Sunday, August 02, 2015

Quid and Quo, Pros and Cons

What follows is some puzzling by me about all the money in our national politics, particularly on the Republican side, given the large number of announced candidates.  I want to think of this from the point of view of the billionaire donor.  (Obviously, this is not an example of experiential learning.  I don't know any billionaires and I'm inclined to disbelieve how they are portrayed in the media.)  Is contributing handsomely to the super PAC of a dark horse candidate a good investment?  Or is it frivolous - every super rich person wants their own personal candidate like they want their own customized yacht for the America's Cup?

In asking this question lets ask another one that is related.  Does it matter whether the person is a self-made billionaire or if the wealth was inherited?  And here is still another question.  Does it matter whether these donors were activist in politics before the Citizens United decision?  In other words, if there are newbie donors among the group are they motivated to give to their preferred candidate for different reasons?

Now a few asides before getting to these questions.  In the old days there was machine politics.  There was the notion of a smoke filled room where the real decisions were made.  Jimmy Carter has gotten some attention recently for calling the U.S. an oligarchyBernie Sanders has been saying the same thing for quite a while.  Sanders has a Norman Rockwell painting of a town meeting featured in that piece.  Not that it didn't happen, but it is misleading as a caricature of our past politics.  Everyone knows from the history books the name of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. That stuff didn't end in the 19th century.  When I was a grad student at Northwestern (starting in 1976) the first Mayor Daley was still running Chicago, and his machine was still functioning strong, though it did start to break down after Daley passed away and his successor Bilandic didn't get the plows out during the massive snowstorm in 1979

There is also the issue of dynastic families and national politics.  This goes far back, at least to John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams.  (Whether there were family dynasties present in colonial politics, I do not know.)  Keeping it in the family is a different way to concentrate power.  

Is it possible that power in politics has always been concentrated in America and that the only thing which is new is that the locus of this concentration has changed?

This is not to defend concentration of power as a good thing, but simply to observe that we're a republic not a direct democracy.  Further, to the extent that our interests and views are heterogeneous and our influence individually essentially nil, the nature of the politics itself encourages special interests with some power to express that in a way.  Consequently, concentration of power is something that an economic analysis of politics would predict.  One should not expect it can be eradicated entirely, but there may be good and bad ways of doing this.  In my view, that is a better way to frame the issue around Citizen's United than to hearken back to a Norman Rockwell ideal, one which doesn't give a good picture of how things really were.

Now back to the puzzling.  I recently read a piece by Malcolm Gladwell that he wrote five years ago about how entrepreneurs really make their money.  It is an interesting read in itself because it challenges the popular notion that it is high risk tolerance, "animal spirits" if you will, which distinguishes the entrepreneur from the rest of the population. In contrast to the popular view, Gladwell argues instead that the entrepreneur is highly risk averse, in constant search for the sure thing, and able to pounce on it when the sure thing has been identified.  This can happen if (a) the rest of us are slow to see the sure thing because we don't spend the time looking for it and (b) even if we spotted it we wouldn't pounce because we don't trust ourselves and think there is more risk than there actually is.

The opposite of the Gladwell story can be found in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow, in the part of the book where he takes on the arguments of Jim Collins made in Good to Great.  Kahneman says Collins cherry picked winners after the fact.  Before the fact, the great success story in the making is impossible to identify.  Hence, much of the entrepreneur's success should be attributed to having a run of good luck.

Keeping both of these views in mind, let's use as example the candidacy of Rick Perry, which from my outside perch illustrates the puzzle.  Perry has gotten some very big contributions, yet he has to be considered a dark horse in this race.  Here are some possible ways to explain the large contributions that Perry has received.

(1)  Perry has improved dramatically as a candidate.  He is much better than he was four years ago.  It's just that the public doesn't know this yet.  (This explanation is consistent with Gladwell's depiction of the entrepreneur.)

(2)  There is a big upside to becoming President.  For these donors' making a campaign contribution is like buying a lottery ticket for the rest of us.   Donors look at the upside, not at the expected reward.  (This explanation is not consistent with Gladwell.  It may not even be consistent with Kahneman, who surely would argue that the probability assessment of success matters.  This explanation is consistent with what I said above about frivolous reasons and yacht racing.)

(3) Running for President is a kind of personal marketing that can produce reward apart from winning the election.  The donors expected to do further business with Perry after the election and Perry's value in those transactions gets enhanced by his running for President now.  (This seems much more likely to me than the first explanation and is also consistent with Gladwell.)

(4) This is simply returning a favor to Perry, who was loyal to the donors in the past.  Perry solicited the contribution and they responded to the solicitation with generous contributions.

(5) This is the first Presidential election since Citizen's United where there isn't an incumbent President running.  Lacking prior experience the donors don't completely understand what makes sense here.  So they are willing to try things to learn from the experience.

(6) Contributors are more interested in having leverage with their candidate than they are in backing a likely winner.  Jeb Bush, who measured by contributions until now is clearly the front runner, already has such a large war chest that he is less malleable to influence by the marginal large donor, especially those who haven't had a prior relationship with him.

It may be possible to extend the list.  It is sufficient for my purposes and what I have to say next.  The dynamics of the race may be influenced by the presence of the large donors in ways where it wasn't in the past.  In particular, a poor early showing need not be cause to drop out of the race, because overall contributions may be ample to continue.  Dark horse candidates like Perry will need to take risks to try to vault the field.   Negative campaigning is likely as a way to do that.  The various hopefuls will beat each other up.  Even if Donald Trump fades, the type of behavior he exemplifies is apt to continue.

In other words, the large donors who are not backing one of the front runners seem to be playing a Prisoner's Dilemma and it is a puzzle why they would opt into such a game rather than sit it out.  This recent piece makes the same point about the Republican's playing a Prisoner's Dilemma.

In fact, though, Citizens United has created a new dynamic within the Republican Party. Call it the politics of plutocratic patrons, and at the moment it is causing the GOP to eat itself alive.

But it argues that the wealthy donors are winners here, because they've become king makers.  I think that claim is wrong.  Most of them will be losers in that their preferred candidate won't get the nomination.  And it may be in aggregate that the Republican field gets twice as much in contributions as the Democrats, yet the Republicans still don't win the election.  In that case, it seems to me, these donors will themselves come to conclude they are losers.  The question, then, is why they don't seem to have the forethought now to project that possibility.  Alas, it may be impossible to really study this because the donors likely wouldn't allow social science researchers to get close enough to learn deeply about donor motivation.

What are the implications of this sort of thinking?  First, in considering Citizen's United the pernicious impact that so many care about may be more prominent in Congressional races and State races.  Those races are less likely to produce a variety of donors who compete with one another via backing different candidates.  Second, using political campaigns as self-promotion for outside of politics is detrimental to the process.  It is something to discourage and provides an argument for limiting campaign contributions.  Third, it may be that this election cycle is unique and that for the race in 2020 the donors figure out how to coordinate among themselves so as to avoid the Prisoner's Dilemma, even if such coordination runs counter to the libertarian philosophy that so many of them seem to hold.  However, it seems possible to me that enough of these donors are pig headed and that what we'll actually see four years down the road is a replay of what we are seeing now.

This gets me to the last point.  Some people treat personal wealth as a kind of badge, with the uber rich better than the rest of us with their wealth offering proof of that.  This sort of mindless spending in support of unlikely candidates is evidence to the contrary and supports the position that these folks should pay more in taxes.  Or at the very least they should stop throwing stones by criticizing government spending.  The glass house they live in is very large. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Some reflections on governance and marketing at the U

In yesterday's Views column at Inside Higher Ed there are actually two pieces, a look back at the Salaita matter one year later.  In my reading of these essays, the first one was somewhat damning of the decision itself and the process behind the decision.  According to this argument, Campus administration was unduly swayed by powerful members of the Board of Trustees and well to do alumni, driven to exercise authority that really should reside with the disciplinary experts (the academics who first offered the appointment).  The second one, in contrast, was supportive of the decision, arguing that Professor Salaita had only limited expertise in Native American Studies and consequently by that unit extending an offer they invited the trouble that followed.

I will not make any attempt at resolving those arguments here.   Instead I want to treat them as potential symptoms of a larger issue, that the university is too corporatist in its approach and is too quick to overrule faculty governance when things get controversial.  Actually, I don't want to take that one head on either but rather something simpler and more straightforward - how the Board of Trustees members are selected now and what might be a more appropriate alternative.

