Degree of Difficulty

We’ve been talking lately about how hard numbers are. Not to use them, but just to decide what they even mean.

Let’s shift for a moment to grades and the GPA. Grades have enormous communicative power, even though they mean almost nothing. They are symbols without significance.

Let’s take a single course, say Calculus 1. What does a B+ mean? Does it mean that a student got more than 83% but less than 87% of the homework and test questions correct over the course of the semester? (And does that calculation include partial credit for operations correctly done but with a trivial error somewhere? And do some questions have more points than others?) Or does it mean that the student was at the vaguely-better-than-average-but-not-at-the-top-of-this-semester’s-group level? Or does it mean we don’t hold out a lot of hope for you as a potential math major, but we aren’t quite ready to turn you away, so go ahead and try Calc 2? It’s quite likely that different faculty in the same department would calculate that grade a little differently, based on their interests and values—it could be a bookkeeping score, or a competitiveness score, or a communicative score.

Now let’s take two courses, Calculus 1 and Introduction to Racquetball. Does the same grade of B+ mean the same thing in both courses? They both weigh the same, 3.33 units…

Now let’s look at two different schools. I taught one online master’s course with ten students, three of whom at the end got what I considered to be reasonably justified grades of A or A–. But the work of those very best students—second-year master’s students, remember—at one school would have gotten them a B or B– in my first-year undergraduate writing courses at Duke.

The remarkable precision of the GPA, with all of its attendant stress, with its precise cutoffs for adequate or exemplary performance, is a ruse. It’s a nicely decorated cover for a complete conceptual shambles.

We can mess around with it, calculating “weighted GPAs” that offer more points for honors or AP courses, but that just shifts the artifice to a new location. How much harder is an honors class than a regular class? 18.4% harder? Should Organic Chemistry get an extra 24.91% grade boost over the far simpler Intro Chemistry in the same major sequence? If I transfer, should my A in my community college writing course be converted to a B on my University of California transcript?

Here’s the fact. When someone reads your college GPA, their thought process will look like this:

Hmm… degree from Smith College. Good school. Majored in economics, tough major. 3.34, pretty good student. We’ll call her in.

Or like this:

Degree from Wilton and Madison College? Never heard of it. Majored in business, GPA 2.81… naahh…

Or like this:

Degree from Michigan in philosophy? Wow, great program! But only a 3.15 GPA… Maybe he’s okay…

What we mean by a grade is this: within a specific context, this student was judged by a specific person to have been:

  • outstanding
  • strong
  • okay
  • disappointing
  • awful

It hardly seems warranted to average those across experiences, much less to imagine two places beyond the decimal. It’s a false precision that feels reassuring, like a stuffed bunny that can’t actually speak. Do I know my GPAs from college and from grad school? You bet I do. They have talismanic force to protect me in the face of a hostile world, an external validation that suffices, once in a while, in the absence of internal validation. Yes, you really were that good, they murmur, if only to me…

The Inelegance of Simple Numbers

Yesterday we talked about the difficulties of data management and data definition. Let’s look at a simple example, a college trying for some degree of fairness of workload across its faculty.

Most colleges have what they consider to be a standard “teaching load,” defined either in numbers of courses (a 3/2 like I had at Duke is three courses in the fall semester and two more in the spring) or in numbers of credits, like teaching 24 credits per year (the equivalent of eight three-credit courses). Different kinds of schools have different kinds of loads; let’s take a single and simple school as our example, and say the teaching load is 3/3. That sounds fair enough: everyone teaches three courses each semester. All good.

Au contraire, mon frère.

  • What if one of those courses has thirty students and another has twelve?
  • What if one of those courses is writing-intensive, with essays to read and mark up for every student every week, and the other has problem sets and a midterm and a final?
  • What if one of those courses is a greater number of credit hours than another?
  • What if one teacher has one section each of three different courses in a semester, requiring three different preparations for each class day, while another teacher leads three sections of the same course?
  • What if some of those courses are for grad students, or well-prepared upper-division students in the major, and other courses are for not-very-carefully selected first-year students of wildly differing abilities?
  • What if some of those courses are assigned teaching assistants and others are not?

