Saturday, April 18, 2015

Alliteration in a Limerick

Here's a little promo for my other blog, The Daily Rhyme.  It is going strong after one full week. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Freedom of Speech - When and Where?

The piece excerpted and linked below from today's Inside Higher Ed challenged me because I didn't agree with its premise.  In this post I will try to work through my thinking about it.   I am not a lawyer and not claiming to be one.  Neither is Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches History and Education at NYU.

Let's begin with what the First Amendment actually says and how that is interpreted by the Supreme Court.  After doing a quick Google search on First Amendment, I found this site at Cornell which I found helpful, especially the discussion at the Learn more link. 

Where the Amendment itself begins with a restriction on Congress, the discussion says that has been extended to all of the Federal Government and to State Government as well.  Fine.  So issue one is whether a university such as the University of South Carolina is part of State Government.  If it is not, it would seem the First Amendment doesn't apply.

It seems clear that private universities are not part of State Government.  So if the incident that Zimmerman leads with had happened at NYU, where he works, then it seems clear there would be no First Amendment issue at all and the school could suspend the student as the University of South Carolina did.

If that is right, an interpretation that treated private universities differently from public universities for application of the First Amendment seems possible, but also would be awkward, at best.  Under an interpretation that treated both types of universities uniformly, the conclusion must be that the First Amendment prohibitions are simply not applicable.

The second issue seems to be whether the Carolinian Creed is a law, one that might abridge a student's freedom of speech.  As I am more familiar with the University of Illinois than the University of South Carolina, I will focus on the Student Code from my campus.  Below is the operative sentence from Part B of the Preamble.

These values include the freedom to learn, free and open expression within limits that do not interfere with the rights of others, free and disinterested inquiry, intellectual honesty, sustained and independent search for truth, the exercise of critical judgment, respect for the dignity of others, and personal and institutional openness to constructive change. 

At issue here are the highlighted phrases, which do constitute some limits on speech put into place for the good of the campus community.  If the University is part of State Government and the Student Code is law, then there is a First Amendment violation.  If the Student Code is not law, the First Amendment prohibitions don't apply.  Here, each interpretation seems possible to me.  The university cannot fine or imprison a student for violating the Student Code, but it can suspend the student or dismiss the student outright.  One thing that matters a lot, in my view, but is not in the language explicitly is on the issue of intent when the rights or dignity of others are violated.  Malicious intent requires a different treatment from a clueless trespass.  The latter demands education rather than punishment and that is the way it is typically handled on campus.  Most law doesn't accommodate the violator that way, which is perhaps one reason to think Student Codes are not law.

The last issue for me is place.  In reading the Inside Higher Ed piece I immediately thought of my own classroom.  Students do not have Freedom of Speech there.  The norm for behavior is that a student can talk up if she first raises her hand and then is called on by me.  If the student says something off point, I might very well interrupt.  I want to note this rarely happens.  Much more common is the issue that no student raises a hand when I would like some student response.  Nonetheless, the point is that the instructor is armed with the usual tools to thwart disrespectful speech in the classroom.

A student speaking out on the Quad is an entirely different matter.  That is a public place and the First Amendment is probably applicable there.  But once you differentiate space where the First Amendment does or does not apply, there is then the issue of which sort of space is a Campus study room. Would the answer depend on whether the room was only accessible to people with campus ID cards?   Our Library and our academic buildings have no such access restriction during normal hours, but our gym facilities do.

Much of the rest of Zimmerman's essay is a lament that infringement on the respect for others seems to matter on grounds of race but not on grounds of religion.  In other words, the codes are enforced selectively.  This is not a First Amendment matter, but it is a serious concern.  However, given that the Salaita case is still pending, it would seem that if we think of these codes as applying to the entire Campus community rather than just to students then grounds of religion do in fact matter.  If so, the real issue is what constitutes breach and what counts for acceptable criticism within civilized discourse.  Drawing that line is undoubtedly difficult, which is why everyone seems to be struggling here.  But that is not sufficient reason, in my view, for an argument that no line should exist whatsoever, which is what Zimmerman argues.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Teach-to-the-Test Society

Different philosophies of education prevail. They all might be reduced to this one core question.  What is the true nature of the learner?  One popular view is that first and foremost kids want to play; school often serves as an impediment to that end.  Anyone who watched The Little Rascals when they were kids couldn't escape this message.  The job of the teacher in this view is to discipline the students enough and not leave them to their own devices.  A different view is that the learner will drive real learning, provided the learner is not too stressed by the environment.  This alternative can be associated with many names; perhaps Montessori and Maslow are the most prominent.  The job of the teacher in this alternative view is to remove as many potential sources of bad stress as possible, model some for the student to help the student shape the direction of inquiry, and then let the student take it from there.

There may be still other views of the learner that can better account for when extrinsic reward (carrots instead of sticks) is most useful in promoting learning.  But for my purposes here it suffices to focus only on the above two approaches and treat them as polar opposites.  It would be interesting to poll the population of which view of education they subscribe to.  Without any data on this, I conjecture that the bulk of the population subscribes to the Little Rascals view of school, as many of them may have struggled in school, found it boring or alienating, or never had that one inspirational teacher who helped them get over the hump.  In contrast, the bulk of the the people who became university professors must have liked school, a lot.  They are apt then to hold the Montessori and Maslow view. I count myself in this camp.

This spring I've been involved with a discussion group comprised of a few students from my class last fall.  We meet on Friday afternoons with a session going somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours.  It's the first time I've done something like this.  Each of the students happens to be Asian, which has encouraged the discussion to take certain directions.  I believe the group has been quite successful insofar as we are capable of frank and open conversation.  However, it has been pretty much a failure when judged from my original purpose in forming the group.  This was to ask how students might become more creative in their own learning.  Mainly these students don't see themselves doing that though they are extremely diligent about doing their schoolwork.

One of the three, the only female and a double major in psychology and economics, also the youngest and still a sophomore, has talked about how she expands her horizons by doing research on the Internet, getting at topics that are new to her and somewhat beyond her grasp at first.  She enjoys the challenge of mastering these ideas.  This is the closest to a description of creativity, but even here the exploration proceeds according to a preconceived plan.  There is little or no room for serendipity and discovery that wasn't anticipated ahead of time.  There is diligence and competence, but nothing that I would call play.

This is surprising to me as in our conversations I joke a lot and gently tease them fairly often.  They are quick to laugh and seem to enjoy the banter.  Sometimes they even respond in kind.  Yet for whatever reason it doesn't occur to them to bring this sort of play into their learning outside our group discussions, which seems a much more solemn matter.  In large part this is because their primary goal is to get an A grade in each class.  It has been drilled into them over the years.  As I posed it quite a few years ago, Does Pavlov's Dog Evolve?  In other words, can students get past all this conditioning and come to drive their own learning?  Based on how my discussion group has gone, the answer is either no or that if yes it will be extremely difficult to cause such a change.

Last Friday we had a different sort of discussion, focusing mainly on their high school experiences.  This was trying to get at the source of the conditioning.  What I learned appalled me.  It started this way.  Our routine is for one of the students in the group to write a blog post in advance of the discussion.  The others, including me, then comment on the post.  This is meant to ready us for the discussion.  In the post this week a student from China who is graduating after this semester wrote that he used to like reading stuff outside of school and discussing those readings with his friends.  But then when he went to high school his teacher in high school said to stop doing that and only read the textbooks they were assigned.  This would be the best way to prepare for the national exams.  Eventually, he came to agree with his teacher about this.  School was hard work.  There should be no fun in it. 

A Korean student, who though only a junior is a bit older than the others since his college education was interrupted by serving in the army, echoed these sentiments though his story was a little bit different.  He said the students spend all day at high school, from early in the morning till late at night.  Much of this was like an extended study hall.  The students were monitored to keep at it.  If they started to goof off they'd be disciplined for it.  Corporal punishment was part of it.  Not knowing about that from my own experience at school, I thought of this quite vivid scene from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where young Stephen Dedalus away from home at the boarding school Clongowes gets rapped across his knuckles for some indiscretion in class and is writhing in pain thereafter.  In spite of this episode, which one surmises had its basis in an actual experience, Joyce remained defiant, one reason why he left Ireland.  Most people in these circumstances would capitulate.  That seems to be the hidden lesson of the academic high school in China and Korea.  Capitulation entails seeing success from the perspective of the school masters.  Doing well on the exams becomes the entire focus.  Personal self-expression gets drummed out of these kids. 

