not exceptional. This month, a report by the American Association of University Professors showed that adjuncts now constitute 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty across all institutional types, from liberal-arts colleges to research universities to community colleges. A study released by the U.S. House of Representatives in January reveals that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line.

Over spring break, Cerasoli publicly protested her working conditions on the steps of New York Department of Education wearing a vest emblazoned with the words “Homeless Prof” on it. Her efforts dovetail with a national labor movement in which thousands of adjuncts are fighting for change within the higher-education system. In the short-term, adjuncts are demanding a living wage, but they are also proposing long-term solutions to structural problems ailing universities. Many argue that the dependence on contingent labor is part of a larger pattern of corporatizing the university, which they believe is harming not just professors and students, but society more broadly.

“While there are micro-tragedies in the lives of individual adjuncts, there is also a macro, systemic problem unfolding,” said Adrianna Kezar, co-founder of the Delphi Project which examines how the changing faculty affects student success. Her data consistently shows that students who take more classes with adjuncts are more likely to drop out.

Kezar told me that this high attrition rate has nothing to do with the quality of instruction adjuncts provide; it is entirely a function of the compromised working conditions adjuncts face. Tenure-track professors have a wealth of career-development tools at their disposal; in contrast, Kezar says, universities do not give adjuncts the basic resources they need to properly teach their courses, such as sample syllabi or learning objectives. Since most departments hire adjuncts at the last minute, they are often inadequately prepared to enter the classroom. Universities do not provide adjuncts with office space, making it difficult for them to meet with students outside class. To make matters worse, many adjuncts teach at several colleges to make ends meet: Commuting—sometimes between great distances—further reduces the time they can devote to individual students.

Despite challenging working conditions, many adjuncts continue to meet with students and perform other time-consuming tasks they are not compensated for, such as writing recommendation letters or attending departmental meetings. “Students aren’t getting what they pay for or, if they are, it is because adjuncts themselves are subsidizing their education,” Maria Maisto, president of the adjunct activist group New Faculty Majority, told me. “Adjuncts are donating their time; they are providing it out of pocket.”

The presence of adjuncts also affects the quality of education in subtler ways. The tenure system was originally designed to foster academic freedom by allowing professors to voice unpopular opinions without the fear of being fired: in contrast, adjuncts can have their contracts terminated without a grievance process. Maisto told me that many adjuncts are afraid to challenge their students in class because poor student evaluations could cost them their jobs. “College is no longer creating a critically-thinking citizenry who can participate actively in a democracy,” she said.

Emily Van Duyne, an adjunct professor in New Jersey, told me she finds it uncomfortable to teach her students about issues like the American Civil Rights Movement when she feels unable to change her own unjust working conditions. “It feels very strange asking students to hone their critical thinking skills about an oppressive culture and the ways you can respond effectively, when you are teaching out of a broken system,” she told me.

The adjunct crisis also restricts the research output of American universities. For adjuncts scrambling between multiple short-term, poorly paid teaching jobs, producing scholarship is a luxury they cannot afford. “We have lost an entire generation of scholarship because of this,” Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct activist and documentary filmmaker, told me. “Adjunct contracts not only drive professors into poverty, it makes it next to impossible for them to do the kind of scholarship they have trained an average of ten years to do.” Scott suggests that the loss of academic scholarship has ripple effects throughout society, since fewer scholars are contributing to national discussions on issues like the ethics of business and the value of the humanities. “If you lose these expert voices then who is really left speaking?” she asks. “You get the pundits on either side, but there is not a lot of depth to the conversations being held. There has been a dumbing down of discourse across all platforms.”

How did it come to this? Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, argues that the shift towards contingent labor occurred because university administrators began to focus on enhancing the student experience outside—rather than inside—the classroom. “We moved away from a faculty-centric university to one focused on serving students,” he told me. “To attract students, universities need amenities to keep up in an arms race with other institutions,” he says. Instead of being an institution of public good, the university began to look more and more like a business in which the student was the customer.

Selingo points out that university administration costs have ballooned over the last two decades, as universities hired non-faculty staff to run the growing list of campus amenities. Given these skyrocketing expenses, administrators felt pressure to cut costs. “As professors started to retire, administrators realized that if they did not hire tenure-track professors, they could have more flexibility with their workforce,” explains Selingo. At the same time, graduate schools were churning out large numbers of Ph.D.s willing to teach single courses for a few thousand dollars, so hiring adjuncts seemed like a simple solution.

Maisto argues that in the midst of these changes administrators lost sight of the university’s mission. “This adjunct crisis did not happen because of some grand, nefarious plot,” she told me. “It has to do with the reactive character of university leadership who got caught up in short-term thinking rather than intentional, long-term strategic planning.” Yet, Maisto and other activists believe that it is not too late to change the system.

For many adjuncts, the first step is to fight for better compensation and benefits. Apart from improving their quality of life, adjuncts believe increased wages will more accurately reflect their value and give them more influence within the university.

Adjuncts have been increasingly turning to labor unions for guidance on how to deploy collective bargaining strategies to exert force on the administration. Marie Dormuth, an adjunct at The New School, told me that seeking help from the United Auto Workers was crucial to her union’s success in the face of an administration that forcefully fought back. However, since adjuncts are transient members of the campus, it is often hard for them to find one another, let alone organize. Organizations like Adjunct Action, a project of the Service Employees International Union, are developing strategies to help adjuncts organize regionally. “So many adjuncts are traveling from campus to campus, so it makes sense to think of the whole metropolitan area as a place of organizing rather than just one university,” Malini Cadambi, an Adjunct Action campaign director, told me.

