Monday, January 23, 2017

Socialism Reconsidered

Here are a bunch of separate threads that have been occurring to me over the last few weeks and now accumulated in one place.  At the end of the piece I will try to unify them into a whole, though my main intention is to get each thread out there for contemplation in its own right.  I should point out that none of this is about the immediate future.  I can't write in a constructive way about that.  This is all about the longer term.

1.  The business guru Peter Drucker argues that each of us should have two careers/jobs.  The first one is for pay and what we normally think of as work.  The second one is meant to be done volunteering and is there to satisfy our social conscience.  It's been a while since I read Drucker on this, but I don't believe he says much about the proportion of our time devoted to each career.  That is something to consider and keep in mind.

2.  A good introduction to the great economic thinkers is Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers.  Chapter 4 deals with David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus.  Of the two, Ricardo was the more optimistic regarding economic possibilities.  Yet Ricardo saw a potential restraint on economic growth.  The landed gentry obtained "economic rents" (Ricardo is the one who coined this concept) from those farmers who worked the land but who didn't own the land.  There was no upper limit on the size of what those rents might be.  Ricardo feared they could suck most of the resources out of the economy and incorrectly reward an entirely passive activity, land ownership, and thus not sufficiently reward merchants and labor.  Reading about Ricardo, one sees the seeds of much of our current economic predicament.

Rent seeking and, more importantly, the preservation of rents through thwarting of potential competition, are on the rise.  Think about Private Equity Firms and, in particular, the out-of-this-world compensation for their CEOs.  Or consider how highly concentrated high tech has become and the resulting move to the right by the CEOs in that industry.  Or consider the tragedy of the EpiPen.  These are just a few examples.  Many more could be readily provided.

3.  This one is my bread and butter issue and why my blog is called Lanny on Learning.  College education for upper middle class kids, think of kids who went to New Trier High School, is getting worse and worse while the kids are becoming more and more credentialed.  There is dysfunction in the system that is quite apparent to me but hardly gets discussed.  That tuition has been on the rise gets almost all the press.  That learning is on the downs gets much less consideration in public discussion.  (And if learning is on the downs for the affluent kids, where is it for everyone else?)

There are many and varied causes of this.  One might be tempted to focus on more recent causes (e.g., the kids have their heads in their laptops or their phones round the clock) but here I will focus on a cause that's been around for quite a long time, the degree as a passport to a good job.  The link is to a thread about a commercial that I saw on TV when I was in high school.

At one level there is no problem with arguing that an education produces human capital that has value in the labor market down the road.  That is good and sensible. The problem comes from focusing on the prize only and then viewing the education entirely as an instrument for getting the prize.  This makes the students themselves overly concerned about grades and quite willing to surrender their own learning to that.  And outsider might think doing the one would contribute positively to achieving the other, but in fact they are somewhat opposed, especially in the development of critical thinking skills.  Students implicitly understand this and become increasingly alienated about their education as a result in their latter years in college.

If things are to improve, the importance of the degree as passport must lessen or disappear entirely.  Education would still be important to produce thoughtful, caring, and well functioning citizens and to help people realize their full potential.

4.   As a kid I heard the Allan Sherman song, Automation, which was my first exposure to the idea that machines can and will replace people in the workplace.  Sometime later I became aware of something much earlier, Charlie Chaplain's classic Modern Times.  The vision there was something different - work itself was regimented so it fit with what the machines can do.  We now romanticize about manufacturing work because of the wages it paid.  We don't talk about the nature of the work itself and what that did to people.  There may have been pride in laboring hard to make a contribution.  But the process was brutalizing.

Now we live in an age of robots, drones, and artificial intelligence.  White collar work is being automated away.  What work will survive into the future?  Thomas Friedman had a recent column about this that I thought interesting.  It's called from From Hands to Heads to Hearts.   Hands at work is history, the factory jobs that are no longer there.  Heads at work may be the present but for how much longer?  If AI can perform better than people in much work that used to be done by humans, those jobs will also disappear.  A while back I wrote a little bit of science fiction on this called, The Economy as One Big Brain, where I concocted software called The Virtual CEO.  Let AI perform the executive function and people do best what people till can do.  For Friedman that is working from the heart.  That makes sense to me in a world where very smart machines enable us to do just that.

5.  Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1948.  Until the military draft ended, in 1973, this was a mechanism to bring tolerance and understanding of fellow Americans who were from different backgrounds.  But I never experienced that.  I only know it from reading what others have said, such as this recent Op-Ed.

I did experience integration in the schools via busing, though as I will argue the integration was limited.  I started junior high school in 1966, which was pretty soon after the Civil Rights Act.  I believe busing started in NYC schools under court order around then, though maybe it was going on before that as well.  I don't remember.  The integration was partial because of tracking.  The SP classes in junior high and the honors classes in high school were not integrated much at all.  If memory serves, of the about 200 students in Arista in high school (these are the kids who would take those honors classes, it was a large high school with more than 1150 students in my graduating class) there was one black kid among them and one emigre from Cuba.  So while gym class was integrated (and, ironically, economics was too since there wasn't an honors version of it) the bulk of the classes I took were not.  The TV show Room 222 overlapped my time in high school.  It gave the gloss version of what an integrated classroom was supposed to be like.  In retrospect, I would have liked to experience the real thing, to have a more informed opinion on how it might work.  Let me illustrate what I have in mind.

In eighth grade in French class, after our first exam our teacher reseated us based on how we performed on the test.  Mauri R. was the highest scorer and he got the front left seat when facing the teacher.  I got the second highest score and sat behind Mauri.  Sitting to Mauri's right was the student who scored lowest on the test.  Sitting to my right was the next lowest scorer.  This is the only time in my memory where a teacher made a deliberate attempt to have the better students help those who were struggling.  I have no recollection of whether it mattered, but it certainly seems like an interesting practice to try.  That French class was all white students.  So it is certainly possible to consider the general issue of whether mixing stronger and weaker students is good for learning without bringing race into the equation.  That there was tracking tended to limit this possibility from being tested when I was in school, though there was definitely variation in student proficiency even within the classes intended for gifted students.

The enthusiasm for busing ended with Reagan and anyone who has read Kozol's The Shame of the Nation knows that schools are highly segregated.  But in large part that is because housing patterns are highly segregated.  This essay, The Case for Reparations, will challenge the reader.  And you might not agree with its conclusions.  But it is hard to disagree with the history described, much of which is otherwise out of view for white readers.

It seems evident to me that if we are to experience integrated housing patterns that produce integrated schools it will be because the solution was imposed, in the way that Truman integrated the Armed Forces.  The "free market" won't produce this outcome on its own accord.  Our history since the 1960s suggests that it won't.  I should add something here about integration by class as much as integration by race.  Growing up in Bayside there were working class people in the neighborhood.  Jerry M. was a fixit man who lived across the street and came over to the house fairly regularly when my dad was out of his element on home repair.  Alex H., who lived diagonally across the street from us, was a fireman.   My dad was a lawyer.   This sort of integration grounds people.   So I believe that both need to happen.  There is the old New England joke about Which Way to Millinocket?  The punchline is - you can't get there from here.  Maybe you can't.  But we won't know unless we try.

6.  When I was in college I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling while lying on my waterbed, thinking about the meaning of life questions.  How could I be comfortable living inside my own skin?  It would be more than 20 years later before I became aware of Maslow, yet somehow I was able to piece through to a sense that self-actualization was the proper goal for me.  In this I was aided by going through bouts of depression, first in high school, then again in college before I transferred to Cornell.  I knew I couldn't subvert myself to a more mercenary end.  Not that I wanted to be poor, but I couldn't see making money as other than a byproduct.  As an end to itself it would just bring on the depression again.  Fortunately, I found a fit for my talents where my true goals could be realized.  In retrospect, I was cut out to be an academic pretty early on.   I'm glad I was able to stumble into that.

