Reading, writing, application-making and -reading.

Today I finished rereading William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, and followed it up with Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change by MIT’s own Ros Williams. Both books have provided me with good springboards for thought, as well as ideas around which to focus the final drafts of my statement of purpose. The one drawback is that they’ve put me in serious reading mode: I have several other books here with me that I’m now aching to read. I just broke into Steven Stoll’s Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America, which is excellent so far; on the bus ride home, I cracked open my just-acquired copy of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. These last two authors are both on the faculty at Yale; the books, combined with the high praise and all-around good things I’ve been hearing from my professors about the intellectual community there, are making me increasingly excited about their History program. It was their press, after all, that printed Deb Fitzgerald’s latest book, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, which I read over the summer after a trip through many of the areas she uses as case studies, in their Agrarian Studies Series; the fact that they have such a series is nothing short of appealing to me.
There is something a bit strange about assembling my own applications on a holiday weekend which, over the past two years, entailed reading upwards of 80 freshman apps to MIT. I recently had the chance to poke my head back into the admissions process while sitting with my friend and former colleague Matt while he read apps last week, and realized how much I missed it. Today, while brainstorming about my statement of purpose, I did a bit of writing about my admissions work and how it relates to my intellectual ambitions. This little bit about reading came in at the end, when it occurred to me how writing summaries was its own, albeit tiny and rushed, form of history, or at least storytelling:

The art of reading applications lies in knowing how to pinpoint and extract the important information from a case and summarize it succinctly and compellingly in a single paragraph that tells the applicant’s story. This requires the ability to pinpoint those salient characteristics, to identify qualities and attributes which may not be explicit but which may have pointers to them, and the facility to pull all of this data together in a meaningful way.
All of this has to be done in about a half an hour.
In this respect, admissions is a kind storytelling: a documentation through narrative, a sort of microscopic historiography. It must be rigorous, reasoned, and objective, while putting forth a recommendation about what action should be taken.

Of course, one obvious difference — contradiction, even, or paradox — between the tangible output of application-reading (summaries penned on E-3 cards) and historical study (books, manuscripts, &c.) is the fact that summaries are by design not historical documents: they are destroyed once they have served their purpose, that of assisting the admissions committee in making a decision on the applicant’s case. As a writer and someone with semi-archival tendencies, this was always a bit hard for me: it’s difficult to face the products of one’s hard work being destined for the shredder. I think, though, that it taught me a valuable lesson about letting go of the physical artifact, of not placing too much value on a piece of paper at the expense of the real center of admissions work: the students we admit. Ultimately, when you get to meet a kid whose folder you read, talk to him and his family, and realize the impact you’ve had on his life, the summary falls by the wayside: it pales in comparison to the real thing.
I think part of the reason why I miss admissions is that I am now outside my comfort zone: after two years as an admissions counselor, I pretty much knew what I was doing and what to expect, or at least how to roll with the punches as they came. Stepping outside of that has taken courage — it would have been easy to stay — but for many years I’ve felt called to other things, pursued by a pressing desire to explore the intellectual passions which were refined and clarified at MIT. Admissions played no small part in this — in fact, it enhanced my understanding of science and technology in society far more than I could have anticipated — but I knew that, if I stayed, it might begin to be more of an obstacle to progress than a springboard. Now I am facing that springboard, and the hurdles beyond, readying myself for the sprint forward which, if well-timed and -executed, has the potential to launch me to new heights and discoveries. It’s nerve-wracking, exciting, thrilling, terrifying, and utterly irresistible.
Wish me luck.

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10 thoughts on “Reading, writing, application-making and -reading.

  1. because clearly the only important facets of human existence are summarizable on 3×5 index cards over the course of half an hour.
    clearly the coherent totality of guidance counselor reports and right-to-read-waived letters of recommendation with computational grade point averages provides as lucid a primary source document collection as even the luckiest historian could ever hope to find.
    why do i feel loathe to imagine having to read anything in a history journal with your name attached?
    mit may pride itself on being the most ‘open source’ and ‘egalitarian’ of the contemporary corporate American research powerhouse acaconglomerations, but that doesn’t mean it (and you) suck any less.
    the fact that you view your role in promoting this nonsense as a ‘springboard’ to some kind of transcendent or profound life calling that will discover a higher truth makes you all the more disgusting.
    at least toynbee told good jokes.

