Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Are the Adults?

The gray hair in my eyebrows, beard, and elsewhere on my face and body notwithstanding I still think of myself as a kid.  I suppose I always will.  Of course, I'm a kid of certain type, the one who was good in school so could go off on his own rather than having to follow what the rest of the class was doing.  My first memory of this was actually not in school at all.  It was in day camp and I was seven, summer 1962.  Somehow I got proficient in swimming and was able to pass a test for the deep water pool.  Maybe there was one other kid in the group who swam with me in that pool or maybe it was just me.  I don't recall.  The rest of the kids in the group were in the other pool, the one with shallow water.  Their safety was assured because of that.  I may have been the better swimmer at the time, but my safety was also assured by the lifeguards.  There were adults around to take care of things if something went awry.

This pattern of being a kid off on my own repeated in many different contexts.  In some sense the public library is like a deep water swimming pool.  I frequently went to the Windsor Park branch of the Queens borough library, but I also went to the library in Fresh Meadows and the one on Northern Boulevard.   I have no recollection now as to why we'd go to one library or the the other but I do have some vague notion that at the Windsor Park library once in a while a librarian would recommend a book for me to read. 

The math team, which I joined in eighth grade, was like this too.  At this point I was twelve or thirteen, and obviously there were some others on the team, with a few who were ahead of me with the math.  But it was mainly still a solitary effort in the sense that I didn't learn math from them.   More importantly, the teacher who supervised the math team provided a level of comfort for me to try it out.   She had come to our house years earlier to tutor my sister and remembered me from that.  If I recall correctly, she asked me to be on the math team.  I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Econ graduate school was definitely like this as I had only one undergraduate course in economics, essentially no foundation whatsoever.  I did hang around with my classmates for socializing.  But I ventured into my own little world to learn the economics.  And because I was able to get a desk in the Math Center, I was always close to some faculty whom I could talk to about the economics.

Getting involved with learning technology was another example of the familiar pattern, though by then it had modified some.   I was in mid career and at that age it would be friends rather than teachers who would hold my hand.  It was Larry DeBrock who provided the path of entry.  Somehow the very first time I taught with technology, which was with PacerForum in spring 1995, I was able to get on the CHP server, even though I hadn't been involved with CHP yet and wouldn't get involved until 9 years later.  Less than a year later Burks invited me to join SCALE in an administrative capacity and that too was a whole new world, one where I felt as if I was in over my head, though somehow I was able to stay afloat. And I still sought out adults for counsel and edification.  There was much knowledge on campus about teaching with technology from experience prior to SCALE.  I tried to take a pulse of that where I could.  Once in a while I'd write about it, for example see this piece entitled Homage to Jerry Uhl

Sometimes kids try on adult hats and I've done that a few times in my life, both professionally and personally.  But in just about every instance of this what to do was not at issue or it was quite straightforward to work out.  The hard thing and really all that mattered was whether I'd have enough follow through to do what had to be done.  I've learned enough about myself to know that on occasion I can do that, especially when it is necessary and if I think it is important.

Yet for all that found maturity I prefer kid mode.  Blogging definitely fits the mold.  Boy blunder, hoping to find the path to discovery, gets lost in the woods and then proceeds to make it up as he goes along, just to find his way home.  In this case I interrupted the writing before starting in on this paragraph, wondering if I was too somber in what was produced above, apparently left with another partial essay headed for the virtual dustbin.  After a while I went to do the treadmill and searched the DVR for something to keep me occupied while doing that.  I found Inherit the Wind, which had aired on TCM.

An introduction to the movie is given by Ben Mankiewicz.  From that I learned that Spencer Tracy was younger when making that film than I am now and before that Tracy had entered into a quasi retirement.   (His previous film from a couple of years earlier, The Old Man and the Sea, is also a tour de force.)  He was lured out of that retirement by Stanley Kramer, who both directed and produced the movie.  Stanley Kramer promised that Fredric March and Gene Kelly would co-star, at the time an idle boast but one that Kramer was ultimately able to deliver on, after having signed Tracy.