But I was also a nice guy and I could see being of service to others as a worthy goal, even if in practice when it happened it was more with people I already knew.  Elsewhere I've written some idle speculation about joining the Peace Corps after college, but I doubt it was a realistic alternative for me.  Indeed, through much of my career that part of the persona would manifest less strategically.  In a pinch, I might help somebody out who wasn't expecting it ahead of time. I didn't always do this when the opportunity arose and sometimes the pinch wouldn't be there, so I can't say there was an ongoing stream of selfless acts in addition to doing my day job.   I am aware that there's been a bit more of it since I've retired and am more time abundant.  Some of it happens in teaching, helping out a student who is struggling. 

In one of my volunteer activities now, I'm finding there is a way to blend self-actualization and selflessness.  I don't think I could have done this in my early 20s.  But with many years as an administrator under my belt and quite a lot of writing, particularly of blog posts like this one, I'm finding the mentoring and support role I play are clearly beneficial to others yet are also acts of self-expression.   This would seem close to the ideal.

I've been scratching my head on the question whether I'm unique this way or if many other people who have had a similar career trajectory might be able to do something like this later in their careers.  Since much of this volunteer work for me is done online rather than face to face, it occurred to me that my former colleagues who work in online learning would be well positioned to do something similar, though fewer of them write as much as I do.  Many, however, are much more accomplished at running an effective organization, skills that would be quite valued in this type of volunteer work.

7.     Two sorts of beliefs seem to permeate the worldview of high income earners (think Silicon Valley types).   One of these is that ability can be distinguished along a vertical dimension (so some people have high ability and others have low ability) and that people should be rewarded for their ability.  This is in contrast with the Socialist view that Marx popularized:

From each according to his ability to each according to his needs.

The other belief is the just-world hypothesis, according to which if somebody observes another person getting low reward, then the observer comes to believe that the other person is deserving of that outcome.  To this I add my own observation that the reward distribution itself has become more skewed, but this increased skewness is not necessary for high ability people to be rewarded or for there to be a just world.  Compressing the reward distribution, as I wrote about here, is feasible, at least at a conceptual level.

* * * * *

This is the part where I promised to briefly connect these various strands.  I want to do so here not by coming up with a grand policy solution, which is beyond me now, but rather by asking, can people who consider themselves liberal articulate their own like strands of economic issues that matter to them?  Politics often offers up answers - raise the minimum wage, make college education tuition free - without exploring sufficiently the economic issues that the policies are aimed at addressing.  To the non social scientist, it may seem obvious what the problem is.  Yet there tend to be unanticipated consequences to policy.  For example, those who believe in public schools, such as Diane Ravitch,  probably don't anticipate Kozol.  So it is helpful to parse what we want at an issues level from what we want as policy.  One point of my piece was to get issue candidates out there for people to chew on.

Another point, a bit more indirect, is to ask whether up-scale liberals can get out of the mindset of voting their pocketbook and instead take more of a perspective based on Rawls' Veil of Ignorance when determining what they want economic issue-wise.  I would call this shifting to a Rawlsian perspective being socially responsible.  Socialism, as I meant it in the title of this post, is an approach that takes a shared responsibility for every member of society.

As I'm finishing up this piece, it is a couple of  days after the Women's March on Washington and elsewhere around the globe.  Judged by turnout, it was an enormously successful event.  Obviously, many people have had their passions raised and wanted to participate.  It is unclear to me about whether that is mainly a negative reaction to Trump or if it is an affirmation of what the march was about.  The Mission Statement for the march is fundamentally about human rights. 

Human rights are necessary.  I certainly don't doubt that.  Yet I fear for the Democrats and their vision for 2018 and 2020 elections, that many will regard human rights as sufficient, where to me that is clearly not the case.  Economic issues matter a great deal too and it may be harder to articulate a shared vision on the economic issues because different members of the coalition are located quite differently in the income distribution.

There is also whether one can come up with a coherent narrative about the economic issues that is robust in a changing economic environment.  Alas, we tend to have soundbites only, not a full narrative.  Ross Perot's Giant sucking sound comes to mind as an example of the latter.    I haven't produced a coherent narrative here, but the threads above could provide some elements for that.  Admittedly, much of that is from the perspective of my own personal view of work.  It therefore abstracts entirely from work done by the hand.  However, I have previously produced an essay that talks about those issues, called Hard Hats That Are Green.  Put the two together and maybe you begin to get at a complete picture.  It's the complete picture that we should be after.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Burnout Revisited

The lead essay in the second round of David Brooks' Sidney Awards is this piece by Andrew Sulllivan called I Used to Be A Human Being.  Sullivan is a former blogger extraordinaire who ultimately did serious damage to his health as a result of being an addict of always online.  Then he went through a process of self-reclamation which seemed to work, only to find that he was eventually succumbing to his old ways.  If you haven't read Sullivan's piece yet, I encourage you to do so.  It is revealing and may shed some light on our own online behaviors.  Not coincidentally, I too did such a reflection recently in my piece Putting My Brain In Mothballs.  So I may have been primed for Sullivan's piece, but I originally thought it was just going to be recycled Sherry Turkle, and I didn't want that.  (She gets ample mention in Sullivan's essay.)  I put off reading Sullivan's piece for that reason.  I was pleasantly surprised by it, for its personal perspective into the issue and also for the necessity that he argues for about having an extreme cure.  This is addiction we're talking about.  It is not merely a minor bad habit to overcome. A drastic problem requires a drastic solution.

Somewhere in the middle of reading Sullivan's piece, a memory was triggered that I wrote something on this subject a long time ago, March 2006.  That post, in turn, was triggered by something of a big event in the edu-blog universe.  Stephen Downes, who publishes the newsletter OLDaily, had announced that he was stepping away from the work for an indefinite period.  This occasioned many of the people doing edu-blogging to reflect about their own circumstance.  D'Arcy Norman was one of those folks and he picked up on my post in his own reflection.  (I changed the host of my blog since writing that post.  My post can now be found here.)  The comment thread on D'Arcy's site is interesting, both in describing why the online communication is so compelling and in the pitfalls of getting too immersed in it.

The thing is, that was more than 10 years ago, which seems like eons in Internet time.  At the time of writing that post I wouldn't get onto Facebook for another 2 and a half years.  I didn't get my first smartphone till the following fall.  And this was well before the burst of the housing market bubble, so from a macroeconomic perspective things were reasonably optimistic.  The burnout I was feeling when I wrote the post was really much more of the old fashioned kind - getting beat up from the job. Indeed, I changed jobs latter that year, moving from the campus IT organization to the College of Business.  Nevertheless, that the technology had a narcotic effect was clearly evident then.  There should be no mistake about that.

Since then, to steal a metaphor from when I was a teenager, we've moved onto harder drugs.  The lags between producing online content and getting feedback on it have come down dramatically.  The "like" button creates an anticipation that feedback will be coming.  And further, while I was pretty adamant about producing long and ponderous blog posts, and still cling to that conviction, I now generate a lot more short-length content.  Many people do.  On the one hand, the short posts seems to please some of my friends, who clearly find that content more accessible.  On the other hand, it feeds the beast.  Shorter-length content can be generated at greater frequency.  I should add here that with much of my day not scheduled, in contrast to how things were when I was working full time, I've got that much more time to be online and noodle around.  That discretionary time is both a blessing and a curse.

