Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Class On Stupid

Is it me? Or is this just plain ... dumb?

Students at Occidental College can now take a class that's genuinely daft. Critical Theory and Social Justice 180 is titled, simply, "Stupidity."

It's hard to decide which is most stupid: the very notion of a major institute of higher learning offering a (way too) serious course on stupidity, the course description (a truly masterful example of vacuous academic jargon), or the kind of dazed and confused cultural context that could give rise so such things in the first place (tellingly, "United States" is listed as the core course requirement this class fulfills).

The decussate levels of irony here are so numerous and humorous it's hard to know where or how to begin comment on them.

From the Occidental College catalog:


Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.

That's the actual course description.

Click here to see for yourself.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How Much College Debt Is Too Much?

As tuition increases make higher education harder and harder for average American families to afford, more and more are now forced to consider "mortgaging the farm" to get kids through college.

The average college grad leaves school with $20,000 debt collar wrapped around his or her diploma, and while this is not a catastrophic sum, the question of where to draw the line concerning college debt is certainly an important one for students and parents to consider, especially during uncertain economic times.

An interesting and informative article by Kim Clark in U.S. News and World Report discusses the details:

One third of all new bachelor's degree recipients in June of 2008 started their working lives without owing a penny in federal or private educational debt. Only 10 percent of last year's graduates owed more than $40,000, according to the lead author of the report, College Board researcher Patricia Steele. (She did not count credit card debt or other noneducational liabilities such as car loans.)

The median borrower graduated last year owing almost $19,999, a $1,026 increase from the typical debt load of 2004 graduates. "Most people would say that is a reasonable amount of debt to take on for a baccalaureate degree," especially if students stick with federal loans, which now allow borrowers to adjust their payments to their income, Steele says.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent Bloomberg interview that unless colleges whose tuition schedules are "out of whack with reality" manage to reign in the cost of education they could soon find themselves pricing themselves into irrelevance as consumers turn increasingly to "no-frill" institutions offering less expensive three-year degree programs and other cost-cutting measures.

With real family incomes in retreat, and textbook prices going through the roof, even budget-conscious students at low-cost community colleges are often finding it difficult to make ends meet without taking on sometimes oppressive levels of educational debt.

For those about to face the prospect of taking out substantial student loans, this short piece by Associated Press outlines important things to keep in mind.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Math as Art (Part 2)

In an earlier post on this subject (click here), I wrote briefly about the pioneering work of Michael Trott, who as "the worlds most advanced Mathematica user" has brought together like few others the realms of visual art and mathematics. Today's post contains a few selected links intended as starting points to ignite and inspire your curiosity and act as further impetus for your own look into the alluring world of mathematical art.


The tantalizing Wolfram Research Graphics Gallery is the best place I know of to begin enjoying and appreciating the wonders of numbers in visual form:


Another interesting point of embarkation is the following page highlighting works of mathematical art exhibited at recent major conferences:


The following "Pythagorean Tree" generators are simple ways to create mathematical art of your own:;


Fractals are fascinating, relatively recent products of mathematical research famous for the alluring beauty and entrancing effect of their images. The internet abounds with sites devoted to the study of fractals (a simple google search will yield upward of 8 million hits!).

Here are a few to get you started:;;;


Long Island University mathematics professor Anne Burns has published a "Gallery of Mathscapes" showing some of her works as a mathematical artist:


The National Science Foundation has a superb, highly accessible general mathematics site suited for lay people with more advanced interest in the subject (highlighting recent mathematical news, research, discoveries, etc.)


Last, but absolutely not least, is the Wolfram Functions Site. Containing "the worlds largest collection of formulas and graphics about mathematical functions," a visit here is not for the faint of heart, but for math fans who just have to "have it all:"


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Wordle Word Graphs

Once in a while a simple yet brilliant and beautiful idea comes to life online and reminds us that computer technology wasn't invented just to drain our free time, create dependence and then frustration when these vital tools fail to work, and give us another excuse to avoid personal contact with other human beings.