In this story Kramer is the adult.  He had a lot of talent to work with, no doubt, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the great acting.   Yet he was the one to put it all together.  Do note that Kramer was Tracy's junior by 13 years.  (Coincidentally, Kramer has the same birth year as my dad and they both went to NYU, graduating in the same year.  Maybe they knew each other.)  Being the adult has nothing to do with being the oldest, as every child whose parents are getting on in age understands fully.

We need more Stanley Kramers now.  Where are they to be found?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Electoral Tactics - Down and Dirty as well as More Idealistic

Reading this piece about the Voting Rights Act and it likely becoming weaker to the point where it lacks meaning, since the Republicans will have control and will surely nominate a Supreme Court Justice who will give them control of the Court, I started to wonder if some other approach needs to be tried to counter this.  I'm going to suggest two different possibilities below.  The first is based on the notion that Republicans are better "game players" than the Democrats.  From a purely game playing perspective, what should the Democrats do to improve their chances in subsequent elections?

The second is based on the rather glum statistics about voter turnout historically, even when the Voting Rights Act was in full force.  Very little is written about those people who don't vote when it is not an issue of voter suppression.  I found this essay by Atul Gawande interesting on this point.  He grew up in a poor community in Ohio and still has friends there.  There is an anecdote given about one family who has opted out.  The economy served them poorly.  They lost faith in the system.  What can be done to restore their faith?  If the Democrats are seen as responsible for doing that, will they bring many heretofore discouraged voters back into the fold?

Then I will try to combine the two.  Might that provide a winning strategy to convert the popular electoral advantage that the Democrats already have into one where they have a majority in Congress (and where they recapture the White House.) 

The Down and Dirty Answer - Moving Votes to Where They Matter

When I was a third-year graduate student at Northwestern I began a collaboration with Leon Moses that lasted about a decade.  Leon was a Professor at Northwestern.  If my memory serves correctly, Leon and his family lived in Wilmette, the next town north of Evanston, where Northwestern is located.  Evanston itself is the first town north of Chicago that also borders Lake Michigan.  Leon and his family maintained a summer home in Door County, Wisconsin.  Knowing about this experience provided the seed for my idea.

Wisconsin used to be a reliably Blue state but, of course, Scott Walker, a Republican, is the Governor there now and in the recent election for President Wisconsin went for Trump.  So one thought is, what would it take for people in Leon's situation to switch their permanent residence from a Chicago suburb to Wisconsin?  Then repeat the question for other voters in reliably Blue states, California the most obvious one, and have their permanent residence change to some battleground state.  Then have this done in an organized and coordinated way.  Ask what numbers it would take to have such a move matter in this past election.  Could those numbers be approximated by this effort?  Note that Apple, which is located in Cupertino California, is incorporated in Nevada.  In a bit of irony, if corporations can do this sort of thing, why can't people do it as well?

There is at present a tilting at windmills approach that would be much cheaper to deliver the same sort of result and is getting a lot of attention.  That is doing away with the Electoral College.  Ask yourself, however, whether it is possible.  Why would the Republicans want that, given how much they are benefiting from the current system?  If Republicans don't want it and given that they control both Houses of Congress, how would it be possible?  If it were done as a Constitutional Amendment, then three fourths of the States would have to approve.  But State government is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans now.  Given that, is getting rid of the Electoral College a realistic possibility?

Being a good game player recognizes what is possible and what isn't.  I don't know that getting voters to change their state residence by having a vacation/retirement property in the other state is do-able.  Surely there would be real costs on a per family change of residence of this sort.  But before ruling it out as a pipe dream, somebody should do the math.  The Democrats have lots of rich donors.  Suppose those donors heavily subsidized the second property, so the costs were largely borne by others than the voters themselves.  And suppose the party decided that this was a worthwhile strategy to pursue while TV ads, which are quite expensive, are basically throwing money away because they end up mainly preaching to the choir.  So one might reallocate campaign contributions or SuperPac contributions from a low productivity use to this alternative.  At the very least, there'd be a real strategy in place about how to make votes count.  Can this work?

The More Idealistic Approach

I get email from my Congressman, a Republican named Rodney Davis.  Champaign County surely votes Democratic but the rest of the Congressional District is far more conservative, which explains why Davis was reelected.   Mainly I ignore these emails, but in this case I started to read their planning document, A Better Way, particularly the section on Poverty.   I found it hard to read, more bromides than plan.  But my inescapable conclusion is that the Republicans will cut poverty programs, in the name of benefit for the poor, to get them out of being victims of their own lethargy.