While most of what Sullivan writes I found myself agreeing with, on one or two things his experience differed from mine.  One of these is about reading books.  I too struggled right after the semester ended to read the novel I had planned to immerse myself in as escapist fiction.  I soon wanted to click away to check email and Facebook.  So that much is the same.  But I found that if you keep trying it for a few days then its easier to get into the story and the attention span for reading the fiction improves.  I won't say that I reached the point where I was as absorbed as I used to be as a teen reading fiction.  But I was improving in my concentration.  So I'm not sure that reading should be ruled out in favor of meditation.  In my view, the big thing is to have some ongoing regime where the stimulus is from one source only and that is not interrupted by electronic communications with friends or colleagues.  I'm guessing that the brain will heal itself in that circumstance, though it might take quite a while.  No doubt, there is also great temptation to end the regime prematurely and return to previous behaviors.

The other thing, and Sullivan does mention the election, is that it is such a big deal this time, partly because so many people are bent out of shape about it (and I am one of them).  The regime of leaving the computer screen for an extended period of time to be offline and therefore disconnected, while perhaps quite appropriate for restoring one's mental health, seems at odds with doing something (what, I'm not sure) either to resist the Trump regime or to make the world a better place in spite of it.  Further, venting is usually a healthy early expression that leads to subsequent action.  That many people are venting now is entirely understandable.   But it makes being online compelling in a macabre kind of way, seeing all these people express their intense irritation. 

So I think you can have one or the other, but not both.  And until you decide which one it will be, you're apt to bounce between the two.  That's the way it has been for me since the fall semester concluded.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Divided We Fall

Like many others I spent a good chunk of the holidays reading various analyses and post mortems on our national politics and the recent Presidential election.  I am not going to chime in with my two cents on this, which is unusual for me, but my feelings are still too raw and I'm trying to avoid inflicting pain on myself.  Instead I will be taking on what is a safer topic, in the sense that I have little emotional stake in it, but it is still a worry, no doubt.  But I did have a reason to mention those analyses, such as this one by Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane.  Some general points from them that I will try to apply in this piece are: (1) we don't know a good thing when we have it; we only can tell in retrospect, (2) in the process of trying to make things better we may very well make things worse, and (3) whatever system we have people will game it and expose weak points that may not be obvious to the developers and the reformers ahead of time.

I want to talk about voice activated virtual assistants.  My wife is now a big fan of Alexa.  She is definitely not the only one.  She learned about it from family friends.  Here is a piece that compares features of the leading competitors, the others being Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Assistant.  The piece implicitly is being a cheerleader for use of the technology.  It doesn't say anything about the unanticipated and quite possibly pernicious consequences that might result from use of the technology.

In the process of composing the previous paragraph I received an email from LinkedIn where the featured piece is entitled Just How Dangerous Is Alexa?  The timing of this is almost too much for me.  Clearly, others are worried about the same issue.  And some of those others know a lot more about the technology and security matters than I do.  So I will leave that to them and here do some wild speculation, imagery really, about what might go wrong if other parties have voice recordings of us.  I will borrow from TV and the movies in providing examples.

The show 24 was compelling to watch and I was a big fan.  Part of the attraction is how it was able to inject a dystopian vision of technology and make it an integral part of the story line.  In Day 1, there was an episode where surveillance cameras seem to track Jack Bauer wherever he went, so his remote tormentor, Gaines, could order Jack to do as commanded and succumb to blackmail, with Gaines knowing immediately if his orders had been obeyed.  This type of intensive monitoring is very frightening while at the same time makes for captivating viewing by the 24 audience.

In Day 2 there was an episode which is more relevant to the topic at hand.  In episode 23, a hacker named Max had built this incredible machine to manipulate voices.   All it needed as input was a short sample of the speaker's voice.  Then, as output, it could produce new sentences spoken by that same voice, in such a reliable way that the intelligence services would be convinced that the voice was authentic and not a fake.  If a capability of this sort is even remotely possible, imagine the havoc that it might create should your own voice recordings fall into the wrong hands.

Let's turn to a different movie, The Matrix, and particularly this image, which I think serves as a good metaphor for our relationship with technology companies.



This is meant for us to ask, do the technology companies have our own interests at heart?  A rule of thumb from when I used to do voice recordings at work is that 1 minute of voice takes up about one MB of disk.  That's about 8 year's old information.  Compression is surely better now but maybe the voice recordings are richer as well to offset that.  Does the Cloud storage of voice recordings that the technology company's employ have the right security for it?  Or do the technology companies not get cost effectiveness when they add security layers?  More importantly for this post, how would any of us who reside in one of these pods know the answers to those questions?

The last movie I will use here is from long ago, 1974, the Francis Ford Coppola film called The Conversation, which appeared in the wake of Watergate.  With ordinary technology now (SnagIt) I can record any call I'm part of when done on my computer.  I actually do this with some frequency so that others who are interested in the call but can't make it at the time can view/listen later.  How hard would it be for third parties to make recordings of calls on our smartphones?  I'm guessing, not very.  How would we know if this is happening or not?   We have Joseph Heller to thank for this line from Catch-22: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."  Yes, indeed.

It seems to me we who live in virtual pods have our interests aligned on these issues.  What to do about it, I'm not sure, so maybe we can't yet agree on how to manage things.   But I hope we can agree now that simply waiting for such audio content to get hacked is not the right way to play our cards.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Putting My Brain In Mothballs

Friday December 16, more than a week ago now and then only after entering my final course grades into the student information system that morning, I began a program of R&R to try to restore my sense of humor and mild impishness.  For the previous month or two everything seemed so heavy and distressing.  I resolved that if the world wouldn't offer up opportunities for the common amusement, which it didn't seem to be doing, then I'd opt for seclusion and my own chosen forms of entertainment.  Knowing I would do this, a few days earlier I almost wrote a post called - I miss Hannibal Lecter.  He was the perfect fictitious monster, terrifying but totally unreal, a delightful form of pure escapism as a way to recharge one's own batteries.  It was just this type of page turner fiction that I needed.

As my chosen alternative I selected things le CarrĂ©, one or two steps up on the requirements the writer imposes on the reader and perhaps also a bit more of a male province in the way the story is told.  Both of those suit me now.  On my Kindle Fire I had the book The Night Manager.  Earlier in the fall I had seen the TV miniseries on Amazon Prime.  In recent years, I've found the movie/TV show sometimes for me serves as the gateway into the book.   The latter is usually much richer, with a substantial part of the story dropped in the video version to accommodate the shorter time in the telling.  (In this case, the story was also altered quite a bit.)  With le CarrĂ© in particular, there is also the joy from reading his prose - how he constructs sentences and paragraphs, and my increased appreciation of craft in the writing as its own object of attraction.  Nevertheless, I'm a lazy bum at heart so I often don't go for the book straight away.  This makes some sense during the fall when I'm teaching, as I'm kind of an all or nothing guy.  Reading a novel when there are other obligations that must be addressed in the present tense doesn't work well for me.  I need to have free time on my hands for that.

In addition, I found the original BBC miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guiness playing George Smiley freely available on YouTube.  And though it originally aired in 1979 (the review here is a very good read), it is quite viewable now in the sense that the image quality is sufficient to not distract from the story.  I aimed to get into a routine where I do my reading in the daytime and after happy hour would switch to video viewing. As I soon discovered, I don't retain much after happy hour so I had to diverge from that pattern.

The reclamation project has been a partial success.  Perhaps anything would be with not having to prepare classes or write exams or the like.  Here I don't want to argue for this particular program of personal restoration, quite the contrary.  I want to describe the various impediments that made it difficult for the program to succeed.  Perhaps this will be useful to others, who may be experiencing similar impediments.  Before you can find the cure,you need to know what ails you.

* * * * *

I enjoy much of the time by myself, a sure sign of an introvert.  During those occasions I act most in accord with my own nature when I get totally lost in something, whatever that activity happens to be.  I used to be able to do that quite readily.  Writing, in particular, was a very good source of absorption for me and one real reason why I've stuck with the blogging for so long.  But it has been getting harder to achieve and indeed getting lost in thought more generally has gotten harder.   Here are some reasons why.

The nature of the work stress is different for me this time.

