Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is Tolerance Possible?

The Wind and the Sun

The WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger, You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
          Kindness affects more than severity. 

This lesson, which we were all taught as children, doesn't appear to stay learned when we become adults.   The contest between the Wind and the Sun gets played over and over again, now largely via social media.  Particularly notable to me are the comments on opinion pieces I peruse in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.  Those readers who disagree are quick to abandon reasoned argument and instead write with cynicism and hyperbole.  The authors of such comments appear to be very angry.  I don't keep a scorecard, but if I did I'd guess that the Wind is winning and the contest is not very close at present. 

In our national politics it now appears a given that the populace is angry, very much so.  It is near impossible to reason with an angry person.  The person must calm down first.  If the person is also intolerant it is far from clear whether even when calm the person would change his or her mind and embrace people who are unlike himself or herself.  What would it take to change somebody's point of view in this case?  We should be asking that question.  

There is also the logical conundrum of how people who consider themselves tolerant react to those who are apparently not.  Does outrageous behavior by the intolerant warrant a tit for tat response?  If it does, it explains why the Wind is winning.  

That a tit for tat response is the immediate visceral reaction to the outrageous behavior goes without saying.  The outrage is intended to provoke just such a response.  What would a more disciplined and reasoned response look like?  Would it be silence?  Or a thoughtful argument?  Does anyone have the patience to follow along with a well reasoned argument anymore?  Is there a way for silence to distinguish itself from capitulation?  I wish I had answers to these questions that I could rely on.

There is still a further complication to consider as the question offered up in the post title plays out on college campuses.  Freedom of speech is a value, one that can be at odds with tolerance.  Let us recognize that in this case people will disagree as to which is the higher value.  Yesterday I became aware of Inclusive Illinois and their Diversity Statement, an articulation of the goal that tolerance on campus be the primary value and that there are certain processes which need to be embraced to achieve that goal.  

For those who think that freedom of speech should be the primary value, will there nonetheless be respect for this Diversity Statement?  Or will they treat it as little more than rubbish, because it tramples on the First Amendment?  I don't want to presume the answer to that question, but if it does cause the latter reaction doesn't it then follow that the statement itself will do little to nothing to move us from the status quo?

On a personal level, I feel I can make some progress on these matters when in a one-on-one conversation and possibly in a small group setting (five or fewer).  In the discussion people have to support the positions they hold and as a result of that imperative we can negotiate our way to something sensible.  At least that has been my experience most of the time.   In other settings, it is far easier for people to maintain their previously held views, because they don't need to listen to views that disagree with their own.

It is not that hard to envision a world where tolerance is the norm and where free speech operates within the confines of tolerance.  However, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to understand how we might get from here to there.   At present, we seem to be standing still or maybe moving in the opposite direction.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

People who are interested in undergraduate education at Illinois should read this.

This is Hanna Rosin's latest, about the suicide problem at Palo Alto's public high schools.  It is not elevating at all.  Indeed, it is very frightening.  But is has the ring of truth and suggests we really need to hold up a mirror to ourselves. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

R̶i̶s̶k̶ Uncertainty Assessment

Today I should be grading, but human nature being what it is I'm procrastinating on that task, though I hope to get to it shortly. Here I want to put a few things together that have been on my radar that last few weeks.

The first is about something that Richard Levin said in his lecture on campus last week. This was one of those statements that can be taken as a stand alone point rather than as part of his larger argument.  (I wrote about Levin's lecture in my previous post.)  This point is about the quantitative reasoning piece of general education.  Levin said students should take probability and statistics instead of calculus, as all students need to understand and perform assessments of uncertainty based on available data, while most of them will rarely if ever use calculus once they've graduated from college.  I previously read about this point in a column by Nicholas Kristof, so I gather the view is making the rounds.

Before taking on the argument, let me observe that the economist Frank Knight is associated with this distinction between risk and uncertainty that has found its way into my title.  Economists embrace this distinction, but to my knowledge it has not yet found its way into common usage by the population as a whole.  To avoid philosophical issues, let me give a working definition of these ideas.

Risk is when there is a frequency notion at root, so one can look at historical data to assign probabilities.  Consider a flip of a fair coin, the first textbook example a student gets exposed to in a course on probability.  It has a probability of .5 that it will come up heads.  Underlying this is the Law of Large Numbers, which for the coin flipping example says the ratio of the the number of heads to the number of flips of the coin will tend to .5 as the sample size gets large.  That there is risk in the world provides a rationale for why there are actuaries, who examine the data and assess probabilities based on that.  Insurance premiums are driven by such risk assessment. 

Uncertainty is when the situation has novelty to it, so one needs to make an assessment based on the situation alone.  If you think of this from an evolutionary perspective, the canonical question is: fight or flight?  And one of the big points here is that you can't totally divorce the assessment of the uncertainty from the consequences.  In other words, fear can manifest when danger is perceived, even when the situation is benign in fact.  Further, past negative experiences (trauma) can alter the uncertainty assessment.  For a trauma victim it becomes plausible that lightning will strike in the same place again.

A different sort of assessment happens for upside consequences, where because after the fact we tend to impute causality even when randomness was fundamentally at play, we feel we are deserving of our own good fortune.  I wrote about this a while back in a post called Pluck or Luck.  There I made reference to something called The Just World Theory, a certain type of cognitive bias.

Behavioral economics takes as its basis that human beings are not rational and instead possess a variety of these cognitive biases.  For example, Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, talks about WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).  This means that people make their assessment of uncertainty based on their own experience, but ignore the information that might be garnered from the experience of others when that information is not immediately at hand.

If you look at two of the more hot button issues in the news now, that plight of the Syrian refugees and the matter of racism on campuses around the country, and you look at how different are the proposed ways of addressing these issues, depending on whether the proponent is Liberal or Conservative, underlying this has to be significant differences in assessing the probabilities.  One might therefore be hopeful that if the population as a whole had a better sense of probability and statistics, that some of these differences in how to address social issues would erode.  Alas, I think we should be skeptical of this hopeful view.

There are two big issues to confront here that don't have easy answers.  First, many students get through math courses without ever really internalizing what is supposed to be learned there so it becomes part of their own thinking.  This starts quite early in school, when students are first exposed to algebra and geometry.  These kids know that they don't know the math, so they look for alternative ways to get through these classes (memorizing homework problems and lectures) that are entirely dysfunctional for producing understanding.  How much college math, whether calculus or probability and statistics, really gets learned by students who have such a shaky foundation in their prior math understanding?  Indeed, early probability courses are based on counting and approximation, to a large extent.  Many students are not good at these matters.

The other big issue is that probability and statistics are typically taught in a way that is pretty technical but also divorced from decision making.  So while a student can become familiar with the mechanics of a probability calculation, they may never learn when to use such a calculation in practice or to trust that calculation for making a decision.  More importantly, the students are not made to confront their own cognitive biases.  If they were, they might actively resist these courses rather than embrace them.  (There is resistance to these courses now because they are hard.  But there is not resistance because the subject matter would make students uncomfortable.)  Most of us don't like to be told that we're prejudiced and in need of awareness training to alleviate that.

Let me close with a mention of this piece about how ISIS became a force.   It is an interesting read.  There were many unanticipated consequences from past action. 
One wonders whether it would have been possible to be more prescient than we actually were, but we opted out of doing that because such actions, "didn't fit the current narrative."  You are supposed to learn from your mistakes, but on this matter one senses there is a lot of willful blocking of learning, precisely because the narrative prevents empiricism from occurring.

It would be delightful to discover that I'm wrong here and that teaching probability and statistics broadly would improve matters significantly.  In the absence of evidence to contrary, however, I'll stick with my skepticism.  More than the appropriate subject, the key issue is whether the student is open to what is being taught. If the student is not open to really engaging with new ideas, the subject matter counts for naught.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When Time Passes You By

I walk slowly these days. Things appear different that way.  On Friday morning I went to a talk at the Library School given by Richard Levin, President Emeritus of Yale.  It was the second of the Prioritizing Undergraduate Education Talks.  Here's the blurb for it.  Later in this piece I'll say a few things about that talk and the Q&A that followed, because that got me thinking.  But let me continue my story about walking first.  I didn't stick around for the reception that followed since I had a meeting scheduled with my mentee and we had to push that forward since something else came up for her at noon.

