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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A case study of crazy old people: the Snapple Man

The University of Chicago is in many respects a very strange place. I've discussed at length the extremes of weirdness and lack of personal hygiene that may be found here, but I don't think I've appropriately addressed the bizarreness of the non-student population. There are bums, aging revolutionaries who troll the quad in search of recruits, freeze-dried hippies who beat up trucks that usurp their right-of-way, and most prominently, creepy old men who think they're still students at the university.

The occasional mythical 60-year-old hanger-on who religiously attends undergrad lectures is probably a staple of any academic environment. He's like an unanticipated side effect of a life of the mind, the terse afterthought at the end of the drug commercial that warns that, despite the drug's overwhelming efficacy, in a miniscule number of cases, it caused subjects to grow genitalia of the opposite sex. And I could be ok with such freak occurrences, if there were only one a generation. But this year, I've already encountered at least five unnamed old men lurking in my classes.

The most prominent--and prominently annoyin--is the Snapple Man. The Snapple Man is a devotee of certain professors, most of whom are in some way connected to Social Thought. He arrives early to every course to place his tape recorder near the professor, then waddles out again to stock up on provisions. He returns ten minutes after the class has begun, gasping for breath and covered in sweat, carrying at least 800 plastic bags, each holding precisely one item, often no more than a candy bar. He arranges his girth at the table, and then proceeds to uncap his three diet peach Snapples and methodically consume whatever picnic he has provided for himself. Sometimes it's a few candy bars, other times it's a hamburger. All the while, he is mopping the sweat from his head and huffing to catch his breath from the two-flight trek. (He has also reportedly been seen clipping his fingernails in class.) Once sated, he promptly falls asleep and proceeds to snore. All this is quite audible to the rest of the students, who frequently pass over him with uneasy glances. After class, he gives the boys in the class gifts of books and lecture tapes and offers to take them out to dinner and asks if they got his calls last night. Most mysteriously of all, the professors, who obviously notice this all taking place on a daily basis, never say anything. In fact, he often indirectly assists them, as he did last year in my Socrates class when he lugged in a suitcase which turned out to be full of loose-leaf photocopies of the professor's out-of-print dissertation on Plato's dialogues, one for each student. I don't think I will ever read a loose-leaf print-out of a 300-page book, but I do still have the thing.

The Snapple Man's history is the most well-known of the creepy old men. He was once a grad student here but never finished, and is now engaged in some kind of teaching, though this is hard to imagine since he seems to suffer from a degree of narcolepsy which would render it quite difficult to teach a course. He is reputed to have been a trust fund baby who has made it his full-time job to tape courses. Rumor has it that his house is full of uncatalogued lecture tapes dating back 20 years which will one day be worth a great deal when the professors have retired and died. However, I would venture to suggest that his compulsive sleeping has actually resulted in 20 years worth of tapes of his own snoring.

In some ways, I have to admire the Snapple Man's mission. It is a case of absurd and excessive devotion to a fundamentally noble cause. If those tapes are ever excavated and organized, they may indeed have value, assuming they contain actual lectures and not the unlovely music of Snapple Man's sleep apnea. I don't really know what's going on with the boys, but it has been suggested that Snapple Man might actually be a reincarnation of Socrates (with all the attendant damage of modernity), so that might explain it (they do have their beards in, as per the recommendation of the Symposium). In any case, he is probably performing a miniscule but valuable service to the preservation of knowledge, and I applaud that. Also, he is quite genial in conversation, though I doubt I am of more than perfunctory interest to him.

Nobility admitted and possible borderline pedophilia aside, I am really annoyed of the Snapple Man. All that shuffling and wheezing and snoring does not add to the quality of a course. And when you have the misfortune of sitting next to him, you also get the pleasure of being sweated on. This does little to promote a comfortable classroom atmosphere. And ultimately, one is forced to ask, if he is so devoted to the life of the mind as to regularly attend a half dozen classes per quarter, why is he sleeping through them all?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Logic Lesson

Rita: So my advisor couldn't think of any books about the educational thought of the Founders.
Sebastian: That's because only Straussians care about the Founders.
Rita: That's not true; I'm not a Straussian.
Sebastian: Then you don't really care about the Founders.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The theory of asymptotic intelligence

To expand on yesterday's post, I thought it might be useful to present to you the Theory of Asymptotic Intelligence, a model of intellectual capacity which I discovered near the end of high school when I was accepted to the U of C by what I assumed to be a clerical error and faced with the daunting prospect of being the dumbest person in college.

