Sunday, May 13, 2018

Adapting the Marquess of Queensberry Rules for Debate to Simulate Argument

The New York Times has recently had a series of pieces to wit that Liberals should be debating Conservatives vigorously in the "marketplace" of ideas.  This is supposed to normalize each group and get away from the extreme views that appear to emerge when every conversation is preaching to the choir.  I want to challenge some of the underlying assumptions with that, offer my preferred alternative, and then work through an example to illustrate.

I want to begin not with politics at all but with each of us, regardless of political affiliation, as potential consumers of product, though perhaps with no interest to buy a particular item.  Some salesperson tries to initiate contact - by ringing the doorbell, calling on the phone, or sending an email.  Do you feel an obligation to respond in this case?

I do not.  I view each of these as an intrusion.  The two live situations, doorbell and phone, seem to operate under the assumption that I might say yes out of politeness, even when I don't want the product.  Indeed, this also seems to be the case for some charitable solicitations.  (And when it's a neighborhood kid, perhaps chaperoned by a parent, e.g. selling Girl Scout cookies, I think that is okay as a way to support the community, but otherwise it is crossing a line.)  The phone one is particularly interesting because, with caller ID, if the number is not recognized I don't pick up.  Very often in this case there is no message left on the answering machine.  The situation itself reveals the caller wants a live person.  The email is slightly different since there is no pressure that way.  But I get many emails to an address which, while it still delivers the mail, went out of existence a decade ago. And I get a lot of messages thinking I'm still Assistant CIO for Educational Technology, which I quit back in 2006. The sender could verify that I'm retired, for example by checking LinkedIn or my Blog, but apparently doesn't do that.  If the sender hasn't done the requisite homework, why should I listen to the message?

Let me summarize this conclusion.  In matters of the market, the potential buyer should initiate the conversation, when the buyer is inclined to do so out of interest in making a purchase.  When the seller initiates, the buyer is in his rights to walk away.  There is no obligation to participate in a conversation.   Just about everyone I know (definitely not a random sample of the population and actually not a very large sample either) subscribes to this view.  Whether it is universally held, I can't say.  But I'm going to take it as a universal principle in what follows, because it helps to frame the argument better.

Indeed I have an aversion to getting a sales job even when there is no dollar purchase of a good or service.  Instead, what is being sold is some idea.  The person delivering the spiel wants me to embrace their idea. I want no part of it.  I first encountered this situation in college where some students from another university came to the Union to proselytize about religion.  I participated once or twice, uncomfortable in each situation.  I can't say that I learned anything from this, other than to avoid such conversations in the future.  I subsequently experienced this sort of thing as a young faculty member when thrown into departmental politics, where the infighting was quite fierce (because the stakes were small).  And later when I became involved with learning technology and where the overt goal was diffusion, some educational technologists embraced a whiz-bang approach.  This was the train, it was about to leave the station, and you better get on it before it does.  I confess that I fell for that one for a while, but I soon came to my senses and insisted that you had to connect how the technology was going to help teaching and learning in a plausible way to deliver a credible message.   When I was a more experienced administrator I tried to keep the bs to a minimum and give an accurate picture of what was going on.  That's been my style since and it is the style I prefer in others.

Now let me turn to politicians briefly.  They are speaking to a broad audience when we the public hear what they have to say.  Doing a sales spiel (stump speech) is an occupational hazard.  Nuance and troubling facts that offer a decent counterargument are ignored.  This is true on both the left and the right.  But otherwise, I don't think the situation is symmetric at all, as I wrote when I deconstructed a piece by Bret Stephens in this post, The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator.  Nonetheless, if you were/are a fan of The West Wing then you know that in Season Six the consultant Amy Gardner was brought in to advise the candidate Matthew Santos on "The Presidential Voice" where the trusted candidate speaks with gravitas and talks in broad strokes.  (This is in an episode called Freedonia.)  I take from that show that this is the nature of political speech in public settings.  The voter then has to play a game of inference, inverting what the speech really implies.  Of course, we all play inference of this sort in every conversation where the details aren't fully spelled out.  But it is more so with political speech, ergo Lincoln's line about fooling some of the people some of the time.

Now I want to switch gears and distinguish between argument, which I like, and which I participate in regularly, even as a reader or as a listener, and debate, which I'm far less fond of and which I frequently find less satisfying, though I did enjoy watching The Great Debaters.  More recently I watched a video of an old debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley, and while Baldwin was interesting to see here, I was offended by Buckley's demeanor, which seemed condescending to me.  I had seen Buckley debate before.  He has a tendency to make a flip remark when he doesn't actually have a refutation to what the other side says.  It's not a tactic that I appreciate.  With this as background here is the distinction I want to emphasize.

With argument the participants start from positions of perhaps opposing views, though there may be some overlap.  The goal is to produce a deeper understanding of the situation.  Neither side will likely prevail in full, especially if there is some merit in each side's original position.  Instead, what will emerge is something new that is produced from the prior views during the argument.  Mary Parker Follett called the process Interweaving.   For the process to work each participant must acknowledge the good points made by the other and when a convincing refutation of one's own maintained position is offered up that must be acknowledged - touché.  For an argument to take place, the participants are clearly necessary.  An audience is not.  Indeed, an audience might encourage a participant to grandstand and become less flexible as a consequence.  If there is only modest differences in opinion among the participants at the outset, perhaps the grandstanding can be contained and the audience might then learn how good argument works.  I fear that many students today don't have good models of what effective argument is about, so they never learn to want to participate in argument.

With debate the participants start from opposed positions and adhere to those positions throughout.  They don't modify their views at all during the debate.  The goal is to win, by convincing the judges or the audience that their side is making the case better than the opposing side.  Debate requires non-participants to watch and evaluate, then to declare a winner.

The Marquess of Queensberry Rules in my title emerge from the observation that a sales spiel can be an effective debate tactic, even as it masks the truth.  It could produce a win by propagating a myth if the judges were prone to embrace the spiel.  The deliberate promotion of myth should be deemed "hitting below the belt" and against the rules.  A debate needs to adhere to basic norms of fairness.  Promoting a myth that is known to be false ahead of time  is one example of unfair behavior.  A full adaptation of the Marquess of Queenberry Rules would delineate various possible departures from fairness and rule them all out of bounds.  But rather than articulate those norms here I want to do something else.

I'd like to get some insight into the debaters view of epistemology.  How did they come to their own held views that they will be promoting in the debate?   If the debaters are true believers, the debate will offer a clash of views and the sales spiel approach is quite likely to be deployed by each side.  In contrast, if the debaters claim to be swayed by evidence, so that when new information that is credible is presented they might change their views to accommodate the new information, then the form of debate itself might not be so different from argument and the audience in attendance might be able to synthesize the arguments in a way that produced something new.

With that in mind imagine a pre-debate survey administered to the participants, the results of which get released to the audience prior to the debate.  Here are some hypothetical questions that one might pose on such a survey. 

1.  Are you ever skeptical of your own held views?
1a.  If you answered yes, how is that skepticism expressed?
1b.  If you answered yes, have you ever publicly changed your view?
1c.  If you answered yes to 1b, can you give an example of that? 

2.  When you present information to support your position are you sometimes aware of other information that might repudiate your position?  If so, how do you treat this other information?

3.  In preparation for debate do you argue with people who hold dissimilar views to your own?  Have you had prior experience of argument where you've actually persuaded somebody to come over to your side?

4.  Likewise, have you had prior experience when arguing with people with dissimilar views of switching your own view to be more in accord with theirs?  If so, can you give an example of this? 

The list of items might be longer, but this should give the idea.

Now I want to switch gears again and challenge those who so believe that debate among opposing points of view is critical for a democratic society.  I believe that is not true in general and/or there is an implied assumption that the debaters are willing to argue to the truth.  If that assumption doesn't hold, it is my view that debate can produce very little other than the enmity of the participants and a lot of blather.  The old TV show Crossfire offers evidence of this.  Jon Stewart's take down of the show makes the argument far better than I ever could.  And, of course, the show went off the air soon thereafter.  Have we learned anything from that experience?

