Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Elite College Student - Great At Jumping Through Hoops...

...but not developing his or her own point of view.

I found this quite a compelling show to watch/listen to.  Many of the themes I've been railing about over the years regarding undergraduate education come up in this discussion.  And there are some themes, such as the relationship between parenting a la Amy Chua and how the kids go about their college years, which is intensely interesting and I haven't written about it much at all except in regard to my own situation when I was in high school.

I know Loury a little.  He was an Assistant Professor at Northwestern when I was a graduate student there.  I had never seen Deresiewicz talk before.  He sounds like a faculty member, which he once was but no longer is.  He does seem to be getting a lot of mileage from his book Excellent Sheep.  One wonders what is next for him.

I thought Loury's style in doing this interview quite interesting.  He never really contested any of the assertions made by Deresiewicz, though he paused a few times without saying anything, as if he had told himself ahead of time to hold his tongue.  The questions he asked were all what I'd call framing questions.  They were aimed at sharpening the argument, not at derailing it.  From my perspective, the diagnosis of the problem part of the discussion is pretty much spot on.  The more speculative part of the discussion, what might be a cure, was less satisfying and seemed totally infeasible to me in the current environment.

There is a specific discussion of the Economics major at around the 18:00 minute mark.  It is especially revealing about the mercenary tendencies of the students.  I would say the argument applies to the students I've seen at Illinois pretty much intact, with the exception that standardized test scores here are lower in Liberal Arts and Sciences (the college where the Econ department is situated) than they are in Engineering and Business.  To a certain extent, the statistics that Deresiewicz cites about the Econ major probably don't consider whether there is also an undergraduate Business major or not.  I suspect at many of the schools he focuses on don't have an undergraduate Business major and Economics then serves as a proxy for it, which it also does at Illinois to some extent because there are many students who want into the College of Business but can't get in.

The one bit of this that I found distracting is the angle of the camera on Loury.  It is not so terrible in the screen shot above, but when he leans back in his chair his face takes up only about a quarter of his side of the video.  It would be better if the camera were set so he is looking squarely into it.  He probably cares about this not a whit.  But he does seem to care about his viewers.  So he should make this adjustment for them, if not for himself.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Intensity, Craziness, and Creativity - Vincent Van Gogh

I have some vague recollection from childhood about The Agony and The Ecstasy and that it was a big deal.  Perhaps I saw a promotion for it on a billboard in Times Square, something akin to Cleopatra in its spectacle.  Or maybe it was because the Piet√† had come to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows and as a result all of us became more aware of Michelangelo. Then, too, we had neighbors who lived diagonally across from us on the corner of 56th Avenue and 212th Street, and they were Italian.  Perhaps some of their cultural interests rubbed off on us.  I'm pretty sure that for a while my mother had the book on her nightstand.  She was a voracious reader of novels (yet not at all of the newspaper).  There were certain authors who especially appealed to her.  The works of James Michener emblematized the genre. 

Mostly my taste for fiction diverged from my mom's.  I did read Exodus by Leon Uris, probably in my high school years, this without any provocation from her.  Much later, I read a book that she had urged me to read as a teen, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.  I liked it very much and wrote a blog post about it soon after I had finished reading it. 

All of this to say that I've been aware of Irving Stone since childhood, but I never did anything with that knowledge until recently.  Part of this may have been a phobia about art.  Though I felt compelled to take myself to a museum now and then, and one day while I was a teenager I "ran away from home" and went to both the Guggenheim and the Met, all via walking after getting out of the Subway at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I did this more for the solitude and sense of independence it gave me than from any spiritual uplift from the paintings.  I didn't "get" art then, just as I didn't get poetry.  Mostly, I still don't.

From time to time I would see a movie or read a book that touched on art in some way.  While in graduate school I recall seeing Savage Messiah.  More recently I've watched Pollock, after it came to satellite TV.  Soon after it was published I read Einstein and Picasso, a book that really helped me because it explained the big picture goals that both Einstein and Picasso were after, this to understand simultaneity in their respective mediums.  There are probably other movie and book titles I've encountered that tie to art but that don't come to mind now.

So it's been a low level and very casual interest.  I have an upside down curiosity about art now, as I have an interest in what spurs creativity and how creativity manifests. Further, there is trying to understand myself and my motivation.  When I read a biography about a very creative person, there is always the question - what bits of personality do we have in common?  For example, when I read Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce, I saw some parallels between Joyce and me when in early adolescence, though these were mainly in outer manifestations, not in the creativity itself.   And with connections of this sort apparent there is a further question that emerges.  Is there a personal philosophy to embrace that matches the personality?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I want to discuss Vincent Van Gogh via the film Lust for Life, the book on which it is based written by Irving Stone, and another movie called Vincent and Theo that gives Van Gogh's brother and confidant equal billing.  Stone's book is fictionalized biography, but it is based on actual correspondence between the brothers.  The artist was also a prolific reader and writer.  These other forms of expression helped him with his art.  The writing especially allows us to regard Stone's work as close to the truth in most places.  Particular dialog is imagined, of course.  And there is one love scene that is pure fantasy.  But otherwise the work is true to the letters on which it is based. 

Van Gogh's life challenges us in our conception of success and what it means to be successful.  By the middle class standards that I was raised in, he was a failure, many times over.  His paintings didn't sell at all for most of his life.  Many of great Impressionists, contemporaries of Van Gogh, suffered a similar fate.  The patrons of the arts weren't yet ready to procure the works of these artists.  These rich buyers were too conservative in their tastes and thus didn't understand the impact these works would eventually have.

Nowadays, we have the (not quite) myth of the actor in waiting who struggles to make ends meet by waiting tables or doing other unskilled work, until the big break arrives.  It is unclear to me whether a struggling artist in France in the 1870s could live such a divided life, making enough to survive on while practicing one's art in odd hours.  In any event, Van Gogh did not.  For the most part he was sustained by an allowance provided by his brother.  Theo was an art dealer, an employee of one of the better houses in Paris.  He made a decent but not fabulous living.  The allowance was carved out of that.  In recompense, Vincent sent Theo all of his paintings, with the hope they might sell.  They didn't.

The above understates how much Vincent failed and how he regarded himself as a failure.  Vincent actually got into painting late, in his mid to late 20s.  He did other things before that and made a botch of things, both in his work and in his love life. He started out as an art dealer in London.  His family had that profession in their blood, which is why both he and his brother took a go at it.  While in London he fell in love.  Only she didn't love him back and got engaged to somebody else. Heartbroken by the result, he left London and the work as an art dealer to follow in his father's footsteps, so he went to school to become a minister. 

He performed poorly at the school.  He could not commit a sermon to memory nor could he speak extemporaneously.  So he had to read his sermon from his hand written text, long and awkward constructions.  This was ineffective and his teachers dismissed him - the worst student they ever had. Yet he wanted to serve and that conviction enabled him to become a minister in the Borinage, a very poor mining region in Belgium, not a place to send the more able students.

The miners and their families had a dismal life, earning a subsistence wage only, maybe even less, being exposed to health risk on a daily basis from the coal dust, with fatal accidents in the mines also a possibility. There was child labor in the mines.  It was all very brutal.  Vincent's job was to minister to these poor people's spiritual needs.  He began in earnest with what he had learned at the school, but this was a surface kind of ministering only, and didn't at all address their deprivation.  So he changed his approach to be more like them, live like them, and aid in their physical needs.  He gave away most of his worldly possessions to the families of the miners.  He likewise gave away much of his food.  He often went hungry, for days on end.  He endured personal suffering (which would continue later when he turned to painting).  And he lobbied the mining company, unsuccessfully, to raise the wages of the miners.  When visitors from the church hierarchy came to look in on him, they disapproved of his approach; it was undignified.

Much later in Stone's book there is a recollection of this time by another artist who had visited the Borinage while Vincent was there.  He recalled stories of the Christ minister.  This seems like a good image to have of Van Gogh.  He had a purity about him that others don't possess.  He was entirely unconcerned for his own physical well being.  He believed strongly that these poor as dirt miners were deserving people and that they should have a somewhat better life.  After all, they toiled, doing honest work.  Later, when Van Gogh was in Paris, he became known as a Socialist among his fellow artists.  The roots of his political beliefs are to be found in this experience in the Borinage.

I do not want to recount all of Stone's book. It's better to read it yourself.  (I got a copy from the Undergraduate Library.)  But there is one more aspect of his life that needs mention before talking about his creativity.  That is his mania.  Later in life he had seizures, one of which occurred during the famous episode where he cut off his ear.  The Wikipedia entry on this matter makes it clear that there is no consensus view as to cause.  In Stone's version of the story, epilepsy is the primary explanation.

