Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Stop Pushing STEM!


From time to time in these pages, I’ve scoffed at the idea that American students need to focus more on STEM. It’s time I tackled this topic head-on.

The rhetoric

Perhaps I don’t even need to establish that there’s a huge push in this country for more students to pursue STEM. I hear it constantly: from my neighbors, from politicians, from fellow parents, from my employer, and from the mass media. But just to substantiate the prevalence of this idea, here are some glib quotes from our nation’s leaders:
Do these politicos speak from personal experience? Of course not. Obama majored in Political Science with a specialty in International Relations and English Literature. Senator Rosen got her degree in Psychology. Senator Rubio studied Political Science. Governor Scott studied Business. Senator Kirk studied History. Governor Bevin majored in East Asian Studies. What a bunch of hypocrites! Do they think they’re special—that they alone can be gainfully employed with a liberal arts degree, while our kids will be doomed if they aren’t suckled on the breast of high tech? Or do these politicians think the job market has fundamentally and permanently changed?

The flaw in this STEM-or-else idea is that it simply isn’t substantiated historically. For most of its history, America has seen most of its people gainfully employed, and only a minority have worked in tech. According to this analysis by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1996 just under 10% of US employment was in high-tech industries. Twenty years later, in 2016, the percentage of tech jobs was—guess what?—still about 10%. The BLS’s projection for the tech sector’s percentage of jobs in 2026? Wait for it … about 10%. Sure, there are spectacular instances of people making a killing in this realm, but that’s not the same thing as a new status quo. Meanwhile, plenty of people work in tech who don’t have STEM degrees. (More on this later.)

So where are these politicians getting their information? Probably from one another. Or maybe it’s their perception of what the voters are thinking, and they’re simply pandering. Who knows. The only thing that’s obvious to me is a serious lack of skepticism about STEM’s applicability to the majority of our students.

The earnings myth

A prevalent idea in my community is that unless our kids study STEM and get the kickass tech jobs, they won’t be able to afford to live here. True, real estate is famously expensive in the Bay Area, but I object to this chicken-little thinking. For one thing, my neighbors aren’t all (or even mostly) STEM types themselves, yet they do manage to afford their mortgages. And when it comes to their kids, they seem to automatically accept the widespread belief that STEM fields actually assure higher earnings. In fact they don’t.

I’m basing this bold statement on real data you can see for yourself here. This website enables you to see earnings over time across a huge spectrum of college majors. You don’t just see the median income, but how the income range varies according to how well the worker is doing in his or her field.

At first glance, the graphs generated by this website do support the idea that STEM fields pay better. Here’s how all the majors play out over time:

Zoom in. You’ll see that Chemical Engineering clearly pays better than any of the other majors; the lack of a college degree brings up the rear in earnings; and the lowest-earning college degree (the grey line) is Theology. When we use the handy-dandy filtering feature to look at just two majors, we see an apparently similar story:

I picked Computer Science because it seems to be the darling of STEM proponents, and I chose English because it’s what I studied in college. It’s plain to see that on average, the middle-of-the-road (50th percentile) Comp Sci grad does earn more: $3.3 million over his or her career, vs. the roughly $2.5 million an English grad would earn. But this comparison assumes that all humans are equally good at everything, which is patently false. Ask yourself: are you equally good at analyzing literature and programming a computer? Is your appreciation of fine art equal to your math ability? It seems obvious that when choosing a major, a person should factor in his or her interests and capabilities.

That’s where the graphs get very interesting. Let’s say you’re a bookish type and consider yourself smarter than the average bear at appreciating a work of literature. And let’s say you struggle just a bit with math. Should you still pursue STEM? Well, let’s ask the question this way: how much better would you have to be at English to break even on this presumably less lucrative choice of major?

The answer would probably surprise the STEMsters. An English lit major at the 70th percentile will make, on average, $3.1 million over his or her career, which is more than the slightly-below-par Computer Science major; at the 40th percentile, the Comp Sci major makes only $3 million. In other words, if liberal arts are your thing, sticking with them will make you more money than working your ass off trying to fake it in STEM.

Consider now that for the example above, I cherry-picked one of the most lucrative STEM majors. Consider the spread when we compare English to Chemistry:

In this case, you only have to be slightly better than average—55th percentile—in English to make more money than a somewhat substandard—40th percentile—Chem major. (The former would make $2.61 million over his or her career; the latter, $2.58 million.) Comparing English to Biology, the gap is even smaller: you’d only have to be at 55th percentile for English to make more than a 50th-percentile Bio major. To reiterate: the STEM fields are only more lucrative to those who are particularly suited to them.

(I was turned on to this website by this slide deck, put together by the UC Santa Barbara Associate Vice Chancellor, who is also a math professor, to promote liberal arts. This same data set is cited by The New York Times in this article, which declares it a myth that “for the big money, STEM always delivers.”)

Job security

Now, the STEM-pushers might naturally reply, “Great, fine, those who manage to find work in non-STEM fields do okay. But all the modern jobs are in tech! Do you want to work as a barista because your liberal arts degree didn’t equip you for the modern workforce?”

The short answer is what I already showed: tech doesn’t actually employ more of the workforce than it did twenty years ago, and that’s not expected to change. The long answer, meanwhile, looks even worse for STEM. When we compare the number of STEM jobs available to the number of students majoring in STEM subjects, we discover a frightening gap. To put it bluntly, the widespread promotion of STEM has already produced a glut of majors in those subjects. Check out this article in The New York Times, and particularly the graph at the top. It shows that there were 169,000 Engineering degrees (undergrad & graduate) awarded in 2015-2016, while that field only expects 51,000 job openings for 2014 through 2024. Life Sciences is even worse, with 183,000 degrees awarded and only  12,000 openings for those grads. Math isn’t much better, with 7,000 jobs forecast and 33,000 degrees awarded.

