Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Federalize Driver's Licenses

For face to face transactions, identity in the U.S. is established primarily via the driver's license.  There already is a Federal identity of sorts, the passport, but most people don't carry around their passports.  They are too big to carry in your wallet.  And, after all, you already have the driver's license, at least most people do.  As identification becomes increasingly important in the society in which we live, doesn't it make sense to have one system for all Americans and have that system replace the present state by state use of driver's licenses?

Actually, the above is a ruse.  I really don't care about national identity cards.  That's for others to worry about.  My concern is education, particularly higher education, and especially public higher education.  In this morning's Insider Higher Ed, the lead article is about the Governor of Wisconsin wanting to impose very steep budget cuts on the University of Wisconsin system.  I found myself nauseated when reading that piece.  Angry and nauseated.  My knee jerk reaction was to start spewing bile about how destructive such a move would be.  But, on second thought, it occurred to me that I can't rant in my writing very well.  Others can be highly critical and sarcastic and do that with some art.  When I try this, it usually ends up sounding like whining.  So I thought I'd be cutesy instead.

What about Federalizing public higher education?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Under Pressure

I intend this to be a serious post, but I confess that my title was encouraged by the latest news in Deflate-gate.  The owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, says that if the NFL finds nothing in its investigation then the Patriots are owed an apology.  That subject is not my concern here, other than to observe that ratcheting up the pressure when things are murky is not my style, nor is it the style of most people I know in academe.  But it may be the style in big business, where cojones might matter more than smarts. I lead with it only because of my mantra - no pun should be left unturned. 

What I would like to discuss in this post is how the rest of us react when we feel under intense pressure or in milder situations yet when something threatening is perceived.  It is not something we discuss very often.  For example, though I've been involved in a fair amount of leadership training, on both the the recipient end and the provider end, I don't recall it ever being discussed as an issue in such training.  It should be.  It is important for people to understand themselves emotionally well enough to manage this feeling of being under pressure and do so in a somewhat healthful well.  I believe that much of the self-destruction you see in people comes from not having coping skills for dealing with situations when operating under pressure. 

For me it begins with a sense of dread.  I feel ill inside when that happens.  This morning the trigger was checking the road conditions on I-57 up to Chicago and finding that the roads weren't very good in the Chicago area.  My son has a job interview this afternoon and is driving up to Chicago now for it.  Driving in this weather is frightening to me, for anyone at the wheel, whether I'm related to the person or not.  Plus, a few weeks ago my son had an interview in Ann Arbor and the weather wrecked havoc for him on that trip.  So this morning it felt like a replay might happen.  This feeling is deep in me even though I'm not the one who is driving and there's not a thing I can do about it to make it easier on my son.  (I did suggest he wear his sneakers on the way up and only put on his dress shoes once he gets there.  He took me up on that one.)

There is an issue of whether you can function in the moment when that sense of dread emerges.  Some people get that deer in the headlights look.  My reaction most of the time is something of the opposite.  I go into overdrive.  In near panic mode, I want to make decisions rapidly, to resolve the crisis.  It is unlike how I am at other times, where I prefer to be more reflective.  When I'm in overdrive mode, dealing with the situation has my full attention. I have no reserve left.  It is the time I'm most likely to display anger at others, particularly when they question what I'm doing.  That can then readily escalate, as the normal internal buffers which would tend to tone things down aren't present then. 

I believe this going into overdrive is a learned response.  My dad was a severe diabetic and he had insulin reactions (low blood sugar) from time to time.  When you started to see m him perspire and have a glazed look, it always triggered that sense of dread.  It was an emergency and feeling a need to panic came with that.  But response to the situation was critical and I learned to function, be outwardly calm, and do the necessary things to help my dad get past the immediate crisis.  Nevertheless, response in this way can be severely draining, especially the anticipation of the next insulin reaction before the fact.  That took a big toll on my mom, who was a nervous wreck much of the time for that very reason.

I don't want to create the false impression that I'm always functional in a constructive way when I feel dread.  I'm not.  Sometimes the instinct to flea is very strong in me.  Typically I feel shame when running away.  But sometimes shame is not a deterrent.  Instead, it is piling on, in this case self-punishment for caving into one's fears.  There are other times where I wish I could run away but the situation doesn't allow it.  So I have to take my drubbing.

Two different experiences in childhood underscore these reactions.  The first is the source of my fear of dogs.  A dog not on a leash chased me and my brother as we were playing outside.  There was no adult within range to call the dog over and offer us assurance that things would be okay.  My brother and I ran to the front door of our house as fast as we could before getting inside.  I can't remember whether the dog actually nipped one of us or not.  That probably doesn't matter.  Just the chase was enough to create an enduring phobia for me.

The other was a bullying experience, one that was ongoing for a year or two.  On our way while walking to P.S. 203, the elementary school I attended for grades 2 - 6 (it hadn't opened yet when I was in first grade) my friends and I would walk past St. Roberts, the parochial school in our neighborhood.  My memory is not great here, but I don't think we started to walk to school till 4th or 5th grade.  Earlier the parents car pooled and drove us to school.  When they felt we were old enough, we walked.  One of the kids who went to St. Roberts used to pick on me, especially when it was cold outside and I was wearing a hat.  This kid would take my hat and not give it back to me.  I was a big but way too klutzy kid and simply couldn't match up in this dimension with this mischief maker.  I hated when this happened, which it did repeatedly, not every day but often.  Yet there really wasn't anything to do about it at the time.  To this day I have some disdain for wearing hats. 

I am not a psychologist and don't want to claim more knowledge in that dimension than I actually have.  But I think it reasonable to consider these sort of childhood antecedents of adult experience as formative of the "dread trigger" that I had this morning.  Indeed, sometime after my leg accident, when I was recovered physically but less so emotionally, I wrote a post called The Damage That Scars Do, which in part was about the false positives that occur once such triggers have formed.  I do have false positives from time to time.  The sense of dread returns, yet there is no real threat.  This happens to me still, four and a half years after retiring, where work stress, which used to be huge, is now pretty much absent.  Imagine how it is for those who are still running the rat race.  What is to be done about it?

The answers I have to offer to that question are the ones you'd expect.  First, there is no silver bullet.  Expecting otherwise is delusional.  Everybody has stress at work.  Most of the stress is bearable and doesn't trigger the sense of dread.  Feeling annoyed, which can happen much more frequently, is not the same as being afraid.  If you can keep much of the stress in the molehill category, you'll have more in the tank for dealing with the mountains. 

Second, when the sense of dread does occur you can't hold it all inside or it will rip you up.  You need to talk about it with people.  This doesn't mean you air it with everyone.  But with a trusted few you must open up.  This is one real reason why people need a mentor, somebody who knows you well but is detached from the immediate situation.  In my case when I had the campus-level job I was very fortunate to befriend my colleagues from the CIC Learning Technology group.  Most of our interactions were jovial and friendly and not about my particular issues.  Once in a while, usually with a smaller subset of them, we were able to air our troubles and grievances on a mutual basis.  It is not a good thing to learn that your colleagues may have challenges that outstrip your own in consequence.  But it is a good thing that they trust you enough to tell you about it.  Honoring that trust is a prime imperative.  In so doing, they will reciprocate and honor the trust you have placed in them. 

Third, and here I was the example of what not to do, overindulgence in the eating and drinking domain and lack of exercise might be just the ticket for a weekend respite, but when done on an ongoing basis can lead to a self-enforcing negative spiral.  Everyone is too busy - now seemingly all the time.  If you don't plan exercise into the schedule, it won't happen.  And after way too many hours at work, much of the time in meetings that can be stressful, you need relief.  That's where the over indulgence on food and drink fit in.  Instead of being a treat it becomes an expectation.  Then the weight goes up and the attitude about work goes down.