The Web site that lists current Board members is one I had never visited before.  It gives the rudiments of the Board's structure.  One thing that jumped out at me immediately is how much power the Governor has in selecting members.  Each of the non-student members is appointed by the Governor (or by the prior Governor).  This structure might make sense if the bulk of the revenue for the university comes from tax dollars.  But we know the share of the university budget that comes from tax dollars has been declining and likely will continue to decline.  Other sources of revenue have become more prominent - tuition, grants and contracts, and gifts.   Further, given the land grant mission, there are people who benefit substantially from university activity but at best make meager cash contributions that don't match their benefit.  In other words, there are other stakeholders here than the taxpayers of Illinois and these other stakeholders should have fair representation on the Board, but currently the process doesn't deliver on that.  What might be done to improve matters?  I will sketch an alternative that makes sense to me.

Now it appears that the non-student Board members serve for terms of 6 years and that there are 9 of them.  (The governor is an ex officio member in addition to these 9 appointed members.)  I would keep the total number of members on the Board as is and the term length as well.  But I would only have the governor appointing 3 of the members, 1 every two years.  I would have the alumni association appoint 2 of the members, 1 every three years.  And then I would have the President of the University in consultation with the Chancellors from each campus appoint 4 of the members, 2 every three years.  This difference in authority of who appoints members is meant to reflect in the type of person who will get picked for the Board.  So let's consider that next.

Alumni have different interests than taxpayers.  For example, an alum who lives out of state who wanted a child to attend the University would have to pay out of state tuition were the child to enroll, at present. If the alum has given substantially to the University over the years, shouldn't the alum's children be entitled to the same tuition rate as the in-state rate?   Alumni may also be more sensitive to the lifetime funding model and tying it to campus function, where that provides some alumni benefit post graduation.  Now, rich alumni may have voice with high level administrators on campus directly via the fund raising activity.  But there are many more alumni who are successful if not well to do and lack these personal connections with campus leaders.  Voting for Board representation would help to tie these people closer to the University.  To me, this makes good business sense as to keep these stakeholders involved.

A different sort of person is altogether absent from the current Board.  This is the higher education expert.  For example, consider former provosts, chancellors, or presidents from other universities, people who have a good track record for what they've previously done in these jobs.  Or perhaps, consider others who currently have these roles at other public universities (or maybe even at private universities).  On corporate boards, doing this sort of thing would bring out accusations of interlocking directorates, and that might be viewed as foul play.  But higher education as a whole has some common interests and those should be well represented on the Board.  Right now that is not happening.  And I don't mean to restrict this population only to current or former campus level administrators.  People who represent one of the regional accreditors, or the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NSF, or researchers in policy for higher education, and possibly quite a few others could be part of a vanguard of professionals from within higher education who begin to populate university boards.  I really don't understand why these people aren't already there, except that political patronage blocks it.  Isn't this sort of change something that the situation demands?

Now let me switch to my rather idiosyncratic division of members in each of these categories.  I deliberately didn't opt for an equal division, but I also didn't allow any one group to have a majority in itself.  It might be most helpful in considering this to envision a contentious issue and that within each group of appointees preferences are not sufficiently homogenous that the group votes as a block, but the higher education professionals tend to be more like minded.  Then they would have it easier at getting a majority that agrees with them and would not prevail mainly when they could get at most one more vote from outside their group.  This is possible, so they wouldn't be dictators.  But it is not so likely, so their prudent judgement would be relied on much of the time.  That would be a good thing, in my view, and keep the Board from engaging in rash decisions, which it is prone to do under the current structure.

* * * * *

Now let me switch from governance via the Board of Trustees to marketing and in so doing I will also switch from the University to just my Campus.  This is the Campus homepage.  I encourage you to look at it for a few minutes and form your own general impression before reading further here.

Now I'd like you to answer the following questions.  Is there an implicit message on the homepage which speaks to the extent of corporatist influence on Campus?  Or, perhaps, is there a slightly different message being sent, namely that the Campus is very mercenary and wants some of your money, very much, regardless whether you're a big giver or a small one?  To me, the top of the page has the feel of an animated brochure.  The Give Now button starts out right there at the top and the moves to the right side but stays near the top as you scroll down the page.  And there are blurbs of interesting current accomplishments - good news all - brag points if you will.  This is just of the sort of thing you find in a brochure.

Where is the bad news? or controversial news?  or information useful to the public but that doesn't distinguish Illinois from its competitors yet is so important that it warrants placement on the homepage nonetheless?   The message I get from the page is that marketing the Campus trumps the land grant mission and it also trumps the free exchange of ideas, at least in this space.  There are many other spaces to be sure.  The illinois.edu domain is huge and a tremendous amount of information can be found there.  For example, in the controversial news department, consider this page from WILL, local public radio and TV, on a recent report about racial microagressions.  And there are also members of the Campus Community contributing to online media in many ways, shapes, and forms, such as the pieces at Inside Higher Ed I mentioned at the start of this essay.  The stuff is out there.  It is just not linked directly from the Campus homepage.  (It also should be said here that the marketing and fund raising also happens elsewhere, via various newsletters, for example.)

Does that matter?  I will answer based on my visceral reaction to the homepage.  It matters to me.  And I'm not all that happy with the implicit message we're sending.  I'd like to see more of the page devoted to mission and less to bragging.  I'd also like for the Give Now button to be absent at first, appearing perhaps only after a person has clicked on a link for bragging content.  Thus, a person looking only at mission content wouldn't see the Give Now button at all. Is this sort of thing do-able?  And if it were would it matter to anyone else but me? 

Let me close with what is even more idealistic, probably not feasible, and may be so na├»ve as to be laughable.  Nonetheless, I wish we were doing this regularly.  There should be a piece of the homepage devoted to reasoned argument on social issues.  As a society, we've lost our ability to have such argument.  People live in their own little universe and don't have to encounter evidence and argument that is counter to their position.  Reasoned argument, which features the occasional acknowledgement that the other side has made a good point, is something our students should witness and it something the broader community should witness as well.  The loudest voices have a tendency to drown out the more reasonable ones.  And the most volatile of issues tend to generate more loud responses.  So the question is whether one can carve out an area of topics to be discussed as well as a set of people who are reasonable, so there is disagreement and debate but that doesn't escalate into name calling and hostilities, and yet where the subject matter is sufficiently interesting to generate a wide audience.

If we could do this, then we definitely should.  How to get there remains a mystery.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blogging by dictation

This is my first attempt at trying to write in my blog with voice rather than keyboard. So far the accuracy seems quite good. The text translation does have some lag between the talking and the appearance on the screen. That is a little bit disconcerting for the composing. But I suspect one can get used to this without too much trouble.  I'm so conscious of the dictation it is harder for me to think about what it is I want to say. 

Let me try to talk about a subject that is near and dear to me, which is over achieving students working so hard that they don't get enough sleep. There is an article in today's New York Times by Frank Bruni that discusses this for high school students in California near Stanford. My article that should appear in Inside Higher Ed is on the same subject but for college students. This is not for all college students but a particular subset, the ones who are coming from the East Asian countries, particularly China and Korea.

Let me conclude this very brief post with one other observation. For this to replace typing for me, it needs to become unobtrusive. So far that has not happened. I need a lot of practice at it to get comfortable with it. Whether I have the patience to do that practicing is the question. The technology itself is quite impressive in how it renders the text from the voice.

- - - - -

Typing here.  I edited the above for the line spacing between the paragraphs (I didn't know the voice command for that) and for some other changes.  But this (Mac OS 10.9 with enhanced dictation, which must be downloaded) is much better than what I remember from using Dragon, which I mainly used not for dictation, but rather to transcribe voice recordings.  I wonder how this works for transcribing.  It is the next thing I will try.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From ha ha to aha - how universities might support teaching and learning at the high school and community college level

As momentum for free community college increases perhaps people will start to pay attention to some related issues.  The two I will concern myself with here are:  (1) the price of textbooks, ancillary learning materials, plus any other complements to formal instruction that are available only at an extra cost to the student and (2) what the students are actually getting as take away and whether how things are done now is a good way to go about teaching and learning.

On (1) a question I haven't seen asked but which seems worth posing is whether the textbook publishers will use free community college as a trigger to raise textbook prices, thereby capturing some of the gains that are intended to accrue to the students.  That's the way these sort of markets work, isn't it?  What might be done to prevent that from happening?