When that meeting concluded I walked back from the Espresso Royale on Daniel to BIF.  It was near the lunch hour so a lot of other people were out then as well.  Very soon I became aware that people were passing me by.  I was going at roughly half their pace.  So before long I would fall way behind them.  I was still moving forward, but relatively speaking I was moving backward.   This happened repeatedly and became an image I couldn't get out of my mind.  I am going to use that image now in articulating my head scratching about undergraduate education.

Let me return to Levin's talk.  He championed general education, two full years of it, but now with an additional wrinkle beyond the usual critical thinking goal attained by reading and debating great works in a common curriculum.  This other goal was to produce cross cultural competency, mainly via developing a sense of empathy rather than by learning specific facts about peoples elsewhere.  Much of the tone and substance of this talk appealed to me.

Yet it was extraordinarily normative, with the focus on the Yale model as it manifests at a version of Yale in Singapore.  As I've been struggling with the class I've been teaching this semester, I asked myself whether my students were ready for or inclined to participate in the kind of general education that Levin depicted.  My answer was a resounding no.  Here is my forward movement with this head scratching.  It is to ask, what might be done to get these students ready and so inclined?  It seems a necessary question to pose.

But before taking it on, let me pose another first.  Is what I'm seeing in my current students typical of the general student population or not?  During the Q&A the discussion followed along the lines of whether some variant of the Yale model might be possible at Illinois.  One requirement of the Yale model is small classes to facilitate a seminar approach instead of a lecture. An English professor offered up that she is increasingly teaching small classes, so if the students are looking for that experience it is not hard to find on our campus.  Apparently, not too many are looking or, if they are, they want it only in their majors and not in English.  This is certainly not a full sampling of the student body, but it does provide at least a bit of corroborating evidence that what I'm seeing is not so aberrant.

During Levin's presentation he talked about Lincoln extensively, noting that even during the Civil War, with its massive claim on the nation's GDP, Lincoln still had his eye on the nation's future and the need to to make the proper investments to keep the country growing strongly.  Specifically mentioned in this context were the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which brought us the transcontinental railroad, and the first Morrill Act, which established the land-grant colleges, Illinois included, also enacted in that year.  Part of Levin's argument is that we need to be making 21st century investments of the same type, college education being one of the primary areas where such investment is needed.

Lincoln himself serves as an interesting example of the learner, as he ended up such a visionary thinker and leader, yet he did so with very little formal education.  Instead, he was largely self-taught.  Lincoln's example should get us to consider self-teaching and it's role today, though Lincoln was clearly an outlier among the citizenry in this regard.   Below is the first paragraph from an essay by Saul Bellow from the NY Times series, Writers on Writing, to demonstrate the point.

When I was a boy "discovering literature," I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T. E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln as a young frontiersman read Plutarch, Shakespeare and the Bible. But then he was Lincoln. 

I marvel at the phrase "refractory to high culture" in the sentence highlighted above.  There is such economy in word usage while at the same time the phrase perfectly illuminates the issue.  And now, given that issue, let me begin on the walking backward part of my head scratching.  Usually that involves me reflecting on my own college experience.  Because I did my first year and a half in college at MIT, I got essentially none of the humanistic part of general education, the part I believe Levin feels is the core of the experience.  Further, I was and still am largely refractory to high culture, if choices in pleasure reading are any indication.  I've never read Shakespeare just for the fun of it, nor Plutarch at all.  Proust is still on my imagined to do reading list, but there is no urgency whatsoever in my getting to that.  Partly that's because there are some great works that I've tried but couldn't get through; Gravity's Rainbow was my first such experience.  And the only thing I know about T.E. Lawrence is from the movies, ditto for Pasternak.

Yet I do believe I did quite a lot of self-teaching in college, before college too, and have done so throughout my life.  I discussed this at length in a post many years ago called PLAs Please, where I posed the following question. What is it that school did for me that I couldn’t have done on my own?  Note the bias in this question.  My assumption is that the burden for learning is not on school.  The burden for learning is on oneself.  School should only fill in those parts where you can't learn on your own, though perhaps there should be some overlap between the two.  (At the time of writing that post, there was a lot of attention within the learning technology community about something called Personal Learning Environments, PLEs, so with my title I was making a play on words, coming up with the acronym PLAs, Personal Learning Agendas, to represent the self-teaching part of learning, though I was careful enough to say there really is very little planning with that.  The key is simply to engage with the self-teaching on an ongoing basis.)

At the heart of self-teaching is reading, the type of reading that challenges the reader to think about matters in a different way, or to inform the reader about issues that engage the reader but where ahead of time the reader was largely ignorant.  In other words, there is something transformative that happens to the reader simply as a consequence of reading and reflecting on what has been read.  And it is the individual learner who directs this activity, in large part by making the choice of what to read.

After I transferred to Cornell, particularly starting in my junior year, two other outside-of-courses experiences supplemented the reading.  One was seeing foreign films with subtitles.  I did that quite quite a lot and continued to do so in graduate school (though not the first year at Northwestern where there wasn't time for this leisure activity.)  At Cornell there was a lot of Truffaut and Fellini, and I have a distinct memory of seeing Closely Watched Trains.  Mostly I did this on my own, so only rarely talked about these films with friends.  The real virtue of this film viewing was the variety of stories and different points of view one could get exposed to in a comparatively short period of time. 

I did have rather intense conversations with housemates on issues in the news.  (Nixon resigned during the summer before my junior year in college.  Ford's pardon of Nixon was something we talked about an awful lot.)  Those conversations really helped me to make sense of things.  And they satisfied a hunger for good discussion that ably served me 20 years later when I started as a learning technology administrator by talking with faculty around campus about their teaching and about how they might utilize the Internet to improve learning in their classes.

Levin noted in his talk that the subject matter of courses changes from time to time to reflect new developments and to abandon more traditional approaches that no longer seem as relevant as they once were.  That makes sense.  It probably makes sense for something similar to happen with individual self-teaching activities.  Does this include diminishing the role that reading plays in self-teaching?  Or does it only mean that the sort of non-course reading college students do today should be different from the type of reading I did back in the middle 1970s, which centered on a daily go through the NY Times?

These questions did not come up during the Q&A after Levin's talk, where the focus was on how we faculty should conduct general education, not on how students should ready themselves for that.  I confess that I did not have these questions framed in my head then.  All I had was my sense of struggle teaching this semester and I didn't know how to ask a question about that without seeming to whine, so I didn't raise my hand at all.

For the last 20 years or so, not just this semester, I've had the feeling that our students don't read nearly enough.  I used to joke with Dick Brazee about this, since he and I agreed that many of our students couldn't make good meaning out of a piece on economics found in the NY Times.  Yet most faculty discussions about undergraduate education that I've been part of don't include this issue of limited reading comprehension in many of our students.  And among both instructional support and learning technology staff, it is taken on faith that an appropriate intervention can promote deep learning, though there does seem some disagreement as to whether it's entirely a matter of the right pedagogy or if effective use of learning technology also matters.

That student reading outside of school doesn't often get discussed may be because there is not much we can do about it.  This morning a friend alerted me to a piece in the Chronicle entitled Higher Ed Has Always Been A Mess.  (You need to subscribe to the Chronicle to have access.  People at Illinois have access if they are on the campus network.)  Apparently my predecessors among the faculty from 150 years ago were complaining about similar matters.  Perhaps that is illuminating, though I don't find it comforting at all.

Here is one more look at the matter and then I'll close.  I recall that Frank Mayadas, who then worked for the Sloan Foundation administering their ALN (online learning) grants, referred to Lincoln as a 6-sigma person, though precisely what the random variable he had in mind was never specified. (Perhaps it was intelligence or the ability to self-actualize. )  In any event, on academic performance in school most faculty at Illinois and comparable institutions are probably 2-sigma or 3-sigma people, which puts them in the 98th or 99th percentiles in these measures.  One might guess that if academic performance is not explained by raw intelligence, then it is explained by expertise at being a student, which itself develops from certain types of habitual behavior, the acquisition of which begins well before college.  (Reading may be one of those habits, learning to make quick penetration into an idea others find difficult another.)  The college students we teach, in contrast, are mainly one-sigma people.  Their habits are different.  The program to remake our students in our own image is likely doomed for failure, for this very reason.

Yet I, for one, keep on trying.  It seems to me what we should be doing, even if the likelihood of success is extremely low.  If that doesn't make me a dinosaur, what else will?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The quiet story

I now have two student mentees as part of the program that supports Illinois Promise students.  The older one is currently a junior and in the process of transferring into Economics.  He became my mentee in an unusual way.