With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that studying STEM doesn’t guarantee getting a STEM-related job. Far from it, in fact. “Unemployment rates for STEM majors may be low,” the Times article states, “but not all of those with undergraduate degrees end up in their field of study — only 13 percent in life sciences and 17 percent in physical sciences, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation survey. Computer Science is the only STEM field where more than half of graduates are employed in their field.”

According to an expert quoted in the Times article, STEM advocates are “often executives and lobbyists for technology companies,” which makes sense. I can’t blame a tech company for wanting to have more graduates to choose from, and for wanting the best and brightest of our youth to be added to that pool. But this doesn’t mean America’s tech companies have room for all these people, and they certainly feel no responsibility to hire all of them. So who’s looking out for all the STEM grads whose résumés end up in the recycling?

The biggest myth

I hope I’ve helped you realize that a) studying STEM doesn’t necessarily lead to greater income, and 2) studying STEM doesn’t increase the likelihood of finding a job. But those are the easier cases to make. I have a more fundamental bone to pick: even if STEM were more lucrative and reliable, that doesn’t mean we should push it on our kids. To me, the greatest myth of all is an implicit one: that job security and income are the most important factors in a person’s happiness.

I won’t deny that job stability and wealth are great things to have. Frankly, I love money, and I’d be thrilled if I could relax a bit more about my own job security. But I naturally bristle at the pressure our kids are getting—from their peers, their parents, pundits, and the media—to pursue STEM regardless of their natural inclinations. The FUD being sowed here really bothers me, when you consider how hard it already is to be a teenager. I’m also irked by the idea that we parents know what’s best for our youth, when most of us—raised in the “Me Generation” of the ‘70s, with an abundance of laissez-faire parents—got to chart our own course, and most of us are doing just fine.

I think the external pressure put on our kids is inherently malignant. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do as they please? Parents are saying, “Follow this path” instead of “Find your own path,” and I take this as a vote of no-confidence.

“Be realistic,” the STEMist might say. “All this follow-your-dream ideology just isn’t practical.” I beg to differ. How practical is it to add extra stress to a teenager’s life by saying “You’d better do X-Y-Z or you’ll never be able to afford to [live here] [buy a home] [have a family] [pay off your loans] [be financially secure]”? Consider how rampant mental health issues are across our society: according to this article, more than 44 million American adults (almost one in five) suffer from a mental health condition. That’s a hell of a lot higher than our nation’s rate of unemployment.

I read a fascinating but sobering book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in nearby Marin County. She describes the often disastrous results of affluent parents pressuring their kids to achieve a certain standard of worldly success:
As long as kids are not afforded the opportunity to craft a sense of self that feels authentic, a sense of self that truly comes from within, psychologists like myself will continue to see more and more youngsters at risk for profound feelings of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and emptiness.
The authentic self

Let’s examine what a truly authentic STEM kid might look like. A generation ago, only oddball nerds dug computers. Consider my brother Bryan, for example. He naturally gravitated toward programming and in junior high spent countless hours in front of a teletype, which was a type of primitive computer that didn’t even have a monitor: it was connected to a printer and to a mainframe somewhere. Nobody knows what the hell he and his rare ilk were actually doing with these machines. Baseline Junior High had exactly two teletypes, and Bryan didn’t have to compete with very many others for access. (He did, however, have to talk his teachers into letting him cut typing class and study hall to get that precious computer time.) He was a dyed-in-the-wool computer geek, who loved the pure logic of programming, and that was that.

And now we have politicians, corporate spokespeople, the media, and parents saying everybody should be diving into technology, engineering, and such. Sure, everybody uses computers and smartphones now, but does that mean everyone should be designing, building, or programming them? Does the idea (however exaggerated) that all the good jobs are in STEM fields suddenly mean this is what actually ought to interest your typical kid? Is everybody a tech-geek now, just because society has decided we need more of them?

Allow me a playful analogy: what if the experts determined that, as far as pets go, dogs had a brighter future than cats? What if we decided that it just wasn’t practical, in the 21st century, to behave in a feline fashion? Would anybody try to teach a housecat to tolerate a leash, to ride in the car, to bark, and to wag its tail to show happiness? Of course this would be decried as nonsense: nobody could ask a cat to change its very nature. But how are humans any different?

And yet, there’s this widespread idea that everybody now ought to be immersed in this specialized world of bits and bytes, vectors and trajectories, atoms and angles. The profit motive seems to have warped everybody’s sensibility here. Let’s face it: kids throughout time have had plenty of math and science instruction in school … those subjects were never really neglected. What’s changed is this idea, suddenly, that what schools have been offering isn’t enough and we should all have our knickers in a twist about it, with new programs, new legislation, and budget cuts for the liberal arts.

My community’s progressive and well-run school district provides plenty of opportunities in STEM. A year or so ago, my older daughter even signed up for a high school Computer Science course, and I was all for it—because it was her idea. I even offered to help her mess around with our family’s Arduino programmable microcontroller when the time came. However, a couple weeks into the term my daughter decided that she just didn’t dig the class, and ultimately dropped it. (She was sad about this, since she really liked the teacher, but knew herself well enough to recognize a bad fit. Not that she’s anti-STEM; she’s in college now, majoring in Psychological & Brain Sciences.)

Looking at the wider realm of STEM—the non-T, non-E part—certainly the realms of science and math are capacious enough to accommodate a wide variety of interests. But the decline in Humanities majors deserves to be wondered about. How much of this can be chalked up to parental influence around what our kids pursue, and why?

My own story

I couldn’t blame you for assuming that my skepticism toward STEM is a case of sour grapes, or a defensive crouch based on my own (supposedly) humble liberal arts education. But in fact, I’ve worked in STEM for my whole career. (Though I didn’t set out to be an engineer, my dormant technical ability was discovered when I took a programming aptitude test during recruitment by an Internet company.) I was able to learn Internet routing, shell scripting, network troubleshooting, traffic shaping, access control, and network design on the job, but my career growth has been largely based on so-called “soft skills”—including the ability to communicate, write, negotiate, and imagine others’ points of view—which all came from my liberal education. As my work has evolved, what I learned in college has only become more important. I am truly grateful I didn’t “play it safe” by studying Computer Science, Engineering, or Math (like my dad, ahead of his time in Humanities-bashing, exhorted me to).