On (2) I have in mind two specific courses, principles of microeconomics and calculus, but then also pieces I've read that discuss other first-year courses such as English.  For example, see In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.  That piece argued that at colleges of last resort many of the students lack sufficient preparation and don't have the motivation to do the hard work to overcome this shortcoming.  I would argue something similar is happening elsewhere, even at Illinois, which is highly selective, and even when the students have the credential that indicates proper preparation.  Below is an excerpt from a course evaluation I received for the course I taught last fall.  It is a response to the open ended question - What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the instructor?

Strength - .....
Weakness - I think he's very math oriented / a numbers thinker & he just assumes we understand some of the math he does.

Let me note here that just about every student in this class was an econ major, and either a junior or a senior.  Calculus is required for the major and the math that this student refers to is either calculus or analytic geometry.  The student surely has taken the courses in these subjects, either in high school or in college.  Quite likely, the student viewed these math courses as hurdles - something to get past, over, through, or under, to get a decent grade in any way possible - but not as something that would become part of the student's own way of thinking.  My experience is that this approach by students is fairly common among econ majors who implicitly believe, "I'm no good at math."  What is unique here is how forthcoming this student is on the matter.  I haven't seen other comments like this one, which is why it made such an impression on me.

It is highly unusual for me to observe a student while the student is taking math.  Of course, I did that some with my own kids, but I'm going to abstract from that experience entirely.  I still have some scars from my mother tutoring me in French (she was a foreign language teacher) and that was more than 45 years ago.  While I don't think my interactions with my children about their math in high school was nearly as traumatic for them, I'll leave it be rather than make hay with it. 

This summer I have a little window into what its like for the student taking calculus.  I'm mentoring a student who who transferred from being a music major to being an econ major.  He's taking calculus during the eight week summer session.  On occasion I've helped him when he has asked for such assistance.  In advance of his taking the class I told him I was quite good in math and would be happy to talk to him about how the math relates to the economics.  We haven't yet had that sort of conversation, but for a while we had quite a lot of back and forth about how to do specific homework and sample exam questions.  This experience provides me with one source of motivation for writing this post.

Another was a recent solicitation I received from a startup online test preparation company.  They asked me whether I wanted to work for them writing questions for intermediate microeconomics.  Though I should have known better, I responded in a somewhat naive way, indicating I was suspicious of the approach they advocated but showing willingness to talk to them, which I ultimately did.  Their model is to provide supplemental exam questions for students from which they can study and prepare.  Their claim is that students can then learn in a deep way by returning to the principles by which those exam questions are answered.  So their approach relies heavily on the student wanting to do well on the test serving as the primary motivation.  I tried to convince the guy that with this sort of motivation there will be little if anything to take away from the course afterward.  We argued for a while.  We ultimately agreed I should not work for them.  But I was frustrated by that call and wanted to put forth an alternative argument where students are motivated to a significant extent simply by a desire to understand things.

The last bit I'll mention as reason for writing this piece is that I'm almost finished reading Gifts Differing and it makes several points about the relationship between personality type and learning.  NT types (intuitive, thinking) tend to better in school than SF types (sensing, feeling) and personality type is often mistaken for intelligence.  Further, the authors argue it would be best to teach people with different personalities differently, to leverage the strengths of their particular personality, and thus there should be multiple pathways into the same subject matter that serve as alternative approaches.  There is the retort that sometimes school should teach to student weakness, because the subject matter demands that it be taught in a certain way.  I'm an NT and believe that understanding math requires a certain inventiveness in the learner.  But it may be that can only happen after much other learning that appeals to the learners strength - build confidence first and only then work on weakness.  In what follows I will try to hint at how this might be done.

* * * * *

In this section I want to talk about various blockages to learning that exist, some of which I've seen over the years in my econ teaching and some of which are more apparent to me now, from interaction with my mentee.  These blockages must be addressed or we'll never make any real progress. 

1.  Students don't know how to solve a problem, say for homework, based on math they already know.  How to solve a problem is a critical meta skill that should be taught by itself, but where?  Absent that skill students look to plug and chug, but ignore how to select the particular algorithm that is appropriate to analyze the situation with which they are presented.  They go from one assignment to the next without making much if any improvement on learning this meta skill.

2.  Notation becomes a major impediment.  Students can't see through the notation to the underlying ideas.  Because notation is itself so hard, they spend much of their in class time copying down what they instructor has written on the board (or has in a pre-prepared PowerPoint presentation).  They do this as best they can, often making errors because the presentation is too fast and they don't understand what they are copying.   They spend little or no time in class thinking through what it is they are being presented with, presumably to make sense of it all later.  But not understanding the notation itself, they can't make sense of it then.

3.  Perhaps because so much of the rest of their world is like this, particularly their communication with social media, students expect to "get it" almost immediately, from one big gestalt of the situation, or to not be able to get it, ever.  There is a belief that people who are good at this stuff get it and people who aren't good at it don't get it.  There is no sense of a puzzle to be solved sequentially that only gradually reveals the path to get through it over time.   But discovery doesn't typically work this way.  It requires persistence and patience.  So the students with these beliefs impede their chances at making discovery.

4.  Students fear failure.  Actually, everyone fears failure, it's just that some folks have learned to deal with this fear better than others.  Getting started early on a tough task is a mature way of dealing with this fear.  Procrastination, almost certainly more typical, is one way of caving into the fear.

5.  We learn very early in school about the story of the tortoise and the hare - slow and steady wins the race.  But we don't practice what we preach in this regard.  Timed exams, such as for standardized testing, reward being quick.  I learned from Gifts Differing that NT types tend to be quick and on an exam feel they understand what a question is asking after one reading, but SF types tend to be slow and want to read the same question multiple times to make sure they understand it.  If SF types don't give themselves enough time to produce their own understanding, they are short changing themselves.  The system seems to actually encourage that.

6.  Student often don't read through dense stuff where they must struggle to make meaning of what is said.  The payoff from understanding is not apparent at the time.  The pain from the struggle is obvious pretty much immediately.  (This one I know from my own recent teaching, where the dense stuff was written by me, and some of my students told me they breezed through it, doing the assessments that were assigned but otherwise not building their own understanding.)

There is substantial overlap in the items above but there is enough distinction between them to list them separately.  I say this to argue that why students don't learn deeply is a complex matter.  We should not expect a simple solution to be able to address all these issues in one fell swoop.

* * * * *

My mentee is taking calculus at Parkland, the local community college, rather than at the U of I.  He may be doing this because it is cheaper or because he expected it to be easier, all the while knowing that the credits will transfer if he passes the course.  Many students at the U of I take their Gen Eds at a community college in state during the summer.  In this case calculus fits both the Gen Ed requirement for quantitative reasoning and is an Econ department requirement for the major.  So on this score, there is nothing unusual here going on.

I am sure that the instructor of this course has every intention of doing a good job in teaching this class.  But in considering what doing a good job means, I very much doubt that she frames the issues by focusing on the blockages I've described above.   The support of teaching and learning that I refer to in my title has universities in a secondary role.  Instructors, like this one, will remain in the lead.  The question then is how in this supporting role might universities create some positive influence on the course, by addressing some of the learning blockages.  Before getting to that, I'd like to describe the ideal I think we should be after for a student who succeeds in this setting.

Twenty years ago, when I got started with learning technology, there was a lot about a constructivist approach and that the proper role of the instructor was as guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage.  More recently, I've heard that the proper role of the instructor is to teach the learner rather than teach the subject.  While on the one hand, I have some sympathy with each of these, on the other hand I don't think either of them go far enough in describing what it is the teacher should do (and what it is students should do).  Below is a paragraph from a post I wrote a few months ago on The virtues in making it up as you go along.  It represents my current thinking on how to come at the question of the proper role of the instructor (and the aspirations the instructor has for the learner). 

Until a few days ago I knew this about me, but I didn't understand why.  Now I have a better idea.  That came from reading this paper by Bruffee (1984), Collaborative Learning and the "Conversation of Mankind."  Let me explain how that came about in a bit. First let me note that Bruffee was a teacher of writing and his piece was meant at the time for others who taught English.  The rest of us, who teach whatever it is that we teach, could learn a thing or two about how to teach our courses better if we first asked, how would a teacher of Writing go about the teaching task in my class?  Only after chewing on that one for a while and coming up with some spark on something new to try should you then ask, now what do I have to do to modify the approach to fit my subject matter?