I want to add to this something about working in a large bureaucratic organization (CITES in my case) on a very large campus like the U of I.  There can be disillusionment, not from a sense of dread that is ongoing, but rather from institutional inertia and that blocking the possibility for constructive change.  At first, the two are quite different.  The sense of dread occurs, when it is not a false positive, either in circumstances that are remarkably unpleasant even if manageable, or are unpleasant and doing something about them appears entirely over one's head.  Institutional inertia, in contrast, seems more in the molehill category, especially if you are used to accomplishing things and are new to large organizations.  Over time, however, especially if the inertia begins to seem the norm, the two begin to converge.  Then the dread is ever present and coupled with the poor health habits will make for that descending spiral I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Last, there is a need to give yourself a break.  Most of the people I know have very high expectations about their own performance.  That itself is for the good.  But it means that when they under perform they are disappointed with themselves and are prone to punish themselves in some way (sometimes by working even more hours). The self-punishment can then compound with the initial sense of dread and that can be the making of a disaster.  The ideal expressed in the phase - "don't worry, be happy" may represent too much of the opposite extreme, regarding concern for work.  But it is not too much when considering one's own mental health.  In other words, the external stress is more than sufficient.  One doesn't need to punish oneself for poor performance, in addition.  Yet that is the natural tendency, because there is an implicit assumption that any challenge can be overcome, simply by putting your mind to it.  That assumption may be a good thing too, at first.  It gets you to try hard to best the challenge.  But as a logical matter, the assumption is simply wrong.  You may never know on a case by case basis which challenges are do-able and which aren't.  Giving yourself a break now and then helps to keep you from fretting about that all the time.

Let me close by briefly returning to Deflate-gate.  It is ridiculous, a comedy of the absurd.  Yet the participants (and the fans) may not see it as a comedy but rather as a serious matter.  So too it may be with your own work.  The ticket is in seeing it both as comedy and as drama.  That will not just help you cope.  It will encourage you to enjoy.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Taming The Big Squeeze

To the victor belongs the spoils.

Capitalism itself is in trouble.  It no longer produces outcomes that benefit enough of the population.  The problem is captured by the phrase, "the hollowing out of the middle class."  President Obama's State of the Union address mainly concerned itself with this issue.  The President cast the Federal Government in the role of leveler, to fix what the market has wrought.

The President did not ask why the market is doing this now where it didn't do so in the past.  Let us review the factors.  To begin, we are still coming out of the horrible recession, seven years after the financial markets froze up.  Yesterday's Dealbook column is all about the European Central Bank finally pursuing an aggressive monetary policy.  The financial markets were pleased with this move.  Let's see if real economic activity improves as a consequence.  But nobody doubts that Europe has been in the doldrums for years and this current move suggests recognition that past policy was in error.  Yet I should also note that in my view this is a second best approach.  First best would be an aggressive fiscal policy, not rooted in tax cuts for the wealthy, those have little if any benefit to stimulate the economy, but rather in direct government spending, which increases aggregate demand.  However, our national politics and the politics in Europe as well have rendered the first best approach infeasible.

Next, there are the so-called structural changes in the economy that are a consequence of globalization.  Jobs can much more readily be moved off shore.  Workers overseas have a lower reservation wage.  While there has been a recent trend to bring some of those jobs back home, the question is: at what wage?  There is no doubt that increased competition in the labor market has had a depressing effect on wages for the ordinary Joe in America.  There is also no doubt that this change is permanent.   Even if the world economy rebounds from its sluggishness, this factor will serve to retard wage growth nationally.

Yet I don't believe the above gives the full story.  There is still one more factor to consider, one that has gotten far less attention in its consequences on the earnings of ordinary working people.  The economy has gotten far more concentrated.  One explanation for why is "network externalities."  The rise of the Internet and eCommerce has made network externalities that much more important for the economy overall.  The consequence is first and foremost on Internet companies.  Think of Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.  Network externalities are also obviously present in retail.  Think of Walmart and Amazon.  Indeed, the retail companies have been entering the Internet business and the Internet companies have been entering the retail business.  This is news to nobody.  But the increased concentration is happening elsewhere too, where the network externalities are less obvious or perhaps even nonexistent.  It is happening in banking and finance.  It is happening in air travel.  And in some sectors, high concentration has been a factor for some time, such as in pharmaceuticals, but other factors that are more recent have expanded the power of the providers.  Obamacare, for example, has boosted aggregate demand for the products pharmaceutical companies provide.

In the 1990s when the economics of network externalities was being articulated, for example see this piece in the Harvard Business Review by W. Brian Arthur, it was observed that competition in this arena tended to produce a winner-takes-all outcome, but sometimes the winner was selected by serendipity rather than by having a better product.  Arthur's prime example was DOS, a poorly designed operating system.  Yet Microsoft won the competition over Apple, because the business users who predominated the market had first cut their teeth on IBM mainframe products, and were therefore disposed to IBM PCs.  Paul David showed us that the example given by DOS was no fluke.  His paper on the Economics of Qwerty shows this is the norm with such competition, which is based on consumer lock-in to whatever the market happens to glom onto.  (As an owner of a Betamax in the min 1980s, I should also note how VHS vanquished Beta.)  Over time, the business world has come to better understand this economics.  Now the initial goal of aspiring enterprises is to capture the market and lock in the customers. 

It may be instructive to look back at The Microsoft Case.  Indeed, Arthur's views at the time are interesting to ponder, given how quaint they may seem in present circumstances.

His work attracted the attention of the Justice Department as it was considering the Microsoft case. He has influenced the case with his writings and, although not directly involved, has been in contact with the Department of Justice. While he does not think a monopoly in high tech is necessarily a "bad thing" Dr. Arthur points out that such a monopoly is short-lived, a temporary monopoly. These "lock-ins" survive only until something better is developed. Interviewed by Dominic Gates for PreText Magazine last May, (text at www.pretext.com/may98/columns/intview.htm) Arthur says that the important thing for the consumer in high technology is that innovation continues at a reasonable pace. What he sees as a problem, and what is behind the Microsoft case, is if someone achieves a lock-in and then uses that unfairly in another market.

Nowadays, of course, the big guys leverage their current advantage to help them win in the next competition and that has become ordinary business practice.  Nobody seems too bent out of shape about it, though it clearly encourages industry to become even more concentrated.  And some may argue that the innovating activity itself is subject to increasing returns, so such leverage is actually efficient.  In other words, society gets more innovation that way than if most of the innovative activity was done by young whippersnappers while doing their skunkworks in their parents' garage.  I'm agnostic on this one.  It may be true in certain sectors of the economy, while implausible in other areas.

But what seems evident, and what I think we should be bothered about, is that a company which is large in its input and product markets has power to set the terms in those markets.  Further, the firm gets increased leverage in setting the terms as these markets become more and more concentrated.  With market concentration, the firm can squeeze input suppliers and consumers alike, getting terms that are more favorable to itself.

Unlike developing new product or making current product better, however, there is no way to construe squeezing stakeholders as improving the economy.  At best it is a neutral activity, a form of transfer payment from others to the company.  But often these transfers are pernicious.  On a microeconomic level there is the possibility of deadweight loss that emerges when marginal benefit exceeds marginal cost, something that market power encourages.  On a macroeconomic level there are Keynesian "multiplier effects" to consider.  President Obama argued in the State of the Union address that what he called middle class economics is good for the economy, by boosting aggregate demand.  Suppose that is true.  It is said now that corporate America is sitting on $2 trillion of assets.  How can it make sense for the economy overall to add to this war chest, through even more squeezing?

The agenda that President laid out in the State of the Union is likely to go nowhere with the current Congress.  But even if this agenda were to be implemented eventually, say after the elections in 2016, there are economic reasons to believe it will only have modest success in achieving its goals. And when I say this I do so from a position of sympathy for those goals.  The issues I refer to are not right wing zeitgeist about the President's agenda being anti-growth.  Rather it is because the Federal Government acting as Robin Hood, primarily through its policy on taxation, does not itself change the fundamentals of the labor market. In this manner government policy may have modest impact on the equilibrium in the market.  But the market will have a tendency to undo what the Federal policy is trying to do, if the fundamentals are not otherwise altered.  As an economist unwed to the President's policy ahead of time the obvious question to me is this?  What might be done to change those fundamentals in a way that promotes the goals that the President would like to advance?

* * * * *

The now traditional solution to excessive market power is regulation and/or antitrust.  Yet there are reasons to not advocate for them here.  These include an inability or an unwillingness of government to regulate in an effective way even when given the authority to do so, a desire not to punish winners for their success, and a fear that such punishment will only result in out migration of the capital these companies hold to destinations overseas.  So, as ridiculous as this may seem to some, one wonders whether market innovation itself might provide a cure.  In what follows I will suggest how that could possibly happen.

