In an Inc. Magazine article by Lou Adler on hiring, he claims that the most powerful question one can ask in an interview is this:

What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

Adler is talking about an interview, but YCombinator, according to Paul Graham has been using this question on their application since the beginning. Graham believes in the power of this question. He uses the story of a YC alum as an example:
“…For example, Qasar Younis started life in a house with dirt floors in a village in Pakistan. His family moved to the US, to Detroit, when he was 7. He appears to have worked his ass off from the moment they landed. We funded his startup, Talkbin, in Winter 2011, mainly because we were so impressed with him. Talkbin was acquired by Google soon after Demo Day, and he is now a part time partner at YC.

(Why do so many people assume that after 9 years of picking founders, we still have huge blind spots that are obvious to them but not to us?)”

Significant accomplishment needs to be understood in context.

Younis seems like a very determined person with an impressive story.

This got me thinking about struggles such as women in Afghanistan or the young men and women in Syria in the midst of a civil war. How does Younis compare? I just don’t think you can compare these stories or use them as metrics for future success in an online application. In an interview, maybe, but not when it’s an application without a dialogue.

I’m a woman and an immigrant from a third world country. I came to the US when I was 16. I have stories, but I consciously try not to highlight them. This article and the discussions that came out of it has me thinking as to why I never use my past to make our applications stronger or make me more impressive to others. Is everything about marketing?

My husband is similar to me in that he doesn’t use his life in India in our applications, but after reading Paul Graham’s story, he had to reply:

“Qasar’s story is amazing and inspirational. Was he able to convey his story in his application to YC and is that the reason you selected him in? Or did someone at YC already know him to be able to truly appreciate his achievement?

I have always found the YC application strange in that sense. So much emphasis is given to the question of the “most impressive achievement”, but in order to convey any achievement with context, one needs to be quite verbose with their replies. Given that an application only has few seconds to impress, conveying anything is a challenge. Has YC given much thought to an essay type application?

I am proud of where I am today. I grew up in Mumbai, India (not quite a village). We weren’t rich. I still have scars on my right foot from an abscess caused from a piece of glass that had pierced my foot while playing soccer bare feet on concrete. We couldn’t afford shoes. Luckily my father’s business started picking up around the time I entered engineering school. The plan was for me to graduate with a bachelor’s in structural engineering and then we could work together to grow the business further. At 20, I earned my bachelor’s in structural engineering. Unfortunately my father had died in an accident at work when I was in my penultimate year of engineering. I managed to get enough resources together to be able to attend grad school in the US. I met my wife there. BTW, she has an amazing story too. We now have a startup (https://magtag.me) that received angel investment recently. We feel like outsiders in the tech scene but our spirits are high and when we look back at our lives we feel nothing but pride.

My life is an ongoing achievement. Would you have time to hear me out?”

That picture above? I had to cross 2 bridges similar to this one after Mount Pinatubo erupted to get to school—3 hours each way.

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Chalktips is a publishing platform that lets users create and share slideshows and booklets. We currently have 2,000 users. We marketed this specifically to educators. Although we are still going to keep the site running, we decided to focus all our efforts on our other startup, MagTag, which caters to fashion and e-commerce. We had to stop catering our work to educators after attempting to market Chalktips to the education community.

I still believe in Chalktips and what it stands for, but the current educational system is not ready for it. Here are the reasons why. I’m keeping it short:
1) There is a disconnect between who chooses what software schools use and who actually uses it.
2) There are very few teachers and students willing to try something new.
3) Publishers have bundled textbooks with all sorts of web enhancements that publishers are doing more of the lesson planning than the teachers.
4) In the last few years, those who have fundamentally challenged education are usually not educators, Salman Khan, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates. And those who are in education are usually researchers from MIT, Stanford or Ivy Leagues.

Two instances made us completely dedicate our efforts to a startup unrelated to education:

1) I was in a panel on education and technology. I mentioned Pinterest as a way to organize images and lectures. I received incredulous but polite looks and the rest proceeded to talk about Blackboard enhancements.

2) One of my students suggested to her teacher that she use Chalktips after the teacher complained about the publisher managed software she was using. The teacher said that she had no time to learn something new.

I have never felt so liberated. Educational institutions are not evolving fast enough. The software used by most schools lack the dynamism and interactivity that real world technology offers.

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My reaction to a NYT article on the use of artificial intelligence to grade essays:

As an educator, I appreciate technology that provides students a quicker way to get feedback, but this software only reinforces students’ frustration with essays: no one reads them except the professor. Most are written to be read by one person. Artists are able to share their work, but for most majors that require writing, assignments are meant to be forgotten. This is exactly the reason why students who major in these fields graduate without a portfolio of their work.

My husband and I developed https://chalktips.com/ to solve this problem. We wanted to make essays and school work for college students engaging and shareable. Students publish booklets and slideshows as part of their assignment. Students can tweet or share their work in Facebook or Tumblr.

Last semester as part of the final, I had professionals from different fields comment on student work, and the feedback from students was amazing.

Using AI to comment on essays might be efficient and probably comparable to having ONE person grade an assignment. But it doesn’t make use of the power of community. It also does not address the fundamental problem with essays: after it’s graded, so what?

