Monday, March 23, 2015

The Professor Mind

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

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

* * * * *


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Falling from Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


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

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Partial Credit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dr. Max Gottlieb

Sometime during high school I got on a Sinclair Lewis jag.  I read Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith, It Can't Happen Here, and Elmer Gantry.  (For some reason I didn't read Dodsworth.)  I no longer can recall what it was about the writing that drew me in.  Evidently I enjoyed the first one, which was either Babbitt or Main Street, though now I'm not sure which.  I suppose the rest were read in search of a similar reader reaction.

Several in my high school cohort went on to become medical doctors and a few went into doing medical research, my brother included.  I wonder if they read Arrowsmith and, if so, whether it served as inspiration for them.  I did not follow that trajectory for career path.  Yet some of that book stayed with me all these years later, while the storylines of the others I mentioned are long forgotten.

Last week I saw that the film version was on TCM and that piqued my interest, so I recorded it with the DVR for later viewing.  This showing was part of a retrospective on Helen Hays, who plays Leora Arrowsmith, the wife of the title character. The movie itself was released in 1931, only a few years later than The Jazz Singer, the first talkie.  It was directed by John Ford and featured Ronald Coleman in the title role.

It is quite viewable, even now, though there are a few observations that might help a current viewer get through the film.  First, each scene is very short and unlike films today in that respect.  Ben Mankiewicz, who introduced the film and gave a little anecdote at the conclusion, said the Ford was  a heavy drinker but swore off alcohol during the shooting of the film.  Then at night, after the shooting during the day, he destroyed a lot of the footage, so his work editing the film would be much easier and the film would get done faster, this so he could return to his drinking sooner.  Hays discovered this, protested what Ford was doing, and the two had a tête–à–tête that was quite unpleasant for Hays, but did lead to a cessation of the practice.  In any event, it is notable how brief the scenes are.

The second observation is how pure, perhaps stereotypical, the characters are.  There are the good guys and the bad, the knowledgeable scientists and the hacks, the noble pursuit of truth and the crass chasing of money coupled with unabashed promotion in the newspapers to further that end.  I don't know if this purity of types is as strong in Sinclair Lewis' book.  But it does contribute to the irony in the story.

The last observation is how science is cast.  The pursuit of knowledge is the highest possible calling, higher even than concern for the welfare of fellow human beings.  Science is also viewed as a solitary enterprise, the intrepid researcher alone in his lab with his experiments.  It is the product of a disciplined mind that is patient enough to see the truth through careful observation of the results from controlled experiments.

The embodiment of science in the story is Dr. Max Gottlieb, who is the role model for the story's hero, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith.  Gottlieb is wise in the ways of science and the ways of human nature.  He values research and views medical practice itself as mainly hand holding with the patient (in other words, not science).  He values the friendship of other scientists and prefers their company to being with others.  He can be honest and open with them.  He also fits the stereotype about scientists at the time (and perhaps still).  He is a German Jew who speaks with a notable accent.  He is slender and wears glasses.  (I'm not sure whether they were pince-nez or had ear pieces.)  He has especially long and thin fingers.  He looks old and near the end of the film he is seen doddering before he passes away from a stroke. I'm not sure how old the character is meant to be, but the actor who played him, A.E. Anson, died several years later at age 56.  (I am now 60, which is part of the reason that the Dr. Gottlieb character is more interesting to me than the protagoist.)

All these virtues notwithstanding, Gottlieb does something quite terrible to Arrowsmith.  Bubonic plague has broken out in the West Indies.  Arrowsmith may have found a cure in his lab and he heads down to the West Indies to see if his serum can rescue the population.  Gottlieb asks that Arrowsmith divide the population into halves and administer the serum only to one half.  The other half would receive a placebo.  By observing the outcomes for people in both groups, one could determine whether the serum was effective and rule out the possibility of a cure based on a "placebo effect."

Let me leave aside the science itself, where there is nothing said about sample size for such hypothesis testing, what was already known about plague at the time, and other variables such as dosage of the serum or how far along the patients were at the time they received the vaccine. This sort of hypothesis testing is anathema to experimenting with human subjects.

