Friday, November 15, 2013

Teaching Millennials: Some Notes from The Classroom, Part 1

(left to right:  my students Peter, Paola, Carolina, and Alejandro building a persuasion scenario and solutions using the "ATTiC"---Agent, Target, Tactics, and Context---framework,  a state-of-the-art basic model for isolating and understanding influence dynamics in social phenomena)

After two years, six classes of my own syllabus design and execution (two rounds each of Globalization, Global Macro Analysis, and Strategic Social Dynamics, and now some more complicated new stuff), and a few "guest appearances", I felt like I should reflect on my personal experience of teaching college students and try to summarize my major findings.  It seems to me that the major components of teaching success with the Millennial cohort---at least in my opinion as a relatively inexperienced, part-time professor---can be summarized in a set of seven general rules:

1.  Personality:  "Be Cool".  

2.  Appearance:  "Be Hot".

3.  Teaching Style:  "Be Entertaining."

4.  Material:  "Be Interdisciplinary."

5.  Lifestyle:  "Be Glamorous."

6.  Hobbies:   "Be Dangerous." 

7.  Strategic Focus:  "Outliers."

Let me state upfront that in describing these rules I am not claiming that I personally exemplify any of them (!).  This is not for me to judge; you'd have to ask my students directly.  These rules exist primarily as long-term, aspirational goals, as things to strive for.   I am to some extent constructing a hypothetical "dream professor" based on what I have seen and heard in the classroom, and the feedback I have received from course reviews and so on. 

I will start with rules 1-3 today and then try to get to the remainder next week. 

(left to right:  Paola, Carolina, Alejandro, and Peter)

1.  BE COOL.  The current generation of students that I encounter is---as a general rule---remarkably nonjudgmental and tolerant, particularly on issues related to race, gender equality, and sexuality.  Many essentially describe themselves as secular humanists, although they may use another term.  A minority do have deep-seated religious beliefs and these also need to be respected (as much of my course content is influenced by evolutionary psychology, for example, I find that it is appropriate for me to create a parallel explanation system in which a student who is skeptical about evolution can still use the main takeaway lessons from evo psych, even if he or she subscribes to a different "design history" for the human brain).  

As a professor, it is important to avoid immediately and fatally losing credibility by engaging in moralist editorializing on subjective personal-choice topics.  You will have students of different genders, races, national origins, faiths, sexual orientations, and so on.   Broad, general positions stated as universal certainty will be challenged by the students' natural contrarian nature (I will discuss this more in the "Outliers" section), and risk making you appear culturally unsophisticated and, in many cases, anti-intellectual. 

If students expressed their displeasure immediately and challenged you to give a more nuanced version of a bombastic statement that you had uttered, then perhaps it would not be so bad.  With long-term relationships and repeat students this kind of discussion can occur, often after class over a beer.  But what seems to happen in the majority of cases is that the students immediately counter-judge you for the way that you seem so willing to judge others---even if the students themselves disapprove of those "others", they will defend them---and they tune you out without ever saying anything to you about it. 

He that complies against his Will,
Is of his own Opinion still;
Which he may adhere to, yet disown,
For Reasons to himself best known. 

-Samuel Butler

The best general personality disposition for effectively engaging such a group seems to be one of easygoing nonchalance and ironic detachment, a so-called "accommodating orientation" that leaves a very broad range of people/attitudes with the impression that you like them and accept them for who they are.  If you have strong opinions, contain them and let your behaviors and personal example do the arguing for you.  Leave room for dissenting views---students may be deeply offended by a controversial statement and say nothing, but they won't forget it.  

Dale Carnegie perhaps said it best:  "Do not criticize, condemn, or complain."  Virtually no one can entirely meet this standard, but I have found that it is generally better to avoid stating that an entire segment of society is populated by imbeciles ("i.e., those idiots at the Federal Reserve are unaware of how their actions could be creating a new credit market bubble"), and instead talking about underlying incentives, dangers, and opportunities without adding an ad hominem flourish.  

