David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Everything Compares 2 U*

January 5, 2018

I have a shameful confession to make: I spent much of my holiday break trying to decide if Carnival is better or worse than Crime In The City.

What the hell am I smoking, you ask? 

Well, my real shameful secret is that for many years now, well over a decade, I have painstakingly maintained an Excel workbook that captures all of my musical purchases, starting with albums (Steve Miller Band's The Joker) through CDs (currently paused with Neil Young's The Visitor) and downloads (most recent purchase, Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey In A Jar").  I am not a complete idiot: early 45's are not captured, mostly because I no longer possess them, but also because I am not sure I need to save for posterity the ownership, even if at a young age, of Lobo's "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo." I also don't include the few jazz or classical purchases I have made through the years.  This listing is all about rock 'n roll, pop, even a little bit of country.

It is not enough to admit that I chronicle all of these purchases in the workbook.  I rank them all.

I will give you a moment to think about that: the dude ranks every rock, pop and country song he has ever purchased, save a few throwaway 45's.  Please tell us that is only a couple of thousand songs, you plead.

No, it is about 10,500 songs, all given a rank/score from 1 (the real stinkers) to 100 (the perfect songs).  This being admitted by a guy who back in 2013 criticized University rankings while at the same time lamenting the website "rateyourmusic.com," which encourage its users to do exactly what he 'fesses up to today.  However, in that 2013 blog, I openly admitted that I struggled at "rateyourmusic.com" with "my own limitations in defining meaningful, objective criteria."  That just meant I wasn't comfortable stating those publicly; I have continued to do in the isolation of my computer room.

So, what was my point about Carnival and Crime In The City? After my wife gave me Neil Young's new CD, "The Visitor," for Christmas, I went into my repeated listening mode and within a week (meaning probably within about 15-20 listens of the CD), I felt able to place all of the songs somewhere between a 1 (The Beatles' "Revolution Nine," Lennon, Harrison, and Ono's 8 1/2 minutes of studio dubbing representing the greatest waste of vinyl space by a band ever) and 100 ("Your Ages" by The Blue Aeroplanes).

However, the limitations of a 1-100 range for 10,500 songs means there are 59 perfect scores. with "Your Ages" somehow being slightly better than Miracle Legion's "The Backyard," which is slightly better than Aimee Mann's "Deathly," and so forth all the way down to James' "Lost a Friend," the lowest of the absolute best--100.  Even writing that seems heresy.  "Lost a Friend" is a perfect song, just not as perfect as "Deathly," which is just not as perfect as "The Backyard," which . . . well, you get the point.  In other words, I do a double ranking: give a song an initial score, then re-evaluate it within the group of songs also at that score.

For the record, at the bottom there are never such moments of doubt.  Nothing else joins The Beatles' "Revolution Nine" as a 1, although The Blue Aeroplanes' (again!) "Weird Heart" (2) and Adam and the Ants "Ant Rap" (3) give it a run for its money.  I like to think the artists I buy rarely succumb to such self-indulgence with obvious pieces of crap.

That reminds me to get back to Neil ("Piece of Crap" scoring a respectable 76).  So, anyway, "The Visitor" has this incredibly creepy, addicting song called "Carnival" that shares so much of the qualities we all associate with Neil Young: it clocks in at 8 minutes and 21 seconds, close to the rambling jam sessions of "Cowgirl In The Sand" or "Cortez the Killer," but also is similar to the Dylanesque lyric-heavy ramblings of "Crime In The City" or "Ordinary People."  As I intuitively sought to place the song somewhere in the high 80s, without first referencing yet the overall list of Neil's songs, I found myself giving it an 88, which placed it, once I checked the workbook, squarely in the company of two other 88's: "Crime In The City" and "Cowgirl In The Sand."

How did I seem to intuitively rank it alongside the two songs that it most resembled in my mind?  Could my mind have somehow internalized my varying emotional responses to 128 Neil Young songs?  I like to think that with 10,500 songs in the workbook, my ability to remember any song's exact ranking outside of the top 100 and the bottom 20 is impossible.  Even if we try to say that my mind somehow retained that information for Neil Young, a musician whom I greatly admire, I still only own about a third of his catalog.  Such obsessive memory of rankings should only occur with bands such as Dire Straits or The Cars, where I own and have ranked everything they have done, which thankfully, in both cases, is a number smaller than 100 songs.

