Wednesday, October 19, 2016

When Students Don't Get It

In the fall semester 1975, the last semester where I took courses for credit at Cornell, I was enrolled in a course on Philosophy and Law taught by a popular instructor, whose name I can't recall now.  Among our readings were pieces by Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls.  For the most part I enjoyed that class quite a bit and think I got something significant from it.

But there was a term paper that I really mangled.  I was writing on the question - is punishment necessary for the law?  The essay should have focused on the role of conscience.  Where conscience is active external punishment as deterrent is unnecessary.  But for whatever reason, I eschewed the discussion of conscience entirely and instead rendered a cost-benefit analysis.  (I didn't know much economics at the time but perhaps my decision to attend grad school in economics mattered here.)  This was entirely outside the philosophical issues that were important for the course.  I got a poor grade on that paper.  I recall a brief chat with the professor after class one day where I admitted my error and after that may have promised him that it would not happen again.

There are probably many more such incidents in my career as a student than I care to admit.  But I was a pretty good student and for the most part I did get it or I knew in advance that I didn't care about the subject matter (mainly foreign language) so if I didn't get it then I was entirely untroubled by that consequence.  In contrast, if I was stuck on something in my bread and butter areas, math in high school and college, microeconomics in grad school, I was then all in about getting unstuck and I wouldn't let go of the thing till I reached a satisfactory resolution.

Of course, there are also things that I don't get that are more a matter of taste.  For example, my parking spot at the university is behind the Business Instructional Facility and there are a fair number of BMWs in the parking lot much of the time when I get there before teaching my class.  I know that Business faculty are paid quite well, so that they can afford these vehicles is certainly true.  But we are a public university that is struggling to make ends meet budget-wise.  In my view, these personal displays of wealth are in bad taste and I don't get why everyone else doesn't see it the same way.   (Some people do get this, for sure.  But it is definitely not universal.)

Before I turn to students on this score, let me note on these matters of taste more broadly considered that we are all creatures of how we were raised.  For me, while a variety of factors matter, I think they can be broadly summed up in a few considerations.  My family practiced a very reform Judaism; I grew up in New York City where the Catholic kids often when to parochial school, so the public schools I attended had a large swathe of kids who were similar to me in background, and I started college in the early 1970s, where the end of the Vietnam War and then Watergate were the most prominent public events shaping my emerging adult consciousness.

Let me close this section by observing that I believe there is some unity between the matters of taste and the cognitive/intellectual as far as giving purpose and motivation.   Making sense of what is going on is very high on my list of priorities about what we should be doing and what we should be teaching our students to do.

* * * * *

Sometimes it is useful to me to go back and read things I wrote quite a while ago, if only to help me recall that I've been confronting the same issue for much longer than my memory otherwise would recognize.  On the students not getting it front, I wrote the following paragraph about students in our Campus Honors Program. The paragraph itself is an excerpt from this blog post

I taught two more CHP classes after that.   One was in 2006, a repeat of Econ 101.  The other was in 2009 and was not an Economics class.  It was a course on Designing for Effective Change that I wrote about in this piece in Inside Higher Ed called Teaching with Blogs.  After about two weeks of proceeding as I had done in the Econ classes, the students complained that I was monopolizing the discussion and requested that they lead the discussion themselves.  I assented to this request, though its implementation required me to bite my lip repeatedly.  During the next class session I had the urge to intercede, but suppressed that.  The class was discussing Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, one of my favorite essays.  They never got to the gist of the piece.  They spent the entire time on some of the early facts in the setup and iterated on those.  Afterward I criticized them.  Using the metaphor of swimming in a natural body of water, I told them there was this beautiful lake but they never made it to its center.  Instead, they spent the entire time swimming in the reeds.  This outcome was rather disturbing.  CHP students are the best we have on campus and they weren't making good meaning of an essay that was written for a general audience.  I didn't know if the cause was their individual lack of reading comprehension or if, instead, the group dynamic kept those who did understand the piece from driving the conversation to the meat of the essay.  I never learned the true cause, but thereafter we opted for a mixed mode where sometimes the students would drive the discussion and other times I would drive.

Before moving on, let me make a conjecture suggested by the experience discussed above.  Even very good students nowadays don't read much good writing intended for a general audience.  Among the various problems we have with college education today, this may not be the number one issue, but surely it is in the top five.  And, if the diagnosis is correct, it is not clear what to do about it.  There is some conceit in educational circles to the effect that if only the right pedagogic approach is adopted then meaningful learning will ensue.  My own view on this is that pedagogy can, at best, be part of a mix of causal factors for learning.  The other obvious factors are first, student motivation, students must want to learn and put in the effort it takes for that and second, student agency with regard to their own learning, students must feel that they can get it if they apply themselves.  I don't believe that pedagogy itself can bring forth these other factors from the students.  These factors must be present already as a prior condition.

Students can self-educate this way, by putting in the time reading good general interest writing and then reading related pieces that connect to one another.   It is much easier to make sense of something one reads if the reader already has a good and appropriate context in which to consider the piece.  One might call that the reader's worldview.  I seem to recall watching on TV the playwright David Hare discussing this idea of worldview, how important it is for an adult understanding of things, and that the audience liked his plays because it helped them to consider their own worldview.  Alas, I couldn't find a link to that particular conversation.

I really don't know the worldview of my students, though some of it gets revealed in their blogging for my class and perhaps a bit more of it makes itself known via how the students interact in the classroom and how they handle the other course requirements.  I will conjecture about this below.

First, I want to note that in my class this semester I have witnessed several instances where the class as a whole doesn't seem to get it.  Here are a few examples.  I had the students write a blog post about "opportunism" as well as to provide an example when the student had a chance to act opportunistically but ended up refraining from doing so.  In my course "the holdup problem" is a big deal and provides a rationale for why there is vertical integration been a firm and its input supplier.  So this blog post was aimed at getting students to see if they had any personal experience that would give them some insight into the holdup problem and how it might be resolved.  Alas, many students confounded "having opportunities" with opportunism, and so wrote about something that really wasn't relevant to what the class was discussing.  Only one student had the presence of mind to do a dictionary lookup of opportunism.  For the rest, they simply assumed they knew what they were talking about.  Part of my issue as an instructor is whether it is reasonable for me to expect that everyone in the class would do such a lookup, if they hadn't already gotten the meaning of opportunism from reading our textbook.

Another example happened when we did a bargaining experiment in class, my sole attempt at a real active learning experience for the live classroom this semester.  Students were assigned to either be a buyer or a seller.  Each student was given a slip of paper which for the buyers had their values for buying units of a good and for each seller had their costs for selling units of the good.  Further, the slips of paper put them into a scenario where a buyer was paired with a particular seller in a predetermined way.  They were then to bargain about price, with the goal to maximize surplus on their side of the bargain.  The aim of the experiment was to see if this bargaining would produce the efficient volume of trade.

The experiment failed because most of the students ended up acting in an irrational way - producing more trade than was efficient (meaning producing some trades where both the buyer and the seller were made worse off).  I wrote up my analysis of that experiment and shared it with the students.  I was very disturbed by this outcome.  The students, in contrast, didn't seem to be bothered much by it at all.  I can't really tell if they were actually bothered but didn't want to show that or if they were simply not concerned about it.  I fear, however, that for the most part tit was the latter.

The last example happened just this week.  I had students write a blog post in mid semester to do a "connect the dots" exercise with their previous posts and to give them a retrospective on what we had been doing.  In both my comments on these posts and my in class discussion of them, I encouraged the student to take the prompt I give them and ask why that prompt is there and in addition ask how the prompt ties into the economics we are studying.  I encouraged them to make those questions and answers part of their posts.  We've had one additional blog post since.  Not one student did this.  They all wrote to the prompt without inquiring at all why this was a course related thing to do.

* * * * *

Here is a little sketch of my conjectures that "explain" these observations.  First, the college degree is prized above any learning that the degree is meant to signify.  This is education as a passport.  The students definitely want the passport.  They seem much less interested in the personal transformation that the the passport should represent.  They are either unaware or unconcerned with this apparent contradiction.

Second, school is perceived as a bunch of hurdles to get past in any possible way.  If students can get through a tough course with a decent grade (e.g. Calculus) they are satisfied.  In turn, the system lets many of these students through, because high failure rates are intolerable to many and the costs of imposing a high failure rate in a particular class are disproportionately borne by the instructor of that class rather than by the institution as a whole.  This is a national issue, as illustrated by this piece in today's Inside Higher Ed.

Third, the more courses are perceived of as hurdles, the more students experience what should be entirely alienating - getting credit for learning something without really understanding what's going on.  Even if this is disturbing to the students the first few times it happens, eventually they get numb to it.  So they go about their coursework without an expectation that it should produce an understanding and they do this coursework purely out of a sense of obligation rather than for any other reason.