In today's NY Times there is a piece by Frank Bruni about the high suicide rate among teens who live in academic pressure cookers; Palo Alto is one such place, though they exist within certain major cities in gentrified zones and in the suburbs that house the well to do.  Wanting their kids to be so smart, the adults are so stupid in how they go about things.  A few years ago I wrote a post called Retards, which though it had different bits to it had main focus on the movie Charly.  The scientists performing the experiment were so intent on raising the intelligence of their subject that they ignored the ego beating he was taking from having to compete with the mouse, Algernon.  That bothered me a great deal at the time.

The issues surrounding accountability in education have been with us upwards of 40 years.  The damage done since to the so-called high academic achievers seems enormous to me.  Isn't it time to go back to square one and come up with some alternative, one that both engages the students so they don't want to play hooky from school and one that promotes their good mental health?  Human beings intrinsically are curious.  They want to satisfy that curiosity, which is the prime impetus for learning.  Why have we allowed school to so stray from helping the kids learn on their own?

The Daily Rhyme

I've started a new blog, with link below. This to sustain my latest indulgence without torturing readers of my main blog who don't want the nonsense stuff. I will not repost the rhymes in Lanny on Learning or in Facebook. Instead, there is an email subscription option. Note that if you choose that you will get a confirmation email message where you must click on the link to activate the subscription.

There is a semi-serious reason for my doing this. Even before the Internet, papers had abstracts that would often suffice for readers. Now so much information is delivered in digest form. An issue is whether digests can be made more entertaining and thereby make it easier for people to keep up. Rhymes might prove one way of doing this. If so, this effort might help to identify a few kindred souls who also author rhymes of this sort and collectively amass a readership that wants the stuff.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

One and done,
Spoils the fun.

The Final Four is a very small sample on which to rank the teams who play in it.  Just to make that point, below are the Sagarin rankings for the top twenty teams based on the entire season.  Sticking with just the top three, the Final Four ranking would be 1. Duke, 2. Wisconsin, and 3. Kentucky.

The Final Four had added interest because two of the teams, Kentucky most famously but Duke as well, featured the new one-and-done model, with the teams featuring freshman stars who are likely to declare for the NBA draft, while the other two teams, both from the Big Ten, employed the more traditional model where seniors and juniors form the bulwark for the clubs.  Each game played in the Final Four was new model versus old.  The results gave the new model 2 victories and 1 defeat.

Invariably, given this conclusion, the new model is taken to be triumphant and Coach K is looked at as a genius for having embraced it.

Duke won its fifth national championship with four freshmen combining for 60 of the Blue Devils' 68 points and a rookie accounting for every single Duke point in the second half. Tyus Jones finished with 23 points, and Grayson Allen, who had 18 in five combined NCAA tournament games prior, finished with 16.

It is anathema to what Duke had long been, a team built on wily seniors who stuck around and eventually won a championship. The last time the Blue Devils won a title, in 2010, Krzyzewski had mostly avoided one-and-done players. By the end of June he might be saying goodbye to three who remained in Durham, North Carolina, for only one season.

Yet what's maybe even more astounding is that Krzyzewski has not only made the change.

He has loved it.

There isn't enough data to support these conclusions, though that won't stop the sports pundits from making them.  But here I'm more interested in what the coaches actually think rather than what the pundits tell us about them.  Are the coaches of one mind on this?  Or are there some in both camps?

It seems pretty clear that the new model can work only at a few elite programs at most - there isn't enough talent to go around for it to become the norm for most programs.  What is less clear is whether among other programs that go the traditional route if at least a few will emerge that give these elite teams a run for their money.  To me, the most interesting game in the tournament was Wichita State beating Kansas.  Yet Wichita State seemed outgunned when playing Notre Dame.  A few years ago Butler was a compelling story.  NCAA basketball needs that type of story to keep up fan interest.  Wisconsin provided that type of story this year, even though they play in a so-called bit-time conference.

If those stories begin to dry up, college basketball will start to seem like it is replicating the income inequality in society as a whole.   Coaches are under a lot of pressure from their fan base, who want to win now.  I wonder whether some coaches at elite programs who actually prefer the traditional model will nonetheless make the switch to the new model because the fans demand it.

One potentially offsetting factor is the Moneyball effect.  By this I mean that for players in high school who are better than their competition it is unclear how they will perform once they face a higher caliber competition. So the becoming a McDonald's All American and the various rankings of players at the time they are being recruited out of high school should be thought of as noisy (in a statistical sense).  The more the noise, the less good should the new model perform over time.   But the talent pool should be thought of as a pyramid.  Is there as much noise near the top as there is at the base?  Even if there is not, is it still noisy at the top?

Lebron is Lebron and Kobe is Kobe.  There wasn't much noise in their case.  (Lebron was drafted number 1 so you might say there was no noise in his case.  Kobe was drafted 13th.  Given that Michael Jordon wasn't drafted number 1, I prefer to think there always is some noise.)   But players like that aren't in every draft.  Last year Michael Carter-Williams was the NBA Rookie of the Year.  He was drafted 11th.

The other factor that could eventually offset the new model is evidence that players' growth in basketball skills and general maturity happens more in college (at least at some programs) than it happens in the NBA.  This would give talented players at such programs some incentive to not declare for the NBA draft that is other than that they simply are having a great time in college.  I have a sample of one in mind in thinking about this.  Deron Williams left Illinois after his junior year and a season where the team made it to the NCAA Championship game.   He might have gone out after his sophomore year, but I believe he timed it right doing things as he did.  There would need to be many other such examples to convince kids it is good for them to stay.  Some of the Kentucky players are sophomores, but it is unclear whether for them that was the reason or if  they felt their talent wasn't up to par.

Division 1 men's college basketball serves multiple functions.  One, clearly, is as a minor league for the NBA.  Another is as entertainment unto itself, with a fan base some of whom care more about the college than the pro game.  The old model respects the multiple functions.  The new model, not so much.  That's the issue.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

If it says so on the Internet it must be true

At one point in my life I may have understood phonetic spellings of words.  But no longer.  So I may get this bit wrong, but I hope it is not too far off.

Perhaps my favorite Limerick, it was not written by Edward Lear, has the first line starting as follows:

There was a young lady from Niger.  

The last line is:

And a smile on the face of the tiger.  

How many sins have been committed in the name of rhyme?  In this case the problem is that the country's name is of French origin and therefore should be pronounced, knee-jair.  A little knowledge is a troublesome thing.  Undoubtedly, kids learn the wrong pronunciation first, as Limericks precede geography in the education sequence.  If only I could figure out why I mispronounce Qatar.  I don't recall any rhyme with Qatar in it.

As of late I have not trusted my own glib response to a friend's birthday announcement in Facebook.  So I've taken to do a Google search or two in the hope of finding something off the beaten path that I might post.  Today one of my classmates from junior high and high school turned sixty.  What search would I do?  Since I've been on a rhyming kick as of late I did a search on rhymes with sixty.  The first hit brings up a page at RhymeZone.  From the list there one should conclude that a word which ends in itty rhymes with sixty.  Yet I'm saying to myself, no it doesn't.

A few moments latter, I do a different sort of search.  Last week I wasn't sleeping well at all and felt exhausted.  I'd get up around 2 AM but then have a lot of trouble getting back to sleep, often not succeeding at all.  I attributed it to drinking too much, so this week I decided to be a teetotaler.  It is harder to first go to sleep that way and there is still some getting up in the night, but I feel the sleep has been more restorative and I'm almost caught up with it.  So I searched for drinking alcohol and sleeping.  The third hit is to a page at WebMD.  It tells you that alcohol interferes with REM sleep and the more you drink the more pronounced the effect.