The student needs to produce narrative.  Eventually that narrative production may only be in the student's head, but until the student is producing narrative regularly it probably needs to be spoken to somebody else who in listening can ask whether the narrative makes sense, and then in other instances where the narrative is written down so can be read by somebody else later and by the student too, with some distance from when the narrative was produced.  With the latter, in particular, the narrative should demonstrate some reflection of the matters at hand, rather than a simple blurting out of the first thought that occurs to the student.  When that first thought is not spot on, which will often be the case, the student must begin to see how the next thought arises as improvement on what came before.  In this way the student can learn from his mistakes.

With respect to homework problems, in particular, the narrative should have several pieces to it.  The first is to determine what the question is asking in the student's own words.   I dare say that many students don't currently do this.  They don't see a need to translate the question into their own words.  This first part should include: this is what I'm supposed to find, these are the data I will use to find the answer, and then a question.  What math that I've already been taught is relevant here for me to find an answer?

The next part of the narrative attempts to answer the question.  There are two bits to this part.  The first bit is trying out various tools, one at a time, to see if that tool works.  An NT type might be able to do this bit immediately.  An SF type might need to be more deliberate here.  Fine. Be deliberate.  But there is also the other bit which might help any type find the right tool quicker.  This is reframing the statement of what it is the student should find.  In other words, the student might step backwards and look at the problem statement again.  Did the student do a good job in restating the problem in his own words?  If not, can he do a better job now?

This possibility of iteration with a backwards step because we were stymied in going forward is a normal part of thinking, but may be perceived as unusual by the student or as indicating to the student that he's not very good at problem restatement.  One does get better at problem restatement with practice.  I don't know much practice a person needs to feel competent about this.  But I do believe that a good part of the instruction should entail giving students such practice.

Having a restated problem with a math tool that fits, the student has arrived at the "chug" part.  Then the narrative describes what chugging through to the solution is like.  This part is what I do in lecture when I work through the math model.  Students should do likewise.  It is the most straightforward part of the narrative, provided that no mistakes are made.  Mistakes are more likely either when the student is careless because he is too hasty or because the tool is new to the student and the student misapplies the tool.  So part of the narrative here has to be on checking the work to make sure there is no error.  If an error is spotted during the check, then another backwards step must be taken to make it right.

The last part of the narrative is first a statement of the conclusion from having solved the problem and second an attempt at tying to the conclusion to anything else the student knows or has learned recently.  Students rarely do this tying to other learning, in my experience, and they may feel it is unnecessary since they already have the solution at hand.  But that feeling is myopic on their part.  If the goal is to internalize the results so the student retains them for later, then this tying to other things is a crucial part.

To a certain extent current math teaching already recognizes the importance of students producing narrative, putting into their own words what the homework is asking the students to do.  This is why these problems are of two types.  One is "grinder questions," where the translation is straightforward, if sometimes arduous.  The other is "word problems" where the translation is more involved.  Alas, many students come to view the word problems as instruments of torture rather than as proper means for the student to elucidate his understanding of the math.  Somehow students think knowing means something other than being able to make a translation.  Anything that universities do to help in this matter must encourage students to believe that translation is how we show our understanding.

* * * * *

Khan academy exists.  There is Khan Academy on trigonometry, differential calculus, and integral calculus.  To my knowledge our community college instructor did not make use of any Khan Academy materials.  She does use Wolfram Alpha, though in my interactions with my mentee that hardly came up. 

A big part of what Khan Academy does is to provide video lectures.  A big part of what our community college instructor does is to provide face to face lectures.  Maybe she should instead provide video lectures so she can flip her classroom.  If so, would the Khan Academy lectures work for that purpose?  And then what would happen in the live classroom?  Would the in class and out of class components of the course align this way?

Here is a video lecture I made recently as a means to demonstrate a more general idea.  It offers up a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.  But that proof is not given on a blackboard nor on a whiteboard.  Instead, it is done via a learning object constructed in Excel.  That object exists separately from the video and can be downloaded for free.

In making that object, it took me about three hours.  There is no recipe for doing this.  Though I've made many other such objects before, it is necessary to conceptualize how the graph will be constructed, then to plot the various line segments, then go back to them and convert those plots to conditionals that will appear only when the push of the button indicates they should.  All of that takes time, even if the basics are well understood ahead of time.  Thus, building such an object is much harder than drawing this sort of thing on a blackboard.

But I believe the object offers an improved experience for the student.  The look is very clean, with little textual content on the screen at any one time.  The geometry does most of the talking that way.  Further, the use of the button emphasizes the sequencing in the thinking.  This is a step by step approach.  There is some notation, certainly.  It is impossible to do math without it.  But the use of notation is spartan.

In contrast to making the object, the making of the video took me about 10 or 15 minutes - after doing the screen capture with my voice over, I wanted to snip the video at the end.  As I was doing this on a Mac, and I've only recently switched to Mac from PC, it took a few minutes how to do this snipping.  For an experienced user, it would be even faster.  With this observation I hope to make it clear that any instructor could make their own movie with their voice annotating working through the steps in this learning object.

We at the university level could build a library of such learning objects, make videos to show how the objects are to used, but encourage others to make their own videos thereafter.

But so far this is a pretty instructor centric change and does little in the way of getting students to work through a narrative of what is going on.  So how about this?   There would be another library created of objects that solve problems.  It would be the student's job to put in the voice over for these objects, either as assignments where all students would provide such voice over, or where one student would voice annotate a particular object, and the other students would view that and offer critique of whether it was well done.  This sort of thing is getting closer to what we're after in our ideal.

* * * * *

Anyone who has taught a college course with learning technology in a subject with a math component knows it isn't that easy.  Let me mention a couple of issues that come up regularly.

One is the leading the horse to water problem.  Will the students watch the video/read the instructor supplied content/do the necessary preparatory work?  Why?  Experience suggests that often they won't unless there is sufficient extrinsic motivation provided to get the students to do this.

The other is whether there will be cheating.  If some student posts the answers to an assessment, will other students come to rely on that rather than work through the problems for themselves?  Here experience suggests that even otherwise honest students are apt to cheat.  If everyone else is doing it, then why not?

The "solution" to these challenges is to pair each bit of content presentation with some assessment done for course credit and then to individualize the content in certain ways so they each student gets their own version of a more general approach, with the answers depending on the particular version the student is working with.

The sequence of content bit followed by assessment, then another content bit followed by another assessment, etc. looks like dialog.   It's now more than 10 years ago where at the request of my friend Steve Acker, who was then an editor at Campus Technology,  I wrote a piece called Dialogic Learning Objects that was an early consideration of these ideas.  In that piece I talked about content surveys, where students responded to questions with short paragraphs that would be collected, reviewed by the instructor, and then discussed in class.

That proved to be clunky and the lags between when the students produced their responses till when we discussed the issues in class were too great.  So I changed the approach to provide immediate auto feedback to the the student who would answer a short question that did have a right answer.  I will provide an example of this sort of thing in a bit.

But first I want to note that these sort of ideas don't emerge in a vacuum.  They follow from previous developments along similar lines.  For me I was first exposed to CyberProf and Mallard, which in turn were heavily influenced by Plato.  Another tool contemporary with CyberProf and Mallard was CAPA, which has since evolved into LON-CAPA and is currently in use at Illinois.  A decade or so later another tool, the Online Line Initiative, was developed at Carnegie-Mellon.  It was designed in the same spirit as these earlier environments, but it leveraged the enthusiasm generated by the Open Courseware Initiative from MIT and that many foundations seemingly wanted to fund similar developments.  This post is being written about another decade after OLI first appeared.

Yet as promising as each of these developments were at the time, the revolution in learning that they portended did not happen, though instructors who developed content in these environments came to rely on them and, in general, students who were in these classes benefited from the online approach.  There are several reasons why these developments were at best an interlude rather than a permanent radical change in the way students learn.  One is that the developers of these environments were few and far between.  After those developers had their fill of the project and then some, so they moved onto something else, the projects became static and ultimately reached end of life.  Another reason is that it was comparatively difficult to support these environments, so while they did emerge at other campuses than where they were originally developed, that diffusion was slow and not very widespread.  A third reason is that authoring content in these environments was not easy.  A learning curve had to be traversed to become proficient in the content authoring.