This offers an opportunity to the Democrats, if only they might seize it.  Namely, the Democrats might substitute their own largess to replace/amplify/initiate support for programs that the Republicans will be cutting.  And here I mean this idealism to have a bit of Machiavelli.  To be eligible for this support the recipient must promise one thing.  The recipient must agree to vote.

The recipient should be free to vote for whomever the recipient wants.  This exchange is not vote buying.  But it is premised on the idea, why would one vote against the hand that feeds you?  In other words, the largess here is meant to be both socially responsible and politically fruitful.  The Democrats need more voters on their side.  This is one way to get them.  And it is an approach consistent with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, something that the document A Better Way denigrates, but something that Democrats should honor.

Combining the Two Approaches

Suppose new housing was constructed in locations where Democrats want to relocate their minions, according to the down and dirty answer, but suppose this housing was not individual residences and  instead was apartment complexes.  (It could be bungalows in a housing complex.  I am agnostic on the particular structure here, which should be chosen to match the locale.  What is important is to focus on multiple residences at a time, rather than on an individual residence.)  Then some of the housing could be allocated to others under the more idealistic approach, who have been living in poverty but are getting subsidized housing via this effort.

Indeed, an additional agenda item emerges here.  The issue is whether the two types of recipients can co-locate.   The goal would be to show that is possible and to determine those conditions that would make it likely.  There is much press recently about us moving apart from one another.  In that well off voters live elsewhere from those voters who are battling poverty.  What would it take for those people to live together in the same community?  Maybe asking that question, the effort will fail - a case of too much democracy.  So I am surely not arguing that this is a safety play.  But it should be clear, Democrats now don't have a safety play.

The right question to me is this.  What play, with attendant risks, offers the possibility of an upside?   It seems to me, what I have sketched here delivers on that.

I wonder if anyone else would agree.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Left and Right, Up and Down, In and Out, and Other Dimensions

I first learned the following from the book Coopetition by Brandenburger and Nalebuff.  Indeed, I attended a workshop on the book held at the University of Iowa, which is kind of odd because I was pretty heavily into learning technology by then so was no longer going to Econ workshops on campus.  But if I recall correctly Leslie dropped me off in Iowa City and then proceeded to visit her parents in Des Moines for the weekend.  So the two of those probably were tied and might be the reason I went to this.  It is also the reason why it has stuck with me all this time.  Here's the point.

Bargaining in low dimensions is quite difficult.  In one dimension only, the bargaining has to be zero sum - raise or lower the price that is the extent of it and either that or walk away from the deal.  For many people, that's what they think bargaining is about.  Some bargaining is that way, to be sure.  But other bargaining is a more interesting animal.  As you increase the dimensionality there becomes more possibility for gains from trade to emerge, where both sides are made better off than in the absence of the deal.  Economists call this a Pareto improvement.  Business types use the phrase Win-Win.  Knowing that such a possibility is likely to exist ahead of time bargaining then becomes more of a creative endeavor, trying to shape what aspects of the deal will be included.

With this as backdrop, I am writing here as a reaction to this Nicholas Kristof column A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, which though written this past May somehow appeared in my Facebook News feed yesterday, so I read it anew then and after that I wanted to provide some response.

In that piece and elsewhere it has been widely reported that there is liberal bias in academe, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences.  In this way (though perhaps not in many other ways) Economics at research universities has more diversity.  There are quite a few conservative economists and quite a few liberal economists as well.  Indeed, as I cut my teeth as a professional economist during the Reagan era, I had several colleagues who were much more conservative than I was, including a few who became very good friends.  At the same time, the Econ department itself was suffering from departmental politics, but the two factions were divided along sub-disciplinary lines that as near as I could tell did not correlate with left-right divisions regarding national politics.  (In the 1950s, Illinois also had a divided Economics department and then left-right divisions did matter.  Several really top economists, such as Franco Modigliani and Robert Eisner left because of that.) 