There are other schools of thought on this that basically argue in favor of a more confrontational style, operating from the view that professors should take an "in your face" stance with students and force them to "confront their own belief systems and values".  This may in fact work to some extent in the hard sciences and mathematics.  In the social sciences, one must show great humility.  

Developing this point, psychologist Matthew Hertenstein says that:

"The job of science is to study empirical generalizations---how things usually are---not certainties.  Nearly all sciences make probabilistic predictions.  Some are highly accurate, such as quantum theory, which can accurate predict specific properties of electrons 'to within about one part in 10^10.'  Other sciences, like meteorology, seismology, medicine, and population genetics, are less accurate.  In the behavioral sciences, virtually all relationships between variables are probabilistically associated.  Given this, I implore the reader to be cautious when making a prediction about a specific case or example in his or her life based on tells..."

Professors will occasionally be goaded into more extreme positions by adversarial students, and may then make the error of throwing out categorical generalizations that the belligerent person can then shoot down.  While you are lecturing, a student may be Google-searching for counter-examples to a controversial or provocative position, and dealing with this in a satisfying manner can potentially hijack an entire lesson plan for the day (occasionally this is fine---if the point being made is central to the thesis of the entire course, this may be a good opportunity to defend it).  It's easy to be a gentleman or lady when other people are behaving in a similar manner; the test of your commitment to this discipline---the social equivalent of a  martial art---will come when you or your arguments are suddenly attacked by a member of the audience.  You may occasionally have students who are very aggressive (normally this will involve particular public policy issues).  This is your opportunity to comport yourself with dignity under pressure and to show knowledge, patience, and tolerance. 

(left to right:  Jamie ((partially pictured)), Nathalia, and Mirella appear to be scheming about something.  They look amused)

 2.  BE HOT.  We live in an age in which one of the greatest crimes against humanity appears to be the failure to be physically attractive.  This is a topic for another post, but edgy research on persuasion/influence reveals that human beings make judgments about other people on a bi-dimensional performance matrix---the two dimensions being "Strength" and "Warmth", although some scientists prefer "Competence" and "Caring"---within seconds of meeting them.  

Strength and Warmth obviously have both fixed and contextual aspects and, for Millennials, Strength appears to be associated with confident hotness and Warmth with nonjudgmental serenity.   They combine in an attractive form of detached, friendly self-amusement.

From the book THE HUMAN BRAND:

Social psychologists have deduced that primitive humans were forced, in their struggle for existence, to develop a primal, unconscious ability to make two specific kinds of judgments with a high degree of speed and sufficient accuracy:  what are the intentions of other people toward me?  How capable are they of carrying out those intentions?  Today we judge others almost instantly along these same two categories of social perception, which are known as warmth and competence

...Survival for our distant ancestors depended upon their ability to quickly judge others according to these criteria.  Humans have come to dominate the globe using this deeply programmed social circuity, painstakingly developed and tested for ages through the harsh, unforgiving process of natural selection.  This, the original real-life game of Survivor, still shapes all our social interactions today.

Susan Fiske at Princeton estimates that as much as 82% of our judgments of others can be predicted by these two perception categories alone.  It appears that, of the two dimensions, Warmth assessments typically come earliest and may carry a heavier weight in the overall rating.  Some researchers have added that this assessment of negative intentions and hostility happens so quickly that an influence professional should probably train himself or herself to make a small, private smile---a Mona Lisa-esque smirk---the default facial expression.  

A college student's view of a professor's physical attractiveness is reportedly going to involve a student conducting an intuitive time-extrapolation exercise.  Consider who the highest social-value male and female students are on a typical campus; the male archetype would probably be a star athlete, often a football or basketball player although there are regional variations (rowing and rugby were the Oxbridge equivalents, for example), who is simultaneously dominant on the field and equipped with a handsome, square-jawed, leading-man-type face.  The female archetype would probably be a very pretty and sexy sorority girl from a wealthy background who drove a convertible BMW or equivalent, drew her clothing from a stellar wardrobe, and controlled a social network populated by similarly attractive females and eager male orbiters.  