* * * * *

Here I want to give my example.  I am going to take on Arthur C. Brooks in his piece Why Do We Reward Bullies?  Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute, a well known Conservative think tank.  I'm going to go through this twice, first in debate mode, then in argument mode.  I hope this illustrates the difference between the two.

Debate Mode

Brooks makes two main points.  First, we should fight bullies rather than cow to them. If we fought them consistently they'd lose their currency and disappear (or at least appear far less frequently).  Second, bullies need an audience to thrive.  They play to the audience.  So don't blame the bullies for the fact that there is a ready made audience for their bullying.  That includes President Trump.  He is simply satisfying what the market demands.

My counter will show the two points are mutually inconsistent.  Demonstrating that inconsistency, I will have won the debate and it will be over.  However, that will not elucidate the underlying situation at all.  So for the reader, the results will be unsatisfying.

I begin by considering the decision to capitulate to the bully or to fight the bully as akin to the fight or flight instinct in most animals.  Since I actually have a class session in my course on the Economics of Organizations on Conflict, where I like to briefly consider a Darwinian approach, it is worthwhile to reflect on the emotion associated with flight versus the emotion associated with fight.  Students readily agree that flight is associated with fear while fight is associated with anger.  If a normally dovish person is going to take on a bully, the person is going to be very angry.  The person will have gotten worked up into a lather.  Being angry at the bully, the person will blame the bully for the bullying behavior.  That's what will happen.

Brooks wants people to take on bullies but then not blame them.  Those are mutually inconsistent.

Debate over.

Argument Mode

Here I want to begin by noting that I actually have some sympathy for what Brooks seems to be driving at, but I think his framing of the issues is not good, so he ends up painting himself into a corner.  The first part of the argument is to search for a better framing.  Then we can ask whether we can define the problem in a way that still makes sense to Brooks,  in other words if he is somebody who might adjust his view after hearing the argument.  Then we can get at solutions.  We might still disagree vigorously on how to solve the problem, but we might get much closer on what the problem is.

The first part of the argument is about defining what bullying is, which Brooks never does. Can there be aggressive behavior without bullying?  For example, NBA players are known to talk trash during the game. (Larry Bird in an earlier era and Draymond Green nowadays come to mind.)  Is talking trash bullying or is it simply part of players competing against one another?  What about a prosecuting attorney taking on a hostile witness?  Is that bullying or a necessary way to get at what the witness really knows?  Frankly, I don't know where to draw the line between bullying and legitimate forms of aggressive behavior.  Might it be that all forms of aggressive behavior in political discourse should be questioned, regardless of whether the behavior is legitimate or bullying, simply because aggressive behavior is inappropriate in political discussion?   If so, then Brooks' piece, while not a complete red herring, misdiagnoses the problem from the outset.

The next part of the argument is to focus specifically on anchors for news/commentary shows.  With that I think it worth mentioning the Aaron Sorkin vehicle The Newsroom, which was far less satisfying to view than The West Wing.  The Jeff Daniels character in the show, Will McAvoy, was actually a prosecuting attorney before he switched to do the news and the premise of the show from the get go is that he would bring his prosecuting style to doing the news, no holds barred.  We might then ask, is this a good way to do the news or not?

My belief, and I used to be a regular watching the PBS News Hour, which favors a more inquiring style to do the news, but I have since gone pretty much cold turkey on watching any news, is that the inquiring style started to fail at around the time that the Tea Party experienced electoral success.  And maybe there was evidence of that failure much earlier, when New Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  In fairness as perceived by the viewers (and as perceived by the political parties) the inquiring style demanded representatives from the Democrats and the Republicans, either simultaneously or sequentially, so the audience could see different points of view represented.  But those representatives could stonewall by spewing a party line rather than give thoughtful and reflective responses.  This spewing of the party line was particularly dissatisfying to watch.  (It was very much like how above I characterized debate among true believers.)  The prosecuting style was meant to remedy those issues.  Alas, every cure has side effects, some unanticipated when the cure is first implemented.

The next part of the argument is to look historically and ask whether these issues have always been with us.  On this score I look back fondly to when Walter Cronkite was the most famous newscaster in the country and the political parties were far less polarized.  Might it be that more restrictive supply of who provides the news coupled with tighter regulation of how the news is delivered would return us to that idyllic time, when the news providers were trusted?  If wishing would make it so.  I will provide two points to counter this view.  First, the film Network dates back to 1976, when Cronkite was still the main man for CBS News.  Network is a remarkably prescient film.  Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote the screenplay, was able to discern all the ills of the current news shows 40 plus years ago.  Given that's true, we should question whether the time of Cronkite was really all that idyllic.  Second, while then the TV channels were over the air, so restricting supply was possible by the restriction that TV networks operate at different frequencies in the radio spectrum, now TV provided by cable or satellite faces no such restriction.  Further, regulate TV and all that might happen is for the programming to move to the Internet.  Netflix, for example, might begin to offer the news.  When only some of the providers can be regulated, that would seem not a very effective solution.

The next part of the argument is to look at current day approaches to stop bullying outside the sphere of political discourse (though they overlap with that sphere).  Two of these worth mentioning are #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.  Brooks doesn't mention either of these.  I can only guess as to why the omission.  (That would be a general aversion to collective behavior of any kind.)  What these approaches show is that collective responses to bullying can raise attention to the problem and perhaps empower individuals to come forward to point out specific acts of bullying.  Individual action alone doesn't seem to work well, because the individual acting alone in intimidated by the bully.  Let's say that is true.  Might collective responses also work in the arena of political discourse?

My sense is that it won't work.  Both #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are fundamentally about fear.  The victims are fearful of the bully.  These fearful people have banded together because there is strength in numbers.  In contrast, viewers of either Fox News or MSNBC are addicted to watching because the shows on each network are sure to provoke anger in the viewers.  The viewers have become addicted and want to be so provoked.   Karl Marx argued that religion is the opiate of the masses.  In this sense Fox New and MSNBC are the prophets of the new religions.  Thomas Edsall's most recent column, Which Side Are You On?, provides good support for this view.

In turn, all private news organizations are in a competition to attract eyeballs.  The more eyeballs the more revenue.  Capitalism is fundamentally what drives this behavior.  If the viewing audience could be guaranteed in some other way, perhaps the programming then would be less trying to stoke the audience into a rage.  But there is no way to guarantee an audience.  So rather than do the right thing, they do the profitable thing.

I want to note that this is not new.  Back in the Walter Cronkite days The New York Daily News had a greater circulation than the New York Times, and the New York Post, which had been a respected afternoon paper, switched over to mostly tabloid news.  Social networks aren't causing this, though they may be exacerbating the problem. The problem has always been with us.

* * * * *

Argument tends to be slower and far more nuanced than debate.  People expect there to be simple answers to social issues and debate encourages that expectation.  Argument supports that there are myriad issues at work  and no one simple solution to get rid of the aggressive behavior in our political discourse.

How would Mr. Brooks respond to my piece were he to read it?  Dismiss it with an ad hominem on me? Or embrace some of what I said while trying to refute some of the specifics?  I don't know.  I do know that Libertarian types in general are loathe to acknowledge market failure and the issue Mr. Brooks has identified surely is a kind of market failure.  If he did acknowledge that much, what then?

In my view, the right thing to do would be to argue further.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Connected to Oneself

I spend a lot of my time in introspection and have done so for much of my life.  Having that inner conversation may be one way to consider being connected to oneself.  Yet while I do it a lot some of these conversations don't really draw me in.  They are more chatter than anything else, time fillers, nothing more. There are other conversations that are more gripping, some of which result in writing a blog post like this one.  But still, they seemingly are products of the conscious mind only.  Some years back I read On Not Being Able To Paint and it was an eye opener for me.  Milner explains that often the conscious self blocks the subconscious, and in so doing we become dull and our creativity is hampered. In fact, this is the core problem she identifies to explain why she has trouble painting.

We tend to think of our own subconscious mainly at work in dreams, and of course it is there, though interpreting our dreams and what the subconscious is driving at is an art, one that most of us probably find elusive.  We may be less aware of the need for daydreaming, as a way to release the subconscious where it can better interact with the conscious self.  Trying to follow Milner, I'm hoping that writing for me is a way to do that, where during the process of composition I fall into a reverie, lose track of everything else, but zone back in after a time.  So my indirect goal with the writing, quite apart from producing the essay for others to read, is to experience a sequence of finding reverie, then returning to more conscious awareness, and then repeating the process.