Some of what I want to say in response to Kristof is based on that experience.  Another chunk is based on more recent interactions I've had.  There are a variety of friends and family who are much more conservative than I am and yet we still get along.  I should also say that some of my friends are more liberal than I am or are more idealistic than I am.  I get along with those folks too, for the most part.  And then the last bit I want to say is about human nature as exemplified by the Linda the Bank Teller experiments that are discussed in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks and are further amplified in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow.  We all think fast some of the time and one way we do that is to categorize people (some might say we stereotype them).  At issue then is how one can show decency and respect for people in spite of this tendency, while acknowledging that the tendency is in all of us.   The answer isn't to deny the tendency and pretend we can be what we are not.

I will try to keep this simple.  My conservative economic friends were certainly that way about the economics - low taxes, limited government, less regulation, etc.  But on social issues (one that was important to me at the time - whether it was okay to smoke pot - is a non-issue for me now) particularly on interacting with faculty of color they were actually quite progressive.  So I would argue to debundle these general classifications both because people are more complex than that and because in certain dimensions there is apt to be more commonality than in others.

If one buys that then the next proposition shouldn't be that hard.  Try to avoid the areas where strong disagreement that can lead to hard feelings will emerge and focus on those areas where commonality is to be found.  Now this may sound like a cop out especially as our campuses are supposed to be places for the free exchange of ideas.  How do you navigate that?

My answer to that is to use a technology metaphor.  Don't use Twitter or other micro blogging applications to argue complex social issues.  That produces more heat than light, and in Kahneman's metaphor relies almost entirely on thinking fast.  Instead, and academics should know how to do this, make the case slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully, perhaps in a blog post like this one.  This doesn't mean there won't be disagreement.  But, in particular, if you argue slowly and if you are thoughtful you can do a Thinking Gray exercise (read the first chapter available at the link) and try to work through the counter arguments ahead of time without turning them into straw men.  The writing then becomes more about education and less about winning the argument.  It also invites thoughtful response.

If you stick to written exchanges for the complex interactions where disagreements might occur and in face to face interactions are more limited in the dimensions you do discuss, where there is more common ground, you might find a workable if not perfect solution to the navigation issue.

Then one more thing needs to be noted.  Some people are jerks and are hard to interact with.  In my experience in academe I can't count the number of people like that on one hand (maybe two hands if I include some truly obnoxious students in the mix).  I have no answer on how to make interactions with such people tolerable.  I know that in my own case I try to avoid interacting with such people whenever possible.  I don't enjoy such encounters that will likely produce conflict . 

Let's wrap up with the obviously hard part of all of this.  Misogyny, racial prejudice, and intolerance based on sexual orientation are quite real on campus.  Further, since some years ago I wrote a post about unintended religious intolerance in the classroom, throw that sort of thing into mix as well, whether it happens in the classroom or elsewhere around campus.  In the context of writing that post I could see a difference between certain Christian students being clueless but otherwise not mean spirited to their Islamic classmates (and to me as a Jew) from students being jerks.  (In that class none of the students were jerks.)  Often, however, our interactions with people on campus are quite different from teacher-student interactions and in our thinking fast way we may pre-judge people whom we expect will be prone to behave like jerks.  An ideal that I doubt any of us can meet would be to always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, irrespective of their previously professed views on matters.

Perhaps the trick is to invite a bunch of economists to every social gathering on campus.  That way there are sure to be some conservatives in the group.  And, after all, we're such social butterflies!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making Our Society Less Vertical - Without Making It Dumber

As Facebook is wont to do, earlier this morning a status update from 3 years ago popped up in my news feed (only my friends can access the link).  In turn, my piece was about about a Frank Bruni Op-Ed entitled The Extra Legroom Society.   It is what prompts this post. The first class versus coach distinction serves for an apt metaphor for changes in the way we do things quite apart from the airlines setting, though the airlines setting is a good place to begin because flying coach these days is a pretty miserable experience, at least for a big guy like me.  It is good to keep that in mind.