Further, Stone introduces the idea that the mental illness was part and parcel of Van Gogh's personality.  He does this first by describing at great length the high intensity, long time commitment, and total dedication that Vincent demonstrated while painting.  Then, later, after Vincent has befriended Paul Gaugin, Stone has Gaugin critique Vincent's painting style as if epileptic. Images from the painting burst from the canvas and it is evident that Vincent in the construction of these images worked in great haste and that he himself was bursting, getting paint from his palette onto his canvas.  So the reader is left with the impression that Vincent is exploding inside his head with ideas of how to render nature through art.

That much of Van Gogh's personality I can identify with via my own experience, writing this blog during the first year.  I had many ideas in my head that wanted expression and I didn't have enough other outlets for that.  (One alternative outlet was having conversation with colleagues in the CIC Learning Technology Group, many of whom had comparable positions on their campuses to my Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies position at Illinois.  But our frequency of meeting was only once every three months or so and then typically only for a day at a time, and we had official business to conduct much of the time.)  I found I could generate reasonably good prose (about 1500 words per post) in fairly short order and do so every day.  I also found that I could experiment with style and a little bit with topic. But after a year or so I slowed down.  I began to exhaust the set of issues I found pressing.  In contrast, Van Gogh kept going, developing his technique and sense of confidence.  He didn't slow down at all until the fits of mania made him slow down.

(One of the things, I'd like to learn in the future is to know Van Gogh's paintings themselves, understand something of the issues he was trying to address in their making, as well as to learn when they were done so to understand how Stone's telling of the story maps into those paintings we consider masterpieces today.  In the movie, some of these paintings are on display.  But in my ignorance of the art itself I couldn't distinguish a masterpiece from a prop.)

Van Gogh's need to draw preceded his becoming an artist as his life work   He did it as a hobby, a way to express himself and to relieve the stress from his other work.  He drew, for example, in the off hours while he was a minister.  (One has a sense that he slept very little, even then, and would labor till he was exhausted.  This behavior, in itself, may be have at least part of the reasons for the subsequent mania.)  So when he turned to art as what he would do, he had an inner knowing that it was right for him.

He struck out miserably, however, in terms of receiving recognition and emotional support for the work, apart from his brother Theo.  In fact, where he initially got support and encouragement from other relatives, he eventually got rebuffs that he wasn't making progress with his work.  He remained too primitive in his approach.  In this case, it was the relatives who were wrong, but how would Vincent have been able to determine that in any objective way at the time?  And in the absence of such confirmation, wouldn't his resolve to continue working become shaky?   The issue seems all the more important because he was living off that allowance from Theo and if the work wasn't very good then devoting all his time to painting was being irresponsible, while at his core Vincent tried very hard to be an ethical human being.

Eventually, when in Paris, he met a community of fellow artists with home he could exchange ideas as peers and as friends.  This provided some of the confirmation that he was on the right track, though his paintings still didn't sell.

Now I want to posit an odd conjecture.  Vincent had no fear of privation, even if it destroyed his health, and later his mind.  He learned to accept it when a minister.  Once privation becomes a normal occurrence, the fear of failure that haunts most of us disappears.  Failure can then be a good friend and an able teacher.  And Vincent trusted himself enough to learn from his errors.  Indeed he was inventing technique as he learned.  He had the independence of mind to do that.

Vincent also spent an enormous amount of time alone, with his paints and his canvases, but without other companionship.  This was true when he returned to live with his parents and again when he was in Arles.  (Though when at his parents' place he did have a one-sided love affair with his cousin Kay, who entirely rebuffed his advances.)  His work was primary for him and he toiled on it till exhausted.
Again, thinking of my own situation, I have the sense that creativity is blunted by various buffers in my life - work, family, and friends.  With each of these "being reasonable" is an important value and enjoying the comforts provided by the circumstance an immediate reward.  But there is also a different thing about me that I learned a long time ago.  After I've had my own bursting and release of creative energy, I need some fallow time to refresh myself.  If I'm too tired I can't think at all and can't produce anything worth a damn.  Van Gogh was totally different in both respects.  There didn't seem to be anything moderate about his personality at all.   He had very few buffers to produce such moderation.  While he did relax some, compared to other talented people I know he did comparatively little of it.  And apart from those brief times of relaxation, I got the sense that Van Gogh was "on" most of the time, leading to prodigious creativity but the mania too.  This comes across more from the reading of Stone's book than the watching of the movies,

Sylvia Nasar's book on John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, is another that I've read which marries intense creativity in the individual with mental illness.  In Nash's case it was/is schizophrenia.  The difference between Van Gogh and Nash, from the reader's perspective, is that for Nash all the creativity was going on in his head and it is much harder to represent what that is like to the reader, even for as able a story teller as Nasar.  As an economist who has done a fair amount of math modeling, I probably have a leg up on most readers in considering what Nash did, yet his process is still entirely opaque to me.  In contrast, Van Gogh's creativity had a physical expression that anyone can understand.  The movies are good for this, because they do convey a sense of what it is like to paint, especially on a wet canvas that is near completion but not completely done.  You can almost smell the oils in the viewing.

Let me close with reference to this piece in Slate, people don't like creativity.  I had always thought of myself as an exception to that rule.  (I do concur with the thesis in the Slate piece.)   Thinking about Van Gogh has got me to reconsider how much of an exception I actually am.  I like my moderating influences, often prefer to compromise than to remain a purist, and my drive is nowhere near as strong as Van Gogh's.   None of this says anything about talent.  But it speaks volumes about motivation.  Though I teach microeconomics, which at root is about making tradeoffs, I live my life trying to have it both ways.  This shows in one fell swoop that I don't practice what I preach and that I'm human.  But it also gives me a different sort of appreciation of genius.  There are plenty of bright and very talented people to go around.  The vast majority of them, however, aren't willing to pay the ultimate price. Van Gogh was among the very few who were willing.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Eyes of Aging

After more than a week where my weight remained on the same plateau, I was 2.4 pounds lighter at this morning's weighing.  I didn't believe that so I got off the scale and tried again.  I got the same number.  How is this possible?  Life is full of little puzzles that we never solve.  The next couple of days will show whether this is real or an aberration.  If it is trustworthy, it marks the crossing of one threshold and the nearing of another. I'm now marginally lighter than I was in high school.  And with another half pound loss, it will be 30 pounds since I started on this regime, which is getting me close to halfway on the ultimate goal, to weigh what I did when I got married.

In my Econ class I talk about monitoring as a way to overcome opportunism. The idea is that monitoring is a cost incurred to reduce other costs that the organization does not want to incur.  But I'm aware that much monitoring happens for no reason other than obsession, particularly when its our own performance to consider.

Those who are old enough will recall the ad campaign from 40 years ago, The Special K Pinch.  If I start doing that but then move my hand forward toward my belly about an inch or so, I can do something I call the Special K grab.  I could do that easily before I started the diet.  I still can.  It's a reminder that the more things change...

The last few weeks I've come to do a different sort of grab, under my arm between the elbow and shoulder, seemingly all flesh with no muscle whatsoever to be found.  This to me is an unmistakable sign of age.  You'd think you wouldn't want to be reminded of the point, but I find myself unable to stop grabbing at certain times of the day.  The feel varies from time to time.  It is never supple.  Sometimes it sags miserably.  I've come to understand that at those times my blood sugar is low and perhaps I need to drink some water too.  At other times there is more substance to it, but it is still a far cry from a young person's skin.

One other such grab I try is while I'm sitting.  The object is the area under the hamstrings.  In this case, there is far less loose skin than in my upper arm and you can't really pull it away from the hamstrings.  But the skin is droopy there too.  The inner thigh, for whatever reason, I don't measure nearly as often.   It's an area where no muscle is apparent, more like the upper arms.

Before the diet started, the notable skin wrinkling was on my eyelid and just above, particularly in the early AM.  Goodbye boyish looks.  Hello to the rest of your life.  Recently I've found a different place to look for the wrinkles.  I rotate my left hand a quarter turn outward and then swing the arm, from the elbow down, to the left a few inches.  Sometimes the look is like an aerial view of the Badlands from on high.  Other times the wrinkles are present, but barely so.

I am getting exercise pretty regularly and I do try to stay hydrated.  These consequences are happening anyway.  It is impossible to tell now how much of this is the diet and how much is aging.  Because my dad, who was never overweight, had the droopy skin in some of the spots that I've mentioned, at least since he retired, I suspect that aging is the primary cause and the dieting may be accelerating its effects.

