Thursday, February 28, 2019

Stoicism vs Existentialism on the Meaning of Life

Here's a short essay I wrote for a one-page essay competition on the meaning of life. I was a dumbass and didn't read the rules properly. The rules were one page double-spaced. Mine was one page single spaced which I figured out only after I'd submitted it. Anyway, I've posted it here so it doesn't die a sad death somewhere on my hard-drive.

Existentialism vs Stoicism on the Meaning of Life

Both the existentials and the Stoics purport to provide answers to the meaning of life. Whatever that answer is, both agree that wealth, fame, career, power, graduate degrees, and other ‘externals’ have no value. They disagree, however, with respect to the reasons for externals’ non-value. And the reasons for non-value differ because the existentials and the Stoics fundamentally interpret questions about the meaning of life differently.

For existentialists the question principally concerns life’s significance. What makes life significant? Creating value and meaning. Life and the world we are thrust into are normatively barren; they contain no ready-made meanings or values. As luck would have it, human beings have the capacity to create both meaning and value through deliberate choice and action. The meaning of life and everything in it is the meaning you construct for it—the meaning you choose for it. And so, the answer to the meaning of life is for each individual to introspect and to create their own meaning and values through choice and action. Importantly, meaning and value are inherently subjective since they unfold from the private consciousness of each. Hence, externals have no value unless we choose to impart it upon them in how we structure them into our life projects.

The Stoics understand the question as asking how we can live well. The Stoic answer: By joyfully accepting of the world as it is. Contemplating the meaning of life is understood as assessing what sorts of things reliably achieve this Stoic aim. Unlike with existentialism, both the goal and path—virtuous living—are objective: they apply to everyone.

The Stoics observed that the world is full of unhappy people with wealth, successful careers, fame, and graduate degrees, etc…Externals have no value because of their merely contingent causal relation to cheerful acceptance. Worse still, since the causes of externals’ presence or absence ultimately lie outside of the causal power of our will, incorporating them into our life projects risks not only failure but necessarily undermines joyful living: If you insist on pursuing externals "of necessity you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things and plot against those who have that which is valued by you.” Externals have no value because they reliably undermine the meaning of life; i.e., joyfully accepting the world as it is.

So we know what not to pursue, now what? If we seek a life of significance, our projects must in some way conform with our internal reflections on our current and idealized selves. Meaning requires that what we do connects to our considered values and interests. Subjectivity matters for significance. Point existentialists. However, the Stoic arguments support objective constraints on what sorts of ends we ought and ought not to pursue if we want to also live well. Finally, the probability of realizing and sustaining a meaningful project falls without developing the objective virtues of courage, wisdom, self-control, and—more controversially—justice. Point Stoics.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Jussie Smollett, Bad Inferences, and Narrative

I've been seeing what I take to be a lot of bad inferences by smart people concerning the Jussie Smollet hoax. There is a long-running narrative on parts of the right (particularly online) that we should be skeptical of the authenticity of many hate crimes. The Jussie Smollet hoax is pouring gasoline on this narrative and spreading it outside its usual domain on the right.

While both the hoax and the narrative are ugly, this is a beautiful opportunity to talk about some of my favorite critical thinking concepts....

Key Concepts
Fallacy of Confirming Evidence: Sister of confirmation bias, the fallacy of confirming evidence is when we count only confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence when forming our conclusions. For example, suppose I hold the belief that vaccines cause autism. I go out into the world and I see an autistic child and I find out that child was also vaccinated. Hypothesis confirmed! I see another child with autism that was vaccinated. Yet more evidence. Ah ha! Vaccines cause autism. I could do this all day long: Find autistic children, discover their vaccination status, and if its positive count it as confirmation for my hypothesis.

The obvious error is that I'm not taking into account all the children who have been vaccinated but aren't autistic. In general terms, I'm only taking into account positive evidence and ignoring disconfirming evidence as I form my view.

The fallacy of confirming evidence often works together with motivated reasoning. Rather than examine a data set then come to a conclusion, I begin with the conclusion, "vaccines cause autism", then go out into the world and carefully select only the evidence that supports this view.

Good reasoning requires that we take into account both confirming and disconfirming evidence. Which leads to our next concept...

Framing: Absolute Numbers vs Rates: It's very easy to mislead people with absolute numbers since they provide no context. For example, if you hear that 20 people got A's in my class last semester you might think my class is easy. But not so fast. To make the correct evaluation you need to know how many people were in my class total. If there were only 20 students in my class then 20 A's is a decent indication that either my class is easy or I'm the world's greatest teacher. However, if it turns out that I had 500 students in my class, then you might draw different conclusions.

The lesson here is that we cannot evaluate absolute numbers without context and using rates is an excellent way of giving context. Partisan media and groups often use absolute numbers as a way of creating a narrative.

There are a bunch more, but this should be enough to get the party started. I've listed some other ones at the end of this post for the keeners.

The Jussie Smollet Hoax and Hate Crime Hoaxes
With these critical thinking concepts in our back pocket, let's take a look at hate crime hoaxes. Several right-wing media outlets have helpfully compiled lists of all the hate crime hoaxes during the Trump presidency going back to 2016. These lists are graciously prepared in order to save us from the epidemic of liberal hate crime hoaxes aimed to delegitimize the moral bonafides of Trump and his supporters.

I counted about 20 on the list. Let's triple that for fun. That's 60 hoax hate crimes since 2016. That makes 20/year!!!! OMG we're over-run with hate crime hoaxes. All hate crimes must be hoaxes. #DontBelieveThem

Oh, wait. We need to know the total number of reported hate crimes/year. The FBI puts it at around 7000/year. Let's do some math: Let's see...7000/20....that's 0.286%. So, less that one percent of reported hate crimes are hoaxes (if we triple the actual number). Clearly this is an epidemic. Our immediate reaction to someone claiming to be the victim of a hate crime should be to disbelieve them because there's a .286% chance it's a hoax:

Of course, there's a 99% chance that it isn't but let's not let statistics interfere with the narrative folks! Let's also keep in mind that the FBI and other reporting agencies estimate that the number of actual hate crimes is much higher than the number that actually get reported. This means that the percentage of hate crimes that are hoaxes is probably even lower than 2/10th of a percent.

As a final note, suppose absolutely everyone who was subject to a hate crime is included in the FBI statistics (which is very unlikely since the groups who are typically subject to hate crimes have good reasons to fear the police). Suppose we also multiply the actual incidence of confirmed hoaxes by TEN. That would be 20x10=200 hate crime hoaxes since 2016. Which means ~67 hoaxes per year. 7000/67= ~1%. So, even in the most charitable interpretation of the hate crime hoax epidemic, the incidence rate doesn't rise above 1%.

Don't fall for the right-wing narrative. Remember, facts not feelings!

Bonus Round:
Availability Bias: This is the tendency to think that the examples that most easily come to mind are also the most representative examples of a phenomena. The availability bias explains why many people are afraid of flying. When there's an airplane accident it's all over the news. We don't hear major news reports of all the airplanes that didn't crash. So, when some people think of airplane safety the first thing that comes to mind is the crashes, not the same flights. Because these are the examples that most readily come to mind, the mind takes them to be the most representative cases of airplane safety.

In the case of hoaxes, we are inundated with stories if there is a hoax (especially if you are in a right wing media ecosystem). The 7000 legitimate cases rarely get the media coverage the hoaxes do. Since the hoaxes are the most available cases, the mind takes them as the most representative cases, and extrapolates from them general conclusions about hate crimes.

Selection Bias: A selection bias will operate in conjunction with the availability bias. Which sorts of cases are the most likely to make the news? The ones that are outliers for a variety of reasons. They often involve high profile people or are anomalous for various reasons. There are 7000 hate crimes per year. Why don't we see all of them reported? Why doesn't right wing media report all the actual cases? There's selection bias going on. That media will only pick up the ones that serve to fulfill a narrative.

Another selection bias is that those who commit hate crime hoaxes are most likely to do it for attention. They want to get noticed. Hence, these types of cases will disproportionately enter the media cycle.

Base Rate Neglect/Base Rate Fallacy: This one's a bit tricky to explain so I'll hand over the details to the wikipedia article. Suppose the incidence rate of a phenomena is low. For example, 1% of all hate crimes are hoaxes . That means that for every case, all things being equal, we should assume that there's a 1% chance that it's a hoax. However, people fixate on the particulars of each case ignoring the base rate. It's not that particulars don't matter, it's that people place too much weight on the particulars in their reasoning while putting too little on the base rate.

Monday, January 14, 2019

How to Be Epictetus in the Gym and on the Mats

Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome to my annual fitness post. Last year I wrote How to be Aristotle in the Gym, so this year I thought I'd try doing something similar with Epictetus. Epictetus is one of the 4 famous heads of the Stoic school (Zeno of Citium, Cleathes, and Chrysippus are the other 3). He is perhaps best known for his curmudgeonly and conversational style. If you've never read him, check out some of the Discourses. Many lessons are as hilarious as they are enlightening.

Anyhow, for this post, not only will I incorporate his ideas but, for fun, I'm going to adopt his tone. The focus of the post will cover mindset and how to deal with injuries and other setbacks. But first let's get a familiar with some of the main tenets of stoicism and how they relate to physical health...

[Aside: If you're looking for injury prevention technique, see my past post: Here and Here. For my current weightlifting routine go here. For increasing plant-based protein in your diet without losing gainz, go here.]

Epictetus and the (Non)Value of Physical Health
Why do you do something rather than nothing? The aim of all action is happiness. People find happiness in a variety of things and this explains why people pursue different things. But isn't the part of happiness that we most value not wealth, fame, power, or university degrees but rather how we handle the cards we are dealt?