Here's the thing, though. Not only did "Carnival" fit nicely with "Crime In The City" and "Cowgirl In The Sand," it also paired, in my mind, with John Mellencamp's "County Fair," an equally creepy song about the miscreants and misadventures that come with a traveling troupe.  When I went to see how it scored, I was shocked to remember that it comes in at a 97, the best Mellencamp song I own, slightly edging out "Rain On The Scarecrow" and "Key West Intermezzo."  Can that be right?  At the moment, I find it hard to believe "County Fair" is 9 points better than "Carnival," but I am equally troubled by it being 1 point better than those other 2 Mellencamp songs.  I try not to do it often, but I occasionally change a rating.  Like instant replay in the NFL, I need clear, conclusive evidence for a change.  I haven't gotten there yet.

I am reminded of the caveat I always used at "rateyourmusic.com" whenever I posted some ranking: on any given day, a song may have a +/- variance of 10.  It just depends upon my mood that day, on the way a song may hit me.  If, on one of the rare days I have the radio playing, Weezer's "Buddy Holly" comes on, I will crank it, sing along, and feel downright fantastic (in part as I remember the goofy "Happy Days-"themed video).  At that moment, I am ranking it in the mid 90's, but if I hear it a few more times over the next couple of days, that score will settle back down closer to the 84, where I currently have it, the best of any Weezer that I own, which isn't much as I generally find Rivers Cuomo a tad smug and a bit cold. 

Why all this rambling about ranking songs?  What does this have to do with anything, Fleming?  For one thing, it really doesn't matter. This is mental masturbation, an intellectual exercise that amuses me. Beyond that, though, as with most moments in life, I have found a number of separate entities collapsing into a common thought. In general, all of these involve evaluating and decision-making.  Allow me to work from different vantage points on this.

As the last semester wound down, I was asked to participate as a judge in a couple of student events, two poster sessions: "Please review each student's poster and presentation and then rank them/score them."  I loved the honor but hated the onus. I was reminded why I got out of the classroom.  In the case of these students, each was in the applicable poster session because their own teacher (and perhaps someone else) had already judged that their work was worthy of such a honor.  For me to go in and talk to 18- and 19-year olds about their research in psychology, or chemistry, or economics, or statistics is already a memorable moment--for both them and me.  However, serving as a judge in that scenario is like giving me the chance to hear The Smiths' The Queen is Dead one or two times and then be asked to score each song. Sure, I am generally going to know that "Vicar In A Tutu" (66) probably barely deserves to be at the party, but outside of that I'm struggling to separate 3 or 4 outstanding posters/songs from 5-6 really good posters/songs. As expressed for my struggles with rateyourmusic.com, I fear the public exposure of "my own limitations in defining meaningful, objective criteria."

And, sure, I could go back, perhaps when the students have left the room and review the posters again, but that's like asking me to just read the lyric sheet to The Queen is Dead after one or two listens and make a decision.  I'm uncomfortable with the biases that I will be bringing to that decision.  The lyrics to "Cemetry Gates" (92) are pretentious as hell, and without the melody and foundation provided by the band, it doesn't come off as well as most of the other songs.  Besides, in the context of judging these posters, time is against me, or anyone else, having that full amount of time to soak in everything. Sometimes decisions are rushed, and my mental hang-ups feel all the more oppressive.

The dread of evaluation, let's face it, was at the heart of my teaching.  I hated grading when I taught. In my disciplines, there is a lot of subjectivity that creates nuances that might (the key word) make the difference between an A and a B, or a B and a C, not even accounting for the student devastated to receive the A- and wanting to know exactly what needed to be done to make it an A.  I hated the norm-ing exercises that most English Departments do, where everyone grades a common essay, then compares the grades to make sure everyone is coming up with similar grades following some arbitrary rubric. Nowhere is there the distinction of how Professor Hemingway prefers succinct sentences, while Professor Faulkner scowls if a paragraph has more than one period.  (Of course, Professors Hemingway and Faulkner are getting drunk together anyway, so it probably doesn't really matter.)  Ultimately it seemed as if the learning was devalued for some nebulous stamp of recognition. As with my song rankings, the nuances between good songs and great songs didn't really matter; here I was concerned if the student learned, was prepared to move forward in his or her life as writing and thinking were concerned.

