teaching and other human behavior

I'm going through old emails a bit during the break -- though we are also working a lot, more on that later -- but given that we commute less we have more time and anyway it's the time of year to do it. Well, anyway, I ran into an email from my highschool English teacher Sally Berg. I'm quite sure I never would have gotten into Chicago without her since my grades weren't that great, though maybe the National Merit thing would have carried me anyway. But the point is, she taught me how to actually write essays, at least she taught me more than any one other teacher.

Glenbard North had a system whereby everyone took the basic English course in the first term, then if they got an A in that they were permitted to register for the honors courses. I guess it was a way to deal with the variety of feeder middle schools GN got, but it was nice because it was a way to prove yourself rather than just feeling "tracked" since middle school. My first-term teacher actually came up to me and said, "Joanna, I'm giving you an A, so you can take honors courses if you want to, and you probably should. But I want you to know that if you do you will never get another A in English because your spelling is so bad." As didn't matter to me and interesting courses did so I took honors and I always got Bs, until third year. Then Mrs. Berg gave a lot of us Cs our first quarter because our writing style was so bad. We were all shocked, but at least we had a gradient to follow and I think I got As the remaining two or three of the remaining quarters with her, and I learned to write. I still couldn't spell, but neither could she. It turns out she'd trained as a math teacher, but got bored of it so retrained to teach English.

I was really lucky to have someone who cared about writing. It was a big school so other people got other teachers for honors. My year also had a bunch of totally type-A parents (maybe how they all are now) who complained about their kids getting a C even for one quarter as it damaged their chances at a good college, so she wasn't given honors again so she retired early. I wonder how that affected the number of kids that got into good universities after I left?

The idea of "good universities" is considered classist and "anti-meritocratic" by a lot of Europeans -- you should have the same chance whatever university you happened to go to. I find this bizarre because you don't "happen" to go to a university, you choose one. Your education depends on your university and the courses and teachers you take within it, so you better choose carefully and get into the best place you can. Forcing universities to all be the same is forcing students to all be the same, which is forcing them all to be average, which for half of them is beyond their abilities and the other is a waste of their talents and inclinations.

Well, anyway, today I have a deadline for talks for the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association Conference. Two of my students are submitting talks and I will probably too. They are on:
  • Fission / fusion social organization (which humans share with chimpanzees) -- we have help from Julia Lehmann on this one which is great, she's fantastic and I'm learning a lot (hopefully the student is too! He's a brilliant undergraduate.)
  • The Baldwin Effect -- how learning impacts evolution. This is by my new PhD student Marios.
  • Social dominance, selection and variation -- this one is just me. The idea is that male dominance ranks (in monkeys) signal fitness, but most of that signal is ignored except at the highest ranks. Females also seem to like to have a mix of offspring, some from the very fittest, but some from, well, anyone. There's some cool new data from fruit flies (sorry Sarah Palin) showing information on the proportion of risk vs. sure thing you should get from your offspring, so I'm trying to apply that into understanding primate mating patterns. Hmmm...
After that is done I am trying to get a journal article in by Monday to a special issue on Humanoid AI.

Happy New Year! I will probably try to phone Rebecca for her birthday tonight or tomorrow.


Tom Bryson said…
Sorry we missed your call. One of the things I wanted to tell you about is Scientific American Jan 2009 issue on Evolution; http://www.sciam.com/sciammag/.

We hope you are off to a freat new year.