As they fight for change, Kezar recommends that unions suggest alternative hiring models rather than pushing for more tenured positions. She believes that there is a middle ground between the tenured and adjunct roles, such as longer-term salaried contracts with benefits—a norm in many other industries. “Many administrators cannot see an alternative that is viable for institutions in financial difficulties, especially in the context of no public support for higher education,” she said. Kezar also advocates for universities to do more to equip non-tenure track faculty to do their jobs better by providing more professional development resources.

Some activists argue that part of the solution involves more government funding for higher education. “We need to re-establish the model of free or very inexpensive public universities,” Scott said. By turning the university back into an institution of public good, she believes it will be possible to focus on teaching and cut unnecessary expenditure. “We can discuss how to create faculty ownership and faculty governance again,” she said. Selingo agrees that public funding is a good idea but asserts that it will come with expectations. “States that give more money are going to demand something in return: It is not just a blank check,” he told me. “They will want to enroll students that represent the state and expect that these universities retain these students, graduate them within four years and give them high quality degrees.” That may not sound so bad, but it does represent a loss of freedom for the universities.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says that tackling the adjunct crisis requires the support of middle administrators.*  Through her work with the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a collective of higher education associations that addresses deteriorating faculty working conditions, Feal and others seek to educate administrators, legislators and boards of trustees about working conditions on campuses. “We need to show them that adjunctification is a problem and not a solution,” Feal told me. “They need to choose not to be complicit in a system that abuses adjuncts.” She also argues that we must educate accreditors about how adjunctification lowers the quality of higher education by making it hard for adjuncts—who can be among the best teachers on campus—to engage with students effectively. If administrators are faced with the possibility of lower rankings because of the proportion of adjuncts on their faculty, Feal believes they will change their hiring practices. “Accreditors could change this game overnight,” Feal said.


Teachers Know Best

Teachers Know Best

In their work with schools over the last few years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has heard a common theme: Teachers are trying hard to challenge and engage their students, but they don’t have sufficient choices for effective digital instructional tools that truly meet their needs. At the same time, many instructional product developers have told the foundation they don’t have a good way to receive ongoing feedback about what teachers need and want from their products.

This absence of useful market information has led to a mismatch between the kinds of digital instructional tools that teachers say they actually need and the kinds of products companies are creating and school districts are buying. This study is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to contribute to better connections between teachers, those who procure resources for them, and product developers. By identifying clear and actionable information about market gaps in digital instructional tools, the foundation hopes to broadly share this knowledge with the field. Aggregating and amplifying the voices of teachers and students can help strengthen digital content and tools. One goal in sharing this information is to enable product developers to better understand the emerging needs of teachers and students so they can create instructional tools that are more useful. Some interesting results – check it out.

Rich kids should pay for free schools

Rich kids should pay for free schools

by Rashida Yosufzai

SCRAPPING the education department and making wealthy families pay for sending their children to public schools are two ideas being floated to help balance the country’s budget.

The Centre for Independent Studies, a libertarian think tank, wants the government to rethink the way it funds schools, arguing that more cash doesn’t mean smarter students.

Getting rid of low-quality teachers, however, will help, as will better targeted funding.

Charging high-income families to send their children to public school, for example, would save $250 million annually if a fee of $1000 is imposed for each child.

Research fellow Jennifer Buckingham says it’s unreasonable for rich families to have access to high-quality education without making any contribution.

Granting bursaries to low-income students to use at non-government schools would reduce budget spending, as each private school student incurs less funding than equivalent public school students.

That would give low-income students an opportunity to access a previously inaccessible education and the move would also create a more diverse school sector, Dr Buckingham says.

A $100 million saving would flow from the abolition of the federal education department, whose main functions are already outsourced to external bodies such as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and NAPLAN.

“You have to wonder what those thousand people are doing,” she says of the department’s workforce.

Dr Buckingham says the department will not be immune from future funding cuts, with its budget set to double over a decade if there is no intervention soon.

Now is the time to be realistic rather than having a lot of pain down the track, she said.


Colleges Want Students with Character, But Can’t Measure It

Colleges Want Students with
Character, But Can’t Measure It

By Eric Hoover

SATs are on their way out, but new tests aren’t quite ready.

Jon Boeckenstedt devours data. As DePaul University’s associate vice president for enrollment management, he studies how the institution’s 16,000 undergraduates are doing, trying to forecast their performance. Many in his position would turn to standardized tests like the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and the ACT (American College Testing). But Boeckenstedt believes the tests carry too much weight in college admissions. “We know there are students for whom the tests don’t represent their true ability,” he says. Today more than 800 four-year colleges and universities in the United States no longer require standardized tests as part of their admissions process—that’s about 20 percent of the total. In 2011, DePaul became the largest private nonprofit among these.

The flaws in standardized testing are well-documented at this point. They punish disadvantaged students and minorities, entrench class lines, and their predictive powers only forecast a student’s progress as far as the first semester of their freshman year.  The University of California, Berkeley1 economist Jesse M. Rothstein has found that the combination of a student’s high school grades and demographic information predicted first-year grades in college about as well as her high school grades and SAT scores do. Based on his experience evaluating undergraduate performance, Boeckenstedt agrees. “It’s double counting,” he says.

As colleges de-emphasize tests scores for applicants, they are turning to research showing that a student’s potential relies on more than cognition. Traits such as optimism, curiosity, resilience, and “grit” may actually play a stronger role in determining a student’s long-term success.

In the face of a growing agreement that these so-called “soft skills” are important is a question that remains stubbornly unanswered: How can they be measured consistently and fairly? Boeckenstedt has often heard admissions officers say, “you can’t measure heart.” The expression rings true. But is it?