What employers really want

So your next question might be, isn’t my case kind of an anomaly? Not necessarily. Certain fields, like Chemical Engineering, do require specific credentials. But high tech seems to prioritize the ability to learn above having specific credentials, and employs a wide variety of people. As described in this article, featured in the UCSB Vice Chancellor’s pro-liberal-arts presentation, Google appreciates many capabilities typically associated with a liberal education:
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
This Forbes article, also cited by the UCSB Vice Chancellor, declares that “That ‘useless’ liberal arts education has become tech’s hottest ticket.” It goes on to say:
Software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger… At disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers—and make progress seem pleasant.
Conclusion: what is to be done?

I hope that I’ve made a compelling case here that the widespread effort to push more kids into STEM is myopic at best. STEM doesn’t guarantee a higher income; doesn’t increase the likelihood of gainful employment; and, moreover, doesn’t support our kids and their need for a true sense of self. Ultimately, where a young person lands isn’t a simple plug-and-play matter of what degree he or she earned. I truly believe that when it comes to the next generation, all of us—the parents, the politicians, and the pundits—would do well to just shut up and stand aside. Let’s let our kids follow their own interests, trusting in themselves, in higher education, and in the vast and varied job market.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

From the Archives - How To Be a Demon Roommate from Hell


When I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, I routinely wrote little essays and stories that I’d photocopy and mail to family and friends … kind of like this blog, but obviously long before the Internet was available to the masses.

One of my features was a multi-part guide on “How To Be a UCSB Student.” Most of that is collapsed into one post, here. Not included was “Part Four: Being a Demon Roommate from Hell.” At long last, I bring that installment to albertnet.

How to Be a Demon Roommate From Hell – January 25, 1989

Being a Demon Roommate from Hell (DRH) is no easy feat. I would call myself a poor specimen. Fortunately, I have the benefit of living with what I would deem the quintessential DRH. While an interview has been impossible, a careful case study has given me sufficient information for this handy how-to guide.

Part One: The Kitchen

Driving your roommate(s) insane through kitchen tactics is simply a matter of hygiene, or lack thereof. Here, cockroaches can aid you in your task by capitalizing on your messes, thus creating a symbiosis between man and insect (though our roaches are so large, they could almost be classified as rodents.) Leave these critters tasty morsels on a regular basis, and they will reward you with repulsive displays of fecundity.

Make a point of never washing dishes. You can either leave them lying about, filthy, or make a sporting attempt to hide them somewhere in the kitchen. The latter technique offers added benefit, because in addition to the anger it invokes in your victim, dishes can often get lost for days at a time, which is like a buffet for your roach population.

Cook something really smelly on a regular basis. Subsisting entirely on rice, lentils, and fish is an excellent technique. Cook the rice and lentils first thing in the morning to fumigate the house. (As luck would have it, the cold morning air outside prohibits adequate ventilation.) Cook the fish at lunchtime and at dinnertime, like clockwork. The sheer monotony of this is oppressive all by itself, but you score additional points for wasting energy (and thus your roommates’ money!) by heating the oven twice a day, instead of saving and reheating leftovers. Rub it in by cooking with the oven door ajar. Even if you could find justification for this practice, it’s best not to explain yourself.

Never take the garbage out. Instead, leave it for your roommates. If they are stubborn, they might take you on in a game of chicken, meaning the trash can stay by the door for days at a time. Don’t give up: if your roommates have any decency they are doomed to lose at this game. Once they’ve finally removed the garbage, leave it to them to start a new bag. Leave your new garbage lying around on the counters, or bury it halfheartedly in crumpled paper towels.

Part Two: The Bathroom

You can never have enough soap in circulation if you are a DRH. Have at least four bars of the orange, slimy variety lying around. (Ideally, it should lose its shape almost entirely, as if trying to become a liquid.) Keep two bars near the sink, making sure to let them ooze messily all over the porcelain. Disregard the soap dish completely. The other two bars should go on the rim or the floor of the bathtub, where they won’t be missed.

If you are a talented, well endowed DRH, you have dandruff. Not the kind wherein tiny flakes of hair fall just from your scalp, but Gnarly Body Dandruff (GBD). This involves a combination of dead skin and half-inch, jet-black curly body hairs that shed copiously . Together, they have the uncanny ability to clog drains. Apply liberally to all parts of the tub, sink, and toilet.

If your roommate is a qualified victim, he likes to dry off quickly after a shower. Therefore, you can really get under his skin by foiling his attempts to dry his towel. If he hangs it on the curtain rod with the window open, close the window. Then hang the towel on the hand towel ring, or better yet, wad it up into a little ball. If your victim is tenacious, you may need to repeat this procedure several times a day.

Never, ever replace the toilet paper roll. The point here isn’t just to save money, but to try to leave your roommates paperless in an emergency situation. Again, if they are stubborn, you may need to lay in a secret supply of TP to ensure victory in this war of attrition.

Part Three: The Living Room

There is plenty of room for creative expression here. The only rule of thumb is to trash the living room as completely as possible given the range of your possessions. When you throw your books on the floor, always shoot for maximum dispersal. Make every horizontal surface your personal desk and cover it with worthless papers. If your roommates move these, you can score bonus points by pretending these papers are important and becoming visibly upset.

Laundry is an excellent means for polluting the living room; you can enhance its impact by never washing it. Be particularly liberal with your undergarments, especially “tighty-whitey” briefs (though yours aren’t exactly white).