But first, one must confront the specter of Milton Friedman and his essay from 45 years ago in the New York Times Magazine, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.  If Friedman is right then it's game over for expecting the market to address The Big Squeeze.  Indeed, in that case firms should squeeze their suppliers and their customers to the full extent possible, because that would be the socially responsible thing to do.

Friedman's argument goes something like this.  Managers of big corporations are agents of their shareholders.  The shareholders' goal is to make money off their investments.  So as good and faithful agents, the managers should pursue maximal profit.  This logic seems air tight, but I believe there to be a flaw to it. 

The error lies in presuming what shareholders want.  In a society where capitalism otherwise seems to be working, maybe Friedman is mainly correct that shareholders want only to make money on their investments.  But we have well known cases where shareholders act otherwise in the cause of social justice.  For example, there were shareholder resolutions as part of the disinvestment campaign from South Africa in the 1980s.  If it is painfully clear to shareholders that capitalism is not working well, as I claimed in my opening paragraph, there is some reason to believe that shareholders might moderate their views of what they'd like the company to do in favor of moving in a more socially responsible direction, even if this means a lower return on the stock they own.

Whether shareholders will moderate their views in this way, it seems to me, is not something that can be determined a priori by theoretical analysis itself.  It is an empirical matter that must be tested by trying it out and seeing what happens.  It is what I'm encouraging here.

Now let us consider the same issue from the perspective of CEOs and other high level executives of these big and powerful companies.  To the extent that these people live up to the Veblenesque and megalomaniacal vision that flows from a populist vision of corporate excess, Friedman's view should be confirmed, for the pursuit of profit regardless of the the consequences is just what a robber baron would do.

But a different conception is possible, one where such CEOs feel trapped, in spite of their privilege and power.  They play the game of maximizing profit because that is the only game in town to play.  They need some game to play, one where it is clear how the score is kept and thus determines who is winning the game.  But they fully understand that further accumulation of wealth for themselves is senseless, they are actually sympathetic to the goals that President Obama articulated about middle class economics, and they really dislike being cast as the heavy in that drama.  If there were a different game to play, one that was more benign on this front, they would willingly switch to that instead.  Further, they would willingly embrace the leadership role needed to get their shareholders to think likewise about this alternative game. 

With that in mind, let's consider what this alternative game might look like.  In its simplest possible conception, measures of squeezing (or lack thereof) would have to be aggregated in with profits to produce an index of performance that is more balanced.  For example, regarding employee compensation, now that Piketty and others have popularized thinking about income distribution, why not consider income distribution within the company measured by mean earnings, median earnings, and the Gini coefficient on earnings?  Good outcomes from the employee's view, which is what should be included in the aggregate performance index,  would value high mean and median earnings and a low Gini coefficient.  This itself would mean that excessive CEO compensation enters as a negative in the index in that it would raise the Gini coefficient on compensation, though it enters as a positive in raising mean earnings.  A well constructed index would have the first effect trump the second, at least for sufficiently high CEO compensation.

Customer satisfaction might be a harder nut to crack.  At present eCommerce attempts to solicit customer reviews of their recent experiences are fraught with the following problem.  The customer doesn't really understand how offering up an opinion will impact future performance by the company.  Absent this connection, there is little incentive for the customer to respond to such queries, which now appear as annoying messages in the customer's inbox.  The company asking for this information must be able to prove to the customer ahead of time that the customer's opinion will be valued and that service changes will be implemented when customers as a group complain about the same thing.   Further, these service changes have to be seen as addressing the problems that were articulated by the consumers.

For both the compensation and customer satisfaction data, naive schemes for eliciting the information are likely manipulable by the provider.  Such naive schemes should therefore not be trusted to produce a reliable picture of how much (or how little) the firm is squeezing its stakeholders.

But these problems are not insurmountable.  Their resolution can then be considered as challenges for compensation specialists and accounting firms that would undoubtedly find the building of a reliable performance index of company performance a boon to their own businesses.  One might then envision the production of such a performance index like any innovation.  The product itself will go through many iterations of development and the diffusion of the innovation will follow the typical s-curve pattern.

Might it then be possible for the result to be a kinder and gentler capitalism that is more inclusive?  And in this way might the fundamentals of the labor market change in a way that embraces the ideals of middle class economics that President Obama articulated, thereby relieving government tax policy from having to do the heavy lifting?

* * * * *

Here is one further thought.  For readers who found the above hard to believe it can be possible, they will likely be completely incredulous at this next suggestion.  But it seems possible to me that it is sensible, if the above ideas work in some fashion.

With a well functioning company performance index in place, where profit is but one component of that index and where good performers according to the index are those companies who don't squeeze their suppliers or their customers, it might be sensible to develop a different form of currency specifically to reward good performers.  The reasoning for this is as follows.  Currently a major motivation for CEOs and other high level executives is their ability to influence outcomes - in their industry, with the public, and with government oversight.  In this sense power is as important than personal income generation. Perhaps, it is even more important.  But the way the world works now, power and income generation are virtually perfect complements.  Money talks.  With enough of it, power flows.  (The image of Republican hopefuls preening themselves in front of Sheldon Alderson comes to mind, as one example to signify the current situation.)

Suppose this linkage could be severed.  The demand for influence would not go away, but it would have to be earned in a different way.  Mere money wouldn't do.  There would be a special currency to be used for influence only, and it would be earned by producing good scores with the company performance index.  In other words, benevolent capitalism would be rewarded with influence.  The old style of capitalism, based on opportunism and holdup, would lose out in this dimension.

The old style is entrenched now and unless this new sort of currency were credible in how it would be used, it would not overturn the entrenched practices.  So there is good reason to be skeptical about the idea.  But we live in an era where disruption of entrenched practices is an ordinary happening.  Doesn't it behoove us to envision the sort of disruption of the status quo that would make things better?

That's been my goal in writing this piece.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Commissioning and Finding Possibility

After a night where I don't sleep well I feel crabby and old.  My universe then is all about vegging out, hoping the feelings will pass.  Last night was different.  I had a rather intense dream. Waking up from that, having the first cup of coffee, I feel energized.  I want to say something.  This post is about finding a broad theme around which the rest of an exploration can be organized and then chronicling how that exploration might go. 

It begins with some reflection on recent experience (and also typically with what I've written about previously).  In this case an intuition seems to becoming to fruition.  I will be part of a discussion group, with other members of the group students who took my course last fall.  We are proceeding in earnest and though there may be a variety of pitfalls, especially if we don't seem to be making progress quickly, this is exactly the "experiment" I want to try.  By moving the discussion outside the regular course, can I nudge the students into thinking with greater depth, not just in where I'm directly involved, but in everything else they do while they are students? My goal is to produce an affirmative answer to that question.

I do not know whether the process I go through when writing posts like this one is something that the students should emulate or not as their way of maturing in their thinking.  But because I haven't tried before to make that process explicit to them when teaching, I hope to do so in the discussion group and then see how they respond.  I'd be delighted if they discussed their own processes, to the extent that they are aware of them.  And where they haven't yet thought about their own processes, this should give them an opportunity to see the value in doing so.

The process begins linearly but needn't stay that way.  Step one is the choice of topic, what I call commissioning in my title.  It may seem easy and in some ways it is.  I write about what has been occupying mind mind as of late, either from interacting with others or from my reading and viewing or some combination of these.  Locating the topic this way is a pretty mundane matter. But it is not sufficient.  One needs to ask a good framing question, one where the subject matter will open up after further investigation.  How does one know whether you have a good framing question or not?

From my days as an IT administrator, I developed a sense that many of my colleagues, and I'm talking about people who were entirely earnest about doing a good job in their work, didn't think about the issues they were confronting in the most productive manner.  Partly as the result of the rigorous training I got at Northwestern when doing the PhD in economics and partly because of things I've done informally before and since, I feel I can penetrate many subjects in ways my colleagues could not.  They have much the same evidence that I have, but they don't typically ask good framing questions.  For this reason, when my friend Catherine Yang asked me to write a column for Educause Quarterly, six years ago, I opted to call the column Framing Questions.  

In the previous paragraph, I treated the well formed framing question as an objectively good thing in itself.  Now I want to take the opposite tack.  It matters who is posing the question and how that person will utilize that question once it is posed.  So I'm going to answer what makes for a good framing question for me.  The reader needs to have enough self-knowledge to make a similar determination for herself.  I have two interrelated habits that help me understand when a good framing question has emerged.  One is that I feel a need to get my two cents in. This means saying something that goes beyond what I've read or heard from others.  It could be a synthesis of apparently disparate ideas.  It could be a launch of a known idea but in a novel direction.  It could be two distinctive threads that are happening more or less at the same time and then "woven" together.  When I first started to blog, it was this last one that drove much of the writing.