No life is free from misfortune, chance, and adversity. But in facing such occasions we encounter opportunities to exercise and develop the genuine foundations for a stable happiness:  Strength, dignity, equanimity, composure, stability, fortitude, persistence, and courage. None of these virtues are meaningfully developed without facing some adversity. And no person can live a happy life without these traits. So, if it's a stable enduring happiness you're after, develop your virtues.

So, what about physical health? Ought I to pursue it? It seems like it's also part of a happy life.
"No my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad."
(Discourse III. 20. 4)
The stoic view on physical health, like anything outside of your will, is that it is neither good nor bad. What matters is whether you make (virtuous) use of it and/or pursue it virtuously. A sound body enables a criminal to commit his crimes just as it enables a good person to do good deeds.

You should not pursue fitness merely for the sake of fitness. This is why the whole bodybuilding/fitness industry would be such a travesty for Epictetus. What do such lives amount to? They devoted 10s of thousands of hours to making their muscles puffy. What kind of life is that?

So, does this mean I should be indifferent about my health? No. A happy life is one in which we develop a beautiful soul. The body is the vessel of the soul and so it's important to care for the vessel that contains it. Notice, however, that the reasons to pursue health and fitness are purely instrumental, they are not ends in themselves.

There are a few other stoic reasons for caring about your health, most of which are inherited from Socrates/Plato.

First, whatever burdens you must bear, they are more bearable to the healthy person.
And yet what has to be borne by anyone who takes care to keep his body in good condition is far lighter and far pleasanter than those things subjected to the out of shape person. (Plato, The Republic)
Why even in the process of thinking and not using our body, it is a matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition loss of memory, depression and discontent often attack the mind so violently as to drive out whatever knowledge it contains. (Xenophon quoting Socrates)
In short, in poor health we are more prone to bad decisions and a weakened will in the face of challenges. We are less likely to do the kinds of virtuous actions that beautify our soul. As the saying goes, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." (Quote is attributed to both George Patton and Vince Lombardi). And the unfit are easily fatigued.

Second, physical development is practice for the much more difficult task of intellectual and moral development. It also cultivates our affinity for Beauty. For that ancients, Truth, the Good, and Beauty are inextricably connected and all are required to develop a beautiful soul.  People aren't always immediately interested in the Good or Truth; but if the three are tied together, Beauty can draw them in the right direction.

Physical beauty, however, is inferior to beauty of a soul. Having a beautiful soul requires knowing (and acting on) the True and the Good. It follows that cultivating a beautiful soul is much more difficult than developing a beautiful body. That is, is easier to get puffy muscles than it is to discover and act on moral and intellectual truth. Hence, especially for youth, it's important that they at least have some aspiration for beauty--even if it's initially of the inferior kind. This is a starting point to "show him the way to more appropriate objects of devotion" (Sherman, Stoic Warriors. P. 31)

In Epictetus's own words (concerning leading a youth to care for having a beautiful soul):
But if he should come to me befouled, dirty, with whiskers down to his knees, what can I say to him, what sort of comparison can I use to draw him on? For what has he ever concerned himself with that bears any resemblance to beauty, such that I can redirect his attention, and say, "Beauty is not there, but here"? Would you have me say to him, "Beauty lies not in being befouled, but in reason"? For does he in fact aspire to beauty? Does he show any sign of it? Go and argue with a pig, that he should not roll in the mud." (Discourse III. 23. 27.)
Some Simple Advice that Would Improve Most People's Health and Save them Money
Recall the earlier lesson that the unfit are easily fatigued, that fatigue undermines our will and judgment, which in turn interferes with developing a beautiful soul. In short, a developing a beautiful soul requires we avoid fatigue to the extent that we can.

Think of health and fitness as a three-legged table. Each leg represents one of

  • diet/nutrition, 
  • exercise, and 
  • sleep/recovery. 
If you remove one leg, the table collapses. Also, if the legs aren't in the correct proportion, the table is unstable.

Different people struggle with different "legs," however, I think sleep is the most often overlooked. You can do all the right exercises at the right intensity and eat all the right foods in the right amounts but if you aren't getting enough sleep, your efforts are soon undermined. During deep prolonged sleep, your body releases hormones necessary for recovery and growth. You simply cannot recover physically (or mentally) if these hormones aren't regularly released into your body. And, without quality sleep, these hormones will not be released into your body.

The fitness industrial complex offers no end of new supplements, magic pills, special diets, exercise plans, and exercise innovation. Some of them are useful, some of them not, most are only moderately so. But rarely do you hear about sleep, and if you do, it's often as an afterthought.

If sleep's as important as I claim it is, why don't we hear about it as much as the other two legs? The answer is simple, Big Fit doesn't make a profit off of you sleeping. They can't sell it to you (yet!).

But now I've told you what they don't want you to know. Figure out how much sleep you need and restructure your life such that you get it. You'll be surprised at what a difference it makes. It blows my mind how much money people are willing to pay for supplements of questionable efficacy yet unwilling to find a way to get one more hour of sleep a night. I'd be willing to bet anything that an extra hour of sleep will do you more good for your health than all your expensive supplements combined.
"Why are you willing to pay so much for supplements?"
"Because I want to be healthy."
"I just told you that getting an extra hour of sleep will help you much more than your supplements ever will. So, why don't you get an extra hour of sleep instead of staying up online or watching Netflix?"
"I know but I don't want to have to change my life."
"Fine. Then don't complain about your health when I've just told you how to improve it." (Epictetus, The Lost Discourses)
 Injuries and Setbacks
My first genuine interaction with Stoicism was Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. My first reaction to Stoicism was to throw the book across the room.

Why? Well, you know all those annoying self-help-y aphorisms like "Everything happens for a reason" and "Every challenge presents an opportunity"? Well, the Stoics were the OG's (original gurus) of self-help. They viewed their philosophy as being first and foremost a practical guide to living well and a means of dealing with the inevitable difficulties and misfortunes of life. There is deep wisdom in their teachings. The problem is that, after 2, 000 years of being repeated ad nauseam and out of context, they can seem like just one more vacuous platitude to scroll past in our newsfeed. Especially when it's the person posting it that most needs to heed the advice! (Tu quoque for those keeping score).

How does all this fit with the theme of this article: fitness and injuries? Let me illustrate.

Four years ago, I suffered perhaps the worst injury of my grappling career. I rolled my right ankle and tore a bunch of soft tissue. I was on crutches for 2 months, limping for a year and a half, and only recently completely pain free. I still tape my ankle every judo practice as a preventative measure.

After about 6 months of no judo, I started doing some light technique practice. Because I'd injured my dominant foot, I couldn't practice throws to my dominant (i.e., strong) side. The only way I was going to be able to train at all is if I practiced to my weak side.

It took a full 2 years before I was able to begin training to my strong side again. By that time, my weak-side throws were better than my strong side throws. After a few months, my strong side caught up. The net result is that now I can do some throws just as well to either side.

Without getting too far into judo technique, I'll explain why that's such a huge advantage. To avoid a throw in judo or wrestling, you circle away from the direction of the throw. If you walk into the direction of the throw, you make your opponent's job very easy since you are walking in the exact direction required for the throw to be successful.

So, what happens when you can throw equally well on both sides? If I attack one direction, you circle away from the throw. But circling away from a throw in one direction is also walking into the throw from the other direction. If I can throw in both directions, your defense to my initial attack actually literally walks you into my attack from the other direction.

What's the moral of the story? The simple one is that every challenge presents an opportunity. The challenge presented to me was what very easily could have been a career-ending injury. Instead, I chose to use it as an opportunity to develop a part of my game I otherwise wouldn't have spent as much time on. The net result was to move me another step closer to the ideal martial artist.

Think of your own injuries in the same way (And I promise, you will have injuries, whether you train or not!). Maybe you injure your shoulder or your back. Give your body a chance to heal from the initial injury, but now figure out how to train around your injury and eventually restrengthen it. This forces you to learn new exercises and improve your technique on ones you already know. Doing it imperfectly now has real consequences. The long run effect is to make you improve in ways you otherwise wouldn't have if circumstance hadn't forced you to.

Now, he's where part of me wants to throw the Discourses across the room. Surely, some injuries are so bad and permanent that we will forever be impaired. An extreme example might be paralysis. What kind of asshole tells someone newly paraplegic, "hey, man, you should see this as an opportunity." Now, just because what the stoics say isn't true in every case, doesn't mean it isn't true in some cases. In my case it was true.

My own view is that, psychologically, we ought to err on the side of stoicism when we are confronted by setbacks. I think there's much more harm in despair and giving up than there is in a mentality that seeks opportunity in misfortune.

He's the first lesson: Learn What You Would not Have Otherwise Learned
You're going to have setback in your fitness journey. This is the nature of life. So whachugonna do abouddit? Give up and cry like a little baby or find a way to learn and improve from it?

Moving on...

The more subtle message has to do with value. Initially--well, let's be honest--not just initially, but for a long time, I was genuinely heart-broken by my injury. I wasn't hopeful at all. Right before the injury, I was the best I'd ever been. I was on track to test for my brown belt. I was looking forward to doing well in tournaments. I was upset because the injury interfered with realizing what I valued: belt promotion, tournaments, winning.