Most of the pairings between mentor and mentee happen in the fall semester of the first year. The thought being that getting through the first semester and then the first year at the university is where the big risk is as to whether the student will make it all the way through college.  Help the student get over those early bumps and get acclimated to the place.  Then the rest of the time on campus is not such a struggle and may even become a source of enjoyment.  And while the official relationship between mentor and mentee need only go for that first year, after that they may continue in their conversations and related activities, all the way till the student graduates if that is mutually agreeable.  When the official mentoring goes well the relationship then continuing becomes a real possibility.

Many of the Illinois Promise students do not opt for a mentor.  I can readily imagine why.  If you already feel uncomfortable, why go through the awkwardness of talking with a stranger who expects you to open up and discuss your travails?  Most of us keep our inner doubts bottled up unless we already have a trusted friend to share them with.  The premise of the mentoring program is that this sort of trust can be built along the way.  But surely it is a risk whether it will really happen.  It is a brave thing to take on such a risk ahead of time.  I count myself as someone who is not so brave.

With A., I first met him in the late spring of his sophomore year.  The issue of the moment was to find a suitable internship.  He had an expressed interest in doing import-export work and possibly being located abroad after graduation.  He had done an internship in Shanghai the previous summer via the Illinois Bureau of Commerce.  He wanted to do something similar in that vein this time around, but not a repeat of the same thing.

Then practical reality intervened.  A. had been a Music major.  He didn't yet have the requisite math course to transfer into Economics.  So he ended up taking Calculus at the local community college in the summer instead of doing another internship.  I had informed A. that I was a Math major in college and knew Calculus quite well.  I told him that if he wanted help with it I was happy to provide that.  Tutoring is not mentoring and indeed, much of what I did wasn't even tutoring, since that part happened via email.  He had homework or practice problems given to him by the instructor, some he could do on his own but others he didn't know how to solve.  In some cases I offered up full solutions.  In other cases I talked him through getting at the solution himself.

Implicit in the willingness to tutor is the hope that trust is built by having regular ordinary transactions that go reasonably well.  So there was a need to somehow find a way to have those sort of interactions.  Tutoring was something possible under the circumstance.  I'm doing something similar now with my other mentee, S, who is a first year student, this time focusing on microeconomics rather than math.  But with S. she was wanting the mentoring at the outset and has been more open to it.  We've already had several different sorts of conversations. She clearly welcomes these talks and the variety of our subjects.  And I think that with S. we may do more of the tutoring part online, now via texting rather than email (I use Messages on my iMac), so that the face to face time can be for other things.  We'll see how that plays out.

A. and I met earlier this week, at his request.  He told me he had been accepted by the department, his pride evident by the smile on his face during the telling.  It had been a struggle, one that he had finally overcome.  Ahead of time such a struggle can seem daunting.  Our meeting was largely a celebration of his accomplishment.  After that announcement he told me he was looking forward to taking my class next fall.

When that summer Calculus class had concluded he asked me about taking my course this fall.  If memory serves, at the time my enrollment had maxed out, so he wasn't able to register for it immediately.  Rather than make an exception for him so he could add the class, I told him I thought he wasn't yet ready.  He had not yet taken intermediate microeconomics.  (He is taking that now, this fall semester.)  And he had struggled with the math during the summer, while my class is somewhat demanding math-wise.  So I believe I gave an accurate assessment in suggesting that he wait till next year.  Nonetheless, afterward I regretted offering up what might seem a discouraging message.

I may have disappointed A. for real when I told him I was considering not teaching my class next fall.  I told him it has been a struggle for me this time around.  Attendance has been very low, much lower than in recent past offerings.  A. offered up that in his international trade class, a 400-level class like mine, attendance was around 50%, except during exams.  I told A. that I stopped teaching in the spring semester, because I found the senioritis too great then.  Now it looks like that problem is creeping into the fall.  I hypothesized that before too long second semester juniors will also be plagued by the problem.  This got a chuckle out of A. since he could see the point.

What I did not tell A. is that the attendance issue is only one component of what is now bothering me in my teaching.  Perhaps my greatest lament is that I don't seem to be connecting with the students during class.  Most of the time I can't get a conversation going.  A few students do come to office hours once in a while.  I can connect there.  But in class, I don't seem able to do that.  And there is evidence that the students are not getting it, much at all, where here it means the subject matter of my course. They do a homework in Excel I assign, indeed one that I made from scratch.  When a week later I ask the class about conclusions that were to be derived from that homework, nobody seems able to offer them up.

I want to offer up a tentative explanation for why this is happening.  I call this explanation the Disconnection Conundrum.  (A couple of Google searches revealed that the terms Disconnection Hypothesis and Disconnection Syndrome have already been taken by the neuroscientists.)  The rest of the piece will describe what the Disconnection Conundrum means, why it is plausible to believe it is happening at scale, and then to consider what might be done about it. 

* * * * *

Let me begin with some other evidence to consider.  My students write blog posts on a weekly basis and over the course of the semester two of them have written about having difficulty in their apartments.  Part of the explanation for their problems is that they didn't know their roommates ahead of time and put their trust in the market, to provide a decent match for them.  Here we are not talking about first-year students.  We're talking about sophomores, or juniors, or seniors.

I can't imagine being a student on campus for at least a year and still not knowing somebody else to have as a roommate.  This is a sort of disconnection we don't talk about much at all in considering teaching and learning issues.  If a student is socially disconnected from potential peers, what impact does that have on learning?  In this case one of the students was an international student.  The other student was from in state.  The international student comes to class most of the time.  The in state student always comes.  Indeed he is often in the classroom before I show up.  These students are not blowing off my course.  Yet in spite of their personal commitment, they seem socially disconnected on campus, now or in the recent past.

Six years ago I wrote a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which reflected on experiences I had while teaching a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  At the time it was a surprise to me that I had so many gifted students who were reticent to speak up in class.  That surprise helped me to reconsider the student perspective.  That the quiet student is now the new normal among an increasingly large subset of the student population is part of the precondition behind the Disconnection Conundrum.

Not all quiet students are socially disconnected.  They may arrive on campus already having good friends from high school who are also attending the university.  Alternatively, via a wide variety of serendipitous interactions, they may make new friends once at college, their quiet nature notwithstanding.  If that is right, the socially disconnected among the quiet students constitute the residual who are not in either of these other two categories.

Mentoring is a potential solution for socially disconnected students, but (a) mentoring doesn't scale particularly well, (b) it is not so clear how one can identify socially disconnected students from the overall population, and (c) that socially disconnected students would not willingly embrace mentoring is something to be anticipated.   What alternative is there then to address the issues?  Let's hold that question for a bit and then return to it. 

The other part of the Disconnection Conundrum is intellectual/academic.  The academic part is simple enough to describe.  Students don't make connections to what they are supposedly learning in their classes with what they already know.  This is the old critique that there is much surface learning but not much deep learning in college, such as offered up by Ken Bain.  Intellectual disconnection extends this idea to include experiences outside the classroom.

My contention is that while social disconnection may not be one and the same thing with intellectual/academic disconnection, they do share certain common elements.  Among the most important of those is that the student becomes accustomed to being disconnected, so auto-correction isn't built into the process.  A further common element is that the student is likely to become disenchanted and frustrated by his or her own situation.  Pessimism then becomes the persistent frame of mind.  This blocks risk taking by the student, so it is not hard to envision disconnection as the consequence of a vicious cycle.  If that is right, the issue then is how to break the cycle rather than merely treat the symptoms.

* * * * *

In considering how to measure the pervasiveness of the Disconnection Conundrum, it occurred to me that the first step might be to inquire about it among caring instructors, rather than by directly trying to observe it among the students.  I say this based on a meeting of CHP instructors I attended in spring 2010, after I had written that post about Teaching Quiet Students.  At that session I heard my observations echoed by several other instructors; one teaching history I seem to recall saying that this was his toughest time teaching a CHP class because so many of the students were quiet. I do not know what other sort of congregations of the faculty would produce such a discussion, but it seems to me that is the sort of place to look for some corroborating evidence.

Let us assume that this sort of looking produced evidence that did support the ideas behind the Disconnection Conundrum.  What would next steps be after that?  It seems evident to me that whatever is done needs to happen in the first year of college.  In other words, it is preferable to break the cycle before it has a chance to harden, a variant of the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure idiom.