Soon after I took over the SCALE project on campus in the late 1990s, I was informed by Larry Faulkner, then Provost, and himself a chemist, that we couldn't randomly assign students to different sections of the same course, some of which had ALN (online learning) and others of which did not.  Think of how comparatively benign this sort of random assignment would be.  ALN was in its infancy then so whether it improved, harmed, or didn't matter for learning in a course was an issue of interest.  Yet Faulkner made it clear that students had to express their preference in instructional mode.  We could not make the choice for them.

Now think of how much more dire the consequences were for those exposed to plague in the West Indies.  Everybody in that circumstance wanted the injection.  Who could deny their wishes?  Only Max Gottlieb can articulate this thought.

Initially Arrowsmith goes along with Gottlieb's request.  But when Leora dies from plague Arrowsmith has a temporary breakdown and then, in the wake of his hysteria, allows everybody to get the serum.

At the end of the movie Arrowsmith along with Gottlieb's assistant quit the medical research institute that had employed them, to work in an independent lab where they could pursue their research without influence from commercial interest.  In other words, they returned to the pure life that Gottlieb had championed.  In this way they honored Gottlieb.   Yet in my interpretation of the story, Gottlieb was not deserving of this honor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Myth of Pith

And now forthwith
The myth of pith.

The soul of wit
Or writ misfit?

One wonders why
A sly reply

To one sans clues
His views bemuse

Fiction and fact,
A pact retract.

It will not work
Just irk the jerk.

Then make him mad,
you sad, that's bad.

So you might gather
I'd rather blather. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The macroeconomic policy solution must be married to an electoral strategy

In my reading, admittedly selective but nonetheless informative, it appears there is a growing consensus for the type of macroeconomic policy that is needed to get the economy out of the doldrums. The policy consensus I'm referring to is restricted to those who are Democrats.  In the Clinton years many of them embraced a deregulation/free trade agenda.  Larry Summers was prominent among them.  Now he has turned to a Keynesian view, a natural progression given that underemployment is the core economic problem.  (See below.)

But it should be equally obvious that Republicans do not agree with this agenda at all.  So, if the agenda is to be implemented, there needs to be an electoral strategy that complements it, as a full partner, not as a second fiddle.  The obvious goal of such an electoral strategy is to generate turnout.  The Democrats lost big time in 2014 with a very low voter participation rate.  The discouraged voters are the ones who need to be the focus of the electoral strategy.  They need a good reason to participate.  That reason should be made obvious to everyone.

There is then the question whether the economic policy advocated for in advance of the 2016 elections should be more limited than the full array of solutions one would bring to the fore if the Democrats already had control of Congress and the White House, because it is clear that the Conservative political machine will work hard to counter the message of the Democrats and they have the money advantage.  So getting discouraged voters to sort through this is not an easy task.

I have yet to see others write about what a marriage between economic policy and electoral strategy would look like.  I have done so in my essay How to save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal.  It argues that there should be a sequencing to the economic policy, with step one based on a massive infrastructure investment plan coupled with a debt forgiveness plan on state and local governments.  It suggests not to take on making the income tax more progressive at present.  The reasons are electoral rather than economic.  Even conservatives might buy into Keynesian stimulus now, or at least not resist it too much, so the politics in advance of the 2016 election might not be so much a turnoff to discouraged voters. 

This thinking could be wrong, I admit.  But what I believe is right is a need to understand what will engage discouraged voters and bring them to the polls in large numbers.  The full boat of economic policy might not do that.  So the pundits on economic policy need to be disciplined enough to understand that there is no good in giving the "right answer" if that is DOA politically. What we need is a process that gets an economic policy which Democratic candidates can run on - and win.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Thomas Geoghegan's Lament

Insisting on knowledge
He went to college.

What did he learn?
How little he would earn.

He became frustrated.

It's not that he's shirking.
The system's not working.

Let us all cry
For the little guy. 

With the economy at the brink
Time to give it a think.

For an income distribution flatter
What, if anything, can matter?

Another labor movement
The only chance for improvement.

Impressions of:
Only One Thing Can Save Us:  Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 6 - Students Teaching Students

At the outset I intended the Everybody Teaches series to culminate in this post.  I did not, however, plan to offer up a mea culpa.  But now, rereading what I've produced so far, I feel I must because the set of preceding posts taken collectively has the feel of one long subterfuge on an issue I understood well at the outset of this series.  Here's the problem.