But the stoic is concerned with internal goods: wisdom, perseverance, composure, courage, and so on. These are the goods that make us a complete person and that most reliably contribute to living a good life. These are the fruits we ought to pursue. And I ultimately gain the sweetest fruits of all by refusing to quit and continuing to persevere in the face of misfortune:
What will you make of illness?
I will expose its true nature by outdoing myself in calmness and serenity; I will neither beg the doctor's help, nor pray for death. What more could you ask? Everything, you see, that you throw at me I will transform into a blessing, a boon--something dignified, even enviable. (Discourse III. 21. 14-15)
[Y]ou have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it. 
'But my nose is running!' What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? 'But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place? Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn't it be easier just to wipe your nose? (Discourse 1. 6. 28-32.)
In other words, it is through the various challenges life inevitably sends our way that we most develop our virtues--the true and reliable foundations for a happy life. And who are you to think of yourself as so weak as not to be able to face such challenges?

Suck it up buttercup. You kan dou eet!

All that energy you spend complaining about your ankle, your back, your neck, etc... isn't going to heal it. You might as well redirect your efforts toward addressing it. Wipe your nose!

Here's the second lesson: Focus on What Really Matters
In the long run, in facing injuries and misfortune, you develop the traits that have genuine value: Fortitude, courage, perseverance, wisdom, etc...

Brace yourself: It's not puffy muscles or being able to lift a certain amount of weight that matters for a good life. It's the character traits you develop that allow you to manage and overcome, not only your current injuries and health problems, but future ones too.

This is another way of expressing the earlier Socratic point: Physical fitness and sports are a controlled environment for character development. In fitness/sports, more than in any other endeavor, there's a strong correlation between effort and results. The lessons learned and traits you develop are meant to prepare you for the more difficult domains of intellectual and moral development. Intellectual and moral challenges are infinitely more demanding than any physical ones.

Too many people think puffy muscles or round booties are the final goal and despair when they're thwarted. Such people never surpass the most basic level of development as human beings. They are incomplete human beings and they never fully achieve complete lasting and reliable foundations for a good life.

I know. It's all easy to say. Personal development is extremely difficult and takes time. However,
Nothing important comes into being overnight: even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe." (Discourse 1. 17. 7.)
Fact: In pursuing your fitness goals you will get injured. You will also get sick. You will get overwhelmed with work and social obligations. These will set you back. Crying about it won't change anything. Neither will anger, sadness, or quitting. So, whatchugonna do?

Adopt that OG (Original Guru) self-help mindset: See an opportunity to learn to train differently and improve your technique. Better yet, see this as an opportunity to develop the virtues. When you face the next inevitable setback, you'll be better equipped to handle it.

Epictetus often compares the quest for happiness (through the exercise and development of virtuous character) to athletic competition. There are important disanalogies. First, in the contest of life we compete against ourselves, not against others. Second, we compete over and over, through repeated opportunities for achievement. To be defeated need not mean that we are out of the race. Life gives us new opportunities in which happiness may flower:
Even if we fail here and now, no one stops us from competing again, we don't have to wait another four years for the next Olympics, but as soon as a man picked himself up and renewed his grip on himself and shown the same enthusiasm he is allowed to compete. And if you give in again, you can compete again, and if once you win, you are like someone who never gave in. Only, don't let sheer habit make you give in readily and end up like a bad athlete going around being beaten in the whole circuit like quails that run away. (Discourse 3. 1-5)
Jigoro Kano (founder of judo) echos something similar in this wonderful quote:
The man who is at the peak of his success and the man who has just failed are in exactly the same position: Each must decide what to do next.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Lessons for Liberals

Let's begin with what Liberals know to be self-evident: All current Liberal views are true and all non-liberal views are false. Let's add to that what everyone on the Right knows: All Liberals hold exactly the same views on all issues. There are no divisions. No subgroups. And there is certainly no nuance.

So, here's the problem for Liberals. How do we communicate the Truth to all those backward non-liberals? (If you're on the Right, simply swap 'Liberal' with 'political Right' .)

Here's what I want to think about. Suppose you had no reason at all to doubt even in the slightest your views on morality and justice. How should you go about communicating with people who hold mistaken views? In suggesting an answer, I'll touch on three interrelated themes: the means by which we communicate moral knowledge, the relationship between moral knowledge and the good life, the nature of knowledge

[This is a short portion of a paper I'm working on so many arguments aren't fully elaborated and several possible objections are left out].

Pumping Intuitions and Cultural Precedent
Why should I spare words? They cost nothing. I cannot know whether I shall help the man to whom I give advice; but I know well that I shall help someone if I advise many. I must scatter this advice by the handful. It is impossible that one who tries often should not sometimes succeed.
--Seneca, Letter XXIX paraphrasing the view he opposes.

Sometimes philosophers construct fanciful thought experiments to illustrate a point. With that in mind, please indulge me...

Suppose there were a group of people who believed that God himself spoke to them. With unwavering certainty they insisted that He taught them what is just and unjust, true and false, moral and immoral.

Upon hearing God's words, these crusaders of Truth and Justice went out into the world spreading the 'good' news to all. Some groups employed the tactics Seneca condemns above: They spread the word indiscriminately to everyone--ignoring varying degrees of receptivity, social context, or norms of discourse. They showed no concern for how others might perceive God's messengers and how that might affect receptivity to the message. Furthermore, those who hesitated to immediately recognize the Truth were condemned as foolish and stupid (at best) or evil.

Instead of engaging in patient thoughtful discourse that demonstrated mutual respect and recognized the concerns of others, many resorted to shaming, name-calling, and bullying tactics. Those who were most certain of the Truth would hold signs kinda like these...

Let's pause here to illuminate an argument that's being assumed in the background. First, knowing the truth about morality and justice is somehow important to living well. This idea has its (Western) roots in Socrates for whom knowledge, truth, justice, and the good life are deeply intertwined. A good life requires we understand the content of 'good' and 'evil' and that we correctly apply them in our daily actions. A life lived contrary to justice can never be a good life.

The above view implies it would be a bad thing if you held false beliefs about justice--not just for others but for you as well. It follows that we do good when we correct other people's false views and teach them the true views.

However, as the hypothetical case above illustrates, some ways of communicating moral truth paradoxically cause people to turn away from the truth--even if it comes direct from God's own sweet lips.

Lessons for Liberals:
The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation. 

At this point, some of you may have caught on to what I'm rambling about. We all know that the Liberals have the monopoly on moral truth. This isn't the issue. Liberals need to think carefully about how they convey that truth because if they don't, they will come off very much like the people above. And the outcome, with respect to conversion, is negative and predictable. In fact, there's growing evidence that it's counter-productive.

[Note: If you're uncomfortable with applying the concept of truth to justice and morality, simply substitute it with the notion of justification. I take it to be uncontroversial that some moral beliefs are better justified than others.] 

Lesson 1: 
How you treat others with whom you disagree affects how receptive they are to your message. This is true regardless of how wrong they are and how right you are. 

From the point of view of people who aren't on the Left, many on the Left behave just as badly as those in the example above. To the heretic, both appear just as smug, and they are both just as willing to condemn to damnation those who refuse to recognize it. A functioning democracy requires that people at least be open to changing their views. Part of this involves creating a dialectical environment in which people can be open to criticism and new ideas. 

How can we do this? The first step is obviously some baseline of civility and respect. The second is to initially acknowledge your interlocutor's concerns even if, ultimately, you don't think they merit it. You can evaluate their concerns later once you've established some good will. No one is going to be receptive to anyone who's first move is to dismiss their concerns out of hand.

A common objection appeals to the virtue of anger in the face of injustice. Failing to be outraged by injustice (to oneself or to others) is itself morally troublesome; you're complicit by omission. Furthermore, demands for civility unduly burden the oppressed when engaging with their oppressors. There's much to say here but I'll tender only a brief reply. 

The attitude we choose ought to be guided by what we hope to achieve with our moral and political speech. Anger in the face of injustice and unjust ideas signals disapproval and--increasingly--group membership. If that's all you intend to do, by all means, express your anger. But to the person who doesn't already hold your values, your outrage is uncompelling as a reason to abandon their view and to endorse a new one. Also, in some circles, Liberal outrage is cause for delight. Worse still, moral outrage can have the paradoxical effect of galvanizing support for the practice in question where it didn't exist previously.

If, however, I wish to persuade those who don't already hold my view I must offer them arguments and reasons. Most importantly, my arguments must begin from premises my interlocutors also accept. You can't drive someone to your destination if they never get into your car. And, they're not going to get into the car if you're yelling insults at them.

In short, if you purport to persuade, arrest your anger. Better yet, remain respectful. Whatever you do, do not confirm your outgroups' (negative) biases of your group.

(If someone's not being respectful to you, you can always walk away. I'm not sure we owe everyone respect. My point is only applies if you wish to persuade someone of your view.)

The Nature of Knowledge
"Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable." --Epictetus

Two competing accounts of the source of knowledge run throughout the history of philosophy. The ancient Greek philosophers argued that Truth is accessible to everyone because, as rational creatures, we are sensitive to argument and reasons; that is to say, we are all sensitive to the means by which assertions are justified. Logic is objective. Argument forms are either valid or invalid. Anyone, with a little training, can evaluate the validity of an argument. Hence, everyone is equipped (when they so choose!) to evaluate arguments for what constitutes justice and for when that concept is correctly applied. This epistemological assumption inspired the Enlightenment and continues in its contemporary progeny.

On the other hand, in The Republic, Plato remarks that "there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry." Here we have the other strain of epistemology: one that appeals to emotion, inspiration, revelation, or personal experience. These sorts of justifications for belief escape and obscure the objective lens of reason and logic; they aren't publicly scrutable. Hence, they are at least controversial as sources of justification. Nevertheless, at least some knowledge is irreducibly subjective. Historically, Romanticism, existentialism, and post-modernism all claim subjective knowledge epistemically legitimate or valuable. 