This piece, in particular, is motivated about wanting to touch the subconscious regarding some serious health issues that I am now facing.  Of course, I've consciously thought about that quite a bit.  But, so far, it doesn't seem as if the subconscious has weighed in on the matter.  (Last night I had a dream about a rather horrible gigantic monster that was just waking up, getting ready to wreak havoc.  Perhaps the subconscious is beginning to to express itself on the matter, though maybe not.  Many other of my fears could explain that dream.) Are the health issues really of no consequence in the grand scheme, because life goes on?  Or have I simply not given the subconscious enough of an opportunity to express itself?  Indeed, I've written very few blog posts as of late.  I have this feeling that I should get back to that and maybe I will, though I seem to have such a small audience.  Really  that shouldn't matter.  I procrastinate now in composing these slow blog posts because I don't want to fully repeat things I've already written, and I want to say something of consequence as well, mainly to prove to myself that I still can.  Then I find myself getting stuck on the themes I come up with.  The previous post alludes to that in the ultimate section of the piece.  Lacking a way to get unstuck, I then look for other reasons not to write.  That's where the small audience comes in.

I do something else much more regularly.  Every day I will read the Quotes of the Day where four quotes are presented.  I select one based on criteria that I would find hard to articulate.  Let's just say I look for the one I find most pleasing, for whatever reason.  Then I add my personal quip to the quote and post to Facebook.  This routine has become an ingrained habit, one I partake in over my first cup of coffee in the morning.  (Looking back through my Facebook wall, it is appears I started to do this in 2014.)  I mention it here because the quip is evidently a reaction to the selected quote.  It may be of interest in asking where the quip comes from and if others were to do likewise in reading the Quotes of the Day whether they'd come up with similar stuff.  I don't know, but let's say they would.

I want to contrast this with my other short writing that I do on a daily basis, which started at roughly the same time.   I write a rhyme that I post to Twitter (which then is posted to my Facebook wall).  Some of the rhymes have links associated with them, something I read, in which case the rhyme is a reaction to the piece and in that sense the rhyme is like the quip I write for the Quote of the Day.   The more interesting case here is when there is no link.  Where does the rhyme come from then?  Does the subconscious emerge here in "choosing" the rhyme? 

I think that is a possibility, especially when its a subject theme that comes first to mind although some of these rhymes are riffs on ordinary experience, typically something recent that has come to my attention.  There is no subconscious needed for that, just a nose for small things that might be the subject to write about.  But even then I might connect the subject to something entirely unrelated.  This one, for example, connects the first cup of coffee in the morning with Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.  Why make such a connection?  The best answer I have to that question is that my subconscious needs to assert itself and such odds connections offer a way to do that.

Sometimes it might just be word play.  I come up with a couple of words that rhyme.  That's the starting point.  Then I might try a line where the first word concludes the line and another line that ends with the second word.  I ask myself, is there a potential for a (very short) story here by juxtaposing the lines?  Suppose there is.  Then a decision needs to be made about format.  Many of my rhymes are limericks, but I've experimented with other formats as well. A different one I kind of like has two verses, each verse with three lines.  The word at the end of the first line rhymes with the word at the end of the second line in each verse.  Then, the word at the end of the third line in the first verse rhymes with the parallel word in the second verse.  This one is my favorite with that structure.  Is this particular rhyme veiled social commentary or is it just nonsense?  I'm not sure.  I'm also not sure where the conscious self takes over and where the subconscious holds sway. But I feel their interaction more with the rhymes than with the quips.

Some of this may be the time allotted to the task.  I almost always post the quote with the quip first.  And I come up with the quip almost immediately, perhaps a minutes or two, not much longer than that.  I do have an internal censor (more about quality than about whether stuff is too risque).  I think of the activity as trying to find something when I have a pretty good idea already where to look.

Though I post the rhyme second, I've actually written it earlier, quite often the day before, sometimes, unfortunately, when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep.  There is more exploration with the rhyme on the topic, on how particular lines might go, on what is needed to fit it all together.  The sense of exploration is pretty close to the feeling of reverie I mentioned earlier.  When it's happening I am most engaged.

And now I want to talk about my fear about writing.  It's that these shorter forms are kind of like eating dessert first.  They spoil the dinner.  It this is true, I'm having trouble with composing the longer pieces because I spend too much time on the shorter ones.

Or it could be that I'm just out of practice.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sensitivity and Social Responsibility - Can They Be Taught?

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln
Last Paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address
I asked myself what quote might be used to support the title of this post, if not to exemplify social responsibility itself then to discuss the necessary feelings that are the precursor to social responsibility.  I thought of the above, though I know that quoting Lincoln is tricky in many ways, especially because it's very hard to live up to his example.

Here's a little backdrop to better make better sense of the quoted paragraph.  America was still engaged in the Civil War at the time of this address, though by then the war was winding down with it evident that the North would prevail, yet the timing and the terms of the peace were still uncertain. The war itself was horribly destructive and in a very real sense there were no winners, since everyone felt devastated.  Certainly, Lincoln felt that way.  The peace would be just as difficult to forge and it was unclear how reconstruction would work.  Lincoln was setting the stage for that, though definitely not preordaining what would happen.

This fantastic essay by Garry Wills does a complete deconstruction of the full speech (which is available at the link above, is not long, and definitely worth the read itself) and I would encourage people to read Wills essay slowly and completely.  The myriad complexity that Lincoln was dealing with coupled with his religiosity, which I was previously not well aware of, that made him see the Civil War as the necessary work of God to punish all for the sin of slavery, both North and South, as well as the the various crimes committed during the war, provided a seemingly impossible situation to remedy.  Yet finding a remedy was the task at hand that Lincoln took on.

One wonders whether in our contemporary lives as we go about our ordinary business if we ever confront situations that parallel what Lincoln had to deal with, even if those situations we confront are not nearly as intensive.  A couple of weeks ago I had jury duty and ended up being empaneled on a jury for a criminal case.  By that time I was already cooking on this post about social responsibility, so I paid more attention than I otherwise might about how the jurors went about their work. While we were not of the same mind regarding guilt or innocence of the defendant, everyone on the jury was earnest, both in arguing for their own held view and in acknowledging the opinions expressed by other jury members. All jurors took the responsibility seriously and gave it their all.  It is just this sort of behavior that exemplifies social responsibility for me.

It is tempting to apply Lincoln's address to our current national politics, but I won't do so here because I don't think I'm skillful enough to pull it off and because my own perch is not lofty enough; too much of the politics I tend to see from one side only.  But I will make one observation on that front before moving onto the topic I do want to discuss.  There is a tendency to talk about particular policy prescriptions first, and then the policy prescriptions themselves become the issue - for or against.  In other words, a solution is proposed and then that serves to draw a line in the sand. The presumption behind this approach is that the problem description has already happened.  I think, however, that the problems are typically under specified, because they are seen from the perspective of some of the populace but not of all, and because they are seen in isolation from other issues that surely are related.   So this approach is problematic for those reasons.   In any event, I might write about our national politics again in the not too distant future, but here my focus is on undergraduate education.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called A Vision of College Education with a Strong Historical Basis, which was based on a talk given on campus by Harry Boyte.  He emphasized an education steeped in good citizenship (his term) and his talk resonated with me in several ways.  In my recent teaching, I have experienced what I'd term a failure of good citizenship in the classroom, from poor attendance to dysfunctional group project teams.  So I am returning to the same themes here, though calling it social responsibility (my term) instead as it makes clear that should go well beyond voting, paying taxes, serving on a jury, etc. and include all aspects of social interaction.

In Boyte's talk he used the metaphor of educating the head, the heart, and the hand.  I'm going to exclude educating the hand here, as I don't have anything to say about it.  Most courses that I am aware of at the university have a 100% focus on educating the head.  Certainly until recently, I would have said that is my focus in teaching economics.  I want to consider how instruction would change if the scope broadened, to include both the head and the heart.  With that I want to restrict attention to college students on residential campuses who are in the traditional age category (usually described as 18-22 year olds) because that falls within the realm of experience where I have some familiarity.