With these external changes readily apparent, I asked myself what sort of internal changes are happening too.  One is that fatigue seems to come more frequently and then even from modest exertion.  Yesterday after teaching I felt exhausted.  It was a glorious day so I took a brief walk before class, 10 minutes or so, nothing more.  During class I'm on my feet when at the board, but nobody would mistake this for high physical exertion.  It may be that it's the emotional stress from being in the classroom which is getting to me.   Yesterday a student, who is otherwise diligent about doing the coursework, started to pack up her things about five minutes before the end of class.  That irked me and I asked her to stop doing it, a bit out of character for me, though maybe not. I'm more apt to be crotchety now.  As for the students, it's a symptom of a more general issue.  Too many of the kids are going through the motions and not really getting into it.  Youth is wasted on the young.

Another internal change, this one for the better, is that the arthritis pain seems to be less.  When it first started to get colder outside I noticed it in my joints.  That feeling has gone away.  The main purpose of the diet was for me to take a positive step on my own to keep the pain from occupying my thoughts.  For the time being that seems to be working.  Let's hope it lasts. 

I have been procrastinating on a post about Vincent Van Gogh that I hope to return to over the weekend.  From time to time I've wondered what lessons the rest of us can take from the lives of very creative people.  Van Gogh spent years and years perfecting his art and did so with an enormous drive for self-expression.  The first few years of writing for this blog I was aware of trying to do something similar, but more recently I haven't seen improvement in the writing itself, nor do I now feel impelled to experiment with technique.  I'm aware of my analyst disposition, as an INTP, and that sometimes I can provide value add by giving an analysis of issues others haven't thought about at all or have considered but less than fully.  It is still absorbing for me to analyze a novel situation.  But I'm far less sure if at this point there is growth for me in doing these exercises or if it is merely forestalling the inevitable feeble mindedness that comes with age.

Yesterday after teaching, tired but not yet napping, I got into a reverie about being a grandparent, singing to the baby - songs from Fiddler on the Roof, holding the baby close till fast asleep, surprising even the parents with my willingness to change the diaper.  This will remain a fantasy for the time being.  I will have to wait till it becomes a reality.  The over and under for the real McCoy is upward of ten years.  Arvan men are slow in this department. 

This is an odd way to construct a time window for what should come next.  But it is the way I now think about things.  So I asked myself, what might be done in that time window?  Two imperatives arise from that inquiry.  One is more income generation.  There is no immediate need.  There are only potential threats down the road.  The biggies in this category are that the State of Illinois might fink on its pension obligations and long term care needs might emerge sooner rather than later.  My wife and I have some buffers to address these contingencies.  Those buffers could be more amply funded.  The other is to find something sufficiently substantial to occupy my thoughts when I otherwise feel productive.  For the last half dozen years or more, I've mainly been doing that by playing a latter day Paul Revere vis-√†-vis residential undergraduate education, particularly at public research universities.  The need is still there for somebody to do that.  But it is getting stale for me. I would like to see somebody else take up the mantle. 

A different theme that I could see occupying my time is how society is now wasting the human potential in people like me - old enough to have already had a full career, yet young enough to still have something left in the tank.  With the current labor market softness I doubt anybody will pay much attention to these issues in the near future.  But given current demographics, these are issues society will be grappling with for the indefinite future.  I have written about this in the past, multiple times.  This was my first stab at it, where I tried to tie the issue to the schools.  Yet that early thinking is fairly primitive.  And it is not sufficiently pragmatic.  There is a need for a more sophisticated line of thought as to what can work.  Nowadays, particularly in academia, many people hold onto their jobs for too long.  But who can blame them?  There isn't anything next to look forward to and thus encourage the graceful bow out. 

All of this is too somber thinking on which to conclude.  I have a need for lighter fare.  Almost immediately, that triggered thoughts about the Sunsweet Pitted Prunes commercial from almost fifty years ago.  They got rid of the pits, but haven't yet gotten rid of the wrinkles.  I hope they're still working on it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Honor Thy Father

Ask yourself, what little lessons from childhood stuck?  I have a couple of these that come from the weekends in the fall.  The first - you don't have to do a perfect job.  This came from raking leaves, of which there were so many it was hard to keep up.  Get most of them into a pile.  Then get most of the pile into the trash can.  As for the rest, they'd get picked up the next time.  The second - give him a chance.  We'd be playing association football in the street and when on defense we would want to tag the guy with the ball before the play ever really started.  My dad, who'd be playing along with us, would prevent us from making the early tag.  Give the guy who first gets the ball time enough to get started.  There's more fun in doing it that way, particularly when the players are unequal in skill and one of the less skilled players is the one who starts with the ball.

My dad was no philosopher.  But he had a sense about how to go about doing things that he imparted on his children.  I see him in my own values now.  Though the context is quite different, the issues that pop up are similar.  The students on campus now are like the fallen leaves in our yard from my childhood.  There are so many of them.  Doing a perfect job is out of the question.  Do these kids even get to where they're supposed to go?   Then, when you have a struggling student in your class, do you give him a chance?  Suppose doing so means you break the rules from the syllabus, because the kid only begins to initiate on homework after the deadline.  Which values should prevail?  There is a logic that says enforce the course rules throughout, because if you don't then when some kid is late with homework during the second half of the semester when you no longer want to do accept work after the deadline, don't you have to give him an extension too, out of fairness?   My head understands that argument.  Yet it is not the conclusion my dad would have reached. 

We are in week four of the term.  My class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays. I number my class sessions in the course calendar so I know yesterday was the seventh session.  That's still early in the semester by my count.  I queried my students in class about who was having a midterm already this week.  I tend to ask such questions a minute or two before the real class session starts, hoping some of the stragglers will get there before I really get going.  One student answered that he had a midterm later that afternoon.  Several other students indicated their first midterm would be next week.  I followed up by asking them: do they prefer to have their tests concentrated over a short period of time or spread out?  Among those who responded, they were universal in preferring their exams to be spread out so they could make proper preparation for each test.  It's a small class.  Treat that result as suggestive, not definitive.

Personally, I don't see the point of exams, in an upper level class like mine.  Where is the value add in that activity, especially if you have other low-stakes activities that motivate students to learn and enable them to express their level of understanding?   In my class the students do two different types of homework most weeks.  One is a weekly blog post, supposedly 600 words minimum, so this is in the spirit of "slow blogging," not of Twitter.  I write a comment on each post and then we discuss the posts collectively in the live class session. The other is analytical content done in Excel, where they receive immediate feedback for their answers and where they are instructed to do the homework till they've answered each question correctly.  The spreadsheet then spits out a key which they are to copy and paste into a Google Form and select their class-assigned alias along with that, for further identification.  Below is a snip of the submitted data for the homework that is due tonight.

Reading the comments you can see there is substantial variation among the students in their prior preparation and in their current understanding of the material.  Exams, in my view, measure as much or more differences among the students that were present before the class started than they do value add since the class has begun.  So the rich (academically-wise) get richer and the poor get the C's, or drop the class because they do even worse than that.  The only reason I give exams is because the department has mandated them.  And that mandate, in turn, is to prevent instructor shirking.  That, rather than student learning, is the fundamental reason to require exams.  Even with the mandate some instructors cut corners.  They make their final optional and give a third midterm on the last day of regularly scheduled class.  I don't know if that reduces the amount of grading they do or not.  Clearly, it does allow them to start on vacation earlier than is intended by the schedule.  On can see that if any of this helps the struggling student that assistance comes via serendipity, not intentional planning.

There is similar variation among students in their diligence as to getting course work done and in attending class.  Not enough of the students bring their A game as the norm in their own behavior.  I would much prefer that all the students come to class (except those who are really sick or who have a legitimate reason to be out of town, such as to go on a job interview).  We've been debating this issue about the benefit of attendance ever since I got involved in teaching and learning with technology, 20 years ago.  And I'm sure it was argued for many years before I paid attention to the debate.  Here I simply want to note that it is a different thing blowing off a lecture in Foellinger Auditorium at 8 AM to missing an upper level class with total enrollment of 25 students at 11 AM.  I'm afraid habits developed about the former come into play when making choices about the latter.  Those same habits will negatively impact these kids later, after they've left the U of I and try to make a place for themselves in the world.

Those same habits come into play in not doing the homework altogether or in getting it done late.  I would much prefer that all my students have good works habits.  But as an instructor you have to play the cards your dealt.  The issue is what to do, given that the reality is quite far from the ideal. 

Last week in class we spent much of the time discussing transaction costs (Coase). The blog posts the students wrote were to discuss their own experiences in organizations, with an eye on the transaction costs they witnessed.

I don't grade individual posts.  I do give extensive feedback as comments, but only give a grade at mid semester (and again at end of semester) on the collection of posts within that grading period.  I expect the students to improve in these over time and the grading is meant to take that into account. Yet while there was no grading this time, the posts did serve as a test of student understanding.  Alas, most of the students showed they didn't really get what transaction costs are about.  So we spent much of yesterday's class on transaction costs, again, though this time doing it from a different angle.