The core philosophical issue here is whether access to moral knowledge is universal or not. Some Liberals have adopted the latter view (#NotAllLiberals): Certain groups at the intersections of race and gender have privileged access to moral knowledge. I suggest, that even if true, this is a strategic error.

Lesson 2
If we want people to know (and adopt) different moral views, we cannot do it without offering reasons and arguments that are publicly scrutable. 

Just how compelling are divine revelation or appeals to 'inspired' texts to the atheist? Liberals who rely on privileged access to moral truth engage in the same failed tactics as the kind-hearted Mormons who visited me last week.  As I sat there listening to them in my living room, I was reminded something Thomas Kuhn wrote: "Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling to those who refuse to step into the circle." 

By extension, telling people that their race or gender renders them incapable of grasping moral truth is self-defeating. If they're incapable of grasping it, it's unreasonable to expect them to in the first place. Moral outrage is misplaced. 

Excluding subjective knowing comes with a caveat. Some knowledge is surely subjective and morally relevant. What it's like for me to experience the world or how others' actions and words affect me aren't obviously evaluable through objective reason and argument. They're my experiences. Many these experiences do matter morally. If our theory of justice tells us that we ought avoid institutions, policies, words, and actions that make people feel as though they are being dehumanized or less-than then this subjective data matters.

But appeals to subjective experience on its own can't be the end of a discussion on justice. Many white Christians evangelicals feel as though they are a deeply persecuted group in America. Is it true? After all, until recently, they risked imprisonment for uttering "Merry Christmas." If subjective experience is our only epistemic standard, the conversation ends here: They have experiences as though they are oppressed, therefore they are oppressed. 

Yet, we know that simply feeling outraged does not on its own justify the outrage. Justification depends on how well the response 'fits.' People can be mistaken about the fit of their subjective judgments about and emotional responses to occurrences, intentions, harm, to name a few. 

Surely there are features of being oppressed or unjustly treated that, although subjectively experienced, can measure up to some publicly scrutable standards of 'fit.' Is there a(n unjustified) power imbalance? Is one treated differently than one's peers? Is there a reasonable possibility to meaningfully shape the public institutions that govern one's life? Is one disproportionately excluded from certain opportunities or public resources? Is one group disproportionately negatively affected by what is supposed to be an impartial law or policy? These are all standards within which we can begin to evaluate subjective claims of privilege, discrimination, benefit, and burden.

The idea that moral truth is accessible only to members of a select group is the secular equivalent of divine inspiration. Particularly in a democracy, pronouncements on justice demand justifications accessible to all except perhaps the most extreme and recalcitrant partisans. The alternative leads us away from democratic values and into authoritarianism--which is great when your team's in power but not so great when the pendulum inevitably swings. 

In closing, indulge me one last thought experiment: Suppose there is some truth to what I have said so far. A) How we treat people affects their receptivity to our message even if God's whispering it in our ear. B) Relying exclusively on a subjectivist/privilege epistemology is self-defeating. 

Now consider your actual epistemic situation. Consider all the beliefs you hold and have held, and all the competing possible beliefs held by others--present and future. What are the chances that, right now, you are the first human being to hold all and only true moral beliefs while everyone else, including future liberals, hold some false beliefs?

In other words, if we take seriously the non-trivial possibility that some of our current moral beliefs are false, we should be even more cautious in berating others who hold beliefs contrary to our own. Not just because of the reasons I've already suggested above but because we should think about how we will want to be treated when the inevitable happens: I.e., when someone on Twitter points out to us why we are mistaken. 

Do you treat others how you would wish to be treated if you turned out to be wrong?

I leave you with Seneca:
Do you think that the man has any thought of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. 
--Seneca Letter XXVIII

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Simple Strength and Muscle-Building Program and the Death of Bro Splits

Here's a science-based strength and muscle-building program for anyone looking for a change in their old routine. If you're completely new to using weights, this might be a good program to use after about 3-6 months. This program is suitable for advanced beginner to upper intermediate. It's not meant for competitive or aspiring competitive bodybuilders since it's built primarily from compound movements; there are virtually no isolation exercises. The program aims to balance fitness, strength, muscle growth, and aesthetics.

First, I'll present the program then, for the keeners, I'll explain some of the principles behind being successful in the gym. Finally, I'll introduce you to some trends in 21st century exercise science which are signaling the demise of bro science.

I need to say one more thing. You'll notice that each routine is a full-body workout. As I was putting this program together, I thought I'd do a little digging on the state of affairs in the bro-splits vs full-body debate. It turned into a several-day journey down a rabbit hole of surprising science. For those unfamiliar with these terms, bro splits means you assign a different workout day to each major body part. E.g., Monday is chest, Tuesday is legs, Wednesday is back, etc.... With bro splits each body part only gets trained 1x/week. This is by far the favored method for gym bros and professional bodybuilders alike.

A full-body workout routine, on the other hand, usually trains each body part per workout allowing one day rest between each workout. This typically amounts to training 3x/week, although programs vary from 2x to as many as 6x per week.

It's a core bodybuilding dogma that bro-splits are superior to full-body workouts with respect to building mass and strength. This dogma has been so firmly entrenched that for at least 3 or 4 decades no one even bothered to do a comparative study. Well, in 2014, the Norwegian powerlifting team committed sacrilege: Rather than act on faith and tradition alone, they decided to put dogma to the test.

The results of the Norwegian Frequency Project sent shock waves through the weight-lifting world.

Experienced powerlifting athletes following higher frequency programs outperformed those in lower frequency programs with respect to strength and mass. A flurry of studies followed and continue to follow. I'll discuss more below but the upshot is that science destroyed bro science. Carefully measured and controlled studies eclipsed anecdote, tradition, and dogma [gasp!]. Bro splits, despite a ton of cultural inertia, are on the demise.

Reporting on a follow-up study, Baysianbodybuilding.com offers what I consider to be the best explanation of the decades-long unquestioned reign of bro splits:
An additional finding was that the bro split group experienced significantly greater levels of muscle soreness throughout the study. This suggests they experienced greater muscle damage and tentatively supports that muscle damage is not a mechanism of muscle growth. It is probably also the reason bros prefer bro splits: they feel like they work better and because they experience this amount of soreness, they also think they can’t train with higher frequencies. Bros typically base everything they do on how they feel and then rationalize with pseudoscience AKA broscience.
This is enough preamble for now. More science-y stuff later. Let's get to the routine...

The 3 Day/Week Program: Full Body

If you're a beginner or any of the movements in the routine are new to you, pleaseplease consult with a personal trainer or experienced friend before attempting them. You will learn to do the exercise effectively, avoid potential injury, and save yourself from being "that guy/girl" in the gym that everyone rolls their eyes at. I see so many beginners who don't think they're beginners doing all manner of wrong things when working out. Lifting with poor form virtually guarantees injury and no gainz. Also, it's entirely appropriate in gym culture to ask someone who looks like they know what they're doing. Almost all experienced lifters are as enthusiastic as Mormons to share their knowledge with you.
Trigger Warning!

Biological Sex and How it Affects How You Train: TL;DR version. For most exercises, men should do 6-10 reps for mass/strength gains *(sort of--I'll mention something about this later in the post). Women should do 8-15. Men should use longer rest periods. Women should use shorter periods. For the most comprehensive article on the topic: BayesianBodybuilding.com I suggest all women read it.

Day 1:
1. Deadlift
  • 2 warm up sets (more if needed).
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps (men), 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use all 3 kinds (standard, sumo, Romanian) of deadlift depending on how my body is feeling. Go with whatever you like on that day or stay with the same one each Day 1 (muscle confusion principle is fake news). 
  • Go heaviest on your 3rd set. Back off on the fourth to preserve strict form (if necessary).
2. Bench Press
  • 2 sets warm up.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest set. Come back down a bit on the 4th set to preserve strict form.
3. Lateral Shoulder Raises
  • 1-2 sets warm up.
  • 2-3 drop sets--each to failure. 
  • E.g., 20 lbs to failure, 15 lbs to failure, 10 lbs to failure. Cheat on the last 2 or 3 reps of each increment. 
4. Standing Barbell Curls
  • 1-2 warm up sets
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest. Come back down a bit on the 4th to preserve strict form.
  • Use either straight bar or ez-curl bar. Whatever feels best to you.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise

Day 2
1. Squat (or Leg Press if your back is having a bad day)
  • 2 warm up sets (more if you still don't feel warmed up)
  • 4-5 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your third set should be your heaviest set. If doing 5 sets, make your 4th set the same as the 3rd before backing off to preserve strict form.
2. Bent-Over Dumbell Row or Seated Cable Rows (med to narrow grip)
  • 3 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use higher reps here because most people's technique really suffers on this exercise when they go heavy. Use a weight that allows you to squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine.
  • For judoka: Modifying bent-over dumbbell rows mimics one of the core movements in judo. To do this, flair you elbow out as though you are doing uchi komi with your hikite (pulling arm). "Look at your watch" for each rep as you would with uchi komi.
  • Use the negative on this exercise and be sure to hold a full contraction at the top of each rep.
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 
  • 2 warm up sets.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your shoulders are one of the easiest areas to injure so be sure to be well-warmed up before going into your working sets.
4. Calves
  • Do 4 sets of any kind of calve raises if you like. 
  • I've given up on ever growing my calves and do 10 minutes of skipping instead. It's better for the kind of muscle I need for judo anyway.
  • If you believe in miracles and haven't given up on growing calves yet: 3 sets of one kind then 2 sets of another kind of calve exercise.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise. Superset with back-hyerextensions. 