One way to do this would be to make first year seminars taught by faculty a commonplace.  Others have argued for this but for different purposes.  (For example, consider my post Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report.)  If the seminar were offered in the fall, then the instructor might invite some candidate students into a non-credit discussion group in the spring.  If the students bonded some with the instructor during that seminar they might then be receptive to participating in the discussion group.  There the students would be directly encouraged to make intellectual connections and might be indirectly encouraged to make social connections with one another.  At a minimum, the experience should show the participating students that the institution cares about them.  Now I fear that many disconnected students come to the opposite conclusion.

An intriguing additional possibility suggests itself should the above produce promising results.  Students who have benefited from the first year seminars and subsequent discussion groups and who have transformed from disconnected to connected, may be in a position to help other students do likewise.  Even if they remain as quiet students, they will have the perspective of understanding the value of connection and may be able to communicate that in a more credible way to other students than the faculty can.  I know it isn't right to count your chickens before they hatch, but this possibility seems evident to me.

Let me close with one other point.  The mentoring program for Illinois Promise students is premised on the idea that low income students have certain disadvantages in attending college so need something to offset that.  That premise makes sense to me.  Yet it might inadvertently lead to the conclusion that all other students are well situated for success in college.  That would be wrong.  Disconnection can block success and perhaps leave a permanent scar on the student.  We should find ways to remedy the problem, if we can.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


At issue in this post is what should be done when a student has had the appropriate prerequisite courses but remains incompetent in the subject matter that those courses teach.

Let me begin with some recollection of my own incompetence as an undergraduate in select areas of study.  Cornell had a foreign language requirement, which could be satisfied either with proficiency in one language or qualification in two languages, proficiency being a sterner requirement than qualification.  I had 3 years of high school French, which gave me qualification in one foreign language coming in.  My options were either to take another year of French, to achieve proficiency, or take some other language for a year, to achieve qualification in that.  I had pretty low regard for how much French I had retained from high school.  If asked, parlez-vous fran├žais? I could respond, un petit peu. (Or is it une petite peu?  I really don't know.)  This to show I thought I'd get clobbered with another year of French, so I opted for German instead and took what they referred to as a reading course.

I should add here that my mom was a foreign language teacher in high school and ran a tutoring business on the side that was quite lucrative.  She mainly taught French and was a native German speaker.  She and I didn't get along so well during my high school years.  My aversion to foreign languages was a reflection of that.

I did okay in German in the fall semester but the following spring the class met at 8 AM and I blew off many of the class sessions.  At the end of the term when it was time to take the exam to prove sufficient mastery, I ended up coming up short on that.  So I took German again in a 4-week summer session.  I was no genius in the subject after that, but I easily crossed over the bar for earning qualification in the subject.

The thing is, my limitations in foreign language did not impede the rest of my studies one iota.  I did take a course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which had single sentences over a page long.  But it was translated into English and if I recall even native German speakers often read the English translation instead because it was just too hard to make meaning of Kant's original writing.  Other than that, foreign languages were something that every educated person should know, but ignorance would not really be tested in school outside the foreign language class.

What happens when students have gotten through a prerequisite course in the same manner that I got through German, but where the downstream course does expect real knowledge of the prerequisite?

* * * * *

The population of my current class is bifurcated in its math competency.  Here I'm referring to knowledge of high school analytic geometry and algebra as well as a little bit of calculus.  One bit to illustrate this can be seen in the comments to this post, which is where my students pose questions about the Excel homework, this one regarding the simplest possible version of the principal-agent model. The students posting these comments are for the most part perplexed about what they should be doing.  I met with one of them on Tuesday.  He's a good kid, always comes to class, and gets his written work done early.  But he is math phobic.  He told me he memorized his way through calculus.  It is not the first time I've heard students say this.

In contrast, there are other students in the class who said the video they were to watch before doing that Excel homework was very helpful to them in understanding how to do the homework.  These students have the requisite math skills.  I find it comforting that there are at least some students in this category.

I wish that were true for the whole class, because the issue is more than just math.  Microeconomics utilizes math modeling throughout.  If students have at best a shaky understanding of the math, then their understanding of the underlying microeconomics will also be shaky.  Building a structure on a shaky foundation, is a risky proposition.  When a storm comes along the entire edifice may tumble.

* * * * *

I really don't know how particular this issue is to the study of economics.  Might it generalize to a good chunk of undergraduate education, particularly for students who study in the social sciences?

Let me assume for the moment that it does generalize.  What is to be done about it?  In looking for answers, let me suggest two places that campuses offer as solutions but really aren't.  One is pedagogy.  The other is online technology.  Each of these might be useful if there are very specific gaps of knowledge that need to be filled.  But we're talking about here is what is now being called numeracy - quantitative reasoning skills.  It takes enormous amounts of practice to develop these skills.  The kids who got through their math classes by memorization bypassed all that practice.  To expect that these skills can be acquired on the cheap and in short order is an act of denying reality.

The realistic possibilities are (1) take the math parts out of the course as much as possible or (2) force the students do redo the prerequisites but in such a way where memorization won't work for them so that this time around they really learn the stuff.  But (2) will take quite a long time - years probably.  This is what makes (1) so tempting.

I stopped writing for a while after finishing the above paragraph. Then I went into school to help another student out with the homework.  After some coaching, the assignment becomes understandable to her.  I doubt this helps much with teaching the student to make good meaning of such assignments in general, but it does suggest a third possibility, which is to keep doing things as I'm doing them now and simply vigorously market in class and online coming to office hours for those students who are challenged by the Excel homework.

I want to note, however, that as a retiree I'm somewhat time abundant and can schedule these outside of class sessions to meet when the student can make it.  So while this third option is a possibility in my class, it doesn't really cut it as a solution in a generic upper level course.

* * * * *

I want to close here by noting that some of the prerequisites for taking a course like mine are not to be found in prior courses taken, but in what the student learns about markets and particular companies, from their reading and from their hands on experiences as interns.  The students do reasonably well on the intern sort of of experience, but I doubt they do much reading on their own in what I'd term Economics In The News.

Again harking back to my own college experience, I bought the NY Times most days and would read all the articles on the Front Page plus related pieces found inside the paper, the Editorials and Op-Ed pages, and the Sports Section, though not necessarily in that order.  I think that would take the better part of an hour.  At that time, I typically would not read the Business Section of the paper.  So if Economics In The News was part of the general news, then I'd be aware of it, otherwise not.

I really don't know the newspaper reading habits of current students.  The campus distributes paper versions of various newspapers around campus so they are freely available to students.  But I have no sense of the utilization rates.  It's also true that nowadays you can read from a variety of sources online and thereby get writing on current events more in tune with your own interests.  It is impossible to know how much of this sort of thing students do.

I do on occasion reference such pieces on the class site.  Those posts get rather few hits as compared to the posts about the homework, which in turn don't get as many hits as the post giving last year's midterm as practice for this year's exam.  I'd like to appeal to student intrinsic motivation for the subject, if I can.  Yet most of the students don't seem prepared for such an appeal.

When I was an undergrad I took quite a few courses without having the official prerequisites.  This was true both for political science classes, where for the most part that was probably the right decision and philosophy classes where I was in over my head much of the time.  Ultimately, I suppose, it is the student's choice to determine the level of prior preparation for taking a given class.  I just wish that the student makes that choice wisely.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Two for the price of one

Eschew Obfuscation

How many of you can make good meaning of the above without looking up either word?  This expression I learned in high school, a mantra of sorts, though I confess I can't remember whether it was in math or English or someplace else.  Perhaps one of my high school friends in Facebook will have better recall than I and let us know on this score.  But maybe they don't even recall the expression and can't make good meaning of it now.  In this case, is it my job as a writer to translate it for them, so then can understand it?  Or should I leave it to them to look it up if they care to do so?

What basis is there for answering those questions?  Over time I've come to learn that the writer needs to have some sense of the audience.  The voice in the writer's head speaks to them.  The writer does want to know whether he is getting through with his message.  So hearing something from a reader whether good, bad, or indifferent is quite a useful thing. And nowadays, via social media, a writer who says something that resonates with a reader might very well find his audience expand for that message.  Does the message also resonate with those secondary readers who learn of the message by referral?  If the reader has to bring something to the party to make it gay and merry, might these secondary readers not share in the fun because they come us moochers without bearing gifts?

Alas, this question doesn't emerge in this otherwise interesting piece from the Atlantic, The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.  The implicit argument offered up there is that if the reader can make good meaning of this article by Victoria Clayton, then the reader should be able to make good meaning of a lot of academic writing as well.  Authors construct unnecessary barriers for such readers because the authors don't have them in mind when writing their articles.  The authors write for the referees and the journal editors only.  Publish or perish does have a rather powerful influence on the preferred audience of an academic author.