As long as the job itself makes sense, whether that is actually true or you merely accept that it is true because you don't know otherwise, then the stress at work come from the process of doing it, with the demand of the job sometimes beyond your individual grasp.  Once the job itself stops making sense, or you begin to express doubts about that, then a different question emerges - why exert substantial effort in something that doesn't make sense?  For me, making sense means that you can see the consequence of your efforts and that matters in some way. I will try to take that rather abstract notion and make it more concrete here.

I link my stress to three things in my teaching.  The first is poor attendance, which I've experienced this year and last, but which was not evident before that.  Another is poor class participation of those in attendance.  This too has been an issue the past two years where before that the class had a level of energy that was noticeable to both the students and me - there was a lot of back and forth between me and the students.    This time around there was a lot of me posing questions and then silence.  Once in a while awkward silence is a good thing, serving as a spur to students to get them to chime in.  On a recurring basis, however, it is very demoralizing for me and them.  The last thing is about student prior preparation, more what they should have learned in high school and from their gen ed courses than from earlier econ classes (in the major).  I can remedy the econ deficiencies to some extent.  I can't make up for the limited broader background.  In written expression, reasoning skills, and in the willingness to amplify their own understanding  (looking up the concept in Google, for example, instead of assuming it was well understood already) many students came up short.  Some also seemed to have a fixed prior mindset about course concepts and were unable or unwilling to challenge their own prior held views, even as I presented alternatives.

I had resolved last year to give it another try.  Maybe it was simply an aberration and things would return to how they had been previously.  I've done that repetition now and it forces a decision on me.  Either I need to give up teaching altogether, and I've been carrying that thought through much of the semester, or I need to redesign the class in a way that both addresses what I've been observing and also is consistent with what I've been trying to achieve with the teaching - opening the students eyes some to possibilities and coming to a different sense of things both about the economics and about their own learning.  The first admits defeat.   I do feel defeated here.  The second appears much more than I can muster and might very well be infeasible even if my energy level was boundless, which at present it is isn't.

So this sort of stress is different.  It is hard to let go of it, though it is necessary for me to do that for a while.  Take a month or two off from thinking about it entirely and then come at it anew.   I know that is the right thing to do.  Knowing that and executing the plan are two different things.   I have a long history of second guessing myself, a form of self-indulgence as punishment.  It's hard to abandon that habit.

The work stress seems tied to the stress about our national politics.

I am not going to write directly about the stress our national politics is causing people as there has been much written about it already.  This piece from the LA Times does a reasonably good job of describing it, in my opinion.  Undoubtedly it is an important factor to consider in its own right.

However, what seems missing in it is any sense that we have ourselves to blame.  If, instead, one views the election as a consequence of trends that could be reasonably well understood for some time, then our own culpability becomes more readily apparent.   These trends include rising income inequality (and wealth inequality too), an elite that seems entirely self-possessed and devoid of concern for those who are far less well off, and predatory financial practices, particularly with regard to housing but elsewhere in the economy as well, that have shifted resources to those working in the financial sector and have left poor and working class people much worse off.  Taken together these factors have lead to our own ruin while preventing sensible counter measures that might have been put in place but weren't.

I have been writing for some time about the decline on institutions and the failure of individuals to take responsibility, some of it in general, but much of it specifically about higher education.  I certainly haven't been alone doing this.  (For example consider the books Declining by Degrees, Academically Adrift, and Excellent Sheep.)    I have viewed my teaching since retirement as one person's attempt to combat these tendencies and to get the students I teach to be aware of the issues and to get them to understand work and life choices through other than an I'll-get-mine vantage.  At a large public institution like Illinois, it is quite easy for students to come to the conclusion that nobody in authority cares about them so, in return, they are free to game the system rather than to honor the trust.  I wanted my teaching as a countering force.

Structurally, I understand this decline better within higher education specifically than I do for society at large.  At a public university like Illinois, the elite are the tenured and tenure track faculty.  Perhaps in some departments this is not the case, but in economics and many other departments these faculty are largely divorced from undergraduate education.  Instructors and clinical faculty (neither of whom are on the tenure track) do much of the undergraduate teaching.  Further, large lecture classes are the norm, given the high number of majors.  So there is a tendency in such classes to rely heavily on the textbook, take a teach to the test approach, and for the students to respond by taking a rote learning approach to course content.  I wrote a piece some years ago, before my recent experience with teaching and right around when I retired, called Excise The Textbook.  It is but one example that the trends were readily apparent then and that something sensible to reverse them was equally apparent.  Of course, the alternative didn't happen. At least, it hasn't happened yet.

The system suffers from hysteresis in that the research faculty not caring about undergraduate education was the norm when I started back in 1980, at which time it was part of a system that, in spite of this deficiency, did make sense then.  While that faculty attitude remains, the revenue sources are entirely different now.  Tuition wasn't a big deal back in 1980.  It is a big deal now.    If you look at the data, and although overall numbers of students enrolled in undergraduate degree programs for the entire nation has been drifting down the last few years, numbers at the U of I have gone up (mainly because of an increased number of transfer students).  The two big questions here are (1) is that sustainable overall if the students aren't in fact learning very much and (2) might specific majors witness decline in enrollments for these same reasons?  As I've said, these questions emerge out of issues that are evident.  Ignoring the problem till it is too late to do anything about it seems likely.  That is very disconcerting to me. 

Beginning the day by reading the news starts each day off with negativity.

I can't remember whether I read the newspaper regularly in high school, but I'm quite sure that by graduate school my routine was to buy the NY Times at Norris Center (the student union at Northwestern) and then go have breakfast, reading the front page stories, the op-ed, and the sports section before starting the school day.  I had the habit pretty much the same since, though in recent years I've subscribed to the Times online.

It's always been - no news is good news, hence all news is bad news.  Yet it is somewhat different now.  I want to describe some of that difference before getting to the Trump phenomenon.

First, nowadays the sources of information are quite varied and many bits I gather from Facebook friends posting something with a link and possibly their own annotation before I see it in the Times.  So there is a fair amount of repetition and I have the the sense quite frequently that when reading I'm not learning anything that I didn't already know.

Second, in the James Reston, Tom Wicker, Abe Rosenthal, Anthony Lewis days there was a sense that these people were adults and I was still only aspiring to be one.  So I could respect their opinions and not concern myself about whether their arguments were weak.  Nowadays, I feel that many of the columnists I read could make a better argument than they are making and not infrequently are actually spewing pablum.  There is also the tone in which they make it, which sometimes gets very preachy.  Gail Collins is a counter example - she has wit.  But even she seems to have succumbed to the tenor of the times.  Thomas Edsall produces a better column much of the time, but he too seems to have been beaten down by current circumstances.

Third, and this I've written about recently in a post called Invasive Species and Tabloidism, the economics of journalism is undermining the integrity of journalism.  What is newsworthy is not the same as what will attract eyeballs.  Note that if eyeballs aren't finding the news the newspaper dies.

The upshot of this is that a politician being totally outrageous (The Trump effect) actually becomes a winning strategy, while being prim and proper behavior loses because it doesn't generate the eyeballs.  This is a kind of Gresham's Law at work.

I have guilt feelings from breaking my old habit of starting the day by reading the news.  So I read a piece or two and then get bent out of shape from it.  This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, for my own well being. Rationally, I know this to be true.  But I have yet to put into place an alternative that works for me.

I have become a hopeless multiprocessor, against my own better judgment.

There are a few different things going on here for me that may not be the same as with others, and then I'm quite sure there are other things that are exactly the same.  Thirty years ago when I would be doing economics research and "living in my model," which required a rather intense form of concentration, I learned the benefit of having fallow periods, either after a project was completed or when I was in the middle of something but temporarily stuck.  At the end of a project, this was to recharge my batteries before starting on something new, so when taking on that new thing I would be fresh and I could bring a lot of energy to it.  When I was stuck this was to let the subconscious have a crack at it and see whether the mountain was then turned into a molehill.  With some frequency, that seemed to work. That pattern of allowing for a fallow period has been with me for a long time.