Day 3
1. Lunges
  • 2 warm up sets
  • 4 sets of ~16 reps, ~20 reps (women).
  • 1 set = 8/10 reps for each leg. Alternate legs with each rep.
  • I prefer to either hold dumbbells on my shoulders or use a bar for lunges. It helps keep good posture and engage my core. Holding dumbbells at my side doesn't seem to engage my core as much. This is a matter of preference.
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press (seated or standing--your preference)
  • 2 sets warm up
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
3. A. Wide-Grip Pull Down
  • 2 sets with a medium light weight x 12-15 reps.
  • This is just a warm up for pull ups so don't tire yourself out here. We're just warming up to prevent injury.
3. B. Wide-Grip Pull-Up
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • If you're not used to doing pull ups, use the pull-up assist machine. If you don't have one, put a box/bench under you and use your legs for help to complete at least 7. Use your legs to push yourself up but fight gravity on the way down (i.e., use the negative).
4.  Dips
  • 2-3 sets to failure.
  • When doing dips, bend your knees, cross your lower legs, and pitch your body forward. If you do dips straight up and down, you put yourself at higher risk of shoulder injury.
  • Use a dip assist machine if you're not used to doing dips to build up to unassisted dips.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise

Principles and Tips:

The First Rule of Exercising/Sports/Weigh-lifting: Avoid Injury!
Always warm up. If you're feeling off one day, ease up on the weight. Learn and use strict form. Have an experienced friend or trainer check your form every once in a while. Learn correct breathing technique. Learn to distinguish good pain from bad pain. If you get injured, you're out for at least two weeks. That sets your fitness in reverse. 

Another good tip for avoiding injury is to always "leave one in the chamber." This means end your set when you fell like you might still be able to do one last rep but that it would require you to break form. In other words, do as many reps as you can with strict form. There's a time a place for breaking form, but as a general rule, avoid it as it increases the odds of injury, which in turn will set you back.

For a more detailed account of how to prevent injury, read my more detailed post here.

Number of Reps:
Fact: You can't get stronger without lifting weights heavier than what you're used to lifting. The way to lift heavier weight is to drop the number of reps. This is why, for strength training, you shouldn't be doing more than 8 reps. Once you can do 4 sets of a weight at 6-8 reps, you should increase the weight, or better yet... (For women, work in the 8-15 rep range. See article linked at the beginning of the program).

What I've said above isn't entirely true. There's still some conflicting literature but it seems like the most important variable for muscle hypertrophy is total training volume for a body part. This means 3 sets x 8 reps of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) should give you the same results as training 2 sets of 12 of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) or 6 sets x 2 reps of 200 lbs (= 24 000 lbs). Same volume = same results regardless of how you got there. My guess is that this is only true within a certain range of combinations as, were it possible, lifting 24 000 lbs once probably won't give you the same results as the above possibilities.

Level of Resistance:
In a standard pyramid progression, you start off with a relatively lower weight but relatively higher reps. For each set, increase the weight but decrease the reps. 

  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 90 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 4: 100 lbs x 1 rep.
The benefit of standard pyramid progressions is that, when you reach your heaviest weight, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are really warmed up. The downside is that you can exhaust your muscles by the time you get your heaviest weight so your technique suffers.

In a reverse pyramid, you start off with a heavy weight and low reps. With each set you decrease weight and increase reps.

  • Set 1: 100 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 2: 90 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 80 lbs x 8 reps. 
The downside of a reverse pyramid is that you risk injury when you lift heavy before the body part is fully warmed up. The upside is that you're at full strength when you do the heaviest set.

My solution is to combine the methods. This way I get the benefits of both while diminishing the downsides of each. I do a standard pyramid up to and including my third set. At my third set, I'm still close to full strength but fully warmed up. On my fourth set, I bring the weight back down slightly below my third set. This way I preserve strict form on my last set. If I'm doing 5 sets, I might stay at the higher weight for set 4 but do one less rep then come down for the last set.

  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 6-7 reps.
  • Set 3: 100 lbs x 4/5 reps.
  • Set 4: 90 lbs x 6-7 reps.
Rest intervals:
I like to rest around 90 seconds- 2 min between sets but if I'm really focused on building strength I might even increase rest times up to 3 minutes. Science says, for men, longer rest periods are better for muscle hypertrophy (for women, it seems like short rest periods are likely better).

If I'm close to a judo tournament, I reduce rest time to 1 minute: I want the workout to more closely mimic the explosion-recover intervals of a match and to keep my heart rate up. 

Number of Sets:
You'll notice that for many of the exercises, I've given a range of possible sets. This is to allow flexibility in the program.  If you're more on the beginner end of weightlifting or are restarting after a break, you'll want to use the lower number. If you're more in the intermediate or higher range, you'll want to use the higher number of sets.

Also, regardless of where you stand, some days you have more energy than others in the gym. Build flexibility of sets into your routine to accommodate the variation in how you feel on any given day. Why leave an exercise early if you still have lots of energy? Why do one more set if you're already exhausted? Nothing good will come of it except an increased risk of injury.

Rest Days:
By most standards--especially evolutionary standards--our daily lives are sedentary. For this reason, just cuz you're not in the gym lifting on your off days, it doesn't mean you should be sitting on your butt watching Netflix. You were probably already sitting in your office all day. At least go out for a walk. Better yet, participate in a physical group activity. Take a dance class. Do a martial art. Coach a kids' sports team. Just do something to get off your butt!

Summary: Personalizing your Program
Recall that volume is the dominant variable for muscle and strength gains. Think of all the above variables (including rest period) as means of individualizing a program in a way that maximizes total training volume for your body. There are 4 variables to play with: number of reps, number of sets, weight (% of max), and duration of rest period. What you should do is play with each to find the combination that results in the highest total volume per exercise.

For example, I find that pretty much no matter the weight (in the working weight range), I have trouble going above 8 reps. My power drops off significantly after the 6th rep. So, for me to do the most volume, I use low reps (5-7) and high weight. I also find that I recover fairly quickly between sets, so I use moderate rest periods. This allows me to get more sets done in a workout.

An average woman might find she can reach higher total volume when she does high reps of med-low weight with short rest periods. So, this is what they should do.

The key idea here is that as you get to know your body, you should individualize this or any program to suit your body. Use a pre-made program as a general template but the exact combination of sets/body part, rest periods, reps, and weight (% of max) aren't going to be optimal for everyone. No program can be optimal for everyone given human diversity. Learning to customize your program comes with experience and experimentation. 

More on Bro Splits vs Full-Body Programs

Let’s talk a little bit more about the bro splits vs full-body workouts. Recall that with bro splits, you assign a day to each major body part and maybe train a minor muscle on that same day (e.g., chest and biceps; back and triceps). In each workout you try to “destroy” that particular muscle group with the idea that it will take a long time to recover. 

With a full-body program we usually train all (major) muscle groups during each individual workout. Two implications follow: First, you will train each major muscle group several times a week (3 in a standard program). Second, your muscles won’t get “destroyed” after each work out since you’re only doing 3-5 sets for a particular muscle group as opposed to the 14-18 (or more) in a standard bro-split. It follows, that you can train each muscle group more frequently.

Why do full-body programs seem to be outperforming bro splits? First, (on average) protein synthesis mostly occurs over the first 48 hours from your workout. This means that the majority of muscle growth/repair occurs only in the first 48 hours, post workout. After that period, resting your muscle has minimal mass/strength gain benefit. After 48 hours, your muscle is, in effect, ready to be trained again .

Understanding this allows us to properly conceptualize the debate between bro splits and full-body programs. It’s not really that training your full body in a session has some magical powers, it’s that a full body program allows you to increase each muscles’ training frequency over a given period. In a standard bro split, each major muscle group is trained only 1x/week, but muscle growth only happens for the first 48 hours. In a (standard) full-body program, each major muscle group is trained 3x/week. This means there are 3x the growth periods compared to a bro splits program.

Hold On a Second...
If you’ve been lifting for any reasonable amount of time, your spider senses should be tingling from what I’ve said. Something’s not quite right. Anyone who’s an experienced lifter will tell you that for muscle growth you simply can’t push a muscle group hard enough in just 3-5 sets of a single exercise. To really get that drained, quivering-jello-muscle feeling, you need to work that muscle over at least 3 or 4 different exercises of 3-5 sets each. That is, you need a minimum of 14-18 sets on each muscle group to truly damage it in order to get the gainz you’re after.

What am I getting at? When we compare full-body to bro splits programs, total training volumes will differ. And the research is clear on one thing: Training volume is a primary driver for mass and strength gains. The whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume over what one could do in a full-body program. That’s why bro splits became the gold standard for weightlifting. Let’s look at that more carefully.

Assume a standard bro split program:
Day 1: Chest 16 sets.
Day 2: Legs 16 sets.
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Shoulders 16 sets.
Day 5: Back 16 sets.
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Arms 16 sets.
Compare that to a 3x/week full body program where each body part gets 3-4 sets x 3 times/week (9-12 sets/body part/week).

When we compare the two programs head to head, for each body part, the bro splits program does an additional 4-5 sets of volume each week (assuming we hold reps constant). That’s a big difference. Take chest for example. Even if I’m only benching 150 lbs x 6 times, for 4 sets that’s 3 600 lbs (900 lbs x 4 sets) of volume difference in just one week between the programs. Now add together the volume difference for each body part between programs. That’s a massive difference in total volume between the programs in just one week. Imagine over a year.

No thanks, Mr. Science Man, I’m keeping my bro splits. Keep your stupid "science" away from my precious gainz!