To quote Mannix and Neale: what differences make a difference?

At the most recent college I worked at, we convened a task force to try to regularize the stipends we paid to our adjunct faculty. After some conversation, I developed a conceptual model that we called B.A.S.S., for Baseline, Adjustments, and Separate Stipends. The Baseline was simple: we determined that courses should be paid at $1,000 per credit hour (which already took some struggle, since different departments had developed wildly idiosyncratic payment patterns). In practice, the Separate Stipends boiled down to an extra $500 if someone was creating a new course; the course development was treated as a separately contracted service.

So B was simple, SS was simple… but we really got bit in the A.

Studio instructors, who had six to eight students in a section, didn’t believe that courses with forty students should be paid more. They didn’t believe that courses where students required weekly (or perhaps more frequent) review of homework should be paid more than courses in which teachers never reviewed work outside of class time. The argument to increase pay for long-term and more experienced instructors didn’t get much traction; we actually spent more time considering whether an instructor who had professional licensure should get a higher stipend, something that doesn’t affect either classroom experience or teacher workload. In the end, the only adjustment that got applied was that co-instructors should each receive 75% of base pay rather than 50%, because of the extra burden of coordination. [Oh, please…]

Studio arts are totally worth having in the university, but they skew the calculation of teaching load to be almost unrecognizable. Lots of studio courses are six credits, to reflect their symbolic importance in the major, and the amount of time students should expect to devote to the work. But they’re usually small courses; usually don’t require anywhere near the preparation of lectures of the art historian down the hall; and very rarely require the kinds of nightly homework markup common in writing courses. So a studio instructor gets twice the credit of her colleagues, while doing what amounts to half or less of the work required for a three-credit seminar with 25 students in the same department.

In this and innumerable other ways, the supposed objectivity of numbers actually reflects the culture from which they spring.

Still more on this tomorrow.

The Problem of Too Much Data

A friend of mine is a jack of all trades. From tree work to auto repair, from farming to light construction, he just does whatever presents itself at the moment, and has become a pillar of the community in doing so. He called this afternoon to talk about burning off our brush pile if it’s not too windy tomorrow, and I got an unexpected lesson in research design.

He’s been chosen to be a test producer for a seed company this year, and he just got twenty packets of free seed, from tomatoes to lettuces to beans. There are seven hundred farmers in this program, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but due to the wonders of multiplication, we’re about to see how bad that can be.

Each farmer got somewhere between 15 and 50 different varieties of seeds in this program. Let’s say the average is 25. That’s 700 farmers with 25 varieties each, or 17,500 test plots around the country. And they’re asking each farmer to post a photograph every week, with a meter-stick in the photo, of each crop, to track date of emergence and rate of growth. Let’s say they average a twenty-week grow season, from plant to harvest. That’s 17,500 test crops times 20 photos… 350,000 photographs.

Posted onto the seed producer’s Facebook page.

Honest to god, they’re going to try to sort meaningful growth and production data out of hundreds of thousands of photos on Facebook, photos that will be completely undistinguishable from one another until the plants are at least somewhat mature. Photos from different lighting conditions, different skill levels and camera qualities, completely random file names. Just some guy or gal standing in a weedpatch with a measuring stick.

Just file names… It used to take me two or three weeks every semester to teach my Duke students how to name their homework files: section#.lastname.project#.draft#. It’s easy to do once you’ve gotten in the habit, to turn in a file labeled 35.childress.P1.D3.docx, but it takes practice and reminders even with Duke students. You think 700 farmers are going to label each photo with something like VT517.A9.0519.jpg and have that be a consistent protocol?

We spend tons of time in grad school on data analysis, learning statistical methods and applying them to artificially manufactured data sets to get better at doing the math. But none of that prepares you for how hard it is to collect and to manage the data in the first place. I had a job a long time ago, a tiny part of which was to figure out average length of juvenile detention in one county. I got to the probation office, and they wheeled in a cart of overstuffed file folders, random court and juvenile hall records in random order, and said, “Here you go. Let us know when you’re ready for the next batch.”