For points of reference, the "hot" actors popular with the female cohort are typically Channing Tatum, the Hemsworth brothers, Taylor Kitsch, and the still-hanging-on 50+-year-olds Clooney, Pitt, and Depp.  Male students have cited superblondes Kate Upton and Brooklyn Decker, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina J, Christina Hendricks, and of course an array of porn stars. 

The "hot professor" of male or female stripe basically takes existing BMOC stereotypes and goes out 10 or more years with them.  Suffice to say that it is typically unusual for high-level campus jocks and hotties to end up with professorships, so a little may go a long way when it comes to presenting well as a college teacher.  I think the bar to be considered "hot" is probably quite generously low for academics.  

There may not be a lot that we can do about this one---just be aware of it and do the best you can with what you have to work with.

There is some theoretical research which suggests that the elusive quality of "Charisma" involves the ability to project both Strength and Warmth simultaneously (most people project neither; others are biased towards one dominant signal or another).  This requires a harmonious blending of attributes that few of us will ever have, but we can certainly attempt to do a better job.  Performance traits and indicators may be combined to hit different channels:  the Schmiss scar combined with an elegantly tailored jacket; the menacing physicality combined with an open and friendly smile; the story of personal vulnerability combined with expansive, hyperconfident alpha body language in the delivery; the busty and pretty female professor who combines some tasteful hints of cleavage with studious tortoiseshell eyeglasses; the outdoorsy professor with the surfer's tan who plays Beethoven tracks before class; the former All-American wrestler who wears a whimsically colorful pocket square or tie; the high nerdling who confidently articulates his love of elk-hunting and martial arts. 

The important detail is that the Strength and Warmth projections are happening on different communication channels simultaneously, rather than competing with one another for the same channel at the same time.  Millennials respect the authority that stems from example:  if you personally embody a basket of desired physical, intellectual, psychological, and cultural traits, they will feel that you can provide them with a blueprint that, one way or another, leads to a desired outcome.  If you do not embody these traits, they tend to think that whatever you are doing clearly has not worked out so well for you. 

(left to right:  Nicolas, Morgen, Maria, and "Paz" caught in the midst of what looks to be a very interesting discussion)

3.  BE ENTERTAINING.  As an undergraduate professor, you are a showman and motivational speaker.  You have a unique opportunity to serve as a goodwill ambassador for your particular field and to demonstrate to young people that they should pursue further study of this topic and related material (in other, future classes and/or on their own).  If your teaching style is boring, your field will be assumed to be boring.  If the work seems difficult and pointless, your field will become associated with those same traits. 

In my experience, students particularly love anecdotes and stories that feature disasters and human failure.  For example, the best way to discuss the theoretical calculation of an effective interest rate on real loanable funds or the shape of the yield curve may be to start with a discussion of what happens when naughty central banks and governments manipulate the price of money, spurring waves of malinvestment and distortions in the price system.  You can then backtrack from a story of crashing asset prices and great psychological pain to a discussion of how interest rates would work under *idealized* conditions. \

Start with the big picture, go into specific details via a structured framework that you can write on the board, and then return to the big picture.  Isolated stylized facts without an overarching explanatory model should not be what a professor tries to emphasize, although no doubt many do.  

The most enjoyable stories seem to be ones that highlight the professor's own failures, the more spectacular the better.  An old and dear friend frequently borrows alpinist Mark Twight's observation that "the burned hand teaches best."  This appears to be true not just in terms of the lessons for the individual who has burned his hand, but also for those who are being trained. 

I personally do not use Powerpoint in class, for several reasons:

1.  The slides compete with the speaker.

2.  There is always the tendency to look at the slides and read them to the audience, which of course is not fun for anyone.