What’s going on here? In a lot of the comparative studies they have to hold training volume constant across the two types of programs. Without this control, volumes are different and there's no way to can point to frequency as being the differentiating variable. Great for controlled science but this doesn’t translate well outside of the lab since the whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume. I’ll bet my last scoop of protein powder that if you compare training volume between any real-world full-body program vs any bro split program, there will be a significant difference in total weekly training volume (favoring bro splits).  If total volume drives gainz, it's bro splits all the way.

Hold on a tick. We started this whole article citing the trend in the literature, across various studies and study designs, that full-body training generates results superior to bro splits. But the studies are a sham. They're comparing apples to oranges. Bro splits have higher volume. If volume drives gainz, how can a lower volume program produce moar gainz than a higher volume program? The meat in my head is getting overtrained with all this!

Resolving the Paradox
Wait! There’s more! There’s another training dogma that’s come under increasing scrutiny: that muscle damage is the mechanism for muscle hypertrophy. Bro splits seek to maximize volume because it is the best way to guarantee maximum muscle damage. The reasoning goes like this:
Moar muscle damage leads to moar bigger muscles. And moar volume leads to moar muscle damage. So, moar total volume leads to moar muscle damage which leads to moar bigger muscle growth. By transitivity, moar volume leads to more bigger muscles. Therefore, bro spliz all the way.
But what if muscle damage isn’t the primary driver of muscle growth? And what if, like everything else in the world, the law of decreasing marginal returns also applies to training volume?

I'm not going to rewrite an already excellent article so I'll summarize. Short term spikes in inflammation (signaled by interleukin 6; IL-6) trigger the metabolic pathway for muscle repair. But long-term/chronic inflammation (also signaled by IL-6) interferes with muscle growth. IL-6 serves a dual role depending on its intensity and duration.

See where we're going with this?

Bro splits lead to long-term inflammation since there is massive muscle damage. But what does this do to the potential for muscle growth? Recall, it undermines it (relative to a short and intense IL-6 signal). What does high frequency training do? It leads to short-term spikes in IL-6 which...(say it with me) activates the muscle-growing metabolic pathways three times a week.

Pair this with what we observed above, that most protein synthesis (muscle-building) usually only occurs over the first 48 hours post work out, and we're on our way to resolving the volume-frequency paradox.

Let's walk through it. The law of decreasing marginal returns tells us that there's some upward bound to the gainz we can make by adding more volume to our workout. At some point, more volume isn't going to translate to moar units of gainz. We can see this by imagining extreme ends of a continuum of volume training. At one end I lift one pound/week. Surely adding one more unit of training volume will lead to a better  rate of gainz. At the other extreme, all I'm doing is lifting weight, from the time I wake up, until the time I go to bed. In fact, I sleep with a 45 lb plate on my chest so that with each breath I exert force x distance. Adding another 45 lb plate on my chest at night (i.e., increasing volume) isn't going to add more units of muscle gain. In fact, adding more volume at this point probably decreases my total gainz and negatively affects rate of gainz.

Somewhere between the two ends of the continuum, there's a point where adding more volume doesn't increase units of muscle gain (i.e., the marginal rate). I'm still making gainz but the amount of gainz/unit of additional volume starts to drop. And somewhere beyond that point, adding volume will actually undermine muscle growth.

Bro splits push us past the point where we make optimal gainz from volume. The additional units of volume in bro splits are actually detrimental to growth rather than beneficial (relative to lower volumes). The kind of inflammation we get undermines optimal growth whereas frequency training gives us the amount of volume much closer to the goldilocks zone--and we get that optimal volume 3x/week.

There's another lesson here. If, after training, you experience short-term soreness and you want to preserve your precious gainz, don't suppress it with anti-inflammatories or anti-oxidants. You're interfering with the muscle-building signal.

EDIT: I just discovered this interview with  Firas Zahabi, George St. Pierre's (GSP) coach, who is widely regarded as one of the best MMA coaches in the world--he also happens to be a philosophy major! I can't recommend watching this interview strongly enough. It summarizes everything in this article

To summarize, two main dogmas of bro science are under serious attack from non-bro science (aka, science): First, contra bro science, full-body training (i.e., high-frequency training) is superior to bro splits for muscle hypertrophy.* Second, contra bro science massive muscle damage and subsequent soreness don't guarantee optimal gainz. The amount of muscle damage and inflammation matters. A third take-away is that for any weightlifting program, experiment with reps, sets, weight, and rest periods to maximize total program volume for your body.

*Note: It may be the case the bodybuilders using steroids will still do better on bro splits because the steroids allow their bodies to recover faster from massive muscle damage. It's also what allows pros to train twice a day. This should not be read as an endorsement of steroid use!

Caveat: Pretty much all of the studies that show superiority of higher frequency training over lower frequency training used cohorts of advanced lifters or athletes. There was little or no difference in the results of studies that used beginners to compare different relative training frequencies. This is probably explained by the fact that beginners will make significant gainz no matter what they do. For advanced athletes, the low hanging gain-fruits have already been plucked. Different training methods will matter more.

Additional Sources Consulted: 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Holy Grail of Teaching: Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work and Grading

This post is directed primarily at teachers but I think students and parents alike can benefit from reading it in order to understand what goes on behind the curtain. I'm going to focus on course design rather than teaching technique, although the two overlap. Designing a course is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging tasks under the sun because it requires balancing a large number of competing objectives. Let me explain.

1. Depth vs Breadth: Every class period you spend going deeper into a sub-topic is one class you take away from the breadth of the course content. And vice versa.

2. Reinforcement vs New Content: Every class you spend reinforcing previous content is a class you don't spend on new content. And vice versa.

3. Predictability vs Flexibility: For some reason, students panic or perceive instructors as disorganized whenever the original syllabus changes. However, different cohorts will find different units interesting (and uninteresting). Ideally, we want to tailor a syllabus to a cohort; that is, if a cohort finds a unit particularly interesting there are good pedagogical reasons to extend the unit. Similarly, if a cohort finds a unit boring, you want to be able to cut it short sometimes. The trade off, however, is that every time you change the syllabus, students panic or perceive you as disorganized . On the flip side, you maintain rigidity at the cost of students not getting additional time on what they enjoy or shortening units they don't enjoy.

4. Assessment and Incentive vs Time Grading: This is a big one. Here's the reality: For a variety of reasons I won't get into--because I'll start ranting like a lunatic--most students have been conditioned to see little if any intrinsic value in doing any school work. This includes doing the readings before class, any kind of written activity, or self-assessment activity. In other words, if it doesn't count towards their grade, most students either won't do it or will do a crappy job of it. However, here's the thing about learning a new skill or new content: It ain't happening without practice and repetition. To quote Aristotle, "We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act but a habit." So, how do we get students to get the practice and repetition they need for learin' to happen?

Easy fix, you say. Just make them do lots of assignments. Problem: students hate what they call "busy work." Students must perceive assignments to be both relevant and worthwhile for them. Instructors must give careful forethought to the content of assignments, how they fit in to course objectives, how they relate to other course material, and how much weight they should be accorded as a percentage of the course grade. When weighting an assignment or task you must consider the direct relationship between weight and student motivation. You must also constantly refer back to your course objectives: What do you want your students to be able to know and do by the end of the semester? This should inform your weighting.

The major trade off with assessments involves grading time. It's all fine and dandy to assign regular homework or assignments but someone has to grade those. And that someone also has to prep classes and probably wants a faction of a life outside of their job. And if that someone is a grad student, they also need to do coursework, work on their dissertation, submit to journals, submit to conferences, attend colloquium talks, attend various committee meetings, etc... You get the point.

Anyhow, in my method described below, I'll explain how to juggle these competing ends in a way that delivers better learning outcomes but with less prep-work and grading than you're probably doing.

Teaching College Kids in the Twenty First Century
Check it. Yo, yo. What's up? Immabout to drop some knowledge on y'all. <----Talk like that a lot.

Outside of the classroom more students than ever are working part-time or even full time. Depending on the source, around 5/6 of students work at least 19 hours/week. When they aren't working, many of them aren't doing school work. And if they are doing school work, many of them are simultaneously texting and watching cat videos.

  • Choice 1: Whine and complain about students "these days." 
  • Choice 2: Only teach to the minority of students who are highly motivated and/or don't have jobs. This may be combined with Choice 1.
  • Choice 3: Accept that you are powerless in the face of broad sociological trends and adapt your teaching/syllabus accordingly such that you are able to reach the average student.
I'm not going to convince you which you ought to choose. Allz imma say is that I chose 3. And immabout to explain what that choice means in practical terms.

Most importantly, it means that with a few exceptions you must make class time for whatever skills or knowledge you want your students to acquire. Lemmi add a few details to that.

There are different levels of knowing which can be sliced and diced various ways. The three broad categories I have in mind when designing my courses and lessons are: (a) Basic comprehension, (b) application, (c) theory-level. There are other ways to conceive of levels and kinds of knowing--this is simply how I do it. Let's look briefly at what each means.

Basic Comprehension: A student has basic comprehension of a concept or argument if they can reproduce it. For example, they demonstrate basic comprehension when they can answer questions like: What does happiness mean for Aristotle? What does Locke think the purpose of government is? How does MLK distinguish between laws we should follow and those which we may permissibly break? Answering these questions doesn't require deep understanding but it demonstrates basic (superficial) knowledge of course content and themes. There is an even lower level of understanding which is recognition. This kind of "knowledge" is tested on multiple choice tests. The student needn't be able to recall or express the information on their own--only recognize it when presented to them. Pick the level you want your students to achieve and build in-class activities that bring them to this level. Basic comprehension is rarely the final goal; however, it's a necessary rung on the ladder to the other levels.