  2. Goodness, such vitriol.
    While I don’t find Am’s analogy between reading applications and the process of history very compelling, I would hesitate to ascribe it to a fundamental lack of understanding about the process of historical study. I find it a bit awkward and perhaps inappropriate.
    I would hesitate to engage you in a conversation, collar-less one, because it seems that you lack a basic civility. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are just a tough critic. Your disgust is sufficiently disproportionate to its cause that I wonder what other bone you have to pick with Amrys, MIT, or admissions processes.

  3. Thanks, Anand. In all honesty, I appreciate the feedback. It was just a notion I was flirting with while feeling nostalgic about my old job. It’s a tenuous analogy, perhaps. It’s worth clarifying, I suppose, that what I think is *similar* between the two processes is the sense of responsibility. It’s an awesome one, and let you never kid yourselves that anyone takes it lightly. Furthermore, I’d like to think of this weblog as a testing ground for ideas. I realize that, due to ease of publishing, the stuff I blog about is often a bit half-baked, but I generally find that the open dialogue that results from criticism is enormously valuable.
    Collarless: I don’t think I was suggesting that “the only important facets of human existence are summarizable on 3×5 index cards over the course of half an hour” or anything of the sort. (The “cards” are the size of a normal piece of paper, for what it’s worth.) You can never really fully summarize an applicant — people defy that sort of reductionism. It’s an admissions officer’s job to try and bring dimension to what amounts to a bundle of papers, to reconstruct what one can from impoverished information. I think that MIT does a good job in trying to draw out the best information possible — from applicants, teachers, and counselors alike. In the end, admissions officers are dependent on what they’re given, and you might be surprised to find how much sincerity, enthusiasm, and openness count in the MIT process. The folks at the Institute don’t operate under some illusion that the system is perfect — that’s why they’re constantly trying to make it better.
    I’ve spoken with admissions people from MIT’s peer schools, and from what I’ve seen I can say that I think the Institute’s process is a good one. Of course, you allude to this, and I’m ready to agree to what I think you’re implying: that college admissions as a whole has many, many problems. The folks at MIT would be the first to admit that. Just talk to the dean! I bet she’d agree with you. For MIT’s part, they’re trying to do what they can to be proactive and make a difference in the wider world, to start a discussion among a larger community of universities (and with the public) about how to actually make things better.
    It sounds like, beneath your unwarrantedly acerbic words and sarcasm, you have thoughts on the matter. If you’re interested in continuing the discussion, I’m up for it, but only if you are willing to conduct it in a civilized manner. I’ve put myself out here, and it seems rather cowardly to post such (unjustly) hateful comments, and to do so anonymously — like toilet-papering my front yard, ringing the doorbell, and running away.

  4. From the viceral response that you engendered in this annonymous critic Amrys, it appears that the line between your role as an admissions counselor (which your writing emphasised you no longer perform – very eruditely I might add) and your life as a normal human being is becoming more blurred by the blogging key-strike.
    As the fat man said, “It’s all good, so long as it’s in proportion”. Too bad your annonymous critic didn’t hear him through all the breadcrumbs.
    To your collarless ami(e): Remember, Amrys has a greater presence than that she displays online. It consists of flesh and bone, and, most importantly, feelings.