The current crop of learning management systems on the market are more robust in these dimensions.  Alas, the toolsets in these LMS are inadequate to produce really interactive content that has sufficiently rich assessment as part of the interactivity.  While there are other question types than multiple choice in the LMS quiz engines, they really aren't much more sophisticated than that.  You can get something of a dialogic effect by embedding video of micro lectures within an LMS quiz question that relates to the video, but you can't really put the students through their paces this way.  I believe the same thing can be said for the quiz engines for MOOCs, though I have no direct experience with those (and in truth am not current with contemporary LMS with the exception of Moodle).

My example is for the elements of supply and demand.  It was made in Excel.  I originally constructed it for a principles of economics class I taught in 2006.  If memory serves, it took about a month to make.  So on the authoring side of things, it certainly isn't easy to make these dialogic presentations.  I now have a bunch of different sorts of these things for the current course I teach and I've learned to speed up the construction of these things by lessening some of the design requirements and using some tricks I've acquired since.  But it is still arduous to make one of these and I don't want to represent that otherwise.

Further, my example is somewhat clunky.  To illustrate, if you are on the login worksheet on a Mac, the pulldown menus don't show all the items.  You have to enter an item incorrectly to access the rest of the pulldown menu which then shows the correct item.  Then, on the subsequent three worksheets, the window is divided into two panes by a horizontal divider.  The idea is for the student to put his cursor in the lower pane and leave the upper pane alone, except for some manipulations of the graph, until instructed to do otherwise (by clicking the link that changes the graph).  So the student does work in the lower pane and scrolls down there after answering a question correctly and then proceeds to the subsequent discussion and the next question that follows.  If the student mistakenly has the cursor in the upper pane, that will move instead, momentarily confusing the student.

The clunkiness notwithstanding, this is the sort of content we should want, in my opinion.  It engages the student.  The students don't produce the full narrative on their own, but in answering the questions they become part of the construction of that narrative.  Further, if the student gets a particular question wrong there is immediate feedback to that effect and some suggestion offered for why the answer is not right.  This way the student can begin to see what is really going on.  I will add that the presentation constructs all the sophisticated economic ideas from fundamental concepts and on the third worksheet entitled Trade it does something I wish more presentations of content would do.  Namely, it does it wrong first, works through why that is the wrong path, and only then presents a right path.  It does this by considering a matching process of buyers and sellers that is not stable and leads to trade at many different prices, even though what is being traded is a homogenous product.  Competitive markets should not sustain such price variation.  The exercise works through why and in so doing it shows that matching process is not stable.  This motivates a look at a different matching process that is stable and produces competitive equilibrium pricing.  While the underlying math is quite straightforward throughout the entire workbook and no student should find that challenging, conceptually the arguments being put forth about the economics are fairly sophisticated.  This is especially true on the last few worksheets.

* * * * * 

Much of what universities could do is to produce libraries of reasonably high quality modular content that instructors at community colleges and in high schools could repurpose for their own use in their classes.  So the big issue is what it would take to generate rich libraries of this sort.  Some ideas on this follow, but first let me say a word or two about algebraic content, since heretofore my focus has been on graphical/geometric content.

I have found a reasonably functional way to produce algebraic content for presentation that gets at the issue of it not being too dense for students to slug through and is not all that hard to produce in PowerPoint.  It is illustrated in this presentation on the Shapiro-Stiglitz Model, for example by going to the 5 minute mark and looking at the slide on the Review of Exponential Distribution.  One line of the slide is highlighted and is in black font.  Previous lines are available so the student can see how the current line derives from what came earlier.  But those previous lines are in a pale gray so the eye is not drawn to them.  In making the presentation one makes multiple versions of the same slide.  For lines not yet shown, those are in white font, which merges with the background so appear invisible.  There are as many versions of the slide as there are lines of math on it.  Each line is produced using the equation editor, which I found tolerable for this purpose.

Providing auto-feedback on students doing algebra is a harder nut to crack.  What I do makes sense for me where the students use algebra to do the economics, but presumably they've already learned the algebra somewhere else.  I have students produce formulas in Excel where I tell them (quite often) to build those formulas based on cell references, where the specific cells have the parameter values on which the formulas are based.  I can give auto-feedback on whether their formula produces the correct value.  Indirectly this gives them feedback on whether their algebra is right. I suspect this approach is not good enough for learning the algebra the first time through.  Then hand writing out the algebra may be necessary, in which case what the students produces needs to be evaluated by a human (the teacher or a grader assigned to the teacher).  But perhaps even algebra teachers could make use of some auto-grading of the sort I've mentioned, to give the students more things to work on while keeping the grading chore manageable.

Let's move onto how libraries of reasonably good content might come into being.  As I've tried to argue, there is an issue of what container that content would be in and how one would assure the container is durable.  Yet I don't believe that is the key issue.  Ego is the main problem.

The sort of content we want is time consuming to author.  If there is to be a substantial volume, there must be many authors, with each author producing a comparatively small share of the total.  We need an approach where many authors each do their part but none contribute the lion's share.

Before writing this piece I had in mind to take the commercial approach to textbook production to task.  Publishers make their money from selling the textbooks and therefore want star authors for their texts.  They are paid by royalties.  But the folks who write the ancillary materials, and the content I've been talking about here would fit in that category, are paid a flat fee, given little to no attribution, and thus have no vested interest in authoring bang up stuff.  So it was my view that the underlying commercial model is incompatible with what I was after.

But in looking at the open alternatives that are out there, I started to realize there are issues with those too.  They brand either the author, or the institution, or a combination of the two.  That branding means the content is not really produced with an eye toward re-usability.  It is produced to be used as is.  That impedes re-use, for example by the community college instructor from whom my mentee is taking calculus.

We need unbranded content, lots of it, and of good quality.  Is there a model of this sort of content production for teaching and learning?  The closest that comes to mind is Wikipedia.  I did a Google search on why people contribute to Wikipedia and found this paper, by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman.  I've only skimmed through it, but I gather at heart is the question of community and what it means to be publicly spirited well functioning member of the community.  Such community members make contributions in an ego-less way.

That is what is needed here.  It is insufficient that the content produced be freely available to users.  That content must also contain no mark of authorship nor of the institution that employed the author.  I have seen a lot written about open educational content.  I haven't seen much at all about ego-less content.  I hope the issue gets much more attention in the near future.

Let me make one more point, which is about quality assurance.  There are now many forms of community rating online.  Amazon does it.  IMDB does it.  YouTube and Facebook have simpler schemes with their Like buttons.  The point is that user feedback helps in quality assurance in a way that is compatible with ego-less authoring.  Author reputation as a way to signify quality is not necessary, where it previously might have been essential. 

* * * * *

In this last section I want to take up the question of whether universities might contribute personnel in addition to the materiel that I've already suggested they should contribute.   Here is a brief anecdote to initiate the discussion.

In doing a little background reading on whether MOOCs were already playing the role I've envisioned for open content here, I did a Google search on Udacity's partnership with the Cal State System.  There was quite a to do about that a couple of years ago.  I was aware of it at the time but then I lost track of it.  This piece from the Los Angeles Times reflects the sentiments of the faculty at San Jose State then. As I was reading through it I found an ad for Cardinal Scholars and that quickly captured my attention, after which I forgot about MOOCs.  It turns out that this is a commercial online tutoring and test prep service, with the tutors current students at Stanford.

I wondered if this company has a viable business model and what the demand for this service is.  Will low income college students pay for tutoring when they need to pass a course they find difficult?  Or in this market is it only those students from families that are reasonably comfortable who opt for tutoring, because only they can afford it?

I also wondered whether the one-on-one aspect of the tutoring is critical.  A few years back I started a site called Ask The Prof, where students could pose questions via a Google Form, and then I'd respond at the site.  This was asynchronous response with some lag between when they'd post and I would respond.  The flow of questions to that site never was very great and now it is essentially nil.  Would I have gotten a greater response if students were allowed to schedule a synchronous one-on-one session with me?

And then there is how Cardinal Scholars is marketed.  The only way students can become aware of Ask The Prof is by viewing one of my profarvan videos in YouTube and reading the description there, which provides a link to Ask The Prof.  This clearly limits the potential audience for the site.  Would a more aggressive and strategic marketing approach matter by generating a much larger audience for the service?