Fourth, and now I will restrict attention to students who are from the suburbs of Chicago, a majority in my class though there is a significant minority of students from elsewhere, schoolwork is subordinate to their social life, which is wrapped up either in the Greek System or in going to the bars around campus and in either case entails quite a bit of drinking.  Just about all my students are over 21, so they are legal this way.  I can't say that I blame them.  In fact, I do think kids this age should have a good deal of fun.  But the way it seems to be happening here, there is too much nihilism and a contributing factor is that the schoolwork produces such dysfunction.

I associate a good chunk of this with a culture that prizes money, which is embodied in the image of the country club as the good life, and is moderately anti-intellectual.   To me, this characterizes much of what upper middle class life in the Midwest is like, especially as it is perceived by someone with my background. 

* * * * *

It is very hard to look at this from a longitudinal perspective.  I don't have data for this that goes back more than a few years.  And I've only taught with blogging since I've retired (apart from that one CHP class).  But my sense is that things have been getting worse.

The reader will note that I have not made any appeal to technology as a driver in the above.  Technology might explain deterioration in student performance in producing understanding.  Consider, for example, this piece from earlier in the year about the perils of multiprocessing.  Students seem to live by staring into their phones.   So that clearly is one possibility.  There are others.  The accountability movement, embodied in the persona of Margaret Spellings and in the law by No Child Left Behind did enormous damage, in my view.   I can't recall hearing anything about K12 in our current Presidential campaign and for college the discussion is all about cost not about learning.  We don't seem to have the mental bandwidth to consider the learning issues now.  Perhaps we will return to it when the election is finally over.

Let me close with my pipe dream hopes for how the issue might resolve. The thought is to marry this social problem of too many students not getting it with another social problem and try to resolve both at the same time.  The other problem is that there are too many people getting PhDs in the humanities, meaning they can't find gainful employment in their fields after they've written their dissertations.

Suppose that students can be coached in learning to get it, but such coaching is labor intensive and should happen in rather small cohorts of students, which persist in the activity for an extended period of time.  In the old days, we would have called this teaching reading comprehension.  Nowadays, there probably would need to a different label attached to the activity to make it more glamorous and meaningful to the participants, so that being part of it is desired and not perceived as a consolation prize.  Beyond that there, of course, would need to many many details worked out.  And as I'm writing this, I've got that old New Yorker cartoon in my mind.   So, if a bet on whether something like this would succeed were placed in front of me, I would surely bet against.  Still.....

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Mental Associations

The gingham dog and the calico cat

Somewhere in the vicinity of 2 or 3 AM I am making my usual rounds, to and from the can, when this line of verse appears in my consciousness.  We read The Duel in school, but whether that was elementary school, junior high, or high school I really can't recall.  I'm pretty sure I haven't thought of it even once since, until early this morning.  That's a span of somewhere between 45 and 50 years.  Neither gingham nor calico are part of my working vocabulary.  When it comes to fabrics - cotton, flannel, and wool are my standbys, with some thought I might be able to come up with a few synthetic alternatives.  The point is that I don't pay attention to fabrics.  Yet that line was occupying my thoughts earlier today.  I was puzzled as to why.

After failing to go back to sleep, due partly to discomfort from arthritis and partly because I now had this challenge to grapple with and when that happens I find it very hard to let it go, I sit down at my computer and begin to retrace my steps from the evening before.

The Internet has ways to feed the narcissism that is in all of us.  In my case I use a tracking program called statcounter to monitor hits on my blog.  Once in a while somebody finds an old post I made that is seemingly unconnected to the topics of the day and yet is also not utilitarian (so it is not about some online technology).  Then I will often amuse myself by going back to the post and reading it anew, revisiting the issues I was grappling with at the time of writing.

In this case the post is called Maladies and Malaise.  It was written at an odd time for me.  The Campus had just announced a paid separation program aimed at reducing the number of staff.  There was budget hell and this was one of the more responsible ways that the Campus addressed the problem.  For a variety of reasons, I thought I was a good candidate to leave the university then.  While I had not yet signed the contract, the thought of doing so was weighing pretty heavily on my mind.  Then there was a different source of strangeness.  I was part of an online reading group called Motley Read, where we negotiated our way through James Joyce's book of short stories, Dubliners.  This was my first and so far my only experience with such a group.  And while a few of the members I was vaguely aware of ahead of time, particularly Alan Levine and Christ Lott, I really didn't know them.  Barbara Ganley was the only member of the group with whom I had substantial prior interaction.

In this post I am grappling with notions of imagery - in pictures, in writing, and in our minds.  I am reacting to the story Two Gallants, which is rather disturbing yet without being much of a story at all. And I am reacting to a postcard that Barbara had sent me about the story Eveline. There is then the question of causality between image and story.  We have a bit of an exchange on this in the comments.

This is the precursor that was already in my head.  Not that much later I went to sleep.  I really don't know whether this is an old wives tale or real science, when you have some problem that vexes you, sleep on it and let your subconscious have a hack at it.  Then when you wake up, you may find that you've solved the problem.   In this case I didn't even realize I had a problem to solve.  It seems my subconscious felt otherwise.  And it came up with - The gingham dog and the calico cat.

Now things get a little weirder.  It almost seems an act of clairvoyance.  After I get up for real and have my first cup of coffee, I start to read an Op-Ed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, part of which sketches formative experiences in her life on her path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice.  One of those was as an undergrad at Cornell.  She studied writing with Vladimir Nabokov who taught her that effective writing constructs pictures.  Reading this was almost too much for me to bear.  I had already seen that movie, earlier in the morning.  And, by the way, I too am a Cornell grad and not that long ago read a Nabokov novel, The Defense, writing a couple of posts about it including this one entitled Optical Ill Luzhin.  The planets must be aligned to create associations like this.

One of my regular habits is to play Sudoku.  I find it relaxing, a pleasant combination of pattern recognition and deductive logic.  There is a certain reward in finding the pattern, especially when it is not immediately obvious.  It is that feeling of discovery which encourages repeated play.  So before reading other Op-Ed pieces I indulge my habit.  But my brain feels like it is operating in slow motion.  The patterns do not come quickly at all.  Often when I can't find the pattern I will cheat a little.  Doing the Sudoku online enables that, one reason I prefer that to doing it on paper.  It also times you when you do it online.  Most puzzles take me between ten and fifteen minutes to finish.  This time it takes much longer, more than 35 minutes, the longest it's ever taken, but I somehow managed to resist the temptation to cheat and instead let the patterns emerge at their own pace.  While there is always some uncertainty about whether the pattern will make itself apparent or not, this morning I seemed to feel confident it would happen though I was very slow with the pattern recognition.  That combination is unusual for me now.  It may have been more routine 25 or 30 years ago when I writing papers in economic theory.  Now I either feel mentally agile, usually that requires a good night's rest as precursor, or I lack confidence in my own capacities, which seemingly occurs with increasing frequency as of late.  This morning was different.  I was in a kind of reverie.  But eventually that broke and I returned to the glum thoughts that have been occupying me.

The last few years I've really struggled in my teaching because the students don't see it as part of their job to produce associations beyond the ones that come immediately; and yet that is what I'd like to encourage them to do.  I wrote about this in a post for the WAC@Illinois blog, Making connections via mental puttering.  I wonder if students ever have the sense of discovery that I wrote about in the previous paragraph.  Absent that, the reason to persist in thought and let subconsciousness assert itself would appear to be lacking.  But everyone dreams, right?  Does everyone daydream too?  Or does the head that is always staring at the screen live in a surface world only, where all the images are provided externally?

Let me close with this.  In my Facebook feed this morning a status update of mine from a year ago appeared.  It was about Sherry Turkle's seeming omnipresence (I linked to three different pieces she had produced) and her warning that multiprocessing is killing real learning.   This piece, which appeared in The Chronicle, is still worth the read even now.  Turkle shouts the alarm louder than I ever could.  Still, slow reflection is a tough sell.  In this market we need more buyers.  How do we get them?

Friday, September 30, 2016

When do you do cost-benefit and when do you do social obligation?

An answer to the question in my title is meant as a guide to individual decision making, in the world of work and really in all of life.  I wonder if my friends and colleagues can unpack their own decision making apparatus enough to offer up an answer of their own.  It's probably easier to first look at some obvious decisions that are in one category or the other.  Regarding how fast to drive, for me that is determined solely by cost-benefit and I believe most people do likewise.  When a friend is in trouble, you lend a hand.  That is determined purely by social obligation.  That part is pretty easy.  The real question is where the boundary lies between the two.  Determining that is much harder.