In theory, at least, standardized testing was supposed to deliver a class-neutral measure of a student’s innate ability. Colleges could use them as an apples-to-apples selection aid, putting a student from a small private school in Manhattan N.Y. on the same playing field as a student from a large public school in Manhattan, Kan. The first SAT was administered in 1926, and colleges rapidly adopted it and other standardized tests as a way to assess a large number of applicants efficiently.

But is clear now that most standardized tests used today are far from class-neutral. Even as the College Board announced in March 2014 that it will overhaul the SAT by making the essay optional, cutting obscure vocabulary words, and sharpening the focus of the math section, skepticism abounds. The SAT has undergone many changes before (the much-maligned analogies section was retired in 2005), but SAT scores have continued to reflect socioeconomic disparities.

The economists Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl have found that disadvantaged students (who are disproportionately black and low-income, with parents who dropped out of high school) tend to score 784 points lower on the SAT’s math and verbal sections combined than more affluent students do. If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, they write, disadvantaged students start “65 yards behind.” In addition, colleges began to question whether pure brainpower was all they wanted. Ivy League schools began moving away from purely test-driven admissions as early as the 1920s through the use of in-person interviews (though this may have been motivated as much by racial bias as anything else).

The way admissions offices evaluate each of these is as idiosyncratic as the essays and letters themselves. “They are Rorschach tests, so to speak.”

Admissions officers today can draw on a wealth of research describing soft skills. One notable example is the work of University of Pennsylvania psychologist and MacArthur “Genius” award-winner Angela Duckworth. She has studied success through longitudinal studies of graduation rates at Chicago public schools, performance at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her conclusion is that “grit,” which she defines as the ability to sustain interest in and effort toward long-term goals, predicts success over and beyond conventional measures of talent, such as standardized test scores.

“Despite this and other research findings like it, however, college admissions officers do not have a standardized test that can reliably evaluate non-cognitive skills. Until they are developed, many admissions offices use personal essays, interviews, lists of extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation to get a holistic view of applicants.

But the way admissions offices evaluate each of these is as idiosyncratic as the essays and letters themselves. “They are Rorschach tests, so to speak,” says Patrick Kyllonen, senior research director at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SATs. “It’s hard to turn them into numbers.”

In 2010 the College Board, which owns the SAT, tried their hand at making numbers out of soft skills. Together with his colleagues, organizational psychologist Neal Schmitt, who is Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, identified 12 dimensions of success that 100 colleges described as important, which fit into three categories: cognitive/intellectual (knowledge and mastery of general principles), interpersonal (such as curiosity and appreciation for diversity), and intrapersonal (including adaptability and perseverance).

Schmitt and his team asked students to complete assessments about their background and experiences, and to hypothesize how they’d act in given situations. For example, one scenario read, “You are assigned to a group to work on a particular project. When you sit down together as a group, no one says anything.” The results showed that non-cognitive traits like curiosity, appreciation for diversity, adaptability, and perseverance correlated with academic performance over time. They also found that there were only small differences in performance among ethnic subgroups on the two non-cognitive assessments, in contrast to much larger gaps seen on cognitive tests. Using these assessments, the researchers concluded, could help colleges enroll classes with more diversity with little or no decline in student performance.

The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate was almost identical for those who submitted standardized test scores (85 percent) and those who did not (84 percent).

Motivated by such findings, the Educational Training Service developed an online rating tool called the Personal Potential Index. Designed to quantify what’s conveyed in a recommendation, it asks past instructors to rate students on a five-point scale in six categories: communication skills, ethics and integrity, knowledge and creativity, planning and organization, resilience, and teamwork. To gauge resilience, for instance, respondents are asked to what extent a student “accepts feedback without getting defensive; works well under stress; can overcome challenges and setbacks; works extremely hard.” Recommenders can type in comments to elaborate on their ratings, if they choose.

Notre Dame Business School and the American Dental Association are among the first to use the Personal Potential Index in their admissions process. Kyllonen expects that the results of an ongoing large-scale study will validate the new tool as a predictor of student success.

DePaul is implementing their own tests for non-cognitive skills, with a series of essay questions. For the entering class of 2012, about 10 percent of applicants (or about 5 percent of the freshman class) chose not to send ACT or SAT scores. Instead they completed four short-answer questions, designed to measure their leadership skills and their ability to meet long-term goals. Systematically scoring the responses to those questions, DePaul reported that the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate was almost identical for those who submitted standardized test scores (85 percent) and those who did not (84 percent). Boeckenstedt is encouraged by these preliminary results.

However, even as schools make progress in quantifying non-cognitive skills, there is also worry about the assessments they are building. Non-cognitive skills are often measured through self-ratings, which means respondents can fake their answers. This is partly why Brandeis University did not add non-cognitive assessments when it dropped its testing requirements recently. “Once you introduce these measurements into your system, you introduce the ability to game those measurements, especially if students know they are being tested for an opportunity,” says Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis. “With most of these questions, it’s awfully hard to frame them in a way where one couldn’t intuit the best answer.”

Instead, starting this fall, Brandeis applicants who do not wish to submit ACT or SAT scores have the option of sending in a graded paper and a second letter of recommendation. “The reality is every time we talk about holistic review,” Flagel says,
“We are in some ways touching on the inclusion of some non-cognitive factors.”

However the debate proceeds, perhaps most interesting of all will be the impact it has on what many Americans consider to be a core value of education: evaluating a student based on his or her innate potential, independent of the circumstances of their lives. In his book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann writes that cognitive testing was supposed to link real power to brainpower: “The new elite’s essential quality, the factor that would make its power deserved where the old elite’s had been merely inherited, would be brains.” As standardized testing changes and is replaced, then, ideas like this will have to be reimagined. As for Boeckenstedt, while he is heartened by the early returns on DePaul’s experiment with non-cognitive tests, he believes that the long search for the elusive “it”—the mesh of attributes that provides a window into an applicant’s future success—might never be over.