With blogging I first became aware of a narcissism entailed with online writing that I never had with the economics research.  This was fueled by comments I'd get on blog posts, but even more so by tracking hits on the blog as a whole and on particular posts as well.  Those things can be potentially useful from a writing point of view to help understand the audience.  But the narcissism I'm talking about here goes well beyond understanding the audience.  Facebook, which is in the business of presenting eyeballs to advertisers, knows this fully.  The red Notifications icon alerting you to some activity on one of your posts, feeds the narcissism.

Then there is the issue of speed-up-of-cycles.  In the 1980s when I'd send in an economics paper for review, it would take several months before I'd get a referee's report.  Lags are much shorter now with pieces distributed online and with the shorter lags a sense of impatience is fueled.  That sense of impatience is at work not just when I post something, but when I'm reading something as well.  If I'm at all challenged by what I read, or a little bored with it, or it simply doesn't seem to be my cup of tea, I can move to a different tab in the browser and resume my game of Sudoku.  When the game itself gets challenging I can go to still a different tab or return to where I was.  Tabbed browsing, which really was a brilliant innovation when it first appeared, now appears to be a way toward instant gratification all the time.

I have found a partial cure for this, which is to get away from the computer and read on my Kindle Fire instead.  Further, mainly I read in the Kindle application itself rather than in the browser (so books rather than magazines). This is cure in the sense that if you can't resist ice cream when it is in the house, then don't have it in the house.  Sitting away from the computer and reading on a different device (one that is technologically inferior to my iMac) makes little sense if my behavior were rational rather than addictive. (If I were on the road, this would be a different story, but I'm at home in either case.) Whether I can ultimately cure the addiction itself, I don't know, probably not.  But if I can, staying away from Facebook and not monitoring email all the time would be a good way to start.

I can't fully do this because there are work things that come up, even after I got grades in I did interact with some students.  And I do some volunteer work that relies on Facebook and email as a communication tool.  So complete cold turkey is probably not in the cards.   But restricting access to certain times of the day rather than take an always on approach probably makes sense for me.  I wonder if I can follow my own good advice in this regard.

Procrastination now seems my norm rather than an aberration.

When I first started to blog, back in 2005, I had so many ideas in my head that needed expression in some form or other that writing a post was like opening a vein and letting it flow.  I could generate 1500 words of tolerable prose in somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes.  I would do that first thing in the morning before going to work, when I was quite fresh and up to the task.  It was a good way to start the day for me, as it gave a sense of accomplishment.  And at least when I was the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I could make some claim that the blogging was related to the work at the office, so I had some sense that I was making a contribution there.  Indeed, not infrequently Mike, who had the office next to mine, would want to discuss one of my recent posts.  Even my boss would do that now and then.

It is harder now to come up with a topic where I satisfy my own standards - not a complete rehash of something I've already said, articulating a well formed argument that I've worked through entirely, having a sense that it advances what other people have said elsewhere on the same issue.  This is not just with the blogging.  It is with the teaching too and with some other online interactions as well.  There is a kind of performance anxiety at root here.  I am not quite sure whether I can get over the bar I have set for myself.

I am aware that everybody procrastinates to some degree.  (If you haven't read this piece by James Surowiecki called Later, you definitely should.)  If I could keep procrastination to those tasks I've never taken a shining to, for example, cleaning up my office, I'd be quite okay with that.  I've always been kind of a sloppy guy with my physical environs.  That is not about to change.   However, when procrastination impinges on activities that used to bring me much joy, something else is going on.

For example, writing this post has taken nearly a week in its composition.  I've set it aside at least a few times, unsure what to say and unsure about whether I wanted to struggle through that or not.   Ultimately, I decided to do get it out, because I thought what I'm feeling might be like what many others are feeling as well.

Wrap Up

In case this isn't obvious from reading the above,  what I am describing is the onset of depression.  I've been through depression before.  The first time was in 10th grade.  I experienced it again in my second year of college at MIT before I transferred to Cornell.  The earlier experience was an aid to me in navigating the terrain the next time around.  After Robin Williams committed suicide, I wrote a post called Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves that gave some insights I had gleaned from my past, that I thought my help other comes to grips with the situation.

Here I want to point out the basic elements.  First, there are external causes that makes the environment unwelcoming, if not totally hostile.  Second, there is a lack of a sense of agency in addressing these external issues squarely.  Other people might say they are fighting it rather than say they are addressing it.  My dad, who was a brittle diabetic, would say "I'm fighting it" once in a while during an insulin reaction, a feeble response doomed for failure.   I mention that because I am not much of a fighter.  Never have been.  I will try to work through an argument to find a sensible solution if I can find one.  My lacking agency reflects uncertainty about whether such a sensible solution exists.   My struggle has always been internal with myself, not against some adversary.  Can I find the appropriate line of thought or not?

Those are the primary causes.  But then there are a bunch of secondary causes as well.  The multiprocessing and the procrastination are, on the one hand, consequences of the primary causes.  But, on the other hand, they serve to abet the primary causes by weakening my resolve and doubting my capacity to overcome them.   In other words, depression is not a linear path.  Rather, it is a vicious cycle.  If you can break some of the self-enforcing aspects of the cycle, you may be able to snap out of it.   People with a lot of self-confidence are not depressed.  Those with self-confidence some of the time will lose that well before depression fully sets in.  My own self-confidence is on the downs.

I am able to intellectualize that much because I've been here before.  Yet I am not a mental health professional and don't want to claim to be one.  For the reader, I don't know what's right for you, even if you are struggling in a similar way.   If this posts resonates with you, maybe it is an indicator that you should talk with a professional.

For me, I know I need more down time.   Reading fiction is therapy.  I need to do more of that.  Writing the nonsense rhymes I compose many mornings is also therapy.  Now is time to take care of myself.

"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around."
Neil Young

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Artifical Mindlessness

I maintain multiple online identities.  I'm sure that is a fairly common practice.  Several of these are quite public - the content produced is available on the public Internet without any login required.  Further, I don't try to conceal who I am via an alias.  Each of these identities shares my last name.  Two of them also use my first name.  The other uses professor or prof in lieu of a first name.

Google, which in other ways seems to be diabolically clever, has not put two and two together.  If you search on my name in Google you won't find my professor identity at all, ironic given that it is in a Google account.  You also won't find my stuff in Twitter.  If you search on my name and Twitter then you'll find that as the first hit, so Google definitely has the information, but without the Twitter keyword in the search Google doesn't deem the content important enough to appear in the search.

This morning I received one in an endless stream of solicitations to complete a survey - only 5 or 10 minutes max they claim - in exchange for a chance to win an Amazon gift card.  This one is about how I am using learning technologies.  My class Website for this past fall is out in the open for anyone to peruse.  Given that actions speak louder than words, what is communicated by such a survey request when the information wanted is already publicly available?

I have also written on the topic, quite a lot if you count stuff on my blog.  Those writings could be perused.  If a robot knew of my multiple online identities could it visit my various public writings in an attempt to answer the sort of questions that the survey wants to get at?  If that is possible, why isn't it happening?  Why do the gift card as possible prize approach, which is cheesy and really doesn't compensate for the time to complete the survey?

Then there are things that I've written about before.  First, there are political solicitations done by email, looking for a cash contribution, sent in the name of some famous politician with whom I'm apparently on a first name basis even though I've never actually met the person.  The inherent insincerity of the approach should defeat it.  Yet the stream of messages doesn't stop, even with the election now in the rear-view mirror.