My students need an answer to this question, one that is not pure expedient, but also one they can embrace so that when the situation arises they have an inner compass that guides them.  In the little I see of their behavior, too much is driven by cost-benefit.  And in much of that they are myopic, even in regard to their own welfare.  Some of this is immaturity.  And some of this is rudeness, which they may not perceive as such.  Another part is a sense that they are in some kind of Darwinian struggle, so anything goes as long as they are advancing their own agendas.  Most of my students are juniors and seniors and in their early 20s.  By this age their attitudes on these things have somewhat hardened.  It would be good to get at this question earlier, when the students are first on campus.  How to do that is something to consider.  As of late I've been on a kick to encourage the freshman seminar.  Providing a real answer to the question in the title gives one rationale for such an approach.

Ten years ago the CIC Learning Technology Group held a conference at the University of Minnesota, where the featured speaker was Thomas Reeves.  He gave a talk about the Conative Domain, which I thought interesting and challenging.  He subsequently gave a similar talk at the ELI national conference.  The slides for that are available online and are interesting to consider.  Below is a screen shot of slide 38.

The part of this I find most interesting is that ethics is in the conative domain, not the affective domain.  In any event, the bulk of Reeves' talk argues that we have ignored the conative domain in education for quite a long time and we need to restore its importance.

A starting point would be to have a working answer to the question in the title of this post.  For me, I know that inner compass works so that only rarely do I encounter a situation that calls for me to think through an answer to this question.  Mainly the answer presents itself immediately without any deliberation whatsoever.  Once in a while I ask myself how I got this way or if it was always there, even in early childhood.  I wish I knew.   It is evidently not in everyone.    What type of education might bring that about?  I wish I knew the answer to that one as well.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Enrollment Puzzles

A colleague mentioned that we had more students on campus this year than last so it occurred to me to go to the DMI Web site and look at the data.  The very first link on the page is to another page on Student Enrollment data.   There is a lot of information there.  Unfortunately, in my view, the information is clustered by semester so it is not immediate how to make longitudinal comparisons.

So I downloaded some of the more recent information and put that into one spreadsheet.  These give the last four fall semester enrollments (including fall 2016) sorted by class level.  If you stare at this a bit there are some interesting things to observe.

First, my friend was right, overall enrollments have been drifting up.  Second, focusing just on undergraduate enrollment, enrollments rise with class level, lowest with Freshmen and highest with Seniors.  Third, if students advance one status level per year, the Freshmen in one year would be Sophomores the next year, etc. So you can track how an entering class seems to be doing by going up along the diagonal and to the right.  It appears that enrollments for any class rise with class level.

As there surely is some amount of separation from the university - students drop out of college entirely or transfer elsewhere - there must be more students who transfer in and/or students who stay within the same status level for more than one year.  The effect is particularly pronounced for Seniors.  I found the size of the Senior cohort relative to the size of the Freshmen cohort quite surprising.

So what explains these observations.  I'm going to guess a little as to what is going on.  Somewhere around 10 years ago the U of I was under a lot of pressure to accept transfers from within state for students who had graduated from Community College.  This was the so-called 2 + 2 model and was a way for students and their families to keep the cost of college down because Community College tuition is much lower than U of I tuition.  I am sure that with some more digging one could isolate the magnitude of students who enter under the 2 + 2 model as well as to consider the volume of other transfer students.  I, for one, would be interested in knowing how different the composition of undergraduate enrollment is now as compared, for example, to the mid 1990s, when the U of I was still considered a best buy by U.S. News, before the U of I had embraced a high(er) tuition approach. In turn, I'd be interested in what those composition effects do to student life, both in and out of the classroom.  To my knowledge, the matter has gotten little or no discussion.

Something else must be going on to explain why there are so many Seniors, especially since students probably don't transfer in just for their senior year.  Among the possibilities there are: (1) some majors may have substantially increased the requirements, necessitating more time to degree, (2) more students are getting dual degrees and that takes longer to accomplish, (3) students can't get into some required classes that are oversubscribed so have to stay additional semesters to complete those courses, and (4) some students may simply draw out their Senior experience so they make it more than a year even when there is no academic necessity for that.

Another question that arises, looking at these numbers, is what sort of pattern should we want and how should that pattern depend on how much money the U of I gets from the state?  Still another question is about the relationship between tuition revenue and cost of educating the students.  Presumably, large lecture classes entail much lower expenditure per student.  In the old days, when the number of transfer students was comparatively small, the Freshmen and Sophomore classes, many in large lecture format, provided a subsidy for the Junior and Senior classes.  If that subsidy isn't really there now, because those transfer students are taking their Gen Eds elsewhere, does the U of I break even financially on the transfer students?

I, for one, wasn't expecting to find this pattern when looking at the numbers.  (I expected the numbers to be flat across class level.)  So I encourage you to take a look.  You'll find it interesting. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Real Lie-Able Polls

I've concluded that I will no longer answer polls.  Last week somebody from the Democratic Party came and rang our doorbell.  He wanted to know whom I'd be voting for in the Illinois Congressional Elections.  I told him I will be voting but that I don't give out that information.

I am swamped with solicitations for my opinion - on candidates, issues like Citizen's United, my last doctor's visit, a recent purchase at Amazon, you name it.  Why is it that my opinion should be offered up for free?  Will my privacy be respected if I do offer up my opinion?  Or is it likely to be the basis of a slew of future such queries?

No Mas.  In my case, in particular, since I do write a lot in this blog and that is out there, if you want to know what I think, read what I have written.  Otherwise, tough gazeebees on you.

I have no way of knowing whether I am alone in this or if there are many others who have reached the same conclusion.  If the latter is correct and if those of us who are tuning out to pollsters are otherwise not uniformly distributed among the rest of the population, then the pollsters themselves have a problem.  Good.   The way polling is done now is way too much beauty pageant and not nearly enough getting at why people hold the views that they do.   At best it is measuring how people have been conditioned by the various media they have been exposed to.  It thereby becomes an accomplice to such conditioning.

We need something better. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fracture - When the gap between instructor expectations and student performance becomes too great.

Last year I really struggled with my class - I could hardly get any discussion going at all.  This year, in a different room where we can move the furniture around some, I've been able to make some headway on discussion by having the students sit in an approximate horseshoe, with each student able to see the face of every other student.  Class topography does matter some, though it is not the be all and end all that instructional design folks might hope it is.

This modest success notwithstanding, if anything my class is performing worse than it did last year.  One indicator is attendance, which has ranged from poor to abysmal.  Yesterday there were 13 students -12 for the first half hour and then another entered the classroom as our in class experiment was winding up.  There are 31 students registered for the class.  We've never had anything close to full attendance and now we've finished the fourth week of class (8 class sessions).  Though I don't formally track this, because the class is comparatively small, I do a count on most days before class starts.  I believe the highest attendance has been 19 students.  There may be some students who have never come or who have shown up only once.

If attendance is some measure of student commitment, doing the online homework is another.  At present there are 26 students with blogs linked to the class site.  (There are weekly blog posts due as a regular part of the homework.)  Last week all but one of those students wrote a post, though some other students submitted pieces below the required minimum (600 words).  There is also Excel homework, which is auto graded and which students are to do till they get all questions right.  There were 27 submissions of that homework, with many of those submissions near the deadline and a few afterwards.

The upshot is that if you look at student commitment by these rather coarse measures, there are different layers.  A handful of students are on the roster but otherwise not really in the class.  There are then some who seem to think they can do the course as if it were taught totally online and ignore the face to face class session.  This group actually bothers me more than the first, since I emphasize and teach collegiality as the basis of productivity in organizations  (Akerlof's model of labor markets as partial gift exchange) and you have to walk the walk to learn this lesson.  These students are definitely not getting it.

Then there is the group of students who regularly do come to class and get the course work done on time.  Relative to their peers, these students are to be commended for their efforts.  It's this group I want to focus on next.

Yesterday in class we did an experiment on bargaining, one of my own design, to test an important principle articulated in the textbook called the Efficiency Principle.  The principle states that small groups will come to an allocation decision that is efficient for the group.  (Here efficient means in an economic sense.)  The students had just completed an Excel homework on efficiency, which demonstrates what those concepts mean in a partial equilibrium (supply and demand) and a general equilibrium (Edgeworth box) setup.  In intermediate microeconomics, which students take before taking my course, they learn that perfectly competitive markets tend to produce efficient outcomes.  In that sense my course is an interesting extension, taking up the issue in the small numbers situation where individuals do have some bargaining power.

In the experiment students were paired, one buyer and one seller, and they were to trade perhaps several units of some good at prices that they'd negotiate to.  The experiment was to test whether they'd find the efficient volume of trade or if as a result of the bargaining some trades would go unexploited.