Data can be flawed by mis-definition, by mis-collection, by mis-transcription, by mis-categorization. It can be lost to a failed hard drive, lost to a programming error. It can also be artificially gained: the student records system PowerCampus creates a new record for a student who’s changed majors, for instance, or a faculty member who’s been promoted from assistant to associate professor. Every status change creates a new person, and it took hours to clean the duplicates before I could ever start doing the analytical work. (It took years to figure out how to write the queries in ways that reduced the duplications in the first place.)

Most of us aren’t Google or Cambridge Analytica, with teams of algorithmic designers. Most of us, most of the time, are trying to do relatively simple arithmetic—sums, averages, medians, quartiles, probabilities—with way too much data that we can’t always trust.

I’ll have a specific example of that tomorrow.

The Genre of the Shirt

I’ll be going to town meeting tonight, a hundred of my neighbors gathered together to deliberate our community’s business, and I’ll guarantee you that there will not be two identical shirts among those hundred (unless members of the volunteer fire company show up in uniform).

Go to a clothing store and ask for a shirt. You’ll be faced with dozens of questions that try to move you from generic to specific. Do you want a dress shirt or a work shirt or a sport shirt? Long sleeves or short? Pullover or button front? Solid or pattern? Collar? Size? I’m betting, at an order of magnitude, that there have been a hundred million identifiably different shirts made in world history, each iteration then made by the dozens or thousands or millions all on its own.

And yet we share a common understanding of the word shirt. It’s a garment that covers your torso and shoulders, generally symmetrical left to right, with a place for your arms to stick out. It’s not pants. It’s not a onesie. It’s not a dress. The shirt is the cultural norm that accommodates nearly infinite individual expression. The shirt is the genre.

Moving outside the genre is a risk that most consumers won’t take. The two-piece women’s swimsuit took almost twenty years to become common, forty years to become ubiquitous. And it’ll be quite a while before we see a more casual version of Billy Porter’s Academy Awards clothes when we go out to dinner locally, even though it’s just two genres put together.

Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

A bookstore is a series of cultural expressions. Some of its genres have been around for hundreds of years, like romance and horror and mystery and cookbooks. Some have come within the last hundred or so years, like science fiction and popular business books. And some are even more recent than that, like graphic novels and literary YA. Like clothing genres, literary genres are simultaneously freeing and restricting, allowing vast individual expression within a knowable cultural frame.

All genres, whether clothing types or academic disciplines or types of cars, evolve slowly, and then one breakout period makes them broadly recognizable. The “crossover SUV” goes back to the Jeep Wagoneer of the ’40s, but the RAV4 and the Murano made them the most popular cars in America. The bikini had been around for fifteen years before it was made acceptable by Ursula Andress in Dr. No, by Annette Funicello’s beach movies, and by Goldie Hawn in Laugh In. And although we’d had comic books for decades, it took Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman to make the graphic novel a respectable category.

Creating a new genre needs pioneers, who will be mostly unknown. Later, it needs refinement by the polished pros who reveal its possibilities. And then, it will have always existed, will seem inevitable, will be its own cultural frame that enables infinite expression.

On Cooling the Mark Out

Although the term, mark, is commonly applied to a person who is given short-lived expectations by operators who have intentionally misrepresented the facts, a less restricted definition is desirable in analyzing the larger social scene. An expectation may finally prove false, even though it has been possible to sustain it for a long time and even though the operators acted in good faith. So, too, the disappointment of reasonable expectations, as well as misguided ones, creates a need for consolation. Persons who participate in what is recognized as a confidence game are found in only a few social settings, but persons who have to be cooled out are found in many. Cooling the mark out is one theme in a very basic social story.

Erving Goffman, 1953

In con games, the mark (victim of the con) is recruited by flattery. You’re smart enough to see the opportunity, you’re bold enough to do what others might not. And so the mark submits to the con, and loses. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, this moment at which the mark recognizes his loss represents a failure of an important self-concept, one that must be eased away from rather than simply broken and left behind.

For the mark, cooling represents a process of adjustment to an impossible situation — a situation arising from having defined himself in a way which the social facts come to contradict. The mark must therefore be supplied with a new set of apologies for himself, a new framework in which to see himself and judge himself.