Transaction costs are those costs that govern transactions (as distinct from those costs that produce transactions, which we refer to as production costs, though parsing the two is easier in theory than in practice).  Transaction costs include monitoring performance, coordinating activities, and motivating participants to produce high quality.  So we spent some time in class discussing each of these activities, first using our class as an example, then using the content of their blog posts for further illustration.  When it came to discussing motivation costs, we focused on non-wage methods of motivation.  (We'll take up the wage methods in a few weeks.)

In that context I talked about reciprocation, a powerful social method of motivation, one often overlooked in economics courses.  It is the basis of my favorite paper for this course, Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.  We will cover the ideas in that paper later.  Yesterday I contented myself with talking about random acts of kindness and leadership by example. Since both encourage reciprocation they are potential ways to raise productivity in an organization by having the followers reciprocate in kind.

What I do is a meld of Coase filtered through Akerlof and my dad.  My dad would probably have been okay with Akerlof, but not with Coase, who was very Conservative in his views.  But then Coase might disavow what I do as too much wishful thinking, so it kind of equals out.

I try to write real and substantial comments on each of my students' posts, with the hope that the students will respond in kind and do this with real and substantial posts of their own.  Likewise, with the give him-a-chance-approach for the laggards, and note that it is him only and not her in this case, in other words gender does seem to matter on this score, the hope is that these kids will reciprocate by getting their work done on time thereafter and coming to class on a regular basis.

Last year I had mixed success doing this.  This time around I've been more explicit with the class in talking about reciprocation.  Several of those who got to submit work beyond the deadline have thanked me for that electronically.  One student came up to me after class yesterday, expressing his gratitude, saying he was surprised by my comments on his post, and then talking through what his obligations were for the class moving forward.  This kid has spoken up in class before and in my quick calculation he seemed to be among the few who had something on the ball.  (Some kids are diligent about the work but not particularly insightful about what is going on.  This kid appeared the opposite.)  It would be a real shame if this kid didn't engage with the class because he missed some of the deadlines before we really got into the subject matter.

There is another dimension to this issue.  I've got a high proportion of the class being students from China and for some of them their English is rather poor.  The language barrier serves as an additional hurdle and can be the cause of delinquency with the assigned work, even for students who are otherwise diligent.  On Sunday evening I had sent out emails to several students who hadn't complete some of the previously assigned work.  Among these two were Chinese students from whom I had received no work whatsoever. 

On of those responded to my email the next evening and we arranged to meet Tuesday morning at 9:45. (My class starts at 11.)  He blew off the meeting, which irked me.  He also didn't show up in class.  But the other guy (the two proved to be friends) did come to class, late. And after class he came up to me and started to explain his problems.  In the middle of that, the other kid also shows up, deeply apologetic.  As I gather what is going on I propose we find a table in BIF, get our laptops out, and see if I can get them caught up enough so they can do the rest of the catch up on their own.  This is what we proceed to do.

But only one of them has a laptop.  The other, who came to class late, apparently is having trouble with his campus email, so he never received the message from me on Sunday evening.  I resent that message to him from BIF, this time to a Gmail account.  And the one with a laptop discovers that he can't boot it.  The battery has run down.  Further he has no charger for it.  He proposed to go to the Undergraduate Library to get a charger.  I nix that idea, because I don't have the patience for it.  I'm also saying to myself, how can this kid carry around a laptop without also having a charger with him?   Instead, we go to the basement of Wohlers Hall, where CITES has a computer lab.  I get them up and running there.  They are very appreciative of the help and assure me they will get caught up ASAP.

(In the old days, meaning the late 1990s, I used to make it a requirement for my students to do an orientation session in a computer lab so I was assured they all were capable of doing the online portion of the class.  I stopped doing that when I started to teach smaller classes as an overload to my work as an administrator.  There really didn't seem to be a need.  But the reality is that there is still a need for some small fraction of the students to have such an orientation.  The issue, then, is how to manage that.)

Later that afternoon I started to get peppered with questions by email from one of these kids on how to complete the Excel homework.  Now that he has connected with me it is easier to ask the prof than to labor through figuring it out himself.  I did respond to the first few of these but then got the feeling that he has crossed the line in the other direction.  Students need to respect that the faculty member's time is scarce.

My approach doesn't convey that idea well.  In that sense it is not a model of what might diffuse more broadly yet still have some of my dad's give-him-a-chance as part of the whole.  So I've been wondering what else might diffuse more broadly and still embrace my father's spirit.

On Monday evening I went to a reception for the I-Promise program.  The Chancellor spoke and then there were presentations by students, one currently in the I-Promise program, the other an alum who now serves as a mentor to another I-Promise student.  Part of the program is that mentoring is made available to all students who enter the program.  The mentoring is an option the students can exercise or not as they see fit.

Three years ago I mentored an I-Promise student, my first experience doing so.  Two years ago I started out mentoring a different student, but then I had rotator cuff surgery which produced complications afterward.  I had to drop out as a mentor.  Last year I didn't get matched with a mentee.  There were more of us mentors to go around than there was expressed demand.  Part of the reason for going to the reception this time was to meet some of the new students and see if one of them would like to have me as mentor.  We'll see if that happens.

In the meantime a different thought has occurred to me.  The laggard students in my class are emblematic of a population of students who'd benefit from having a mentor, even if they are not from low income families.  That the need is there seem obvious.  How to identify such students surely is an issue, especially when they are freshman, where the mentoring would do the most good.  The campus is probably unable to extend the option provided to I-Promise students to all entering students.  There wouldn't be enough mentors to go around and matching mentees and mentors would be a gargantuan task if attempted at that scale.

So maybe the approach, if it happens at all, has to occur de facto rather than de jure.  Those who confront struggling freshman should embrace a give-him-a-chance approach as best as they can, in whatever context in which they operate.  Yet that does cut against the culture, particularly in the high enrollment classes students are apt to take while they are freshman.  

Do these arguments mean we do nothing?  I hope not.  There is a significantly sized population of discontented students.  And it doesn't have to be a perfect job.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ten years after - Dialogic Learning Objects/Embedded Assessment

I still design interactive homework in Excel and have already produced a couple this semester.  This tutorial, which should be accessible to anyone with a recent copy of Excel, whether they know how to use it or not, is training not on Excel per se, but rather on how to do my homework in a way so as not to get stuck on silly matters.  (Getting stuck on the economics is not silly.  That's how one learns.  Getting stuck on the technology is silly.)  It also provides some rationale for why it is good to have homework of this sort.  (If you plug in something in the NetID field and chose an alias from the pull down menu, and then proceed to answer all the questions in the tutorial correctly, you will get a Key for submitting online.  Please don't do that as the online submission of the key is meant only for students in the class.)

This next exercise on efficiency, which I made a couple of years ago, begins to look like real homework done this way.  It is review of what students should have learned in Intermediate microeconomics, though it turns out that the second worksheet is actually new content for a significant chunk of the class. 

And this last one on a strategic view of the Efficiency Principle (which says that parties in a bargain tend to arrive at efficient outcomes for the parties involved) I just finished writing yesterday.  If you go through it you will note that there is quite a bit of discourse in it.  The assessment that is within is in response to that discourse.  It measures understanding of that.  It is not assessment to test understanding of things presented elsewhere, where the student was expected to read that content first.

The idea that students learn new stuff while they do homework seems natural to me, but it is alien to much practice, which views homework as drill on content previously developed elsewhere.  My sense is that this is a the predominant view.  But it archaic and really should be replaced by something better.  If the students are learning, they are motivated.  If they are not learning but are made to go through hoops like circus animals do, that may satisfy somebody else in terms of providing evidence that the student has learned, but it does nothing whatsoever to light a fire under the student. 

This view, of new content mixed with assessment in a kind of back and forth, I called Dialogic Learning Objects 10 years ago. Others have referred to a similar idea, using the expression Embedded Assessment.  The assessment is embedded in the presentation. Yet whatever you call it most disciplines have not moved perceptibly in this direction.

It is my contention that the Publishers are primary force for stasis and that is because they make their money by selling textbooks, which are primarily presentation only - assessment done elsewhere as an add on.  Textbooks typically do have end of chapter problems and middle of chapter demonstrations that might be like the end of chapter problems.  But for giving student credit, they tend to rely on still something else.

A few years back, perhaps its now more than a decade, it became obvious that many students were not reading the textbooks, which suggests there should be less reliance on the textbook as part of the model for learning.  But it is still the way the publishers make their money.

It is my view therefore, that in this case sunk costs matter! (Contrary to the preaching of my discipline.)  Prior authored textbooks crowd out not yet authored dialogic learning objects, which are harder to produce and which name authors probably would be too impatient to develop.