High touch instruction, which is the feature of the Everybody Teaches series, aims to provide students with sufficient self-teaching skills.  Armed with those skills, a student can learn a fair amount from a large lecture class by self-teaching on what goes on in the course, using the lecture as one of the primary inputs for that learning, just as the textbook and online materials also serve as inputs for learning.  Here, to make things plain, having learned something means being able to transfer the ideas into a novel context, one that is other than the context where the ideas were initially presented.  (See the volume, How People Learn, especially chapter 3.)  Many entering students don't yet have sufficient self-teaching skills.  The effort they put into their classes produces surface learning only.  (See Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do, on the distinction between deep learning and surface learning.) 

How much high touch teaching is needed to get students to where they are competent at self-teaching?  Alas, nobody knows the answer to this question, though one is probably safe in saying that the answer depends on the student, particularly in how receptive the student is to try alternative approaches to learning and then in how diligent the student is in practicing the new approach that is embraced.  For many of the students who need improvement in their self-teaching skills, is it conceivable that the Everybody Teaches approach, as articulated in the previous posts, is simply inadequate to the deliver on this end?  Consider, for example, that even in its heyday the Discovery Program covered only about half of the entering students.

Would one high touch Discovery course do the trick?  Or would most students require quite a few high touch courses before they turned the corner?  Observe that one-on-many courses can seem to offer positive reinforcement for surface learning.  (Many students in these courses are under the impression that their only obligatory tasks are to get the lecture notes and then memorize those notes.  This approach will produce tolerably good results on exams, much of the time, apparently validating the approach.)  Observe further that during the first year students are taking mainly General Education courses, many of which are taught in one-on-many mode. 

It therefore appears that Everybody Teaches is solving the wrong problem.  (Alternatively, what has been written so far in this series of posts seems a veiled argument that for parents who can afford to so they should send their kids to private liberal arts colleges, in spite of the substantial tuition differential between the liberal arts college and big public U.)  In other words, while Everybody Teaches may maximize the number of high touch courses offered on campus, at the scope that is feasible it is likely insufficient to counter the cumulative effect from taking all those large lecture classes.  (There is also the issue of excessive testing in K-12 exacerbating the problem.  We need to acknowledge K-12 as another cause for why so many students don't have the self-teaching skills on arrival at college, though I don't want to elaborate further on it here.)  So I need to apologize for creating the impression otherwise. 

Indeed in the first year writing this blog, I wrote a series of posts that I labelled Inward Looking Service Learning (INSL), which was based on the realization that the only labor input that scaled with the students is the students themselves.  As I pretty much still believe in the substance of those posts, I won't repeat them here, but I will provide a brief summary so the reader can see how it fits with the current discussion.

The core idea was to use peer mentors/tutors/TAs who had taken the course previously to support instruction.   The peer mentors would be deployed in a way that is unlike how graduate student TAs are utilized now, with the peer mentors used in a more labor intensive fashion.  The key innovation was to organize instruction around the study group, say with 5 current students in it.  The study group would meet for several hours a week.  The study group would be led by the peer mentor.  The thought behind calling this inward looking service learning was: (a) the peer mentors would be doing service for the campus, (b) there is a substantial amount of learning that occurs when teaching others as in leading a study group, and (c) it might actually work well because students need to open up about their current understanding in order to learn in a deep way, yet many students are reluctant to do so in front of an authority figure; they are much more willing to open up with a peer.

In my sketch of INSL, it would be deployed extensively, in every class that students take.  The extensive deployment of INSL would then drive students to become deep learners.  Of course, this remains an open proposition that should be tested.  My current belief is that if done in a full-throated way, INSL would work and work well.  Given that, do we really need Everybody Teaches too?

I believe the answer to that question is, yes we do.  In other words, in order to solve the right problem, the answer to which is INSL, we must first solve the wrong problem, how to maximize the number of high touch classes taught by instructors.  We'll never get there if we try to go directly to solving the right problem.  Not enough people in authority will understand why we should put in such effort.  I have been trying to advance the cause of using undergraduates in a big way to support instruction since 1997, maybe even earlier than that.  Others have argued likewise. A few early adopters among the faculty have done this in a big way, but it certainly hasn't diffused to become ordinary practice.  My explanation for the lack of diffusion is that awareness of the issues is lacking - many instructors and administrators trust that the bulk of  undergraduates are learning a good deal, much more than they actually are, this in spite of various very public exposés that argue the contrary.  So awareness needs to be raised, in a big way.  You can then read the Everybody Teaches essays, parts 2-4, as necessary awareness raising steps, with the awareness raising concomitant to the other learning that those essays describe.