Some years ago I recall having a discussion with my brother, he is an MD and a PhD,  where paraphrasing what he said - in the even numbered years eating eggs for breakfast turns out to be bad for you but in the odd numbered years it is good for you.  This was a commentary on clinical trials and that individual trials are not conclusive.  Further, in human subject research, identifying causal link while controlling for other factors is no mean feat.  So I'm at least a little clued in to be skeptical when reading about medical research.

Nevertheless, I completely trust what is on the WebMD page.  It jives entirely with my experience.  That is proof enough for me.  On the rhyming, however, while I concede that both witty and sixty end in ty, I don't think that is enough to make the two words rhyme, so I don't trust the RhymeZone page.  I've been scratching my head about why the one but not the other.  This is what I've come up with.

I have some sense of what it means to be an expert.  Though I'm not now current in either area, I believe it fair that I can still claim expertise in economics and in learning technology.  I write rhymes as a hobby.  My proficiency there is not as great and my formal training in doing do is none whatsoever.  But even a hobbyist develops some sense of taste about what makes for a good product.  When I get information from the Internet that comes into conflict with that sense of taste, I will first rely on the sense of taste and reject the information from the Internet.  I will need a lot more convincing to change my mind on that.

In contrast, while I think I'm reasonably well informed about my health as a patient, I recognize that I'm coming at it from a patient's perspective only.  I willingly concede that I don't have a doctor's perspective.  The lack of expertise there makes me more willing to trust what is on the WebMD site, especially when what it says coincides with my experience as a patient. 

There is a perhaps surprising derivative way to consider this, from the perspective of our students.  The more of what they do as students that has an authoring function, the more they will develop their own sense of taste and come at information they find online armed with that.  The more that they merely take as given what is presented in class, the more they are like a patient who knows he is not a doctor.  Acceptance of the information will then be the norm, and the norm will be adhered to unless it contradicts experience in a strong way. 

So, if we want our students to be skeptics, let's encourage them to write.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Capitalists Kill Capitalism

In the search for loot and looking to plunder
Powerful firms rip the economy asunder.

The use of the lobby by these would be harriers
Produce government made entry barriers.

This is the real reason lobbyists do petition
For it has the effect to reduce competition.

Thus while the economy is on the brink
These so-called capitalists cause GDP to shrink.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Age of Anger

Several different things that I've read or viewed as of late have caused an ill feeling inside.  Here I want to talk about three of them and see if I can bring them together into a coherent narrative.  The first is the film version of 1984, which stars John Hurt and Richard Burton.  I watched it because I wanted to see another film with Burton after recently having viewed The Night of the Iguana.  On the link to Burton from the Night of the Iguana page, 1984 was one the films IMDB featured for further Burton viewing other than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had seen not that long ago.  Plus, the campus Library had a copy of 1984.   It turns out, however, that while Burton's role in the film is important, the leading actor clearly is Hurt, and Burton's supporting role deliberately tones down on the passion front, so the film disappointed on that score.  But I found it remarkable as social commentary on the present, which is what I want to talk about here.  (The film actually was released at the tail end 1984, which I suspect was no coincidence.)

The second is the recent book by Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.  The book is most interesting as an articulation of an aspiration and as a goring of certain myths that Liberals cling to.  It is weak on explaining how to get there from here and in several places where an argument is being made there seemed to me to be a jump to the conclusion before all the necessary antecedent steps were presented.  It is unclear whether Geoghegan is trying to pull a fast one or if he is unaware that his reasoning is spotty in places.  As a consequence, I found this book more of a slug than was really necessary.  (Some of the stuff on the Wagner Act and what it does or does not permit employers to do when there is a strike was also a slug, but that part probably was necessary.)  Nonetheless, Only One Thing Can Save Us is exactly the sort of thing that we need right now to consider what the Liberal agenda really should be about.

The third is the barrage of emails I have been getting from the Democrats.  Most are of the form - here is the latest outrage, sign this petition, or of the form - in order to wage a broad based campaign against the Republicans we need donations from lots of small donors like you, please indicate how much you are willing to contribute.  I was getting just these sort of emails before the the midterm elections last year.  Look how that election turned out.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein 

What I'm not hearing from the Democrats, but desperately wish I were, is some kind of coherent strategy to generate greater voter turnout.  I've recently posted on this need from the point of view of macroeconomic policy.  It should be evident that the same need exists from the political perspective, if the Democrats are to become the majority again.  This lack of strategy is depressing to me.  Indeed, these emails are for me worse than no communication whatsoever.  It is like rubbing salt in a wound, where this adding insult to injury is being done by people I should be sympathetic to.  I wish they were aware that they are alienating me in the process.

Here's a little aside before I paint my little picture. When I was growing up we had at home the collection by Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization.  Then it was ten volumes.  An eleventh volume was published subsequently.  One of those volumes I had remembered as The Age of Reason, though apparently the full title is The Age of Reason Begins.   This was the age of Shakespeare, Montaigne, etc.  In my way of thinking, Reason is of higher order than Anger.  Thus, if we now live in Age of Anger while part of the Renaissance was the Age of Reason, we have gone backwards.  That was the purpose of my title.

I did a little Google search on The Age of Anger.  From that I found this Letter to the Editor, which I thought was spot on.  People begin with anger at themselves, self-loathing.  This is then outwardly directed - prodded by talk radio, cable news, various sites on the Internet and/or by the political parties, possibly other organizations.  The self-loathing is partly a consequence of not pushing back firmly at social threats, out of principle, not anger.  With sufficient principled push back, moderate outcomes can be achieved and a sense of reasonableness can prevail.  Without such push back, an us versus them mentality can take over.  The entire process can then become a vicious cycle. 

The letter was itself a comment on a column by Nicholas Kristof that urged readers to Hold the Vitriol.  The date of the piece is interesting to me, November 2003.  Maybe hindsight makes the past look more benign than it seemed at the time and maybe because I was working full time and putting in yeoman's hours on the job that I paid less attention to national politics then.  Even acknowledging that, however, things seem much worse now.  Kristof refers back to the previous decade when Bill Clinton was President and the hostility confronted from the Right.  That reference made it seem a starting point for such overt anger expressed in our national politics.  While I'm no media historian, for non-print journalism I'd point to two TV shows that began in the early Reagan years - Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group.  Both had bombast that I don't recall seeing on news/commentary shows before then.  Both shows repeatedly illustrated a lack of tolerance for alternative views.  And while they had an air of fairness to them, they had a definite rightward tilt.  Until then, it is my impression that the news/commentary shows were rather staid.  Following them, some of that sort of programming got more and more extreme, both with the in your face style of the shows and with positions articulated.

* * * * *

In the poignant opening scene, members of Oceania are gathered in a large hall facing what appears to be an enormous TV.  Each is wearing the same type of blue overalls.  Gender matters not for attire.  They are sitting on benches watching the monitor. On it there is the personage of the rival nation-state, Eurasia.  They hate this man.  They are angry.  They start screaming, yelling epithets for everyone else in the hall to hear.  As their passion swells they arise from their benches and get louder and louder.  This culminates in their giving salute, both arms raised and crossed in front.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, we don't yet know his name from the movie but we're sure it's him nonetheless, follows along with the others.  He is feigning his actions, because he knows he is being watched and he doesn't want to bring attention to himself.  The essence of the entire film is captured in this first scene.  Mind control happens by keeping the members in very public places in front of large TVs, forcing them to listen to the latest outrage and then to take pride in the latest victory in the ongoing war.  Anger and patriotism are thereby coupled.  It is much easier to capitulate to this manipulation than to resist.  Most if not everyone else in the room are unlike Smith and earnest in their actions.  They have become slaves of the state, whether they realize this or not.

It is possible to resist, to preserve one's sense of independence, capable of generating one's own thoughts.  A heretical book, authored by "Goldstein," offers a plan for insurrection and overthrow of the state.  Those sensing a need to resist have a desire to read this book.  But the thought police are everywhere.  If caught, a person must deliver a painful confession.  This is captured on video and delivered to the nation on those TV monitors.  Thus, a stark tradeoff is offered.  One the one hand is mindlessness which is bundled with anger, pride, and a sense of security.  On the other is thought, secrecy, and paranoia.  The state leaves no doubt as to which choice it wants the person to make.  Yet some do resist, at their own peril.