Part Four: Your Roommate’s Stuff

Chances are, your roommates own some pretty nice things; all UCSB students do. Ask to borrow them often. Or even better, just use them as though they were yours. If you have a roommate with his own room, make yourself at home there. If your roommate is using one of his possessions, you can bother him simply by coveting it: “Gee, that HP 15C calculator sure is nice. That would be perfect for a computer science major like myself. Gosh, it hardly seems fair that you, a liberal arts major, should have one of those, when I have nothing.”

Part Five: Odd Quirks and Personal Habits

The beauty of odd quirks and personal habits is that, since they’re not outwardly hostile, your roommates can’t call you on them or ever expect to change them. They will silently suffer through them, experiencing a general feeling of helplessness.

Here again, specific techniques are up to the DRH. However, there are some old standbys which are always effective. Grunt: “Unng,” “Brouuagh.” In the morning, you can create a nonstop cacophony of grunts: “Graup, oooooguuaww, brouuagh, b-g-g-g-g-uuua, ungh.” Snorting, hacking up phlegm, and spitting into the sink are all excellent techniques. Say “Duh” frequently; while this may have no effect the first ten thousand times, it will eventually begin to drive your roommates insane. When one of them finally approaches you about it—“Dude, you actually say ‘duh,’ I can’t believe it!”—deny this emphatically.

Sleep at strange times. If you’re napping at noon, your roommates might not even see you, and may accidentally wake you up. Perfect! Now you can yell at them, grunt, and refuse to accept any apology offered. Another favorable outcome of this technique is that your roommates must be silent as long as you’re in bed, in addition to having to stumble around in the dark. Go to bed at nine so your victims can’t play their stereo.

Part Six: Exercises and “Yoga”

Just like a real exercise regimen, pretending to know how to exercise will require time and practice. The only equipment required is a pair of Kelly green sweats, which must be worn every day, without laundering. (Any color will actually do, but green has been proven especially offensive to a person of average tastes.)

Swing your arms around wildly, and pump them up and down frantically. Do curls with no weights, watching your bulging muscles continuously. Another very effective fake exercise is the Jackrabbit Jump: holding your arms out at ninety degrees to the body, with your eyes fixed on the wall, jump straight up in the air, collapsing into a kneeling posture after landing.

The offensive breathing accompanying your “exercise” can be accomplished in one of two ways: either hold your breath throughout each activity, loudly bursting forth clouds of carbon dioxide at the end, or simulate hard breathing with every movement like Richard Simmons (who may have learned this from a DRH, if he happened to have been cursed with one).

You can do these exercises while cooking or reading the newspaper, or even while following your roommate around the apartment trying to talk to him. This gives him the uncanny and highly disturbing sense of being chased around in his own home. Always keep your main goal in mind: to make your roommate(s) want to yell, “Look, those aren’t real exercises! Why don’t you go for a run or something?”

Fake yoga consists of very slow, thoughtful, but essentially random movements, ideally involving outstretched limbs, performed in the corridor or anywhere else indiscreet. Fake transcendental meditation is also a very effective annoyance. Pretend to have sent your mind on a grand tour of the universe. The real beauty of this one is that the more inaccurate your simulation is, the more annoying it is.

Part Seven: Things to Say

Verbal atrocity is an incredibly powerful form of (entirely legal!) roommate abuse. Once again, this medium allows much room for creativity, but I’ll offer some effective examples. You might say, “Oh, I met the sweetest girl today. She wasn’t like the other girls on this campus. She was just so charming and gave me the biggest smile. I’d like to introduce her to an active sex life.” (Give this same speech, verbatim, on a regular basis; alternate it with corresponding tales of woe after being denied.) Other possibilities: “Gee, I can’t believe what you feed your body. Don’t you know that white flour disrupts your blood’s delicate pH balance and can cause hypertension? And look here, this onion salt contains sodium silicoaluminate. That can cause Alzheimer’s disease.” Or, “How can you read that magazine? Don’t you know it’s hopelessly middle class? I’m X-class: I’ve completely transcended the class system.” And there’s this old standby, of course: “You’ll never earn money or respect with a liberal arts degree.”

Give your roommates frequent advice about dating. Never mind that you haven’t had a date since they’ve known you; this will work in your favor, as unearned authority is profoundly exasperating to any reasonable person. Expound on the importance of eye contact and good come-ons. Offer to take your roommate to a public place to practice his skills. (If he insists that he doesn’t want to “pick up” any girls, profess disbelief. Tell him, “Hey, you don’t fool me … everyone wants to score!”) Whenever possible, try to set him up with a girl of your choosing. If she has a boyfriend, all the better in creating an embarrassing situation!

Part Eight: General Protocol

When your roommate says, “Good morning,” grab him by the collar and growl, “Speak for yourself, buddy. I feel like hell.” Respond to regular greetings with a simple grunt. When he says, “See you later, have a good one,” clam up. Don’t say a word. Save your sociable tendencies for when he’s busy, perhaps when he’s trying to read a boring history textbook.

In the process of executing various DRH techniques, you will surely be tempting your roommates to object verbally to your behavior. For example, when a roommate’s diplomatic instincts finally break down and he tells you you’re being a slob, fly into a blind rage and begin an impassioned defense. Remember, louder is better! Logic is no substitute for volume and repetition! Try to incorporate into your rantings and ravings as much random dirt on this roommate as you can dig up. Let it all out! In some instances, your roommate could prove to be a vicious, razor-tongued bastard, and he may shred you verbally. In this case, smash your fist into the refrigerator repeatedly and then hold a grudge for at least a week.


My original essay ended there … with the instruction to punch out the refrigerator. I suppose you could argue this wasn’t a particularly deep essay, and it must be said I wasn’t a particularly deep person at age 19. Looking back now, the essay seems incomplete, and I can’t help but to tell the rest of the story.

Part Nine: Parting Ways

It goes without saying that, at the end of your lease, your roommates will go find a new apartment without you. When you discover that they’re both moving out, frame their behavior as the lowest, most vicious and cruel treachery you’ve ever encountered. Speak of your shared housing experience as though it were a high point in all of your lives, and act incredulous that your roommates should want to destroy that—to discard this precious friendship like a used Kleenex.