The question I want to get at here is whether the people who live in a riding-first-class world understand that about flying coach.  Or is out of sight out of mind?  The recent election has to be a wake up call for everyone.   So I am going to assert that the elites do have some awareness of the rest of the population now.  What might be done to maintain that awareness for the indefinite future rather than to have folks revert to business as usual?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it is a good one to pose.  My sense is that awareness needs to be coupled with something actionable and if that happens then it is more likely to sustain.  What that actionable thing or set of things should be I also don't know, but I would like to articulate a principle based on a joke we all learned when we were kids.  (It can be found near the bottom of the page.)

Q: What do you know when you see three elephants walking down the street wearing pink sweatshirts?
A: They're all on the same team. 

If somebody else came at me with this joke my initial reaction might be - I'm not crazy about pink; I'd prefer a different color.   Everybody is a critic.  I'm no exception.   So I really don't want to try to design those actionable items here because we need to negotiate through to what might work and get past the stumbling blocks.  Those need to be identified first.  All I want to maintain here is that the punchline should be our aspiration - being on the same team.

A week ago I had an odd experience.  Leslie was in Texas and we were out of treats for the dog, so I went to Walmart, which stocks the brand Leslie prefers.  As I was returning to my car somebody made eye contact with me in the parking lot and then came over.  He said something like that they had been stranded there for two days and wondered if I had any work for him so he could earn some money.  He put it in such an odd way and I'm instinctively wary of strangers.  So I didn't unpack what he was asking and simply responded, truthfully, that I didn't have any such work.  If he had asked directly for some cash, I might have given him a few bucks.  I'm really not sure how I would have reacted.  It's not the sort of situation that you plan in advance.  But after the fact I thought about it some and I concluded that I flubbed it, badly.

This doesn't work if it is only isolated individuals who think this through.  Schindler's List is a hard movie to watch.  It's been airing repeatedly on the movie channels we get, but I haven't tried to watch it as of late.  Maybe I should make the effort as an emotional reminder of what can happen when things get out of hand.  I do recall from having seen it many years ago that near the end Schindler breaks down with feelings of guilt and remorse.  He could have saved so many more Jews or so he thought.  Yet he remains a historical figure because of the ones he did save, a microscopic number if compared to the numbers who died, yet a real achievement when considered from the perspective of what one individual might do to make a difference.

In thinking about this in aggregate, I will point out two previous posts I've written that consider possible ways at getting the issue.  This one called Ask What You Can Do For Your Country looks at Federal income tax rates in a historical context, from the end of the Carter Administration to the present.  It notes that since the start of 2011, the Bush Tax Cuts have become permanent for all brackets except at the very top.  This was done during the lame duck session after the November 2010 elections.  There might have been a case to extend the Bush cuts for some years because the economy was still struggling then, though the recovery had started.  But there is little reason why they should still exist, particularly for people with income like my household - not in the top 1% but in the top 10%.

These tax cuts amount to a windfall.  In normal times, people tend to vote their pocketbook.  So I should be happy with that.  But I'm not.  We live in abnormal times.  So people in my income situation should be taking one for the team by paying more in taxes.  The awareness I talked about above would amount to accepting such a conclusion, should our politics enable this sort of change in the tax rates.  I'm sure it won't happen right now.  The Republicans are in control and their sentiments are anti-tax.  But the midterm elections are less than two years off.  The mood of the electorate can change.  We've experienced that repeatedly in the recent past.

The other post is called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.  It presents some numbers that don't get talked about all that much even after Piketty instructed us that it is what we should look at.  These are numbers about the wealth distribution.  Mean household wealth is around $650K, which is astoundingly high or so it seems to me.  Median household wealth, in contrast, is around $81K, dramatically lower.  There is substantial capacity to redistribute wealth downwards and still leave the rich with many riches.  The issue is whether there is the will and the desire to do so.

Let me close with this observation.  The lead article in the Times today is entitled, Can Trump Save Their Jobs?  They're Counting on It.   The premise is that tariffs can do the trick and that protectionism is the way to attain wealth redistribution.  Maybe tariffs can work, at least near term.  Longer term there is apt to be retaliation, which lessens trade overall and then the tariffs may be self-defeating.  If that's right, maybe tariffs aren't the right way to go.  But that doesn't obviate the need for good jobs available to ordinary working people.  What alternative to tariffs might provide a better approach?  Who is asking that question?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Ghost of Allen Ludden

Tradition has it that resolutions are made with the coming new year and then are forgotten soon thereafter.  It occurred to me that it would be better to make a resolution as the need becomes apparent.  It remains to be seen whether that will create more stick-to-itiveness.  I hope so. 