Before moving on from 1984, let me say that I read the book such a long time ago that I was unsure of what was actually in the novel and what was unique to the movie version.  The fear and paranoia I suppose was in the book. I'm less sure that the screaming and overt expressions of anger were in the book as well.  If you reflect on just this behavior, it seems clear there is a socio-biological need for such expression.  This is why we have big time sporting events played against hated rival teams, so these emotions can find expression in a comparatively benign way.  When such games are watched on TV, we distinguish between doing so with home team announcers, who typically are quite biased in favor of their side, from national announcers, who strive for neutrality in their broadcast.  What this opening scene shows is politics as sport with true homers for announcers, but where this it not diversion from work; it is life itself.  That is the dystopia.   As social commentary about our current reality it is not 100% spot on.  But it seems to me not too far off, which is why this movie is worth watching, evening now.

How might this dystopia be averted with democracy restored?  This is the question that Geoghegan takes on, though he looks at it as much through an economics lens as a political one.  Indeed, in considering his book you can readily invoke the old saw - economics is about politics and politics is about economics.  Put a different way, politics is about power and those without power, even if they have great numbers, will only get a very little piece of the pie.  Democracy in outcomes, then, requires some power to accompany the numbers.  For Geoghegan, a new kind of labor movement, one modeled after how things are done in Germany, is the way to restore power to the masses.

To Geoghegan, democracy should happen as much within organizations as it does in how government gets elected.  Much of his book concerns getting labor to have real representation on corporate work councils.  In other words, he'd like to cast the relationship between labor and management as a partnership with equal say, rather than as vertical arrangement with labor at the bottom and management at the top.

But we are nowhere close to that now.  At present Labor is very weak and organized labor, think AFL-CIO, UAW, and other unions, seem wedded to a past that will not repeat.  In that past the union hierarchy held power while the rank and file had to toe the line.  In other words, the structure itself wasn't really democratic.  This is why a different approach is necessary. 

How does this brave new world come into being?  As I said, this is the part of the book that is hardest to embrace.  It brings to mind that old New Yorker cartoon.  Geoghegan offers up two different strands of possibility.  One amounts to guerrilla tactics for labor - quick hitter strikes that show elements of protest aimed at getting the point across yet with sufficient limit that there is no retaliation for striking by the employers against these employees.   The idea is to use existing law in a clever way, understand what the employers are actually fearful of and use that against them, and thereby push the agenda along.  If all these employees had law degrees a la Geoghegan, this might work.  Absent that, this union labor would need free consulting from lawyers like Geoghegan to orchestrate such a strategy.  How long would it take for it to achieve the desired result?  Who knows.  In the meantime, what lawyers apart from Geoghegan would do such pro bono work?

The other strand comes from looking to the past, The New Deal in particular, and noting that the first labor movement was as much a top down creation of FDR's Presidency as it was a grass roots uprising. We need something top down again from The Kennedy School of Government types who occupy the halls of power in Washington.  Even if you buy the argument that there is such a need, how do you get any consensus whatsoever among those folks for the type of legislation and programmatic change that will matter and in a good way?  So this part of the book I found not convincing at all

A different part of his argument made much more sense to me.  This regards the role of education.  Geoghegan views education as essential but as to the role of college he is skeptical, even antagonistic in many cases.  Indeed he argues that the call for many more to get college education is a mask for the lack of promotion that what labor really needs is power.  Ask yourself whether a college education would be necessary for most workers if labor did have power.  Then ask whether a college education will matter if labor continues not to have power.

Geoghegan wants to divide education into two different domains.  The first is about literacy and good citizenship.  He argues here that we did better on this score in the post WW II era than we are doing at present and does so by comparing the denseness of newspaper articles in the late 1940s, when most people didn't have a college education, to the quality of newspaper writing today, where there is much more fluff and where even on the serious pieces the writing tests the reader's acumen less.  This is true though the fraction of the population with college is much higher now.

I concur with Geoghegan on this decline in general literacy.  As a long time reader of the New York Times, my sense is that it was more challenging to the reader when I first started with it, in the late 1960s, than it is now.  The schools take the brunt of the criticism for the decline in literacy, but I believe there are several other important factors to consider.  One of those is the much greater abundance now to alternatives to reading.  I am thinking mainly of video games and the movies but also counting things like Facebook which though textual in part don't provide coherent argument, so the young mind is challenged less to produce meaning of what is going on.  Tying this back to the theme of the post, it should be evident that literacy encourages reason.  It's absence does the opposite, thus makes anger as the norm more likely.

The other part of Geoghegan's education argument concerns the human capital side.  If you want to be a university professor, you need a college degree, indeed you need a doctorate, qua human capital.  As most college education has such folks as instructors, who if they are like me never held a real job of any responsibility, how can they possibly teach their students in ways that will be relevant for the work these students will do post graduation?  In other words, college education is not in the spirit of the master-apprentice model.  But human capital accumulation best occurs under that model.  Thus the production of human capital should be divested from college and done either by the employer on-the-job or, as Geoghegan argues, be done by the trades themselves and then mediated by the union. 

Let me point out further on this score that it has long been understood that students want a more practical education than most college instructors are willing to provide.  The gap between desired education and the education that actually is provided is apt to be a source of frustration for the students.  Such frustration also contributes to anger.

My final bit on Geoghegan allows me to segue to the Democratic party.  Geoghegan argues that the Democratic party has abandoned labor in all but name.  One big example of this is where the Democrats stand on the teachers and school reform.  Geoghegan is from Chicago and he is very disappointed in Rahm Emanuel as Mayor.  The public schools and particularly school closings follow a pattern of elite privilege and minority dislocation that is anathema to little-d democratic values.  So Geoghegan argues that much of the disruption that labor can cause should be directed at the Democratic party itself.  It is an interesting argument.  I doubt it can work, but on this one I would love to be proven wrong.

Let me make my last point and then close.  It seems to me that members of the Democratic Party listen to each other, but they don't go outside to hear voices that might generally be sympathetic but are not themselves within the party.  For example, in the last election the Federal Minimum Wage was one of the big issues.  Nobody with a liberal perspective is against such a proposal, but many feel that wages are still too low for people who are working well above the minimum.  The primary agenda, then, should be to raise wages across the board.  Does raising the minimum wage do that?  If not, what would?  That primary agenda was buried, perhaps implicit in some of the infrastructure proposal and elsewhere, but certainly not front and center.

If the Democratic Party had a coherent plan for raising wages across the board, its job then would be to educate the public both about the issues and then about how the plan addresses the issues.  Much of what the Democratic Party should be doing should occur on this education front.  Now there is very little of that sort of thing.  As I said at the outset, instead there is a lot of blather about outrage at the Republicans.  This is demagoguery.  We see negative campaign ads all the time because demagoguery works.  It makes people angry.  People then act out of passion.  But the reality is the Republicans are better at it than the Democrats.  The Democrats should stop responding in kind and instead do something else.  That they are not is what makes me angry.  How long will it take until they figure this out?

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Professor Mind

In a mild act of protest, I have deleted the word "Technology" from my blog title and blog description, though I have kept the word "technical" in the description.  My protest is about the mistake I see being made, for example here, of pronouncing the technology as the driver of learning, now and in the future.  It isn't and it won't be.  At best it is an enabler.  Often it doesn't rise to that role and instead serves as a mask for non-learning in the guise of learning.

For you clever folks who realize I haven't changed the url for the blog, that fits in with keeping the protest mild.  Some battles are not worth fighting.  I did change the url for the blog once, way back when.  It was originally hosted on a campus server.  Then I moved it to, after it became clear it was creating a management problem to be on a server not intended for that purpose.  I lost many readers with that move, most of whom never came back. Once is enough.

