“When it works, it’s magical!”

That’s great.  How often does it work?

Frances Woolley writes on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to forbid telecommuting:

I think you can get the point of her post from the title.  But on to specifics — as a supporting anecdote, Dr. Woolley offers this:

Last week I had lunch at Nuffield College, Oxford. It was a wonderful experience. All the members of the college – faculty, graduate students, administrative staff – roll up some where around lunch time and help themselves to a free all-you-can-eat-buffet. They sit together on long wooden tables and talk about everything under the sun – from hitchhiking adventures to the latest research projects to academic politics to philosophy. Intellectual bliss.

Collegial mind-meetings are great when they happen.  How often do they happen?  Perhaps Oxford is an enchanted paradise where learned collegiality is always right around the corner and staff lunches that discuss academic politics never turn into wretched hives of academic politics manifest — we can hope that Oxfordites are not only aware of the use-mention distinction but are also able to apply it — but that argues more for the exceptional nature of Oxford than it does for having lunch with your colleagues.  (Also, how many of us can rely upon a free all-you-can-eat buffet to draw us into that intellectual bliss?)

Dr. Woolley also enumerates some positive externalities of working on site:

When a collegial, creative, sensible or helpful person comes into the office, he or she creates positive externalities – unpriced benefits – for co-workers. When that person stays at home, they produce negative externalities – a closed door, an empty space, a crackling conference call connection.

Well, okay, the positive externalities of on-site work are implicit, while the negative externalities of working from home are enumerated.  This boils down to “great co-workers are great to have around”, which is hard to argue against… except that not all co-workers are great in all ways all the time.  That gregarious extrovert who manages to make meetings fun?  His cellphone buzzes like a giant angry wasp every time he gets a text, which is every five minutes.  The cheerful veteran who knows the codebase inside and out and is happy to take the time to walk you through it?  Talks so loud you can hear him through three office partitions and a concrete structural wall.

Collegiality is great… some of the time.

Alex Tabarrok takes a more skeptical view of the live experience, this time related to teaching:

A common responses to my article, Why Online Education Works, is that there is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant.


In The Trouble With Online Education Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Yes, quite.  I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms, and I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences.  Problem is, the bad memories outnumber the good memories by about ten to one.  (Remove public school from consideration — focus only on postsecondary — and the ratio drops to about two to one.)  Furthermore, I’m not convinced that there’s any correlation between “memorable classroom experiences” and “subjects I learned well”.

5 Responses to ““When it works, it’s magical!””

  1. 1 Frances Woolley
    March 6, 2013 at 12:45

    Thanks for the links. Fair comments, I agree with just about everything you say. It’s true that lunch at Oxford was with my PhD supervisor Tony Atkinson – and a truck stop in the middle of nowhere would be a magical place to have lunch if one was swapping hitchhiking stories with Sir Tony.

  2. March 7, 2013 at 02:51

    You know what? I’ll say it. My college experience sucked. My professors (or the vast majority) sucked, the TAs barely spoke English and sucked, housing was expensive, came with annoying roommates, and sucked, the food sucked, and my fellow students appeared to be just waiting for the opportunity to screw me on group projects (and sucked).

    I would have much preferred to stay home and crank through the basic courses online, skipping the magical mystical college atmosphere I paid through the nose for.

    • 4 perlhaqr
      March 7, 2013 at 07:37

      Dittoish, except I just wish I’d skipped college entirely. I knew how to program before I went to college, and I ended up missing the entirety of the dot-com boom because I was fiddle-fucking around with BS humanities classes. I don’t know that I’d have been smart enough to save up or invest wisely, but there’s a non-zero chance that I could have gone to college later, and done it while independently semi-wealthy. Ahh, hindsight.

      • March 7, 2013 at 09:12

        Heh! I got a random job offer from some company in California as an undergrad, probably because I’d posted a few programs I’d written on my web page (or perhaps just because I had a web page). I don’t regret turning them down, but I distinctly remember thinking “Wow, my first job offer! I bet I get dozens of these by the time I graduate!” Nope, that was it, my single solitary brush with the dot-com bubble.

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