Part 5, on retirees and Discovery classes, is different.  It is a model in its own right to address the issues. It may not scale itself to address the issues, but if the ranks of volunteers can be expanded in a fruitful way, it has some chance of doing so in itself.  Further, it can serve as a model for a similar approach to be tried in K-12, which ultimately might prove to be the greatest benefit that comes from the effort.

* * * * *

Until now, I have studiously tried to avoid relating Everybody Teaches to current efforts on campus regarding innovation in teaching and learning.  Further, I have ignored the role that technology might play other than suggesting that the student writing I advocate for would happen in blogs.  It is time to juxtapose these things and ask whether they must be considered separately or if they possibly can be looked at in a unified way. 

Historically (going back to mid 1990s) learning technology was viewed as a way to provide access to instruction and perhaps also as a means to lower the cost of instruction.  When I ran the SCALE project our grant officer at the Sloan Foundation, Frank Mayadas, repeatedly told me that our quality was good enough and that he really wasn't interested in course development the sole purpose of which was to improve learning.  But at that time, with the economy booming and tuition still comparatively low, most people I knew on campus were not yet ready to consider the cost issue.

Soon thereafter, Carol Twigg started the Pew Program in Course Redesign, which had twin goals of using the technology to lower cost and raise the quality of instruction, though in my way of thinking there was much more emphasis on the former than the latter because the focus was on those 20 courses or so that had super large enrollments and accounted for about half the overall enrollments on campus.  For a very brief time I became the poster child for the Pew program, as a result of the work on the SCALE Efficiency Projects.  At the time I had the feeling of being out of the mainstream, with most faculty not involved in those very large courses, so much more interested in the quality issues and not really interested in improving the efficiency of instruction.

This division between quality and cost with regard to instruction showed up in other ways.  There were divides between instructors who cared about technology and those who were phobic of technology but who cared a lot about learning.  Likewise, there were divides between those who supported instructors use of technology and therefore focused on out-of-class learning done online and those who supported instructors by helping with their pedagogy, where the focus was moving away from straight lecture (promoting active learning).  Throughout my time as a campus administrator, I was never able to entirely bridge those divides, though a bit of a thaw developed between the people who worked in the respective units as the technology itself became less remarkable.

All of this played out again when I moved to the College of Business, like a remake of a movie I had seen before.  There was a push to move the larger courses to blended learning, for efficiency reasons.  Many students around campus wanted a Business Minor, but the College lacked the capacity to offer it except to a limited few.  Those large classes were taught by adjuncts.  It was 10 years later and these instructors were not innovators, so that part was different, and my staff put in a lot of effort to compensate for that difference.  But otherwise, it was remarkably similar.  For the rest of the faculty, who did face to face teaching exclusively at that time, faculty development was about improving quality of instruction and documenting teaching efforts for promotion and tenure review.  Some of these faculty were quite resistant to efforts to move instruction online, even as competitors had already done that. 

This summer it it will be five years since I've retired.  Now I'm the one advocating for a focus on quality improvement, with Everybody Teaches leading to an embrace of INSL, all of which emphasizes high touch interaction between learner and teacher.  I'm pushing this argument while the technology that everyone is going gangbusters about on campus is video, in MOOCs and elsewhere too.  High touch teaching emphasizes the instructor in response to students.   Video production, in contrast, emphasizes a lot of up front development, so that the video is recorded and edited well in advance of the class being offered.  These still look separate to me.  Might they become unified eventually?  And might that eventuality be not too far off in the future?