We should first consider the education that students get about social responsibility before they enter college.  Obviously, that will vary from student to student as much of this education will take place outside of school.  It is conceivable that students learn social responsibility from their religious training.   In my post about Harry Boyte's talk I mentioned this essay by Albion Small, The Bonds of Nationality, a piece from 1915.  Small argues that social responsibility must indeed be taught and that churches are the right place for doing that.  A more contemporary writer, Nicholas Kristof, has argued that some evangelical Christians show extreme selflessness and social responsibility and that we should be aware of their good example. Nevertheless, I would take this as the exception rather than the rule.  Too many people live in one world on the Sabbath, where they do practice what the religion teaches, but then act entirely differently during the work week, and then in a much less socially responsible manner.  Further, I'm afraid, responsibility within the faith is not sufficient in our society today, yet responsibility outside of the faith is not learned nearly as well.  Indeed, antipathy to others who are unlike ourselves is a major issue, a lesson seemingly taught by some religions.  Education in social responsibility would produce acceptance of others and respect for diversity of background.

There are non-religious activities that teach kids about social responsibility during the grade school years. For example, many kids become boy scouts or girl scouts.  Scouts are taught to do good deeds.  What counts as a good deed?  Will the lesson to do good deeds as a kid stay learned as an adult, well after they stop giving out merit badges?   These are some the questions I want to take up in this piece.  Even if these lessons stay learned, however, I don't think that the good deed view of social responsibility is sufficient, as I will explain below. 

Elsewhere I've remarked that for the last few years as I've been walking on campus, students have been prone to hold the door for me as I enter a building.  I don't remember this happening ten or fifteen years ago, so I attribute this largely to me.  My pace is slow and a bit labored now, and there is evident gray in my beard.  Helping the elderly is surely the polite thing to do.  Perhaps holding the door counts as a good deed.  But I want to get well beyond this sort of example.  There is no need to look carefully in seeing that my walking is slow and labored.   And holding the door for somebody else is just the polite thing to do. 

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
George Orwell

Over roughly the same time interval where I've observed students holding the door for me, I've become aware of expansions of the vocabulary to include terms such as microaggression and mansplaining.  These terms didn't arise out of nowhere.  They are the product of real social issues, situations where people are hurt by the behavior of others.  One wonders how many former scouts nonetheless engage in this sort of condescending behavior, which I assume is not out of maliciousness but because they are unaware of the consequence of their own actions.  The use of the word sensitivity in the title of the post is there deliberately to indicate that social responsibility demands an awareness of others and some understanding of how what we do is received by them.  If scouting doesn't produce such awareness, then what might do that?  And if Orwell is right that such perception requires substantial effort, what then might encourage the person to persist in making this sort of effort?

Let's next consider students in their first year of college, including the late summer when they may already be on campus but classes have not yet started.  This is the most formative time for students in their college experience.  In particular, even if students don't do this consciously, they may be shopping around for a personal philosophy, one that they embrace for themselves, one that is distinct from the cultural environment they lived in while growing up, which largely reflected the views of their parents. Will social responsibility be a part of this new personal philosophy?  What would encourage that to happen?

There are some obvious issues that need to be confronted before addressing these questions.  For many students who are starting college, this is the first time living away from mom and dad for an extended period of time and the first time the students are responsible for their own supervision.  It's good for the reader to recall back to that time when the reader was in college.  It's quite likely that there was an extended period of overindulgence, which to give it a label we can call - when the cat's away the mice will play.  (In case this is not obvious, here the parents are the cat, while the students are the mice.)

It's not that you want to thwart such playful behavior.  Experimentation of this sort is essential for the student's growth.  It's what lesson the student gets from the experience that matters.  Might that lesson then develop into a personal philosophy centered in hedonism and nihilism, each of which would impede developing a sense of social responsibility?  If, in contrast, the student moves on from this phase, learns to accept pleasure as a small piece of the puzzle rather than as the puzzle itself, it would seem that the student has a far better chance to develop a sense of social responsibility.  We need to ask here, what will tip the balance, one way or the other?

A different issue arises from the comparatively high tuition that students or their families pay.  As I've noted several times before, the full boat in-state tuition and fees at the U of I are substantially higher in real (inflation adjusted) terms than the tuition that my parents paid for me back in the 1970s at elite private institutions (first MIT, then Cornell). The high tuition tends to encourage mercenary tendencies in the students and that itself can block developing a sense of social responsibility.

In a recent piece from the Guardian the author argues that Business Schools bring out these mercenary tendencies in the students and acculturate them into a world view that capitalism is good and essential, irrespective of the social harm it might cause.  While the Business School may do this to a greater extreme than elsewhere on campus, regarding teaching social responsibility the Business School might serve as the canary in the coal mine about how the education itself biases the students in directions that are anti social responsibility.

If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.

There is then the question of whether this might be remediated by a course or two that focuses on social responsibility.  Most Business Schools indeed have such classes.   The author of the Guardian piece is not sanguine about this solution at all. The courses are a token attempt at addressing the issue, nothing more.

The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans – as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.

If we take this critique seriously, it then suggests that teaching social responsibility must be done holistically across the curriculum, not in one course or two.  Perhaps the high enrollment classes should be exempt from this burden, because they will become impossible to teach otherwise.  But the remainder of the courses should not be exempt.  Further, we need to rethink the curriculum insofar as the high enrollment courses are what dominates in the first year.  Teaching social responsibility should happen from the get go. That is not compatible with a program of study that in the first semester has all high enrollment courses.

The last thing I'd like to consider before turning to my very broad strokes recommendations for social responsibility education is what students learn on this front from the "school of hard knocks" while they are in college.  Is that a good teacher of social responsibility or not?  It seems to me that question is worthy of a broad and extensive evaluation in a serious research project that would like to get a handle on the answers.  Lacking the results from such a study, I will content myself with what I've garnered from my recent teaching.

In my class, students do weekly blogging where they write about their experiences, frequently those are experiences while in college.  Some of the more poignant posts are about small acts of betrayal committed by peers and/or by people they previously thought were their friends.  They are actually prompted to come up with such examples, as a fundamental point in the economics of organizations course is to consider "transaction costs" and the "holdup problem" or, in other words, that in economic exchange people behave according to their own advantage, which sometimes implies they behave to the detriment of others.  This is not an uplifting view of human nature.  Moreover, if one hasn't experienced such opportunism previously and first encounters it in a state of naiveté, before having worked through how to lessen the likelihood that others will behave in a socially detrimental manner, it can be quite deflating to witness this sort of behavior first hand.

The most common of these that students write about, by far, is group work done for a class, where one or more of the team members "free rides" on the efforts of the other teammates. It's usually the diligent students in my class who come up with such examples.  If I can juxtapose the students who have taken the wrong lesson from the experience - when the cat's away the mice will play, with those students who learned the right lesson there but then experience these small acts of betrayal, neither group is apt to embrace social responsibility.

Tarzan comes home after a long day at work.
Tarzan:  Jane, bring me a double martini.
Jane dutifully brings Tarzan his drink.  He downs it immediately.
Tarzan:  Jane, bring me another double martini.
Jane:  Tarzan, what is it?
Tarzan:  Jane, it's a jungle out there.

I fear that many of the diligent students I see in my class come to the same conclusion that Tarzan makes.  Of course, everyone experiences some acts of opportunism by others. In my class, students who can't come up with better examples talk about their experiences driving to work during the summer (in the Chicago area) where they have about an hour-long commute each way.  They report the unsurprising result that drivers are rude to each other, exhibiting a variety of selfish behaviors in the process.  Having grown up just a couple of blocks from the Long Island Expressway, that jives with my experience when I learned to drive. But that's not the issue.  The issue is whether the experience generalizes or if instead it only constitutes a specific niche and elsewhere people learn to act in a socially responsible manner.  There is some serious research that shows the rich are less compassionate.  For those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, perhaps the mechanism is different.  But for those among the rich who worked their way up (probably starting from the upper middle class) I suspect their worldview is quite like my diligent students who have experienced these small acts of betrayal. They take it as the norm, something they can't influence by their own behavior.  So they come to disregard others, including many of their peers.