Goffman identifies a couple of common ways of helping to ease the transition. The first is to offer “a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become.” The second is to offer “another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed.”

In academia, the first strategy is called adjunct faculty or visiting scholar or professor of the practice, and the second is called postdoctoral fellow. The adjunct instructor is not the status that was hoped for, but at least it provides a role to play. The postdoc is also not the status that was hoped for, but the promise is that it represents merely a hold against payment sure to come.

We were all recruited by flattery, weren’t we. We were all separated from the herd, told we were special. We were given Greek terms like summa cum laude, mathematically demonstrated to approach or meet the 4.0 limit. We were welcomed to office hours, given special tasks, asked to speak at commencement. We were told by the undergraduate community that we were worthy, and that worth was affirmed as we were recruited by the doctoral community. Come to my school! No, no, come to MINE!

We performed well. No, not well. We were freaking awesome. We got straight A’s in the core, we killed the qualifying exams, we taught the intro courses and got the strong evals, we defended the proposal that allowed us to work independently, and then we defended the work we’d done. All five committee members agreed that we’d crushed it, they took us to dinner, told us we were the best ever. There’s never been another one like you…

And the phone never rang again. We were ghosted. We freaked out, asked our friends if we had spinach in our teeth or B.O. Or we went silent ourselves, hiding in shame, convinced of our failure. Or we got all needy at conferences, asking about job openings during the Q&A after the keynote, buttonholing a senior scholar over a drink as they desperately scanned the horizon for rescue.

And then we were offered a chance to be cooled: to adjunct, to be a postdoc. The time in the vacuum made us desperate for air, and we gasped “Yes!”

Karl Marx Explains College

I grew up in a CMC family, and not merely because my father was a machinist for Continental Motors Corporation.

In Marx’s Das Kapital, he lays out the idea that there are essentially two economic classes, labor and capital, and uses the letters C and M as a form of diagram to explain their different relationships in an economic system. C represents a commodity that has economic value—an hour of labor, for instance, or a pair of shoes, or a sushi dinner—and M is money.

In his famous formulation, the exchange cycle of workers is C-M-C: that is, we exchange a commodity (our labor) for some money, which we then exchange for some other commodities like food and housing and a new pickup. Our error is in thinking that’s how everybody lives, and it is not.

The exchange cycle of the capitalist is reversed: it’s M-C-M. That is, the capitalist and his surplus of money goes in search of a commodity that he can use to create even more money. He might set up a gold mine, selling the gold for far more than the cost of production. He might start… oh, maybe Microsoft, and parlay a multi-millionaire’s origins into a billionaire’s life. The idea is that a surplus of capital allows for investment in commodities that further increase that surplus. Including, and especially, purchasing the labor commodities of others.

So what does this have to do with college?

For most families sending their kids to college (or trying to scrape together a degree while working and raising a family independent of their parents), college reflects the C-M-C model. We work to make a little extra money, and a fair bit of that money goes to purchasing the commodity that is higher education. In many cases, it has the same economic structure as most of our commodities; we go into significant debt to acquire it, and whatever benefit it brings us through having indoor, white-collar jobs is more or less offset by what it cost.

But historically, and still for the families of the elite, college has been an M-C-M endeavor. Families use their excess money to buy their children not merely an excellent education but also further social access, both of which will be parlayed into even greater income and power later. (And Ivy families have plenty of excess money—the median family income of Harvard parents at $169,000, Brown at $204,000. But the hyper-elite liberal arts colleges are even more rarified: Washington University at $272,000, Colgate at $270K, Colby at $236K. This is not a group of students taking out Stafford loans and setting up repayment schedules stretching into their mid-50s.) Elite education is not a consumer product; it’s an investment strategy, ensuring that generational benefits are passed along to the children of wealth.

Let’s state it plainly. The vast majority of American colleges offer the opportunity to purchase a commodity that we hope will bring a little comfort. The uppermost few dozen offer the opportunity to enter an investment club that we know will multiply our wealth.