I'm intrigued by the possibility of video made as response, rather than constructed up front, where if this is happening in a class where INSL has been implemented it is the peer mentors who make the videos in response, rather than the instructor/course coordinator.  These videos, measured by production quality, would be inferior to the ones that are made up front. But in terms of salience, the students taking the course may regard them more highly because such videos address issues these students have articulated about the content that was developed up front.  Such issues were not anticipated in the up front development and probably couldn't be.  The virtue of response is that it is situated in where the students actually are.  Up front development, in contrast, is based on some hypothesis about where the students should be.  That hypothesis may very well prove errant.  Over multiple iterations of the course offerings, then, it seems possible that these videos made on the fly could end up replacing some of the videos made up front and/or that the videos made on the fly that seem popular will then be reproduced to have higher production value, if that remains a concern, and then the original videos are dropped.

In other words, where response was just response in the low enrollment Everybody Teaches classes, response might be the gateway to redesign of the videos.  Further, student product (made by the peer mentors) might supplant instructor creation of the content.

While recognizing that the above is highly speculative, it does seem to be a possibility to consider, perhaps even to encourage.  If it happens that would unify matters to a great degree.  Response would be the key.  Course design for online learning could be much less substantial up front, with the course offered in a small class form the first couple of times, to let the redesign of content do its thing.  This would then seem very much like how an Everybody Teaches course should work.

Will we ever get there?  I hope so. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 5 - Retired and Very Senior Faculty in Discovery Courses

Intergenerational transfers of wealth have been a major social concern for the last decade or two.  The fear is that my generation, the Baby Boomers, are sucking the economy dry.  This fear is indirectly responsible for the parallel concern about mounting National Debt while not utilizing the debt to invest in the nation as we have previously done, at least since the Eisenhower years.  Bill Keller had a very good column a few years ago that describes the issues. 

Given this concern, one might think there would be a search for feasible income flows in the opposite direction, from Baby Boomers to Millenials for example; income flows that are real, substantial, and sustainable.  And given that research universities have as part of their raison d'être to innovate toward addressing societal issues, one might imagine that universities would be the focus of this search.

My experience over the last five years or so, since I started to plan my retirement when the university announced the VSIP plan and what has ensued since retiring, suggests this search is not on anyone's radar.  The university is fearful of exposure from highly publicized episodes of retired employees double dipping to excess (being rehired by the university while collecting their pension and being paid handsomely in both instances) so caps have been put into place to limit such behavior.  In contrast, there appears to be little or no strategic interest in utilizing voluntary contributions from retirees to advance the university mission.  Why not?

Collegiality by its very nature has an element of volunteerism to it.  That's what being a good citizen is all about.  Consequently, at the university there is a big gray area for faculty and academic professionals about what is just another task to take on, without any adjustment in compensation required to get acceptance of the responsibility, and overload work that demands an incremental payment.

Indeed, this collegial impulse exists outside of academe as well.  Peter Drucker argues that this should lead to people pursuing dual careers.  In a post entitled A New Progressivism? I described it this way:

Dual Careers and Second Careers - We should follow Peter Drucker in suggesting that all knowledge workers follow a dual career path.  The first career is the one that pays the rent and puts food on the table.  The second career is volunteer work done either via national service or through some not-for-profit organization aimed at doing good works.  The second career is there as a need to satisfy the individual's social conscience and to learn how to be effective in doing so.  At some point in middle life, if the individual has amassed sufficient wealth so the person can retire from the first career, the prior second career becomes the primary work.  The individual then can continue to make a contribution in this way and in the words of Albion Small lead a genuine life.

The, university by its very nature should enable the dual career path to happen and do so with the same employer.  Teaching, in particular, should fit with the notion of a dual career.  Supervising individual students who do independent study projects does fit, as does mentoring of students on an individual basis, when that is not done for course credit.  We seem to draw some line between this individual coaching and courses listed in the Timetable.  Why?

One possible answer to that question, an answer I'd like to take off the table, is to view the retiree instructor as scab labor, now that adjuncts have formed a union. If a course has been on the books for a long time and has been taught regularly in the recent past, the instructor of record for that course should get paid for teaching it.