The experiment largely failed, however, for reasons I didn't anticipate at all ahead of time.  The students made decisions that were economically irrational.  If in order to make a good decision the student would have had to perform some calculation which itself had some degree of difficulty, then you could chalk up the irrationality to cognitive error.  We know that people make mistakes and sometimes in a systematic way.  For example, see this discussion of the bat and ball problem.  But in my experiment, students could eyeball whether their decision was rational or not and I specifically had them write down the price they negotiated to, so it wasn't all kept in their heads.

This failure really bothered me, so I performed an analysis of the results, wrote that up, and published it on the class site.  A snip of the writeup is below and if you care to look at the results themselves you can see those here.  Of the 6 pairs who did the experiment, one pair did demonstrate rationality.  The other 5 did not.  They made trades that lessened the group surplus including several instances where one party lost while the other party netted zero, and one instance where both parties lost.

My mental model of an earnest student who has something on the ball can't be reconciled with this sort of result.  It is hard to understand why students who are not earnest would keep coming to  class, but given the earlier discussion about layering of student commitment, perhaps there is still layering among those who do show up.  The other possibility is that the students don't have enough on the ball and then make mistakes as a consequence, mistakes that I would hope no rational person would make.

On this latter one, I have been scratching my head for much of the day about the following.  Many of these students will end up working somewhere in the financial services industry.  It's the sort of career they aspire to.  Would I trust one of these kids to manage my IRA if the kid demonstrated irrationality in this experiment while giving it his all in the process? 

I do believe that my job is to teach students where they are rather than at some hypothetical where they should be.  But my value add to them does require getting over some bar.  If they otherwise do get over the bar, it is my job to adjust to them accordingly.   If too many don't get over the bar, what then?   For now I've come to the tentative conclusion to take a hiatus from teaching after this semester concludes.

There is no joy in Mudville and it's not just because it looks like the Yankees won't be making the playoffs this year. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On The Line

Sometimes odd detail captures my attention and offers up what I think maybe is a puzzle, though it is not one to anyone else.  This post will illustrate.   I watched a good deal of tennis on TV last week.  I saw both of the Williams sisters matches when losing to Karolina Pliskova, who is a very gangly player but also a very effective server.  I also saw the women's final where Pliskova lost to
Angelique Kerber.  And I watched the men's final between Stan Wawrinka, the eventual winner, and Novak Djokovic, the number one rated men's player.

In this post I will focus on the use of a 'challenge' by a player to question the ruling by a lines person or by the umpire that was unfavorable to the player.  Each player gets a quota of challenges per set, I believe there are 3 of those.  If the challenge goes against the player, that challenge has been used up.  If the player is right, the player gets to keep the challenge.  Near the end of the set a player might use a challenge simply to get a bit of a breather, knowing that the challenge will be lost.  The set is near conclusion and getting the breather is a good tactical move.  Earlier in the set, challenges are a scarce commodity so they are hoarded unless the player feels an injustice has been done.  Then the challenge is used to right a seeming wrong.

Unlike in pro football where humans arbitrate the challenge based on the video replay, in pro tennis the challenge is entirely technology mediated, by a system called Hawk-Eye.  For the fan watching the match on TV, or on the big screen at the stadium, Hawk-Eye shades in a bit of the tennis court, presumably where the ball touched.  If the shaded area overlaps the line, the ball is called in.  Otherwise, the ball is called out.  Hawk-Eye has the last word on the matter.  The announcers treat that last word as if it is infallible.  Here I'm wondering if such deference is warranted.

In particular, both during the semifinal match between Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova as well as during the final between Pliskova and Kerber, Chris Evert, a truly great player in her day and now one of the announcers who called these matches, consistently saw balls as out that Pliskova would challenge and that Hawk-Eye would confirm were in, sometimes by only a sliver.  Chris Evert talked about her failing eyesight.  She's older than I am, but by less than 1 month.  I can identify with this sense that our skills are deteriorating but that our judgments are still basically sound.  So how can it be that Chris Evert and Hawk-Eye were in such discord?  And what is it that Hawk-Eye actually does to determine that gray shaded area that marks the court? 

There seem to me to be two issues that are related but distinct to consider.  The first is the duration in which the ball is in contact with the court.  The second is the part of the surface area of the ball that is in contact with the court during this time interval.  Mis-measurement of either of these can be a source of error.

And here is the fundamental problem, both for Hawk-Eye and for human judgement on the matter.  The view is from above, looking down on the court.  This is not determined by sensors at court level.  So some inference must be made, about when the ball touches the court and how much of the ball touches the court, based on the view from above.  (Hawk-Eye relies on 10 different cameras, but they are all from above.)  In a hypothetical world where there are sensors built into the court that track when the ball touches and how much of the ball touches, the shaded area might be different from what Hawk-Eye produces.

Now we've reached the limits of my knowledge of physics and all else that matters in this domain.  But I wonder if this particular technology is biased in a way that favors Pliskova.  She is known to hit a flat ball (one with less spin) and on her serve, in particular, she gets a different angle than most of the other women players because she is so tall.  Do these things matter?

Human judgment on these matters is marred not just by failed eyesight from old age but by something called parallax, that results because we're looking at this from an angle, not from directly above.   For Pliskova, who is taller, the angle is not quite as severe.  So she may be more accurate in her judgments than other players put into the same situation.  But parallax is still an issue, even for her.  Hawk-Eye relies on some triangulation algorithm from multiple camera views that presumably adjusts for the parallax, which is why it is trusted.

Moving away from the technology and toward the human side of the equation, I'd like it for Chris Evert to perform better in this dimension, as her being a contemporary would give me more of a sense that I can still do it and not screw up, whatever doing it means at the moment.  So here I'm rooting for Chris and against Hawk-Eye.  Who else will take up that cause?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Doing Good Works On Rich People's Dime - The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

I thought this piece, The Facts And Falsehoods Of The Clinton Foundation, interesting and worth reading, if only to show the inherent complexity of the situation.  Rather than take the where-there's-smoke-there-must-be-fire approach, let's think this through from the bottom up to try to understand what's going on.

We should begin with a social issue that most everybody would agree should be addressed, like eradicating malaria in Africa.  We should be able to agree that doing that would be a good thing.  The issue is how to get it done and who pays for that.

In my view of the world, tax rates in the U.S. would be higher and eradication of disease internationally would be one of our goals as part of U.S foreign policy, a goal that would be amply supported with tax revenue.  I'm going to call this the first best solution.  Given our current national politics however, this solution is entirely out of reach, witness the debacle in Congress over funding to fight the Zika virus.  So one would sensibly look for a second best solution, one that can be implemented.

The second best solution would have some NGO act to coordinate efforts and get funding in line to accomplish the job.  In effect, this NGO is acting as a substitute for government.  It gets revenue to do these good works via charitable contributions rather than via taxation.  So part of the NGO's job is fundraising.  The other part is directing those monies to do the good works.

This is where it begins to get interesting.  How exactly does fundraising work?  Why do the people who give make their donations?  What are their expectations?

Now a bit of an aside to consider the little I know about fundraising in the university setting, where the bulk of the giving comes from wealthy alumni and other wealthy friends of the university.  Anybody who knows what Deans do is aware that they spend an inordinate amount of time on the road schmoozing the high rollers.  The high rollers clearly expect access to campus leadership.  That seems like a minimal requirement for giving.  Do they expect other things as well?  In other words, do they expect to be able to micromanage university function in some ways as a consequence of their gifts?  That is the charge about corporatist higher education as offered up, for example in the book, University, Inc.   How does a dean who tries to be ethical but also knows that job performance is measured in part by success in fundraising balance these dual objectives?

And now another aside, this time a quote from an episode of The West Wing, In God We Trust.

Sen. Arnold Vinick: If you can't drink their booze, take their money and then vote against them, then you're in the wrong business.

It's a good line.  It seems to strike the right balance.  I will point out, however, that if it were common knowledge that this is the behavior then, in the language of economics, this is not an equilibrium.  If you are going to vote against them, why should they be giving you the money?  For this to be an equilibrium, they have to be fuzzy on how you will vote and be uncertain about whether their money will influence your vote or not.  With the fuzziness and the uncertainty, then something like this is possible.  But then we need to ask, how does the fuzziness and uncertainty get maintained?

Now I want to change the perspective and envision an outsider looking in, first one who does not have a political agenda, but is merely trying to understand what is going on.  For this it helps to put on the table the most egregious type of unethical behavior possible embodied, for example, in the persona of Rod Blagojevich and his use of pay to play and influence peddling.   Can the outsider distinguish between an Arnie Vinick approach and the Rod Blagojevich alternative?  How hard is it to do that?  If it is not so easy to distinguish the two doesn't that provide ammunition for those who do have a political agenda to assert there is corruption going on here?