Without knowing the answers to any of these questions, let me assume here that Cardinal Scholars is a viable enterprise from a business perspective.  Should we want a free to the student alternative tutoring service, provided by other (perhaps only public) universities, where the tutors do this as a service learning activity for course credit?   The justification for such a service, presumably, would be to make it accessible to all students and hold down the cost of attending college.  Would this be a good thing?

I can see both pros and cons here.  On the plus side, it may be that given the power relationship between the instructor who grades the student, that the student is more comfortable getting help from someone other than the instructor, with that someone known to be competent in the subject but otherwise not involved in the grading part of the course.  On the minus side, it may be that the instructor in the course is the best person to provide help to the student (say during office hours) but can't afford the flexibility of meeting the student's schedule, because the instructor is too busy teaching other students.  In this case tutoring can be seen as a way to dilute the instructor quality and what really should happen instead is that the instructor should teach fewer classes or have fewer students in each class she does teach, so she can give each student the individual attention the student needs.

Given this uncertainty, it would seem to me that some experimentation might be done to learn whether a free tutoring service would be a good thing.  In the meantime, my fear here is that various commercial endeavors will test these waters more quickly.  If any of them get a toehold, that may then subsequently block a free alternative offering, to the detriment of many learners and to the dismay of those who want to make college accessible to all, irrespective of the student's family income.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  This essay is way too long for a single blog post.  I probably should have written it as a series of posts instead.  But I felt all the various sections of the piece needed to be considered in one place.  Universities should take some leadership and shoulder some responsibility in how education occurs elsewhere.  How they best can do this is open to debate.  The reader who has slugged all the way through to the end, may not agree with much that I've said.  I do not expect such agreement.  I hope, however, that this reader understands my perspective on these matters and that the piece was sufficiently provocative for the reader to think through these issues further for himself or herself.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dear New York Times - About Your Video Ads

I have a paid subscription to the digital version of the paper.  With other online services, paid subscription gets rid of the ads, but not so with the New York Times.  I'm actually fine with ads that are images and text.  I understand your need to generate revenue, a necessary component in continuing to offer a quality newspaper.  Once in a while, though not too often, the substance of the ad interests me.

I am writing to complain, however, about your video ads, some of which auto play even when I am reading not at the part of the page where the ad appears.  When I was growing up with the paper version of the newspaper, I preferred to read in silence.  I can achieve that now by turning the volume down to zero on the device where I'm reading the paper.

But much of the time now I prefer to listen to music while I'm reading.  I find the music actually enables me to concentrate more on the reading as it helps me to be in a mental cocoon that is harder to achieve these days, given all the possible distractions.  This habit of reading while music is playing is quite entrenched.

I also prefer to use one device at a time, if possible.  When sitting at my desktop computer I'd like the music to play from it.  When using my tablet, I want that to be both my reader and my music player.  The use of one device is thwarted by your video ads, which play while the music is playing.  The resulting noise is intolerable.  The viable alternatives are either to read in silence or to have a second device for the music.

With either of the viable alternatives, I'm ignoring the content of the video ad when I'm not seeing it directly.  So the message in the ad is not getting through then.  Given that, might you consider outright abandoning video ads so placed?

I understand that this will mean more video ads up front, before getting access to a particular page.  That too can be annoying, though it is less so than the video ads placed within a page.

For your news and other content, while I appreciate on occasion having multimedia to complement the printed text,  I still consider the experience as reading the paper, not as viewing it (or listening to it).  I don't know if that makes me terribly old fashioned or not.

If I am representative of a significant fraction of your audience, two possibilities make sense to me for how to modify your approach.  One would be to limit video ads to aggregator pages, like the homepage.  The other would be to have a tiered pricing scheme for your subscription - at a higher price per week there would be no video ads.  While revenue generation obviously matters, subscriber experience matters too.  A solution that balances the two is desirable.

Thank you for your attention.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Tenure

I am prompted to write this by some recent events.  A longer piece in this morning's Inside Higher Ed, Who Crossed the Line?, follows another shorter one from yesterday afternoon's Chronicle Update, U. of Wisconsin Professor's Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.  This followed a couple of days earlier where on a listserv that I participate in a member from one of the regional campuses in the Wisconsin system posted about a much more benign piece he had written on faculty and student views of tenure.  The title of that piece purports to offer insights about tenure for those of us not in Wisconsin.  I didn't think the essay lived up to that billing, but it did make me aware that some insight is needed.  Given my prior economics research and what I've garnered since as an administrator, I thought I might be able to shed some light on the underlying issues.

Before I do let me pose a different question, unrelated to tenure specifically, concerning how we "debate" issues in this age of social media.  How many incidents of faculty posting controversial Tweets that result in seemingly many people getting into a huff do we need before we conclude that this is a much more heat than light approach and that the generation of the heat is pernicious in itself, creating hurt that blocks the possibility of light emerging?

I will personalize this.  I want eyeballs for what I have to say.  If I get more hits on a particular post I've written for this blog, then those hits serve as confirmation to me that what I said found its mark.  In itself, this preference may be benign, but it can lead to a kind of addictive desire for attention.  Further, it can bias a preference for making nuanced argument in favor of producing blunt sensationalism, because the former doesn't attract nearly as many eyeballs.

Understanding this, what if faculty who wanted to make their opinions public wrote those opinions out in long form (such as in a blog post like this one) and then simply Tweeted with a link to their post while saying that they've written a lengthy essay on the matter?  This would not block anyone's rights of free speech and it might raise the threshold on the substance of social argument, something that to me is desirable.  Might we be able to move to something like that even if it is likely that fewer people will be drawn into the discussion because of the absence of sensationalism?

* * * * *

There are two different questions that I will concern myself with, though note they are related.

(1)  What is the best way to provide incentives for employees over the life-cycle of the employment relationship?  This question itself can be posed for other than college faculty, so one wants to know what is it about being a faculty member that pushes the answer in a particular direction.

(2) In addition to their other job responsibilities, are faculty also bosses at the universities where they work?  Or are they merely part of the hired help?

Let me take on the overlap between (1) and (2) first.  This can be found by asking a related question.  How much self-direction does the faculty member have in defining the work the faculty member will do?  In turn one can ask, how much work-related risk should the faculty member be willing to take on?  What might be done when it is socially desirable for the faculty member to take such work-related risks to encourage the faculty member to do just that?  Thus, the traditional argument for tenure is that the faculty member can pursue his or her own research agenda fully, even if the payoff from that research might not be realized till well into the future.  Tenure assures the faculty member can keep at it, during long periods when the research is a tough slog.  This is the argument I heard about tenure when I first came to Illinois back in 1980.

Fewer people have advanced the same argument about teaching, but it is clear that teaching can itself be an object for investigation, whether the instructor engages formally in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or not.  An experimental approach to instruction is better, in my view.  (This is experimentation in the spirit of Donald Schon's Reflective Practitioner, not controlled experiments as a scientist would perform in a laboratory.)  There is learning by doing with such teaching experiments and when trying something new one is not apt to be good at it right off the bat.  Thus, with an experimental approach an instructor risks that course evaluations could decline near term.  Tenure insulates the instructor from this sort of risk.  Adjunct instructors, in contrast, can become quite static in their approaches, because they can't afford to take the teaching risks that would make their instruction more dynamic.

Now let me turn to the life-cycle incentive issues and abstract from who defines the work done on the job.  Walter Alston, the famous former manager of the Dodgers and a Hall of Famer, is well known for having always managed under a one-year contract.  Ultimately, he managed the Dodgers for 23 years.  There is no doubt that it is possible to govern a long term employment relationship with a series of short term contracts.  The issue is not whether it is possible, but rather whether that is a good way to go about doing things.  Might lifetime employment guarantees, offered to employees who have clearly established their worth, be better?

On this one, let's make it clear up front that typically the employee will prefer the lifetime guarantee, since that way the employee will be able to shed some income and job risk that can otherwise weigh heavy, while management operating in the short run will have a preference for being allowed to sever the employee if and when that is deemed necessary, either because of a general decline in economic conditions or because the particular employee is deemed to be unproductive.

