Three Good Instructional Websites

I love learning, but as I mentioned yesterday (College Advice from Someone Who Sucked at College), college and I never gelled. Happily, the internet has some great options for learning. Some of those options are completely free! I’d like to introduce you to three of them.

Sal Khan is an internet hero. His Khan Academy (Khan Academy) began humbly. Sal began tutoring his cousins in math in 2008, making simple YouTube videos to illustrate his lessons. Since then, Khan Academy has added history, art, programming, career advice and more to its very thorough offering of mathematics from elementary to advanced levels. The site is easy to navigate, with clear learning pathways along which you can earn badges to reward your progress.

It was through Khan Academy that I discovered Crash Course (Crash Course). This project from John and Hank Green grew out of their successful VlogBrothers YouTube channel. Crash Course lessons are delivered in fast-paced, often humorous videos, each 10-15 minutes long. Courses include history, engineering, theater, philosophy, chemistry, and more. In addition to Crash Course, the Greens’ company, Complexly (Complexly), also manages several other educational YouTube channels like SciShow (in several flavors), Art Assignment, and Animal Wonders. They have also partnered on educational projects with Mental Floss and PBS Digital Studios. Once you enter their orbit, you’ll find enough brain food to keep you busy for a long time!

Finally, a site that is more specialized: Justin Guitar (Justin Guitar). YouTube has no shortage of music how-to videos, but few people have put as much thought, effort, and love into an instructional music site as Justin Sandercoe. His sit is a must for anyone interested in playing the guitar. In addition to well-ordered video lessons, his site includes interviews with notable players, and resources for sheet music, staff and TAB paper, equipment, and more. Justin’s thoroughness and personable teaching style make this site an example of internet instruction at its finest.

While it’s easy to think of the internet as little more than a collection of cat pictures, extremist propaganda, and endless threads vitriolic argument, if you look past the clutter you can find a wealth of learning opportunities. At its worst, the internet is a time-wasting sinkhole of nastiness. At its best, it really is the information superhighway.

Grunt and Snort

Truman Capote said that everyone wants to have written, but no one wants to write. Sometimes I feel like that. Like now. I have a notepad right next to me on which I’ve written a whole list of ideas of things to write about. At the moment, not one of them appeals to me. So should I put off writing until I feel more inspired?

I have a few options at this point:

  • I could plow ahead with my writing. (Apparently this is the option I’ve chosen, since I’m still writing.)
  • I could turn my attention elsewhere.
  • I could try to force inspiration on myself.

That last one is not as crazy as it sounds. Of course it’s awesome when a compelling idea hits me out of nowhere like a blinding flash of creative lightning, but that happens pretty rarely. More often, it comes down to what my 11th grade English teacher called “a grunt and snort exercise.” You simply have to sit down and grind away at it. Between giving up and grinding is the option to give inspiration a little nudge–doing something to kickstart the creative juices. That could mean watching an inspiring TED talk, listening to an appropriate podcast, or doing some reading. (I have to be careful with that last one. It is vital for a wannabe writer to read, but I can easily get so involved with my reading that my own writing never happens.)

What works best for me is walking. Sometimes it helps to deliberately think about my writing while I walk, or to consciously seek out inspiration, but more often than not, simply walking with no particular aim either mentally or geographically is most effective. Other times planting myself in a busy public space and people-watching does the trick. One thought that is counter-productive is, “I must be productive!” Some of the times when I’ve accomplished the most are times when to an observer I would appear to be doing nothing at all. (I can overthink this too if I’m not careful. The awareness that I’m doing nothing only in order to be productive is not helpful!)

Voila! In this case, the grunt and snort method worked. I’ve earned a nice relaxing walk.

College Advice from Someone Who Sucked at College

I did well in high school. I’ve done well on all the standardized tests I’ve taken (PSAT, SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT). I did terrible at college. To be fair to myself, I did manage to finally earn my BS, graduating Magna Cum Laude, but it took me three different colleges to get there. Since then, even though I’ve taken a smattering of postgraduate classes, I still don’t have my Masters. I’ve jumped from program to program. I’ve been accepted into universities then dropped out before even classes even began. My school record at this point is so spotty that I’d have to grovel and beg to be accepted into a community college or for-profit school. (That wasn’t meant as a slam again community colleges and for-profit schools, simply an acknowledgement that their entrance requirements tend to be not very stringent.) In the process of doing college poorly, I’ve learned some things that might help students just entering university do college well.