3.  Slides are normally way too busy.

4.  Slides give all of the information in one completed burst.  If I draw a diagram on the board and go through each step in a methodical fashion, the students can follow my train of thought and usually anticipate where I am going, and this aids in understanding and recall.  The brain gets a satisfying dopamine jolt reward from successful anticipation of the teaching point's "punchline" (mediated by the SEEKING system that we have discussed here in the past) and this seems to be a key piece of making the learning experience fun. 

This all said, I could benefit from using Powerpoint a bit---there are many occasions where images would help support a discussion, and the combination of PP and a laser pointer would allow me to walk through some details.  So I will probably start using slide decks in a very limited, specific-purpose way, following the "Zen Presentation Design" dictum that slides should exclusively contain images and key words or phrases, and have lots of negative space.

I have found that the use of music in the classroom is very important.  If people walk into a place and a good track is already playing, it changes the energy and mood of the whole room.

Breaks should generally be taken every 45 minutes, if not sooner, and should last at least 10-15 minutes.  If you have so much material that you can't fit your lesson plan into the class time and still take reasonable breaks, then you probably need to filter the material. 

(My red Jambox bluetooth speaker---seen here in the background near the chalkboard---has turned out to be one of my most useful classroom tools; I try to play good music during breaks and when the students go into small-team discussions.  It really seems to liven the mood)


  1. On a style of Socratic gentleness, even elliptical slyness, Benjamin Franklin would agree with you. In his autobiography (link below) he discusses the transformation he then enjoyed in his rhetoric and capacity to convince. He concludes by quoting the Augustan poet Pope:

    Pope says, judiciously:

    Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
    And things unknown propos'd as things forgot;

    farther recommending to us

    To speak, tho' sure, with seeming diffidence.

    And he might have coupled with this line that which he coupled with another, I think less properly,

    For want of modesty is want of sense.
    If you ask, Why less properly? I must repeat the lines,
    Immodest words admit of no defense,
    For want of modesty is want of sense.

    I think you will enjoy the entire, brief section, in the unlikely event you are not already familiar with it:

    So you appear to be on the same page as Socrates, Franklin, and Columbo.

  2. I particularly like "Immodest words admit of no defense/For want of modest is want of sense."

    I loathe Powerpoint and have been chained to it for 20 years as it is the lingua franca of the conference room or board room. One of the great joys of retirement is never having to use it again.

    The best takedown of Powerpoint, for me, is by Edward Tufte, who articulates (using the space shuttle disaster as his case) how Powerpoint -- a priori -- destroys thought. (It achieves the opposite of what Franklin aspires to.)

    A hilarious demonstration of Powerpoint's imbecilic contractions is the Gettysburg Address/Powerpoint Version by Peter Norvig:

    Apologies if these are old news. I just never tire of them. When I have been particularly mischievous I have conducted sales calls or board meetings by handing out both Tufte and Norvig -- prior to tossing my required Powerpoint deck onto the table.

  3. Bobby, I think that Tufte's collection of PP's failures should have been the final word on the subject, but the debacles seem to continue without respite.. In business school, I read a book by an McK type called "Say it With Charts" or something like that; it seemed to be based heavily on Tufte's insights.

    Perhaps the good news is that someone trained properly will still have a huge advantage over the hordes of PP drones. I personally love my blackboards, even though an hour of feverish lecturing and diagramming can leave me looking like I have been on a multi-day coke-bender (suspicious white powder all over my face and hands).

    I have shared your pain re: Powerpoint being mandatory in business settings. It is good for showing, say, a CTA's equity curve vs. the S&P 500 and a hedge fund index, but beyond that it felt to me like being artistically imprisoned.

  4. While I don't think you're wrong in the particulars, I think you're falling prey to your man Taleb's favorite bugaboo: hasty generalization.

    My take on this comes from having observed academia from various perspectives for (gulp) almost 30 years, with extensive exposure to three completely different institutions and tangential exposure to a few more, and from having done time in the high-end corporate training world myself.

