Dune’s Deserts, The Chair’s Faculty, and the Ed Beat’s Journos: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From the stories we tell to how we tell them, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
When a professor is just sitting around a table and telling stories instead of standing behind a lectern and delivering wisdom, you get a real sense of the person under the professional facade.
University Faculty—They’re Just Like Us! (IRL Edition)
Professors’ lives are often a mystery to students. By the time university faculty are standing in front of a giant lecture hall, they’re wrapped in the authority of their institution, their discipline, the titles, and published scholarship that comes with years of PhD work. It can be hard to imagine that they were once confused and anxious undergraduates, too. But Yale’s Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty has put out a remarkable collection of essays—mini-memoirs, really—about how some of the most prominent scholars at the university made their way into academia, opening a window into the deeply personal histories that lead people to devote their lives to a particular field or burning question. “The sheer breadth of experience in these volumes forces the reader to reflect on what constitutes a person’s intellectual journey, and how our own professional lives are a mix of rational intent, emotional momentum, and—perhaps mostly—chance,” writes historian Molly Worthen, reviewing the Intellectual Trajectories series in the Yale Alumni Review. “If you, too, feel as if you are bumbling along in life without much of a grand strategy, you might take comfort in the confessions of these former professors. I know I did.”
One of the most rewarding jobs I ever had was coordinating alumni events for scholarship programs, hosting recent graduates and incredibly accomplished older alums for small-group discussions with current students. In those settings, when someone is just sitting around a table and telling stories instead of standing behind a lectern and delivering wisdom, you get a real sense of the person under the professional facade. Worthen finds a similar humanizing effect in these essays: “Some dwell at length on childhood experiences, while others barely mention life before graduate school. Some go deep into the weeds of great books and big ideas, while others focus on the personalities of mentors and the practical challenges of economic and family responsibilities.” Even for such driven people, life is not a controllable thing. Chance encounters, one-off conversations, an impulsive choice in the campus library—that’s what can spark a career, an obsession, a lifetime of work. Even now, well past my undergraduate years, I want to stay open to all of that. —Eric Johnson
CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg walks with COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg after a session at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 8, 2021, in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Clearly this photo was taken before the Facebook leaders read "An Ugly Truth.")
The Hard Work to An Ugly Truth
Two intrepid investigative journalists get a line on a story. A big story. A story so big it takes the combined skills and resourcefulness of two intrepid investigative journalists to do it justice. They dig into public records. They knock on doors to talk to sources; they get creative just to find sources. They cover their tracks to make sure they’re not surveilled. And when they get to an endpoint—not the end; more like a rest stop—they publish their reporting in a major newspaper, which eventually leads to a blockbuster book. Woodward and Bernstein and President Nixon and All the President’s Men? Nope. Frenkel and Kang and Facebook and An Ugly Truth.
Like a lot of people, I’m burned out on the Evil Silicon Valley narrative, especially as it relates to Facebook. And there was no book I could imagine wanting to read less than An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. But then I listened to a truly fantastic nuts-and-bolts conversation on the Longform podcast with New York Times journalists and 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. It helped me appreciate the story they were telling in the book—not a historic take down but rather a microcosmic view of the company between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. But it also left me invigorated. The kind of shoe-leather reporting we’ve heard so much about in the past tense is still very much alive, and to hear Frenkel and Kang discuss their experience covering Facebook and working on the book is to be in the presence of American journalism at its best. There are times in the chat, like when they recount traveling to Virginia to knock on Facebook board member (and former Clinton chief of staff) Erksine Bowles’ door to get him on the record, that conjure scenes from the film version of President’s Men. This is a dire time for “mainstream media,” thanks in no small part to platforms like Facebook. But it’s not all algorithm-satisfying clickbait. There has been an explosion of excellent investigative journalism from outlets like ProPublica and The Markup, but Frenkel and Kang’s accomplishment is of a different magnitude. They reported a blockbuster that could (should) impact an institution that has become core to our day-to-day experiences. And they did it the old-fashioned way. What better validation of American journalism is there? —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Paraprofessional Binasa Musovic waves to students at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25, 2021, in New York City.
A Pivot to Solutions
After more than a year of relentlessly grim news for education—K12 learning loss, declining college enrollment, endless fights over pandemic safety protocols—six newsrooms from across the country are working together on a series of hopeful stories. The power of trusted adults to keep students on track and protect their mental health in challenging moments; a smarter approach to remedial classes in community college; encouraging progress in closing the digital divide, with billions in new funding deployed to get students prepared for online learning. “The power of the series is in its focus on solutions—that all communities can learn from—at a time when the challenges seem so overwhelming and daunting,” said Sarah Carr, project manager for the collaborative. “We wanted to look at some of the steepest challenges facing schools during this most challenging of returns and highlight a range of promising practices for school districts—and even families—to consider.”