How to Keep Your Teens Learning This Summer

How to Keep Your Teens Learning This Summer

by Sarah Pitcock

Summer can be a challenging – and pivotal – time to engage high school students in activities that both keep their interest and provide benefits in the long run. It’s no simple task to offer stimulating and valuable options that can compete with the allure of screen time and hanging out with friends.

But research shows that summer is too important to overlook. Without learning opportunities, students – especially those from low-income families – fall behind in math and reading skills over the summer months.

The good news is that there are many things parents and kids can do to stem the losses, and even accelerate learning and engagement. There are also things parents can do to help older students to find a summer job and get inspired for college and future careers.

Picking up from HomeRoom’s earlier post on Stopping the Summer Slide, here are more ideas on how parents and mentors can engage teens during the summer and give them a leg up on what comes next.

  • Look for a summer learning program geared toward teens and the transition to college. Many colleges and universities offer programs that are intellectually challenging, relevant to teens, and help begin to prepare them for college or career.
  • Encourage and work with your high school student on setting his or her own goals for college, career, and life. Talk about their talents, what motivates them and why, and arrange a visit to a college that suits their interests and your budget.
  • Have your high school student identify a career of interest and research it together online or at your local library. Seek opportunities for him or her to observe or shadow someone in an interesting occupation or connect with a professional mentor, either online or in your community.
  • Suggest your teen consider being a mentor or junior staffer in a summer program. High school students make credible and supportive mentors to younger children in summer learning programs, camps, and afterschool programs.
  • Help your teen understand what is needed to gain employment, such as a resume and cover letter, filling out a job application and interview skills. Use these activities to prepare for or pursue a summer or afterschool job.
  • Plan a service project or volunteer. Volunteer positions can provide valuable experience in job skills such as planning, communication and collaboration. Similarly, service projects can require older youth to research and plan and will expose them to new aspects of their community.
  • Planning a summer vacation? Ask your teen to take an active role in the planning. Is your teen’s room in need of a new look? Have him or her sketch ideas, calculate projected expenses and prepare a presentation to make a case for the changes. Research, budgeting, and advocacy are valuable skills.
  • Summer is a great time to be outdoors! Encourage your teen to stay active in the summer. Walk or take hikes as a family, and encourage outdoor activities with peers. Don’t forget to also keep healthy snacks around the house, such as fruits and veggies.
  • Read a young adult book together with your teen and a group of his friends. Meet regularly for a mini-book club with journaling and discussion about the book.

Having a voice and choice is important to your high school student when deciding how to spend the summer. Collaborate on options and offer ideas, but ultimately, let them choose.


Are College Campuses Obsolete?

Are College Campuses Obsolete?

by Michael Guerriero

On one recent night, the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate series put forth a motion on Columbia University’s campus: “More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete.” This is heavily contested territory, as both the setting and the style of the debate reflected. Columbia itself is the owner of quite a few nice-looking bricks, but, only last month, the university signalled its intention to start producing online courses. The Intelligence Squared events are inspired by traditional Oxford debates, decided by the votes of the audience, but they’re judged electronically. The points and counterpoints were streamed and tweeted live, but in tone the evening still evoked the charm of a winsome classroom professor: percussive jazz-fusion tracks piped in before, friendly anecdotes during, and a reception, in lieu of office hours, after.

The four debaters, each one an expert and three of them professors, knew their arguments well—this battle has had many skirmishes. Anant Agarwal, the C.E.O. of edX, an online education platform, opened for the clicks. He conceded that fewer than five per cent of the students in his online course had successfully passed it, but pointed out that so many people had signed up for the course that those five per cent were still more than he could teach at M.I.T. in forty years. Columbia’s own entrant, Jonathan Cole, the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the university, parried, citing a lack of evidence for any of online education’s “messianic” claims and professing faith in the established model. “People learn from each other when they eat together, read together, converse together, sleep together. If nothing else, sex will reinforce bricks over clicks on the campus,” he said.

Rebecca Schuman, a professor, columnist, and bricks stalwart, admitted that the online courses she had taken in preparation for the debate were fun and educational, but said that she just didn’t believe that they could replace the intimate interaction between a teacher and students. That sort of uncertainty, and where it rubs up against the idealism and potential of online education, is at the core of this debate.

Alisha Fredriksson happened to be seated in the audience. Fredriksson, a high-school senior at the Mahindra United World College, in India, has been accepted for the inaugural class of the Minerva Schools. When she enrolls, she’ll be part of a grand experiment in undergraduate education, a member of a small, globe-trotting cohort whose college experience is almost entirely removed from the traditional campus.

After attending a preview weekend for admitted Minerva students in San Francisco, where the first year of the program takes place, Fredriksson took the same plane east as the program’s founder and C.E.O., Ben Nelson. He was en route to Columbia, to argue for clicks onstage. She was headed to visit her older brother, and so she came along to the debate as testimony to Nelson’s argument, and, at the very least, as a vote for his cause.

When Fredriksson enrolls at Minerva, she’ll begin a modern, digitally enhanced version of the old grand tour, stopping for hyper-immersive semesters in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York, and London. Her experience will be mediated by an online learning interface (“Skype on steroids,” she called it), which seems to be equal parts panopticon and academic seminar: everyone can see everyone else’s face on their screens, and the professor can call on anyone at any time, or rewatch and review any student’s session.