The other habit is being unable to let go of the idea until I produce something with it and in that period being largely unable to do other serious thinking.  I never am writing two or three things at the same time.  Perhaps others do that, but I really can't.  If there is something else I must write, I need to finish the current writing first.  So getting something completed is liberating, not just the feeling of accomplishment from generating a product, but also the relief that I can move onto something else.

Knowing this in advance, at the outset I'm looking for a spark, you might call it an intuition, for a good framing question.  The process isn't perfect.  I generate a fair number of false positives, posts I've started but never completed.  One reason the intuition might not be a good one is if I'm angry at the time it's formed.  I then tend to be hyper critical.  Stuff I write that way usually doesn't read that well and I come off as being arrogant.  So if there is a substantial lag from the generation of the intuition and my mood has calmed down in the meantime, that post gets dinged.  Another reason for a poor intuition is that I jump to a conclusion that is false, don't realize it at the time, and then box myself in.  This doesn't happen as often, but I'm not entirely immune from it.

The intuition itself may take some time in generation and typically needs a trigger - external or internal or both - to ignite the idea.  And sometimes I'm a dull boy and just shoot blanks.  Mostly I come up with something.  It is still a mystery to me about why I'm able to do that.  But after all these years, I've come to expect it.  My sense of things is that intuition generation gets better with practice.  Just to show how my mind works, after coming up with that sentence, my thoughts turned to Catch 22 and the character Orr, who repeatedly crashed his airplane but at the end of the book was able to escape and fly away to safety.  It takes more patience than I have to endure failure after failure of attempts at hitting the home run, in the hope that eventually the effort won't fail.  For me, the aim is for each effort to succeed on its own, according to my own sensibilities.  I am disappointed with myself otherwise.  Proof reading, which is done to get at the typos (some of which continue to persist, unfortunately), also is a test as to whether the post works. 

Almost immediately after the intuition has come I start to produce narrative in my head.  This isn't a full story.  Much of the rest of the story is discovered while at the keyboard.  Yet I'm compulsive about the initial narrative; it is what I do, process formative ideas.  I spend a good chunk of my time doing that.  I suspect this is the part that is much more mysterious to students than the intuition generation itself.  How does one come up with a narrative that is good enough to say to yourself: the pre-writing is far enough along; I can now go to the keyboard and start composing?  I look to produce different things with that narrative and each time I do it there seems to be a different mixture.

One possibility is to come up with a mental image for the idea.  In this case, I come up with something of the opposite - what we don't want.  It recalls a time when my kids were young - too young to take them to a museum but we were in Chicago and I hadn't been to the Art Institute for quite a while.  We were in the large room at the Art Institute with all the armor, which you might think would fascinate a child, but my younger one was too impatient and instead he just walks through, not noticing much at all.  It may be an unfair comparison, but sometimes I think this is how undergrads go through the subject matter we teach.  What might they get by lingering and taking in a particular object for an extended period of time?

Another possibility is to come up with an example for use in the main piece.  Sometimes I go from example to more general proposition and I've learned that leading with an example is a good thing, if a compelling one can be found.  I will use the example of writing the current post to illustrate.  The first two paragraphs were written a few days ago, after which I put the post aside.  You might think I'd dash off the rest in short order, but it isn't how things actually get done, especially when some of what I want to talk about is prospective, not retrospective.  The discussion group I mentioned has agreed to imitate the course last semester in its process and use blogging as a way to inform the group discussion.   One student will write a post before the group meeting with some ideas about what we will discuss.  The rest of us will write comments on the post before the meeting.  This way we'll all be ready for the discussion.

The first post for the discussion group came in the morning I started to write this piece.  I read it then, but I didn't write my comment on it till the afternoon.  Instead, I stewed about it. The subject matter in the post was very important for us.  But the post was written at such a high level and each topic zipped through so quickly that I was bothered by it.  It was that post which triggered the image of my son in the museum.  And because I was bothered, I needed to find some way to resolve my issues.  On the one hand, I had already indicated to the students that I wanted them to drive the discussion.  On the other hand, I have enough prior knowledge to know that we must do so slowly and drill down a lot to get at points the students might very well miss on a first walk through with the issues.  How we will do both is still a mystery to me, one that I hope we will feel our way through at the group meeting.  But I began to see that in writing this post I would be doing the necessary pre-meeting thinking so I am aware of the issues we need to address.

Then there is a possibility of making a theoretical point, in a palatable way, of course.  Here the point is that ideas tend to be nested.  We don't take it all in with one big gestalt.  We get it piecemeal.  When we've become comfortable with one piece we are ready to see an adjacent piece. This means that ideas come as discovery and the process of discovery gives a sense of motion to the learning.  It's what makes the process fun.

This theoretical point gives the answer to why there is benefit to lingering on a particular object.  The lingering is readying for the next discovery.  Without it, there will be no discovery at all.

I knew this theoretical idea ahead of time, having discussed it many times over in this blog.  But it was not immediate for me in the current context and only occurred to me after I had read the student's post and had come up with the image of my son in the museum.   Then, deciding that theoretical point is relevant to the issue at hand  gave me enough confidence to return to crafting this post.

I'm making it seem like all the pieces fit together, as long as one takes the time to assemble them in an interesting order.  It is my belief that we prefer to read essays when the pieces do fit this way, but our own thinking doesn't necessarily produce such harmony of the various components.  Instead, there is yet another matter, which is the skill in the telling.  A good story teller will know how to arrange the various ingredients to make for a sumptuous dish.  Students as fledgling writers likely don't yet have that skill at a mature level.  But even novices can get some sense that the presentation matters as much as the ideas.  (In grad school I used to debate from or content with my friend Nick.  Now I would say it is form and content.)  Then they can practice getting better at it.   And they can learn that new ideas may yet emerge as the presentation becomes more refined.

Let me close with one last issue.  When should you keep on going with the process and when should you claim victory, so you can move onto something else?  Hard deadlines often determine the answer to this question, but not always.  I don't write to a deadline in authoring posts for this blog.  Instead, I have come to develop my own personal bar.  If I've cleared it, I'm done.  If not, I must go on or decide the piece is not do-able to my standards.  Developing a sense of taste as to where the bar should be is a big part of learning to write.  And for that it seems necessary to read a variety of other people's stuff, within that reading find stuff that you like, and then come up with reasons as to why you like it.  The sense of taste comes more from reading others than from your own writing.

Maybe the bar needs to be raised over time as the writer's skill improves.  A perfectionist too early on will end up producing very little.  Conversely, a bar that is too low won't challenge the writer and the person will get bored with the endeavor before producing something worthwhile.  Finding the sweet spot requires tolerance of self and knowledge of self too.

This is probably more than we can get at in our first discussion.  Yet I still have some puzzles to solve regarding how we will proceed.  It's an opportune time to stop, for now.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Provincialism and Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

When I was a new assistant professor, one of my colleagues was the daughter of the Belgian ambassador to the U.S.  Several of the assistant professors had their offices in one cul-de-sac on the fourth floor in then Comm West (now Wohlers Hall) and partly for that reason, partly because we had a standing bridge game at lunch, and partly because there really weren't others to hang out with, we socialized after work as well.  Most evenings I ended up having dinner at her apartment or the apartment of another assistant professor who was a neighbor of hers.  That way I learned about fine eating and fared much better in that dimension than I had any right to expect, given the paucity of decent restaurants in CU at the time.  I would bring the wine, to hold up my end of the bargain.  We'd always have interesting conversation, sometimes on social or political issues, often about the Econ department, and once in a while about the students.

The other assistant professor and his wife were both born and raised in Illinois in a small town not too far from Rockford.  So we had a good mix in our small group (which sometimes expanded to include several other assistant professors in the department).  As for me, I was still getting acculturated to living in the Midwest.  This famous New Yorker cover gives a quick sketch of my then predicament.  (Though note that I grew up in Bayside, Queens while the picture is drawn from Manhattan.  Queens is to the east, part of Long Island, and out of the picture.)