First, you must accept a few unpleasant facts:

  • You will have some bad teachers.
  • You will have some unpleasant classmates.
  • You will have some classes—usually required ones—that literally put you to sleep.
  • Group projects suck.
  • Grading is not always fair.

So my first piece of advice is this: Stick with it anyway! That’s also my second, third and fourth piece of advice.

Also:

  • College will offer you all sorts of awesome travel opportunities; take advantage.
  • Join on-campus groups and clubs.
  • You might be meeting people of different nationalities, races, and religions for the first time. Embrace that.
  • There are wonderful online sources to help you, BUT…
  • Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat.
  • Use the library! Use the librarians!
  • Attend as many free lectures, concerts, and student productions as possible.
  • Experiment with subjects that are new to you.
  • You may discover that your first choice of a major is wrong for you. Feel free to switch, but don’t obsess about getting it exactly right. It’s more important to complete your undergraduate degree with a major in a field you later abandon than to waste years dithering (my big downfall).
  • Stick with it.

College has become insanely expensive. It’s not hard to find voices that argue against going at all. And it’s not for everybody. But for most people, I think it can still be a great life experience. Stick with it.

 

 

Has Sunday morning become to casual?

I am old enough that I can remember when going to church meant dressing up. Men wore jacket & tie; women wore a nice dress. Older folks wore hats. By the time the organist (who happened to be my mom) finished her prelude, the congregation was in place, ready to stand and sing the first hymn.

These days, jeans and a casual shirt are the norm for all genders. In the summer, flip-flops and shorts prevail.  People likely dress up more for work during than week than for church on Sunday. Our mainline Protestant service begins with two or three contemporary Christian songs from the praise team. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, people continue to chat in the narthex, refill their coffee, grab a donut, and slowly filter into the sanctuary.

There is something comforting in the relaxed atmosphere, but I wonder: Has Sunday morning lost its specialness? There is something to be said for traditional hymns, a choir in robes, a minister in clerical attire. These things used to set church apart. Sunday morning was not like other mornings. Its differentness put people in a certain frame of mind—a knowledge that this time and place had a meaning beyond the everyday. If the church is trying to reach more people by becoming just another entertainment, it is not only going to lose to secular pop culture, it also risks losing its identity.

There are ways to be inviting, to foster a “come as you are” openness, while maintaining a sense of ancient otherness. I once attended an Episcopal church in Boston that discouraged dressing up, because it was an inner city church that wanted the area’s homeless to feel they could join in worship without feeling out of place. The service itself, however, was High Church. Sung liturgy, a censer with incense, rectors in vestments, traditional hymns accompanied by organ. The idea was to allow people from any station in life to attend casually yet be treated extraordinarily.

This type of compromise is not going to work everywhere. A church is more than a fancy building and elaborate accoutrements. Furthermore, church isn’t something to be done for an hour or two on Sunday morning in isolation from the rest of the world. But I think Sunday morning worship deserves to be both delivered and received as a special occasion.

“Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
Lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are”

– David Crowder / Ben Glover / Matt Maher

 

Anthropocene Reviewed reviewed

Having recently written about connections on this blog (Book Habits), I thought I would turn my attention today to another exploration of connections: John Green’s podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed (Anthropocene Reviewed), in which Green “reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.”

Google Dictionary defines Anthropocene as “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment,” which is itself a controversial and fascinating topic.  In each episode of the pod, Green talks about two things, for example: “Teddy Bears and Penalty Shootouts” or “Hawaiian Pizza and Viral Meningitis.” The two subjects of each episode aren’t necessarily compared to each other. In fact, Green rarely ties them together in any way, but simply having such disparate things reviewed in close proximity to each other invites one to find connections. (My personal favorite two episodes are “Velociraptors and Harvey” and “Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad.”) Each episode is around 20 minutes long, and is thoughtfully written. A special pleasure is the quality of John Green’s delivery. His speaking voice is well-suited to the introspective nature of the pod.