Somebody should be asking - what can break this logjam?  That's the reason for this post.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Consequences from Finding Alternatives to Tax Revenues for Higher Ed Funding

A wise writer of detective fiction once remarked - follow the money.  The puzzle to be solved in this case is for public Higher Ed institutions that appear to be fiscally healthy.  First, how are they doing it, given the decline in state funding?  (Or, alternatively, given a rising cost environment with flat state funding?)  Second, are there strings attached to the new revenue sources and, if so, what sort of strings are they?  Of course, we should also include public sources, where there have always been strings.  For example, at Illinois there are lower bound constraints on how many students from in state would be admitted to the university.   There are also a host of state regulations that the university is subject to.  (The most recent one of these that I am aware of, instituted during my last year of of full-time employment 2009-10, is time reporting for full-time faculty and staff, an example of bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake.)

At Illinois,where there has been a to do about the Salaita matter, we've been getting a real time lesson about strings attached to gift income for the university, particularly when that income comes from donors who give a lot individually.  If the university engages in an action that the donor doesn't like (here I'm not going to get into whether that donor belief is reasonable or not) then the donor can threaten to withhold future donations, which may have already been anticipated by the university in its budgeting.  Apparently, several large donors made just such threats over the Salaita appointment. Put a different way, in addition to the tax deduction the donor receives and the benefit that the gift the donor gives will provide (say to fund an endowed chair, in which case the benefit is to support the research of the chair holder), the donor expects to have some influence on future decisions the university will make.  Much of that influence is probably exerted outside of public view, by having private audience with top university administrators.  On the flip side of this, it is well known that much of the time that the campus top administrators put in goes to fund raising.  That often happens without much comment at all, as if the gifts are "free money."  One thing the Salaita case surely has done is to remind us that there are strings attached to these gifts. 

In this piece I'd actually like to focus on a different source of funding, using the above only as motivation to ask the question. The other source is the tuition revenue generated by international students.  (See line 3652.)  There has been a near doubling of international students on campus in the last 10 years.  The base rates for tuition of undergraduates can be found at the link. (Many colleges have a surcharge beyond the base rate.  LAS does not.)   Together these two tables create an interesting picture.

I'm old enough to remember back when US News & World Report would rate the U of I as a "best buy" for undergraduate education.  (In contrast, now even the in state tuition is pretty hefty.)   At the time the fraction of in state students exceeded 90% of the total undergraduate population.   And then, in my view, the students would have benefited from there being more out-of-state students, primarily because there tends to be a kind of provincialism of the kids, who are mainly from the northern and western suburbs of Chicago.  So having other students around who've grown up in different environments would have been a benefit unto itself.  Yet that doesn't explain what is going on with international students now.

Though there isn't published data on who pays full tuition and who is getting some discount, it is evident that the bulk of the international students are paying full fare.  And it is further evident that the vast majority are from Asia, mainly China.  The tuition these students pay is making up a good chunk of the shortfall in state funding.  Is this found money?  If it is not, what are the strings attached?

The above is factual.  Now I will venture into guesswork, but there is some economic basis for the guesswork.  The economics is that the "demand" for spots at the university by international students is far more elastic than the demand by in-state students, because once you're paying international student rates there are a host of institutions that might be attractive to such students, including universities outside the U.S. and private universities within the U.S.  So, purely on the economics, it appears to me that my campus has a not-well-diversified portfolio of international students (diversified in the sense of coming from many different countries around the globe) yet where, looking into the future, the demand of such students is fairly elastic.  This looks like trouble in the making.  In other words, the near future is likely to look unlike the recent past.  Let me explain why.

The university has a great reputation in Asia, particularly for Engineering.  That explains the current demand.  Also, the high rating of the Accounting department for undergraduate education, in particular, has spurred the international demand for seats in Business.  But the numbers of international students has gotten sufficiently great that many of them must enroll in other colleges, notably LAS.

This semester in my Economics of Organizations class, out of a total enrollment at present of 25 students, 9 have Asian sounding surnames.  Of these 7 are from China, 1 is from Korea, and 1 from New Jersey.  (When I was growing up in New York City, we used to think of New Jersey as a foreign country, but that is a different matter.)  All the other students are in state. If you compute the fractions, I have 32% international students and 36% from out of state, a bit higher than would be predicted from the campus averages.  Perhaps those Asian students in LAS find Economics an attractive major.  I don't know and the numbers are too small for my class to speculate further based on just that.

But if you look at a rating of undergraduate economics in the U.S., such as this one, you can see there are alternatives to Illinois that are rated higher, including four public universities from within the Big Ten. 

To my knowledge, the campus has not yet gone on a program to shore up offerings in departments outside of Engineering and Business that would appeal to students, particularly from China.  Doing so would require additional resources, which have already been allocated to other purposes.  Rather, it seems that the campus has followed a strategy of "cashing in" on the its reputation.  What will happen when there are a sufficient number of Chinese alums from Economics, and other departments that are now a haven for Chinese students, especially if in retrospect their views of their own education are not so glowing? 

A possible alternative approach in anticipation of a weakening in such demand would be further belt tightening now.  But belt tightening in Higher Ed is always done grudgingly or is resisted outright, with a prayer that the revenue shortfall is temporary and some bailout will be forthcoming soon.  Now, when there do seem to be adequate revenues, it is hard to imagine how such belt tightening will happen. 

Until now in this post, I have focused only on economic issues.  Let me briefly consider social/political issues.  This is not by any means to exhaust the possibilities.  It is merely to suggest that the scope of strings attached is quite broad and also to raise the possibility that many of these will be hard to anticipate ahead of time. 

One that is plain is that international students are here in part for reasons of acculturation.  What is it like to be American?  How do American students act in college?  Since there seems to be a clustering of students outside of class by national origin, this puts a premium on in class interactions.  In this view, the American students who speak up in class are providing a cultural benefit to the Chinese students.  Those American students who remain quiet are not.  In my class, where there is also online writing, something similar is afoot there.  But since all students must blog in the class, it is a course requirement, with the writing it is the lively bloggers who provide the cultural benefit for the other students.

Take the above and now consider kids from the Chicago suburbs versus kids from down state.  The latter are likely to have gone to a smaller high school, one less well funded, and with fewer options for enrichment.  Over the years, the campus has felt some imperative to admit such students because of their potential, coupled with the geography; their county is underrepresented on campus.  But, it should be recognized, these kids are more likely to feel like a fish out of water when attending the university and even if they overcome that feeling to some degree, they are more apt to be quiet in class.  That may not have been much of a liability in the past.  Will it increasingly become a liability as we move into the future, given this new economic model?

I don't see these sort of questions being asked elsewhere.  In my view, they are issues that need to be discussed and thought through.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Not drinking when in the presence of other people who do

Inspired by this Mark Bittman column (see above) I thought I'd relay my experience this past weekend when with the family I was in Texas (mostly Bulverde, a suburb of San Antonio) to visit my sister-in-law and to attend the memorial for her former husband.  There was a lot of hanging around and sharing stories about Randy, good for providing comfort for all and especially as a release for my sister-in-law.  In the late afternoon and evening most of the adults (sometimes including my kids) had a margarita or a beer or a glass of wine in their hands.  Friday, which was the day we arrived and everybody else who was at my sister-in-law's other than her niece was a sibling or a member of the sibling's family, I was the only non-drinker in the crowd.  Saturday after the memorial, there probably was well over a 100 people at my sister-in-law's, most of whom sat outside, under tents for blocking the sun.  There were a lot of young kids and their parents, mainly children and grandchildren of my sister-in-law.  That evening there were quite a few non-drinkers.  They had bottled water.  It was hot outside.

My abstemious behavior is temporary, I hope.  It is the anchor of a self-defined diet, which I've been on now nearing three months.  The point of not drinking is not to cut out the calories in the alcohol per se, but rather to deter binge eating.  After a couple of drinks I'm prone to overindulge food-wise.  Even without the alcohol, there has been the occasional binge of over eating.  But this way it is not quite so dramatic and is of shorter duration, so I can more readily return to the routine of the diet.

I've lost 25 pounds so far, a large enough chunk that it is noticeable to me.  My goal is to lose 38 more pounds, which would get me to my weight when I got married. Last week before going to Texas I became somewhat more optimistic that I will reach this goal.  I finally seemed to figure out how to do the elliptical, for long enough that my breathing and sweating reminded me of the feeling I had when I used to jog.  Walking, which had been my mainstay and which will remain as a good part of my exercise hereafter, never gave that aerobic feel.  Doing the elliptical is therefore a plus.  I have an intuition that if I can stay with it and the diet, the weight will keep coming off.  We'll see.