* * * * *


verb (used with object)
1. to lay claim to, often insincerely; pretend to: He professed extreme regret.
2. to declare openly; announce or affirm; avow or acknowledge: to profess one's satisfaction.
3. to affirm faith in or allegiance to (a religion, God, etc.).
4. to declare oneself skilled or expert in; claim to have knowledge of; make (a thing) one's profession or business.
5. to teach as a professor : She professes comparative literature.
6. to receive or admit into a religious order.

verb (used without object) make a profession, avowal, or declaration. take the vows of a religious order.

My title is about definitions 2, 4, and 5 and their interplay.  I wonder how many readers would aver that definitions 2 and 4 apply to their own thinking, which they give voice to often.  Definition 5 seems more contractual and less about thinking per se, though in the old days (meaning when I first became a faculty member) it seemed that definition 5 implied definitions 2 and 4.  I don't believe that is true any more, though I might be convinced otherwise.  (At issue for me is how far beyond what they teach can the instructor go in discussing the subject matter of the course and what differentiates the instructor in such a discussion from the student who has taken the course already.)

Let me begin with the observation that I can claim expertise in Economics, because that is where I have my PhD, but my blog is about learning, where my formal education is nada.  It may not be obvious, but one informs the other.  The habits of mind that were honed doing formal economic modeling come to bear when thinking about learning issues.  The puzzle for me is not my own thinking this way, but rather everyone else and whether they are guilty of an enormous conceit.  In other words, they claim definition 4 applies to them, but do so without real justification.  (One reading of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is that this is human nature, to believe we know much more than we actually do.  That belief then underlies what he calls WYSIATI.) 

Lest the reader think I'm too arrogant in making my prior claim, I want to come clean on my own conceit.  It pertains to belief in "thinking hard" though that descriptor is not accurate, but let me get to the clarification after making the point.  Thinking hard, for a sufficiently long duration, opens a portal into whatever the object of investigation is.  Once the portal appears, it is just a matter of looking at what one sees and then trying to understand it in some sensible way.  Until the portal shows up, however, there is only muddle.  The professor mind, in my title, spends much of the time waiting till that next portal happens to appear.

One might very well imagine this conceit is a delusion, that actually there is no portal, or even if there is one it never arrives.  I will discuss some of my delusional quests below.  But first let me note that part of the art in professing is problem selection, which is trying to find something interesting enough to hold one's attention and yet tractable enough that the portal does appear before interest in the problem wanes entirely.

Let's say for the sake of argument that such a problem has already been identified.  Is it hard work to find the portal?  What does one do to expedite its arrival?  I'm going to begin with an answer to the first question that some might consider a cheat.  If you have your full concentration on the problem at hand, then sense of self is entirely lost at that time.  In those periods of complete absorption, the notion of hard work doesn't make sense.  It might make sense in retrospect, when reconsidering what the thinking was, and it might make sense in prospect as well, since achieving a state of complete absorption is no mean feat.  I used to be better at it than I am now, though now I do have other behaviors to compensate for the less intense concentration.

As I've written about many times, this being unaware of self is true as long as I'm not stuck.  Getting stuck is an entirely different matter.  Then self-awareness returns and with a vengeance.  The getting unstuck part is hard work.  Quite often when stuck I have a feeling that says, "I should be able to get this."  I don't know what the basis of that feeling is, but when I have it I'm bothered by being stuck.  The being bothered provides the motivation to find a way to get unstuck.  There is much prior experience on which the judgment of the problem being do-able and the emotion of being bothered are formed.  But is the prior experience relevant to the current situation?  Often I can't establish relevance, which is why I say I don't know the basis for that feeling.  Once in a while, I suppose, there are false positives, though at the moment none spring to mind, so I don't have an example as illustration.

When I'm not stuck, I'm telling a story to myself and seeing whether the story holds water.  This having an internal conversation is something I enjoy doing.  So I don't need to prompt it to happen.  It will occur on its own accord.  If the story seems to be working I keep going.  If it does not I try to identify the issue.  Then I will retell that part of the story multiple times, to see if the issue is still there or if perhaps it goes away with a slight modification of the story.  An issue that survives several retellings then can trigger a new inquiry, one which either replaces the original problem or is done in conjunction with it. Having a story not hold water is different from being stuck.  As long as there appears to be a possible way out of the dilemma, I'm not stuck.  When I've run out of possibilities to track down, then I'm stuck.  The difference between being stuck and the initial search for a problem to investigate is one that's anathema to an economist, proof that sunk costs really do matter.  If I haven't put in much time at all considering an issue, I can drop it with little fanfare once it seems not a good fit for me.  If I've worked on a problem for a considerable time it's an entirely different matter.  Dropping it then would be like betraying a good friend. You don't do that sort of thing.

How far into the story does the portal appear?  This depends to a great extent whether the problem is a reaction to something else read, viewed, or heard, in which case it suffices to come up with a reasonably convincing counter narrative.  Then it doesn't take too long.  It is different with doing something new on your own, where then you are developing some expertise in that at the same time as you are developing the narrative.  You need to find the right sort of practice for producing that expertise.  That does take time. 

* * * * *

Here I want to switch gears and talk about my delusions.  You might think of the first type of these as the embodiment of the Vulcan mind meld or if you prefer a real ESP experience with telepathy.  This would be done individually with each of my students.  I'd like to enter their minds, unobtrusively so as not to influence their thinking, just to observe what is going on.  I will explain why in a bit.  Here I do want to note that telepathy is sometimes referred to as mind reading.  That is instructive.  What I do now is have the students write blog posts.  I read those.  Certainly that tells me something about the student thinking.  But there is much thinking that never shows up in the writing.  So I want more than just the writing.

The other delusion is to couple the above capability with time travel.  I'd like to visit with earlier versions of me.  I'd like to see how far along I was with the professor mind at various stages of my own development.  I'd like to get a better sense of causality as to what made it develop more fully.

Let me raise some of the questions I have that motivate these delusions.  The first and most obvious one is this.  Can the professor mind be taught or, perhaps more likely, be strongly encouraged by some early interventions and good experiences which result from that intervention?   For me, math played a foundational role.  Solving a math problem that we'd get on the Math Team (which I was first on in eighth grade in junior high school and then again in eleventh and twelfth grades in high school) was very much in the spirit of finding a portal into what the problem was asking.  So that was an early antecedent for the professor mind for me, though since those problems were timed it encouraged a quick hitter approach to penetrating the problem.  In high school there was also the Problem of the Week, which was not timed, and encouraged a more deliberate sort of investigation.

What I'd like to know about me is really in the last few years of elementary school, where my recollection of school is far hazier.  Were there intimations of the professor mind even then?  Did one or several of my teachers make some suggestions to me that pushed me in the direction of the professor mind?  Then, I'd like to pose the same sort of questions for my students.  Might I have a brief dialog with each of them where I make some mild suggestions, nothing more, but ones that the students are willing to try?  And then, might those simple suggestions show profound change in the way these students think, not immediately but in the fullness of time?

Another question concerns whether becoming a professor was more or less inevitable for me.  I have learned as an adult that my Myers-Briggs type is INTP.  Does that fact coupled with the observation that many of my high school classmates who were my friends became either doctors or lawyers but my path was elsewhere mean that the professor path was the likely alternative?   Or did I simply luck into it?  One obvious bit of serendipity for me was that I took only one undergrad economics course, introduction to macroeconomics.  Sometime in the middle of the course the professor announced to the class that if anyone was good in math and was interested in going to graduate school, that person should come see him.  This was completely unplanned, yet it offered an extremely good fit for me, marrying the math aptitude to a social science interest.  Suppose I hadn't taken that course, or took it as a senior rather than as a junior, or had a different instructor who wouldn't make such an announcement.  What would have happened to me then?

A third question concerns whether the professor mind can flourish without associating it with the professor job.  For example, can administrators on campus who never were faculty members nonetheless have the professor mind?  Might investigative journalists have the professor mind?  After all, isn't there job to see things how they actually are rather than simply how they appear to be?  Are there other professions where that sort of seeing is fundamental to the job description?