When I stepped out of the classroom, I naively believed I was stepping away from this evaluation crap.  Boy, was I wrong?  As noted above, it's bad enough that I am the celebrity judge for the local student poster sessions or art exhibits.  Don't get me wrong. I love doing those, I just hate making my final decision.  However, beyond that I am in an administrative role where in essence 100 faculty and staff evaluations are also in my purview.  To me there is nowhere where the graduate school approach to grades: A, A- or get the hell out, should most apply than with professional evaluations.  You do an incredible job, or you do a fine job, or you need to find a different job.

What all evaluations do is remind me that everything is a comparison.  When I graded papers, I started with some imaginary ideal in my mind (maybe a student paper from the past) and compared each student's paper, uncomfortably, mind you, to that ideal paper. If I got lucky enough, a student's paper in the current class emerged as a great model and I could compare other students' work to that.  However, I was ever cognizant of the mental challenges that prevented me doing that fairly.  I can remember getting to the third straight paper with no thesis statement, with a ton of sloppy errors, with citation problems, and setting it aside to sort through the stack to find a good paper to remind myself of a better paper.  Often that new paper came from the student whom I had determined, whether through prior work, or through classroom attitude, was a good writer.  Then I anchored myself to that paper and tried to grade the other ones in context of that.  God forbid, any student ended up in the same class with a future Mark Twain.

Even by the end of the semester, as I evaluated a student's final paper out of a portfolio of perhaps 5 papers, with 5 drafts also, my grading of that paper became bogged down by the representativeness of that student's work to everything else he or she had done that semester.  In my evaluation, whether right or wrong, the fact that Student X's essays still shared similar traits with his or her earlier ones (either good or bad) led me to want to judge it based upon how the writing hadn't evolved, not so much on how it evolved.

That is why I always found some kind of portfolio review with students the most rewarding part of teaching. Since inevitably students beg for specific improvements they can make, sitting down with them to discuss the evolution of their writing, more importantly the evolution of their thinking as it was reflected through the writing, was the best launch for them moving forward, whether to another composition course, or to major courses, or to the work world. 

So, how do I merge all of these similar but still different ideas in a blog that is all over the place (strongly consistent Bangles' debut album highlighted by "Dover Beach," an 80)?  It was when I received a few days ago Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project that all these competing or at least disparate thoughts seemed to gel. Lewis' 2017 book describes the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that led to their ground-breaking theories about decision-making and the mind.  The title references the undoing of errors that all of us make in our decision-making.  The book highlights the numerous ways Kahneman and Tversky could show the erroneous thinking of astute statisticians, renowned doctors, successful general managers and famous CEOs. 

I believe I have known about these traps in our thinking rather intuitively (my education provided me some background, in general, on fallacies, but not to the depth of theories of decision-making as postulated by these scholars).  The fact that I recognized my tendencies when grading student papers (which show up again when I review professional evaluations or student presentations) is a healthy sign of doubt, I believe--that the world is never black and white but instead grey.  It can lead me to agonize over every decision, to try bring in as much data as I can, but still, often because of time constraints, have to come to a decision rapidly.

And here's where all of this stuff swirling in my head hits the perfect storm -- or not-storm.  Dowagiac, starting this Wednesday evening, was supposed to be at the center of a major winter storm that could dump up to 20 inches of snow through a 48-hour period (let alone lead to white-out conditions). Given that the college has important update meetings with staff and faculty, the president and I looked at the forecast, anticipated problems, strategized the minimization of issues, and chose to move two meetings from 8-11 Thursday morning to 11-2 Friday morning/afternoon, at a time when it appeared the storm would have ended.  Lo and behold, we awoke Thursday morning to barely an inch or two of new snow, the college open.  I stared out my window most of the day to a beautiful winter blue sky. If the storm would have had its wallop, it would come Thursday night and Friday morning, negating our revised schedule. But that has not happened either.  Weather forecasting should have reminded me: all of this knowledge and data crunching sometimes doesn't matter.  Sometimes everything really is a random coin flip.  (And perhaps relevant or not, I forgot several of the important points I wanted to make.  So much for the best-laid plans.)

Sometimes the best decision is indecision.  But that's a whole different blog.

*Nothing Compares 2 U (73)