If that's true, at or near the time I reach my goal I will return to drinking, in moderation, perhaps in a different pattern than before, one where the social situation should dictate what's appropriate, and when I'm home drink little or not at all.  But thinking about that is getting ahead of myself, not a good thing to do.  For the time being, it is the straight and narrow for me.  This brings me back to the Texas trip and what I learned from it. 

When away from home there are many sorts of stress that you don't think of normally.  One of those for me was the type of food we were eating.  Much of it was very starchy.  At home I try to have a lot of fruit and vegetables.  That was harder to do in Texas.  Plus the food was out all the time - chips, cookies, cake, etc.  Snacking was there as part of providing comfort.  I understood that yet I found that now my resistance was being tested further.  That made it harder to not drink.  And it made me a bit irritable.

Then there is the more usual stress.  I am not a good traveler.  I typically don't sleep well in a hotel room and my digestion goes haywire as a result of the plane ride.  Plus, when I'm in Texas with family, I feel like the outsider even though each one of the extended family is very friendly to me and I'm comfortable with them.  The outsider feeling comes from something else; the state itself seems crazy to me.  One indicator of this is the massive amount of new housing under construction, while at the same time the place is in the midst of a drought, one that is beginning to seem like a permanent condition.  The craziness contributes to my sense of unease.  All of this weakens my resolve.

I wish I could report some silver bullet for dealing with it all.  I don't have one.  Instead, my message for others who are trying to not drink temporarily is to minimize such situations, if possible.  Even though I didn't break down on this trip, I might very well do so on the next one.  Best to not have too many experiences with this sort of temptation.

I suspect it is not the same when at home going out with some friends who drink.  That would only be for a few hours, at most, and so should be easier to manage.  My curiosity has me wanting to experience that, to see if my conjecture is correct.  But my desire to stick with the diet trumps that.  Playing a game of chicken with yourself to see how much you can tolerate is probably not healthful.  Losing the weight is.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Quick Review of Kindle Fire HD 7"/Traveling without a laptop


This device was somewhat dated when I purchased it, in July, which is one reason the price was so reasonable, $139.  In this review I will consider the device only from the point of view of my own use pattern.  Tablets to me are eReaders.  I don't care to watch video on them, so I will not evaluate that function.  I also don't care to write longish pieces on them, so will only consider the input function in passing.  It is the reading function that is primary to me and what I will focus on.  I do sometimes listen to music when reading. At home I've used Spotify on the device and that has worked well.  On my latest trip, however, I opted not to listen to music while reading.  That was, in part, because I was traveling with the family and wanted to more alert to what is going on.  It was also a little bit of an experiment to see whether the reading benefited or not without having the music.

For me this device was a replacement for the original iPad I had that reached end of life.  That is how the review will be framed.

Form Factor

I have come to like the Kindle Fire for its size and weight.  The screen is big enough for it to feel like reading a book and not like rapid page turning, as on a regular size phone. Initially I had some trouble with how to hold the thing.  I like it to be in landscape mode.  When you do that, on one side of the device in the back is the power on/off button.  On the other side is the volume control for the audio.  If you hold the device on the side, you're apt to push one of those buttons, which is the pain.

I've found that if you hold the device on the bottom in the middle, between your thumb and index finger, that works pretty well.  It also has the feel of reading a paper if, like me, you didn't worry about breaking the binding while reading the book.

I want to contrast this with how I read on the iPad, where the device typically would rest in my lap, because it was too heavy to hold up with my hands.  As a result my neck would be stressed as my head would be looking down toward my lap.  Given my arthritis, this really isn't a good thing to do for very long.  Holding the device closer to eye level is much better and that is easy to do with the Kindle Fire.

Other things I like about it

The navigation scheme to find the functionality you want is pretty easy to learn.  The tool for handling network connections works well.  The built in browser, called Silk, has nice function and there is a way for it to display just the article you are currently reading and not other stuff on the page, so it is not bad as a reader.  The email tool works fine.  Font size in all the applications is quite reasonable.

You buy this things, of course, because you read Kindle books.  The current book you are reading displays with the main applications.  That is nice, so you have quick access to it.

A few complaints

If you want to put the screen to sleep, you do that with a quick tap of the power button.  Fine.  Another quick tap brings up a screen that has ads on it, where you need to slide a bar to access to the home page.  The time and the amount of power left on the machine is on the page with the ads, not on the home page.  I didn't mind the ads per se, but one in a while I do want to know the time and how much juice the thing has left in it.  That functionality really should be on the home page.  That it is on the page with ads makes you feel like the did that so you'd see more ads.  That was irksome.

In the Kindle application itself, sometimes the word lookup function would launch itself when I didn't intend it.  My sense of this is that by holding the device at bottom center, I would put a fair amount of pressure there and sometimes must have made the device think I was putting pressure on the screen, though I wasn't doing that.  In contrast, however, when I did try to use the word lookup function and the word in question was somewhere near the middle of the screen, I couldn't activate the lookup function then.  Similarly, I had trouble with copy, particularly of a url, though I've also had that trouble on my phone and on the iPad.

Once in a while when trying to find the home screen, the device would seemingly take you to a different screen that had more limited options.  I never found a direct way back to the home screen.  Instead, I would launch an application and from there go to the home screen.

Traveling without a Laptop

For composing short email or writing a quick Facebook status update, the Kindle Fire is fine.  The built in keyboard is adequate and even with the smaller screen there is enough area displayed to make the writing task not too arduous.  If you want to longish blog posts, such as this one, that would be painful on the Kindle Fire.  On my most recent trip I didn't expect to do any longer writing.  The no laptop concept worked well that way and using a very small bag (to hold the power cords of both my iPhone and the Kindle Fire, the devices themselves when not in use, and my sunglasses) really is nice.  That sort of bag fits in the pocket under the tray table on the plane.  It is very convenient.  For short trips, this is the way to go. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

PowerPoint for First Class Session

The file for download.  (A preview is given, but for the actual file you must download it.)
A pdf version.    (Here the preview has pretty much all the functionality that the file itself has, so download may not be necessary.)

Why am I showing this?  PowerPoint is so ho-hum.  First, let me say that I plan to email currently registered students with these links before the session, then I'll only go over the latter part in class with the actual PowerPoint.  The first part we'll discuss but I will leave the projector muted and try to get class participation going throughout the discussion.  Second, since undoubtedly some students will add after the first session, this gives them something they can use to catch up with their classmates.  But third, the style of presentation is meant as a model for student created presentations (that they can do for extra credit).  It's this third bit that I want to briefly discuss.

The style is meant to mimic a white paper with an executive summary.  The full paper is seen in the notes, with the slide then acting as a header for that section.

The executive summary part can be seen by watching and listening to the presentation when in Slideshow mode.  It should play automatically and can be paused at any time by right clicking on the slide.  (Mac friends - I haven't tested this on a Mac and would be curious to know if it works.)  Most of the slides have images and are very spartan on the text (slide title and back link to where the image was obtained only).  The issue is whether that conveys the gist of the matter.

There is accompanying music.  It may seem gratuitous at first, because the song is not related to the displayed content.  But there are a few sensible reasons for having it.  First, if the song is already familiar to the viewer, then it gives an intuitive way of communicating to the viewer how long the entire show is (in this case 2:32).  Second, it means that if the viewer is watching the show then the viewer is not listening to other audio from the same device.  (In contrast if the slideshow were of much longer duration and there was voice over of the slides, a fairly typical approach for flipped classroom presentations, then it is my experience as a viewer to listen to the voice but view some other content while doing so.)  Entirely prohibiting the viewer from multi-processing is impossible, but maybe this encourages the viewer to pay attention only to this slideshow for the brief time it takes to go through it.

It takes much more time to make a PowerPoint in this manner.  The big deal is image selection.  The person making the presentation has to give some thought to what sort of image is desirable and then must match that ideal with the images that turn up in a search.  It is my contention that this activity produces very similar thinking to the type of thinking one should go through when writing an executive summary.  This is why the presentation style is attractive to me.

I'll close with a mention of Fair Use.  My sense of things is that on the images I'm pretty much okay. (Though on one slide I noticed a mark on the image of the instructor, after viewing it in Slideshow mode.  I hadn't noticed the mark beforehand.)  But on the music, I'm probably not.  I've used an entire song and it is still under copyright.  On the other hand, the music is from fifty years ago, so it should be in the public domain.  And there is a video of the song in YouTube.  So...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why are there bad teachers........with tenure?

This is going to be an unpopular post, perhaps not with my friends and colleagues, but with the mainstream, certainly.  I think the analysis of Secretary Duncan, Representative Johnston, and Frank Bruni who authored the piece linked below, is flawed in some serious ways which are not acknowledged here.  If those flaws were examined, perhaps we'd get to something sensible.