Finally, let's get at the question of whether it would be better for there not to be this NGO so as to avoid any appearance of corruption whatsoever.  Instead what we'd have is a bunch of foundations operating largely independently, each trying to do good works but in a far less coordinated way.  In my view, this is third best, but it does remove any appearance of corruption from the equation as these independent foundations are formed largely by the bequests of the founders, so they need not do further fundraising themselves.

One question then is whether forgoing the coordination work of the NGO is too high a price to pay to avoid the appearance of corruption.   If the NGO does operate, another question is whether there is much evidence that corruption actually occurred.  These are the issues to consider when reading the Benjamin Wallace-Wells piece linked to at the top of this essay.  People seem to want easy answers when considering these issues.  If you buy the analysis I've given, there aren't any easy answers.  The evidence that Wallace-Wells presents suggests there really wasn't corruption, but that many rich donors got played some.  That's quite close to the Arnie Vinick approach, though many readers might still find it unsettling.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Excel for Course Management - Tips and Tricks

It occurred to me as I was setting up my own course grade book that every instructor needs to do something of this sort but that there is probably no training on those things that would make life much easier.  Way back when we were contemplating first going to an enterprise learning management system, winter 2003, I had the thought that if we could give large class instructors various spreadsheet tools that we designed, then they could use that for the grade book and simply use the lms to import csv files with the grades and then render them in a way students could use.  What I discovered then is that knowledge of Excel for this practical purpose was much more limited than I had expected, particularly in disciplines that otherwise would not use Excel and this wasn't just true for humanities courses but was also true even in the STEM disciplines, such as Chemistry.  I doubt things have changed that much since.  And now I am aware that many instructional designers don't have this knowledge either, as it really has nothing to do with pedagogy, so where would they learn it?

I thought I'd share a few things that might help the typical instructor, and perhaps with that start a thread about what other things people would like to know in this regard.

Let me begin with a movie that I made this morning about going from NetID to Email Address and then going in the other direction as well.  The idea is to process a string of these in one fell swoop, using built in Excel functions for this purpose.  What the video demonstrates is the right set of functions and the correct syntax to use.  For somebody who already knows Excel, this is all pretty trivial.  For those who don't, they might find it remarkable how easy it is to do this sort of thing.

This next one is about making a smart histogram based on the data, better than what the LMS will produce, so for example to show students how the class did on a particular exam.   You must download the Excel workbook from the link to use it.  Then in column A you paste in the scores, starting with cell A1.  At present it is set up to accommodate as many as 1000 scores.  If the instructor wants more than that, the spreadsheet formulas can be edited to do so.  Note that the spreadsheet is password protected but the password is blank, so it is easy to unprotect.   The other information that the instructor types in is the Column Heading, which is put into cell I1, and the maximum possible score, which goes into cell I7.  Everything else is then generated from that information.  The instructor can then take a screen shot of the graph and post that in the class Web site.  There is no need to post the actual Excel file.

This next Excel Workbook is about computing a Smart Sum, for example from a set of n scores delete the bottom m scores and then sum the remaining n - m scores.  Many instructors want to use this sort of grading scheme, but probably have to do some manipulations to generate the result.  Here the spreadsheet does all the work.  The instructor simply has to insert the data and voila.

The last one is useful for considering survey data, where each record is in its own row and the survey has multiple questions, with answers to questions in different columns. It is called Choosing a Row of Data and is used to elevate an individual's response to the survey and then insert that information elsewhere for it to be used in some way.  The real action in that workbook occurs inn the middle worksheet called formulas.  Though the spin button goes from 1 to 1000, the thing is set up to handle a maximum of 50 rows of data at present.  Though the process by which it could be extended to more rows should be evident.  On the data worksheet, only the first 9 rows have responses to the paragraph question, but it is enough to illustrate how the thing works.  The last worksheet shows how the response renders within the form.

It seems to me that a Library of these type of items should be shared globally and that the various units that support online learning on the respective campuses serve as custodians of that Library, so as new uses get requested and somebody produces a way to address that use, the solution then can be broadly distributed and others can learn about the availability of that particular Excel module.  I don't want that Library management function to be my responsibility, but I probably would find it interesting to design additional spreadsheets that can do other things. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Zombie Students

I had an odd thought last week.  What if the best way to prognosticate the future for the U.S. is to consider B-Movies from the 1960s, select one or two, and base your projection off of that.  A few years back this would have seemed completely absurd to me.  Now it seems to fit with the general lunacy of our times. 

The particular film I will use in his piece is the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.  IMDB gives it an 8/10 rating, quite high.  It certainly has spawned an impressive array of sequels.  I'm not sure why.  Is it pure escapism?  Or perhaps veiled social commentary?  As other members of my household became regular viewers of the latest TV reincarnation, I know it has a certain macabre fascination, though I'm not sure what that is and I don't find it myself, having not watched any of it.

The hypothesis I want readers to consider is that people we encounter, in our work and elsewhere in our daily lives, become increasingly alienated by the functions they are supposed to perform on a recurrent basis.  At some point they cross a threshold and are no longer themselves thereafter.  They have become, instead, new members of the living dead.  I wish this were some bizarre science fiction fantasy, nothing more.  But I mean it to be a description reality, or of what we think reality looks like at present.

What is some evidence to support the hypothesis?  If you are yourself an employee at your place of work are you experiencing some co-workers demonstrating chronic absenteeism?  If you are a teacher or a student, in your classroom are you experiencing some students who never come to class?  In either scenario ask yourself, where are these people?  That they have become members of the living dead starts to become an attractive explanation, rather than a telltale sign that you've gone over the deep end.

I am teaching a class this semester, one that I've been teaching for the last five years, on the economics of organizations.  For today's session, the third this semester, 14 students showed up.  At the time 30 were enrolled.  (Later in the day one student dropped who actually never had been in class.)  Several of the students who didn't show up today have never come to class.  I have tried to conjure an image of such students to explain this behavior and to reconcile that explanation with my own views of how the world works. Having been stymied in that, I find it intriguing to imagine that each of those who were absent has become a member of the living dead.

To entertain the alternative hypothesis, perhaps I am just not engaging the students sufficiently.  What we're seeing in that case is that they are bored out of their gourds and it is my tedious approach that is the cause.  Could be.  Maybe it's all me, not them.  So now that hypothesis is out there, even though for those who have not shown up at, all they have from me is a welcome to the semester email like the one I used last year.   That seems scant evidence on which to base a rather drastic decision.

So I will cling to the belief that they are zombies.  And I'm now viewing my mission as a teacher to keep those students who have shown up so far from turning into zombies as well.  I can't remember how the original Romero movie ends.  I hope it wasn't entirely fatalistic at its conclusion.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Setting Up My Course For The Fall

It occurred to me that some of my practices in getting my class going would be of interest to others.  In turn, a good chunk of what I do has been cribbed over the years from a variety of other people.  But I should note ahead of time that much of what I do is in that gray area of not necessarily violating campus policy but also not something that the campus would embrace.  On the other hand, once upon a time I was somebody involved with setting campus policy.  On that front, I know that Campus Legal and the Security/Privacy folks will always side with stricter interpretations of FERPA.  Teaching and learning folks, in contrast, are looking for any and all ways to embrace educative practice, and might be willing to throw FERPA under the bus toward that end.

Alas, we've never really thought this through and acted first before considering the full consequences.  For example, last week I gave a session for the Grad Academy where I made a point that nowadays instructors should consider teaching the individual student rather than merely teaching the subject.  This requires the approach to be somewhat customized to the particular students strengths and weaknesses.  But, for example, while student advisors can see transcript information for individual students, instructors cannot.  That is university policy.  (I doubt that if you actually read the stuff at the FERPA site that you could conclude this a necessary step to embrace the law.  On the other hand, instructors don't like to be reined in and if they had access to this information, not provided by the student themselves, no doubt some small fraction of instructors would abuse the privilege.  Students who ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school do typically share their transcript with the instructor who will write the letter.)

With this as background, my current bias as a cranky old guy who has no problem being critical of the university, is to trust my own instincts on these matters.   On the educative side of the equation, I think most of online instruction should be out in the open.  This includes student created content that the students themselves post online.  There are several reasons to argue for openness.  The university should be a place for the free exchange of ideas.  Openness is consistent with that.  Quality is likely to be higher with an open site as there are incentive effects at work in crafting your own creations when you are not quite sure who will see them.  Open sites can serve future students, who can get a look see into the course before they register for it.   Likewise it can serve alumni students who may occasionally have an interaction with their former professors.  And then there is possible benefit to a community entirely external to the university.

There are a few other things to note here that people should consider when looking at this stuff.  First, I am comparatively time abundant, as a retired person.  For the most part I don't mind putting in the effort in setting up this stuff.  Other instructors might balk at that, educative benefit or not.  If the approach ever was to scale, some of the tasks I do now would have to be automated - by somebody other than me.  Second, what I do while not completely novel is still substantially different from what the students experience in most of their other classes.  Some of the educative benefit that I see might stem from that.  It's impossible for me to know that now.   Third, I have yet to mention copyright, another reason why the campus prefers the LMS to an open site or to use the Library for eReserves.  For the most part what I do I believe is consistent with copyright.  But I also think copyright law has ridiculously long term structures.  I use music as background for my PowerPoint presentations.