Part Ten: Epilogue

Don’t ever mention to your roommates that you suffer from actual manic depression. Let that dawn on them years later.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ask a College Dad

Dear College Dad,

When my wife and I dropped off our daughter at college, everyone in the family had been wagering on who would cry the most. Oddly, nobody cried, not even my daughter. I thought her eyes would at least get shiny, but she was utterly emotionless. I think her exact words were, “Shouldn’t you and Dad be getting on the road?” Is this in the realm of normal, or have I raised an ice princess?

Shannon M, Hilliard, OH

Dear Shannon,

Not to worry, her behavior is completely normal. Don’t take this wrong, but your kid has probably all but forgotten about you by now. She’s rushing off into her exciting future and doesn’t have the mental space to get all wistful like you. That would be like doing 80 on the freeway while gazing at the rearview mirror.

Of course, as with all child development realms, the range of normal is very broad. Many kids cry their eyes out. This is usually because they’re totally unprepared to be college students. (Kidding!)

Dear College Dad,

I live in a college town and have been haunted for weeks by something I saw during Welcome Week: a very young looking girl barfing in a nightclub parking lot after being ejected by the bouncer. She was so drunk she could barely stand! Ever since then I’ve been on pins and needles because my son started college last month at Chico State, a notorious party school. How on earth will I stay sane for the next four years?

Dave R, Carmichael, CA

Dear Dave,

Don’t you remember your trip to Mexico with the YMCA when you were 15, with scant adult supervision, when you got sick on $8-a-liter vodka and woke up on the beach at noon with a terrible sunburn? Okay, maybe you didn’t do all that, but lots of now-adults did such things. The fact is, parents have a tendency to worry about the kinds of trouble their kids could get in without comparing it to what they themselves did. (Or maybe it’s only good parents who do this.) Your sensibilities suggest that your son didn’t grow up with oblivious parents. He will probably survive.

Dear College Dad,

When I was down at Parents’ Week at my son’s school this past weekend, I saw an elderly couple with his-and-hers sweatshirts: “UCSD Grandpa” and “UCSD Grandma.” It didn’t even occur to me to invite my parents along to participate in this milestone. Did I totally drop the ball on that?

Michael B, Fresno, CA

Dear Michael,

Having his or her grandparents there for the drop-off was probably a huge embarrassment for that grandkid, which is a really good thing. Still, it’s not always that practical to involve the elderly like that so it’s certainly not standard practice. Here’s an economical idea: next time you visit your kid on campus, show up wearing a “UCSD Grandma” sweatshirt yourself, if you can find it in a unisex size.

Dear College Dad,

My daughter came home to do her laundry last weekend, and I overheard her talking on the phone about “Yes Means Yes.” I have no idea what it means other than it’s almost certainly related to “No Means No.” Can you help?

Nadine Roberts, Fremont, CA

Dear Nadine,

First off, if your daughter doesn’t mind talking about this when she knows you could be eavesdropping, she may well be receptive to a useful dialogue that could begin with you asking her this question. Myself, I don’t have any special knowledge of this concept, and its associated laws, that you couldn’t easily Google. You might check out this link and this one.

Dear College Dad,

My son just started his sophomore year of college. He never called me when he was a freshman, but I chalked this up to his being overly busy and wanting to really hit his stride as a student. We got along great when he was home for the summer, but since he’s been back at school he hasn’t called me once! What do you think is going on here?

Rebecca M, Southfield, MI

Dear Rebecca,

The answer is utterly simple: sons don’t call their moms. They just don’t. Never have, never will. You might find a few counterexamples, but those are just outliers, like that tiny minority of cats who are willing to be put on a leash. (Don’t read too much into my metaphor.)

Dear College Dad,

My son left behind a couple of MP3 players when he went off to college. He obviously doesn’t want them anymore since they became obsolete the day he got his smartphone. Would it be ridiculously sentimental of me to start listening to these, to get to know my son better through the music he likes? Kind of like a virtual meet-up in the musical realm?

Andrew B, Hillsboro, OR

Dear Andrew,

That wouldn’t be ridiculously sentimental, but would probably be ridiculous. Just because you latched on to “Dark Side of the Moon” as a teen and identified strongly with it doesn’t mean modern teens relate to music this way. Through platforms like Spotify, they’re omnivorously moving through countless songs and artists, sampling and discarding at an astonishing rate. Whatever tracks are still on your kid’s MP3 players are ancient relics of a time so fleeting it wouldn’t register in any historical sense. But if you think you might enjoy a crash course in obscure bands like Because It’s Tuesday, why not take a listen?

Here’s an idea: email your kid to tell him you’re enjoying the tracks on his old MP3 player, and he might well react in a favorable way, such as expressing exasperation that you’re wasting your time with music that is so 2014. This might set you up to ask for a “mix tape,” sparking a robust dialogue about what the hell a mix tape is. Your kid might even style you out with a current playlist.

Dear College Dad,

My daughter started college this term, and my husband and I never hear from her! I mean, when I was in college all we had was a landline that we shared with our roommates, so it was a little more difficult logistically, but I still managed to call my folks. Now these kids have their smartphones on them at all times and can so easily shoot off a quick text … but I still get nothing! I’d happily settle for “All is well – luv ya mom!” (though a call would be even nicer). Am I being crazy? Have I somehow offended my daughter (meaning I should reach out and make up, as if she’d even answer her phone or my texts)?

Megan S, Topeka, KS

Dear Megan,

Now you know how these teens feel, when their friends don’t respond to their digital overtures! The sad fact is, the ease of all this technology has unrealistically raised everyone’s expectations of what a reasonable response interval should be. The relative inconvenience of traditional landline phones probably prevented a lot of hurt feelings … it was possible to go long periods without contact without inferring that total neglect was the culprit. Just be patient, as the passage of time is surely experienced differently by your kid.