Wanting to do something on a personal level to combat all the apparent negativity, I have resolved that when some potential source of irritation emerges to temporarily vex me, I will try to respond with wit and humor.  This won't be to ignore the provocation, far from it.  My goal will be to illuminate the situation sans the negativity.  Maybe nobody other than me will be amused by the approach.  If so, I will have succeeded in building my own cocoon, which under the circumstances wouldn't be a bad thing to do.  And if perchance others are entertained, then maybe some of them will endeavor to create their own yarn for popular consumption that does likewise, which would be so much the better.

I want to begin here with what might seem an odd thought - focusing on the good consequence in my intellectual development from all that early TV viewing.  The reality is that I watched an awful lot of TV as a kid.  When I was young there were shows in black and white such as My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.  Yet it is hard to know what ultimate consequence there was from watching all of that and it is equally hard to remember how much time per day I devoted to TV. 

So I want to focus on a different sort of show that might have had a more telling impact on me - the game show.   And here I want to narrow further to game shows that had a quiz or puzzle aspect to them.  Some of the show titles that I recall are To Tell The Truth with Bud Collyer, Play Your Hunch with Merv Griffin, I've Got a Secret with Gary Moore, Concentration with Hugh Downs, The Match Game with Gene Rayburn, and of course Password with Allen Ludden.  That there are still other such shows whcih my contemporaries might come up with is a testament to how prevalent the genre was when we were growing up. 

I played along at home while watching.  Concentration, in particular, was a memory game.  There was an element of luck, to be sure.  But it rewarded good recall.  (We may had a board game version of the show at home, to practice further this way.)  The Match Game, in contrast, was more about social capital and communication, because the goal was not so much to have the right answer as it was to have the same answer that your teammates had.  I recall, in particular, when the great Red Sox outfielder "Yaz" was on the show that one of the questions was to spell his last name.  (The correct spelling is Yastrzemski.)   As his nickname was so popular at the time, he himself misspelled his name and matched at least one of his teammates in doing so.  It was a lesson, both in humility and in trying to understand the way others process information.  It is possible to do that, at least within some limited domains of knowledge.

Looking back, Password is the most intriguing of these shows to me as it seems so much akin to what the book Made to Stick talks about, the creation of connections between ideas.  A team member who was given the answer would offer up a one word clue to the uninformed partner.   The partner would then respond with a guess at the answer.  The two teams would rotate in their clues and responses until a correct response was given.  So each team would benefit from the sequence that went before, and the current clue and response would be conditioned on that sequence.  There was a friendly competition as to which team would get the answer first.  To win that competition, then, you had to come up with a clue word that really communicated the idea.  The skills the show helped to develop were both in the guessing part from the perspective of the uninformed player and in the clue offering part from the perspective of the informed player.  The board game Taboo is similar in this respect, though Taboo allows teams with many uninformed players.  Undoubtedly, Taboo drew some of its inspiration from Password.

One way Password was distinct from Taboo, and indeed all the TV game shows then were distinct from our playing of these games at home, is that TV game shows were peppered with witty repartee between the host and the guests in between rounds of play of the game.  Since oftentimes the guests were regulars, this back and forth illustrated a kind of intelligence in action that the audience at home was encouraged to emulate.  On Password, Betty White, Allen Ludden's better half, was a frequent guest.  Their interaction on the show was that much more special, informed as it was by personal knowledge as well as by how TV stars were supposed to interact on the little screen.  Ludden was an especially talented host and got the most out of his guests, making the watching both very entertaining and quite educational.

* * * * *

It is time to return to my resolution, which is about the term "password."  Indeed, the entire stream of thought in this stroll down memory lane was triggered by an email reminder that I have to change my University of Illinois password.  As of yesterday, I had 14 days in which to do this.  There are a few things about this I found bothersome about this communication and about the prior communication I received that said I must do this.