  5. I am surprised to have generated so many responses from such venom, but I am also at some level pleased.
    Even the most futile complainer is always pleased to be reminded that there may be more of a common reality on the other end than he initially supposed.
    On verbal vitriol, it is a universal human right, particularly insofar as it is not explicitly libelous. It’s often used poorly and unjudiciously, but that doesn’t inherently diminish its value; discourse often depends on it. Put another way,
    “Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon
    Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry
    Distinguish form.”
    On Amrys the human being, I do not know her. I am sure she has many delightful qualities.
    But venom such as my initial is maximally effective when the ad hominem is thought by a reader to address the identity of the person being critiqued themselves rather than any more surface role.
    So this confusion isn’t neccessarily a bad thing either, assuming Amrys the human being doesn’t place a great deal of ‘validation stock’ in the rantings of anonymoys blog posters.
    That said, again, I have no real contention with Amrys the person.
    She is clearly nice and thoughtful enough to respond to such a diatribe.
    I do however, as the first responder correctly observed, have many “bone[s] to pick with Amrys, MIT, or admissions processes,” Amrys excluded insofar as she exists outside the MIT admissions world.
    I feel all of these ‘bones’ are wholly justified, and I feel no remorse in expressing my views as such here, now that I seem to have something of a reasonable audience.
    (Though now that I am being more reasonable and less vitriolic, as happens often enough in such discourse, my complaints will be summarily dismissed, and then the audience will likely vanish in a hurry. I am prepared for such fickleness on the part of the converted, and I am content if all I achieve is the temporary dispersal of my own 5 cent baggie of home-grown memes into the bloodstream of the collective acadorganism I witness limbs of here.)
    On the notion of ‘basic civility,’ such protocols are far more often successful in repressing the expression of controversial assertions than promoting it. There do exist a mutually consented to ‘rules of engagement’ for any discourse, but the rules are only irreperably violated so long as one party makes a statement unintelligible or otherwise some ‘unacceptable’ enough to the another party that the other entity fails to respond. Realistically speaking, because of the escalations game, that rarely happens. As I say, structuralities such as cultural civility architecture are far more often the tools of choice for suppressing controversial currencies of thought.
    (At least Chomsky, Said, and the other annointed American acagurus of discoursal analysis often seemed to think so. Paul Krugman’s unenlightened middle America might know better.)
    On my anonymity, I am ‘young and irresponsible’ and – in my own paranoid weltanschauung – have come to believe that discourses such as these may come back to haunt those on the unpopular side of the issue. Being the blessed MIT progeny that you are, I’m sure you could you reverse-DNS my IP address for your own amusement and find that I may be currently biding my time in another acaconglomerate. That doesn’t really hurt my credibility as far as I’m concerned, because I feel I can honestly say that my mode of engagement with this institution since I have arrived has been congruent with my existing belief system; I have sought to actively express disapproval for and explicitly not engaged in any of the practices I find reprehensible or even questionable.
    By simply being here, however, am I embracing the cause? That line of reasoning reminds me of the “If you don’t like it here in the U.S., why don’t you just get on a boat and leave” arguments that were flying around in the initial days of criticism after the Iraq invasion was launched. I believe it’s inherently fallacious because the only way to be an effective activist on the outside of a system is to physically or otherwise materially disrupt its status quo. Doing so usually entails causing lasting harm to more than just ideas. And so to my mind its almost never a route worth taking. Enough said; moot point.
    Finally, as far as blog ideas being ‘half-baked’, that is implicit and I suspect very few ideas in the history of thought have ever been fully baked. You’ve made a statement; I’ve been caustic and gotten some stares; you’ve clarified important elements of it; and now we can take the issue to task.
    So, onward, to the content.
    I’m glad you conceed the point about human reductionism, though artifical reductionism is clearly neccessary virtually anytime a judgment call must be made. The morally reprehensible issue to me is that a process which draws so much of its ideology from the notion of greater meritocracy in society, and sells so many willing families and young minds upon these ideals, is often ridiculously unmeritocratic in the functional process – and worse yet, I suspect at some level aware of these types of hypocrises.
    To better illustrate what I mean by these assertions, I would like to respond to some of your specific quotations.
    “It’s an admissions officer’s job to try and bring dimension to what amounts to a bundle of papers, to reconstruct what one can from impoverished information.”
    The information you recieve in your job is impoverished to a large degree because the way in which it is requested demands impoverishment. Your institutions often openly admit the rapidity with which you process applications and it is not a large jump from there for the abundantly cynical ‘guidebooks’ and ‘college admissions strategy’ industry publications/services etc to convince (and thereby prey upon) endlessly nervous parents and students that applying to college is like making a sales presentation more than anything else.