    I think you need to be much more general to explain the inarguable fact that a great many professors and instructors don't meet your criteria here at all. I'd generalize much more broadly:

    1) Have something to say.
    I can't think of a single example of a catastrophic teaching failure from someone who genuinely had something to say. If you're knowledgeable about something and show a real, tangible passion for it, you're almost done. Sure, you can add polish, but you're most of the way there already.

    I was really reminded of this at a conference recently where a polished presenter got stumped by a question, saw an expert on the topic walk in the back door, and asked the expert to take the question.

    The expert was a short, plain-looking guy wearing jeans and a beanie and was not a particularly polished speaker, not to mention being put on the spot. He immediately started talking with such a genuinely informed passion for the subject, however, that he ended up stealing the rest of the session without anyone even realizing it.

    In another example, I recently saw a talk by a friend of mine who is a big name in a very small, difficult field. Despite a laundry list of impressive accomplishments (Rhodes, among other things), she is still not a classically good public speaker. But she still rocks the lecture hall, because she knows what she's talking about, still gets excited by it, and knows how to pitch arcane topics to the experience level of the audience.

    On the opposite side: virtually every really bad instructional episode I've seen has the presenter showing
    the vibe of either not wanting to be there, or not owning the material. It doesn't matter how hot you are; people will know.

    2) Be tough but understanding.
    This is where you, being you, get a pass. Everybody knows you're a tough guy just by looking at you, so all you have to do is act halfway human.

    Virtually every woman professor under 30 has the opposite problem, no matter what she looks like: students think she's their annoying big sister and take it for granted that they can either walk all over her or complain to mom and dad. It's particularly bad when the students are children of extreme privilege: "You crazy bitch, what do you mean I can't put off all my assignments until the end of the semester because I have to help with my dad's Senate campaign?"

    3) Be approachable.
    I'm not sure you can fail this and still get #1 and #2, but as you know, there are more than a few dickheads in academia. Lots of them fail this one, but almost always while violating one of the first two rules.

  5. Jay, those are very useful and wise insights, as always. Re: female professors. There are some critiques out there suggesting that women can have a harder time projecting Strength and Warmth simultaneously---that they tend to go in one direction or another, with the result that unfair categorizations tend to occur more readily in their cases. What do you think?

    Agreed 100% about enthusiasm being contagious.

    On another note: any plans to be in Orlando again in the near future...? Have been thinking that we should get the old band back together, so to speak. Perhaps Bobby and a few others can join us---Bobby could fly down in his G5 or whatever it is he is barrel-rolling in these days.

  6. This is a roundabout way of answering your question, but I'll get there: I think it was you who may have given me the term "thinking hat", which I really like. It's a more friendly term than Robert Anton Wilson's idea of the "persona" that you put on to try different explanatory models without adopting them too seriously. "Thinking hats" is how I approach the psychological models that you talk about a lot here on your blog, as well as similar stuff like MBTI, DISC, etc. I like to try them on to see if they help with a particular problem of interpretation, but I am extremely reluctant to adopt any one hat as a default explanatory model.

    Because of that, I'm ambivalent about your question of "Strength" vs "Warmth". It's a good hat to try on, to see what it helps to explain,, and I think it might be very useful in looking at specific situations. However, I think that taking it too seriously might lead to overlooking real problems of casual sexism that might better be approached in a different way. In general, I have come to think that casual sexism is a much worse problem than I previously thought.

    Re: Powerpoint. I used to be in a position where there was an unwritten rule that we had to go through some long Powerpoint decks when teaching. What I eventually tried to do was to explain things with the whiteboard first, then quickly flip through the Powerpoint as a review and as a means to elicit questions. It seemed to work OK.

    I'll hit you up offline re Orlando,

  7. Haha. Bobby's been rolling beneath the open sky in one of these. Might take a while to make Orlando.

  8. Bobby, are you using these periods of pastoral meditation as a part-time gentleman farmer to work on your fiction projects...?