While as a grad student at Northwestern some of this particular anxiety was relieved early on when it proved that a couple of my professors (Robert Eisner and Mort Kamien) were displaced New Yorkers.  And somehow it didn't manifest too much when I became a TA in my second year.  At this point, I'm not sure why.  I do recall comparing the NU kids to the students I knew at Cornell, where I had completed my undergraduate degree.  My impression, if I recall correctly, is that these kids were trying to be Ivy-League-like but most weren't quite there in my estimation.  Also, they displayed their wealth in overt ways (how they dressed coming to class is what I noticed) that was definitely not cool when I was at Cornell.  It is hard for me now to ascribe those differences entirely to New York versus Illinois.  Some of it may have been the presaging of Reagan becoming President and me not yet understanding that times were changing in America.  Nonetheless, I was quite successful as a TA.  The students and I got along.  Even if I didn't fully understand where there heads were, I did know microeconomics inside and out and was enthusiastic about teaching it.  That carried the day.

It was different teaching as an assistant professor.  For one, I was now at a public university and I had no prior experience with that.  For another, while there was a Business School at NU, its students were all at the graduate level.  The Economics Department was in Arts and Sciences at NU and it may have been the best department on the entire campus.  In contrast, at Illinois there were undergraduate students in the Business School.  To those students, Economics was not a prestige department.  And in the course I taught, Intermediate Microeconomics, I faced a good deal of skepticism about the relevance of the course from some of the students, particularly the mouthy ones, especially if they were majoring in Accounting.  I bombed in those classes and was grateful for being allowed to teach Math Econ or graduate Microeconomics, where I didn't face that resistance.

I offer up this teaching background to show I was primed for the message from my Belgian colleague, which is why I can recall it now.  She told me on more than one occasion that the undergraduate students were too provincial.  (At the time in excess of 90% were from the state of Illinois.)  I hadn't heard the term provincial used like this before so I needed to understand what she meant.  Our good friend and colleague who grew up in Illinois had led a much more insular existence than we had.  Was he provincial too?  Her answer - no, he wasn't.  In her mind provincialism didn't just reflect a limit on experience.  Many people have limited experiences through no fault of their own.  Provincialism requires a closed mind that is not willing to challenge preconceptions nor have experiences that might contradict those beliefs.  Our assistant professor friend was very open to possibility.  The undergraduate students she was referring to were not.

On this my Belgian colleague was surely more astute and sensitive than I was.  Her first language was French and she had a style that I would call European and clearly indicated she was not from the Midwest.  (For example, she regularly wore high heels.  No other woman I knew on campus did that, though admittedly it was a small sample at the time.)  In contrast, my speech doesn't have too many giveaways that I'm from New York City.  I could readily ascribe my difficulties with the students entirely to my course being too theoretical for their liking and the math being too hard.  I didn't need to get into cultural differences at all. My Belgian colleague was a more empathetic person than I was, but she struggled with these students, their provincialism being the best explanation for why that happened.

* * * * *

Fast forward 20 years.  I am now a campus level administrator and a member of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  One of my colleagues in that group is a member of the Accreditation Review Team for my campus and the Accreditation Review is focused on the campus getting rid of the mascot, Chief Illiniwek.  At each CIC meeting where I see my colleague, this is brought up as a topic, with the additional point made that until we do so we will drag the university down into the ground.  The dragging to the ground part proved a correct forecast.  It lead to the premature departure of our then Chancellor, Nancy Cantor.  It created a huge amount of acrimony on campus.  Many of the sports fans of Illini football and basketball insisted the mascot was not racist and was a respectful and true rendering of an American Indian tradition, in spite of protests to the contrary from Indian groups themselves.  It leads to division between the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees, where the Senate was for getting rid of the Chief and the BOT was not.    Eventually, the NCAA weighed in on the matter in favor of getting rid of the Chief, with meaningful sanctions to enforce this outcome.  But for Chief supporters it was a bitter pill to swallow.  This essay by Scott Jaschik, written in the wake of the Chief's retirement, gives a complete and balanced view of what happen.  It makes for a poignant story, even now.

Particularly interesting to read are the remarks by Carol Spindel, author of Dancing at Halftime, and her inability to explain why Chief supporters had such a hard time letting go.  It doesn't occur to her that provincialism is the heart of the matter.  It seems obvious to me from my perch that is the right explanation.

* * * * *

Fast forward again, this time by only a few years, and I'm now teaching a course where religion enters into the class discussion, my first experience with it.  The circumstances were somewhat beyond my capacity to deal with them.  Instead, after the course concluded I wrote a post that some colleagues at the time applauded - it got at issues that needed to be voiced but hadn't been aired.  The odd thing was this was a class for Campus Honors students.  Those students are among the best and the brightest we have on campus.  What I learned is that being clueless, unabashedly so, the signpost of provincialism, can co-exist with being a very good student.  Not all students are this way, I want to emphasize.  Soon thereafter I wrote another post about this class, Teaching Quiet Students.  These quiet students were actually more open in their writing and my sense is that they were more tolerant of others.  The provincialism I'm referring to here correlates with a brash sort of self-confidence. 

* * * * *

It is not difficult to come up with more current examples. I'm sure anyone who reads this piece will be able to offer up some of these, so I will not reproduce them here.  What I've already provided is sufficient to make the case that provincialism of the students (and others on campus) is an issue.  Give that, what should be done about it?

People will disagree on the answer to that question.  My view is this.  Students need to be exposed to ideas, many of them.  Which, if any, they embrace is up to them.  Students with provincial attitudes need to have their eyes opened.  But the choice to abandon their provincialism in favor of a more open minded approach is theirs to make.  Undoubtedly there would be risks in doing do, including the potential loss of current friends.  The movie Remember the Titans depicts these issues reasonably well.

There is one caveat.  And it is a big one.  It is to embrace the social equivalent of the imperative in the Hippocratic Oath - first, do no harm.  If the provincialism does harm to others in an obvious way, then the provincialism must be curtailed.  This caveat brings freedom of speech into question. 

Here let me segue into what motivated me to write this piece.  Yesterday Timorthy Egan had an Opionator column, Your Free Speech, and Mine.   I normally enjoy Egan's pieces.  He writes with some bombast, but he stakes positions that I mainly agree with.  This column, however, rubbed me the wrong way and I was bothered by it.  In particular, he takes on the Pope (somebody whom I wouldn't normally defend) in a way I thought was wrong.

Pope Francis, a voice of reason and progressive thought on most things, took a big step backward Thursday with his comments on expression. “You cannot provoke,” he said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule. It’s an evolving construct, to be sure, and may never find favor in the majority of the world’s countries.

My reading of what the Pope said is that we need to be guided by the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule proscribes such behavior.  It is clear that everyone in society doesn't follow Golden Rule.  But given the Pope's moral authority, his minions should and he should preach behavior that is consistent with the Golden Rule.

Yet I realize that these issues are too large for me to fully get at here.  (I would love to get other pundits to weigh in on the larger question.  Maybe some would say that speech isn't doing - a sticks and stones kind of argument.  Perhaps others would argue that speech is sometimes doing, but the First Amendment trumps the Golden Rule.  I don't agree with either of these, but I am curious to know how First Amendment advocates reconcile it with other moral imperatives, with which the First Amendment may be in conflict.)   So insofar as I can make sense of these issues I wanted to make them smaller, in a domain where I have more direct experience with how the tensions between free speech and the Golden Rule should be resolved, in other words in the classroom. 

Let me give a straightforward example from the class I taught this past fall.  I asked the students a question.  One student, among the very few who were not shy about raising their hands in class, offered up the Bill Cosby situation as a response to my question.  I told him I was uncomfortable talking about Bill Cosby in class and we should move onto something else.  He seemed okay with that response.  Nobody else in the class said anything, one way or the other.

With this straightforward example representing close to my ideal of how to identify the line that should not be crossed, what should happen if a student brings up a topic that another student is uncomfortable with yet I'm okay with that topic.  Let me compound this with the observation that the majority of students are shy in the classroom - they don't say a word.  Some participate by listening intently, without otherwise contributing to the discussion.  If these students are diligent about attending class and doing the required work out of class, I need to have their backs.  That is part of the implicit contract in the classroom.  This means my antennae need to be out about questions or comments that might make some of the students in the classroom uncomfortable.  It doesn't happen very often.  But when it does I need to say something about me being uncomfortable or suggesting it is possible that some of the students might be uncomfortable with the comment, this is especially true when the example is not obviously germane to the subject matter of the course.  I do go off on tangents and I don't mind if the students do likewise, but if they have gone on a tangent that has caused others in the room to be uncomfortable, we need to move onto something else.