First, let me construct the mindset of this piece, written from the perspective of a new principal who has come to a school that is not functioning well.  There are some teachers who seem engaged, enthusiastic, and effective.  There are other teachers who appear uncaring, pessimistic, and who teach poorly.  The principal would like to get rid of this latter group and replace them with younger teachers who are in the former group.  That would both improve performance of the students and do better on the bottom line as well.  You see, the bad teachers tend to have a lot of seniority and are therefore paid more.  If one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel then it seems reasonable to get rid of them as they emerge.  What is wrong with that?

Now let us ask why are there bad teachers with seniority?  Below are three possible answers.

  • These teachers were bad from the get go. But they nevertheless got through the screening process that grants tenure.  
  • These teachers were good and enthusiastic when they started.  Over time, however, they got burned out on the job.  The burn out resulted because the system itself is not very supportive of teachers, or because they hadn't planned on making teaching a lifetime avocation and when they found other alternatives dry up they became disenchanted with the job, or because there was insufficient professional development for experienced teachers and they felt isolated from their peers.  
  • These are actually good teachers who are being labeled as bad.  These teachers reject the teach to the test mindset that has permeated the culture and continue to teach their students in a broad manner.  The students are, in fact, learning.  It is just that given the external measures that are in place those outside this classroom can't tell.  
Note that one can make each of these answers a good deal more complex.  So, for example, with the bad teacher from the get go, the teacher might do things to mask this.  Once tenure has been granted, however, the mask is then removed.  It has no purpose any longer.

I don't want to rule out the complexity, nor do I want to assert that there are only three possible explanations.   And among the three I don't know which is the most likely explanation.  For what I have to say next, it doesn't matter.

Each of these explanations has implicit in them that the system is failing.  It doesn't identify the good and bad teachers very well (the first and third explanations) or it seems to encourage those who are good teachers when they are more junior to become bad teachers as they gain seniority.  If that is true, why would a talented person want to become a teacher?

Just as much of the point, why blame individual bad teachers and not discuss the systemic issues with teaching (of which I'm sure there are a boatload)?  Until that happens, we'll continue to get this myopic and flawed discussion of what's at issue.

Representative Johnston was a principal.  But he didn't stick with that work.  Why not?  Teach for America, which on the one hand is noble and on the other hand wrong headed, encourages a Peace Corps like approach to education but once the teachers have gotten their fingers dirty they then move on to other careers.  What will it take to get talented and dedicated people to stay as teachers for their entire careers?   That question needs a serious answer.

I normally like Frank Bruni's columns, but he has got it wrong on this issue.  And that he quotes Whoopi Goldberg in the piece shows there is something amiss.  She is a funny lady and certainly has a lot of name recognition.  But does she have expertise on this matter?  If not, why does her name appear here?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Essence of Education

I agree with this piece.  If others did too we could get on with the important issues of what activities are the basis for a highly sympathetic and reciprocal relationship between students and their teacher.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves

Judging by the very large number of status updates in Facebook about Robin Williams that I saw each of the last two nights, his death had a profound effect on many.  As my friend Rich pointed out, it was not so long ago that Philip Seymour Hoffman also passed away.  Drugs were part of the picture in both cases.  For the bulk of us who didn't know these artists personally, it is impossible to distinguish root cause from symptom as we learn what transpired.

But it may be a good time for us to reflect more broadly about depression, because it is a subject we tend to avoid entirely unless immediately confronted by it, yet if we were more aware about it we might very well be able to lessen its likelihood, in ourselves as we confront challenges that at first may seem overwhelming, and possibly in our friends and colleagues, the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure the operative consideration, even if our impact on others is at best a tertiary effect.  Indeed, my friend Dave posted a link in Facebook aimed at educating readers about the difference between depression and sadness as well as on the connection between depression and suicide.  There is a similar such explanation about clinical depression at the WebMD site, especially valuable if you are looking for a reference not tied to the current events about Robin Williams.

These links are helpful.  Nonetheless, I found them less than fully satisfying.  They said not a whit about the antecedents to depression.  If there is to be prevention, that is where it needs to be situated.  In particular, ask the following question and do so about yourself, assuming you are mentally okay now.  How would you react if you then found yourself in circumstances where you felt the situation was quite harmful to you yet you also felt in over your head with no obvious way out?  Suppose, after that, that the situation persisted for some time.  Would you then get depressed?

Some people would not.  They'd fight it and they'd keep fighting it.  They might get angry.  They might turn bitter at others, particularly those they believed to be the source of the stress.  To bystanders, fighting it and getting depressed might look similar.  In both cases the person is unhappy.  Yet they are not the same.  Fighting it means you have a sense of agency about yourself.  Depression means you feel it is hopeless and you are impotent to do anything about it.

Personally, I don't like the "fighting it" metaphor.  Where possible, I much prefer reason to brute force.  I think of the issue as problem solving.  If you are working toward problem solution then there is no reason to be depressed, as you may very well come up with an answer.  Having the ability to solve problems and being aware of that ability definitely does give a personal sense of agency.  Depression then might be found in getting stuck on solving the problem, knowing it is imperative to find a solution, but not seeing any path toward that solution.  

My friend Chris posted a link to this piece in Slate, which refers to depression as mental illness.  I obviously don't know the author's circumstance.  In this piece she is writing mainly about Robin Williams and the issue of whether he knew others loved him.  She is right in asserting that even that knowledge is not sufficient to overcome depression.  Yet I was not happy with her insistence on using mental illness as a label.  Part of depression is the person's mindset, sure.  But the environment where the person finds himself matters too.  It matters a lot.  That is not captured in the expression mental illness.

Many people have shame about their self-perceived inabilities.   Shame is itself not a signpost of depression.  But it can serve to block potential preventatives to depression because often one won't find those by oneself.  One needs to solicit others for suggestions or have others present those suggestions like manna from heaven - no solicitation required.

I had depression when I was in tenth grade.  My life seemed to be getting out of control.  I also started to find the "good student" thing very artificial, but I had no alternative to take its place.  And my weight ballooned upward.  I was overeating like crazy.  It may have given some immediate comfort, but it was also part of the downward spiral.  I never told any of my friends and classmates, so they didn't know at the time.  But I believe one day my mother stormed into the school and yelled at some of the teachers.  How could they let this happen?  The irony is that at core my relationship with my mother was the reason for my depression.

I sensed the makings of another round of  depression in the fall semester of my second year of college.  It didn't get as far.  The prior experience in high school helped me understand the early warning signs.  I did find a way out.  I transferred from MIT to Cornell.  Sometimes we label people who give up as quitters and perhaps in some of those cases the label is apt.  But it is important to understand that what is fundamental is that the person not quit on himself.  Going down with the ship may be what the captain is duty bound to do.  Yet it is foolhardy to think that staying at a place is the responsible course of action, particularly if suicide will become a likelihood as a consequence. 

When I was at MIT it "led the country" in student suicides.  One consequence of that fact, there were no grades during the freshman year.  Instead, all courses were pass/no credit and students received written evaluations from their instructors about the quality of the work they produced and, in some cases, about their in class performance.  This is the most humane institutional response to the issue that I am aware of.  It clearly was meant as a preventative, one given in a high touch manner.  I wish I saw more such interventions.

During my years as a graduate student at Northwestern, there was a documentary produced by PBS called College Can Be Killing.  It contrasted student life at Northwestern (in some cases not healthy) with student life at Wisconsin (a more normal environment).  If I recall correctly, the film took to task the concept of a single room in a dorm.  The argument was made that interaction with roommates was crucial for the mental health of the student.  A loner by nature who becomes isolated socially has a much larger chance of going over the deep end.  This, in itself, means that introverts are more likely candidates for depression than extroverts.  But let us not confound this.  Introverts can be full of vitality and enthusiastic about their own prospects.  It takes other factors beyond the introversion for depression to manifest.

Eric Hoffer, the working man's philosopher, observed that past success by an individual offers no guarantee of success in future endeavors.  Where we may have displayed our brilliance before, we may be consigned to mediocrity henceforth.  We don't know.  And we won't know unless we give it a try and see what happens.  The issue can vex young people, who see expectations about their performance continue to rise, as that rise in performance had been the pattern, yet they themselves feel they've plateaued, unable to climb any higher, or are frightened by the prospect of transcending themselves.  The issue can also vex older people, who see evidence that their own capacities are diminishing and who come to expect that they will never again attain the heights of performance that they've previously achieved.

If one's sense of self worth is wrapped up in one's ability to perform, that coupled with Hoffer's observation can then be a potential source of depression.  This may catch others off guard, as they view the person as highly talented and quite capable.  But the individual himself may perceive he is in decline, with no way out of the hole.

I was in that trap in tenth grade.  It took between five and ten years beyond that to discover a personal philosophy that was more sustaining, even if the ingredients for that philosophy were already there the entire time.  I needed to give myself a break and get away from this focus on performance as the definer or self worth.  What I learned is to see that more as emerging from personal idiosyncrasy, goofiness, and lighthearted play.  I have found solace in that view since.