  9. Yeah, I'm letting my partner finish up the last company and I am now, and with his presumed effectiveness (this is a bit of a gamble, as he has never been a #1 and I remain the largest shareholder), I will be that soft creature known as a 'non-executive chairman'. Hope it works. Plan is to spend half my time in the rural retreat, writing and farming; half in the big city. So far so good, though our small group of investors are pissing in their pants, some yelling. I don't really care. I'm learning about vertical tillage this month and whether or not a guy can break-even farrowing and raising organic pigs.

  10. I posted this over at JFG today. It comments on the distinct views of 'hotness' in high SMV women, and hence may inform your original comments about the importance of the prof being 'hot'. Such an outlook might create great risk for a hot female prof, with her female students:

    Here’s an interesting (somewhat amusing to most of us I suppose) discussion of the science of female competition, which at least overlaps this discussion of the value of pre-selection.

    In sum, ‘mean girls’ behavior is triggered by overt displays of superior SMV; this would suggest that if one is going to play the pre-selection card, it had best be with a knock-out who inspires catty passive-aggression amongst the target cohort, in order to trigger the desire to best the high-value girl.

    I think it also has implications for female profs, in the context of what BB is writing about this week in his blog: in short, it might be a lot safer for a ‘hot’ young female professor to not rub her young female scholars in her high SMV, or else the female student reviews are going to be N-A-S-T-Y. This isn’t a problem for the hot male prof, as men just seem him as someone to emulate, and the women will just get the vapors. The burdens a hot male prof must bear …

  11. Very nice breakdown, Seb. I've certainly never analyzed and articulated it as elegantly as you have, but I think your observations are spot-on. One mildly interesting phenomenon I have observed while teaching CJ-related coursework at a private post-secondary, involves alternating "power uniforms" (for lack of a better term). My daily garb consists of standard cadre-attire (black polo, tan 5.11's & black Patrol boots), but occasionally, I opt for the HFG suite. Lecturing soft-skills like ProDev-related topics (manners, dress, elocution, etc) in 5.11's; or lecturing hard-skills like CQB-concepts in the HFG get-up, throws them a bit. No data here; this is strictly subjective. Their engagement is amplified by a certain je ne sais quoi "attention-vibe" that seems to manifest when I start deconstructing IFWA or Rear-naked applications sporting a blazer and pocket-square. Conversely, discussing certain soft-skills (empathy, for instance) in uniform tends to elicit a slight detachment I have to work through.

    This is a fun topic, Seb!

    1. You seem to nail the value of being one or two degrees off-center, if one wishes to be attended to. In either direction, it's a superior strategy to mimicking the audience. While being orthogonal to the audience's appearance norm is probably counter-productive, a kind of equal-but-separate visual display speeds the qualitative display of new information.

  12. Hey, Ryan! Good to hear from you, stud!! Miss all you guys---have been thinking of a big Orlando reunion get-together in 2014.

    I like that wardrobe mix you have there---the paramilitary/PMC contractor chic on the presence/professional presentation coursework; the swashbuckling Europlayboy thing when teaching how to completely annihilate people.

    1. Ha! Just to be clear, these are LECTURES, not demos, haha!

      And if that reunion idea sprouts legs, I'd be down!

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. Email me at

  15. Is the above comment to email Seb for me? Is Seb BB?

  16. Just tried to log in to the email I use for these blogs and cannot gain access because I forget both my password and name/address since its been so long I used it. I don't feel like opening up another email so just answer my question here. You don't have to use names or go into details.


  17. Excellent post and series!

    And I see what you did here :) Sheer brilliance. Refute without directly refuting :)

  18. Seb, do you have any more info on the ATTiC approach? I contacted Prof. Brown on twitter but apparently he hasn't published it.

    I'm loving this series BTW. One of my clients (Large telco) is looking at how it recruits, trains and engages it's graduate entrants. There's a lot here that they'd find useful.