So let's take assistant professors out of the equation and focus only on those academics with tenure.  Might they expand their audience by moving to a writing style that features plain English rather than disciplinary specific jargon?  And if they might, whose decision is it to make that they should do this, the authors themselves or somebody like Clayton?  Might it be that different conclusions would be reached on the matter stemming from the perception of whether this potential audience has the appropriate gifts to bring to the party?

I will not try to answer those questions here but instead change gears and look at some life events for me that had a big impact on how I write and who I care to include in my audience.  Getting married mattered.  Until then, I hung around other economists much of the time, though I had some interaction with other academics on campus.  That stemmed from their interest in economics and their need to find an economist who would explain things for them.  Once we were married, I began to have some interactions with people my wife worked with in the Personnel Services Office.

That was a change but still small potato stuff.  The biggie was having kids, sending them to daycare, and then becoming friends with other parents who also sent their kids to daycare.  The experience normalized me a great deal.  (If there were a word "denerdify" it would offer a perfect description.)  The importance of ordinary people elevated in my perception and I wanted to be able to communicate with comfort with such folks.

A further life change happened at work, where I became involved with learning technology and with that having discussions with people around campus about using online technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The skill set for me in those discussions was acquired prior to graduate school, via friendly arguing with my housemates at 509 Wykcoff Road in Ithaca.  None of us were studying the same subjects and some of us were grads while others were undergrads.  These discussions were by amateurs (in the sense of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind) and quite enjoyable for me.  It was they skill I needed as a learning technology administrator and seemed to mirror my needs as a parent with young children.

I stopped writing papers for economic journals around then and what I did write, academic or otherwise, was far more conversation-like in style.  That sort of writing suited my intellectual disposition.

Knowing my own trajectory here, I wonder if it was fairly typical of academics or not.  I can't imagine that Clayton's argument would have much traction if my experience were atypical.  So, assuming I was fairly ordinary in my experience and motivation, the issue to me is whether the academic can live in both worlds at the same time, authoring disciplinary specific pieces and generalist pieces on a steady basis.  If the academic does that, does the criticism about impenetrable discipline specific jargon still carry much weight?  Flipping the question on its head, would academics feel impelled to live in both worlds so as to keep their work from being ignored by only living in the inside world of the discipline?

I don't know.  Even with tenure, those who are playing the game of grant renewal are living in a world quite similar to the one where assistant professors reside.  Competition here is quite ruthless.  So one should be skeptical on that score.  And for the tenured faculty who don't get grants regularly, clearly more so in the humanities and the soft social sciences, they are getting pretty beat up now on other issues - placement of their doctoral students and whether their undergraduates can find gainful employment.  At a minimum, one should ask whether those forces matter in encouraging some degree of generalist writing.  It is the sort of question Clayton might get at in a follow up piece.

* * * * *


This is another word I learned in high school, definitely in a science class but whether in chemistry or physics or perhaps biology, who knows.  I do recall us looking down at a ruler where we were to indicate the position of some marker and then being made to notice that the position we recorded depended on where we were standing when we took the measurement.

In an Op-Ed in today's NY Times, Arthur C. Brooks has a column that is fundamentally about parallax in social science research, that he attributes to that old canard - liberal bias in academia.  Why this piece and why now?  After Gail Collins' take down piece on the recent Republican debate, is Brooks trying to pull a bait and switch?

There is, of course, conservative bias within certain academic units, business schools certainly and certain economics departments come to mind.  Should that be a concern for the rest of us as well?  A far greater concern, it seems to me, is that higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on large gifts from donors and it seems to me naive to assume all such donors give their money freely without any implied agenda attached to the gift.  The Chicago School developed the "Capture Theory" as a conservative critique of regulation, a criticism I respect even though my own orientation is far more liberal.  Might much academic research end up being captured by the donors?

The peer review process isn't perfect.  Papers with erroneous results do get published on occasion, not because of duplicity but rather because arguments seem plausible and reviewers don't do all the verification with the data that would be necessary to show the results aren't correct.  Consider the story of Reinhart and Rogoff's This Time Is Different.  Does Brooks worry about research done by conservative authors also having problems with parallax?  Why is this framed fundamentally as a problem of liberal bias rather than as an issue that any researcher comes at his subject with strong prior beliefs on the matter and those beliefs will influence the outcome of the research?

* * * * *

Perhaps Clayton and Brooks can sit in the same room and unpack each other's essay.  Simplicity in the writing often masks implicit maintained assumptions that go unchallenged.  If those assumptions were all brought out in the open would readers have the patience to slug through the longer piece?  And is the tonic for errors in research to avoid them being committed in the first place, by identifying all issues of parallax stemming from researcher prior bias?  Or is the method where subsequent researchers challenge the conclusions found in prior work the better way of eventually getting at the truth?

Authors do have agendas.  I have mine.  Part of it is to get people who write opinion pieces like these to try to take the other side of their own arguments.  A different reason why people don't read even generalist writing is that they don't like being sold a bill of goods and they can't differentiate sufficiently well propaganda from reasoned argument.  Authors who want a broad audience for their ideas need to recognize the problem and modify their own writing accordingly.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The good examples among college students

Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.
Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) 

Is it them or is it me?  That's the question that vexed me when I got started with learning technology more than 20 years ago.  The question has now returned with a vengeance.   But it is different now.  Then I was teaching intermediate microeconomics, a course that most Business students despised but was required of them.  (The situation was parallel to what happens in organic chemistry, the make it or break it course for pre-med students.)  Now I'm teaching an upper level course in the major, the economics of organizations, and the vast majority of students are in fact econ majors.

But if attendance is any measure of student engagement, then many of the students are not very engaged at all.  In yesterday's class we were at or below 50%.  That's been the norm the last several weeks.  Once in a while a student will alert me ahead of time about having to miss class to deal with an emergency or health problem.  But most who miss do not let me know in advance.  Among the seniors, they may have an interview for a job, which under the circumstances is a legit reason to miss class, even if the university doesn't recognize it as such.  I have no way to tell if that is what's going on.  My ignorant prior is that most of the ones who don't show are blowing it off.

I need to say here that I don't require attendance.  Back in spring 2012, the first time I taught this particular course, I only had 8 students, which was far below the expected enrollment.  So a week or so into the semester I negotiated a deal with the class that we'd run it as a seminar, part of which meant that attendance was required.  The students agreed to this.  But after the first several weeks attendance was abysmal; one student simply stopped coming during the last third of the class.  I vowed to never teach again in the spring.  The senioritis is just too great then.  And though I didn't make the analogous vow regarding taking attendance, doing so when it doesn't happen simply by my eyeballing the class (when there are fewer than 10 students) cuts against the grain of my core beliefs.  These kids are in that gray zone between being a teenager and being an adult.  My belief is that they should be treated as adults and then see if they can respond accordingly.  That is what I try to do. The good examples among the students show some responsibility in this circumstance.

Apart from attendance, the good examples also do the homework in a timely manner, show some diligence in completing that work, and on occasion speak up in class.  (Though, this semester there are not enough of the students responding to the questions I pose.)  Focusing just on such students, I'm mindful of something that Gardner Campbell tweeted yesterday.

In keeping with treating the students as adults, this is an issue that these students should confront themselves.  I will try to initiate that in my next class session and do so along the following lines.  About a month ago there was a piece in Inside Higher Ed called Are They Learning? which discussed an effort by a Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment.  That group produced a set of rubrics which is reproduced here.  (The font is larger so the document is readable.)  I will share those with my class on Monday, encourage them to scan through the document, and then survey them on whether their courses are helping them to develop these skills as well as on whether they themselves perceive the need to do that.

I do not want to anticipate in advance what that survey will show, but I do want to note that in prior inquiries of my class several of the students who are in this "good example" category have indicated dysfunction in the way we go about things on campus.  One example is students writing about group projects in other classes, where they ended up doing the lion's share of the work because other team members shirked.  (This is a very common complaint, one I've heard repeatedly over the years.)

Another example was provided yesterday.  I did a little experiment in class where for 5 minutes near the start of the session I asked the students to put away electronic devices.  Afterward I surveyed them about it.  I got a reasonable number of responses to that survey among those who were present in class.

Several of the good example students (they identified themselves via their aliases) indicated a preference for a policy where no devices in class would be tolerated, though they also indicated that such a policy was now the exception rather than the rule.  I gather that these good example students perceive disengagement among their classmates and they'd rather see their peers more fully engaged.