You can't get very far on answering (1) merely by noting these preferences.   Better would be to look at a management perspective but insist on it being a long run perspective.  The focus then should be on benefits of deferred compensation, where early on the employee is paid less than would be needed to match the market but later the employee is paid more.  In other words, job guarantees matter when there is a seniority component to compensation.  This helps to raise employee productivity and loyalty to organization, for example by reducing costly turnover and getting the employee to walk the extra mile on behalf of the organization, provided the organization's commitment to the path of compensation is credible.  But under deferred compensation senior workers might be perceived by management as not worth what they are getting paid.  This is the short term incentive mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Giving the employee a guarantee up front, one that can't be breached, is a way to overcome that short term incentive.  It can be that the life-cycle incentive effects outweigh the benefits from having short term discretion to let employees go.  Then job guarantees will be a good thing.

For government jobs, the desire by a new administration to provide political patronage offers an alternative reason to want to replace senior employees, quite apart from their productivity. This brief history of the emergence of Civil Service at the Federal level to thwart the patronage system makes for an interesting read.  The operative legislation was The Pendleton Act.  Subsequently, many states established parallel statutes to govern the work of career employees of state government.

My campus has civil service positions and I suspect most public universities throughout the country likewise have civil service jobs.  These jobs do feature guarantees of employment once the employee has successfully gotten through a probationary period. But this guarantee is unlike faculty tenure in that (a) civil service jobs are much more defined by the job classification and (b) in regard to question (2) the civil service employees are definitely not the bosses. Further, (c) pay for civil service jobs is based on the notion of a work week (currently 37.5 hours here) where if the employee works beyond that requirement overtime pay is mandated.  In contrast, faculty are paid without overtime as part of the equation.  However, standard contracts are for nine months.  Summer teaching garners additional pay (the norm for that in my department is one ninth of salary).  Similarly, if the the faculty member has a research grant, the grant can pay for summer salary.  When I was an administrator, I was on a twelve month contract.

There is a different sort of position that is neither faculty nor civil service.  It is called academic professional.  It offers much less in the way of job guarantee, even for those with quite a bit of seniority.  It does allow for much more of the job definition to be defined jointly by the employee and the particular unit where the employee works.  And it is a salaried job (typically twelve months for APs who are not instructors) that has the employee work to what the job requires, without pay varying by the amount of time put in at that work.

It used to be that the main distinction between APs and those with civil service jobs is that the former had a college degrees while the latter did not. Increasingly, I think focusing on that particular job qualification can be misleading in contrasting the two sorts of positions, though no doubt there is some historical basis for determining which job gets which designation.   When I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technology and had both the smart classrooms and the online learning units in my charge, the technicians who installed and repaired the smart classrooms were civil service, while the folks who ran the servers and wrote code to interface with campus authentication were APs.  I would not have designed it that way, but given that was the structure I inherited I made no attempt to try to change it.

The real sticky issue, however, is not between classroom technicians and (what our campus refers to as) research programmers.  Rather, it is between adjunct instructors (who are APs) and faculty (who are on the tenure track or already tenured).

* * * * *

I've spent my entire career at a research university, so have a pretty good feel for this sticky issue here, but much less of an understanding for how the issue plays out at places where teaching has greater prominence and research plays a lesser role.  It is important to note that the situation in Wisconsin covers the entire system, with its many campuses, not just the flagship campus in Madison and the other research campus in Milwaukee.  I will content myself in what follows to talk about how this sticky issue plays out here while noting it is quite reasonable to ask what is the consequence at other places and what am I missing in the discussion that is important there.

Let me return to (2) and the issue of whether the employee is also the boss.  In considering why this matters I believe it a useful metaphor to consider the difference between being a home owner versus being a renter and thinking of this from the perspective of a community as a whole, where the individual occupants are either all renters or all home owners.  Consider the simple matter of whether the lawn gets mowed regularly and is otherwise well kept up or if the lawn starts to look like it isn't being cared for.  Does renting or ownership matter for which outcome one should expect?   Having answered that lets also also ask whether it matters for the average time occupants are likely to stay in their homes?

In this metaphor renting is apt to be the more transient relationship.  Pride in community is associated with ownership.  Good upkeep of one's lawn is a pride in community thing.  That requires more permanence.

Taking that metaphor and applying it to campus, there are many activities faculty engage in that are either pure public goods or are private goods yet fall outside the bounds of what counts for promotion or salary review.  Among these are participating vigorously in recruiting; mentoring junior colleagues; service work on departmental, college, and campus committees; and simply stepping up on an as needed basis such as substitute teaching when a colleague needs to be out of town for a family emergency.  Note that I've not yet mentioned "faculty governance," which I will get to momentarily.  There is much more to being the boss on campus than faculty governance.  The list of responsibilities is quite long.  Willing embrace of these responsibilities requires a sense of permanence.  Tenure is needed for that.

Let me also note that one can find readily find examples of APs who are excellent citizens in this way and likewise of faculty who are jerks and shirk on this sort of social responsibility.  So the correlation is certainly not perfect.  At best, the contractual form encourages a tendency in behavior.  So the argument is that tenure encourages good citizenship while being on a limited term contract makes it more likely the person will be aloof and self-centered.

Much can be said about faculty governance.  Here I will content myself with the obvious and what many others have observed.  Universities are in some sense very conservative institutions and often proceed by tradition.  In this regard faculty governance is typically a conserving force, while in contrast university boards that are frequently comprised of leaders from the business community seemingly quite often advocate for radical change.  In this way of thinking, faculty governance plays the same sort of role that the Senate plays in the Federal Government.  It is easy to understand why a particular board or a particular governor would like to weaken faculty governance.  They can then more readily have their own way, even if that ultimately proves to be remarkably short sighted of them.  The need for the more conservative approach requires a longer view for it is to be rationalized.  In turn, this requires a good deal of continuity among the senior faculty.  Tenure is necessary for that too.

* * * * *

What is the right mix between adjuncts, assistant professors on the tenured track, and tenured faculty?  A related question is what determines whether an assistant professor merits being granted tenure?  Is it only the assistant professor's measured performance that counts?  Or it whether there is free line money in the unit's budget to pay the tenured associate professor's salary that matters as well?

Since I started at Illinois back in 1980, undergraduate enrollments have increased somewhere between 20 and 25% (about double the rate of population growth in the state), in state tuition has grown in an hyper inflationary manner for essentially the entire period, and the fraction of in state students - which once was in excess of 92% - has dropped substantially over the last 10 to 15 years.  During the entire time period the number of tenure track and tenured faculty has ebbed and flowed, but in the main has remained flat.  Teaching loads for these faculty have in the main also stayed flat. 

The number of adjuncts has grown dramatically.  Clearly some adjustment was necessary to teach all these additional students.  Was this a good way to manage the increase in enrollments?  Or does it imply a death by a thousand cuts assault on tenure, not as dramatic as what has been happening in Wisconsin recently, but no less pernicious?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I do see one consequence of this move that should be regarded as extremely negative.  In the Boyer Commission report it is observed that undergraduates operate outside the bounds of the research activity on campus and as a consequence are treated as second class citizens.  Adjuncts are also treated as second class citizens, for much the same reason.  Considerably more has been written about the plight of adjuncts than about the need to bring undergraduates into the mainstream on campus and have them embrace the quest for new knowledge in their own education.  Having undergraduate students take the preponderance of their courses from adjuncts undermines this goal of bringing undergraduates into the mainstream on campus. 

If the mixture of instructors were to change in favor of more on the tenure track or already tenured, some of the numbers I've mentioned above would need to be reckoned with.  (My own preferred solution for this is to make courses more intensive and thereby raise the credit hours those courses award.  Teaching loads, measured by number of courses wouldn't rise, but instructor time spent teaching would go up as a consequence of the greater intensity of instruction.) 

In the meantime it seems to me that many tenured faculty are blithely indifferent to the plight of typical undergraduate students, while at the same time the institution is becoming more and more dependent on the tuition revenue these students generate.  That can't go on forever.  Something has got to give.

Let me make one further point.  It is very hard to track activities on campus that self sustain or even generate surplus revenue from activities that require a subsidy because they don't bring in sufficient revenue to cover the cost.  (The internal transfer pricing that we use to govern the flow of how revenues are distributed is arcane, not reflective of good underlying economic principles, and still harkens back to an earlier time when state tax dollars contributed a larger share of the overall costs.)  As a result, it is pretty easy to develop a perception that teaching subsidizes research, whether that is at all accurate or not.  We saw this quite a lot in Texas when Rick Perry was Governor and he tried to pass reforms about faculty productivity based on how many students the faculty member taught.