One last question is posed in the negative.  Why doesn't the professor mind develop in more people?  I hypothesize that extroverts are much less likely to develop the professor mind, as they'd rather spend their time interacting with others than engaging in reflective thought.  That takes care of about half the population.  Even among introverts, we know that some people are "good with their hands" and express themselves manually rather than through reflection or introspection.  Others might have an artistic bent.  I will assert here that there are many introverts who are neither professor types, nor good with their hands, nor artistic.  Among these, many may not have had good enough educational opportunities to develop intellectually, a manifestation attributable to the income inequality in our society.  For the rest, many fit the description given in Excellent Sheep

Let me return to my delusions and to childhood memories.  I would like to trace the role of grades in my own learning.   I don't want to say they didn't matter entirely, but they only seemed to matter when the measured performance was less than stellar.  For the most part, high grades were expected and when such expectations are confirmed the grades didn't provide motivation or reward.  Even when my performance dipped some, the grades served as an indicator, not as a driver.   They were by-product only.  They were not the main product.  I have the feeling that the professor mind would develop in many more kids if grades for them were also by-product only.  But it seems to me too late to start with this message only after the kids are in college.  And it is probably too late to start even in high school.  There is a error that most adults make, parents or educators, that if measured performance is not emphasized that the kids won't care about their own learning.  That clearly is not true for infants and toddlers.  Does it become true after that?

The entire society should embrace the professor mind and think through that question. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Falling from Grace

What is it about Richard Burton's voice that we find so compelling?  The tonality?  The elocution?  That it comes from the face, full of fury and passion, weather-beaten yet with a knowing intelligence?  Or is it that it was trained to do Shakespeare, Alas poor Yorick! Yet it seems more at home speaking lines from Tennessee Williams, lines which belong to a depraved soul struggling to hold onto some piece of his humanity.  

I am referring to The Night of the Iguana, which I watched yesterday.  It had aired on TCM a few days earlier. It seems to me this was the perfect role for Burton and it really is a great movie to watch him perform, though if you are looking for human uplift you won't find it here, at least not till the very end.  One of the interesting things is that Burton sweats a lot - they are in Mexico near the ocean and the temperature is over 100 degrees.  But the other characters, mainly women, are not sweating nearly so visibly.  Burton, it seems, is perpetually working off a hangover and this is how he does it.  The alcohol, doesn't affect his speech, the one way the film is perhaps less realistic, but a sacrifice necessary so that Burton can display his talents.  Otherwise the story is very convincing.

With the drunkenness you expect debauchery as well, but there isn't any, only a pretense of some as the nymph, played by Sue Lyon, puts Burton in seemingly compromising positions.  This is how she entertains herself because she chafes at the over protection of her chaperone and in Burton she finds a kindred spirit.  He is sympathetic to her circumstance, but he is not attracted to her in a romantic way.  She is too immature.  Burton needs someone who understands the ways of the world.

The cast is excellent.   All in all, this is a movie definitely worth viewing.   I now want to use that observation to pose the following questions.

1.  The movie is not available at Netflix.  It is available for streaming at Amazon Prime, but there is an incremental charge.  Why?  Who comes up with sort of pricing.

2. My guess is that movies like this appeal to an older audience, one with memories of Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for example.  Would younger viewers find this as appealing as I do?  (Here I mean somebody in their late 20s or early 30s.)   In other words, does knowing the actors as personalities matter in enjoying the film?  Would Burton seem as such a powerful actor to people who saw him for this first time in this movie?  If the answer to this is yes, doesn't it seem odd not to encourage showing his better work more?

3.  My sense is that my kids never watch TCM.  I don't know if TCM has an exclusive license to the movies it shows or not.  They are still too young, in my view, to appreciate this picture.  (The older one is 22; the younger one will be 21 in 11 days.)  I forced them both to read The Grapes of Wrath but otherwise have ignored their cultural education.  It would be good if they discovered some of these older gems on their own.  What might be done to encourage that discovery? 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Being engaged at the U as a prof
In a field known as worldly philosophe,
Making the rounds is a rumor
That my true aim is for humor
At a level well below that of a soph.

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Partial Credit

When I was a kid in the 1960s it was a fairly common practice for kids to skip a grade, maybe even two grades.  The first opportunity for this was to skip third grade and go directly to fourth grade after second grade.  I was not one of those kids who skipped third grade but I do recall when I was in Mrs. Minsley's third grade class and that sometime in the middle of the school year she "inherited" those students who were slated to skip.  So these kids really had part of second grade and part of third grade in the same year.  Looking back at this, I don't know if it was done to ease the transition for these kids or because of some staffing problem at school.  But I do know that for a while we had a very large class.

The other time to skip a grade was in junior high school.  There were two versions of SP classes.  SP stands for Special Progress.  Today you'd call it an Honors Program.  One version of SP was three years and at the time covered grades seven through nine.  The other version of SP was two years.  You covered those three grades in 2/3 of the time.  In other words, students and their families were given the choice either for enrichment or for acceleration.  I was in the three year SP, though my junior high school was converted to a middle school when the new high school opened, so I actually had ninth grade in high school.

A bright and precocious kid might have been able to skip grades twice and still fare quite well with the new cohort the kid entered, though apparently that not happening with regularity was a big reason why acceleration became less common.  But there are also risks with gifted children following an enrichment route only, especially if the way students are assigned for enrichment leads to a rather large fraction of the overall student population being so assigned, with the enrichment itself then, of necessity, targeted toward the middle of that group.  The outlier students may then become bored with school and alienated as a result.  My friend and former colleague, Al Roth, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did and was a few years ahead of me at school, dropped out of high school and never graduated for these reasons.  Obviously, he was able to get on a good path after that.  Not all gifted kids are so fortunate. 

The way giftedness is usually defined, it is unclear whether such children simply develop some of their intellectual faculties early, such as starting to read at a very young age, or if they continue to learn more rapidly than their peers throughout childhood and adolescence and perhaps thereafter as well, indicating a difference in kind in the way people learn.  This suggests possibly confounding the one for the other.  For example, giftedness might actually be reference to a certain personality type.

A number of gifted children develop the INTP personality profile of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): description 1, description 2. The characteristics of this profile include the tendency towards social rebellion, the intense ability to focus etc. Again, these are also characteristics of the Autistic Spectrum. 

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect that reading at a very young age doesn't correlate strongly with any one personality type.  Further, sorting out the effects of parental push versus the kid's own supplied motivation probably takes many years to fully unravel.  Given that the expression Tiger Mom has now entered the vernacular,  one wonders whether the gifted child label is more for the parents than for the kid. 

Thinking back to my own childhood, I don't believe I was ever bored in school.  In high school and maybe in junior high school too, this was because I had a cohort of friends with whom I could have a social life that on occasion had some intellectual aspects to it.  In elementary school, the reason was different.  To a large extent I was able to follow my own inclinations, much of which allowed for a good chunk of the learning to happen outside of school.  (Even at school, some of the time I was allowed to do stuff on my own while the rest of the class did other things.)  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.

Reading was different. Pretty early on, perhaps fourth grade, we had SRA. This history by Don Parker is a fascinating read, if a little melodramatic. We also had individualized reading. (Those who preach a learner centric approach likely will be intrigued at how early this piece is and yet that its critique is not about “teacher centric” so much as it is about “grouping,” where all students read the same book.) And now I must confess that my memory fails, or that I’m not able in looking backward to attribute cause to school or elsewhere or in some combination.

Elsewhere in this case was the public library, but also books that were at home. I recall a series that I believe Random House produced. The books were numbered, each around 150 pages, dealing with a character or event in American History – Kit Carson, The Transcontinental Railroad, Fulton’s Folly, Appomattox, etc. I’d read at least one of these a week, sometimes one in an evening. And there were biographies by Clara Ingram Judson from the school Library. This was an enormous education. I soaked it in. Once the momentum started it self-sustained. I’m really not sure of the spark. What does it matter?

There is something missing from this description, because it talks about reading only, not about what I did with the information that had been acquired from past reading.  This time in elementary school also marked the beginning of certain habits of mind forming in me.  These habits entailed putting information from different readings together into a more coherent picture and being able to retrieve bits of information from the reading and apply it in context appropriately.   I am unable to say now whether those habits of mind are part and parcel of my personality or something separate from it but which my personality was disposed to develop.