Green’s fans also know him from his zanier podcast Dear Hank and John, made with his brother, and highly successful YouTube channels like VlogBrothers and Crash Course. He can rightly be called an internet superstar. Before turning his attention to the internet, John Green had already published his first two young adult novels, Looking for Alaska (winner of won the Michael L. Printz Award, which is given by the American Library Association literary to recognize the “best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit”) and An Abundance of Katherines.  It was on YouTube, however, that his fame exploded. Beginning in 2007 with Brotherhood 2.0, Green’s online presence has made him a celebrity, and one of the internet’s top educators and communicators. This from a man whose first video (January 2, 2007) begins, “I’m not going to be good at this!”

Just as I enjoy finding connection between different books, and between books and everything else, I enjoy discovering and following the connections among the Green brothers’ many projects. The Anthropocene Reviewed is a podcast which should appeal to anyone who is broadly curious about life and its interconnections. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed 4 ½ stars.

 

Book Habits

When I read a book, I highlight passages that I think I might want to find quickly later on. I also jot down notes and cross-references in the margins, most of which would not make any sense to anyone other than myself. On top of that, if there are longer passages I want to remember, I note those along with appropriate page numbers on the first blank page. And yes, I slap a bookplate on my books as well, usually inside the front cover. (All of these practices drive my wife up the wall. She has sometimes resorted buying her own copy of books she wants to read so that she won’t have to see my vandalism.)

I do this more now than I used to. For most of my life, I read books as isolated experiences unless they happened to be for a class at school which required me to think of them in relation to one another. Over the past few years, as I have accumulated more memories and—I hope—a greater store of knowledge, my reading habits have subtly changed. The more I read, and the more I think about what I read, the more I notice connections between books, across genres, and in relation to life in general. Deliberately looking for ways to bring books out of their silos has made reading more meaningful to me.

Which brings us to the question of how many books to keep on hand. Some housekeeping experts say that once a book has been read, it should leave the house. (“Does it spark joy?”) Over the years, I have donated, sold, or given away dozens, if not hundreds, of books. I wish I had most of them back. I have bought, purged, then rebought the same book multiple times. I long for the day when I can afford a big enough place to have an organized home library. If I read a book that I know I’ll never read again, whether it’s because I didn’t like it or because it was just plain bad, I’m okay with letting that one go. Otherwise, I do return to books. They are friends I like to keep close.

 

It’s Complicated

A conservative friend posted this joke on Facebook recently:

Bernie Sanders walks into a bar. “Drinks for everyone!” he says. “Who’s paying?”

The joke made me laugh, in spite of the fact that I like Bernie Sanders. (I’m not sure he should be the Democratic candidate to run against Trump in 2020, however. The Democrats need someone who can convert a red voter into a blue voter, and I don’t think Bernie is that person. But that’s a topic for another time.)

What bothers me about jokes like this is that they have become the entire political debate in this country. Whoever invented the joke, and everyone who has since reposted it, no doubt think they have scored points in the election process, but elections are more nuanced than that. Political discourse should not come in the form of tweets and memes. (International dialogue should certainly not come in the form tweet-storms, and someone needs to tell our president that.)

The appeal of soundbites is that they appear to make a point in a pithy, easily-digestible manner. We are so loaded with responsibilities that our days are scheduled down to the minute from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed for too little sleep. We are so bombarded with information that anything which promises to help us whittle it down to manageable bits comes as welcome relief.

But the promise is false. Life is more complicated than that, and oversimplification, while appearing to help, actually hinders our understanding of the world. We should all be more careful how we consume information, especially online, where memes and tweets rule, and fact-checking is an after-thought if it’s thought of at all. Author John Green hosts a YouTube playlist designed to help (Crash Course Navigating Digital Information). It’s largely aimed at students, but the advice is sound for anyone trying to navigate the complexities of the information (and disinformation) superhighway.