As one of the first and most important variables in this educational experiment, Fredriksson and her fellow-students in the founding class won’t have to pay tuition. (Subsequent classes will be charged ten thousand dollars for each year.) But the stripped-down cost of the reëngineered college, while certainly attractive, isn’t what most excites her. “I know how to do well on tests, but that’s not relevant,” she explained. “Now I want to learn by doing.”

What Fredriksson wants seems, at first, counterintuitive. She attends a rigorous International Baccalaureate high school halfway around the world, but says that she hopes to gain a more intensely local experience through this online program. If she does, she’ll rely primarily on a remote interface to form close connections with other young people and to navigate her surroundings. As she sees it, her role as a first-year student at Minerva will place her among “the guinea pigs of guinea pigs”—she’s been promised the freedom to shape her own education in a novel way, even while her classroom activities, like the wider program around her, are closely monitored. (Being a guinea pig, of course, may not be what every student wants from their college experience—Minerva boasts Bob Kerrey as executive chairman and Lawrence Summers was an adviser, but its program is still largely untried.)

Back onstage, the panellists were coming in for scrutiny as well. In a round of audience questioning, the clicks side was asked if, in attempting to separate research from instruction and then package the latter for the masses, they were, “in effect, freeloaders on the university system,” disseminating knowledge without creating it. Others wondered how well the online model could prepare students to enter the job market, and questioned its suitability for less vocational coursework, in poetry, creative writing, or the broader liberal arts.

On this evening, though, the doubts seemed doomed to rearguard action; it’s difficult to argue against technology when the audience is voting instantly and electronically. The crowd, filled with Columbia students and academics who live and work among the bricks of their classrooms, libraries, and dorms, awarded the win to the clicks. For one night, anyway, the lecture hall was deemed obsolete.

The Brain Injury That Made Me A Math Genius

The Brain Injury That Made Me A Math Genius

by Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg

Twelve years ago, Jason Padgett had never made it past
pre-algebra. And then a violent mugging changed everything

If you could see the world through my eyes, you would know how perfect it is, how much order runs through it, and how much structure is hidden in its tiniest parts. We’re so often victims of things—I see the violence too, the disease, the poverty stretching far and wide—but the universe itself and everything we can touch and all that we are is made of the most beautiful geometric patterns imaginable. I know because they’re right in front of me. Because of a traumatic brain injury, the result of a brutal physical attack, I’ve been able to see these patterns for over a decade. This change in my perception was really a change in my brain function, the result of the injury and the extraordinary and mostly positive way my brain healed. All of a sudden, the patterns were just . . . there, and I realize now that my injury was a rare gift. I’m lucky to have survived, but for me, the real miracle—what really saved me—was being introduced to and almost overwhelmed by the mathematical grace of the universe.

* * *

There’s a park in my town of Tacoma, Washington, that I like to walk through in the mornings before work. I see the trees that line its path as anyone would, the branches and the bark, but I see a geometrical blueprint laid on top of them too. I see triangular patterns emerging from the leaves, reminding me of the Pythagorean theorem, as if it’s unfolding in the air, proving to me over and over again what the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras deduced thousands of years ago: the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle (a triangle in which one angle is a right angle, or 90 degrees) equals the square of its hypotenuse. I don’t need a calculator to know that the simple formula most of us learned in school—a2 + b2 = c2—is true; I can see it instantly in the trees all around me. To me, a tree is more than its geometry, but geometry is also far more than most people realize. I think it’s everything.

I remember reading that Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist (and one of my heroes), said that we cannot understand the universe until we have learned its language. Speaking of the universe, he said, “It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”

This rings true for me. I see this hidden language of the world before my eyes.

Doctors tell me that nothing in my brain was newly created or added when I was injured. Rather, innate but dormant skills were released. This theory comes from psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who is considered the world’s leading authority on savants and acquired savants. He treated the late Kim Peek (the inspiration for the savant character in the movie Rain Man), a megasavant who memorized twelve thousand books, including the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but who had so many physical challenges that he had to rely on his father for his most basic needs. When I met with Dr. Treffert in his hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, he told me that these innate skills are, in his words, “factory-installed software” or “genetic” memory. After interviewing me in his office and in his home, he declared that my acquired synesthesia and savant syndrome was self-evident, and he also suggested that all of us have extraordinary skills just beneath the surface, much as birds innately know how to fly in a V-formation and fish know how to swim in a school. Why the brain suppresses these remarkable abilities is still a mystery, but sometimes, when the brain is diseased or damaged, it relents and unleashes the inner genius. This isn’t just my story. It’s the story of the potential secreted away in all of us.

* * *

The first thing I do every morning is make my way to the bathroom, turn on the faucet, and let the sink fill up. I watch the water flow and wonder why it doesn’t sound like the strumming of tightly wound strings. The structure of flowing water vibrates in a specific geometric form and frequency to me, and if it were to freeze midstream, I’d see a web, but one made up of tiny crystals rather than spider’s silk. If I could hear it after it froze, it would sound like tinkling glass shards falling into the basin. I like to start my days with water. It may slip through my fingers, but it is a constant comfort.

I look at myself in the mirror and make sure my hair’s not getting too long. I like it cropped close now. I grab my toothbrush and count how many times I run it through the water while brushing my teeth. It has to be exactly sixteen times. I don’t know why I chose that number, but it’s fixed in my mind like my street address or my zip code. I try not to worry about it too much and stare back at the intriguing water webs, working to memorize all of the angles so that I can draw a picture of the image later. I’ll probably spend hours with a pencil and ruler later on, capturing on paper every inch of the razor-sharp symmetry.

Next, I walk into the living room and throw back the drapes. If it’s a clear day, I’m in for a real show. The sun comes shining through the leaves of the trees like a million little lights, as if the leaves are blades and they cut the sun up into a million diamonds. Then the rays fan out between the leaves, falling over them like an illuminated net. Watching this, I always think of the famous double-slit experiment, in which light behaves like a particle and a wave at the same time. My friends tell me that to them, it’s just the sun shining through the trees. I can barely remember a time when I saw the world the way most everyone else does.