I don't believe anyone ever told me to develop these habits, though it is possible that somebody did and I simply have forgotten that episode.  I do believe it was an advantage that school didn't place too much demand on my time, so I could be freed up to self-teach at an early age.  I wonder if this sort of habit forming was less frequent with the kids who skipped third grade and/or had two-year SP, because they lacked the time for the habit to develop.  The current fashion of giving bright kids mountains of homework has the consequence that the kids don't learn about their own likes intellectually.  Thus, they are less likely to see learning as play, which I think is crucial for motivation. As a consequence, they can't task themselves in the direction of what they should focus on next with their learning.

Every once in a while I contrast myself as I remember to what I see in the students I teach now.  It does seem to me that many of these students, the vast majority of whom are juniors or seniors in college, don't have those habits at all, to my chagrin.  Later in that PLAs Please post, I wrote:

How many kids have a PLA? Do we know enough to say what starts them down the path? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Access to plenty of interesting things to read and view would certainly seem necessary. Whether it’s enough, I can’t really say.

I do have this feeling that we’re trying to do in College what individualized reading and the public library did for me in elementary school. And that if the kid doesn’t have a PLA by the time he graduates from High School, it sure will be tough sledding trying to get the kid to establish one thereafter.

In the spirit of imitating The Creator, I believe that most instructors try to recreate in their students images of themselves as learners.  Thus I take it as my primary mission as an educator to cultivate these productive habits of mind and only secondarily to teach the subject matter of my  course on the Economics of Organizations.  I feel that should be role of other instructors as well.   Given that, it is so disheartening to observe that most students don't see developing these habits as their job, not even a little bit. 

But is that the mission?  Illinois is one of the better public research universities nationally.  In the Campus Strategic Plan, the second goal is to provide transformative learning experiences.  As developing such habits of mind would certainly imply personal transformation in the student, it is not hard to see the strategic plan as telling us this is indeed the mission.

Yet a learner's needs are not so generic that they can be fully specified externally. Are most of the undergraduate students at Illinois gifted, in the sense I've described above?  I don't know.  If they are and if school coupled with pressure from parents and peers has forced them into following a less intellectually nurturing mode because the alternative seems more productive GPA-wise, this is a tragedy that we should try hard to reverse.  If many are not really gifted, is it nonetheless appropriate to encourage the students to acquire these habits of mind, or will they end up torturing themselves in so doing because they will never achieve proficiency this way?  This is the $64,000 question.

* * * * *

In much of my teaching over the last few years, I've implicitly assumed the answer to this question is yes.  I've modified my approach accordingly to where it is quite different from what students get in their other Econ courses.  Instead of straight lecture, we mainly use Socratic methods in class, with occasional spot lectures on the math models, though there are also micro-lectures online for that on a good number of the topics.

There are two types of homework.  The first is on the math modeling for the economics and done in Excel, which autogrades the student responses.  If students get an answer wrong, they can change it and continue to do so till they get it right.  The title of my post refers to my requirement that they get all the answers right in order to receive credit for doing the homework.  In my course evaluations, some students objected to this approach.  And some objected to my use of the homework as a readying activity for the in class discussion of the models.  They wanted me to lecture first and only have the homework after that.  I fought that for a while but have since caved in some, which is one reason why there are those online micro-lectures.  The other reason for them is that when I do an extended lecture on a math model with some subtlety face to face, many of the students can't really follow it and their eyes start to glaze over after a few minutes.  With the online lectures, I don't see that look on their faces.

The other part of the homework is weekly writing done online, where the students are supposed to tie their personal experiences to the economics issues we are studying.  They each have their own blog and write under an alias I assign. (You can find the student blogs by looking at the left sidebar in the main class blog and scrolling down a bit.) The students write to a prompt that I provide, though they have the option to write on something else of their own choosing as long as they can relate that to the issues we are studying.  The option is hardly ever exercised.

I will comment on each of the posts, often providing several paragraphs of response, if the students get their posts done before the deadline.  (In my class, the deadline is Friday at noon, but I typically only begin to read the posts over the weekend.  If they get something to me while I'm still reading other posts, then they are fine and I'll read theirs as well.  If they get it done only on Monday, then it is more hit or miss whether I'll read it.)  I have learned that such response is much better if it is reaction, the same sort of thing you'd do in conversation with a colleague, and only very little bit a corrective, or not at all.  Students want their own thinking critiqued.  It is something we faculty can offer them.  But at present it is outside their experience before taking the class.  So it takes them some time to relax in the writing and develop their own voice, because at a first they are very afraid their performance will be judged harshly.  Once they relax, many students who say they otherwise don't like to write do take to the blogging.  That in itself is a minor victory.  But I want more.  I'd like to see the students start to push themselves in the writing and get more ambitious with what they can accomplish by force of their own arguments.  Alas, I don't see this happening at all.

There are two possible explanations for why this doesn't happen.  (There may be other explanations as well, but I will focus on these two as they suffice to articulate my thinking on the issue.)  First there is the matter of incentives.  What does it take to get an A in the class?  While I believe I have quite high standards for what I'd like to see from the students in their intellectual performance, I am not a particularly tough grader.  If I were, with my course an elective rather than required of everyone, most of the students would drop.  If the final enrollments were substantially lower than the 10-day enrollments, I might not be asked to teach the class again.  This is the nature of the beast.  The incentives produce grade inflation and a package of other vices that go with it.  A few years ago I wrote a very long post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?  In that post I offered up several recommendations for how to address the problem.  The first was to move to a grading system that I called uniform standardized ranking.  This would eliminate grade inflation as a possibility, but would thereby take away substantial discretion on the part of the instructor in the process.  The latter makes it unlikely we'll ever see something like it as an alternative to what we do now.  I wrote that essay not expecting all the recommendations to be implemented in full.  (Another recommendation, about tenure track faculty mentoring adjuncts, is less objectionable in principle, though it too is unlikely to see the light of day.)  My purpose, instead, was to argue that these issues need a systemic solution rather than adhere to the belief that the high character of the individual instructor is sufficient. 

The other possibility is ignorance.  The students don't know how to drill down with an inquiry they initiate.  They touch the surface and feel they are done.  They don't know how to go deeper.  They don't understand that going deeper requires coming up with questions that don't have immediate answers.  They don't try to generate such questions.   Even when such a question emerges of its own accord, they don't have prior experience of struggling over it and in the fullness of time have some discovery happen which addresses the question, in part or in whole.  As I said above, they also don't sense a need to try this approach out as an alternative to what they've been doing right along.  They are all well aware of the expression, critical thinking, but if tasked to identify in themselves when they practice critical thinking and what they do when in such mode, many would draw blanks.  To be fair, a few students are not like this.  These few have more on the ball.  Yet on the idea that students learn more from each other than from the instructor, it seems to me that the many drag the few down rather than having the few encourage the many to raise their game. 

What might be done to break out of this low-level equilibrium?

* * * * *

How many other instructors have these sort of thoughts?  Surely some do.  In the first year of this blog, when I was working full time as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies for the campus, I wrote a post, Where is experimentation with teaching happening?

Some time ago I read A Life in School by Jane Tompkins. The book was recommended to me on the particular issue of where instructor ego belongs in teaching. Tompkins was a Professor of English (and I believe is the wife of literary theorist Stanley Fish). The book is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. After being completely miserable about her own teaching, Tompkins came to the conclusion that she was getting in the way of her students' learning. She kept modifying the approach, producing some interesting outcomes but never ones that satisfied her that she had "found it," that right way to conduct a class.

For Tompkins experimentation was a kind of penance. For me it's a form of self expression. I don't think it is fundamentally different for me to scheme up an experiment with teaching method than it is for me to design a module in Excel that presents Econ concepts in a novel way, or for that matter experimenting with a theme for this blog. I thrive on trying things. I'd much rather learn that way, at least at this point in my life, than reading the literature and accepting best practice.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I might have more leverage with students about getting deeper into the subject matter if I did so outside the role of the instructor who assigns a grade.  Further, because the way we do blogging in my class is where some trust is built between the students and me, it might be that some would be interested in having such discussions after the course concluded.  So I tried something unusual.  I invited my students to join in a discussion group that would meet weekly, not be for credit or a grade, and would focus on the question of what the students might do to get more out of their own learning.