We currently have 1,400 users with more than 2,500 booklets and slideshows published. Students are embracing the platform. Of course, I’m a community college teacher without the clout of MIT professors. But we’re hopeful that more students start demanding that they are given assignments that have utility after the course is over.

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We presented MagTag at a FashionTech event 2 weeks ago. Fashiontech is such a departure from Chalktips and Edtech. There is an energy and enthusiasm that I don’t quite get from teachers and educators in general.

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“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” provides a sociobiological analysis of how the internet’s structure is altering the way we consume information, our neural paths, and emotional depth. Carr argues that this shift from linear consumption of information to a staccato-like attention span is a return to earlier evolutionary survival skills:

“Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.” (Kindle Locations 1127-1128)

Unlike other forms of media, the web is designed to distract. The web relies on short-term memory, which Carr laments as endangering our ability for schematic thinking–the foundation of in depth thought.

“The Web has a very different effect. It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas.” (Kindle Locations 3298-3300)

Aside from our intellectual abilities, Carr argues that the net “reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” (Kindle Locations 3763-3765) Over stimulation and the bombardment of information does not give us the space to reflect.

Carr takes on a technological determinist argument. Citing Veblen and Marx, Carr strongly supports the causal relationship that technology leads to social change. In the process, Carr dismisses human agency in his argument. People are passive consumers of technology.

Interviewing scholars, professionals, and intellectuals, Carr discovers that avid consumers of knowledge have succumbed to the web’s distraction. People rarely read an entire piece of literature and we have resorted to skimming.

This book reminds me that the shifts in my reading habits are the new norm. As I prepare for my Fall 2012 courses, here are some questions that the book raised for me: Should I expect students to read the whole text? No. Do I expect them to be able to articulate arguments and ideas from the readings? Yes.

Did I read the entirety of the “The Shallows”? Here’s my honest answer. I tried reading it from my computer. I got so distracted, so I read it on my iPad. I read it my patio in the middle of the night. I skimmed a few chapters, but read the entirety of some. I finished it in about 3 hours.

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People who teach at community colleges face a professionalization dilemma: we are not quite the renowned professors in 4-year universities, but in terms of credentials, edge high school and kindergarten teachers. This ambiguous position is evident in the way we are addressed, compensated, and the profession’s prestige level. Students use a variety of titles to address us: Mr./Ms., Teacher, Instructor, and Professor. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, post-secondary teachers make on average $62,050 and high school teachers $53,230 (2010). In terms of occupational prestige, professors score a 74, secondary teachers 66, and pre-K/Kindergarten teachers 55. (1)

In assessing the social value of occupations, economists and sociologists differ. While economists focus on the value of labor and wages through supply and demand, sociologists focus on barriers to entry in a profession.

Sociological concepts, such as Max Weber’s closure theory, explores how institutions restrict access to certain positions which leads to labor stratification.

“Social closure… occurs wherever the competition for a livelihood creates groups interested in reducing that competition. These groups try to monopolize advantages and maximize their rewards by closing off opportunities to outsiders they define as inferior or ineligible (Weeden 2002, 58).”(2) A mechanism that leads to closure, for example, is accreditation and licensing.

Identifying an occupation’s level of prestige and professionalization influences legitimacy of authority. If students perceive community college teachers as underpaid professionals rejected by 4-year universities, then we have lost a fundamental component of respect in the classroom. I feel this in my interactions with students. When they find out that I finished my Bachelor’s Degree at an Ivy League, I worked in publishing, or that I am a co-founder of a tech start-up, students seem excited and thrilled. Somehow, this makes up for my current profession.

Why will students believe me when I try to inspire them to aim high, when they look at my work as a compromise? Will success in other fields outside of academia prove to be more inspiring for students?

In my lecture on women in the workforce, I showed Sheryl Sandberg’s (Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer) Ted presentation on the unequal representation of women in corporate America. She pointed out the bias in assessing women in powerful positions and encouraged women to be more assertive. People clapped after the 14-minute video. In a class of 80 students wherein 4 males and 1 female usually dominate the conversation, women from every corner of that lecture hall participated enthusiastically. It was the most energetic class this semester.

I’m not the only educator who now has to continually compete with cell phones and tablets for attention.  I have witnessed students play video games and chat on Facebook while renowned lecturers deliver impassioned lectures at prominent 4-year universities. When I asked students why they weren’t paying attention, the general consensus is that they can find most of the information online.

Calls for reforms on our educational system are missing this elementary problem: teachers need respect to do their job, and in a society that values professionalism and monetary accomplishments, community college teachers, no matter how brilliant, are just not as inspiring.

I want to offer a solution. We need professionals to teach more. Invite people who are in various professional fields applying knowledge learned in college, into the classroom, and the theories and exams will make more sense.

Ingersoll, Richard M., and Elizabeth Merrill. 2011. “The Status of Teaching as a Profession.” in Schools and Society: A Sociological Approach to Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Weeden, Kim A. 2002. “Why Do Some Occupations Pay More Than Others? Social Closure and Earnings Inequality in the United States.” The American Journal of Sociology 108(1):55–101.

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