Hidden Decisions

One of my favorite anthropological writers, Clifford Geertz, once claimed that every good anthropologist he’d ever met or trained had felt like an outsider as a young person. That makes perfect sense to me; if you take the rules of a culture for granted, if they just work for you, then you have no reason to notice them. (That’s why our various sorts of privileges, whether rooted in gender or race or economics, are so hard to root out; the people who benefit from them are the least likely to recognize them.)

I wrote almost twenty years ago, about a suburban strip road, that our desires for trivial choice had brought about a remarkable reduction of meaningful choice. If we demand to be able to go to a store and choose from among thirty brands of toothpaste and twenty styles of bacon and nine different flavors of Doritos and a hundred and twenty different beers, then we’ve chosen exactly one kind of store that can provide that, and exactly one kind of landscape to put that store upon.

It’s important to do the same kind of investigation about any endeavor, and higher education should be doing the same. Let’s take an obvious, inevitable part of a college as an example: the registrar’s office. The registrar (now a collective noun encompassing anywhere from several people to several dozen) records which courses a student has taken; which of several thresholds have been passed (declaration of major, passage of mid-career exams, graduation, and so on); and the individual grades and patterns of grades for all of a student’s courses.

That seems inevitable. You can’t have a college without it. But why? What does the ubiquity of that function tell us about the hidden decisions of higher education? Or to ask it another way, what kinds of organizations and experiences don’t have a registrar?

Restaurants, for instance, don’t have registrars. We go to have an aesthetic experience, we’re educated by waiters and bartenders and sommeliers about the fine points of what’s available and how it’s prepared, but nobody else cares after the fact that we went there. The unlikelihood of a registrar for restaurants (or for museums, or for bookstores, or for travel) helps us see that a core function of that office is external communication; they’re keeping a record for someone else to examine at a later time.

And what information are they keeping? A record of progress toward a set outcome; the achievement of that outcome; and a comparison of one student’s performance against another’s. This tells us that a college degree is a standardized product; that the possession of that product has economic or social value; and that the value of that product can be measured in relatively unambiguous terms (both by the GPA and by the name of the school at the top of the transcript). If the college can’t communicate your ownership of a high-quality version of their product, then your experience is deemed to not have mattered. This is quite unlike the experience of reading books or seeing movies or eating at nice restaurants, which have the same nominal goals as college—to take pleasure and become more sophisticated thinkers.

The simple fact of a registrar function reveals the work of college as a sorting device for white-collar society, to separate those who belong from those who don’t, and to further separate the excellent from the acceptable.

What does the presence of so many women’s centers or support groups for minority students say about college? It says that we’re trying to invite women and people of color into the fold while simultaneously not having to change the institution very much. College as we know it was designed for the sons of the wealthy to consolidate and advance that wealth; if we don’t change its basic structures, then we’re asking everyone else to accommodate to a model inherently not well fit, and we bolt some support groups onto it and call ourselves progressive.

The Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington has discovered a series of higher-ed practices that are research-demonstrated to improve student engagement and student performance. They include:

  • Undergraduate research
  • Learning communities, residential or social groups formed around shared courses or series of courses
  • Study abroad
  • Service learning, or community engagement
  • Internships
  • Culminating or integrative “capstone” experiences

These have come to be known as high-impact practices, or HIPs. So what does that say about the basic experience of college—you know, the individual student who goes to individual three-credit courses? Those would be the low-impact practices, or LIPs, a term that doesn’t exist but should. We know that going to class after class isn’t a high-impact experience, we know that at least half of students who start doing it won’t complete their degrees, but we keep that model at the center of the endeavor. Why do we do that? Because it’s what faculty know how to do, and it’s what institutions are built to provide.

I think that every major social institution deserves its own anthropologists, to make its decisions visible to itself. Otherwise, we just keep replicating the things we already know how to do and imagine them to be inevitable.

When Faced With Evidence, What Shall We Do?

Every morning, I get briefings from two magazines that cover the higher education industry: Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Usually it’s just the swirl of a busy industry, or the news of yet another example of how the business model of undergraduate education is coming apart. But yesterday…

Duke University released the results of their second biennial Student Experiences Survey, a delicate name for the study of “the extent and nature of sexual misconduct involving Duke students.” Any endeavor titled with a euphemism doesn’t bode well. And sure enough, after hemming and hawing about students’ awareness of campus efforts toward improved climate blah blah blah, the report places the most salient fact on page 11:

48% of all women undergraduates have experienced sexual assault since arriving at the campus.