Application: The next level of understanding requires that students be able to apply new concepts, arguments, or skills to novel cases. For example, I might present students with a famous literary or movie character and ask them to evaluate whether Aristotle would call this person happy. Or I might ask them to evaluate whether Locke would consider a certain political revolution or law to be justified. Or I could present them with a particular law and ask them whether MLK would recommend we follow or ignore the law. In all cases I'd require them to justify their answers by appealing to the original author, otherwise there's no way to distinguish between lucky guesses and understanding.

Theory-Level: At the level of theory students begin to understand the various theoretical trade-offs and implications of different views. They compare theory to theory and draw logical implications of theories. This is requires a very high level of understanding and can only be reached after the first two have been firmly established. I find the best way to develop this level of knowledge is to get students to 'toggle' back and forth between theoretical frameworks. For example, I might present a case and ask them how different theories would appraise it. Then I'd ask them to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of the differing appraisals. (More on this below)

Whatever level(s) I want my students to attain, I must create in-class activities that foster those levels of development. Why? Because, if you accepted Choice 3 above, students are not going to do it (well) outside of the classroom. Now, you can go back to Choice 1 and whine and complain that they should. But guess what?

They. Aren't.

So you decide. Given that most students--culpably or not--are not going to engage in deep learning outside of the classroom, what level of learning do you want them to possess by the end of the semester? Pick it and stick it into your syllabus; that is, set aside class time for developing that level of knowledge.

The Bottom Line: The days of lecturing then sending students home with readings, exercises, and assignments is over. A student taking a full-load and working full time doesn't have time or make time to put in the deep concentration required for deep knowledge acquisition. Knowledge acquisition (all levels) must now be deliberately built into classroom activities otherwise it won't happen for most students. Stop whining and accept the new world order. Thanks, Obama.

The Basics
To repeat so far: All good courses begin with a firm understanding of the course objectives. You need to decide BEFORE designing the rest of your course what the students ought to be able to do and know, and the level at which they know it. This will help mitigate (but not entirely eliminate) some of the above competing trade offs you have to make. For example, if I want them to acquire a particular skill, then I have to build doing that into the syllabus. This means I'm going to reduce some of the content in order to make time for skill acquisition. To explain a bit more about how course objectives help 'set' your syllabus, I'll begin by describing common pitfalls.

On the first day of class, you read through the course syllabus, skimming over the course objectives/learning outcomes section. Or maybe you even spend a little time explaining each. What happens next? With the exception of the first week, for the rest of the semester you never mention them. Then, you are shocked! shocked! I tell you! when at the end of the semester you students fail to meet these outcomes.

Rule #1: Build in and reinforce your chosen learning outcomes. As I've said, one of my course objectives is for students to be able to interpret and argue from various competing positions. That is, I want them to learn how to see an issue through eyes that are not their own and to formulate arguments from that perspective. How to do this?

First, in each lecture, anytime an issue or case is presented, I ask the class to tell me what previous authors would have said. Then I ask them how another author would respond. This can be done through group work, take-home assignments, or soliciting volunteers. It's also important to model the skill yourself so students have template. The point is, anytime a situation arises where a course objective can be realized/practiced, we do it.

But here's what usually happens. Teachers fixate on getting through the material. "I can't stop anytime students have a chance to occupy different points of view, I'll never get through the material." This is what I mean by designing your course from the objectives.  If a core objective is for students to be able to argue from competing perspectives then opportunities to do this shouldn't be interfering with a well-designed syllabus. The syllabus should be built to allow students to practice exactly this thing!!!111!!!--not just to bulldoze through a set of readings. The fact that the pace of readings "interferes" with your course objectives should tell you to go back a revise the syllabus. Begin with objectives then decide on number of readings.

Build your objectives into the assignments and classwork. You can't just tell students "here are your objectives for the course" then magically expect them to achieve them. Where on God's green earth did someone ever acquire a new worthwhile skill without close supervision, repetition, guidance, practice, and critical feedback? It takes a lot to acquire a new cognitive skill. You are teaching someone to think differently. That means you're fundamentally changing the way their brain operates. This does not happen overnight and it certainly doesn't happen by accident.

All ranting aside: You must build time into your syllabus for your students to practice and develop the course objectives. Like I said, it does not magically happen. So, if you want students to be able to reconstruct arguments, you must build class time into your syllabus to do this. Also, the fact that you build it into class time in sends a message to students that it's important--it's not just an afterthought. In the next section, I'll give more concrete suggestions on how to do this and explain why it needs to be part of class time.

Rule #2: One of the wisest things I've ever heard comes from Paul Woodruff. In his excellent book, The Ajax Dilemma, he says "If you want to know what an organization values, look at what it rewards." Most students will only do what they are rewarded for and they will do it in proportion to the size of the reward. So, reward them (i.e., give them points) for the things you want them to do and how much you want them to do it. Want them to do the readings before class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to show up to class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to improve their writing? Reward the improvement not just the writing (more on this below). If you don't reward something, from the point of view of students, it's just "busy work." Reward the things you value for your course (which should be the course objectives).

Yeah, I know students are supposed to be intrinsically motivated by the beauty of knowledge and all that nice stuff. But if we want to reach as many students as possible we need to be a bit Machiavellian or Pavlovian--pick your metaphor--in our approach. Below I will give you specific ways that I have found to be successful in rewarding the various outcomes I seek.

The Holy Grail Method: How to Get Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work
Where I teach, most classes meet 3 times a week for 50 minutes. If you teach a course that meets twice a week, you can modify my method by making every 3rd or 4th meeting the activity day.

  1. Mondays and Wednesdays are new content (i.e., lecture).
  2. Fridays are reinforcement, application, and critical appraisal.
  3.  5 minute, 5 question multiple choice auto-graded online quizzes at the beginning of each lecture class.
  4. Quizzes should involve the core elements of the reading. Lectures should answer the questions on the quiz.
  5. Fridays are in-class group work.
  • Each activity sheet contains three main sections: Basic comprehension, application to novel cases, theory-level questions. Ideally, the sections are related.
  • For all exams, questions are selected exclusively from the Friday work-sheets. This incentivizes effort and care in doing them.
  • Only grade 3 or 4 questions selected at random (same for all groups) for the assignment's grade. This reduces grading time but ensures members work collectively and check each other's work.
  • Reading Quizzes: 25% of final grade. (lowest 3 scores are dropped)
  • In-class group assignments: 25% of final grade.
  • Midterm: 15% of final grade
  • Short paper: 15% of final grade
  • Final paper: 20% of final grade (2x10% each peer editing sheet; 20% responsiveness to peer reviewers; 60% the final version of the paper).
Getting your Students to Read: Any way you slice it, part of a good education at any level should improve reading skills. And how do we get better at anything? We do that thing, and we do it at a level slightly beyond our existing level. The? A? problem is many students nowadays don't read. [Shakes fist in the air]. How do we get them to read? Well, what gets rewarded gets done.

At the beginning of each class for which there is an assigned reading, give an online (i.e., auto-grading) 5-question multiple choice quiz. Make the quiz password protected (Canvas and Blackboard have this feature). Put the password up on the board when you enter the classroom. Doing this also solves attendance problems since you can only do it in class. You don't need to take attendance because students will show up if there are points at stake. Boom goes the dynamite.

Aside: I drop the 3 lowest scores. This allows me to avoid dealing with determining the legitimacy of absences. You get 3 free low scores. I don't care if you slept in or went to the doctor. You get three. That should cover life. Don't make me play detective.

Selecting Readings and Reading Length: Readings should be no more than about 7 pages or 3 arguments. Think about what you can cover in a class period. Can you cover more than 3 core arguments? My experience is, no. Not with any depth or discussion. So, why assign what can't be adequately covered?

Also, if the reading is longer than 7 pages, students won't read it. Remember they have 4 other classes. If every class assigns 7 pages per class that's 50 pages of reading for each class meeting. That's 150 pages per week if instructors only do lectures and no activities. That's just not going to happen. Don't set your students up for failure. I try to assign about 5 pages if it's dense and 7 if it's from a non-academic source.

Benefits to you: There's a happy upside to this. You only have to prep for 5 pages twice a week rather than for a chapter three times a week. You're welcome.

How to Design your Quiz: 
The quiz should not be difficult. Basically, you want it so that the average student will get 3/5 or 4/5 if they read the article. We're not trying to trick the students here. We're only giving them a small reward to do the reading. We are telling them, "I value you reading this article. Here's a cookie for doing it."

Question 1 should always be: "What is the main point the author of the article is trying to convince us of?" The other questions should involve core sub-arguments or sub-conclusions. Stuff like,
The author gives 3 reasons in support of X. Which of the following is not one of the reasons.
You can also do some obvious application questions: E.g., "What would the author say about the following case:[...]"

The point is that we need to reward them for the things we want them to do. We want them to read, so we reward reading. If they read the article, the quiz should be fairly easy.

Variation: Marcus Schultz-Bergin has a nice variation. Students are allowed to have notes open for the quizzes. This incentivizes them to be active readers and take notes while doing the readings. I'm contemplating using this myself.

Getting Students To Pay More Attention in Lecture.
Set the online quiz so that when they get a question wrong, the correct answer isn't revealed and build your lecture around the quiz questions. (And obviously ban cell phones once they've taken the quiz)
Most students will have gotten at least one question wrong on the quiz. They want to know what the right answer is. So, build your lecture (in part) around the questions on the quiz. If you built the quiz out of the key arguments and points, this should be fairly simple to do. Now, your students are looking for particular information throughout the lecture.