One's personal philosophy must match one's personality.  It therefore can't be ready made by others.  It must be discovered for oneself.  In some sense, then, depression is a consequence of not finding a suitable personal philosophy when the environmental stress is especially strong. 

Let me close with a disclaimer.  Much of my writing should be classified as intelligent speculation, steeped in my own experience and prior thought.  I am not a health care professional.  I don't know that those who are would agree with everything I've said.  Others in my position might err on the side of caution by not giving their opinions publicly.  I have chosen not to do so because I believe preventatives do exist, so having some sense of what causes depression is useful.  The operative mantra then - be kind to others and to yourself.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Fair use for the faculty creator - where are we now?

As a vestige of my old campus job I'm still on the listserv for OER-Community, where I lurk and from time to time read the messages.  OER stands for Open Educational Repository.  This particular list is moderated by Susan D'Antoni of UNESCO and is hosted by Athabasca University.  The big picture goal for list members is for developed countries to re-purpose educational materials they've already produce and then make those materials freely available for use in developing countries.  Those materials would reside in an OER.  This model takes after MIT's Open Courseware Initiative (OCW).  The goals that the OER movement advocates for are noble.  I embrace those goals.

However, I am less enamored with the OER mechanism for achieving the goals.  In other words, I am no fan of repositories.  Here are two reasons why.  One is technical.  The other is ethical.  On the technical side search, a la Google's search engine or the search engine of competitors, obviates the need by potential users of the educational materials to browse in a single location to find what is good and useful for them.  All that is required is for the materials to be readily available online and to be linked to on some Web page.  This is a very low threshold for participation by providers of open content.  The search engines would do the rest.

The repositories, such as OCW, receive the Institutional branding of the host.  MIT got a lot of publicity out of OCW.  The marketing value of such branding confounds the reasons for engaging with OER.  The noble goals get blended together with institutional advancement.  Some might argue that is a good thing because grass roots efforts at Open Education will invariably have little impact only.  One needs a more systematic approach to scale up Open Educaiton.  I have heard this argument on multiple occasions, but I don't buy it.  I believe the institutional branding is ultimately corrupting unless it serves as a first step towards a repository that aggregates across many institutions.  I note that on the research side of the equation, which has gotten a lot less publicity as of late say as compared to MOOCs, there has been this sort of aggregation.  So, for example, the Institutional Repository on my campus, IDEALS, has become a member of the Open Library project, which is such an aggregator.  To my knowledge, the same sort of thing is not happening in the Open Education space.

There is the further issue, which gets me closer to the theme of this piece, that the repository approach does nothing about influencing the campus culture, to make it more amenable to Open Education.  Why should there be the need to re-purpose educational materials at all?  What aren't these materials freely available from the get go?  One might envision some grand conspiracy as answer to this question.  The reality is much more humdrum, in my view.  Nobody gives the matter a lot of thought.  People just assume that educational materials belong inside a Learning Management System (LMS).  Such systems happen to be closed, not open.

Here is a recent bit of evidence to illustrate.  The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning on my campus is giving some training for new TAs next week.  I am doing a session for them on Socratic Dialog.  In an email that informed me of the classroom where my session would be held, there was a request for materials that I've produced for the session.  The number attending the training is in the thousands.  My particular session has a capacity of about 50.  Conceivably there are others who would have wanted to come but my session competed with something else they also wanted to see.  So the request for these materials is to help graduate students in this category.  Fine.

As part of the request, I was told the materials would reside within the campus LMS and only attendees of the training would have access.  Implicit in this message was an argument that I should be more willing to release my materials in this way because of their limited distribution.  It is this implicit argument that I'm referring to when talking about the campus culture.

In the old days (late 1990s through early 2000s) some faculty didn't want to release their materials broadly for a variety of reasons.  One reason that I'm mildly sympathetic to is that broad availability of the content would serve as a disincentive for students to come to class.  For a while there was a big deal made about students who would attend class, take notes, and then make those notes available to other students (for a fee).  However else you felt about this behavior, you'd have to agree that it gave evidence of demand for this sort of content.  Another reason for reluctance to make the content publicly available is that the instructor may have entertained thoughts of eventually producing a textbook and wanted to maintain control of their materials until then.  Perhaps these reasons are still with us.  I don't know.  My guess is that for the most part they no longer are, for the vast majority of instructors who do produce their own content.  What remains, instead, is a gut reaction to want to keep content under password protection for limited distribution, without much if any justification as to why.

If this is right, then moving the campus culture towards an embrace of Open Education would take substantial time and effort.  In turn, that would require leadership, championing by various faculty who would be motivated not by institutional glory but rather by the noble ideas that are behind OERs.  Yet I'm afraid such faculty would nonetheless meet resistance from the campus - for legal reasons.  And they might themselves become fearful as a result.  Here is the issue, which I can illustrate with the content I've produced for grad student training. 

An Inquiry into Socratic Dialog (pptx format)
An Inquiry into Socratic Dialog (pdf format)

Note that this is an ordinary PowerPoint presentation.  There is nothing special about it.  I've made it available to anyone with an Internet connection.  I'm using my campus account at for hosting the content.  Anyone on campus can get such an account.  So, technology-wise, there is no trouble whatsoever in making such content open.

Most of the text in this presentation was written by me.  Where I use the words of others, I cite the author.  There is very little of such content, so I don't believe there is any issue with plagiarism or copyright for the written stuff.  And if I had contained the presentation simply to text, there wouldn't be much of an issue at all.

But I didn't do that.  Most of the slides have images on them.  Those images are there to improve the presentation, to make the viewers better able to connect to the ideas.  This is why any author employs somebody else's work.  The mixture of stuff I've created with other stuff that I've found is better than what I could produce on my own, if I had to make everything from scratch.  This is not to say that what is there now is anything to write home about.  It is just to affirm that without the images, the quality would be worse.

These images were found via Google Image search.  The originals, from which I made copies, reside on open Web pages.  I chose images that seemed best to match my text content.  I omitted images that had an obvious watermark.  As it turned out these two criteria were sufficient to have each image come from a different source.  In the past when I've done this sort of thing for my own course, I've provided back links for the images to where I found them, this to show that I didn't plagiarize the images.  I didn't do that this time around because I needed to get the thing done.  (The reader should readily attribute the real cause - my sloth.) I mention this so as to not confound it with the real issue, which is copyright.  Providing back links in no way protects me from the charge that I've copied this content without getting permission from the content authors, who wouldn't have granted permission had they known about it.

Far greater protection against the charge of copyright violation comes from the observation that I'm a nobody and this content is far from extraordinary.  So it will get very limited viewing.  In other words, the probability that I will be detected violating copyright is nil.  Partly for this reason, I make all my educational content open.  A second reason for making open content is that in the little experience I've had with complaints about copyright, I simply took down the content and that proved sufficient redress.  The third reason is that I feel that I should be legally entitled to make my stuff publicly available - with the pictures included - because the Fair Use exception to copyright is meant to cover content such as my presentation.

(Sidebar:  This blog has a Creative Commons License.  Non-commercial users are free to copy the content and re-purpose for their own use, though I do ask for attribution when they do so.  However, the images that are in that PowerPoint can't possibly be covered by this license, since I don't own the copyright to the images.  That is likewise true for many other images found on the blog.)

If we are to get leadership that moves the culture on campus to an Open Education approach, those leaders will need visibility to achieve that end.  Some of the content they produce, then, should get substantial viewing and with that the content should produce benefit in an overt and obvious way.  Projecting my own preferences onto such leaders (what I would do if I had the ability to make highly viewed content) I would be quite willing to push on the Open Education button and endure the seemingly endless arguments from others on campus who would like to maintain the current approach where most stuff ends up in the LMS, with one proviso.  I would not want to expose myself to potential liability from copyright violation.  I would take steps to avoid that, if it otherwise seemed a likelihood.

In my years as a campus level administrator, I sought clarity on those sorts of things that were protected by Fair Use.  I was never able to obtain that from Campus Legal.  I can understand why lawyers don't want to overtly draw a line, but times have changed and Open Education has far more potential now than it did then.  The public is now focused on containing the cost of higher education.  Open content would not be a full solution to that, to be sure, but it is not hard to see that it could be an important piece of the puzzle. For that to come about, however, there needs to be a fairly aggressive view of Fair Use, embraced by those faculty leaders who will drive the change in culture.

Even idealists are cognizant of practical reality.  Such an aggressive interpretation of Fair Use must be based on some actual precedent.  So I ask, where are we now on Fair Use, particularly as it obtains to the type of content Faculty produce for instruction?