First, it remains unclear whether now the same password will apply to Banner (a university-wide service where the login is referred to as Enterprise Authentication) and to those campus services where the NetID password had previously been used or if those will remain distinct processes.  At the moment, when I go to Banner, I get this screen for logging in. 

In contrast, when I log into a campus (or LAS) supported application, I get a different screen for logging in. 

While I use larvan for the first line in logging in at both of these places, the passwords themselves are different, at least for the time being.  I have recently changed the Enterprise password.  (I checked my InBox and I have a receipt from 8/16 of this year indicating a password change.)   So, on the one hand, if these passwords are becoming the same in the near future, why do I have to make another change so soon?  But, on the other hand, if the passwords are to remain distinct, with the Enterprise password for the University and the NetID password for the Campus, why did the email message about updating the latter come from the University technology services organization, with a ullinois.edu email address instead of an illinois.edu email address?  This is all very confusing to me.  

Second, I no longer understand the necessity of regular password changes as an enhancement to security.  The reality is that non-university providers don't ask for that.  They do other things - registering your computer, asking security questions in addition to the password, giving a two-part authentication with the second part coming in email or text messaging, and letting me know by email when I (or possibly somebody else) authenticate to an account via an unregistered device.  But they otherwise don't require regular password changes.  Operating on the assumption that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, how can this be?  So I would appreciate gaming out what the password change actually buys in terms of increased security.  

As near as I can tell, the big issue is what happens if the password has been hacked and neither the technology organization nor the individual user are aware that this has occurred.  The hackers then may sit on the information for some time before trying to exploit it.  If a password change happens in the interim and if the vulnerability that allowed the initial hacking has since been patched, then the password change does clearly enhance security in that circumstance.  But those are some rather big ifs.  

Third, and this perhaps isn't really fair of me to react this way, but each bit of the university that operates in a heavy handed way contributes to a general malaise, one that the individual office sending out the communication may be unaware of because that office only focuses on its own bit.  As I recently made this mocumentary about getting rid of the ethics training, my visceral reaction to the announcement about the required password change is to get rid of that too.  (And in a recent email to learning technologists on campus, I cautioned them not to use FERPA in a similar manner to get faculty compliance, for just these reasons.)  The possible difference is that with the ethics training I see no benefit whatsoever.  It is a complete sham.  With the password change perhaps there is a benefit, though I remain skeptical.  The communication did nothing to allay that skepticism.  

The above constitutes the initial irritation, which I have not tried to conceal.  In the last section, below, I will attempt some humor in casting how this situation manifests for me.  Alas, the humor stems from an all too real personal decline.

* * * * *

There are certain emblems of aging and the mental deterioration that accompanies it.  For me, the most obvious of these is going to the pharmacy or to the doctor's office.  They want to make sure they know it really is you they are dealing with.  So in addition to your name they ask for other identity information as part of the transaction.  At Walgreens, they ask for home address.  Perhaps sometimes they ask for date of birth, though maybe this is only when I pick up a prescription for one of my kids.  (Do I remember their birthdays?)  At Carle, they ask for these too, also sometimes for home phone, and they verify your health insurance provider.  

In the course of a session where I have to produce this sort of information repeatedly, I feel I'm shrinking mentally.  I can anticipate the day, not too long into the future, where I will fail here, a temporary lapse where the recall just doesn't work.  Outside of the health care interactions, the senior moments are more frequent now, possibly because insomnia is a more frequent companion.  I am still capable of depth of thought now and then.  Blog posts are evidence of this.  But I am writing blog posts less frequently now and more of those that I start writing never get done.  If there were Viagra for the mind, I would definitely take it.  

Instead, I look for diversions that can provide some personal joy and are still do-able.  I find that composing rhymes fits these needs and I can do that much more frequently.  I started writing rhymes for real near when I retired and then had more ambition than talent, writing longish verse to make a point.  Some of these were commentary on our national politics.  (For example, Filly Buster, Lame Ducks Are Quaking, and The (Dis) Charge the Tea Party Made.)  Others take on different sources of befuddlement such as this one on The First Ten Days Blues or this one on The Blue Screen of Death.   