Now, if you get really desperate, it couldn’t hurt to occasionally employ the texting equivalent of click-bait. For example, if your daughter used to share a bedroom with her little sister, you could text, “Wow, Fiona has really torn your old room apart! It looks like a hurricane went through there.” What college kid could resist responding to that? Not mine, I’ll tell you that much…

Dear College Dad,

My daughter shared with me this shocking tale: her roommate’s mom showed up at a frat party (during parents’ week) with a bottle of tequila and ended up riding the mechanical bull while delighted freshman looked on. This happens every year apparently as certain moms try to relive their own college experience. Has everybody gone mad?! Should I be worried about the effect this college scene is having on my daughter?

John H, Albany, CA

Dear John,

That really is shocking. I hope that a) the mom wasn’t injured, and b) that “mechanical bull” still means what it used to and isn’t a euphemism for something unthinkable I’m too naïve to even know about.

As for the impression on the other partygoers, I’m sure this woman’s daughter was mortified (at least, I hope so) but all the other college kids are probably the better for it. This parental behavior might temper the allure of drinking … maybe parents will make alcohol abuse seem lame, like they did with Facebook.

Dear College Dad,

If my child leaves NYC on a train headed for Stanford University at 7 am on Sunday morning, traveling at 100 mph (as if!), and Stanford is 3,246 miles away, how long will it take before I have exactly $0 in my retirement account?

John L, Ithaca, NY

Dear John,

I was really starting to sweat about having to do math, and then I realized this is a trick question. Of course the answer is, if you have a retirement account, then you are in the subset of Americans who have too much money to get financial aid from Stanford, thus you wouldn’t be sending your kid there to begin with. Any functional adult living as close as you do to Cornell, a legitimate university, would see through the thin façade of Stanford’s inflated reputation, acknowledge that it’s more of an incubator for tech than an actual university, and refuse to spend a red cent there.

Dear College Dad,

My daughter keeps texting me asking for photos of our cat. It’s starting to get ridiculous … this is practically the only contact we have: me obliging her with cat pix. Is my kid’s brain going soft or something? Any hints on how I might try to elevate the conversation?

Irma T, Dallas, TX

Dear Irma,

I suppose this could be a “safe” way for your daughter to reach out … it’s possibly easier to admit you miss your cat than to admit you miss your family. (Or, it could be that your cat is just much, much more attractive than you are—no offense.) One way to promote a more robust discourse would be to reply and say, “Given the number of cat photo requests you have made, I need you to prove to me that you’re not a bot before I send any more.” Or, better yet, insist on a photo for a photo: “You can send me a photo of whatever you feel like photographing, and I will reward you with a cat photo.” It’s even better than being on Instagram (or “Insta” as the kids are evidently calling it).

Dear College Dad,

My child seems like a good kid and is pretty well adjusted and happy, though not exactly a valedictorian. Is there any hope for him?

Samantha W, Cary, NC

Dear Samantha,

No. No hope for him at all.

Just kidding! Doom-and-gloom rumors of colleges being impossible to get into have been greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, with marijuana being legalized in state after state, and addictive video games on the rise, any well-adjusted, non-addicted, and happy kid will soon find the world his oyster, through the attrition of his would-be rivals.

Dear College Dad,

My daughter is a sophomore now, and every time I ask her what she ate for dinner she says either Kraft macaroni and cheese or quesadillas. I’d been so relieved she made it through her freshman year without gaining the infamous “freshman five” (or fifteen or whatever it’s up to), but now she’s developing such bad habits! I feel guilty because I never taught her how to cook. Is there a tactful way to warn her about gaining weight with her reckless diet-of-convenience?

Jennifer P, Stamford, CT

Dear Jennifer,

I’m no expert on females, but every cell in my brain tells me there’s no tactful way to broach this topic, and almost zero chance your advice would be appreciated. That said, you can at least get her off the Kraft crackaroni & cheese with a pair of non-weight-related rationale. First, since all Gen-Z kids care passionately about the environment, remind her the cheese powder packets aren’t recyclable. Next, point out that these same packets introduce potentially harmful phthalates into the cheese sauce. Homemade mac ‘n’ cheese is much yummier—and won’t feed your kid’s addiction to convenience). Send her this link.

Dear College Dad,

You were sure harsh about Stanford in your response to John of Ithaca. Is that really appropriate, given Stanfords widespread reputation as a top school?

Laura S, San Francisco, CA

Dear Laura,

First of all, Stanford really is pretty lame. Second, I’m a Berkeley grad … what would you expect me to say?

Dear College Dad,

I can’t help but notice the majority of your letters are from moms, not dads. What’s up with that?

Beth A, Arvada, CO

Dear Beth,

It’s simple: dads never worry about anything. They’re too busy watching the game.

A College Dad is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a College Dad,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Homemade Macaroni & Cheese


Sometimes you just need some starch. Whether you’ve had a hard workout or a hard day, nothing really satisfies like a giant plate of pasta. Sure, there are sophisticated ways of serving it, like with a Bolognese Ragù or a rich Alfredo, but what if you’re in a rush and/or don’t have a lot of high-end ingredients on hand? Or what if you need to satisfy your Philistine children? Well, that’s when you need some good old fashioned macaroni and cheese. I’m not talking about that lowbrow crap from a box, either. I mean the good stuff. In this post I’ll tell you, and show you, how it’s done.

As no other organizing structure suggests itself to me, I’ll give you this dispatch in the (perhaps mythic) who-what-where-when-why-how style of the newspaper reporter. In case you’re an albertnet newbie, I should warn you that I beat around the bush quite a bit on this blog, feeling that this beating is a) kind of the point, and b) something you probably deserve. If you just want the recipe, search within this page on “the actual recipe” which is buried way down in the “how” section.