This is a form of censorship.  Let's recognize that.  But let's also realize that I censor students for quite different reasons - nobody is offended by what the student has said but it is not tied to the topic we are studying in a way I can discern.  I try to give students the benefit of the doubt when they go out on a limb.  But they need to show relevance in fairly short order.  Students understand this.  My classroom is not their soapbox.  I should add that because I have the students write online on a weekly basis and I comment on their writing, there is some trust built up as a result.   What I censor and what I allow are part and parcel of the ongoing dynamic in the classroom.  Mainly I'm imploring the quiet ones to speak up once in a while.  In that rare instance, I'm asking those who offer up something that might offend their classmates to willingly let the class move onto something else.

Can these thoughts be extended in a ready way to discussion on campus that is outside the classroom?   Doing so requires moving beyond the discretion of an individual instructor to campus codes and committees that adjudicate breaches to said codes.  Conservatives find this abominable.  Campuses have become bastions of "political correctness" and thus places of intolerance.  Free speech should not have to confront such limits.

I know this criticism.  Often I agree with it.  For example, I felt that our Chancellor made the wrong call in the Salaita case, though I also believe that she fell on a grenade doing this precisely because the BOT is itself too provincial. 

Yet in my core the Golden Rule trumps free speech.  Sometimes we should hold our tongues, in spite of what we believe.  The Golden Rule is not written into the Constitution.  It precedes the Constitution.  It should not be ignored.  If First Amendment advocates had to denounce the Golden Rule to support their position, would they still be so adamant about it?  My guess is that they wouldn't.  But as it is now, they try to frame things where the Golden Rule is not at issue.  That's what gives an unreality to this debate and is the problem I'm trying to get at with this post. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Discovering one's own writing

I have Google Drive but I don't use it too often these days.  This morning I had occasion to access it as I was looking for some document.  In that search I stumbled onto something else I wrote about a year ago, apparently meant as a post for Lanny on Learning Technology, but which I never published.  I reread it this morning.  I think it poses the right question.  I wonder who is working on finding suitable answers.  In the meantime, I'm scratching my head as to why I didn't publish it at the time of writing.

          How can we encourage students to be more creative about their own learning?

Friday, January 09, 2015

B-Day Minus Two

With a penchant for rhyme
And prone to prolixity
My current major crime
On Sunday I'll be sixty.

Why this date do we mark
As if some milestone achieved?
And instead on a lark
Father time to be deceived.

The truth of the matter
Though my verse is from hunger
It's no idle chatter
That I wish I were younger.

But there's no gear reverse
Just the passing of the years
So this time I'll be terse
A toast to all of you, Cheers!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Box.com or Archive.org

It is perfectly understandable to have a cloud storage solution for documents on one's own computer - both as a way to retrieve and access the files from multiple devices and as a form of backup.  For these functions security of the information and ease of use are probably the two big features one wants in such a solution.

What about content that you want to share publicly?  What criteria should go into selecting an appropriate host?  I am feeling my way through to an answer of this question.  Before I present my preliminary conclusions, let me air some thoughts on background issues.

First, from my days in the campus IT organization, I know there is an acceptable use policy of campus IT resources.   Here I am more interested in the spirit of the policy than its letter.  The spirit says use campus resources in a work-related capacity.  There may be a thick boundary to enable some non-work use.  Particularly, if most of the total use is work related, then using only the resources you are familiar with is efficient.  To have to use a non-campus resource that will be accessed only infrequently doesn't make much sense.

Second, I am emeritus from the university but continue to teach part-time.  I'm sure the acceptable use policy has something on emeriti faculty, but if it allows some yet a lower grade of access to campus resources, then I'm in the odd situation where in the fall I should have the higher level of access but in the spring the lesser level.

Third, there is the issue of whether what I do is university-related work or not.  I really don't know at this point.  Here are a few examples to illustrate the dilemma.  This coming semester I'm going to have a discussion group made up of students who took my class last semester.  It is an entirely voluntary thing.  They don't get credit for it and I don't get paid for it.  We will meet weekly.  It appears unlikely now, but suppose we end up writing a joint paper on how the discussion group went and why it might be a good idea for others to try it.  Is that university-related work?  Next, consider blog posts such as this one.  They have potential to inform people who work in the learning technology arena - on campus and elsewhere too.  If that audience gets benefit from these posts, is the work university related?    Finally, I am going to return to write a novel that I started many years ago.  Much of it is set in Champaign and has characters who worked at the U of I.  When I started writing it, I was the Director of the then Center for Educational Technologies.  Is that novel university related work?

Without being able to offer subsidiary criteria for making this type of determination, my intuition is that the discussion group is more likely to be work related than the novel, with the blog posts somewhere in between.  (Some of the posts are clearly not work related, like when I write a book/film review, such as a recent post on The Luzhin Defense.  Other posts are about work issues.)

Now I want to turn this on its head.  I don't have policies for me on what should be in my interest, defined separately from the university's interest, but I think it worth asking what those interests are. Do I want to have the university's brand associated with my work?  That's one big question.  Another question follows from this issue.  I am definitely for open content in a teaching and learning situation.  All the learning objects I make are freely available online to anyone with Internet access.  Taking that as a given, should I then not want to have a commercial host of my content?

The two hosts in my title are meant to be exemplars of a larger class of possible hosts.  The U of I has a contract with Box.com and my account has U of I branding on it.  In contrast, archive.org is a site for a not-for-profit organization.  I have content at both places.

I have content elsewhere too, because the criteria I've mentioned are insufficient for determining my interests.  Functionality in what the host provides is another consideration.  So, for a while I had presentations at Slideshare.net because I liked "slidecasting," especially with musical accompaniment.  And then, you can't know if you want to use the host or not unless you try it. So I have content at Scribd and still at many other places.  Some of these hosts have expired my content for lack of use.  That's okay.  I still have the stuff on my own computer.  What I don't have, and I'm not sure whether this matters to me or not, is that there are links to some of this content at the old host in blog posts like this one.

Do I want to go through an exercise of finding all the dead links in my site, identifying which of those are to my own stuff, and then updating those links after I've reposted the content to a different host?  So far my "rule" has been sloth plus a little social conscience.  In other words, I do nothing about it unless somebody expresses an interest in the stuff at the broken link.  I will respond to that query in a way to make the content available again.  Being more proactive than that is not in the cards.  In other words, I don't think of this like a librarian would.  Maybe that is shortsighted of me.  From time to time I wish I had an archive of my email from 1995-98.  That was my formative time with learning technology.  Once in a while I'm interested in reconsidering that part of my development.  But the stuff has vanished into the ether.

In a post on OERs from a couple of months ago, I argued that having the content be discoverable by others is an important thing.  One can think of discoverability as a kind of functionality for the content.  On that, having the standard search engines be aware of the stuff is important.  I'm deliberately not putting in links in this post, just to emphasize the point.  My blog gets robots from Google and Facebook (those I'm aware of, maybe there are other robots as well that I don't see).  Those links make the content somewhat discoverable, with the post itself an alternative to metadata for finding the content.

But for video content, it is different.  Then it is the host itself, particularly YouTube, that makes the content discoverable.  Does your video show up in the the right sidebar of videos that are related to a different one the person is viewing?

At one point I thought I'd use Google services for all my hosting needs.  A convenience they offer is single sign-on, based on gmail.  When Google Docs started to accept any type of content, that began to look attractive.  But I've since abandoned it, because in my teaching the students have Google Apps for Education accounts while my stuff is on the commercial Google site.  For reasons I don't fully understand, Google Apps for Education blocks direct access to the commercial Google.  Even though my stuff was supposed to be publicly available, my students were sending me requests for them to get access.  That was unmanageable.  It is why I moved to Box.com.

Let me bring up one other criterion and then close.  This is making content available to a commercial interest.  For example, that novel I mentioned might be published by a commercial house.  Where should that content be so they can get at it?  In 2001 I wrote some ancillary content, Excelets, for an economics textbook.  At the time there weren't that many alternatives for content hosting, and the campus had a service called Netfiles that was fairly easy to use and allowed for granular access permissions.  I ended up using that.  It went against the acceptable use policy, but I didn't have a good alternative at the time.  And nobody else was the wiser.  Today I wouldn't use a campus resource for this function.  I'd expect the commercial interest to provide me with access to their preferred host.  That seems the way to go.