The assault on tenure that seems to be happening in Wisconsin is in part a result of perceiving many tenured faculty as freeloaders, or if not that than as hard workers who are engaged in quixotic quests - matters that nobody cares about outside the university.   In that way the assault on tenure seems like what happened earlier in Texas.  The other part seems to be  contempt for faculty governance and wanting the ability to sidestep that entirely.  In that it is more like what happened earlier in Virginia.

But some responsibility for what appears to be radical steps taken by state government should be borne by the faculty themselves.  The arithmetic I mentioned above may have some bits that are unique to Illinois (particularly the rise in the number of international students), but most of it applies elsewhere as well.  How can that arithmetic be addressed without either changing the norms that one associates with being a tenured faculty member or by getting rid of tenure entirely?  The faculty themselves should answer that question.  Until then we'll just be talking past one another, which is what I'm afraid we're doing now.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Cash Give Backs - Academic Leadership in an Era of Fiscal Austerity

An item in the local newspaper this week took note of the pay for the new Dean of the Law School.  He is earning less than his predecessor (though still in excess of $320K).  The point of the piece was that the new Dean took pride in his comparatively low pay.  It is a visible piece of his strategy to hold down costs and thereby get tuition more in line with the (currently soft) market for attending law school.  Somebody else reading that piece might ask whether it might start a trend of this sort.  I am less interested in making early forecasts than in wanting in this piece to do a think aloud about what should happen.

First, let me note that the new dean was an external hire.  Salary is set as a condition of employment for each new hire.  But here long time university employees in leadership positions are my focus.  So there is first a question of whether they can take a salary reduction on a voluntary basis.  I suspect this is well nigh impossible, for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps a systematic approach to salary reduction could happen.  (See my post from a few years ago on the Higher Ed Salary Compression Function.)  But for an individual volunteering for salary reduction, let's take that off the table.  Instead, let's focus on these individuals earning at their current salaries and then deciding to give a gift back to the university, with the gift some fraction of their earnings.  That is certainly allowed under current rules.

I want to talk about the microeconomics of this first, the sociology of it second, and then the practicalities of it so the process itself doesn't need to be too difficult for those who might opt in.

When we teach consumer theory to undergraduates who take microeconomics, we talk about fundamental assumptions that underlie consumer preferences.  One of those assumptions is monotonicity - more is preferred to less.  I want to maintain that assumption here.  (So get that picture of the Beverly Hillbillies tossing cash from the window of Milton Drysdale's bank out of your head.)  Nonetheless, most people would agree that above a certain income threshold, increased income doesn't matter much for material well being.  Such people can afford to buy what they want.  The way salary matters to these people is qualitatively different from how it matters to the rest of us, who earn below the income threshold.

What matters to them is first how they compare salary-wise with their peers, both on campus and at other institutions.  Nobody wants to be at the lower end of the distribution in such peer to peer comparisons, especially if the salary dispersion can't be attributed to seniority.  Getting the short end of the stick seems unfair.  People want to be treated fairly.  They also want to be treated with respect.  On campus this means they know their voice is listened to and that their opinions matter in making decisions.  One can think of this latter desire for respect as getting a type of in kind income, one for which cash income can't substitute very well if at all.  Indeed, part of the argument I want to make here is that we need to look at both sorts of income to understand the right balance of the two.

Likewise, in considering the contributions that people employed by the university make surely the bulk of that contribution will be in kind.  The people I know on campus are very hard working indeed.  Yet one might well ask, is there a role to be played by a cash contribution of some sort, to complement the in kind contribution we expect?  Can it be rational to give cash back to your employer after the employer pays you for the work that you perform as service to the institution?

The answer to that question is yes, at least in some instances.  An in kind contribution of an individual is seen by those who participate in the transaction but is largely invisible to everyone else.  The virtue of a cash contribution is that it is potentially visible by a large number of people.  It can then have value as a way to send a message and in that sense would be similar to the function that non-informative advertising plays in the commercial world

Before getting to the sort of message I'm talking about, let's finish up on the microeconomics, by considering the matter from both the point of view of the recipient and the point of view of the sender.  Recipients are inundated with information and requests to pay attention from people they don't know well or not at all.  Most of those are screened out entirely and rightly so.  There needs to be a way to get through this sort of screen.  The economic theory of "money burning" comes to the rescue.  If a rational person burns money in a visible way, it must be to get the attention of those people who witness the act.

On the other hand, while for most people money burning is too expensive to be a sensible way to communicate, for those with incomes about the threshold described above it is not so costly.  It impacts neither being treated fairly on the job nor being respected in one's work. It therefore becomes a plausible mechanism to utilize, provided there are attendant benefits to be anticipated from its use.

Now let we switch from microeconomics to sociology and focus on the implicit message to be sent.  As I write this piece the State of Illinois has no budget for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, and the prospects for getting a budget any time soon don't seem all that promising.  So there is much uncertainty about all of this.  Undoubtedly there will be some hardship imposed when the budget finally does get resolved.  On the specifics, that is anyone's guess.

The only message that seems credible to me now and is worth sending immediately is this.  We are all in this together and burdens will be shared at the time when they must be borne.  Such a message, if it were believed, might then help maintain morale on campus, which provides the reason for sending it.

We receive a variety of massmails from campus.  As a way to distribute factual information to members of the campus community, that's probably as good a mechanism as any.  Yet as a way to communicate the message that I believe should be sent about burden sharing, it is inadequate for the task.  Cash give backs by members of the campus leadership would do a much better job here, as it would be a demonstration that some of the burden, if only a small piece of it, is being borne by these high level people.

Finally, let me turn to practicalities, normally my personal downfall.  (I'm pretty good at making the theoretical argument but then can get hung up on particulars.)   So as not to wreck everything I've said up to this point, I will only give a high level sketch of things that are necessary, meaning if people agreed with the rest of the piece there'd still be some work needed to put this in place.

First, the gifts must be unrestricted.  The gifts need to be seen as selfless acts.  Attaching a purpose to the gifts, for example to endow a scholarship fund, is not right for this purpose, even if the scholarship fund were otherwise a good thing.  How can an employee who sees an unfilled position in her office remain vacant feel good about the establishment of such a scholarship fund?  These gifts must be seen as addressing urgent immediate need on campus, to be determined by the university rather than by the giver.

Second, the gifts must not be coerced, even mildly, by the university in any official capacity.  So here I want to contrast with the Campus Charitable Fund Drive, an annual activity where employees are encouraged to participate. (There are massmails sent about it as well as messages sent within departments about it.) These cash give backs are a different sort of animal and the university should not try to encourage them in an official capacity.  This is a bit tricky, then.  One should ask, how will the idea get out that people in leadership should do this if there is no official communication about ti?  The answer is that word of mouth methods must suffice.

Third, the gifts mus be made visible to the broader community.  Some very public list of givers with the size of their gifts needs be made.  In conjunction with the previous requirement, the university itself almost certainly should not be the one who maintains this list.  What I have in mind is that some private citizen or organization accepts fiduciary responsibility, as keeper of the list and intermediary on having the funds go from donor to the university.  I hope such a thing is possible.  I certainly don't want to fret with the details about it here.

The last bit is to establish a norm about the size of the gifts, much as there is a norm about how much to tip at a restaurant.  Once a norm has been established it would be much better to get broader participation, indicating that the community has embraced the idea, than to have some individuals making overly generous gifts, which undoubtedly would bring some attention onto them, thereby garbling the intended message.  The norm itself would then aim to balance these.

Let me illustrate what I'm talking about here without making any claims that this should be the norm.  Suppose that those who are willing with salary from the university over $150K make gifts, with the size of the gift 10% of the salary increment in excess of this baseline.  So somebody with salary of $200K and who was willing to make a gift would give $5K and, if our new Law School Dean were so willing, he'd give about $17K.  I leave it for the reader to determine whether that is a good baseline and the right guideline for gift size for willing donors with income above the baseline.  I only want to argue that the norm should be of a simple form like this so it can be readily understood and easily followed.

It's time to wrap up.  In the course I teach on The Economics of Organizations, we have a second textbook so students can get a non-economics perspective as well.  The one I use is by Bolman and Deal and is called Reframing Organizations.  The fourth frame is the symbolic frame.  Organizations engage in rituals and other symbolic acts to build loyalty and public spirit within the organization.  This is just how I envision the cash give backs would work.  The time is ripe to consider this possibility.