And there is the rather absurd way that Facebook becomes aware of my Web searches at Amazon.com and then repeats them as ads in the sidebar.  Since I didn't buy the item the first time around, it must be that something else distracted me from that task, so I need a reminder to make the purchase.  What other logic is there to explain this ridiculous practice?

As people contemplate self-driving automobiles they should also consider all the ill informed ways that technology is now used to make our lives feel more cluttered and burdened.   Much of that consequence is unintended.  Yet it abounds. Will we ever get past this phase of technology use?  Or are we doomed to drown in it, with the only way out to get off the computer or portable device? 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Looking at Undergraduate Education through the Wrong End of the Binoculars

This piece considers several process reforms that make sense (at least to me) when looking at all of undergraduate education, which I try to do from time to time, though invariably from the perspective I've had from teaching my one class on the economics of organizations.  I have been doing that now for 5+ years.  While the total number of students isn't that large, well under 200, the patterns I've seen seem fairly well established.   That's what provides the motivations for these proposals.  Each of the suggestions are meant as an improvement on the status quo as I perceive it.

What follows are the suggestions, coupled with some rationale for each of them. 

1)  Move to a tripartite grading scheme to replace the single letter grade that is now awarded.

Discussion:  Education is antiquated in sticking with a single indicator of performance.  Going for a health checkup, the first thing they do is to take the vitals - blood pressure, temperature, oxygen in the blood.  Reporting the weather there similarly are multiple indicators given: temperature, humidity, wind speed.  It is true that aggregate indices are created so people can look at a single number (wind-chill factor, temperature-humidity index) but it is not so hard to look at the components without aggregation and for different people to make different judgements about how the components should be aggregated.

One component of the tripartite grading should be subject matter expertise, what the letter grade currently is supposed to report now.    The two other components would be first, something about the demonstrated ability for critical thinking/creativity/learning-to-learn and second something about the demonstrated ability to communicate well.

Students are more grade conscious than they've ever been.  Ask them about that.  They'll readily admit to the high importance of their grades.  The instructor trying to appeal to their intrinsic motivation for the subject matter is, frankly, getting clobbered by students being instrumental about their GPA.   Even if we don't like the behavior that produces, and as much as the let's-get-rid-of-grades-altogether mantra appeals to many instructors, getting rid of grades is not in the cards.  So we need some alternative that is more realistic.  The proposal here is to give other dimensions for students to game, dimensions we'd like them to improve in.  The hope is that in the process of trying to figure out how to perform well in these other dimensions, the bulk of the students actually learn something substantial.

The other aspects of this set of suggestions is meant to deliver on this in a way that is feasible and not overly burdensome to the instructor, though it might be possible to implement just this single suggestion without implementing the others.

2)  Move to shorter terms where students take fewer courses at any one time. 

Discussion:  Students are not very good at time management, no matter how well they are coached on this, but further, courses tend to have their high stakes obligations at around the same time.  So students cut class in one course because they have an exam in another.  Some of this may be that students don't allocate sufficient time to all their courses overall (we were the #1 party school in Princeton Review last year and partying takes a lot of time both in the doing and in the recovering from that).  A potential response to student partying is to up the average obligation per course, where much of this obligation is of the low stakes variety.  But because courses do compete with one another in this way, an individual course that raised its obligations would be perceived as unpopular by the students.   If students take just a couple of courses at a time (or only one at a time) then the courses can be more intensive, just for this reason and, of course, the wasteful competition between courses is eliminated.

3)  Move to a co-teaching model where each course has two instructors, one an expert in the discipline, the other a humanist who is expert in WAC (writing across the curriculum) methods. 

Discussion:  This and the next recommendation are apt to be the most controversial.  Surely there will be pushback against it.  Before addressing the pushback, let me make some arguments in favor of the suggestion.  In my class I teach in a WAC style, but the course doesn't satisfy an advanced composition general education requirement.  I do this simply because I think it is the right way to teach.  It is, admittedly, very labor intensive.  As a retiree, I can put in that time without it competing with other obligations.  For full time instructors,  to have such a labor intensive mode of instruction requires having more course staff. At a minimum, the suggestion should be thought of in that way.

The recommendation is in the spirit of Muhammad going to the mountain.  We know that student demand for humanities classes is in decline, yet faculty such as me, not humanists ourselves, retain the belief that the a liberal arts education is very important.  The suggestion then amounts to bundling what we hope are the essential elements of a liberal arts education within existing courses that students do demand.  In so doing, it is a way to credibly communicate that the university is serious about the other components in the tripartite grading scheme, beyond mere subject matter expertise.

I should note here that when I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business, I learned that in Accountancy courses there were two TAs - one for subject matter, the other for communication.  The Accounting department could afford this because they had the revenue flows to support the activity from their lucrative Masters Programs.  So, to a certain extent, the idea is to make that practice the norm elsewhere, but  do this with a full time instructor rather than a TA, so the course can be rethought  fully to integrate WAC methods into the approach.

One last consideration in favor, if the practice actually took off and became a commonplace, it would go some distance to address the excess supply issue with new PhDs in the humanities.  Now it may be that such work would not seem attractive, as these people wouldn't be driving their own bus.  They'd be playing a support role in teaching something else.  This is a glass half full or half empty proposition.  Nevertheless, it is work within a university setting.  That is nothing to sneeze at.

Now let me take on the pushback that is apt to arise.  First, the idea is unproven. So some experimentation must be done up front about trying to convert an ordinary approach to WAC format which is co-taught.   Such experiments won't simply spring up.  The would need to be incentivized.  The participants would have to understand that they will be held up under a microscope and that there work may very well be showcased afterward.   This is the same sort of thing that was done with teaching with technology in the mid 1990s.  There was grant funding (venture capital) for that then.  There needs to be some venture capital for it now.

Second, early adopters often do wonderful things.  Majority adopters produce much less interesting implementations, as a rule.  A significant reason for this is that the changes made by the majority adopters are minor, while drastic change is what is actually needed.  This can only happen if majority adopters are asked to perform well outside their comfort zones.    In other words, there has to be some substantial top down push for this to be a go.  Absent that, it will not work well.  So people at the top need to embrace this.  And they need to push, very hard.

Last, some significant assessment of the situation at present needs to precede this effort.  I'm writing this having done that sort of assessment in my own class and extrapolating enormously beyond that.  The changes are warranted, in my view, because the current situation is pretty grim and untenable long term.  (See my post on The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.)  This then amounts to recommending sensible and significant reform from within before the situation fractures even more than it already has.  But that has to be a view held by many among the faculty and the campus administration.  We are not there yet.  To get there, a real assessment effort is necessary first and foremost.

A starting point might be a study of attendance in classes around week 5 and then again around week 10.  If my class is any indicator of what such a study would show, the results would be quite grim.  Beyond that, a substantial interview project with instructors about what they perceive their students to be actually learning (or not) should be undertaken.  I've offered up my thoughts about this in a post called When Students Don't Get It

I want to note here that such an assessment might be painful to conduct in that it could readily make overt some truths that have heretofore not gotten much of a public airing.  Thus, because the campus wants to publicly brag about its real and significant accomplishments to cast the campus in a good light publicly, there will be reasons not to undertake such an effort.  That inertia needs to be overcome.

Last year on campus there was a lecture series on Prioritizing Undergraduate Education.  These talks were all about visioning the experience.  This sort of thing seems to be fairly common nowadays.  For example, in the Chronicle last week there was a piece by Nicholas Lemann called The Case for  a New Kind of Core, which was also about what should be taught and yet not at all about how it should be taught.

The process issues are clearly not as engaging to faculty members when considering this sort of visioning exercise.  However, the process issues are likely quite important in implementation and determining whether an implementation will be successful.  Understanding that is why we should take them seriously.