Indeed in my own teaching, where I was personally sensitive to this issue of possibly displacing a junior faculty member or adjunct from my teaching, I opted to teach a course not on the books, The Economics of Organizations.  It was a fundamentally new offering when I first taught it.  (I've taught it 3 more times since.)  The department benefits from this offering as it increases the variety of elective courses that majors can select from.  And teaching this course, I do get paid, which I view as necessary in this instance to get me willingly to offer exams, which I would prefer not to do and which I don't believe are at all educative, and to deal with various student shenanigans - assignments turned in late, work done showing little to no effort, poor class attendance that shouldn't happen in a low enrollment course, etc. - without giving me tools to combat this lack of commitment.  If I have to manage this reality without being able to reform the situation in any way that makes sense to me, I need to get paid.  However, if I could teach a course based on creating this sort of reform, I'd happily do that for no pay.  What follows is a brief sketch of what this might look like. 

* * * * *

As should be obvious, the reform needs to begin as soon as students arrive on campus.  For typical students, this would be in the fall semester of their freshmen year.  (If the results of such reform showed promise, something similar but targeted at transfer students might also be initiated.  Here I will focus on first-year students.)  The Campus already has on it is books a small class program for freshman.  It is called the Discovery Program and the program is now 20 years old.  From my eyeballing of the course list link (this is from last fall) there are few offerings overall, especially compared to when I taught such a course, in spring 2002.  I suppose that faculty and staff reductions on campus coupled with a substantial increase in undergraduate enrollments have taken their toll on the Discovery Program.  Also, it appears that most of the courses listed are special topics courses.  Back in 2002 I taught a section of Introduction to Microeconomics, which most students take in a very large lecture offering.  I am agnostic on whether the reform should happen in a version of a  Gen Ed class or a special topics class, except insofar as it might impact who opts to enroll in the class.  The experiment is less useful if it ends up over sampling eager beavers and under sampling drones and sluggos.  (Those categories were introduced in the first post of the Everybody Teaches series.) 

The course will have two distinct goals.  The first is the usual goal on producing subject matter knowledge.  The second is on developing learning-to-learn skills in a way that is overt, so the students understand up front this a key objective, though at that time they may not really appreciate what learning-to-learn skills are about.

The course will provide 3 hours of course credit but be scheduled for four hours a week.  That fourth hour is a scheduled office hour that is held in the classroom.  Students will not have the excuse that they can't make this office hour.  Indeed scheduled office hours will be an ordinary part of the class.  Some of that will be in small groups.  The rest will be done individually.  Students will also have the option for further individual consultation outside of normally scheduled time.

The course will be offered for S/U grading only.  There will be no letter grades.  The idea is to see if the students can experience an intensive school environment yet where the extrinsic motivation from letter grades is absent.  The hope is that this is possible and that students can tap into this same motivation in subsequent courses, even when letter grades are present.  Part of the idea is to dispel the myth that the student's purpose at school is to get good grades.  We want to replace that notion with the alternative that the student's purpose is to learn and that grades are not fundamental to learning. A related idea is to get students to appreciate the emotional side that goes along with working hard on their learning and see if they can develop a sense of satisfaction from that.

If a student appears not to be putting forth much effort, this will require some one-on-one time and some coaching/coaxing to get students past the blockage.  If improvement in effort does not occur, as last resort the student will be informed that the student will not receive credit for the course and it will then be suggested that the student drop the class.  This is not a desirable outcome, but this possibility must be understood up front.  If, in contrast the student does appear to be working hard but the quality of work produced is below par, the student will be given all possible encouragement to continue to struggle and thereby to raise the quality of what is produced.  A substantial goal in this respect is for the student to be able to witness improvement in the student's own performance, even if that progress is slow in coming and somewhat meager in magnitude.

There will be two writing assignments each week, each about 600 words.  The first will be prospective in nature, with the student making sense of the readings and/or other outside of class materials (TED talks and other video content, for example) and tying that reading and viewing to course themes.  It has been my experience in the past that many students don't make good meaning out of pieces from sources such as the NY Times.  So part of this will be both an assessment of how well students do read such content and a strong encouragement for them to find and read additional related materials that are not assigned but that help them to get context for the piece that is assigned so they can better understand it.  The other part is for students to begin to understand that they need to ready themselves for learning in this way in their other courses, even when such formative writing assignments aren't present.

This first writing assignment will be precede the class discussion on the topic.  They will come to class prepared.  This is meant to counter the practice in many other classes the students attend, whee the lecture in class serves as introduction to the topic.  The second writing assignment will be be retrospective in nature and follow the in class discussion.  The goal here will be to show to the student that learning happens in stages and that one gets a deeper understanding over time.  The further goal will be for the students to tie the course content together and to begin to see how each assignment is part of creating a larger picture that comes from understanding the course as a whole.