Wordle is one of those ideas. Take a famous speech, a letter to a friend, a junk email message, or any piece of textual information and Wordle can turn it into a thing of beauty and usefulness, marrying form and function to delight the senses and divulge hidden meanings in color, word, and shape.

Think of Wordle as a cross between painting, language, and math that enables anyone armed with a piece of text to engage creatively in all of these activities at the same time.

Wordle takes your text, analyzes which words are used and how often they appear, and creates a verbal montage that shows, based on the size of the words appearing in the wordle, the relative frequency of the particular words comprising that text. By showing graphically the popularity of words contained in a given piece of writing, Wordle reveals with striking clarity those ideas and themes given the most emphasis by the work's author. One gets the distinct feeling that wordles even somehow manages to expose the author's true intentions, giving viewers the opportunity to spy on the writer's unconscious mental processes and discover his or her latent motivations.

Here's a wordle I created out of Barack Obama's victory speech on election night, 11/4/2009:

Users can customize their creations by changing fonts, color schemes, layout, orientation, etc. to form endless variations of the same wordle. There's even a "Randomize" button to generate random versions!

Finally, you can publish your best wordles for the world to see in the Wordle Gallery.

And Wordle costs ... absolutely nothing!

Not only that, but users are completely free (with proper attribution) to use wordles they create in any way and for any personal or commercial purpose they like, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License that governs images created by Wordle.

Try it out yourself! Click here to go to the Wordle site, and start making your own wordles for fun, learning, or profit.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Tech Tools Fight Online Idea Theft

The internet has delivered the world's libraries into the palms of our hands. It's also made plagiarism as easy as copy and paste.

Stealing ideas, phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs or larger sections from online sources is the simplest thing in the world to do and for many students has become a tempting way out from under the stress and pressure of heavy academic workloads. Understandable as the underlying motivation may sometimes be, plagiarism, the use of another's ideas or written expressions without attribution, is a high academic crime, a form of cheating.

In recent years, however, espial software that combs the contents of academic papers for exact online matches have been developed that makes it more difficult for students to successfully take credit for the work of others.

An interesting and informative piece by Christina Stolarz in The Detroit News goes into further detail:

To combat the problem, thousands of high schools in more than 80 countries have bought memberships from a plagiarism detection service — online software called Turnitin — in the past year to check whether their students are stealing sentences, and even entire paragraphs, from the Internet.

On average, Turnitin reviews more than 10,000 student papers nationally each day, of which 30 percent contain a significant amount of plagiarism, according to company statistics. Turnitin is used in some prestigious institutions, including the United States Military Academy at West Point and Rutgers University, but it is just one in a handful of online plagiarism detection services.

To read the article in its entirely, click here.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Recommended Test Prep Schedules

Achieving outstanding results on standardized tests like the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, PSAT, SSAT, and HSPT is rarely an accident!

Many devoted hours and much hard work are generally required to maximize the probability of success on these important exams. Because of the importance of the outcome and the significant expenditure of time, energy, and money that's typically involved, careful planning is essential.

Long-term preparation in advance of test day will almost always yield the best result ... but isn't always possible or practical. Alternatively, medium-term or even short-term prep can often be extremely effective in optimizing standardized test scores.

Here are the specific schedules I recommend as guides for you to follow in organizing your test prep plans in advance of the most popular test dates for each test (preparation schedules for dates not listed can be extrapolated from those given below).


May SAT:

Begin long-term prep the preceding June, medium-term prep in October, and short-term prep in February.


November SAT:

Begin long-term prep the preceding December, medium-term prep in April, and short-term prep in August.


June SAT Subject Tests

Begin long-term prep the preceding November, medium-term prep in February, and short-term prep in April.


April ACT

Begin long-term prep the preceding September, medium-term prep in December, and short-term prep in February.


October PSAT

Begin long-term prep the preceding March, medium-term prep in June, and short-term prep in August.


November SSAT

Begin long-term prep the preceding April, medium-term prep in July, and short-term prep in September.


December HSPT

Begin long-term prep the preceding May, medium-term prep in August, and short-term prep in October.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Front And Center

When teachers don’t assign seating but rather allow students to take their own seats in class, where is the best place to sit?