I never select anything current.  But stuff I listened to 45 years ago I will use; yet that stuff is still under copyright.  I became aware, after my parents died, that I had an interest in the music my dad listened too - mainly folk music.  Reasoning by analogy, I thought perhaps my students might connect a little with music that I listened to.  I don't know that such a connection actually emerges, but if it does that has educative value.  I'll try anything that might work.  Plus, my class is comparatively small, and the real issue is that students don't sufficiently access the content.  There is essentially no risk that any of my content will go viral.

This is my class site for the fall, a work in progress now.  I hope to have the Syllabus done by this evening so I can alert the class about it before our first session on Tuesday.   Let me describe it a bit so the reader can better understand what is there.  I have a prof.arvan gmail account.  I use a Blogger screen name, Professor Arvan, so the posts that you can see are done under that screen name.  I have a YouTube channel for profarvan (at the time it didn't like the period in the name) that I use to distribute video content for the class.  The blog posts I make that feature the video content can be thought of as providing metadata for those videos.  For other content - Excel files, PowerPoint files, and pdf files, I use my campus account to distribute that.  All of that content is out in the open.  (The Box setting says the content is accessible to anyone with the link.)   The blog posts that feature this other content likewise serve as metadata for that.

For the first time, I am trying to prepare some of the blog posts in advance of when they will be published.  In Blogger, that looks like this.

Because this is an upper level course in the major and is itself not a prerequisite for any other course, I don't operate on a strict timetable and have the class itself determine our pace to some extent.  So I don't want to get too far out front with these scheduled posts, only to find they are a little out of wack with how the class is proceeding.  Nonetheless, I know that I phase in and out on being eager to make course content versus having the equivalent of writer's block for making this stuff.  So I need to leverage those times when I'm in productive mode.  This sort of posting in advance helps with that stuff. 

I use Google Calendar as my scheduling software and link content from calendar entries as well as from Blog posts.  One of the tabbed pages has the full calendar, with the default that it is displayed in a monthly view.  There is also a gadget in the left sidebar for upcoming items, so students can more readily track what's next.  The reason for the double entry for content, both calendar and blog, is that the calendar is better for alerting students to the content, while the blog allows students to pose questions or comments, in response to a given post.

I use Google forms quite a bit.  I survey the class a handful of times during the semester and use Google forms for that.  I also use it for submissions on tracking that they've done the homework in Excel.  Note that I assign students a class specific alias.  (The alias concatenates the name of a famous economist with the course title.)  In Google forms I do collect alias information, but nothing about their true identity.

Students make their own blogs and post under their alias.  I encourage them to use a non-university Google account.  The vast majority of them already have a non-university gmail.  Most of them don't already use Blogger.  So it is not that big a deal for them to use that account for Blogger and then set the screen name to their alias.  I want to note here that many students use non-university gmail rather than the campus provided Google apps account.  There are a few reasons for this.  For international students, it is a way to use an Americanized name in their email address.  For other students, they want this to be their lifetime work email and don't expect to use a university account for this purpose, even if that account will be enabled forever.  They are branding themselves.  They don't want to be co-branded with the university.  Some also use an account that was already being used a lot in high school.

To alert students about the class site, give them their assigned alias, and try to get them prepared for the first class session I send them an individualized email for that purpose.  I send this to their campus email account, because that is what is provided to me with the roster information that I can download.  I used mail merge in Word for this purpose, with the various field information in Excel and then the individual messages sent via Outlook.  This is last year's letter, so you can have a look at the contents. 

Students are said to disdain email, so some might think this sort of communication would not be effective.  My experience is somewhat different from that stereotype.  Most students will use email fairly regularly, if not with the frequency that they use text messaging.  Those students who rely on a non-university account more than likely have a forward set up on their campus account.  So the opening message does get read for the most part.  In some cases, I do have to use the first day of class to alert students that they should check their Inbox.

With this message and other things I do in the course site, I am trying to convey a certain intensity that I hope will be contagious, with the students embracing it for themselves.  Inadvertently, the university process of adds and drops during the first two weeks of the semester acts to dampen that intensity.  (See my longish rhyme that explains the issues, The first ten days blues.)  Absent a change in university policy on this front, something which I'm not expecting but which I'd be delighted to see were it to happen, there needs to be some effort put into to counteract the student lethargy that the process encourages. 

Let me close with the following observation.  Apart from my calendar entries, I make no effort whatsoever to make my stuff accessible on a smartphone and I really don't want my students to try to do coursework on the phone.  Perhaps there are other courses where the phone is a legitimate instrument for doing their course work.  It is not in mine.  The screen is too small to be an eReader, except in a pinch.  It is certainly not an instrument for writing anything extensive.  And my Excel content is totally out of reach on a phone.  I don't use clickers in class.  (We are small enough that having them raise their hands is not an unreasonable expectation.)  I can imagine phones as an alternative for clickers, but it is not relevant in my course.  And on a higher level, I want to encourage my students to be reflective.  The phone, in contrast, encourages immediate response.  So while I'm no technophobe, there are some technology uses that do not compute for me.

I think that's okay.  What matters first and foremost is the learning.  Everything else is a distant second.

Monday, August 15, 2016

39 Years Ago - I was a TA at Northwestern

Tuesday afternoon I will be doing a session for the Grad Academy, a couple of days training the campus offers new teaching assistants.  On one of my slides, which are mainly there for the attendees to look at afterward, I ask them if they were around 39 years ago.  I expect none to say they were, or perhaps one or two who say otherwise and that they are doing grad school as a path to a second career. 

In any event, I'm trying to recall what being a TA was like.  I don't think we had any training whatsoever in pedagogy.  And, truthfully, I don't think that mattered.  I believe I was a very good TA.  Then I came down to Illinois and I was a quite horrible instructor in intermediate microeconomics.  This recollection has vexed me over the years.

I have very few concrete memories of what being a TA was like.  What I do recall is:
(1) I held office hours in the Library lounge.
(2) I was the rep on the Grad Studies committee that year and they had changed the requirement from 4 quarter courses, typically 2 courses over 2 quarters, to 6 quarter courses, 2 courses for each of the 3 quarters, and this was a time when it was done without pay, meaning if you were on fellowship that you TA'd as a degree requirement, not because it paid the bills.  A colleague at Illinois told me that the IRS eventually cracked down on this practice.  This was before that happened.
(3) The prof I TA'd for the first quarter was a visitor from Israel and he left to go back home before the grades were entered, leaving that responsibility to me.  This preceded FERPA as a law, I believe.  Anyway, I submitted the grades without incident.

I don't remember the teaching itself at all.  I really wish I could construct a few mental pictures of that.  I did micro the first two quarters and stats the third quarter.  I do remember a handful of students who came to see me in office hours and in stats a couple of students who saw me at Vogelback, then the computing center.  But I don't remember the live class sessions and I would very much like to have a sense of those.

I'm sure I was enthusiastic for the micro, probably not so much for the stats.  Does enthusiasm carry the day, or is there more to it than that?  There is also that the difficulty level of the classes was set by the instructor, not by me.  I ran their playbook.  Elsewhere, I've written that I may simply be better working as a supporting actor in somebody else's project.  As the lead I make too many heroic assumptions, which end up wrecking things.

Being a TA is the first time I did any teaching for real.  It would really help me now to have a better picture of what is was actually like.  Alas, too much of it has vanished into the haze.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Ask What You Can Do For Your Country*

*Famous Line From JFK's Inaugural Address

The last several weeks I've been puzzling over how the country might heal and what needs to be done.  We seem headed in the opposite direction.  So, for example,  I was very troubled by Thomas Edsall's column for this week, Is Trump Wrecking Both Parties?   The problem, in a nutshell, is that too many people are out of touch with how the other half lives.

Beyond this, however, I believe those liberal cosmopolitans have been co-opted by the Republican agenda on taxes and in that dimension they are now fairly conservative.  In other words, they have gotten spoiled by how low taxes have been the last 15 years or so.  To demonstrate this, I made the following table, which I think illustrates the situation clearly.  First here is a little background on how I generated it.

Historical data on marginal income tax rates by bracket can be downloaded from  They give the data twice.  Once it is in nominal dollars, meaning as it would have appeared in that particular year.  The other time it is in inflation adjusted dollars, with the base year 2012.  The inflation adjusted numbers make tax comparisons across years easy to understand.  I took those inflation adjusted data, focused only on the category married filing jointly, which is how I do my own taxes, and then computed the tax owed at the upper end point of each bracket, along with the average tax rate at that upper end point.