I will conclude this piece with some basic ideas about the education I have in mind.

The Golden Rule as the foundation for social responsibility - Students must come to embrace treating others as they want themselves to be treated.  It should serve as a guiding principle in their own personal philosophy. This embrace must go beyond the purely intellectual (in Boyte's terms educating the head).  It must be emotional as well (touching the heart).  Further, students must develop efficacy in acting on the Golden Rule so they can indeed benefit others via their own actions when they set out to do so.

Experiential learning where social responsibility ends up as a consequence of reciprocity - I've been surprised over the past few years in my course evaluations where some students report that I evidently care.  Why make such an observation?  My conclusion is that this contrasts with their more frequent experience, where the institution and the people in authority with whom they interact don't seem to care much at all.  As I'm making a claim here that this is the norm, it would actually be good to investigate whether that claim is valid.  Here, assuming it is, a big question still to be considered is how instruction must change so that students come to believe that their instructors care about them.  Likewise, how must the rest of the system change so students perceive it is sensitive to their own needs? A big part of providing an answer to the question in my title is whether the system can change in this way or not.

An emphasis on duality with the benefits from both diversity and oneness -  Students need to learn to be inclusive, to respect the differences that exist among us, and to understand that others with different backgrounds can enlighten us by bringing a new perspective to aid our imagination.  Yet students also need to accept that we are essentially the same.  The Golden Rule itself follows from our oneness.  There is no Golden Rule when there is tribalism.

Develop sensitivity awareness by bringing our failures and foibles out into the open rather than by keeping these personal defeats concealed out of shame -   In considering others we are always self-referential.  Empathy, in particular, is learned from our own failures and then reflecting that outward. Many students now have no avenue to discuss their own failures, so do not come to see them as providing valuable life lessons.  Doing this will require a gentle hand from the teacher and a very safe environment so that students become comfortable opening up on these matters.  Another big part in answering the question in the title is whether we are up to meet these safety needs or not.

  • Two specific topics that have been written about recently might provide the focus for this sort of education.  One of those is loneliness in college and what students do to counter it.   The other is about student anxiety and what can be done to manage that.  For example, it may not occur to a diligent student now that a teammate is very anxious and hence appears a shirker for that reason, rather than because the student really wants to goof off.  Getting the diligent student to appreciate that there is more than one possible explanation for the observed shirking behavior will go a long way toward developing the student's sensitivity. 

* * * * *

This piece took me a long time to draft.  For reasons I still don't fully understand, I was afraid to write it.  So I procrastinated in doing so.  I've rewritten it already several times.  It probably still needs another rewrite or two, but for the time being I think I've gotten these ideas out of my system.  I hope that others begin to discuss these issues.   I'm convinced it's a conversation we need to have. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What's The Right Systematic Response?

As I watch my friends conjecture about ways to self-protect after the latest Facebook debacle - switch to a different platform, change one's identity, be online but don't have any friends - it occurs to me that none of this can work and that, indeed, acting individually a person can't solve this problem.  Some collective action is needed instead.  What sort of collective action do we require?  I, for one, don't like to provide answers until I understand the problem.  Providing problem definition is work, requiring real effort.  The point of this post is to begin in this direction.  I hope that others who read it might then kick the can a little further and make progress that way.

The Myth of the Closed Container

The heyday for me as an individual contributor online was late 2005 through 2006.  I had discovered the world of blogging and in the .edu space was considered a serious contributor.  It was out in the open, seemingly anyone could participate, and the self-forming community of participants engaged vigorously, by commenting on the posts of others as well as by linking to those points in their own pieces.  At the time, at least within the .edu arena, there was some loathing for closed container solutions, particularly the learning management system.  An early exemplar is this post by Leigh Blackall.

While blogging of this sort still exists today, it is now in eclipse.  If you consider the point of view of the platform providers, blogging overall didn't generate enough participants to be very profitable.  There needed to be a way to turn up the volume.  Here we should ask why the volume wasn't greater.

My experience with online goes back a decade earlier, when we had online conversations in some client/server software that enabled threaded discussions and later by email via listserv.  Based on that experience I believe the following is safe to maintain.  Among the members of the group, a few will do the bulk of the posting, feeling comfortable expressing their opinions.  The vast majority will be lurkers.  It is much harder to know the behavior of lurkers, but I suspect some were careful readers of the threads yet never jumped into the fray, while others may have been more casual in their reading.  A critical question is this?  Why doesn't the lurker chime in?  Two possibilities are (1) fear of criticism by other members of the group and (2) self-censorship about the quality of one's own ideas.   In this sense, even though these threads were in a closed container application, they were still too open to elicit universal participation.

People will open up more if they perceive the environment to be safe.  Having trusted partners in communication is part of that.  Having others who are not trusted unable to penetrate the conversation is another part. The issue here, and it is a big one, is that people often make a cognitive error with regard to the safety of the environment.  Email, for example, is treated as a purely private means of communication when there are far too many examples to illustrate that it is not.  (While readers might first think of email leaks as the main issue, people who work for public organizations should be aware that their email is subject to FOIA requests.)

Faux privacy may be its own issue.  If true privacy can't be guaranteed broadly, it may make sense to have very limited means of true privacy that are safeguarded to the max, with the rest of the communication semi-public.

With regard to Facebook in particular, there is a part of the software design that encourages the cognitive error.  This is about how somebody else becomes your friend in Facebook.  Is that somebody else to be trusted?  If they are a friend of a friend whom you do trust, is that sufficient for you to then trust this potential new friend?  If your set of friends is uneven in how they answer these questions, how should you deal with them?

Out of sight is out of mind.  You may very well consider these issues when you receive a friend request. But if you haven't gotten such a request recently those issues fall by the wayside.  Then, when you make a status update and choose for it to be available to friends only, you feel secure in saying what you have to say.  That feeling of security may be an error.

That sense of security may then impact what you click on (which we now know is being scraped to develop a sharper profile of you).  If, in contrast, you felt like you were being watched the entire time, you would be more circumspect in how you navigate the Facebook site.  So, odd as this may sound, one answer might be that all Facebook posts are publicly available.  Knowing that, the cognitive error is far less likely to happen.  Of course, that can only work if that becomes the norm for other platforms as well.  In other words, perhaps some sort of return to the blogging days would be right.

Micro-blogging might be considered from this angle.  It clearly has been more successful than long-form blogging in generating volume.  Part of that is the consequence of tight character limits.  They reduce the perceived need for self-censorship and instead create the feel that this is like texting.  Yet we should ask how many people who are Facebook users don't themselves do micro-blogging.  That's the population to consider in thinking through these issues.

The Myth of Free Software

Way back when I was in grad school, I learned - There's no such thing as a free lunch.  Although I'm not otherwise a big Milton Friedman fan, I certainly subscribe to this view.  Yet users of software that is free to them (meaning it is paid for by others) have grown used to that environment.  We are only slowly coming to realize that the cost of use comes in other ways.

“It don’t cost no money, you gotta pay with your heart.”
Sharon by David Bromberg 

With ad supported software, in particular, we pay by putting our privacy at risk.   While it is clear that some will call for regulation about how software companies protect the information about us, let's recognize that the incentive to collect this information will not go away as long as ads are the way to pay for the software.

So, one might contemplate other ways to pay for the software, in which the incentive to collect personal information is absent because there is no profit in it.  The most obvious alternative, at least to me, is to retain the free access to to the user (the paid subscription alternative ends up limiting users too much so does not sufficiently leverage the network externalities) and thus pay via tax revenues.  This would be in accord with treating the software as a public good.  Taxes are the right way to fund public goods.

How might this work?  If a municipality or some other jurisdiction provided access to some software for its members, the municipality would do so by writing a contract with the provider.  Members would then log in through the municipality's portal and be presented with an ad-free version of the software.  I want to note that this is not so unusual as a method of provision.  My university, for example, provides eligible users - faculty, staff, students, and in some cases alumni as well - with free access to commercial software, for example and Office 365.  So the market already has this sort of model in place.  The only things that would need to adjust are that it would be municipalities or other jurisdictions that do the procurement and they would need to provide front ends so that members could have access but non-members would not. The online environment, then, could be without ads for members but would still have ads for non-members.