Who, where, and when

Instead of telling you who makes this excellent dish, I’ll tell you who, weirdly, doesn’t: Irma S. Rombauer. Her Joy of Cooking, that indispensable cookbook no kitchen is complete without, has recipes for everything you could dream of, plus a lot of foods you’d never dream of. For example, it’s got recipes for cooking squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. In fact, the original edition (of which I’m a proud co-owner) shows you how to skin one of these varmints.

I love the boot in that drawing. You know those trendy “nose to tail” restaurants that emphasize using every part of the animal? Well, that’s nothing: how about using every part of the animal kingdom? These modern restaurants have got nothing on Ms. Rombauer.

That’s why it’s so utterly weird that The Joy of Cooking doesn’t have a recipe for macaroni and cheese. It’s so strange: the closest it comes is “boiled macaroni with cheese” and “baked macaroni.” The first is too simple (it couldn’t possibly produce the fully integrated flavor sensation we’re looking for, being basically cheese thrown on pasta) and the second looks like a lot of hassle: it sends you off to a separate recipe for “AU GRATIN III” which includes a lot of nonsense instructions like “the finished result should be neither powdery nor rubbery but ‘fondant.’”

The question of where is surprisingly relevant here: you can make this just about anywhere, so long as you have a couple of flames (one for the pasta water, one for the pan). This isn’t true of just any recipe. Sometimes a foreign kitchen just throws off your game. I’m up at my mom’s place in Oregon, where my brother Geoff’s pizza dough got a bit screwed up the other night by a strange oven that didn’t provide the right yeast-rising climate. I feel my brother’s pain: I once tried to make my Mexican-style rice at a friend’s apartment in NYC where the ingredients at the local grocery came (apparently) from Mars. But this mac ‘n’ cheese recipe is so simple, very few such pitfalls exist. The most basic kitchen tools and pantry will do.

On to when: as I touched on earlier, this is the dish you make when you’re tired, your brain is fried, your kids are disgruntled and in need of simple starchy love, you don’t have time to shop, and/or you lack the brain energy to do anything even slightly complicated. It’s an alternative to take-out, delivery, or a frozen dinner (if you even stock that sort of thing). Through this culinary mac ‘n’ cheese miracle, one moment you’re a burned-out cog of corporate industry ready to put your head in the oven, and the next moment you’re calmer than a mindful yogi, and a hero to your children.


My recipe is for the most basic version of this dish. I know it’s traditional and delicious to bake mac ‘n’ cheese in the oven with a bread-crumb topping, and my brother Max has even made his own bread crumbs for this purpose. A friend, emailing me years ago with a restaurant recommendation, wrote that Nizza la Bella has “the best macaroni and cheese in any restaurant I've ever had (the macaroni gran pere, baked, not that runny slop they serve at trendy macaroni specialty restaurants in utterly hapless Oakland).” Obviously there is ample opportunity to make this dish gourmet.

But I’ve never done that and I won’t start now. First of all, if I had that much energy, I’d make something fancier to begin with, like fettuccine Alfredo, maybe with homemade noodles. Second, pasta + bread crumbs = double-starch, which I’ve never seen the point of. (It’s like potato slices on pizza … what’s up with that?) To go to the extra trouble with bread crumbs, when this mac ‘n’ cheese is so good as-is, would be like putting one of those little cocktail umbrellas in a glass of beer.

Speaking of beer, check out this mac ‘n’ cheese themed Beck’st my friend John sent me years ago:

He’d just been on a brutal bike ride, he wrote, “so I made some celebratory macaroni and cheese with caramelized onions and linguiça sausage and peas. The cheese sauce is a combination of cheddar and Parmesan Reggiano. And I washed it down with the local lager.” Needless to say, I challenged him on that being macaroni at all (trying, alas unsuccessfully, to coax him and the rest of the Beck’st recipients into a debate about the correct translation of “farfalle”). He replied, “Dude, I know that’s farfalle — or ‘laços’ as they’re called here in Portugal — I was just testing you! Making sure you’re not falling asleep. However, if I make a cheese sauce (from scratch, as I do) and pour it over a pasta-like product, I have ipso facto and without question made ‘macaroni and cheese.’ You and your rules…”

Actually, I am not a purist when it comes to this dish. I have made it with macaroni, shells, farfalle, fusilli, cellentani, campanelle, rigatoni, penne, and orecchiette. I’ve used all kinds of different cheeses—whatever’s in the fridge—and I’ve added ham, peas, and even hot dog slices, for crying out loud. The basic recipe is completely adaptable and extendable, as you’ll see if you ever make it to the “how” section of this post. But first:


Why take even this much trouble? Why not just make mac ‘n’ cheese from the box, like in college? Well, for one thing, once you’ve got the hang of this recipe (and really, it’s not hard, trust me), it doesn’t actually take any longer. Meanwhile, the stuff from the box doesn’t give you much yield, and if you scale it up enough to feed a hungry family, that’s a lot of wasteful packaging, and probably costs more than doing it right. Finally, there’s the matter of what you ingest.

When a product has to say, “No artificial flavors or dyes,” we’re into “thou doth protest too much” territory, like being on a first date where your date says, apropos of nothing, “Don’t worry, I don’t have any STDs … I just got tested!” And when you look at the boxed mac ingredients, you see all kinds of stuff you wouldn’t use if cooking for yourself:

The second ingredient is glycerol monostearate, whatever that is. And why couldn’t they get by with regular monoglycerides … why did they have to use acetylated monoglycerides? Okay, I’m sure somebody’s dad is a chemist and could tell us that sodium alginate and oleoresin are totally harmless, but should that be good enough? Here’s a rule of thumb: if an ingredient isn’t in your spell-checker, and/or your kid can’t pronounce it, maybe it doesn’t belong in your mouth.

And that’s just the ingredients the boxed mac manufacturers tell you about. You know the little paper/foil packet with the powdered cheese? It’s not an ingredient, of course, but it’s the reason you ingest phthalates every time you make boxed mac ‘n’ cheese. Just look at that word: “phthalates.” That’s some seriously fucked up spelling, the kind of consonant cluster that just says “dangerous chemical.” This article explains the problem and though it tells us not to panic, I’m still a little put off. Among other things, we’re warned, phthalates “can disrupt the production of testosterone.” Them’s fightin’ words!