    The undergrad admission process seeks to assess inextricables like human potential, character, intellectual curiousity, and motivation in the face of obstacles, yet insofar as these things are accessible at all they usually require far deeper biographical discussions than your forms and methods ever seem to want told.
    I am highly skeptical that if and when someone were to take the time to prepare a detailed, thoughful, say 30 or 35 page summary of their life experiences and thoughts so far within the context of their wanting to apply to a ‘great’ undergrad institution and get such an education that it would be recieved optimistically at all.
    More likely it is pseudo-psychologically scrutinized, disliked for being excessively wordy, condemned for trying to give ‘excuses’ in so far as certain numerical or resume statistics are not up to par….
    Frankly the alternative standards you guys use suck royally.
    You imagine that STS winners, RSI attendees, or people who do well in various international olympiad competitions are somehow destined to be among the creme de la creme intellectual innovators of their generation (at least as far as you applicant pool is concerned), when almost every concrete experience I’ve had leads to me believe virtually the opposite. Same for most of the other ‘exceptional talents’ you seem to give so much credit to.
    The Stuy vultures that go knocking door to door around Cornell-Weil, Columbia, and Rockafeller, each summer, the Harvard-Westlake girls who use their family connections to stage these ridiculous charity galas for diabetes, cancer, homelessness, and whatever other social issues are in fashion, the privately-coached-in-obscure-poetry-allusions-since-they-were-8 St. Ann’s writing contest winners – these are often some of the most unimpressive people I’ve ever met.
    Being able to place top in the major youth ‘talent’ competitions often seems far more an indicator of particular lifestyles and class backgrounds than the characteristics your office of admissions mission statements so not-so-boldly claim you are seeking to find in applicants.
    Letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, school profiles, the ‘short essays’ and the ‘long ones’, the interview, GPA’s and class ranks, I am very willing to sit here with you and deconstruct the whole lot. (Though I am wrapping up this response, because I have just been told of something I need to attend to, but I want to finish up my thoughts here before it looks like I have neglected to respond at all.)
    In any case, at some level, I think you might already know where I am headed.
    To keep the scope manageable, let me start with just a simple question:
    On the letter of recc forms you have undergrad applicants give their guidance counselor or principal, teacher 1, teacher 2, outside recc, etc, there is the question which always asks (I am obviously paraphrasing, because I don’t have the pdf in front of me), How has the student achieved this grade (or this academic reputation)…check as many as apply…
    -By brilliance of mind
    -By consistent hard work
    -Some other options, and somewhere in there
    -BY GRADE CONSCIOUSNESS.
    You would have to be a fool to not realize the explicit purpose of that box: To give recommenders with even generally positive statements a chance to reveal the negative ‘grade-grubber’ mentality (or some other such nonsense) of a given student they are checking off reccs for.
    Of course at the more expensive private schools (and the savvier publics), the teachers are usually internally briefed on this in one form or another and understand exactly the implication of checking off this box.
    And yet, it is MIT (or the institution to which the candidate is applying), that, more than anything, is grade conscious – indeed it sets up and reinforces this structurality. If grades really ‘aren’t important’ or ‘shouldn’t be the focus’ why in heck do you ask for them and why does your institution give them?
    This is but a fragment of a much bigger picture of self-actualization/external-validation contradictory hypocrisy which the admissions offices of places like mit seem to thrive on.
    As I say, I have to cut this short here, but I really hope we will continue to discuss this.

  6. What’s up with all of these dissertation threads lately? People, this verbosity is like playing football in 4 feet of water. It’s a blog, not a Bronte novel! 😉

  7. Collarless: I’m planning to respond to this soon. I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring the discussion — I just have a lot to take care of before my week is out, and blogging has been low on the list of priorities. I think you bring up a lot of interesting points, all of which I’ve wrestled with myself, as I’m sure every conscientious admissions officer has. There’s more to it than that, and I hope to have the opportunity to point some things out to you as well.
    On that short note, there is more to come, but it deserves more care and consideration than I can spare at the moment.
    Ben: Thanks for the levity. 😉

  8. …ouch. Sometimes people do work really hard towards those academic competitions, using them as fun way to work on specific skills. There are certainly people with “unfair” advantages among USAMO participants – but there are also kids who have to petition the school to offer the tests and study hard over the course of the year to improve and learn, taking advantage of some innate ability. Maybe they won’t all become brilliant mathematicians… but how would you propose to identify mathematical ability among high school students who *haven’t* done something to demonstrate it?

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