4.  Increase the credit hours for those courses that continue to be offered.  Reduce the total number of courses required for graduation.  In particular, eliminate the 3 credit-hour course.  That type of course should be converted to between 4 and 6 credit hours and be taught in a suitably intensive matter to justify this reallocation.  

Discussion:  In light of recommendation #2, one might ask whether this recommendation is needed in addition.  Can one get the requisite intensity in instruction merely by scheduling only one or at most two courses at a time so that they meet more hours per week?

This recommendation is not just about making courses more intensive, though that is an important piece of it.  It is also about making the overall proposal self-financing.  (That is a long-term goal.  Near term, in the experimental phase, there will be additional costs to try out the approach.)   The reader will note that each of 1 - 3 comes with some incremental cost.  Savings must be produced elsewhere to pay for that.  Those savings will come from reducing the total number of course offerings.  The equation to keep in mind is total expenditure equals expenditure per course times the number of courses offered.  We will be increasing expenditure per course.  To get balance there needs to be fewer courses offered.

I am deliberately making this simplistic here, because I don't want to dwell on how the savings are obtained in this post.  While readers may think I'm trying to pull a fast one with that, surely they will agree the 1 - 3 in themselves would make for cost adds.  (Among the proposals, 2 is potentially cost neutral long term, but would clearly require substantial adjustment costs near term.)  So rather than dwell on this I will simply pose this question to reader, what would you do to make such a proposal self-financing?

Here I want to make some other observations.  In spring 2007 I visited the Smeal School of Business at Penn State for a meeting of Technologists for Business Schools.  The meeting was of intense interest to me as BIF was yet to deploy and Smeal had solved many issues that we would have to solve as well, particularly how to schedule as many classes in the College of Business as we could to be held in BIF.   One thing I learned is that they procured scheduling software for this purpose.  So I went about initiating something similar for us.

One part of that exercise, not something you would normally do but it appealed to my sensibilities at the time, I took all the College classes listed in the Timetable and put them into an Excel spreadsheet on a classroom by classroom basis, so I could eyeball room utilization.  Manual data entry of this sort can be quite tedious, but sometimes it reveals interesting information.   For a little while I became the college expert on how we scheduled classes, which served me well at the meetings of department heads and associate deans.  Beyond that something else emerged that I wasn't expecting at all.

Courses in Accounting were always scheduled in 2-hour blocks that could be put into a grid quite nicely, always starting on the hour, and mainly starting at 8, 10, 12, etc.  Courses in BA and in Finance, in contrast, were mainly scheduled in 90 minute chunks that could start on the hour or on the half hour and once in a while the scheduling was in 3 hour chunks, meaning the class met only once a week.  Now, in case this isn't obvious, the upshot is that the undergraduate Accounting courses were all 4 credit hours while the undergraduate BA and Finance classes were all 3 credit hours.  Ask yourself why that would be.  (Incidentally, while the College of Business is accredited, Accounting has its own accrediting in addition.)   This was an interesting take away from the data entry exercise.

We know the seat-time model has been under attack for quite a while.   MIT, which I attended as a freshman and first-semester sophomore (1972-73) before transferring to Cornell, had an interesting approach that rated out of class time as well as in class time, where the total hours rating divided by 3 would give the credit hours.  I had a couple of courses that were 5-0-7, a few that were 4-0-8, and some hard math classes that were 3-0-9.  The first number is the in class time; the second number is the lab time; and the third number is the expected out of class time.  The required humanities/social science class was 3-0-6.  That communicated volumes!

The MIT schema does signify an expectation about outside-of-class coursework in a way that the simple credit-hours model does not.  I am no longer current on this sort of thing, but when the National Survey of Student Engagement first became well known I became familiar with George Kuh's well chosen phrase The Disengagement Compact (found here, which for a U of I person at home requires VPN to access the full piece).  Much of what I'm arguing is that the Disengagement Compact is alive and well on campus and it is time to address it squarely and see if we can put it to bed.

Credit-hour ratings for courses may have had a good rationale near when they were originally determined, but that gets lost along the way and what remains is simply lock-in because that's how things were done in the past.   When things are going well a rule of thumb is to not upset the apple cart.  Changing the credit-hours rating for a course is a rather drastic thing to do.  Making drastic change would be an admission that the current way of doing things is not working well at all.

It would also be quite difficult to implement.  The various campus committees, both from the Faculty Senate and from the Provost's Office, would need to buy in.  So would the accrediting agencies.  All of this would take a good deal of time.  Let's not be under any illusion that one can snap one's fingers and make changes like this. 

But difficult is not the same as impossible.  And what I'm try to do with this piece is only to sketch those process changes that would make sense if you wanted to take on the Disengagement Compact squarely and embrace a liberal education while doing so.  I encourage others to try the same sort of exercise with their own design and see what they come up with.  We can then compare notes.  Only then can the suggestions being offered here be evaluated.  If there are more appealing alternatives, I would be for those.  At present, I don't see those.

5.  Carve out some resources to up the advising function so some non-course personnel tracks student engagement in the courses the student is taking and such monitoring is tied to some incentive that the student will pay attention to.  

Discussion:  First I want to note that the DIA does this for varsity athletes and Minority Student Affairs also does this for some students.  Also, I don't teach freshman but I believe we do something of this sort for them as well (reporting mid semester grades) but I don't know if that is attached to advising services that will go into action when poor performance is reported.   However, I can say that the advising function and the teaching function are not integrated well at all and many students I see who could use the external monitoring are not getting it.  So the proposal is to make it universal and sufficiently functional that it might have an impact on student behavior.

One of the issues that needs to be worked through is that instructors see how students do in low stakes settings - coming to class, doing the homework, etc., but as a fraction of the overall grade that doesn't amount to much.  It would be good to be pro-active about these things to see if students who start to slough off can return to good work habits soon thereafter and to get other students who start off on the wrong foot to do a better job.

An individual instructor has limited tools for managing these issues and a student intent on slacking off can often meet the letter of the instructor's requirements without addressing the spirit of them at all.  While many students may slack off to some degree, the outliers are the ones who should get the attention of the advisers, who would know better whether this is part of a larger pattern with the student or not.

Second, while the campus may not want to explicitly articulate a policy position regarding the school's reputation as a party school, it may very well want an implicit understanding that instructors have in that regard.  Just to illustrate, my class started at 11 AM this semester and that is the time it has been meeting the last several years.  Students have told me that their classmates skip class (I don't require attendance as part of the grade) perhaps because they are sleeping in.  I have two sons, both recent grads of the U of I, so I am well aware of the nocturnal patterns of students who are around 21 years of age. But I associate the sleeping in phenomenon with the weekend, where kids catch up on their lost sleep from Monday through Friday.  What we seem to have, judged by the attendance patterns in my class this semester, is encroachment of the weekend onto the work week.  (I didn't have attendance issues in the class in 2012-14 but have had them the last couple of years.  The course is offered in the fall.  In spring 2012, I taught the course for the first time and did have attendance issues, but I attributed that to senioritis for spring offerings.)  An individual instructor has a hard time to draw the line on this issue.  But the campus might have an idea about what it wants to see.  The people doing the advising could communicate that to the students.

Regarding incentive, this is clearly tricky because students will game the system.  So I don't have a good answer here, but I do think think that instructors identifying the outliers and then passing the baton is better than what we have now, which is that many of those outliers fall through the cracks, possibly failing the course, where that outcome is not desired by them nor by the institution.   Others might get through but receive poor grades and then get labeled as under achievers.  That is also not desired.