There is nobody on campus who educates faculty and staff about their use of non-university IT resources, other than perhaps some admonition to staff about not being on Facebook so much during the work day and something about not using the same passwords.  Everything else in this domain is done seat of the pants.  Maybe its time to rethink this so more sophistication can be brought to answer the question: what is in the individual's interest when that is defined separately from the campus interest?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rise of JCU - Then and Now

It occurred to me to write a post about how my beliefs about teaching and learning have evolved over the years.  So I asked myself a related question - how can I pinpoint what my beliefs were on this topic during the early years?  As it turns out, this question has a remarkably easy answer.  About 15 years ago I started to write a novel, my way to express my frustration as to the general state of undergraduate education, with the book intended to be a wake up call on the matter.  This was years before I learned of other such critiques of undergraduate education and years before I started to write this blog.

The book went through a name change with the second and still title called The Rise of JCU.  About a year before I started in on this writing effort I read The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.  That book, a sort of biography about Jim Clark written in the wake of the Netscape IPO, captured my attention.  In the title of my book, JCU stands for Justin Carruthers University, and Justin Carruthers is meant to be a fictionalized version of Jim Clark.  Likewise, there is a character in my book called Martin Lenox, who is meant to be a fictionalized version of Michael Lewis.  The protagonist is Fred Garvin, as in the SNL sketch.  Garvin is a fictionalized version of me.  I chose the name deliberately as I've been plagued by my given name much of my life, so I wanted the character to bear that sort of cross.

This morning I started to read through it again.  I've gotten through the front matter and the first five chapters.  As I did this I converted the files to PDF and posted them in my campus Box account.  They can be read online at the link above.  Box does quite a good job with its preview of displaying PDF files.  As I read the subsequent chapters, there are 5 more of those, I will post them in a likewise manner.

In total that is about half of the book I originally intended.  I stopped for writing reasons.  It occurred to me that I really didn't have a clue about character development and had somewhat painted myself into the corner that way, but I only came to that realization around the time I stopped.  Also, and it is transparent to me on this rereading, while I had in mind a story that would be as breezy as some of the early fiction of John Grisham, and I think chapter 1 succeeds at this level, when I start to talk about the learning issues themselves in later chapters I get bogged down in what I call lecture mode.   Then the reading starts to become a slug.  As entertainment, nobody wants that.

Why write a book to its conclusion when people will put it down well before reaching the end?  Yet I found myself wondering this morning whether I should go back to it, finish what I started so I have a decent draft, then go back to the sections that seem particularly pedantic and see if I can rework them so they flow better.  There is also the issue that 15 years ago I was writing as if the action were happening in the present.  Some of it will seem dated now.  (For example, there is mention of the software that JCU develops and that it can function reasonably well with a 56K modem.)  If any of you who read this post are so inclined to read some of the book, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you about your reaction to it.  Sometimes it is difficult to take an objective view about your own work.

* * * * *

Getting to where my beliefs about learning were 15 years ago, the Introduction to the book is quite informative.  It provides a setup to the issues.  Except for the bit about my kids in pre-school (the younger one now is a junior in college) it could just have well been written today.  On that score, things have not changed much at all.  On the one hand I'm pleased with the fixity in my beliefs.  On the other hand it is surprising to me that given the changes with technology in the intervening years there hasn't been a larger change in my attitudes about learning.

There are some subtle differences between then and now and I want to discuss those here.  One is on the need to establish trust between student and (not yet) beloved professor.  In the book, I assumed that would simply happen of its own accord.  Now I've come to believe that it must be built with intention.  I thank Barbara Ganley for making that point clear to me.  Some years ago I wrote a post about her visit to the U of I.  This is the relevant passage.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

My own mechanism for doing this comes out of student blogging and the instructor comments on student posts.  This way manages the issue with quiet students, who don't voluntarily talk up in class, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon.  I've now come to believe that there should be a sequencing where in the first semester the students interact with the instructor via blogging and trust is established that way.  Then, after the semester concludes, the interaction can change to face-to-face conversation, either one-on-one or in small groups, where those conversations are buttressed by the trust asset that is more fully formed.

Another idea that has developed since the writing of the book is that the teachers may better be retirees than current research faculty, though I have to admit my sample is one (me).  The idea for this is that the interactions require time abundance.  Retirees who teach part time have that time abundance.  Current research faculty do not.  But, of course, the teachers need to be willing to put in this sort of time and have some understanding of the type of sympathetic interactions they need to have with students.  I know a few other recent retirees who have the right sort of mindset.  But I'm far less sure that the bulk of retirees could be educated and motivated to make this a useful suggestion.  The ones I have in mind cared a great deal about teaching when they were full time employees.  It's an open question to me whether attitudes about the importance of interacting with students on an individual basis can change for those who previously viewed teaching as largely a matter of delivering lectures and administering exams.

A third thing that has changed substantially since 15 years ago is the increased number of international students, to the point where their numbers are great enough to contrast them with the domestic students (the vast majority of whom are from Illinois).  Most of international students I've had of late are from China or Korea.  As a group they seem more receptive to the type of interventions suggested in The Rise of JCU than the in-state students I see, though I will admit the samples are small and there may be a kind of selection bias at work here because those international students are paying much higher tuition and they are following a path in college that was unlike the path their parents took.  Those factors may create seriousness of purpose that is absent from upper middle class domestic students whose parents are college educated.  The Rise of JCU was written with those domestic students in mind.  But it might be that the positive suggestions presented therein are better suited as a way to maintain the pipeline so international students continue to want to come to our campus and to other like campuses in the U.S.

Let me bring this discussion to a close.  Most of the current popular discussion about college revolves around the (tuition) cost issue.  There is actually much less discussion about the (learning) quality issue.  The best value proposition looks to find a balance along these two dimensions instead of going to extremes, which it seems to me much recent innovation with technology in learning has been doing.  In order to find a good balance, however, one needs to contemplate what the opposite extreme looks like - high cost and high quality.  In other words, if good balance were attained by having students take one low enrollment class taught in a seminar format each semester, with all other classes of the large lecture type, we should first consider what it would be like for typical students to take courses that were all small seminars and designed in coordination with respect to their learning goals.  Would typical students be transformed as learners by such a high cost approach?  If the answer to that question is yes, would it then make sense to look for the least cost way to achieve such transformation?   The alternative requires assuming ahead of time that we can't afford it and thus must conclude that typical students won't be changed very much at all by their education at public research universities.  It seems to me those are the sort of questions we should be asking.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Optical Ill Luzhin

Yesterday while reading I had an odd visual experience that I don't recall happening before.  In my right eye it felt as if I could see the edge of the lens in my glasses.  If I stared straight ahead I could avoid this feeling, so that is what I did to concentrate on the reading.  But it is hard to constrain peripheral vision entirely.  So I kept returning to this odd sensation.  I don't know how long this persisted.  Ultimately, it occurred to me to take off my glasses.  When I did I found a hair, one that must have been from the top of my head rather than my eyelid, fully extended near the middle of the lens.  I removed it and the sensation went away.  One mystery solved, though how the hair got there in the first place will remain a puzzle.  I don't think I'm shedding. 

During that session I finished reading Nabokov's novel The Luzhin Defense.  Somewhere recently I read something, a review of the book or a critique of Nabokov as a writer, that said the story was very familiar.  But it was not known to me and the story in the book is so different from the one in the movie that seeing the movie first did not prepare me for how the book concluded.  In my previous post I wrote that I had reached the part of the story where Luzhin has a nervous breakdown.  This is a bit past the middle of the book.  What then?

I don't want to give away the story, so instead will describe things at a rather abstract level.  I hope this can shed some light on the matter without being a spoiler for the book.

Chess and math are similar in how they are depicted from the perspective of the extremely skilled practitioner, i.e., a genius. That person has intense powers of concentration and uses those powers to find patterns or discover metaphors in the object of study that others don't see.  This universe of thought becomes a world into itself.  In the late 1980s the students who were studying economic theory at Illinois would wear a sweatshirt that said: Do you live in your model?  That question conveys the fundamental idea.  The requisite concentration makes for a life of its own, one entirely apart from what we consider normal living.