The theory of asymptotic intelligence posits that individual intelligence in any given subject basically travels along a positively-sloped curve up towards a predetermined horizontal asymptote which serves as the limit for intellectual attainment in that subject. The asymptote's x-value varies by individual and may be either relative to the highest achievable human intelligence, or it may actually be absolutely positioned in space. The point for us is that, through some combination of native intelligence and effort, we can only grasp a subject up to a certain level--the asymptote--at which point we must either be content with our limits, or we must reconcile ourselves to inferiority and drop out of school to become plumbers.

My first experience with asymptotic intelligence was high school physics, where the asymptote was pretty much at X=0. It was a lot like standing up in a room only to immediately hit your head on the ceiling. Next was calculus, where the asymptote was at X=0.1. This should become apparent in the shoddy mathematical metaphor contained in this post. After this came all the other sciences and empirical disciplines, as well as music and art. Then came poetry, foreign languages, literature, and practical skills. It was not until I came to college that I discovered that I had to fit philosophy onto my graphical representation of intelligence, but, conveniently, philosophy proved to have a shockingly low x-value, so it didn't take very long to place it.

Once, I tried to explain this entire theory to one of my TAs, whose response was that I was a complete moron. I mean, she was too nice to come out and say that, but that was clearly her meaning. I took note of this, and concluded that the x-value for my verbal ability was also extremely low.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A toast to the life of the grind

Slate has an essay up arguing against the recent Time article about boys being underserved by an overly girly education system. Having wasted significant mental effort on this question in high school only to discover that there is no detectable gender bias in education either way, I have retained some vestigial interest in it. However, what caught my attention was the essay's conclusion:
What's truly at stake for American children may not be the intricacies of neural wiring, but the rudimentary habits of working. Citing a recent study by two psychologists...education reporter Jay Mathews called attention to evidence that self-discipline--in particular, a capacity for deferred gratification--may be the best predictor of academic success, better than IQ...That sounds, I know, like irresistible grist for an argument about whether and why girls might have an innate gift for just that kind of goody-goody, grindlike behavior, but let's not start it. It's a disservice to girls to portray them as destined for diligence, as though conscientious effort were a second-rate recourse for slower or steadier minds, rather than what is really is: a crucial choice that helps ensure long-term success. And it's an even bigger disservice to boys and their college prospects to reinforce the idea that discipline and self-denial are sissy stuff.
Putting probably irrelevent gender questions aside, the last sentence sounds strikingly familiar. It was an issue that stirred significant debate among the better students (read: those who showed up to school) at my high school. Who was really smarter--the kids who could produce spontaneous brilliance without any effort, or the ones who stayed up up for three consecutive days to write their English papers?

Somehow, it seemed that a lot rode on this question. What mattered was being smart, and better yet, smarter than everyone else, and if it could shown that diligence was somehow a substitute for natural intelligence, more than half of my class's top ten could be discredited as pretenders to the throne of brilliance, and all the 60-something ranked students could bask in their vacated glory. The idea was that work was something one does when his natural intelligence is insufficient. And the general consensus seemed to be just that. If you had to work for your grades, you weren't really smart; you were probably just Asian. And people proved quite capable of deluding themselves into believing that it was possible to work one's way into a 5 on the AP Calc BC exam without any natural ability at all.

As a result, it was important if one wanted to maintain a reputation for real intelligence to appear never to work at all. If the difference was between being a genius and being a grind, the fact that both paths ultimately led you to the same destination--a good college--was mitigated at least somewhat by the uncoolness of the latter road. Even admission to a top school was seen as a smaller achievement--"she only got in because she spent the last four years holed up in her room with her math book."

The failure to recognize all this, incidentally, is how all the modest, self-deprecating students (most of whom were Asian or female or both) got reputations for being mindless grinds. They were always more than willing to attribute their success to hard work rather than innate talent, and everyone else interpreted this to mean that they had no talent in the first place.

On the other hand, the ability to recognize this made several otherwise smart people (mostly boys or native-born Americans or both) fatally lazy. Assuming their natural "brilliance" would be sufficient to get them acceptable grades that would be more than compensated for by their stellar test scores (SATs being roughly a test of aptitude), they slept through high school. Unfortunately, it turned out to be imprudent, to say the least, to risk it all on test scores. Test day came and went, and while they did fairly well, a 1300 and a B-average at a mediocre public high school is not exactly going to send you to the Ivy League. Instead, it will send you to U of I right along with all the grinds whom you looked down your nose at in high school.

In hindsight, the most obvious conclusion one might derive from all this is that Miss Self-Important and her friends were seriously deluded in high school. She does not deny this. Having converted to the life of the grind (I am so punny!) in college, she has gotten better grades than she ever did in high school, where the demands were, arguably, much less taxing. Musing on this change, she has come to believe that it would have behooved her to take up this life earlier. But that cannot be helped. However, it does concern her somewhat that she believed in the cult of genius and denigrated the cult of diligence. And it does incline her to think that Hulbert might be onto something in her essay.