Excuse me, what??

Let’s fill in the blank with any other public health crisis you choose.

  • 48% of Duke students have ebola.
  • 48% of Duke dormitories have bedbugs.
  • 48% of Duke students have food poisoning.

I mean, pick your crisis, and the public health community would be swarming the place. Classes would be cancelled, quarantine units would be mobilized, a huge team of epidemiologists would be searching for the common root cause. But when it’s only women being groped (30%) and raped (17%)… business as usual.

To their credit, the Duke administration immediately took action. They made sexual assault prevention the singular focus of the coming year, taking precedence over fundraising and research and even basketball, dedicating ten percent of their $8.5 billion endowment…

Well, no, they didn’t do that. They sent their VP for Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, out to say that the university’s numbers don’t appear to be out of line with what the Association of American Universities has found at similar institutions.

Moneta said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. Based on conversations with students, he said, he expected the numbers to be higher. While the scope of the problem is troubling, “I believe we have empowered victims to recognize behaviors they felt were normal that they realize now were a violation,” Moneta said. “They’re also more willing now to acknowledge they’ve been victimized.”

So the university’s takeaway from all this is that a) we’re just like everybody else, b) we thought it might be even worse, and c) at least crime victims recognize that they’ve been victimized. Our work here is done, Tonto.

I taught at Duke fifteen years ago, and recognized the special blend of toxic jock/frat culture even then (as did Tom Wolfe). But to paraphrase Larry Moneta, it isn’t just Duke.

It’s the New York City Ballet. It’s the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s the entertainment industry. It’s college faculty. It’s the armed services. It’s the United States Supreme Court. It’s the presidency. It’s everywhere that men take it upon themselves to determine the roles, and the futures, of women.

And yet, in the face of all of this evidence, men are outraged in huge numbers over an ad that gently encourages us to do a little better? Can we stop being snowflakes and stand up, at last, and make this stop?

Let me gently suggest a few public health efforts that Duke might take, to demonstrate leadership in women’s safety.

They might fund the Durham Police Department to have a patrol car at the curb 24 hours a day of every day of the year at every off-campus fraternity and sporting team house. They might put two cars at each one every September, when the first-year girls come to campus and the predators await (see p. 13 of the report).

They might issue every incoming female undergraduate a can of Mace, and adopt a “stand-your-ground” student code allowing women broad rights of self-defense in the face of threats and hostile action.

They might run spring semester straight through instead of having a spring break.

They might include statistics about sexual assault at Duke in all of their recruitment materials, and let prospective students know what they’re likely to be in for.

They might refocus the efforts of the Coach K Conference on Leadership to become an annual event that trains business and community leaders nationwide on how to respect and support women in every endeavor.

Duke University should be doing absolutely nothing else this year but responding to the moral and logistical challenges that this report raises. The safety of your students is job one. Lead, or close. It’s really that simple.

Excellence Served Three Ways

Settle in, folks. It’s going to be a long one.

I’ve always been obsessed by obsession. What does it take to be excellent? What does it mean to surpass good enough to get to really good, and then beyond that?

In the past two days, I’ve seen three very different answers to that question.

I’ve just finished Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. An absolutely brilliant book about a brilliant career, it’s a story portrayed in extraordinary ways because he was able to be fully open about his goals and his fears with a writing coach who pushed him, and listened to him, as carefully as his tennis and conditioning coaches had before.

Agassi’s excellence came from fear. From fear of his father, from fear of tennis svengali Nick Bollitierri, from fear of not ever being good enough. As a child, Agassi was surrounded by men who knew only force and dominance and competition. Their work left him physically strong and emotionally disabled, the fate of so many men.

In the end, he had two careers. The immature career built on the scaffold that those angry men had constructed, and the mature later career built on the trust he bestowed upon a different community, the trust that they reflected back upon him as well. But even his triumphant second act carried the physiological and psychic scars of the first, never left him wholly at peace.