On an overcast or stormy day, I pay more attention to the branches swaying in the wind. The movements are choppy and discrete, like a series of frames of a film, with black lines separating each image. At first, I got dizzy when this happened, and I had to grab the back of a chair or lean against a wall. Now I’m used to it, though I still have moments of vertigo.

Next I move on to the kitchen and put on some coffee. It’s one of my routines, but it thrills me every single time I watch the cream being stirred into the brew. That perfect spiral is an important shape to me. It’s a fractal—a repetitive geometric form found everywhere in nature, from the shell of a nautilus up to the Milky Way galaxy. Suddenly it’s not just my morning cup of joe—awesome as the coffee in the Pacific Northwest is—it’s geometry speaking to me again. And I never get tired of it.

I sit down at the kitchen table and add to whatever sketch I’m working on; lately, I’ve been drawing the coffee-and-cream spiral. I’m a real perfectionist and I can stay in my seat for hours and draw; usually, I do this until I have to leave for work. When it’s finally time to go, I put on my “uniform”—a button-down shirt and jeans. I like to look professional but I’m not really one to wear a suit and I often have to lift heavy things or repair stuff at work. I make sure I close the door behind me carefully. I always have to check and double-check and triple-check the locks. Then I can go.

* * *

I’m forty-three as of this writing. This makes me really happy because 43 is a prime number, divisible by only itself and 1. The number 43 lives at a specific point in a sphere in my mind’s eye, as do all the other primes. I’ve drawn images of this sphere, which is consistent for me whenever I think of primes and the patterns among them. I feel such a reverence for these numbers that I recite them like a mantra when I need good luck or when I need to keep bad luck away. It’s as if the primes are so rare and so special that they’re imbued with an extraordinary power, and they act like sentinels in my mind. When I’m napping on the sofa, my daughter, Megan, sometimes wakes me up because I’m reciting prime numbers in my sleep.

But primes aren’t the only numbers I associate with shapes. Simply dialing a friend’s phone number can send up a plume of images. Numbers appear to me as a series of cubes. They are linear — three cubes across for the number 3, four across for 4 — unless the numbers are part of an equation or they’re being plotted on a graph, in which case the cubes move around to reflect what’s happening to the numbers. An equation can result in a huge, prismatic net right before my eyes. The shapes are always consistent with the specific stimulus. Numbers are an obsession, and I’m incapable of turning the fixation off. I can’t climb stairs without counting them, and I can’t eat without counting how many times I’ve chewed each bite. I never chew gum for this reason. With every number I count off, the fresh, simple prime numbers and all the other never-ending num­bers spiral into their own shapes.

All these visions — and every shape I encounter out in the world — correlate with fractals, the elemental geometric building blocks found in nature. Snowflakes, lightning bolts, and coastlines are all fractals, meaning their subsections repeat the same patterns as their wholes. Coastlines are particularly intriguing to me because their overall measurements actually change depending on the scale one uses. For me, this underscores how understanding fractals can shed light on comprehending the nature of other things. For example, I have always wanted to know where humans come from. Now, with one quick glance at human anatomy, I see clearly that veins, arteries, and even the strands of DNA are fractals too. The human body seems to reflect the very structure of creation. The structures within the body reflect the never-ending repeating patterns found throughout the universe. The first time I noticed this, it struck me: everything and everyone is a reflection of this repeating structure.

I walk around in a near-constant state of inspiration with a great hunger for knowledge, and I read everything I can about math and physics, often developing my own theories along the way. I was even contacted by a Toronto financial firm that was interested in applying my fractal geometry to the stock market. I haven’t be­gun working with them yet, but I love the idea that my wild visions could have an application in the real world.

It’s especially important for me to keep drawing my geometry, because that’s how I’m able to share exactly what’s going on in my mind, and I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t have a way to express what I see. By turning my view of the world into drawings, I’ve found a way to explain my universe to other people.

My quest to understand and come to terms with the new me has spanned more than a decade, taking me from years of self-imposed isolation to a high-tech brain-imaging lab halfway across the world, in Helsinki, Finland. Along the way, I’ve met some of the world’s greatest experts on savant syndrome, synesthesia, and brain science. I’ve learned what my mathematical theories and visions have in common with the work of some of the most brilliant mathematicians in history. I’ve been introduced to new ways of thinking about the brain, the mind, and even consciousness, and I’ve discovered why my case may play an instrumental role in the next generation of cutting-edge brain science.

I’ve spent plenty of time pondering the very fabric of the universe and how we fit into it. And I’ve concluded that no matter what you go through in life, in the end, there is a symmetry to it all — an or­der amid the seeming disorder. And if you could see what I see, you’d know that you’re an essential part of that order.

If I could draw the world as I see it and show every last person how he or she is enmeshed in this fine and intricate and impossibly beautiful structure, perhaps people would stop getting lost in the hurt of things and be elevated by the wonder of it all. In fact, I know they would. I know, because even though I seem like the most opti­mistic man this side of the Rocky Mountains, I’ve been to hell and back.

Excerpted from “Struck By Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel”

by Jason Padgett and Maureen Seaberg.

10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day

10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day

by Lana Winter-Hébert

When was the last time you read a book, or a substantial magazine article? Do your daily reading habits center around tweets, Facebook updates, or the directions on your instant oatmeal packet? If you’re one of countless people who don’t make a habit of reading regularly, you might be missing out: reading has a significant number of benefits, and just a few benefits of reading are listed below.