Students will receive written feedback on all the written work they submit.  This is a lot of reading of student writing and a lot of feedback to provide by the instructor.  For that reason, the class can't be too large.  My suggestion would be an enrollment cap of 15 students.  When I taught that Discovery class back in 2002 I believe the cap back then was 20 students, or maybe a little higher than that.  But back then, class size was the defining characteristic of a Discovery class.  Here we want to make sure it is high touch and taught in a manner quite distinct from a lecture format.  Back then I believe some Discovery classes were really lectures, but done in a small class setting.

There may be other homework as well.  For example, if this class is an Introduction to Microeconomics section, then students will learn the basic model of supply and demand.  They then need to do assignments that both help them to understand the implications of that model and test whether their understanding is getting deeper over time.  It is my belief that for microeconomics, in particular, students need to have an understanding of the models as things in themselves and they also need to be able to apply the models to a variety of real life situations.  The latter is what the essays would do, while the former is what the other homework would do.  (I design exercises in Excel for this other type of homework.)

There would not be any exams whatsoever.  So there would be no need to cram.  Instead, students would keep up a more or less uniform intensity throughout the semester.  Students will likely still tend to cram for their other courses, which in that sense places a time tax on this course at around the time that midterms are given.  A student who misses class because the student has been cramming for other classes will have a one-on-one session where this is discussed and the instructor strongly discourages the behavior in the future.  One question that I hope comes out of this is whether students can task themselves in their other courses in a way that is more uniform in its time commitment, so that cramming is less necessary.  If students can see the benefits from a more uniform approach, perhaps they will embrace it across the board.

In class, I favor Socratic dialog most of the time, as I believe it best conveys the sort of thinking students should be doing for themselves out of class.  In the past I've asked students to raise their hands and would call on those who do.  Some students would chime in regularly this way.  Other students never would.  It may be better, given that there are no grades, to try calling on students who'd otherwise be quiet.  On this point I'm not sure.  It would be something on which to experiment and see.   Do the students overcome their initial reticence?   One related issue is the fraction of the class who are non-native speakers of English.  Many of the students whose spoken English is not so great tend to be quiet in class.  They seem to prefer the writing part, where they can take their time in forming their thoughts. 

An alternative way to get at that, and something I'd likely embrace as it has worked well in other seminar classes I've taught in the past, is to have teams of students lead the class discussion on occasion.  I would start doing this around the midpoint of the semester and have about one out of the three hours per week led by the students, coaching them ahead of time in how they should go about this.  Among the things to learn from doing this is what additional preparation must be done when you are leading discussion.  How do you anticipate questions that might arise in this case?  How much should you go with the flow of the discussion and how much should you force the discussion back onto the points that were planned for ahead of time?  Planning such a session and then leading it is something all students should experience.  If they find they learn in a deeper way when they prepare for leading a discussion, it might then occur to them to ask why they don't learn in this deeper way all the time.  That would be progress.

With the above, I hope the reader has gotten some sense of what might be possible in a high touch version of a Discovery class, one that is allowed to break some of the university rules (no exams and no course grades).  If it seemed to work, the instructor would be motivated to do it again in the future, to see if the results could be replicated.  Indeed, if several replications happened then the instructor might find it no longer necessary to make significant tweaks to how the class is taught and instead come to view the course offering mainly as a gift to the students, so they become better learners.  This is precisely the sort of income transfer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.  Then, as long as the instructor has the energy to offer such a close, making such a gift should serve as motive for continuing to do so.

How will one know whether this works or not?  Let me suggest two possibilities, one that the instructor can readily do, the other that will require campus commitment and study to perform.  At the end of my course last fall I invited members of the class to join me in a weekly discussion group in the spring.  I got a few takers, so we are doing this.  It is the first time I've had such a group, though I did try for one the year before, but then I didn't get sufficient response.  My motive for having such a group was that I thought too many of my students were not approaching their studies in a good way.  I wrote up a longish essay to explain my concerns.  There are selection issues with forming such a group - the eager beavers in the class are the ones who most likely will take up the offer.  But if a drone student or perhaps a few of them are willing to participate in the discussion group, that would be strong evidence that the class worked.  Further, from time to time during the weekly discussion one might make comparisons between the class taken in the fall and the current spring classes the students are taking.  This comparison would be in regard to their outside-the-classroom coursework.  Then the students could self-report on how they go about things.  That too would reveal quite a lot about whether the fall class was effective.