When you do an exercise like this you immediately come to realize that tax brackets move over time and the number of brackets change.  This makes it hard to eyeball the rates across years to see what is going on.  So I decided it would be useful to look at a handful of focal incomes and see what tax those incomes carried over the years. In the table AGI stands for Adjusted Gross Income.  How one goes from Gross Income to AGI via exemptions, deductions, treatment of capital income, etc. also has varied over time.  That variation is not being considered here.  So the table below is only giving a partial picture, but it is nonetheless quite informative.

Note that small variation between years, for example between 2013 (which was the last year for which there were data) and 2010, can be explained by bracket boundary adjustments that are imperfect and inflation adjustments that are also imperfect.  The larger variation is due to changes in the tax laws that fundamentally changes brackets and rates.  Taxes were highest for every income category in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was President.  Except for the $50,000 category, taxes were next highest in 1985, when Reagan was President.  (This may surprise people.)  There were many tax brackets then.  The marginal tax rate was 42% (higher than the top rate now) for incomes between $133,254 and $190,098.  The top marginal rate in 1985 was 50%.  The situation remained that way in 1986.  Then, in the last two years of Reagan and throughout the Presidency of Bush 1, the rate structure was flatter, with fewer brackets.  Taxes declined in all categories except at the $50,000 level.  Under Bill Clinton rates rose back up  at the $200,000 level and above.  Then under Bush 2 rates were cut across the board.  While the top bracket(s) are not shown in the table, and under Obama, those rates were raised back to their Clinton era levels, for the categories that are shown in the table the rate structure remained intact after Obama became President.

Before I go further in my argument, let me explain why these things matter.  Yesterday the NY Times had an editorial, Hillary Clinton's Plan to Make the Economy Fairer, in which they endorse much of her proposed economic agenda.  Regarding the various components of the plan, such as infrastructure investment, one can probably get near consensus that these are sensible things to do.  The issue is the intensity at which these components are done.  The editorial says:

To help pay for the plan, initially $275 billion over five years, she has proposed several tax increases on high earners, including the “Buffett rule” for a minimum tax of 30 percent on those who make more than $1 million, a 4 percent surcharge on incomes over $5 million and a limit on deductions. 

It is my view that the $275 billion number, which is $55 billion per year, is too low by an order of magnitude.  (See my post, Hard Hats That Are Green.)   But to get the infrastructure spending to the right level, there either needs to be a lot of deficit spending, something Paul Krugman advocates, or there needs to be additional taxes collected to pay for it now.  Hillary Clinton is reluctant to engage in deficit spending, which leaves the possibility of raising taxes as the only alternative.  But in the current political environment, talking about raising taxes on the 20% or the 10% rather than on just the 0.1% might be political suicide.  Thus the Times editorial concludes:

The plan Mrs. Clinton does have, however, is a good one. It is largely paid for. It is incremental, not sweeping, which is in keeping with political reality. And in contrast to the Trump plan, which has few details, it is specific enough that the “everyday Americans” she has pledged to help can actually hold her accountable for what she has promised.
So, to get back to my argument, the issue is how to raise taxes on more of the population, in a way that people who will see their taxes rise nonetheless embrace this as the responsible thing to do.  With that question in mind, let's do a quick look at the income distribution.  There is a nice and easy to use display a the CNN/Money site, though do note that it is using 2014 data.  Based on that $150,000 puts you in the top 11 percent or households, $200,000 puts you in the top 6 percent of households, and $250,000 put you in the top 2 percent of households.   There is something like 124 million households in the U.S.

With this I did some calculations about raising rates on those three categories of income (and above) back to either the rates in 1995 under Clinton or back to the rates in 1985 under Reagan, leaving things unchanged for people with household income below $150,000.  As with all my calculations of this sort, I don't mean them to be precise, just in the ballpark.  With that caveat, such a change back to the 1995 rates would produce an additional $81.75 billion, enabling the infrastructure program to more than double.  And making the change back to the rates in 1985 would generate an additional $222.2 billion.  As Everett Dirksen would say, this is real money.

Given how odd our politics are now, it would be foolhardy for Hillary Clinton to talk about raising taxes this way now.  She should not give all those discouraged Republicans who will stay away from the polls in November a reason to change their minds.  But it is not too early for others among those liberal cosmopolitans in the quote from Robert Putnam to consider the issue.  I am going to try to do this in a down to earth way, where the further calculations I suggest doing can be replicated by anyone who reads this post.

Using information from your tax return this past year, first write down your gross income.  Then consider each of these tax categories:  federal income tax, state income tax (if any), local income tax (if any), property tax, FICA, and other.  For those who work at a public University in Illinois, 8% of your salary is withheld for the retirement plan and that is mandatory.  Count that in other.  Don't count contribution to a 403B plan, as that is optional.  Add up the amounts in each of these categories to compute your total tax.  (There are small things, like car registration, that are not being counted.   Likewise, sales tax isn't counted this way.  Treat sales tax as part of the purchase price of goods.)  You can then get a sense of your total tax being paid to all sources and thus calculate your after tax income.

In the case of my household, that total tax rate is around 30%, almost surely that is lower than most people who have two income earners in the household because my retirement income is neither subject to Illinois income tax nor is it subject to FICA.  Let's say that you you do the calculation your total tax rate is 35%.   This gives after tax income respectively of $97,500; $130,000; and $162,500 at before tax income of $150,000; $200,000; and $250,000.   Moving to the 1995, Bill Clinton era rates would then put the pinch on of about $5,000; $6,500; and $10;000 respectively.  Surely people would notice that, but most could manage it, couldn't they?  Moving to the 1985, Ronald Reagan era rates, the pinch would be more and about $10,000; $18,500; and $25,000 respectively.  People might require some time to adjust their spending downward by that much.  But ultimately most could handle it, I believe.

Now let's move the argument for ability to pay to the ethical dimension.  Expressing your reluctance to pay more in taxes gives me cover to push back on having my own taxes raised.  Conversely, if you champion a tax increase on yourself it makes me seem more the ugly American to actively resist having my own taxes raised.  In this way of thinking, people in the professional class keeping their Bush Tax cuts, makes it harder to raise rates on the very rich, as that looks unfair.  Members of the professional class arguing that their own taxes should be raised, in contrast, encourages the top rates to go up as well and would put pressure on to close loopholes and other tricks the wealthy have to avoid paying taxes.  Of course, the aversion to pay taxes is so ingrained in some people that they may be immune from this sort of moral suasion.  And among this group, some are quite politically active via large campaign contributions.  This might then make those liberal cosmopolitans pessimistic that the needed tax reform can ever be politically possible.

The argument to turn this around has to focus on the ugly populism that has been given voice by the Trump candidacy.  That ugly populism will not go away, even if Trump loses.  Wishing that were so is a mistake.  Much of that ugliness would go away if there was decent economic opportunity.  Hillary Clinton's agenda, then, needs to be seen as a way to for America to get past this very trying moment.  It can do that, but it needs to be more intensive and thus of more consequence.  Liberal cosmopolitans should want to contribute to that goal.  It's what they can do for their country.  
We need to be arguing about this now, so that at the appropriate time it becomes possible to implement.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Questions for Professor Robert J. Gordon from a former student

Recently, I've been seeing a lot about my former professor.  He had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times yesterday, which is what motivated this blog post.  Before that I read this book review by William Nordhaus, Why Growth Will Fall, which takes up the findings of Gordon's book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth.  A week or two earlier I listened to this podcast where Gordon discusses his book with Jeffrey Sachs.  Several months ago some of my classmates from graduate school had a little thread about Gordon's book in Facebook.  And there was also Paul Krugman's review of Gordon's book earlier in the year.

I confess that I haven't yet read Gordon's book nor have I read Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was the rage a year or two ago.  Perhaps that lack of background disqualifies the questions posed below.  I am making this admission, in fact, to generate some guilt feelings as motivation to get me to read these works, even if it is a little late in the game to do so.  My recent book reading has been pure escapism fiction and in one instance some background reading on volunteer work I'm doing.  I do more non-fiction reading in magazines.  That has become my pattern the last year or two, but maybe the pattern needs to be shaken up a little.

I do think I have the gist of Gordon's argument already and indeed what is kind of funny is that he was singing something of the same tune back when I took that class from him.  This coming January will be the 40th anniversary of that course, the second quarter in a three-quarter macroeconomics sequence at Northwestern for first year graduate students in Economics.  Back then the economy was experiencing "stagflation" and it offered up puzzles, both as to the cause and regarding the appropriate policy response.  The inflation part did seem easier to understand - OPEC price shocks, wage and price controls under Nixon creating a persistent disequilibrium thereafter, deficit spending to finance the Vietnam War, and then something called cost-push inflation.