Part of the agreement and what would rationalize such procurement by the municipality is that the provider agrees not to scrape information from members of the municipality.  It is this item in the contract that justifies the public provision of the online environment.  In other words, people pay with their taxes to protect the privacy of members of their community.

This is obviously a tricky matter, because if I live in such a community that provides access and one of my friends is using an ad-supported version, wouldn't my information get scraped anyway, just because of that?  There are two possible answers to that question which are consistent with protecting my information.  One is to divide platforms into those that are only paid for by the various municipalities, so no user is in the ad-supported category.  The other is to (heavily) regulate how the information of users who don't see the ads gets collected.  Each of these pose challenges for implementation.  But do remember there is no free lunch, so we need to work through which alternative is better, rather than cling to an idealistic vision (total privacy protection coupled with no intrusion) that is actually not feasible.

Policing the Online Environment - News, Fake News, and Ads

One reason to note my own usage of the Internet from back in the 1990s is to mark the time since.  We have been in Wild West mode for those two decades plus.  We probably need something more orderly moving forward.  What should that more orderly something look like?

An imperfect comparison, which might be useful nonetheless, is driving on the Interstate.  As there is a general preference to drive faster than the speed limit, most of us would prefer at an individual level that there were no highway patrol.  On the one hand, that would be liberating.  However, we also care about the reckless driving of others and would prefer to limit that, if possible.  The highway patrol clearly has a role in that, as does the fine for speeding and how auto insurance premiums are impacted from getting a speeding ticket. The system tries to balance these things, imperfectly as that may be.

In the previous section where I talked about municipality access, a part of that is members of the municipality not seeing paid-for content.  Is that consistent with the software provider's incentives?  Think about the contract negotiation between the software provider and the municipality.  What will determine the terms of such a contract?  Might usage by municipality members be a prime determinant?  If so, the provider has incentive to jimmy up usage and might use salacious content for that purpose.  As with the speeding on the highway example, an individual user would likely gravitate toward the salacious content, but might prefer that other users do not, to preserve the safety of the environment.  One would think, then, that some form of policing would be necessary to achieve that control of other users.

Speeding is comparatively easy to measure.  Determining what content is suitable and what content is not is far more difficult.  One possible way out of this is for the provider to block all content from non-friend sources. Subject to an acceptable use policy, users themselves would be able to bring in any content they see fit via linking (for example, I'm linking to certain pieces in this post) but for the software provider to be out of the business of content push altogether.  Then, the policing would amount to verifying whether the provider stuck to that agreement, plus the monitoring of users who are actually trolls instead.  Another possible way is to generate an approved list of content providers and to only accept content from those providers on the list, perhaps with users opting in to certain content providers rather than giving the ability to the software provider to arbitrarily push content at the user, but then allowing the software provider to retain the ability to push certain content. 

A point to be reckoned with here is that self-policing by the software provider is apt to fail, because the incentives aren't very good for it.  But, on the flip side, we don't have a good model of effective yet non-intrusive online policing in broad social networks.  (In narrow cases, for example on my class site, the site owner can function in this policing role.  I tell my students I will delete those comments I find inappropriate.  I can't ever recall doing that for a student in the class, but since I use a public site I can recall deleting comments from people who weren't in the class.)

The concept of online police may be anathema to those of of us weaned on the mantra - the Internet should be free and open.  Wouldn't policing be used to suppress thoughtful but contrary opinion?  Before answering that questions, we should ask, why there isn't more abuse by traffic cops.  They largely do the job they are paid to do.  If that system works, more or less, couldn't some online analog work as well?

Wrap Up

Some time ago I wrote a post called Gaming The System Versus Designing It, where I argued that we've all become very good gamers, but most of us don't have a clue about what good system design looks like.  There is a problem when a large social network provider operates with a gamer mentality, even as it is providing a public good on a very large scale.  We need more designer thinking on these matters.  In this post, my goal was not to provide an elegant design alternative to the present situation.  I, for one, am not close to being ready to do that.  But I hope we can start to ask about those issues a good design would need to address.  If others begin to consider the same sort of questions, that would be progress.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

More Thoughts On Campus Strategic Planning - Five Years Later

Not surprisingly, the campus is again engaged in a strategic planning exercise.  It's something universities do periodically.  I'm going to chime in, as I'm prone to do.  Like the last time, when I wrote Some Thoughts On The New Campus Strategic Plan, I'm going to restrict my attention to the teaching and learning part.  Unlike the last time, however, there are fewer documents to react to and thus I'm going to venture out some on my own more about how I see the issues.  (Perhaps we're a bit earlier in the process.  Of that I'm not sure.)  The overarching theme for teaching and learning has remained the same - Provide Transformative Learning Experiences.  So my post from five years ago might still be a relevant read now as it dissected the then documents about the discord between the goal (which I subscribe to) and the purported measures (which, in fact, were inappropriate for determining whether the goal had been achieved). There was additional analysis in that piece as well that is likely still relevant for the present.

But I don't like to be (too) repetitive in making my posts, so I will aim differently here.  There was a PowerPoint presentation produced by Kevin Pitts, the new Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.  The first slide after the title slide does a recounting of initiatives in this category since the last strategic plan was implemented.  My attention was caught by the fact that the word major (used before the expression - educational initiatives) was in bold.  Were these initiatives indeed major or was casting this word in bold mere hype?  My instinct was to consider the initiatives from the perspective of the one undergraduate class I now teach each fall - The Economics of Organizations.  Do the initiatives listed on the slide matter for that class (which is taught in DKH where the Economics Department is located)?  My conclusion was that they do not.  Do they matter for students who are Econ majors?  My conclusion was that for current majors probably not, while for future majors perhaps a little, but not much.  With that bit of observation complete, I started to generalize.  We tend to innovate at the edges in instruction while leaving core business practices largely intact.  Maintaining that belief about where innovation occurs is my bias on these matters; that bias informs the rest of the piece.  The underlying question that I'd like to get at is this.  Might we innovate on core business practice in a way that actually improves matters?

There are five sections in what follows: 1) Optics, 2) Benchmark Measures, 3) Ethical Issues, 4) Suggested Reforms That I've Developed In Prior Posts, and 5) Conclusion.  The first three of these follow immediately from what I've written in the previous paragraph.  The fourth comes from responding to the bottom of slide 6 and the last slide in Kevin Pitts' presentation.  He asks about redesigning college education from scratch.  What would that look like?  He encourages the reader to "think big."  In fact, I've done this (in concept though not in implementation outside my own teaching) with some frequency on my blog, so I will link to some instances of those exercises and provide some annotation along with the links.  The final section is meant as a way to connect the dots.

1. Optics

Any SWOT analysis will have parts that are elevating, the strengths and opportunities, and parts that are discouraging, the weaknesses and threats.  For the analysis to be effective, all parts must be considered in full.  When I was in the campus IT organization, as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies (2002-06), we did such planning sessions off site and behind closed doors, with higher level management and senior staff in the organization. Presumably, this was to promote open and honest dialogue among the group in attendance.  The current strategic planning process is meant to be fully out in the open.  Idealistically, such open debate should be encouraged.  But one wonders whether, in practice, that means the weaknesses and threats will be soft pedaled, or ignored entirely.  At one level, this could happen simply because we don't have enough mental bandwidth to do otherwise and because in terms of goodwill the campus possesses, that has been exhausted on other matters - all things pertaining to Chief Illiniwek, the pending GEO strike, and lingering effects from the Steven Salaita matter.  There is the further concern that when done in the open the press gets hold of the issues, does its own spin on those, and this serves to reframe the debate.