Put a different way, many first-year students need academic mentors.  Here I'm not talking about departmental advisers, whose focus is on whether the students are taking the right courses to fit the various departmental and university requirements.  The academic mentors would concentrate, instead, on whether students have a good attitude and approach to their learning, and if not how they might improve in these dimensions.  It is not possible for academic mentoring to be effective unless there is a trust relationship between mentor and mentee.  A high touch Discovery course is a way for such a trust relationship to form.  The discussion group then is a way for that mentoring to play out.  It is too early for me to tell just yet whether the discussion group approach is preferable to one-on-one mentoring.  My first thought on that is students would find a group approach more welcoming and thus would be more likely to participate.  Further, many of the issues are common to the students so for me it would be preferable to have a single joint conversation on those topics.  I'm still making up my mind on whether this is really true.

The approach that requires institutional commitment would be to track the students who took the fall course longitudinally over their full time at the university and do so as well with a control group who didn't take the course.  The tracking could be both about academic performance, as measured by future grades, credit hours taken, etc., and student attitudes about their learning, which would be garnered via surveys and/or from focus groups.  Presumably, the institution has some interest in understanding whether such an approach can be effective and that would justify the cost of doing the study. 

Indeed, over the long hall the institution needs to show it cares and that must become self-evident to the instructors.  I have been scratching my head on this one.  Here are some early thoughts about how the university might do this.

First, though I've talked about this sort of teaching as purely voluntary on the part of the instructor, there might be some modest compensation for the first timers, some of which would be in kind, a faculty development workshop aimed at instructors teaching these Discovery classes, and the rest might be a modest stipend, perhaps for purchase of some computer equipment or to cover travel to a conference.  Then there might be some ongoing funds to cover payment to students who took the class previously and serve as assistants to the instructors in subsequent offerings of the course.  It is now pretty common to offer course credit to such students, and to the extent that enough course credit translates into a tuition reduction, because the student can then enroll in fewer semesters overall, that is essentially the same as a cash payment (though the IRS wouldn't agree).  But the semester savings are lumpy while the hours an undergraduate student works as an assistant in such a class are not.  So funds for an hourly wage for student assistants might be a better demonstration.  Then there is the overall size of the Discovery program.  Who will teach these courses?  Will it remain at modest size with only a few high touch offerings?  Or will it grow and, if so, what will enable that growth?

The purpose for including very senior faculty in my title, without explaining precisely what very senior means, is that tenured faculty themselves know when their research careers are winding down and when they'd like some other sort of challenges to keep them occupied.  These faculty are candidates to teach a Discovery course, in addition to their other on load teaching, with the Discovery course in essence substituting for time that previously had been devoted to research, and in this way readying themselves for continuing to teach the Discovery class when they do retire.

How many Discovery classes might be offered this way?  I have no way of knowing.  If they do prove effective and if the total number of students who can enroll in these classes is far below the number of entering first-year students, there will be reason to expand these offerings.  The university might then want to recruit clinical faculty from the ranks of very senior academic professionals, and from the business world too.  We already do this for adjunct faculty, on occasion.  Not that long ago a study was done at Northwestern that argued adjuncts are better than tenure track faculty for teaching undergraduates, particularly freshmen.  To my knowledge there aren't other studies that try to replicate those results.  One might want to do exactly that, particularly for these sort of Discovery courses.

It is time to wrap up.  To me, a push on Discovery Courses taught as I've described seems both reasonable and fairly obvious.  Yet it clearly isn't happening and as I said doesn't appear to be on anyone's radar.  My only explanation for that comes from implicit assumptions that most people maintain but that I believe should be tested because I don't think they are correct.  The first is that high touch teaching, done in a significant way, would be very expensive.  The second is that retirees who volunteer their labor can't be relied on to make a significant contribution.  Real social innovation comes from testing such veiled assumptions and proving them to false.  That's what we should be doing here.