Over time I've found my ambition has diminished and a technology I once abhorred, Twitter, has become something of a salvation for my rhymes.  Staying within the 140 character limit keeps it short and sweet and helps my faulty sense of meter from going too far astray.  Nevertheless, there is substantial time beforehand trying out possible lines that might fit.  The generation of the verse is no snap.  Yet during that time there is a kind of reverie for me, a feeling I enjoy very much. 

James Thurber gave us that charming character, Walter Mitty, and the original short story is still a good read.  What happens when we daydream is the root of what I've called The Professor Mind.  Sir Ken Robinson, in this delightful Ted Talk, Do schools kill creativity?, says that professors live in their heads, while everyone else lives in the real world.  The university, of course, is a place where many of the inhabitants are professors.  The campus is populated by this weird but largely benign life form whose greatest enjoyment is to be entirely lost - in thought.

Let us keep the university as a place for such intellectual enjoyment.  Allow the professors to maintain their mental bubbles for as long as they can.  The younger ones can do this while juggling many balls in the virtual air.  Many of the older ones, like me, may have a more difficult time keeping just a few of these afloat.  

I want to close this discussion on passwords with the following metaphysical question.  How is it that we learn to focus on this year's password and discard the one from last year into our mind's dustbin?  I have changed some of the passwords for my commercial accounts not that long ago after there was a general hacking scare and I've since experienced the occasional getting it wrong because I'm entering the old one.  Is this the road to dementia for me?  

Those with the authority to set password policy, please be merciful for people with the likes of me.  It's all I ask.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Invasive Species and Tabloidism

Having already voted I found myself look forward to the week after election day, hopeful that things will calm down and that I can go back to some enjoyment while reading the news.  Surely we are all living in a Roberto Duran moment, No Mas!  As soothing as this little reverie was, it didn't last very long at all before a frightening thought occurred to me.  What if it doesn't calm down at all?  What if this horrible horrible election season has legs and indeed becomes the new normal?

Here's how it might happen.  Let's take as our starting point Clay Shirky's really wonderful blog post from several years ago, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.  To make for an imprecise metaphor, Newspapers are a latter day Dinosaur and Web 2.0 is the latter day equivalent of a large meteor crashing on earth and upsetting the evolutionary balance.  Back when Shirky wrote that post, Newspapers were facing an existential crisis.

Take next the role of social media in Tahrir Square and Occupy and the subsequent embrace of social media as venting.  This is where Shirky partly got the the story wrong.  Most people are not so interested in being citizen journalists.  But everyone, it seems, wants to write their own Op-Ed and social media provides an affordance to indulge that desire. Further, tone-wise,  such posting enables people to remain somewhere between slightly and strongly affronted in their online personae.  Indeed, the technology seems to be encouraging their venting.

The last bit of the vicious cycle is the wounded lion phenomenon, here applied to for profit newspapers (and TV News shows as well).  Survival becomes the preeminent concern.  The mantra changes from All The News That's Fit To Print to All The Eyeballs We Can Possibly Attract.  As bad as Drumpf has been for the nation, dragging our political rhetoric into the muck, he has been a boon for the media.  The eyeballs have come in droves, if for no other reason than to find pieces than can be cited in their own missives posted to social media.

Having tasted the the thrill of a surging readership (viewership) can the traditional news media outlets return to a more sober form of journalism?  Or have they become hooked on the tabloid form and then will continue to propagate it even if Drumpf fades into the sunset (or returns fully to reality TV, the more likely scenario)?

Until this election cycle, my favorite part of the NY Times was the Opinion section, where I looked forward to reading cogent analysis provided by thoughtful writers.  Thank God for Thomas Edsall.  He still delivers on that.  Alas, all the other pundits seem to have been co-opted.  Piece after piece have been churned out about the Drumpt with literally zero incremental value add for the reader. How is this possible?  I suppose each of the columnists have editorial freedom in their topic selection and in a normal universe that would seem to be a good thing. But every authors wants an audience.  These pundits are no exception.

Can they unlearn the bad habits they've picked up in the last year or so?  I hope they can, but if I were betting I'd bet against.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

When Students Don't Get It

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Mental Associations

The gingham dog and the calico cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Enrollment Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Real Lie-Able Polls

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

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

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

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

We need something better. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On The Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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