Engagement would seem to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for students to perform at a high level in accordance with the set of rubrics linked to above.  There is a tension between learning in a deep way (what those rubrics demand), which might take a lot of time and struggle in the process especially if the implied habits in learning are not already ingrained, and getting a high GPA, which the students perceive as necessary to land a good job.

My sense is that most of the good examples are playing a game of paper chase, which in itself may block deeper learning.  They really should confront this issue when they are first year students rather than right before they are to graduate.  If the institution were able to make such first year students aware, could that be done in a way where students rise to the challenge and where the courses they take support them in doing so?  I don't know if that is possible or not.  But it does seem to be something we should be asking.

We should also be asking whether we are short changing the good examples because they are a minority among the overall population of students and our approach to teaching must be for all students, not just the good examples.  I don't know what the answer is on this score, but a way to get at it would be to do a study about attendance in first year and second year courses and relate that to grade performance.  The scuttlebutt I hear is that attendance is down across the board.  We may not want to own up to that, even if we knew it was true.  It is not the type of information you want to publicize when you are seeking additional funds for the institution.

Yet if you want to address these matters that will have to be done openly.  My aim is to be a prod for us in doing so.  I hope I can get at least a few folks to listen. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Which Way Are We Going?

Progress or regress
Can we tell which?
Definitely less stress
Though a rather bad itch.

Then when applying
To all of society
Problems multiplying
And much impropriety

It seems we're now stuck
In a reverse gear
Out of good luck
And an abundance of fear.

Yet then a small act
Which brings about sheer delight
Suggests that in fact
We're on a path that is right.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On The Student Mindset

Hard work or taking it easy
One of the Dwarfs goes by Sneezy.

Can you name the other six
Perhaps via use of mnemonic tricks?

That's what you get when you go to college
The accumulation of way too much useless knowledge.

Friday, October 23, 2015

If my wife and I wanted to move to Canada, would they have us?

This question, meant more tongue in cheek than anything else at this point, was prompted by Paul Krugman's column from this morning, a snip of which is below.

I would like to live in a country that, in these times of economic doldrums, actively practices policy in accord with a Keynesian vision.  For the last several years I've written many posts on what it would take to get that to happen in the U.S.  It seems highly unlikely at this point and will remain impossible as long as Republicans control the House, even if the Democrats take back the Senate.  Impatient on that score, the thought of moving to Canada is a quite tempting alternative.  More on that below.

First though, here is a bit of nostalgia to show the above isn't entirely tongue in cheek.  I took a sabbatical at UBC in Vancouver during the spring and summer of 1989.  It was a glorious time.  I met my wife then.  I was visiting in the Econ department in the Business School and she was an assistant professor in another department that focused on Labor Relations.  She had a walk up apartment on the second floor in Kitsilano, right next to the beach.  Our first date was at a place called Fish on Yew.  On Saturdays we'd go to the open market on Granville Island.  At the time I became very partial toward Granville Island Lager. Vancouver was a wonderful location and we had a very romantic time.

I moved into her apartment on the third night and proposed after two weeks.  So most of the time I was there we knew we were going to get married and had to make some decisions revolving around that.  One biggie was where to live - Vancouver or back in Champaign.  I was ready to move permanently to Vancouver and went as far as having lunch with a bunch of economists at Simon Fraser in their Faculty Club. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten an offer from them had I pursued it.  But Leslie wanted to go back to the U.S. for two different reasons.  The first is that she was from Des Moines and wanted to be closer to her family. The second is that she really didn't like being an assistant professor and wanted to something else more in the real world regarding labor relations.

So in the fall when my sabbatical was over I went back to Champaign and she stayed in Vancouver for that semester.  We did a long distance commute and racked up quite a phone bill.  Then she moved to Champaign.  The wedding itself happened the following June.  Leslie still has a pension from her time as an assistant professor, but otherwise the connection with friends at UBC was severed and until this morning I really hadn't given any thought about returning there or moving elsewhere in Canada.

* * * * *

The argument that the system around Congressional elections is so rigged that the current Republican majority in the House is essentially locked in is well articulated here:

Given this, there is a mounting frustration with the status quo that is clearly showing up in the Presidential races, but will surely persist on both the right and the left as long as a Democrat wins the White House but Republicans maintain control of he House.  If you are an individual voter, one who from past experience outside of the world of politics knows that ongoing frustration is not a healthy state of mind, you start to consider alternatives.

Let me first do so in a fantasy.  Imagine that the Pacific Northwest and New England were realigned to become part of Canada, along with perhaps some or all of the Upper Midwest.  Further imagine that people in other states of the U.S., who are liberal in their politics, are encouraged to migrate to one of these states or to Canada proper, while those who are conservative and currently in residence in those states are encouraged to migrate south.  In other words, given that a house divided cannot stand, let's depart from Lincoln's solution and make two houses, the northern one called Greater Canada, the southern one then called the Remaining United States.  Could this happen?

Now let me consider a much more realistic scenario.  When my wife is ready to retire (probably not for at least a few years yet), we then leave Champaign for some other destination as our permanent residence.  Might the new location be somewhere in Canada?  Does the politics of the place matter a lot in the quality of life determination?  Or can one simply ignore politics if one makes an effort to do so?

There is also an implicit assumption that the new Trudeau government will prevail for a long time to come.  Is that a reasonable assumption to be making?  After the election in the U.S. in 2008, one might have made a similar prediction about an Obama-led Democratic government.  Yet two years later there was the great shellacking and the Democrats became the minority party in the House.  So I may be confounding a moment for a movement.  The Canadians were fed up with Harper in the same way that Americans were fed up with Bush.

I have time to weigh the alternatives.  If Canada seems to fare well relative to the U.S. over the next few years, that will surely matter.  In the meantime, I wonder if my liberal friends in the U.S. are thinking similar thoughts. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Quick survey on math literacy

As a means to promote some discussion on the issue, but not to do any hypothesis testing since while I'd like people to respond those who do so surely wouldn't constitute a random sample, below is a screen shot and link to a very brief survey on people's sense of comfort with algebra and analytic geometry.  If you have a couple of minutes, please give it a try.  I'm really more interested in the comments than the forced response items.  I will publish the results once it seems that the responses have come to a halt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Could the Dems take back the House?

The fascination the nation seems to have with the Presidential election masks other issues that are equally fascinating, maybe even more so. In particular, how much could a new Democratic President accomplish if the Republicans retain control of the House? That such a President can jawbone on what the country needs to do goes without saying. But jawboning is quite different from getting major legislation passed and signed into law. Looking at the recent past, how much of President Obama’s legacy will point to things done in his first two years, when the Democrats were in control of Congress? If divided government largely means gridlock, why do we care about who is President so much? As voters are we content with jawboning on the issues? If we are not and instead want to see fixes to the many and varied problems we now face, shouldn’t we be as concerned with what the next Congress will look like?

The conventional wisdom on the matter seems to be that while the Democrats have an opportunity to take back the Senate, the House will remain in the hands of the Republicans, a consequence of gerrymandering and Citizens United making Republican incumbents especially hard to beat. Further, such a Republican House will simply refuse to negotiate with a Democratic President and Democratic controlled Senate. (Plus, the Filibuster might mute what the Democrats can accomplish in the Senate.) In light of recent events following Speaker Boehner’s surprise announcement that he would be stepping down, the conventional wisdom should be questioned, on whether Republican control of the House remains a near certainty.

There is a different way to question matters as they are currently reported, which relies too much on the polls, in my view. Within the last six months both Gallup and Nielsen have called our house (as indicated by caller ID). I have now gotten into the habit of not picking up unless I know the caller already. The volume of solicitations is simply too great. Following that habit, I didn’t pick up to answer these pollsters. In other areas of polling, such as ratemyprofessor.com, I believe the sense is that people with extreme views - for or against - tend to participate. People with more moderate views tend to sit it out. But that is sitting out the polling only. It doesn’t speak to whether the person will sit out or participate in the election. What are the views of likely voters who don’t respond to the such polling? How many such voters are there? Does anyone know the answer to these questions?

Late last year, before any of the Presidential contenders had formally announced, but concerned as I am now with the makeup of Congress and getting sensible legislation passed, I wrote an essay called How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal, which made sense to me at the time because taking back the House seemed like such a long shot. The idea was to develop an economic plan for the country that would be heavily marketed, but in a non traditional way. The effort would involve educating voters as to how to think of the economy and about policy that might improve things. This would take time and much deliberation. As a consequence of that effort, the electorate would embrace the plan. This would then let candidates who might otherwise have little name recognition with voters quickly overcome that problem by endorsing the plan. In effect, voters would be voting for the policy more than for the candidate.