1. Mental Stimulation

Studies have shown that staying mentally stimulated can slow the progress of (or possibly even prevent) Alzheimer’s and Dementia, since keeping your brain active and engaged prevents it from losing power. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain requires exercise to keep it strong and healthy, so the phrase “use it or lose it” is particularly apt when it comes to your mind. Doing puzzles and playing games such as chess have also been found to be helpful with cognitive stimulation.

2. Stress Reduction

No matter how much stress you have at work, in your personal relationships, or countless other issues faced in daily life, it all just slips away when you lose yourself in a great story. A well-written novel can transport you to other realms, while an engaging article will distract you and keep you in the present moment, letting tensions drain away and allowing you to relax.

3. Knowledge

Everything you read fills your head with new bits of information, and you never know when it might come in handy. The more knowledge you have, the better-equipped you are to tackle any challenge you’ll ever face.

Additionally, here’s a bit of food for thought: should you ever find yourself in dire circumstances, remember that although you might lose everything else—your job, your possessions, your money, even your health—knowledge can never be taken from you.

4. Vocabulary Expansion

This goes with the above topic: the more you read, the more words you gain exposure to, and they’ll inevitably make their way into your everyday vocabulary. Being articulate and well-spoken is of great help in any profession, and knowing that you can speak to higher-ups with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem. It could even aid in your career, as those who are well-read, well-spoken, and knowledgeable on a variety of topics tend to get promotions more quickly (and more often) than those with smaller vocabularies and lack of awareness of literature, scientific breakthroughs, and global events.

Reading books is also vital for learning new languages, as non-native speakers gain exposure to words used in context, which will ameliorate their own speaking and writing fluency.

5. Memory Improvement

When you read a book, you have to remember an assortment of characters, their backgrounds, ambitions, history, and nuances, as well as the various arcs and sub-plots that weave their way through every story. That’s a fair bit to remember, but brains are marvellous things and can remember these things with relative ease. Amazingly enough, every new memory you create forges new synapses (brain pathways)and strengthens existing ones, which assists in short-term memory recall as well as stabilizing moods. How cool is that?

6. Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills

Have you ever read an amazing mystery novel, and solved the mystery yourself before finishing the book? If so, you were able to put critical and analytical thinking to work by taking note of all the details provided and sorting them out to determine “whodunnit”.

That same ability to analyze details also comes in handy when it comes to critiquing the plot; determining whether it was a well-written piece, if the characters were properly developed, if the storyline ran smoothly, etc. Should you ever have an opportunity to discuss the book with others, you’ll be able to state your opinions clearly, as you’ve taken the time to really consider all the aspects involved.

7. Improved Focus and Concentration

In our internet-crazed world, attention is drawn in a million different directions at once as we multi-task through every day. In a single 5-minute span, the average person will divide their time between working on a task, checking email, chatting with a couple of people (via gchat, skype, etc.), keeping an eye on twitter, monitoring their smartphone, and interacting with co-workers. This type of ADD-like behaviour causes stress levels to rise, and lowers our productivity.

When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away, and you can immerse yourself in every fine detail you’re absorbing. Try reading for 15-20 minutes before work (i.e. on your morning commute, if you take public transit), and you’ll be surprised at how much more focused you are once you get to the office.

8. Better Writing Skills

This goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of your vocabulary: exposure to published, well-written work has a noted effect on one’s own writing, as observing the cadence, fluidity, and writing styles of other authors will invariably influence your own work. In the same way that musicians influence one another, and painters use techniques established by previous masters, so do writers learn how to craft prose by reading the works of others.

9. Tranquility

In addition to the relaxation that accompanies reading a good book, it’s possible that the subject you read about can bring about immense inner peace and tranquility. Reading spiritual texts can lower blood pressure and bring about an immense sense of calm, while reading self-help books has been shown to help people suffering from certain mood disorders and mild mental illnesses.

10. Free Entertainment

Though many of us like to buy books so we can annotate them and dog-ear pages for future reference, they can be quite pricey. For low-budget entertainment, you can visit your local library and bask in the glory of the countless tomes available there for free. Libraries have books on every subject imaginable, and since they rotate their stock and constantly get new books, you’ll never run out of reading materials.

If you happen to live in an area that doesn’t have a local library, or if you’re mobility-impaired and can’t get to one easily, most libraries have their books available in PDF or ePub format so you can read them on your e-reader, iPad, or your computer screen. There are also many sources online where you can download free e-books, so go hunting for something new to read!

There’s a reading genre for every literate person on the planet, and whether your tastes lie in classical literature, poetry, fashion magazines, biographies, religious texts, young adult books, self-help guides, street lit, or romance novels, there’s something out there to capture your curiosity and imagination. Step away from your computer for a little while, crack open a book, and replenish your soul for a little while.

Just say yes? The rise of ‘study drugs’ in college

Just say yes? The rise of ‘study drugs’ in college

By Arianna Yanes

Around this time of year, you’re more likely to find college students in the library cramming for final exams than out partying. In an environment where the workload is endless and there’s always more to be done, a quick fix to help buckle down and power through becomes very tempting.

Prescription ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are becoming increasingly popular for overworked and overscheduled college students — who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD.
Experts reevaluate ADHD drug study

“Our biggest concern … is the increase we have observed in this behavior over the past decade,” says Sean McCabe, research associate professor at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center.

Full-time college students were twice as likely to have used Adderall non-medically as their counterparts who were not full-time students, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health report released in 2009.

The numbers vary significantly by school, with the greatest proportion of users at private and “elite” universities. Some researchers estimate about 30% of students use stimulants non-medically.