The answer is clear and simple: the front row, center seat!

Students who sit in front near the center see better, hear better, are better seen and heard by the teacher, are less distracted, and generally have a more focused, higher quality academic experience than those sitting in the back rows. Furthermore, teachers automatically give extra notice and respect to those students interested enough in what they are teaching to choose to sit up front day after day. Students who sit in front generally care more about the class they’re in (or soon begin to), and this extra measure of commitment adds to all the other benefits to produce a real and distinct advantage for these students.

Although sitting in the back of the room may be more fun, socially, it’s the worst place to be if your main goal is to succeed in school.

A lot more extraneous talking goes on in back of the room. It’s a lot easier to be distracted. It’s harder for the teacher to see your hand raised to ask an important question. You can’t see or hear as well. It’s harder to “get into” and feel interest in the class. And, unconsciously, by sitting in the back of the room you’re telling yourself and your teacher that you don’t care much about this particular course, that you’re not really “going for it.”

Make an effort to sit in one of the front rows (the very front row, if possible), at or near the center, in every session of every class in which you can choose your own seat.

It makes a big difference!


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

You Think YOUR Teachers Are Mean

In many parts of the world today, as was the case in America until just a few short decades ago, students are routinely subjected to terribly abusive treatment from their teachers. The severe humiliation suffered recently by a student in China drove her to suicide, and recently forced the Chinese government to consider enacting laws to forbid abusive punishment in the classroom.

My wife, Komang, was raised in Indonesia, and has recounted to me several similarly sad stories from her own first hand experience, including being forced to stand outside and look at the sun, because she gave an incorrect answer in class.

Certainly, no teacher has the right to abuse or humiliate students in his or her charge. Fear and pain are NOT the best ways to motivate students to learn, to say the least.

Neither do students have the right to disobey or threaten their teachers, who must be able to enforce authority and discipline in their classrooms through common sense means such as reseating, docking grades, or expulsion from class.

Abuse, humiliation, cruelty, and violence are features of a sick, dysfunctional culture. Thankfully, we may finally be seeing significant changes occurring throughout much of the world that make such abusive behavior unacceptable and punishable by law.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Top 10 SAT Essay Tips

Examine the sample essays in any SAT test prep book, including the College Board’s own publications, and you’ll find, despite all the hot air to the contrary, that the single factor most obviously correlated to high SAT essay scores is ... LENGTH!

It’s a fact: all else being equal, long essays get much higher scores than short essays.

Of course, it helps to be an award-winning writer who can pen a remarkably solid, insightful, and moving essay in his sleep ... but honestly, how many high school students (or award-winning writers, for that matter) can be counted on to produce such a work in the short 25 minute period allowed for the essay on the SAT1?

Remember, above all ... it’s about LENGTH!


Top 10 SAT essay tips:

1. You simply MUST write a long essay, if you expect to earn a high score. How long is long? More than one and a half pages of the two pages provided to you on which to write and submit your essay (ideally, you’d finish within a few lines of the very end of the last page).

2. In addition, your essay needs to be properly structured. That is, it must have 4-5 distinct paragraphs: an introduction, 2-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. A representative of the Princeton Review told me that SAT essays are initially scanned by computer to see how many lines are written on (again, it’s about length) and how may paragraphs there are (i.e. how many indented lines there are); essays that are too short or unstructured (i.e. not enough paragraphs) are assigned low scores (1-3) by a computer, and not even read by a real human being!

3. Therefore, you should "super indent" each paragraph. If your paragraphs are not well indented, the computer scanning your essay may not realize when you’re beginning a new paragraph, and assign a low score to your essay because it appeared to lack the required 4-5 paragraph structure. You do NOT want that to happen. So, make SURE the machine will recognize each of your paragraphs by using super-sized indents. I recommend using a huge two-inch indent (at least one full thumb-length) on the first line of each paragraph, just to be absolutely sure (this also adds a little bit to the overall length of your essay).