Now, about 10 months later, there is far less time left for such an education effort and since then Republicans seem to have branded themselves as the party of crazy, at both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Conceivably, simply running on “I am not a Republican” might be a winning ticket. In other words, it may be that independent voters instead of splitting their votes go heavily Democratic this time around. But one wonders why such voters wouldn’t simply sit this one out instead. As a voter, I would like to have positive feelings about the candidate I do vote for. I suspect that most voters are similarly situated. What can be done to encourage that?

If it is the Presidential race that motivates the voter to go to the polling place and if those independent voters do embrace the Democratic candidate for President, does it follow that they will also vote Democratic for their House candidate? After the fact we talk about whether the Presidential candidate generated large coattails. Can that be meaningfully orchestrated before the fact?

It seems to me that a comparatively short list of issues claim the lion’s share of attention in the national press (and in our discussions via social media) and other very important issues are ignored. Here I’ll focus on just one, as it is a mirror of of the gridlock at the Federal level that I’ve already mentioned. This is that at the state level most of the governors and state legislatures are now controlled by the Republicans and this is unlikely to change dramatically with the elections in 2016. Can these states then undo to some extent whatever is done at the Federal level? If so, that would likely discourage participation of independents. What might be done at the Federal level so the impact of such state action in minimized?

I believe each of the Democratic Presidential candidates needs to develop an agenda that is explicit enough that the voters can take it as an action plan to follow for the first eighteen months they are in office and so Democratic Congressional candidates can endorse not just the particular Presidential candidate but the candidate’s agenda as well. Preferably, the agenda is produced well in advance of the Democratic Convention and the one proposed by the winning candidate becomes the de facto party plank. The agenda should, of course, have a lot of meat for traditional Democratic voters. But it must also have enough meat for independents in currently Republican controlled Congressional districts to encourage their participation and willingness to vote for their local Democratic candidate for the House.

Let me make one more point and close. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was an extremely arduous and time consuming process. We should expect any meaningful legislation that will come out of the next Congress to be equally arduous and time consuming. But perhaps the making sausage part in producing such legislation can be affected by the agenda that the new President produced while a candidate. This would require some specifics to the agenda items. So the agenda needs to be more than broad brush goals. We are a republic, not a direct democracy. But our campaigning in poetry and governing in prose way of doing things needs to change to make the campaign more real and the governing more idealistic. The writing of the agenda would be a good step in that direction.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Ghost of Joe McCarthy

Pols often cry wolf
As Paul Krugman doth write
A tried and true form of smear
One that gives us fright.

But the real scary part
I hesitate to mention
Is that the true problems of the day
Are getting scant attention.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The incentive effects in exam preparation

I'm giving my first midterm today.  A little indication of how that impacts student behavior can be seen in the screen shot below.  The number in the middle column is the number of hits for that post.  The number in the left column is the number of comments.  The class now has 28 students.

The post with the high numbers is one which linked to last year's midterm and where I responded to student questions on it. In contrast, the other posts indicate little interest.  Further, most of the hits on the post with last year's midterm happened either yesterday or earlier today.  Yesterday morning, that post only had 16 hits.

Some of this behavior we (the University and especially the instructors) induce by having exams in all classes clustered around the same time period.  This is the simple consequence of dividing up the semester into chunks, which you must do if you are giving two midterms and a final.  Viewed this way, it would better for students to take fewer classes at any one time, which would happen under a quarters system or if classes were only for a half-semester.

But I think much of this is because the students don't "turn it on" till near when an exam is approaching.  Until then the vast majority of students are in passive mode.  I do try to counter this by having weekly writing of blog posts and in most weeks other homework in Excel.  I am underwhelmed by the effort I see from the students in doing this work. 

You don't learn nearly as much by occasional bursts of energy followed by longer fallow periods.  You learn a lot with a sustained intensity. The system doesn't seem to encourage that and I believe students are so habituated into their routines that the efforts of an individual instructor to counter this behavior will produce modest results, at best.

There is a by now an old argument on extrinsic reward versus intrinsic motivation in work and in learning.  In that argument, intrinsic motivation wins, but only when it is likely to be present.  The little evidence that I'm presenting here suggests that extrinsic reward is winning, in practice, and intrinsic motivation for students is rare.  I don't know how we'd measure that more broadly, but if we did try to do this and if the conclusions from such looking more or less concurred with what I am saying here, then at least we'd have a problem statement.

We need that.  Everything is not hunky-dory. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

We Or Me?

I've been stewing on this post for a while, perhaps a week, maybe longer.  In the class I teach we were doing a bit on what makes for effective teams (Bolman and Deal Chapter 5).  But in the blog posts the students wrote on the matter, I didn't think they were getting at the core issue.  The puzzle, it seems to me, is to explain selfless acts that cause the team to perform better yet which generate no personal recognition for the actor.  None of what the students wrote came remotely close to addressing this issue.

The seniors in the class are on the job market now.  It is natural in that setting for them to focus on themselves.  And as college increasingly comes to be seen as preparation for the world of work it encourage focus on oneself throughout the time spent as a student.  Do selfless acts fit at all into that mindset?  What I'm thinking about here is having a sense of responsibility in the community or the workplace.  How does that sense of responsibility develop?  Indeed, does it develop at all?

In class about 1/3 of the students don't show up.  It's not always the same ones who miss but there are a handful of students whose attendance has been very spotty.  Among those is one student who wanted a face-to-face meeting with me early in the semester, which he subsequently blew off.  Then he had a variety of excuses for why his course work would be turned in late.  He is not alone among his classmates on being late in completing the homework and some other students have missed submitting work entirely.

Even among those who attend regularly most will not raise their hands.  And for those who were there from day one this poses a different problem.  As our class is on the economics of organizations I treated the first class session as an extended example using the class itself as an organization.  One key economics issue is whether the organization itself acts in an economically efficient manner.  I then explained that questions students pose in class are public goods - the other students benefit from those questions being asked.  With public goods there is a reason to expect inefficiency - the free rider problem.  In the class setting, the student posing the question might be embarrassed for asking a stupid question.  Being responsible in this context means overcoming that personal discomfort for the benefit of all.  On the first day I thought that message was well understood by the class and we actually achieved a fair amount of class participation by the end of the session.  Unfortunately, it didn't carry over to subsequent sessions.

I am quite prepared to believe that I'm making things seem more grim than they really are.  One thought is that responsibility correlates highly with maturity and these 20-something students are for the most part still quite immature.  They'll get there; it will just take a while.  Another thought is that people act responsibly in those domains where they care deeply but less so elsewhere.  By the time students become seniors the classroom may be one of those domains that students don't care about so much.  Then it is also possible that some of this is peculiar to Econ majors, who are known to be more selfish than the rest of the student population.

Yet I'm wondering whether: (a) we should overtly be teaching responsibility and (b) we are implicitly teaching irresponsibility, the consequence of being at a large public university where individual students can readily vanish into the crowd.  To a certain extent the various University 101 courses that are offered in each college address (a).  I think we've been doing those for about ten years now.  To my knowledge there has been no formal assessment done, though my sense is that these courses are not sufficiently intensive and/or there are other factors that tend to counter the lessons from University 101.  Those other factors are what I meant by (b).

In the rest of this post I'm going to muse about what responsibility means and where it seems to have emerged in others and in me. 

* * * * *

A few days ago the Ayn Rand phrase, The Virtue of Selfishness, manifest in my head.  So I Googled it and then, finding the book in pdf form, I started to read it. Almost immediately, I became challenged by what she says, which seems like a bunch of half truths or out and out distortions to me.

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil.

I read this sentence several times.  My first thought was to ask, what do I believe on these matters?  In my worldview, actions that benefit oneself might be quite okay, even to someone who considers himself an altruist.  One doesn't have to be Mother Theresa to be a good person.  Then I read a little further and again returned to this sentence.  It is artfully constructed, written from the perspective of the person taking the action.  Does this person have good reason to believe that the action so taken will achieve its intended purpose?  Might the person aver a benefit to others while really only intending a benefit to himself?  If a person has a mistaken belief that the action will benefit others or if the person is being duplicitous when taking the action, is taking that action properly called altruism?