Last, causality for poor performance, procrastination, lack of engagement, etc. may have psychological roots and/or may be tied to inadequate prior preparation.  In other words, the student needs confidence building and/or academic remediation of some sort.  I believe that both DIA and Minority Student Affairs have tutoring services to address these issues, but I am not aware of any general sort of tutoring service for students that isn't tied into a specific class.  Implementing something of that sort at scale might be a challenge.  But it is the sort of process recommendation one arrives at when trying to explain why observed disengagement is so great and then asking about possible remedies to the problem.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  I am quite sure that I am not overstating the issues as I see them, but it very well may be that what I see is not what is going on in STEM disciplines nor even in the College of Business.  (Many if not most Econ students are Business student wannabes.)  Do note, however, there are other causal factors that matter apart from area of study.  Sherry Turkle, for example, talks about the evils of multiprocessing.  This other piece on The University of China at Illinois makes clear that international students from East Asia are culturally quite different from students who grew up in Illinois.  Culture matters too.  My recommendations were offered up as a one-size-fits-all solution.  I can see that one criticism is that such a solution is inappropriate.  Good.  Ask yourself, can you fit appropriate solutions for the right audience only?  That seems like the right sort of question on which to conclude this piece. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Why does the signature persist as part of our personal ID?

I don't do a lot of handwriting anymore.  Mostly I use it for a bit of algebra to verify the equations in Excel are right and then sometimes to write down a name and a phone number that's on our answering machine.  I was never one to make lists - such as for going grocery shopping - and nowadays I'd email myself that sort of thing rather than use a piece of paper, if I thought it were necessary to do that. 

Ten plus years ago I was fairly big into Tablet PCs, around the time when they first came out, and thought this might really be something.  I assumed people who do math in their teaching like I did when teaching intermediate microeconomics would view this technology as a great boon.  So I made some real documents with math derivations, such as this one, and some videos of screen captures with voice over, like this one

But I have since moved on and don't try to use digital ink in teaching any more.  Now if I will do math on the screen I will used Excel for a geometry demonstration, such as here, where I have figured out how to present the graphical information slowly and sequentially, just like writing it out, but where it is more accurately displayed than anything I can draw by hand.  Similarly, for an algebraic derivation, I've learned how to render that in a slow and sequential way while using the equation editor for generating the symbols, so it is quite view-able and easy to follow visually, in the sense that the viewer of the presentation knows which line of the derivation the voice over is making reference to.  Here is an example, this one seemingly only getting views from students in my own class, as the topic is quite specialized.  Some of the other videos I've made of this sort get wider viewing.

So, I've come to believe that handwriting is not necessary for teaching math stuff, and indeed that doing it the other way, with Excel for geometry and PowerPoint for algebra, is actually better, though admittedly these objects need to be prepared ahead of time.  (Countering that, the objects are re-usable.)

While the above represents my personal evolution of views on the matter, I suspect that others have reached a similar conclusion.  Indeed nowadays to the extent that students actually take notes in a class, they seem to do that by typing into their laptops.  I can't recall the last time I saw a student actually handwriting out something in the classroom other than filling in a scantron for a test or completing the ICES form.

Yet the signature remains a key component of the authorization process.  I wonder if that is still true on campus.  When I worked in CITES (2002-06) it seemed just about every day that Mary would have a few forms for me to sign, where she had dutifully put the sign-here sticky onto the form so I wouldn't screw up doing that.  From my point of view this entire process was worthless, as I had given a prior verbal approval of the expenditure to both Mary and my direct report.   Indeed in most cases the direct report wasn't asking for discretionary funds from me but was actually spending out of their own budgeted funds, which I nonetheless had to approve again even after having given them the okay when they did their budget proposal.  Supposedly the university needed the form with my signature for record keeping purposes.  Verbal authorizations didn't cut it for that purpose, then or now.

Nowadays on campus, where I no longer have budget authority and the scope of my activity is limited to teaching the one class in the fall, there are only two times where my signature is requested.  One is when doing a request for ICES forms.  This is a pretty low stakes request and indeed why this process still exists (rather than the department obtaining the  ICES forms on behalf of the instructor) kind of baffles me.  The other time is when the department extends an offer letter to me to teach that class.  They email me the letter.  I'm supposed to sign it and return the signed letter to them so they have a record that I accepted the offer.

In fact, I don't actually sign the letter.  Back in the Table PC days, I did sign some letters with digital ink in Word.  I've since made a screen shot of the signature, brought that into Acrobat, and use that image for the signature in electronic documents.  I believe this to be a fairly common practice.  But it should be clear, this makes the signature remarkably easy to fake.  The department, for example, could take a screen shot of the signature in my acceptance letter from last year and then paste that into this year's letter.  Purely from a technology viewpoint, this would be remarkably easy to do.   Given that, why the signature is still important in such campus transactions is beyond me, though the very first time it is offered it clearly does matter.

The other place where the signature is used, relentlessly so, is in making a purchase with plastic, perhaps where the amount is over some threshold, though not went buying gas, though given current prices is probably below the threshold anyway.  Most places seem to have pads for signature in digital ink, though a few places still rely on paper (and then they do what with that)?  I really don't like those pads, since they are quite clunky as an input medium, and I find that over time my signature is getting more and more horizontal.  Nevertheless, the process seems to give comfort to the vendors and the credit card companies.  Here I want to ask why that is the case.

Before getting to my thoughts on that question, people who have read up to this point should be aware of Paul David's famous paper Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.   The paper illustrates the power of lock-in (sometimes called the economics of increasing returns).  It also illustrates an analogy between the economics of lock-in and evolutionary biology.  (Why do we still have an appendix, since the only thing is seems to produce is appendicits?)   Some things we're stuck with hereafter whether we like it or not.  So the question is whether signatures are in this category or if we are in some transitory period where something else will replace them sometime in the future.

What that something else might be I really am not sure, but the obvious candidates are: (a) some biometric information such as a thumbprint or a retinal scan, (b) some key that is texted to the purchaser at the time of purchase to be entered into a keypad or given to the vendor wirelessly, or (c) the threshold on transactions gets bumped up and more or them become like purchasing gas, where zip code may be requested but that is it as identifier.   People who are more knowledgeable in the security area may have still other possibilities, but this is enough for me as I want to argue that we're likely locked into signatures.

Here's why.  First and most obviously, financial institutions have the signature on file and have had that for quite a long time.  So there is no issue about the individual allowing the credit card company to have this information.  That horse has already left the barn.  But for any biometric information that might be used instead it would have to be given to the financial institutions and people might be reluctant to do so.  Why should the financial institutions be trusted to safeguard such information when hacking of databases seems such a common experience nowadays?  People feel vulnerable when their credit card information has been hacked.  But the credit card number can be readily changed.  You can't do that with a thumbprint.  For just that reason, they may be much more reluctant to have others store that sort of information, which is truly unique to them.

Second, while the two-part authentication method works reasonably well for purchases from a home computer or laptop, it is rather clunky for face to face transactions.  When I go to the grocery story during normal work hours and see all the senior citizens who are shopping, I'm reminded that whatever approach is utilized needs to work for everyone.  Signatures do.  It is not clear that other methods satisfy this requirement.

Third, there is a cost issue in implementing a solution.  Those pads that are used to input the digital signature, coupled with the same device that takes the credit card input (swipe or chip), have to be reasonably inexpensive to implement.  I often wonder whether they actually do verify signature by comparison with what is in some digital file or if that part is actually faked, at least some of the time.  Random verification may suffice and would surely be cheaper.  I also wonder, assuming there is some software that does the comparison, how reliable that actually is.   In other words, if the person's file has been hacked and the hacker has access to the signature, how hard would it be to fake the signature in a way the software finds acceptable?  If the latter is possible but actually is difficult for the hacker to do, then the solution may be "good enough" for the credit card companies.

The last factor is much simpler, habit.  Signature authorization is a habit.  Habits are hard to break.  They have a strong tendency to persist.

If we didn't currently have signature authorization would we invent it now?  Probably not.  But that is not the right question to ask.  Are we stuck with signatures as the authorization method indefinitely into the future?  My guess as to the answer is yes, we are.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Are the Adults?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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