More students think marijuana is OK

“When we look at upperclassmen, the number really begins to jump,” says Alan DeSantis, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky who has conducted research on stimulant use in college. “The more time you stay on campus, the more likely you are to use.”

Of course, by and large the most common use is to concentrate while studying, with more than 90% of users doing it for this purpose.

ADHD stimulants “strengthen the brain’s brakes, its inhibitory capacities, so it can control its power more effectively,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and ADHD expert. “They do this by increasing the amount of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.”

Students say they take these stimulants for the “right reasons,” to be more productive in classes and to stay afloat in the sea of intense competition.

In a 2008 study of 1,800 college students, 81% of students interviewed (DeSantis 2008) thought illicit use of ADHD medication was “not dangerous at all” or “slightly dangerous.” While the picture of a methamphetamine user has hollowed cheeks, rotting teeth, and skin sores, an amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (Adderall) user looks just like anybody else.

“It helps me stay focused and be more efficient, which is very helpful with the chaos of college,” says one university student who takes Adderall anywhere from once a month to a few times a week, depending on her schedule and workload. Students did not want to be identified because of their illegal use of the prescription drugs.

Yet these drugs are Schedule II substances, sitting pretty on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list right next to cocaine, meth and morphine.

“College students tend to underestimate the potential harms associated with the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants,” McCabe says.

Students may not know the stimulant’s documented contraindications (situations in which a drug might be harmful) or recommended precautions or how it may interact with other drugs, McCabe says. Hallowell is also concerned that students taking controlled substances without prescriptions and physician supervision, noting that they may not know the dosage.

Short-term adverse consequences include sleep difficulties, restlessness, headaches, irritability and depressed feelings. Other side effects include loss of appetite, nervousness, and changes in sex drive.

The long term risk of psychological and physical dependence is of concern for routine users that may find they do not feel they can function optimally without it. Schedule II substances are classified by the DEA as having a high potential for abuse.

While students’ knowledge of the health dangers are limited, even less consideration is given to the illegality of use. Obtaining stimulants from friends with prescriptions, as the vast majority of college students do, seems less dangerous and illegal than buying drugs off the street.

“The fact that it’s illegal really doesn’t cross my mind,” one student says. “It’s not something that I get nervous about because it’s so widespread and simple.”

The biggest barrier to changing attitudes is the effectiveness of stimulants on campuses where the ends justify the means, researchers believe. After those late library nights, many students praise the little pill that got them through their hefty textbooks and into the morning.

After taking Adderall, says one university student, “I just feel very alive and awake and ready for challenges that come my way.”

“I’m on page 15 (of my paper) in just a few hours … and I’m very confident in it.”

Five children’s books with the best leadership lessons for adults

Five children’s books with the best leadership lessons for adults

By Vickie Elmer

Managers may rely on a multitude of tropes but seldom do we
hear them encouraging their teams to “ride the wise eagle.”

Yet their workers could chase away evil worms and cultivate courage by reading and sharing Neil Gaiman‘s Instructions (2010)a 40-page children’s book that may resonate with leaders or anyone steering their business into unknown territories.

Every year, authors produce a sea of business and leadership books with titles such as Rita Gunther McGrath’s The End of Competitive Advantage and Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office. They share strategy and corporate stories and may be useful in leadership development or managing change.

Yet few are as compelling, as concise or magical, as a simple journey into a child’s picture book.

“People can chose easily to get stuck in the known and lose sight of the potential,” said Pam Rogers, who spent 15 years in finance, auditing and leadership roles at KPMG and the American Red Cross before becoming a children’s librarian and consultant for the  New Orleans Public Library.  “I make those connections all the time about books I wish I had known about when I had a difficult meeting on budgets and strategic planning.”

Gaiman’s book, according to Kirkus Review, “could be instructions for a child, a writer, a newly minted adult or an elder.” Gaiman’s messages are clear and beautiful: “Trust those who you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart and trust your story.”

Here are five such excellent stories, chosen by Rogers for different leadership moments:

  • The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated and retold by Jon J. Muth.

    This book, published in 2002, “will resonate with leaders in all industries,” Rogers said. The New York Times reviewer called it “quietly life-changing.” A young lad is seeking answers to clear, pointed questions: “What is the right thing to do?” and “Who is the most important one?”
  • First the Egg. This simple book from 2007 by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

    could work during a product launch or group presentation, Rogers said.  The story forces people to “think about what came first, the vision that leads to a new product, the lab mistake that leads to a new invention….” It also may show lessons of transformation or the “playground of perception.”
  • The Lost Thing.

    This magical tale published in 2000 by Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan, encourages leaders to “be generous; through generosity know that your team can come together,” Rogers suggests. It tells of a boy who befriends a strange, humongous creature and kindly agrees to take him in. Eventually, they must wander through a bureaucratic terrain to find the Thing’s real home. The book grew into a short film that won an Academy Award in 2011.
  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

    In this 2012 book by Wiliam Joyce, a man loves, nurtures, and repairs books. He follows a woman into an enchanted library where books are alive and gets to know them. As he ages, he decides to write his own story, which flies onto the shoulder of a young girl when it’s done. The lessons that fly out of this encourage managers to “foster good talent” and learn to leave a legacy of wisdom and sharing. (Interestingly, the animated short film version came first, and won an Oscar in 2012.)
  • The Tale I Told Sasha. This story by Nancy Willard (1999)

    will work well for those setting out on a new business venture—”one with a great deal of unchartered waters,” said Rogers. It follows a girl chasing her yellow ball through magical lands, over the Bridge of Butterflies and meets the King of Keys who the author writes “whistled twice ‘Believe! Believe!’” It reminds leaders to stay the course and believe in their vision. All good leaders need reminders to slow down, be generous, and remember their role within the whole company.