There is, of course, more to it than that.  Who the others are matters.  Use of the word altruism brings to mind the words from the Emma Lazarus poem - your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...  Altruism in this sense means giving to people who can't fend for themselves.  Certainly other sorts of giving is possible and indeed happens frequently.  In the class I teach I discuss Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.   In plain English you would call this either collegiality or good citizenship.  Both of those have elements of giving as part of the notion, but don't require the recipients to be needy, just appreciative. There is also the type of giving with a quid pro quo, an indirect way to scratch one's own back in a place that is hard to reach by oneself. Surely that is not altruism, yet use of the phrase any action connotes others independent of their standing. 

A couple of paragraphs later, it says:

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.

I found the first two of these binary juxtapositions offensive, even while knowing ahead of time that Ayn Rand championed the entrepreneur who follows his own inclinations as the path to produce success.  (I never read Atlas Shrugged and never will. I did see the movie starring Gary Cooper.  I liked it as a story, which I could watch without getting into the morality play that Rand intends for the audience.)

Doesn't it matter how the industrialist made his fortune?  I wonder what Rand would think of the recent Volkswagen debacle, or of the practice of buying out a pharmaceutical company for the purpose of jacking up prescription drug prices, or of the Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street.  Rand seems inclined to focus on the Steve Jobs type, the creative inventor, and then to ignore any unsavory business practices that might be part and parcel of the wealth accumulation strategy, for example Apple's well known approach to tax avoidance.  Or to take another such hero, Bill Gates, consider how Microsoft competed against Netscape.

Then there is the matter of the rags to riches story in the second example.  Rand seems not to care about distinguishing between the first phase where the transition has occurred, which most people would find admirable as long as that didn't happen in an unsavory manner, from the second phase where great additional wealth is accumulated after substantial wealth has already been acquired, which might seem quite offensive especially if some of that wealth was generated as a taking from others who can ill afford to part with it.

I confess to not fully understand the context within which the sentence about the dictator is intended.  Were there some Liberal sympathizers of Castro who were vocal about this at the time Rand wrote The Virtue of Selfishness?  I only did a quick search on the question as it is far afield from what I want to write about here.  I found nothing from the 1960s but did find a piece from this May that makes the argument.  Perhaps Rand meant the sentence as a veiled form of McCarthyism.  Certainly her rejection of altruism seems to be coincident with a fervent anti-communism, so what she may be really rejecting is the State as an instrument of altruism and not so much individual acts of charity, which is what I take to be the position of many Republicans today.  Even in this, however, the choice is not one or the other.  Rather it is the degree of acceptable subsidy/transfer as well as the acceptable set of recipients.  You don't hear too many Republicans decrying tax advantages for big business that amount to welfare for the rich.  So it would seem they really aren't against using the State as an instrument of giving.  What they are against is using the State for giving to poor people.

Let me turn to my own views of when selfishness is appropriate and defensible from a moral perspective. Many years ago I attended a retreat meant for new administrators on campus.  (I had been an administrator for a while, but had gotten a promotion.)  One session was led by a department head who told the rest of us in no uncertain terms - take care of yourself.  He said he had put on about 50 pounds while being department head.  This is not just a matter of administrative work being too sedentary.  It is mainly about work stress coming from overwork and that people on campus can be very pushy.  The stress never relents and in the search for a palliative a vicious cycle can develop.  The person doesn't sleep well, thinks about work and nothing else, gets insufficient exercise, and then is prone to over eat possibly to drink too much and take other stimulants in excess.  One needs to be selfish enough to avoid this sort of vicious cycle.  It is very hard to do and I'm not saying I mastered it.  I definitely did not.  But the principle, take care of yourself, is one that makes sense to me.

Here is a different sort of example.  I tell my students in their blogging to please themselves.  This is a strange piece of advice for them to hear as I'm the one reading their posts and for years and years they've been indoctrinated to act in a way that pleases the teacher.  But the reality is they haven't written much up to till this point and so they can't possibly know what will please me as a reader.  They have a much better chance of learning what will please themselves.  As they do this, they will end up writing better.

In both of these there is a dialectic at root between the me and the we.  (See definition 9.)   With the blogging, over time they need to develop a sense of taste as to what is pleasing.  If that sense of taste is formed from their reading the writing of others, a social act, then they should find that when they do please themselves with their writing others will like the writing too.  Likewise when the administrator takes care of himself he is in a much better position to the address the needs of others in his charge.

This sense of dialectic is elemental in my view of things, where it seems to be absent entirely in how Rand presents the issues.  The issue as I see it is to find a reasonable balance between we and me, which in turn might depend on circumstance, social norms, and perhaps personal preference as well.

When I was an undergrad at  Cornell students dressed down, even the rich ones.  When I was a grad student at Northwestern, quite a few of the undergrads I taught dressed up.  That didn't feel right to me then.  To this day I disdain Veblenesque displays of conspicuous consumption, for example seeing BMWs in the parking lot on campus.  On the other hand, one of my direct reports when I had the campus job used to make fun of me for drinking "foo foo coffee." That way I'm spoiled, no doubt, especially if comparing myself to my parents but not if comparing myself to those who buy more exotic coffee drinks.  My point here is that my views don't specify where the line should be drawn but only that some balance is the goal and quite unfortunately there are some obvious situations today, for example in our Presidential politics, where such balance is not present.

* * * * *

Our formative development on where responsibility comes from (or not) is a matter that should fascinate all of us.  After reading those student blog posts I made a post for the class on the matter.  Let me highlight two of the references linked there (and with brief annotations provided).  One is Hanna Rosin's piece The Overprotected Kid.   The veiled hypothesis in that piece is that kids benefit enormously from play at sport or other group activities requiring skill, where they are heterogeneous in age and proficiency.  Getting such situations to be fun for everyone is a challenge.  The challenge can be met by the older and more proficient kids taking care of the younger and less proficient among them.  This is the social context in which a sense of responsibility is born.  In contrast, organized sports teams, little league for example, tend to cluster kids by their proficiency and have adult supervision.  It's the parents who then end up managing the disputes, not the kids themselves.

The other is Sherry Turkle's piece Stop Googling.  Let's talk.  Here the argument is that kids become more impatient by having their heads always looking at their devices.  If they are bored with something they simply click over to something else.  Multiprocessing is the path to narcissism.  All of us are getting to be more about me and less about we this way.  It seems to me that the polarization of our politics is tied to this.  Nuanced argument with some depth is too boring.  Sound bites win the day instead.  As a society, putting away our devices is the way to take care of ourselves.

Let me give one more example and then close.  This one is far less clear as to what is actually going on.  It might be an example that we is becoming more important in our social existence.  Alternatively, it might be that we is being appropriated for private gain and is there purely for marketing purposes.  On this one I'm not sure, but I think it bears paying some attention.

The example is provided by the latest professional golf phenom Jordan Spieth.  His play has been outstanding.  But it is his demeanor that I want to comment on.  He has shown an effervescent sportsmanship that you don't see in the other players.  When he has done interviews after winning a tournament he repeatedly makes reference to we and never once refers only to himself.  In this case we means his caddie, his coach, his personal trainer, his business manager and his family and friends who travel to the tournaments and are there to give him a hug at the end.  If it is all genuine, it seems to show a deep appreciation of the teamwork that was necessary for his golf success.

Alas, it may all be marketing.  As a fan it is too hard to tell.  We don't know enough, but take a look at this site, where the company Under Armour markets Jordan Spieth apparel.  If you look at the incomes of true superstars in sports, Michael Jordan providing the quintessential example, much more of it comes from endorsements than directly from the athletic competitions.  In other words, Jordan made a lot more from Nike than he did from the Chicago Bulls.  Spieth must be well aware of this.  While high skill of the athlete is no doubt necessary to get such an endorsement contract, image matters for the price tag on that contract.  The companies want to market a wholesome image.  Being for we may be part of that.

From this marketing point of view Tiger Woods became Michael Jordan's successor and remained that till he had his fall from grace.  Speith is the heir apparent.  Jordan let his NBA Championships (as distinct from his leading the league in scoring) speak to his being a team player.   Woods, playing a game that few would call a team sport, may have made reference to his caddy or his swing coach from time to time and when he first won the Masters he made quite an emotional speech about the Black pro golfers who preceded him and who made it possible for him to succeed.  Yet he didn't go overboard about the contribution of others to his own performance the way Spieth seems to be doing now.

If Spieth is genuine in his descriptions this would be a welcome development that I expect other players will emulate.  But if it is all marketing, nothing more, it is a shame.  We really need to be tilting the balance more toward the we end of the spectrum.  There are too many other things at work pushing it the other way.