“But wait,” you’re saying, “I’ve been boycotting Kraft for years, and only eat Annie’s boxed mac ‘n’ cheese!” Hey, me too, but we’re still not out of the woods. I consulted the Annie’s website and found that although they do address this issue, their answer is disconcertingly more complicated than “no phthalates.” In a nutshell, the level of phthalates in their product is below the European Food Safety Authority acceptable threshold (the US doesn’t have one yet). The Annie’s website states, “We are working with our trusted suppliers to understand where phthalates are coming into our supply chain and how we can evaluate and limit them.” This is all very reassuring, but no match, in my opinion, for good old fashioned home cooking. (Full disclosure: I still keep Annie’s around for when my younger daughter has to fend for herself.)


Okay, on to the actual recipe. The gist is this: you’re going to start with an easy white sauce called a roux. (It’s different from the dark roux used in southern or Cajun cooking. Kind of a Midwest roux, you might say.) This is the base that you’ll grate hella cheese into. Stir the pasta in and you’re done. (Here’s a Tom Swifty on the topic: “‘Ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten so much white sauce,’ Tom said ruefully.”)

You’ll need just six ingredients: 
  • Any variety of short, stubby pasta (and any brand ... De Cecco, Barilla, American Beauty, Golden Grain, house brand … doesn’t matter)
  • White flour (though wheat flour will work fine)
  • Milk (whole, skim, part-skim, organic, not-organic, pretty much anything but non-dairy “milk” or chocolate milk, which I haven’t tried yet)
  • Cheese (sharp, mild, cheddar, Swiss, gouda, just about whatever you’ve got except American/Velveeta, which is not food)
  • Salt (Morton’s, iodized, non-iodized, house brand, fancy-pants sea salt, whatever)
  • Pepper (basic pre-ground, fresh ground, ground from green peppercorns, ground from a four-foot-long grinder, whatever)

Here’s what I came up with at my mom’s house:

Using a fancy-pants pasta like cavatappi can impress your dinner guests, though classic elbows are, well, classic. I was cooking for a big group so I doubled the recipe, and had to mix pasta shapes. No problem: just compare the cooking times and delay appropriately before adding the faster-cooking pasta.

So here’s what you do. Put a big pot of water on the stove and read albertnet while it reaches a boil. (That’s right, you can wait and make the sauce in the mere 10 minutes required for the pasta to cook!) Salt the water and throw the pasta in. Now, in a large paella pan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium/high heat. How much? I guess something like three tablespoons per batch, a batch being defined as the amount one pound of pasta will yield. Once the butter is melted, gradually add flour, stirring continuously until you get a nice paste.

How much flour? Well, not so much that the paste loses its buttery taste. Just two or three tablespoons for a single batch. You should end up with a ball of paste the color of yellow teeth and about the size of a young mouse. (I realize these aren’t very appetizing comparisons … what can I say?)

Hey, don’t forget to stir the pasta occasionally!

Now you start gradually adding the milk to the paste. The milk might sizzle a bit in the pan, which is fine, but the heat should be low enough that nothing scorches. Integrate the milk and paste gradually, using a whisk. Keep adding milk, gradually turning your paste into a thin roux.

When you’re done the sauce should be about the consistency of paint. Salt and pepper to taste. Now you start grating the cheese in there. You can have your kid grate the cheese into a giant mound on a plate while you’re doing the sauce, or you can have your kid stir the sauce while you grate the cheese right into it. You’ll know you’ve grated enough cheese in there when the sauce is almost as thick as pudding, or when your kid stops yelling, “More cheese!” Give it a taste. The cheesy flavor should be intense. If it’s not, add more cheese. Or add more cheese for no good reason. It’s hard to go wrong … just don’t add so much that it gets greasy. That’s never happened to me, but doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

The cheese sauce should be ready right about the time the pasta is done. (By the way, this isn’t the time to show off how sophisticated you are by undercooking the pasta. This is comfort food, damn it! Cook it all the way.) Strain the pasta, pour it in the cheese sauce, and stir away. The only tricky part about this step is managing not to drool into the pan. Turn off your overhead fan so you can hear the tantalizing sound this stirring makes. It should sound like walking through thick mud. Here’s some video … turn the volume up!

For this last step, you should gather everyone around to “help.” This might be one of the few family activities left that can make your kids literally jump for joy. If one of your kids already went off to college, text her a link to the movie with a heartwarming caption like “HOW YA LIKE ME NOW!?” If all of your kids have left for college, it’s okay to cry into the sauce, so long as you’re not wearing mascara.

Now, if there’s any flaw to this dish, besides its being basically nothing but refined starch and saturated fat, it’s that the color is just a bit on the pallid side. So you’ll want to serve it with colorful, salubrious vegetables, like really good red tomatoes. (No corn, dammit! That’s even more pallid, and it’s just another starch!) Up at my mom’s place, I scrounged up some frozen green beans and dry-farmed tomatoes at the last minute. NOOICE!


Is it responsible parenting to serve this starch ‘n’ fat bomb? Well, probably not. But you can limit the damage by loading your kid’s plate up with vegetables, and not letting him or her have a second helping of mac ‘n’ cheese until that plate is clean. And let’s be realistic: the odds are very high that your kid—yes, your kid!—will become a young adult who makes mac ‘n’ cheese from the box on a somewhat regular basis. If you can teach this basic technique, you might just help your family win the War on Phthalates!

A final note

Here’s a handy tech tip for storing the rest of that block of cheese. When you first cut into the plastic wrapper, start a few inches from the end. Cut it cleanly all the way around. Now you have a “cap” that you can slip down over the brick, and don’t need to waste extra plastic. This short documentary film explains it better.

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