4. Spend the first two to three minutes writing a very short outline for your essay, in which you answer the following two questions: 1. WHAT do I believe (your thesis), and 2. WHY do I believe it (convincing examples that prove your point, ordered so that the best example comes last and the second best coming first).

5. Then, write furiously for about 20 minutes, sticking to your outline, and be SURE to finish writing your conclusion before time is up (so you'll have at least some time left over to quickly proofread your essay). Time is very short – you really do have to hurry – and any essay submitted without a conclusion will not (of course) be given a high score.

6. Finally, take two to three minutes to proofread your essay, making simple corrections and edits, improving overall neatness and appearance, etc.

7. Write legibly, keeping your left margins neatly aligned. SAT essay readers have hundreds of essays to read in a single day. This means that your essay will not be carefully read, and the overall "impression" it leaves after a single reading is extremely important. You do NOT want to make someone who's reading her 258th essay that day have to deal with sloppy margins or work really hard just to decipher your handwriting!

8. In each body paragraph, make your point clearly and succinctly in the topic sentence that introduces it. Each topic sentences should essentially be a customized restatement of the essay's thesis (which should be clearly and unambiguously stated in the introductory paragraph) written in terms of the particular supporting example forming the basis of that body paragraph. Then, in the rest of the paragraph, your job is to elaborate on the topic sentence, showing clearly and simply how this particular example supports the thesis of your essay.

9. The conclusion, which should be the shortest paragraph in your SAT essay, restates the thesis in completely different words, offers a final comment or two, and ends with a thoughtful or uplifting “kicker” line.

10. Perfectionist? Not today. You simply don't have time to write a really excellent, polished essay. Do NOT expect to produce your best work here! Don't get bogged down. Just complete the essay in the allotted time (you MUST get to the conclusion before time is up; essays submitted without a conclusion will get a low score), do a decent job, and read over the entire essay to catch and correct any obvious mistakes. Remember ... on SAT essays, quantity is FAR more important than quality (although, naturally, it’s best to have both). This fact stands in stark contrast to the essays assigned by your teachers – which WILL be carefully read, for which you’re given days or weeks to do the necessary thinking, writing, and polishing, and in which quality is always more important than quantity.

A final word of advice:


Unless you are well accustomed to this kind of lightning-fast writing, you will almost certainly not finish on time the first time you write an SAT essay. You certainly don’t want your first attempt to be the one that gets scored! It is absolutely essential that you practice writing SAT essays, incorporating all 10 tips listed above, until you are quite comfortable doing so in under 25 minutes. Get essay prompts for practice essays from the internet (google “SAT essay prompts”), or take them from published SAT workbooks.



In a March 4, 2005 article in the New York Times, M.I.T. testing specialist and director of undergraduate writing Dr. Les Perelman discussed the striking positive correlation between length and scores on SAT essays, and came to the same conclusion – that, basically, it's all about length and structure, not content or quality. In fact, Dr. Perelman was able, with 90% accuracy, to immediately guess the score given to an SAT essay with just a quick glance at its length and shape (i.e. structure). The article also mentions that SAT essay graders are instructed not to lower an essay score due to the inclusion of factual errors. Apparently, citing blatantly incorrect facts such as "the beginning of the World War I in 1903," or "The Road Less Traveled by poet T.S. Elliot" does nothing to diminish one's score on an SAT essay (the First World War began in 1914, and Robert Frost wrote "The Road Not Taken").

From the article:
"I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.

Read the entire article here.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

State Of Body And Mind

I’m always amazed to find that students actually stay out late and party the night before taking a big test, like the SAT.

What are they thinking?

Nothing hurts test performance more than sleep deprivation. I’ve seen students lose hundreds of points on the SAT because they stayed up the night before, got three hours of sleep, and then showed up tired and bleary-eyed to take the most important test of their lives!

I don’t know how else to put this ... Please don’t be stupid!

The word “stupid” actually comes from the word “stupor” which refers to a coma-like state of near-senseless unconsciousness – similar to how you're likely to feel while taking the SAT after being out all night the previous evening. So, the word “stupid” is not, in fact, an insult, but simply means “asleep” or “unconscious.” Common sense says it's a very bad idea to be in an exhausted stupor-like state while taking your SAT ... unless for some reason you really do intend to ruin your score.