I’ve become enamored of “solutions journalism” ever since Amanda Ripley pointed out that’s what we’re trying to do, in large measure, here on The Elective. Covering the news is important, especially when it’s hard or uncomfortable. But the bias toward highlighting conflict and failure can sometimes overshadow the incredible work being done to make things better. We know the digital divide is a huge problem, so we need to learn from the people and institutions that have made real headway in fixing it. We know that 17 months of disrupted learning is awful for both mental health and academic progress, so we need to highlight the teachers and school leaders who are finding effective ways to help students recover. “Most of the stories are anchored in one community, but as with all good solutions stories, they hold insights that apply in many other places,” writes Linda Shaw, education lead at the Solutions Journalism Network. Contrary to the exhausting negative narrative in some outlets, over the last few months leaders and educators have shown resilience and imagination in deploying historic sums of federal recovery money. Combine that funding with the kind of inspiration in these stories, and we have a real chance to get students to a new, improved normal. —Stefanie Sanford
Timothée Chalamet (left) and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from the forthcoming adaptation of "Dune."
Spicing Up the Climate Change Conversation
Frank Herbert’s Dune has been one of my favorite books since I read it approximately 10 years ago. It’s a science fiction classic, but it’s also archetypal cli-fi, short for climate fiction, the sci-fi subgenre that explores the impact of climate change. In Dune, that means the characters navigate a harsh desert climate, utilizing technology designed to aid survival on a world with little water. A recent article from The Wire explains that the relationship between sci-fi and the environment extends far beyond this popular novel. Cli-fi authors have commented on, mirrored, and engaged humanity’s relationship with the natural world for more than a century. As writer Sherryl Vint outlines in the article, cli-fi gives us new ways to think about natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina while also energizing environmental movements. (It even influenced the creation of Earth Day.) It’s a conversation picked up by Smithsonian Magazine, which examined whether cli-fi can reach people in ways that scientists cannot. It cites a recent study that found climate fiction significantly increased readers' beliefs that climate change is the result of human activity. But the impression left by such books tends to be temporary—after completing them, readers can find it difficult to know how to take action.
And that brings us back to Dune. It has been adapted into movies and miniseries a couple times, most notoriously in 1984 by David Lynch. I've religiously avoided them, but I’m looking forward to watching director Denis Villeneuve’s version coming out in October (hopefully). But instead of anticipating the film as yet another big-budget intergalactic spectacle, I’ve found myself contemplating how it fits into our current climate moment, as we’ve faced cataclysmic reminders of a changing environment this summer, including forest fires, floods, and unheard of heat waves. The list seems to grow unceasingly, and the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report puts them into stark focus. A massive Hollywood blockbuster might be the last place we’d expect to find some help navigating all of this, but Dune might prove surprising. Even if it doesn’t, we can always return to the source novel. But regardless of the exact relationship between cli-fi and behavior change, books (and movies) like Dune provide a mechanism for conversation about a politicized issue and could provide a path around polarization to meaningful action on climate change. —Hannah Van Drie
Sandra Oh as Ji-yoon (left) and Nana Mensah as Yaz in an episode of the Netflix series "The Chair."
University Faculty—They’re Just Like Us! (Netflix Edition)
Satirizing academic life is easy; doing it with grace and humanity is tougher. But Netflix pulled it off in the riotously funny, beautifully shot series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh as the embattled, newly appointed chair of the struggling English Department at a “second-tier Ivy.” The series somehow manages to capture all the absurdities of college administration while still preserving the idealistic romance of classical college life, insisting that the stately buildings and professorial formalities are both a silly indulgence and a key ingredient in the magic of getting young people to care at least a little about Chaucer and Melville.
The series also illuminates the way a more diverse, more assertive generation of students has left many institutions scrambling to find the line between embracing long-overdue change and preserving the academic authority to insist students are inheritors of accumulated wisdom and not just consumers. How much should schools and academic disciplines adapt to a rising generation? And how much should they assert the value of some traditions and processes for scholarship? “Elegantly and briskly, [showrunners Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman] skewer all the reasons campuses might be igniting in discontent,” writes Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic. “Professors held to different standards depending on their race and gender. Students made very aware by their mounting debt and limited opportunities that things are harder for their generation than they were for any other. Elder statesmen who suddenly realize how little they matter now.” All of that rings very true to my experience working and living in a classic college town, and it explains why the stakes of this small, focused comedy feel genuine. “The rifts between the generations seem impassable,” Gilbert continues, “and yet the thing the series suggests might unite them is the one thing they can agree on: that whatever art, language, and literature might mean to different people, they’re always worth fighting for.” —Eric Johnson