The stagnation part was more of a puzzle and Gordon mentioned lack of productivity growth in class, many times.  I don't recall any good explanation being offered up for that, which very well could be my poor memory or it could be that such an explanation was lacking.  A few years later, after Reagan became President and I had taken a job at Illinois, it became clear that the Japanese automobile companies were cleaning the clock of the big American car companies.  A few years after that I read David Halberstam's The Reckoning, which hammered on the point that the Japanese companies were run by engineers while the American companies were run by MBAs.  This difference in leadership got reflected in difference in mission.  The Japanese were focused entirely on making a better product.  The Americans were focused on (economic) rent generation and rent protection.   I believe this issue is still with us now, for example with how private equity firms run businesses, and is actually far more widespread than it was in the 1980s. 

As to policy response, the "rational expectations revolution" was just underway, and I believe we read a paper by Sargent and Wallace on the impotence of monetary policy that was in this mold.  We may have also read something by Milton Friedman on rules versus discretion and that the problem with discretion is both timing, which usually isn't very good, and intensity, which might not match what the situation calls for.  Considering those readings now, it is unclear to me whether a prior disposition in favor of laissez-faire and against government activism motivated the development of models which would support those conclusions.  All that seems obvious to me now on this score is that our national politics was much milder then.  There were two schools of thought within macroeconomics, the Cambridge school and the Chicago school, but there was not the intense alignment between the two schools and the political parties that there seems to be now. 

Here is another confession before I get to my questions.  I never "got" macro, much in the same way that I never got poetry in high school.  I worked through the models and I could do the manipulations that were required, more or less, but the underlying modeling assumptions and why those were appealing remained a complete mystery to me.  Empirical regularities, notably the seeming tradeoff between inflation and unemployment that explains the Phillips Curve, which stagflation seemed to be showing was not so regular, provided the basis for the various scissor models we considered (such as the static IS-LM model and the dynamic Phillips Curve - EE curve model).  After graduate school I became a reasonably competent theoretical microeconomics guy and am comfortable with stories that have a microeconomics basis.  I never could tell a convincing story that came out of these macroeconomics models and have been fortunate that I never had to teach macro to undergrads, as I'd have flubbed that quite badly.

* * * * *

What follows are a few question about fundamentals and modeling approach.

1.  I was surprised in the NY Times piece from yesterday that Gordon talked about scarcity of skilled labor as a threat to sustained economic growth.  Are things different now in this regard than they have been historically?   Since the skills we're talking about are acquired, not innate, doesn't the economy have auto-corrective mechanisms within it to encourage further skill production when that is needed?  What I have in mind is that the wages of the people with the scarce skills begin to rise.  That wage increase becomes known to others and that encourages some of these others who want higher incomes for themselves to acquire those skills.  Then supply of that particular type of human capital increases, which addresses the potential bottleneck for the economy.  Is that mechanism broken now and, if so, how?

2.  I also wondered whether Professor Gordon has ever considered his own productivity and, if so, has it been flat over time or has it been rising?  And on this does the answer depend on how you look at things.  One possible look is at the rate of scholarly output that Professor Gordon has engaged in.  I did a quick search at Google Scholar to verify that he's been a prolific producer of scholarship over the years and productivity growth (or lack thereof) has been a theme for him all this time.  This measure (just eyeballing, no serious counting) suggests flat productivity in Gordon's research, albeit at a high level.  A different way to look at Gordon's productivity, however, is to consider the impact of his research.  On this one, perhaps he has made a bigger splash as of late, his recent book seems to fit this story.  If the big splash story makes sense, then knowledge work may simply be different from widget production, in that with knowledge work one can't separate the output measure from the audience measure.   Sometimes in academia we do measure scholarly output like widgets, by counting lines on a CV.  Yet we also care about placement of the work.  Further we used to talk about the seminal paper in an area and prized that even more for establishing a new line of research.  Maybe we need a different category to describe knowledge work that moves the conversation broadly, whether it is seminal or not, especially if the audience is the general public.

3.  Then I wonder how much of productivity slowdown can be explained by composition effects, the obverse of Baumol's Cost Disease, if you will.  The particular example I have in minded is extended care for the elderly, something my parents had in their condo before they passed away.  A lot of the care is just sitting around, being available for when the need arises.  Then it is pushing the wheel chair, putting a new dressing on a wound that is slow to heal, making a meal and perhaps even spoon feeding the patient.  The work is very labor intensive and it has little to no productivity increase associated with it over time.  As more and more of the economy is devoted to such activities (child care is another one of these) that leaves a smaller part of the economy that can actually experience productivity growth.  The growth of the economy overall is an average of the growth rates in the various sectors.  Does this sort of composition effect do anything at all to explain the recent puzzle in productivity slowdown?  If so, is it a big part of the story or not?

4.  I also wonder whether we are mismeasuring economic output in the knowledge economy in ways that are far worse than the historical mismeasurement problems associated with GDP.  In the macroeconomics class we took in the first quarter, with Professor Eisner, we learned about the issue of non-market work (e.g., housework done by the homeowner and child care in the home done by the parent), which is not counted in GDP but should be, and for which there were some efforts at correction by imputing the value of the non-market activity.  We read a few papers on this.  The system I remember was called TISA (Total Income System of Accounts).  Now we have a different issue, the importance of the Internet in our lives and that everything out on the Web should be considered public good, but GDP values this as private good only, say via the ad revenue generated by a particular Web page.  By that measure my blog has zero value.  (And maybe after reading this post you'll concur with that assessment.)  The point is that the private good measure doesn't capture the reader benefit well.

Further, we can probably agree that such audience benefit with online content can be roughly measured by whether a video has gone viral or if a book makes a big splash, so that volume of access gives some measure of audience value.  But how do we value the system that enables these diffusion activities?  Professor Gordon is known for saying that we've already captured most of the productivity gains from introducing the Internet into our lives.  But is too much of that a focus on ordinary work and not enough on the frequency that audiences get exposed to superstar content?

It seems to me that commercial book and video production has gone down the route of focusing too much on blockbusters (how many movies based on comic books do we really need?) and the fledgling creators of content are under served this way.  But self-publishing is much easier now.  Counting the diamonds in the rough may be difficult and GDP not all that useful for measuring this.  That, however, doesn't mean those diamonds are there, or does it?

The last point about non-market activity I'd make here is for something we are not yet doing very much of but I hope we will be doing a great deal of in the future.  That is generating electricity in our own homes and places of work via installed solar panels and thus not buying electricity from the public utility, thereby lessening the need to use fossil fuel to generate that electricity.  Under current measures of income, this switch to self-generation of electricity is measured only by the cost of installing and maintaining the solar panels and batteries, but not at all by the foregone burning of fossil fuels.  The benefit, however, is captured better in the second measure and what is clear is that the two measures need not align, even approximately so.    What can be done regarding measurement to get better dollar figure for the second measure?

5.  My last question is about why there is so much concern about income growth and not nearly the concern about wealth level?  Does this reflect a distaste for activist wealth redistribution policies, a belief that such policies are not feasible, or is it simply an artifact of an earlier time when incomes were more equal and wealth more evenly distributed so that income growth was the correct measure of progress then and we're locked into that measure now?  Put a different way, if you are already rich, should you care about income growth or not?

Earlier this year I did some rudimentary calculations about household wealth in the U.S.  My arithmetic and scanning online for information of this sort produced that median household wealth is around $81K, while mean household wealth is around $650K, and the mean household has 2.6 people.  (These calculations and related analysis are given in a post called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.)  Those numbers are not meant to be precise, just in the right ballpark.  If the median were raised substantially to get it closer to the mean, say the median tripled or quadrupled, would we still care a lot about income growth?  Conversely, if the median could be raised substantially through activist government policy, shouldn't we want such policy even if it retarded income growth somewhat, because the many would benefit at the expense of the few?

* * * * *

Let me come to a close.   In the mid to late 1990s, when I made a career switch and turned to learning technology, I operated under the belief that online would totally revolutionize learning.  It took me a few years to change my mind on that and indeed while I still believe online is useful now I believe we should be focusing on high touch ways to teach and learn and that the technology card has been vastly oversold.  So I am sympathetic to the message that Gordon has been delivering, as he has been saying much the same thing for the economy as a whole.  But he seems to relish delivering a pessimistic message and I wonder if that is necessary.

Perhaps it is.  The political rhetoric now still seems to be about jump starting the economy.  There are clear short term gains to be had (infrastructure is the one most people seem to agree with now).  But what of the long term?  If the recognition is that long term growth will be tepid, might we make some progress then on question #5?   If it is impossible for us to make progress on question #5 till we come to that realization, then Gordon is doing a public service for us all, even if most of us would prefer a more optimistic message.