There are many more aspirants than geniuses.  As one of the former, I have some sense of what it is like to be in that mental world where thoughts of anything outside that world fade into oblivion.  And on some occasions when in this aware state it has been possible for me to see things that others miss.  But as a pretender to the throne I've learned that if I don't experience that seeing rather early in the quest I'm much more likely to get stuck in the mire than to find something beautiful.  The true genius can let the pattern unfold without loss of patience or concentration in doing so.  The discovery then can be bigger and more elegant.  It requires the fullness of time to develop to maturity.

Having some sense about intense mental focus on a hard problem, there then is the question about how or if the person brings normalcy to the rest of his life.  This is far easier to do if the person has a diversity of interests - variety is the spice of life.  But then the pastimes compete with the main event for attention.  The singular genius may reject other interests or treat them at surface level only, so as not to disrupt his concentration.  And when in creative mode this singularity of mind is a very good thing.  The genius will produce wonderful stuff.

But it is a double edged sword and can be a trap.  The genius may then start to apply his familiar metaphors to the world of normalcy and find in normalcy patterns from his abstract universe.  This can reduce possibility rather than help with coping and can come to feel like the walls are caving in.  The genius is more prone to this form of depression than the rest of us, because the genius has made it a habit to block out thoughts others would welcome as normal.   This I believe to be the main theme of the story.

There is one other, related theme.   Can a genius have feelings of intimacy that are profound enough to serve as a sustaining counterweight?  Or is it that even if the genius has a wife whom he "loves" that he nonetheless fundamentally feels alone because the genius can't share his inner world with his spouse?  And what does the spouse think of the situation?  Does she believe, perhaps falsely, that she is getting through when in fact she isn't?  Or does she recognize that in spite of her efforts to comfort her husband and protect him from his inner demons that his ability to block out normalcy is so strong that it includes blocking her out as well?

It may be interesting for us non-geniuses to reflect on communication in our own marriages by reading about Luzhin and his wife.  But, to be truthful, I didn't find this part of the book as compelling to read as the part that led up to the breakdown.  Yet in retrospect, the way Nabokov tells the story seems like the inevitable conclusion.  If genius could fully transform from one domain to another - in the story this would be drawing to replace chess - then a different outcome would have been possible.  Such a transformation was the wife's hope, but that hope was steeped in unreality.  How is it possible to turn off thoughts from the first domain where the genius is world class?  That has become a vortex from which there is no escape. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Aspiring Narrator

Bend at the knees, not at the waist.  It's so easy to say, yet so hard to remember.  My lower back suffers as a consequence.  When in that state it's hard to concentrate.  The last couple of days I haven't been able to write much at all.  I've had to get up from my seat every few minutes, taking several steps before the pain dissipates and something approximating normalcy gets restored. 

I decided I'd be more comfortable sitting in a lounge chair in our "library." (That space used to be the dining room but has now been repurposed with a bookshelf and some overstuffed chairs.)  On my Kindle Fire tablet, I've been reading The Luzhin Defense while listening to Chopin piano music.  I am puzzled about this and what I believe the research shows on multi-processing.  We can't have our minds do two tasks simultaneously, each of which require our attention.  Yet I now prefer to read while listening to music, even if the piece is not familiar.  I don't believe the music distracts from my concentration when reading.  But other things do distract.  The Kindle Fire is a regular tablet, so has tablet functionality on it, including email and Internet browsing.  So I flit between applications - read a chapter, sometimes less than a chapter, then check email and/or Facebook and other Web sites, and then repeat the cycle.

Further I found this book a bit difficult to engage with at first.  It is one of Nabokov's books written initially in Russian.  I had seen the movie recently, this was the second or third time viewing it, and that got me interested in reading the book.  I found Nabokov's introduction somewhat off-putting, as the writing style seemed especially boastful, yet it was informative too in giving a sense of what he was trying to create with this story. Then the early part of the story, which focuses on Luzhin's unhappy childhood, is perhaps necessary to set the stage for why all his attention would eventually be drawn into thinking about chess, but is not so compelling in itself.  It is the chess prodigy that attracts our attention.  There is a fascination with genius of all sorts, but the chess player may be the most intriguing for me, perhaps because Bobby Fischer became world champion during the summer before I entered college.

And I had reached a very interesting part of the story.  In his match against Turati, the Italian grandmaster and Luzhin's principal rival, they had jockeyed back and forth but had now reached adjournment.  The intense concentration needed to play chess at this level, coupled with excessive fatigue and stress, end up being too much for Luzhin and he has what appears to be a nervous breakdown.  As he begins to recover the doctor prescribes that Luzhin should avoid chess if he is to make a full recovery.  So at this juncture of the story, it is rich with possibility.  Yet because my back is bothering me I still have to get up once in a while.  When I eventually sit back down it is hard for me to resume again with the reading.  Instead I begin with my flitting.  But, looking for a little bit more diversity in my activity, and because I was trying to understand what all the icons on the homepage of the Tablet refer to (I didn't figure that out) I came to understand that this device is supposed to be good for viewing video.

So I start to watch episode 1 of The Wire, but only for a couple of minutes. The video quality is indeed quite good but the story is so different from The Luzhin Defense that I'm not that attracted by it.  Yet it is enough for me to pose the following question.  If I had my druthers which would I prefer to do, read a good book or watch a good movie (or TV show)?  Yet my back was bothering me and I knew that then and there neither form of entertainment would provide sufficient distraction for me to ignore the back pain.  Instead, I fix myself a drink and become comfortably numb.

This morning having the first cup of coffee I find open on my computer this essay by E. L. Doctorow from the series Writers on Writing.  It must have occurred to me to look at it while having my martini.  It's funny but not all that unusual for me.  After posing one question, I end up trying to answer a different question, though suggested by the first.  What is the difference between a novel and a movie from the perspective of the viewer/reader?  Doctorow's essay, written 15 years ago, is still a good read.  It laments the current situation where the movies are the dominant form and the novel plays second fiddle, at best.  Novels had to adjust in their style because of their marginalized status.  Pure description, setting the stage if you will, is not found in novels by the middle of the 20th century, where it was a feature of fiction a century earlier. Action is the key.  It must be ever present.  Yet even with these changes, novels remains different from movies.  Doctorow puts it this way.

In the 1930s and 40s, when stage plays and books were a major source of film scripts, the talkies were talkier (as adaptations of Shakespeare are still). Films of that period were, by comparison with today's products, logorrheic. Even action films, the Bogart film noir, the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, abounded with dialogue. Now, after a century of development, the medium of film generates its own culture. Its audience is as schooled in its rhythms and motifs and habits of being as Wagnerians are in der Nibelungen. Films work off previous films. They are genre referential and can be more of what they are by nature.



Literary language extends experience in discourse. It flowers to thought with nouns, verbs, objects. It thinks. That is why the term "film language" may be an oxymoron. Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.

Yet because Doctorow's focus is on contrasting fiction with film, I think he missed something that is quite obvious to me from reading Nabokov.  There is actually very little dialog in The Luzhin Defense.  Instead there is the omnipresent narrator, who can go on and on, with some paragraphs lasting for pages.  (Some books on the Kindle seem to have both location numbers and page numbers.  This book only has location numbers.  They are hidden from view unless you tap the screen to reveal them.  Given the font size adjustment - one of my favorite things about eReaders - going through several screens one really doesn't know how much has been read.)  The narrator talks in a way that differs from the the characters in the story.  The narrator explains things.  The characters do things that might defy explanation to the reader if not for the narrator.  This is how novels differ from plays.  Most plays don't have a narrator.  Novels always do.  A novel is never completely dialog.

What I came to understand while reading the Luzhin Defense is that the voice in our head aspires to be a narrator.  Further, reading good fiction (and perhaps good non-fiction as well) trains us in our own skills at narration. 

As our lives become more media intensive I suspect that fewer and fewer of us do a lot of pleasure reading.   It is probably all the more so across generations.  With current teens and young adults the reading habit may have never really developed.  This seems to me apparent with the students I teach.  I wonder what we actually know about their pleasure reading.  I suspect they don't do much of it at all, because they often seem to not "get it" when I ask them to read something; yet I think the meaning is plain. I'm very disturbed about this, yet I don't know what I can do as partial remedy.

If the voice in our head wants to be a narrator but gets little training, what then?  This is the question we should be asking.