Get plenty of sleep at least two nights before test day. Get up early the day of the test, and get to the test center 30 minutes ahead of schedule (just in case something goes wrong). Use these 30 minutes not to socialize, but rather to “warm up” by reviewing key SAT strategies and previously taken practice tests and notes, so you can “hit the ground running” and maximize your score.

You should do all you can to put yourself in a peak state of body and mind for any important competition, whether athletic or academic.

Great athletes prepare for their events by taking good care of themselves before a contest, and by arriving early to warm up physically and psyche themselves up mentally, so that at the moment they have to perform they’re able to fully concentrate and deliver 100% of their potential to the task at hand.

As a test taker, an "academic athlete," be careful to follow this example, so that you too will be able to perform at your very best!


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

To Spell Or Not To Spell

British academic Ken Smith, exhausted from the war against atrocious spelling, is suggesting the time has come for profs to embrace common misspellings of words as acceptable variants.

Should teachers look the other way when students write "ignor" for "ignore," "arguement" for "argument," or "Febuary" for "February?" Is the cause of correct spelling still a battle worth fighting in the age of chat-speak and spell check?

From Smith's article in The Times Higher Education:
... Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

Smith goes on to submit ten words as examples of common misspellings that should be declared legitimate English variants, among them:

- Arguement for argument. Why do we drop the "e" in argument (and in judgment) but not in management? We do not pronounce "argument" "ar-gum-ent", so why should we spell it this way?

- Febuary for February (and Wensday for Wednesday). We spell the word "February" the way we do only because it is taken from the Latin word februa, the Roman festival of purification. Similarly, the "correct" spelling of the word "Wednesday" comes from the Old English Wodnes daeg, or Woden's day. But why should we still pay homage today to a pagan god or a Roman festival of purification?

- Ignor for ignore. The word "ignore" comes from the Latin ignorare meaning "to know" and ignarus meaning "ignorant". Neither of these words has an "e" after the "r", so why do we?

Although at first I bristled reflexively at the notion of lowering the guard of academic rigor protecting traditional English orthography, I then took the point made in a recent Reuters article on Smith's controversial recommendation that no language, it seems, is less consistent than English in obeying it's own spelling rules or more arbitrary in allowing variants:

Playwright George Bernard Shaw was fond of pointing out that the word "ghoti" could just as well be pronounced "fish" if you followed common pronunciation: 'gh' as in "tough", 'o' as in "women" and 'ti' as in "nation".


To spell, or not to spell ... which is nobler?

That is indeed the kweschun.


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Can a Beautiful Hand Improve Grades?

Doctors aren't the only ones with indecipherable handwriting.

Many of us, myself included, have fallen prey to the temptation to neglect the art of penmanship in favor of barely legible scratch that most other people cannot easily read. This is easier and easier to do, of course, given how much of our writing we now do on keyboards of various types.

Using a keyboard, without the need to consciously form individual letters, we can write much, much faster, it's true. But is there a cost to ignoring the art of proper handwriting?

The administrators, teachers, and students of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Edinburgh, Scotland would say yes, absolutely, there is a severe cost to be paid for ignoring the ancient art of penmanship.

The real cost is not in developing the embarrassing scrawl that passes so often these days as handwriting, but rather in missing out on the boosted levels of effort and intention forced by the use of the traditional fountain pen itself. Apparently, the mechanics of the implement require one to enter a higher state of focus and concentration which then transfers over to the information one is writing about, producing a habit of greater commitment and energy that directly translates into better learning of course content, as well.

At these two Scottish schools, all students and teachers are required to take special handwriting instruction, and do most of their work utilizing modern fountain pens.

It all really seems to work rather well.

Once you've gotten the feel of the classic writing implement, a task made much easier by modern improvements in fountain pens, it's something you'd never want to give up, they say.

The article is a very interesting read:


Copyright © 2006-present: Christopher R. Borland. All rights reserved.