Such an invitation was extended at the end of the course in fall 2013.  That failed.  There weren't enough takers to make it a go.  I tried it again near the end of the semester in fall 2014.  This time there were three takers.  We have been meeting on Friday afternoons at 3 PM this semester.

No doubt the selection entailed in volunteering to join such a group favors the overachieving students.  That part didn't surprise me.  I didn't anticipate, however, that all the members of the group would be international students.  Two are Chinese; one is Korean.  Also, two of the three were very quiet in class.  One never said a word during class discussion.  (I did not give out points for class participation as this is rather hard to track without interrupting the back and forth.)  It turns out that part of her motivation for joining the group was to have the experience of giving voice to her ideas, doing so in an environment that was safer than the class, owing to the smaller numbers.

Given the makeup of the group, we began with discussion of The University of China at Illinois piece.  Many of the ideas in that piece resonated with the group.  Each of them does spend a good chunk of time at the Library.  Socially, they don't interact much at all with domestic students.  I would characterize each of them as "over programmed."  One is taking 24 credit hours; another is taking 20 credit hours.  The one who is taking "only" 18 credit hours is working two different jobs.  The two guys in the group regularly report being tired from too much work.  Lack of sleep has been a recurrent theme.  The girl in the group is quite conscious of it and tries for at least 7 hours each night.  One of them reports getting only 3 hours a night, on average.  Apparently, that little amount of sleep is common among their peers. They are also extremely grade conscious and have very high GPAs.  We had one discussion about the index number problem, this in reference to an argument from me that they might learn more overall by putting their efforts mainly into only one of their courses, while largely ignoring the others.  On this issue I won the theoretical battle, but lost the war about their actual practice, which remained unaltered in spite of the theoretical argument. 

The overall question that we've been trying to get at is how the students might be more creative as they pursue their studies.  Language being what it is, this morphed into whether the students are finding Flow, and what they might do to encourage flow to happen more frequently.  For the guys, flow seems quite a rare thing.  One reports putting in yeoman's hours debugging a program he has written (he is a double major in economics and electrical and computer engineering), more or less unhappy the entire time but feeling obligated to do this sort of work nonetheless.  The girl, who is double majoring in economics and psychology, with a clear predilection for the latter, reports that she enjoys the challenges posed by a research project in one of her classes, where she must learn by reading some of the literature ahead of time and where she doesn't understand things at first but does make better sense of what is going on over time, especially if she can do this well in advance of any class deadline.  This is better regarding her engagement with the learning, though I am still not getting from her how or if she inserts herself into this reading.  In my view, such insertion is a necessary piece of finding flow.

The entire discussion shows the limits to what Carol Dweck has been preaching.  These kids put in substantial effort.  On that dimension they get high marks from me.  But they seemed trapped in the following dilemma.  Is there any reason to learn the subject matter of a course beyond what it takes to get an A?  They have each mastered how to get good grades.  Does getting good grades mean they are growing intellectually?  Or is there a kind of tyranny of building the great resume, where more lines are better but where what any one line signifies is impossible to determine?  In other words, the current rat race in school apparently produces enormous breadth, but I suspect it does not produce that much depth. Yet if depth is what it takes to get true intellectual growth, then these kids are not really growing or are growing only very modestly, in spite of their impressive set of credentials.  To the extent this this problem is typical, it explains why college is producing a large group of over achieving dullards, something akin to the problem identified in Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

For about two months we've been having a back and forth where from the students point of view the discussions probably seemed they were with a daffy but benign professor, fun for themselves perhaps but with little real take away, while from my perspective the discussions were enjoyable in that I got to understand these kids a little bit beyond what I could ascertain from the class but they were also frustrating in not advancing my agenda at all.  Indeed, I started to feel I was hitting the same wall I had been hitting in my teaching.

We needed to have a different sort of conversation.  Early last week it occurred to me to try to simulate in our discussion what an in depth investigation looks like.  We had this sort of simulation last Friday, spending about 45 minutes dissecting a single sentence that one of them had written.  We did this first from the reader's point of view.  What would it take for the sentence to be true?  The sentence was the conjunction of two overt claims and one implicit claim.  They had read it earlier as a whole for the overall picture communicated by the sentence, but it hadn't occurred to them to analyze it piece by piece.  What does one get out of such an analysis that isn't evident immediately by taking it all in at once?  We also spent some time on potential claims that might have been made but weren't.  This too hadn't occurred to them to consider.  What should one infer from the observation that these claims were not included?

Indeed, that reading is making inference was new to them.  They had previously thought their entire job was to make sense of what was explicitly stated, nothing more. That their job is to find puzzles in what they read and then try to solve these puzzles did became evident to them, after a while.  Then, after we went through that analysis of the reader's job, we went through the thing again, but this time from the perspective of the writer of sentence, who must try to anticipate this sort of reader reaction.  Given that anticipation, what then is the writer's job?  In doing this job has the writer thought through the full set of implications of what he is saying?  For much of the time in this discussion the students seemed engaged in our inquiry, but near the end they started to get bleary-eyed, much like what my students do when I'm giving a math lecture.  Evidently, it was a bit too much for them.  They hadn't expected such an intensive look at the issues.  I want to note here that it wasn't the difficulty of the subject matter that got to them.  What we discussed was plain enough.  Rather it was that I seemed to make so much out of so little.  Couldn't we move onto something else?  Enough is enough, isn't it?

We then started to debrief on what had just happened.  One student said that going after such depth was an exercise in critical thinking and he could see that it could be quite enjoyable, but he couldn't see doing it in his classes, just too time consuming and too risky.  The simulation did produce some results.  But if the the students were to try something like this on their own, they might not get anywhere, especially the first few times they tried it.  Indeed, I amplified this concern by noting that obviously you can't do such drill down on each sentence in an essay, lest you never complete reading what you must.  I followed that up with the thought that you do get better with practice and you develop some intuition about where this sort of drill down might be most profitable.  I should have added that you also get better on the analysis and inference.  You start to see things quicker.

How long does it take to gain proficiency with this?  During our discussion and in prior discussions and in my class too, I've mentioned the work of Ericsson et. al., so the students are aware of the notion of deliberate practice and conversant with the "10,000 hours rule."  Of course, this is why you want to start with such practice in elementary school, so that by the time you've reached college age you are reasonably adept at performing a drill down analysis of some sorts, though still not yet at an expert level.  Starting such practice only in the junior year in college, does it still make sense to try?  On this one, the best I can come up with is - better late than never.

The students did say they would try this sort of drill down in their leisure activities and we briefly talked about watching a film or reading a book and then writing a review of it, where only after that would they read reviews written by experts, and then compare what they've written to the experts writing on the same subject.  This sort of thing, if they kept at it, might be a way to achieve some capability in depth of analysis.  But it does put the effort into the hobby category and outside the work category.  While that is probably sensible for these students, it is disappointing to me that it seems to be the best we can do.

* * * * *

The situation that Illinois finds itself with international students is more than a little odd and uncomfortable.  It is fueled in large part by the decline in state funding.  The steep increase recently in international student enrollments at the undergraduate level (since I started at Illinois in 1980 it has been international at the doctoral student level) the vast majority of whom pay full freight, has provided an alternative revenue source to offset the state budget cuts.  Is this a permanent fix to the revenue problem or only a bubble that will burst in the not too distant future?  How does one get a realistic answer to that question?

It seems to me we should consider the students as grading the institution on the experience they've gotten, with their word of mouth (and the social network equivalent of word of mouth) fueling future demand to attend Illinois or, alternatively, putting a damper on such demand, depending on how that grading goes.  Given that, and given that we'd certainly like to preserve the revenue stream, it makes sense to me we do our own internal grading of that experience, if for no other reason than to shore up areas where we find deficiency.  In such an exercise, I'd encourage us to avoid grade inflation and not give partial credit.