I know what you're thinking. But why should they care about learning the right answer if they've already lost the points for it on the quiz? Let me explain:

Quiz Redo: At the end of the week, students have the option of retaking their quizzes. The score of the first attempt and second attempt are averaged. This way, they're still penalized if they didn't do the reading the first time around but are incentivized because they can still improve. Also, the more poorly they did the first time around, the more incentive there is for them to listen and take notes during lecture. They are rewarded for paying attention and improving. Message to students: I value you improving and learning--See! Here's a cookie for doing it. Motivation problem solved. Learning is happening.

Details: Redo quizzes are open from Friday after class until Saturday evening. I don't allow the redo immediately after the first attempt because I want them to have to go back to their notes. This will better reinforce the information. I don't extend the redo time to Sunday because I don't want the quiz -taking to interfere with them doing the reading due Monday. Boom.

Activity Fridays
Imagine a world where you're told to read an article then you receive a lecture on it, never to hear about it again until six weeks later when you're asked to explain some ideas in that article from memory. Add to this that you have to do this for six weeks of other readings in five other classes. Gee, I wonder why students don't do well on exams. Then, a few months later at the end of the semester you're asked to write a paper that incorporates many of the ideas from the entire course. Your teacher is shocked and dismayed when you can't do this.

What do we want our students to do? Learn the content. Learn to apply the content. Learn the theoretical implications and trade-offs of the content. When in the above process did they do this? Answer: Nowhere.

Let's fix it.

Every Friday (or every 3rd period--you choose) I have students do activity sheets. The sheets are divided into three sections. As you might have surmised, the sections are: Basic content questions, application questions, and theory-level questions. Most groups create a group google-doc. The assignments are short enough that the average group should be able to do 80% of it in class and the fastest group should finish in class. However, it isn't due until the day after the next lecture (i.e., Tuesday at 5pm in my case). This way there's ample opportunity to polish. And--let's be honest--I ain't grading it until the following weekend anyway.

Fact: Most group-work is a dismal failure if it's assigned for outside class time. This has remedies but they're fairly involved so I'll set them aside. Besides, the purpose of the weekly group activities is fairly circumscribed so having them do most of it in-class works best. Also, I'm there to give immediate feedback and assistance if they're struggling or just need confirmation.

Here's a problem of group work that arises regardless of whether it's in or out of class: Some members do better work than others. If members are graded as a group, the students who did better work get penalized by the bad work. This is compounded by another problem: Students usually parcel out work for group work, so no one learns the content from questions they didn't do.

Solution: Tell the students, "I will pick 3 (or 4) questions at random to grade. Your score on those questions determines the group's grade on the assignment." Now, rather than each student working on their own questions and failing to learn/reinforce the content of the other questions, students have an incentive to at least work in pairs and check each other's work. [Previously I graded the entire assignment but I'm going to switch to this method]. Because they don't know which questions I'm going to grade, students are motivated to do well on all the questions and check each others work.

Benefit to YOU: Not only do you avoid grading a bunch of individual assignments but you also don't have to grade all of each group assignment. Onerous grading averted. You're welcome.

How to Get Students to Perform Better on Exams
Ok, I've just explained how we achieve and reinforce the various levels of learning. What about this exam stuff? The midterm exam will be composed exclusively of questions from group-work assignments. Now they have yet another incentive to carefully answer the questions.

Benefits To You: You don't have to come up with all-new midterm questions. Just select from the ones you already have on the sheets. Besides, everything you want them to be able to know and do should be on those sheets.

But here's the biggest benefit. In the old school method you had to prepare 3 lectures a week. That's a pretty big time suck especially if it's a class you haven't taught before. Now you're only prepping 2 lectures a week. You just cut prep time by 1/3 over the course of a semester.

I know what you're probably thinking. "Well, yeah, it's one less lecture but I still have to make the activity sheet." Yes and no. You do have to make it BUT you build the activity sheet as you're making each lecture--not on a separate occasion. So, on Sunday night as I'm making my Monday lecture, I'm also writing down questions I want the students to internalize based on the lecture I'm going to give!  For example, if in my lecture I'm covering Aristotle's definition of happiness then I go into the activity sheet and guess what question I write? [Whisper: Explain Aristotle's definition of happiness]. Then in the application section I'll present a case and ask whether Aristotle would consider such and such a person to be happy. Next comes theory...I might ask them to contrast or defend Aristotle's view against a hedonist view we covered earlier in the course. I repeat this process for Wednesday's lecture.

When Friday comes around, the activity sheet is already complete because I made it Sunday and Tuesday night as I was building my lectures. Now instead of making yet another lecture and grinding yourself into exhaustion, you can drink yourself into a stupor or do whatever it is you like to do on your nights off. You're welcome.

More on Exams
I think of exams as a test of my teaching, not of my students' learning. If I structured the course well, lectured clearly, allowed them to interact with the content sufficiently and in various ways, gave the right incentives, gave them a reason to care about the content, then the majority of my students should do well. If they didn't do well then I need to change some things. If I've done my job, the class average should be a B.

If that sounds high consider what's happened in the course leading up to the midterm:
  • They've actually read the material, 
  • They've gotten feedback on how well they initially understood the material (i.e., the first quiz),
  • They've had a lecture on the material where any misunderstandings can be clarified,
  • They've worked collaboratively with others to ensure that they can comprehend the content, apply it, and understand the relative theoretical implications and trade-offs,
  • They've had an opportunity to improve on their previous quiz and are rewarded for it; i.e., via the redo quiz they reread their notes and group assignment answers and they get more feedback on how well they understand it.
  • They get feedback on their group work.
  • They get a review session where they can clarify any uncertainties. (i.e., they interact with the content for the SEVENTH time.)
  • They study the assignment sheets in preparation for the exam (that's EIGHT times).
  • They take the exam.
Again, if I did my job right, a student would have to make a concerted effort to get anything below a B. They would have to willfully ignore everything that's happened in and out of class. (Yes, there are such students but they are a small minority.)

Here I have given you the blueprint for student success without overburdening yourself with grading and class-prep time.

My Studints Dont Rite Good and Reading There Riting Makes me Want to Stab my Eyeballs with Hot Needles

I'll elaborate more in a future post but here are the basics:

After the midterm I assign and grade a short paper (3 pages) with extensive feedback. This gives students a feel for how I grade and what I'm looking for (and of course I've also told them this when I assigned the paper). For all other papers there is peer editing (I only assign one more longer one). For their term paper I give them about 10 days to write the best paper they can. It's due 10 days to two weeks before the final version is due. I emphasize that it must be what they consider to be a finished version--not something thrown together the night before. I have them bring two printed copies and we do an in-class peer editing session.

Each student must edit 2 papers (meaning each paper is edited by two students). We do it on a Friday. Half of the time is allotted for each paper and what isn't finished is due on Monday in class. I've created a fairly extensive peer editing sheet. It should take around an hour for each paper. Their peer editing is worth 20% of their final paper grade (10% for each one) AND 20% of their final paper grade is how well they respond to each peer reviewer. Since they have motivation to edit each other well AND respond to the suggestions, the results have been great. What gets rewarded gets done. You can't tell them to invest a lot of time and effort into doing a peer edit then not count it for anything. Similarly, we can't expect them to respond to peer editing if there's no value in it for them. "I think it's valuable to respond to your peer editors. See! Here's a cookie for doing it."

Again, we want student to get better at writing. But you can't get better at anything unless you have a chance to learn from and correct your mistakes. If you simply ask students to turn in a paper at the end of the semester, when did they get to learn how to write better? Where was the opportunity for improvement? Most students just look at the final grade on their paper and that's as far as it goes. Responding to peer editing and rewarding it provides the opportunity to improve, and that's what we should be aiming for.

Also, as most of us know, weaknesses in own reasoning and writing are often invisible to ourselves--otherwise we wouldn't have made them public in the first place! Peer review allows us to recognize our own errors and weaknesses in the work of others. When we come back to our own work, we are better able see the once-invisible problems. Through peer editing we become better writers because we learn to edit ourselves.

If you'd like, here's a copy of my peer editing sheet to use or modify.

An Objection
I want to address just one of many possible to criticisms of my method. By using carrots and sticks I'm not teaching them the intrinsic value of reading, learning, knowledge, writing, etc... I'm only reinforcing what they've long been taught: That education and learning are primarily valued for extrinsic reasons.

This is where YOU come. The passion you bring to the classroom, the ways in which you tie the content to their lives and concerns, the encouragement you give, and the readings you select will all contribute to this end. Not all material speaks for itself for everyone.

I think it's unrealistic to think that most students will be purely intrinsically motivated from the start--especially if the course isn't an elective for them. But there's no reason why we can't have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Some might only respond to the extrinsic motives. Fine. But my experience has been that if we can just get them to do the reading, students will start to appreciate the intrinsic value of the content. If I need to use extrinsic motives to get there, so be it.

This is not to say there aren't legitimate worries of extrinsic motives for education crowding out or corrupting the intrinsic ones (See: Michael Sandel). Maybe I'm just being pragmatic. Wait. No. I'm not. I'm also an idealist. I really do believe that if I can just get a little bit of engagement, most students will come to see the intrinsic value too. Anyone in this line of work has to believe that what they're teaching has intrinsic value. Also, it's possible that students do sometimes see the intrinsic value of a class but for pragmatic reasons, they don't do the work. They've got a life and concerns outside of school, just like us.

We must fight fire with fire--or pragmatism with pragmatism. If it's pragmatic reasons (e.g., a part-time job) that prevent a student from acting on what they perceive as the intrinsic worth of doing a reading or thinking about their paper then I'm going to give them pragmatic reasons to counter those obstructing pragmatic reasons: "Federalist #10 is one of the greatest American political documents you'll ever read. It'll change how you think about democracy and about your government."

Still not enough to get you to read it? Ok.

"Here's a cookie for reading it."

Hey, teach! This is good shit!