To illustrate the last point I want to turn to a post I wrote a couple of months ago, The discord between how the U plays in the press and what is actually happening on the ground, which offered a critique of a column written by Frank Bruni of the New York Times.  It was/is my view that Bruni has elevated certain issues about free speech and political correctness, at the cost of entirely missing the more important learning issues that happen in many if not most classrooms.  Below is the last paragraph from that piece:

Let me wrap up.  The freedom of speech issue, as it pertains to Higher Ed, usually seems to be about discussions of our national politics and whether those happen on our campuses with both the liberal and conservative view represented in the conversation.  While that may be interesting to readers of Bruni's column, it really is a tertiary issue on campus.  The fundamental issue is about what students are learning and whether they are learning in a deep manner.  We actually don't have freedom of speech on this front, but it is not because of censorship.  It's because of the current business model of universities, which are so reliant on donations and tuition.  For both, it is believed necessary to promote a nice shiny view about what college is about, at least that is the belief by those in charge of marketing the university.  So there is discord between those marketers and the people on the ground, students and instructors.  I wish Bruni would write about this.  That might actually help to improve matters.

So, in my view, there is a very real issue of whether it is possible to do a credible SWOT analysis of undergraduate education, or if the marketing people will end up blocking it, and indirectly people like Kevin Pitts who are from the Provosts's Office will block it too, because each of them wants to be a team player.  It seems to me that until this optics issue is embraced squarely, those of us who are part of the campus community but not in the Provost's Office should have very low expectations of what will come out of the strategic planning process - cheer-leading but not real change.  However, we are living in a time of much social upheaval.   Perhaps that will create a positive spillover effect  for us in considering undergraduate education, and thereby serve as a credible counter to business as usual.  

One reason to make this post on my blog rather than in the comment box on the Strategic Planning Web site is that I am entitled to my views so can raise some contentious issues.  Further, I normally get very few readers these days, so this likely will not cause a broad airing of the issues.  If I can bend one or two heads, I've reached my goal.  Then, if they care to do so, they can pick up the baton and take it from there.

2.  Benchmark Measures

When I first joined SCALE, in spring 1996, I did a project on student retention rates on campus, comparing the 10 day enrollment numbers to the final enrollment numbers in all undergraduate classes.  (The data were provided by DMI.  At the time the campus wanted to be very cooperative with the Sloan Foundation and retention was something Sloan was interested in.)  The upshot was that retention by this measure was quite high, though it was lower for College of Engineering classes (more on that in the ethics section).  But there was another quite interesting lesson from the exercise.  The size distribution of classes was highly skewed.  (I'm doing this from memory so I may be slightly off with the facts, but the picture I'm sketching is pretty close to what the finding was then.)  There were about 1500 classes overall.  About 30 of them were super large, and accounted for about half of all enrollments.  Our course numbering scheme was different then, but the upshot was that the bulk of the large classes were at the 100-level.  The only 300-level course among the giants (in excess of 800 students per semester) was intermediate microeconomics.

For these very big classes, also for the next sized down classes, it is useful to know how much human instructional resource (FTE faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and other human resources) are deployed to get some sense of a student to instructional resource ratio.   This is the course-level analog to the student-faculty ratio that many college guides publish.   At one extreme, is it only big lectures with no discussion section?  At the opposite extreme, is it only many small discussion sections and no lecture?  Or is it something else?  At the time, intermediate microeconomics was taught mainly in amphitheater classrooms with about 60 students per section - so there were a lot of sections, but they weren't nearly as small as in the introduction to rhetoric sections or the sections in the first semester of Spanish, where there were about 20 students.  I don't have the picture for what this looks like now, in general, but I know nowadays that intermediate micro is taught in the large lecture hall in DKH, with about 200 students per section.  

It is also useful to know not just which courses are large but also which students are taking those courses.  When I started at Illinois back in fall 1980, freshman paid lower tuition (I believe there were three tiers then with sophomores paying a bit more and juniors and seniors paying still more).  This practice was justified by the observation that freshman were taking the large classes, those entailed less labor intensive instruction, so the expenditure on instruction per student was less.  We have since gotten rid of this particular practice for differential tuition.  Is it still true, however, that the large classes are mainly taken by freshman?  

If so, we really should think that through.  Any theory of human capital development will focus on the benefits of making investments in human capital early, so those investments can bear fruit over a longer duration.  This is the logic behind early childhood interventions for low income students.  The same principle should apply to college students.  Yet the practice at big public universities is to do something of the opposite, or so it would seem.  Having the data on this would be useful for considering the matter in depth. 

A related issue is whether the practices of the university perpetuate differences in income inequality among the families of our students.  For example, we should understand how prior college credit from AP classes is distributed among the student population.  Do students from wealthy districts earn a good chunk of their gen ed credits while still in high school?  If so, do they bypass some of the high enrollment classes, just for that reason?  If students from poorer school districts don't have the same opportunities for advance placement courses, do they get less expensive instruction when at the university, because they have to take more high enrollment classes?  Again, having the data on this would be useful.  

It would also be useful to look at these sorts of questions for courses in the major.  How do popular majors compare with less popular majors regarding class size?  Does the answer depend on which college the major is located in?  

A second set of issues to investigate, hence requiring other data to provide benchmark information, is about tenure-track faculty teaching undergraduates versus adjuncts teaching undergraduates.  In this, think of the tenure-track faculty as the bosses who set department policy, while the adjuncts are the hired help.  Back in 1980, the standard teaching load in Economics was 2 courses a semester and the expectation was that one of those would be a graduate class and the other an undergraduate class.  Just about every full-time instructor then was on the tenure track.  Faculty clearly preferred to teach graduate students, so they could better tie their teaching to their research.  Undergraduate teaching was deemed service work.  There were exceptions to this rule, to be sure, but the rule gave the then current ethos.

What is the ethos now?  How does that vary from department to department?  A general thought is that if the tenure track faculty largely are teaching graduate students only, serious reform of undergraduate education will be given short shrift by that department.  Even if at the campus level changes are desired, they won't be implemented in such departments or will be implemented in a halfhearted manner. A related matted is how connected the adjuncts are to the tenure track faculty.  My sense is the two groups are largely separate.  Further, while the tenure track faculty have something of a community within their departments, the adjuncts are more autonomous and many of them are not plugged into the campus support community for instruction, even though teaching is their full-time activity.  It would be good to bring evidence to bear, to determine whether that perception is accurate.  If it is right, how might reform then be implemented?  Does the entire culture need to change to get even modest changes in teaching practice?

One last area to benchmark would be course grades.  Aggregate distributions could be published, by department, sorted by 100-level, 200-level and so on,  then sorted by college, etc.  The aggregation would need to be sufficiently large so that individual instructors didn't feel compromised by the practice.  Let's say that it is possible to respect individual instructor privacy in this way.  Then the idea would be to provide information that speaks to George Kuh's Disengagement Compact.  If grades were not mutable, high grades would be indicative of high performance and low grades of the converse.  But might it be that on campus low grades signify intellectual rigor maintained in the course and high grades the opposite?  The tradition has been for grade distributions in most classes to be the instructor's prerogative, while in a few high enrollment classes with multiple lectures and common exams, there is an agreed-upon grade distribution imposed ahead of time.  (Or it might be that the course coordinator imposes the grade distribution and doesn't seek the assent of the other instructors.)  Adjunct instructors, in particular, need to get tolerable teaching evaluations to secure their employment.  This impacts not just grades, but how the course is taught.  (I fear there is a lot of teaching to the test.)  Have we addressed this issue on campus or largely ignored it?  I would argue the latter.

3. Ethical Issues

I'm going consider the ethical issues through the lens of inequality - haves versus have nots.  This distinction is sometimes rendered geographically, north of Green (College of Engineering) are the haves while south of Green are the have nots.  But that distorts things in certain ways.  There are STEM departments south of Green and many of them are haves as well.  Also, specifically from the perspective of undergraduate education, the College of Business is one of the haves. 

With that, here I'm going to focus on two distinct practices that we should question from the perspective of a Campus strategic plan, rather than separate college-specific strategic plans.  The ethical dilemmas arise in the presence of inter-college exchanges that work less well than they should.  One of the practices is the college-specific tuition surcharge.  Both Business and Engineering have higher than the base tuition.  LAS, in contrast, does not have a tuition surcharge.    