Last night, Nora and I went with a friend to a chamber concert by The Queen’s Six, a vocal ensemble that is a subset of the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle. For a little over two hours, the Six ran through a repertoire covering nearly five hundred years, from Henry VIII to Stevie Wonder. Precise, and sophisticated, and beautiful… and a little bit cold.

Their excellence came from a dedication to craft for the sake of craft, came from the endless shaping of vowels and mastery of music theory, from seeking out the finest training to an array of public performance (ranging from eight services per week in the Chapel to last summer’s wedding of Harry and Meghan). But the edge of the stage formed a powerful wall, a wall over which music could pass but humanity could not.

But prior to the show, the three of us went for drinks and dinner at one of Vermont’s very best restaurants, Misery Loves Co. of Winooski. And we saw a third origin of excellence, excellence that stems from generosity and love. We sat at the counter facing the open kitchen and watched four young men on the line—surrounded by a continual flow of eight or ten others—care for each other, and through one another to care for us.

They tasted everything, and if they liked it, they gave a spoonful to one of their colleagues. They did this not merely as an objective quality check, but because they were proud of what they’d done, and wanted to share it with a friend. In the midst of a busy line, they’d hold out a sauté pan, their friend would take a spoon and taste a sauce, and they’d spend ten quiet, thoughtful seconds thinking about what they were eating, talking to each other about what they thought.

One of the more experienced chefs was showing a younger fellow how to strip and julienne a lemon. “Your flat knife is gonna work really well for that,” he said. Not a direction—“Use your flat knife”—but an encouragement, a mutual desire for satisfying work.

It’s a busy kitchen, as all successful restaurant kitchens must be, but there are no raised voices, no calling out and calling back, no hollering to the dishwasher for more bowls. The dishwashers themselves are part of the generosity, ensuring that their more public colleagues never had to question whether their workstations would be depleted. As I wrote about the relationship between a fictional 1950s bartender and his barboy:

Your barboy is an extension of your own body. He brings you what you need, carries away what you need no more. He cleans where you cannot reach, moves where you cannot go, sees and hears what is too distant for you to perceive. You tell him your needs and he responds instantly. Eventually, he becomes you. You wish him to bring ice and find that ice has already arrived. You notice beer caps high in the trash, and then notice that the trash has been emptied. The words “thank you” are invaluable. They indicate not merely polite gratitude, but the more important fact of having been noticed, having been recognized.

Misery is a restaurant in which everyone, from customer to bartender to line cook, has been noticed, has been recognized.

The great bartender Jim Meehan once weighed in on the debate between the terms bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks,” he said. “A bartender serves customers.” And it’s that impulse toward generosity that causes Misery to do surprising things.

Nora spotted one of the chefs dropping a fish skeleton into the basket of the deep fryer and then lowering it into the oil. “What the hell is that?” Nora asked. It turns out that fish bones, dusted with cornstarch and deep fried, are a delicacy known in Japan as hone senbei, or bone crackers. When a patron orders the whole lubina (a kind of Atlantic bass), the waiter offers at the end of the meal to have their fish’s carcass rendered into a lovely second course, at no charge. It takes everyone by surprise, it’s not on the menu, but when one comes back into the kitchen, it’s treated with as much care as the whole fish originally on the brazier, as beautifully plated and presented on its second life as its first. Those are the kinds of gifts—unnecessary, as gifts always are—that mark the shift from good enough to really good, and then beyond that.

So excellence from three root stocks. Excellence from fear, focused on defending the fragile self. Excellence from craft, focused on perfecting the object. Excellence from generosity, focused on lifting everyone around you to greater joy. Each brings a different flavor, but only one has the power of engaging all of its participants.

Let’s leave the final word to Andre Agassi, now wiser than his wounded younger self:

Helping Frankie provides more satisfaction and makes me feel more connected and alive and myself than anything else that happens in 1996. I tell myself: Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.

A Brief Comment on the Nature of Futility

From the Twitter account of Carl Bergstrom, a theoretical evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington:

My PhD advisor told me to put a ten dollar bill between the pages of my thesis in the university library.

“So I can check to see if anyone read it?”, I asked.

“No, of course no one will read it,” he replied, “but when you come back into town you’ll always have money for lunch.”