The other practice is about students changing their major by transferring from one college to another.  Some of these transfers are motivated purely by intellectual interest.  The student took an intro course that resonated and now wants a different major.  It is different for those students who start out in the College of Engineering.  This is the one college on campus that seems to deliberately pursue an attrition strategy for students in the first and second year.  Many students find Engineering education brutal and non-nurturing.  Some survive the ordeal and then treat it as a badge of honor.  Others become quite discouraged and want out.  Most stay at the university but transfer to another college.  This past semester in my Econ of Organizations class, 10 out of the 25 who finished the course had transferred from Engineering.  As they blog about their campus experiences to tie into course themes, I can report that they were not prepared for this to happen and were quite disillusioned thereafter.  In my framing of things, Engineering makes a mess with these students and then leaves it to others to clean up the mess.  

Elsewhere on campus you don't see the attrition strategy broadly applied.  In fact the Campus is under some pressure to increase graduation rates.  President Killeen has argued that as a goal in his appeal for greater support from the State of Illinois.  If the Economics department as a whole deliberately embraced an attrition strategy, where would the students go?  My guess is that many would not do an internal transfer but would leave the university entirely.  The Campus would count that as a black mark.  If that is right, we really should be reconsidering the internal transfers out of Engineering and how to make these students whole again and/or Engineering needs to adopt an approach that students find less punitive.  Tying this to the previous section, it would be good to have the numbers on how big an issue this actually is.  Until this past semester, I was under the impression that it didn't happen so often.  Now I'm less sure of that. 

Economics is an odd major on our campus because many of the students aren't really interested in the subject matter.  A good chunk, however, are College of Business wannabes.  But College of Business has restrictive admission; it requires a high standardized test score for admission as a freshman or a high GPA during the freshman year to be an internal transfer.  Students who are Econ majors often can't get over those bars, but they can imitate the Business major to a certain extent.  Many, indeed, do a Business minor.  The Business minor is another flashpoint where the ethical issues manifest.  

As I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business from 2006-10, I have seen these issues on both sides.  The minor does not enhance the reputation of the College of Business.  And, historically, minors have been underfunded across the board.   (I'm ignorant of the present situation.  But I'm guessing while it may be better than 10 years ago, there are still issues with it.)  At the time I became an Associate Dean, the number of Business minors were kept down.  Partly to get some goodwill with Campus at the time BIF came online, the minor was expanded soon thereafter. But the quality of the offerings in the minor courses has been mixed at best.  Some of my students from last semester told me as much.   In my own teaching, I was trying to send a message to my class during much the course - they should value their college experience as a thing in itself as much as it is a passport for later.  That proved a very hard sell for those students in the Business minor.  

I will add one other point on this, about my younger son, who is a U of I graduate now, having graduated after the spring 2016 semester.  He started off in ECE.  After one year he wanted to transfer to CS, but didn't get in then.  So he transferred to the Math Department, which has a CS program.  He paid the College of Engineering surcharge for that.  A year later he did transfer into CS.  The Math Department intermediate step worked, in part, because the tuition surcharge was part of the deal.  Why does Math have students pay this surcharge to Engineering, but Econ doesn't have the surcharge paid to Business?  It looks like a historical accident and/or sidebar negotiations determined these practices rather than a sound ethical approach.  Because I'm aware of this inconsistency, it's very hard for me to believe that the students' best interests are what determines these matters.

I want to note that the above is meant purely for illustration.  The ethical issues are far broader.  Even in-state base tuition and fees are now far higher in real terms than the tuition my parents paid back in the 1970s for me to attend Cornell (Arts and Sciences), an Ivy League school.  Further, tuition as a share of overall university revenues is now much higher than it was when I started back in 1980, when State of Illinois Tax dollars provided the bulk of university revenue.  These twin facts, which are similar at many other public R1s, put the university in a squeeze.  The faculty culture that I experienced didn't give the ordinary undergraduate a prominent role to play on campus.  But in an ordinary business sense, a functional enterprise needs to put is resources in places that encourage subsequent revenue production.  If tuition is the university's meal ticket, the student experience must be a good one.  The have colleges seems to be doing that.  The have nots, not so much.

4) Suggested Reforms That I've Developed In Prior Posts

I've learned a bit about how to promote my ideas over the years.  Rather than refer to labor-intensive teaching, a label that makes sense to an economist but that other instructors might find offensive, I've come to call it high touch instruction, with a focus on the emotional aspect, a student who has been touched because the student's instructor evidently cares that the student learns.  Each of the suggestions below are about different aspects of high touch instruction.   I will present these in reverse chronological order.

This one is quite recent.  I wrote it last week.
The Freshman Seminar - Taught By A Retired Faculty Member
This posts suggests to counter the large-class syndrome, offer a freshman seminar taught by a kindly grandparent-like figure, conjuring up images of Mr. Chips, if you will.  Specifically, I juxtapose the pedagogic goals I have for The Economics of Organizations class that are not specific to that content of that course but instead pertain to getting the students to better understand their role as learners, with the needs of freshmen students.  The further thought is that retirees are time abundant, which is necessary for this type of teaching, so would be more willing to do it as long as they got some recognition for the effort.  Thus it might be possible to do this without breaking the bank.

This next one is actually a series of six posts that comes under the tag, Everybody Teaches.  The link is to the first post in the series.  The link to the tag, which has all six posts on one page, can be found near the bottom of the post.
Everybody Teaches
At the time of this writing, the Campus was gearing up its relationship with Coursera and, in my view, going a bit MOOC crazy.  As a possible source of innovation, MOOCs surely are interesting.  But I didn't think they should be the only game in town, so I took it upon myself to propose an alternative, one entailing high touch instruction.  Each of these posts are rather long, so together it is a lot of reading.  Also note that the fifth in this series is similar to though not identical to the Freshman Seminar piece linked above, while the sixth in the series relates to the next link.

This last one is another series of posts.  This time there are seven of them on Inward Looking Service Learning (INSL).
Inward Looking Service Learning
The logic in these posts is first that the only possible labor input that truly scales with the number of undergraduate students is the students themselves.  More experienced students can and should be helping students who are newer to campus.  Second, and this point is probably more controversial so would have to be investigated in some depth, peer mentoring is an especially valuable activity for the mentors.  They learn a great deal from the mentoring.  So the mentoring activity literally should be thought of as applied instruction, just as now some students who do internships have it satisfy an academic requirement for doing fieldwork.  Third, large class instruction can have a high touch aspect, if we re-conceptualize the organization structure to give prominence and make formal the discussion group.  Peer mentors should be deployed in small group settings and in one-on-one interactions with other students.  They shouldn't be viewed as cheaper substitutes for graduate student TAs which, unfortunately, is how they are too often deployed on campus now.

5) Conclusion 

I need to critique my own idealism, as represented by the posts I linked to in the previous section.  I base that critique on my experience with learning technology.  In the SCALE days, we did some wonderful things with technology.  Then SCALE morphed in the Center for Educational Technologies (CET) and the mission changed - to bring those wonderful things to the mainstream.  While there was broad diffusion of usage of online tools in teaching, ultimately culminating in an enterprise learning management system (Illinois Compass) the reality is that most of the usage was rather dull and the wonderful things didn't scale nearly as much as the adoption of the technology itself.

I came to realize that innovative faculty and early adopter types of instructors do those wonderful things, through their own sitzfleisch and imagination on how to deploy the technology effectively.  It remains an open question whether more mainstream faculty can produce interesting results as well, if they get suitable encouragement and support.  A related question is what that encouragement and support looks like and whether it is affordable.  I really don't know.

In the 1990s, there were faculty who were far more innovative than I was in deploying the technology for teaching.  Mostly I stole/borrowed ideas from others and then retrofitted those ideas for my course.  But, all modesty aside, I was much more innovative than the majority faculty who were the bread and butter audience for CET.   My confidence in the suggestions in the previous section come from my own experience teaching.  I have had some good results recently with high touch teaching and twenty years ago the use of peer mentors, who conducted online office hours during the evening, was the best part of my technology innovation.   Whether any of that can scale now, I don't know, but I'm hopeful it might.

I want to wind this up with a greater sense of urgency.  The ethical issues I described need to be addressed.  I believe that high touch teaching is at least part of the answer to that.  In other words, because of the nature of public R1s, there will be some large class instruction and some ways students will feel they are being treated more like a number than like a person.  But if they can have other experiences where instructors treat them with decency and where they can see they are being encouraged to learn deeply, that can serve as a suitable counter force. That's the argument I'm trying to make in this piece.