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 the 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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Voters' Ire Turns Toward Springfield

1/4 of a year with no budget
Why oh why don't they fudge it?
Once the lights go out
The public will shout
Our mood you did misjudge it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ack! Countability

The onetime mantra, bring data, has turned into a cult
From which every sane person should now openly revolt.

Expecting to find truth in numbers is an alarming trend.
There are good uses.  But the many bad ones we should end.

When the bulk of performance happens clearly in plain sight
Developing numerical norms of excellence then perhaps is right.

Sportometrics in baseball, for instance, is perfectly fine.
Indeed some thoughtful people consider Bill James near divine.

But when the critical performance piece happens outside our view
Taking seriously the bit we can see is something to eschew.

Rewards based on that measure create all sorts of distortion
As people game the system by this and that contortion. 

Then there is the matter if behind the numbers there is theory
The absence of which brings to question validity of the query.

Yet just because there is a model doesn't mean it's true.
Elevating untested hypotheses as facts tends to the results skew.

People are in a rush to demonstrate just how much they know.
Real learning demands modest claims and that they go quite slow.

Research showing near term impact likely will win grant renewal.
It satisfies the grantor's demand for metrics though is unlikely to produce a jewel.

Did Barrett Browning's counting love create numeracy of the cute?
Or is it that the source of human feeling fundamentally does not compute?

The point I want to bring home is to not always insist on a number.
Far from making us seem smarter, doing so really makes us dumber.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Kindly Old Professor - Mr. Chips 2.0

I'm a fan of  I have a bookmark to it in my browser and I use it multiple times each day.  Once in a while, however, it really lets me down.  A few days ago I did a look up of "tsoris," a Yiddish word that I believe should be part of the American lexicon. fumbled that ball badly.  A quick Google search produces the desired answer, found at The Free Dictionary. Tsoris means troubles or worries.  Ahead of time I would have said it meant problems.  Everyone has tsoris now and then and sometimes in between as well.  Given its ubiquitous nature, tsoris should be a word that Americans know.

What I'm increasingly coming to realize is that college students have tsoris.  I don't know if that's always been true and that I'm only becoming aware of the fact after a very long time or if it's really a more recent phenomenon.  Thinking back to my own college experience, especially the last two years when I lived on Wyckoff Road in Ithaca, it was a time of joy in a friendly and sheltered environment.  It's true I had no plan for what would happen post graduation at the start of those two years, but I was entirely untroubled by that.  I had good health.  I enjoyed the people I lived with at Wyckoff very much.  And the classes I took were for the most part engaging, and entirely separate world from my living situation.  If you abstract from an instance of unrequited love, I had no tsoris at all then.  Whether that was the norm or an outlier, I really don't know.  I wonder what my contemporaries recollect of their time in college.

When I TA'd at Northwestern, my second year in grad school, my impression was that most of the students who were in my sections were from upper middle class families and lived a comfortable existence.  Many of them dressed up for class (meaning they wore something that cost more than bluejeans and tee shirts).  Their attire would have given me tsoris if I had been in their shoes, but they seemed at home doing that.  The bulk of these students were White and I gathered mainly from the Midwest.  I do recall one Black student whom I would see in the Library, seemingly all the time.  Isolated from his classmates, he may have struggled.  But he seemed to be coping with it, admirably so.

My first two years at Illinois I taught typical undergraduates in the fall semester in intermediate microeconomics.  They didn't dress up like the Northwestern kids.  Sweats and baseball caps, while not quite the uniform, were pretty popular.  Otherwise these kids seemed pretty much like the NU kids.  Many of them were Business students.  (There was no undergraduate Business major at NU.  The Econ major was a proxy for that.)  I recall in my second year I got fed up with one particularly obnoxious accounting student and gave him a bit of a hard time in class.  That student surely was from a wealthy suburb of Chicago.  A while later another student, who was from down state, told me how much he liked that I gave grief to the accounting student.  I may not have thought about it that way then, but the down state kids, particularly those from the smaller and less well funded high schools, probably had tsoris about keeping up with the kids from the Chicago burbs.  I'd say the inner city kids probably had tsoris too except that I don't remember teaching them, though perhaps I had a few.  This could just be a hole in my memory; after all we're talking about 35 years ago.

I've come to realize since that you can be quite materially advantaged yet have tsoris.  Most of the administrators I know on campus are in this category.  They are well paid.  But they have worries....lots of them.  Yet I'm still not sure whether those business students in my intermediate micro classes back in 1980 and 1981 had tsoris.  In my way of thinking, if you have tsoris then you are pretty aware.  My sense of those students is that they were pretty insulated.  I've written before about their provincialism.

Nowadays I only have one or two Business students in my class.  The bulk of my students are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and are Econ majors.  Many seem to have tsoris that is already evident to me.  I'm guessing that many others also have tsoris; they just hide it better.

* * * * *

I bear little similarity to the fictitious character that Robert Donat played in the movies.  Far from being an enjoyable form of recreation, for me hiking in the mountains would be an excruciating experience, one bordering on torture.  I'm not sure when was the last time I wore a cap and gown, but maybe it was graduation from junior high school.  I don't recall whether I went to high school graduation and I'm quite sure I haven't worn a cap and gown since.  The point is that I'm not big on ceremony at all, though I did dutifully go to the graduation ceremonies for my own kids.  I'd have been perfectly delighted, however, if that part of the celebration were omitted.  Circumstance is fine, but I can do without the pomp.

Nevertheless, I find myself falling into the kindly old professor role and to my own surprise there is a good deal of enjoyment in that. Here's a little background as to why.

Of course I have my own tsoris, some of which is a matter of aging and experiencing the senior moments and health issues that go along with that.  I am mentally slower than I used to be.  There is no doubt on that score.  I also have less energy, both mentally and physically.

The last time I went in for a physical I told the doc that I've got all these currently minor problems (for example, a hernia in my belly button) and I really don't know whether I should ignore them till they get much worse or try to be proactive about them and do something now.  I ended up being proactive about joint pain in the knees and got a steroid injection for it.  The treatment made me so hyper I couldn't sleep for three days.  The pain did go away but only for about a week.  I concluded I didn't want more treatment like that.  So now I'm in ignore it as best I can mode.  Ironically, that seems to have moved my mindset closer in attitude to my students.

There is also some angst from looking back at my academic career.  (If I were asked to distinguish angst from tsoris, I'd say with tsoris you still have your sense of humor, the troubles notwithstanding.)   I have performed better as a pinch hitter than as a starter.  It is a painful realization.  This goes back to grad school when I wrote my first paper with Leon Moses.  The topic was Leon's idea.  I was there to beef up the math modeling, nothing more.  It happened again when I took over from Burks Oakley in running SCALE.  Burks had gotten the grant and set up the structure for SCALE.  My job was mainly to keep it running smoothly.  And it also happened at the Learning Technology Leadership Program, where Kathy Christoph asked me to substitute for an ailing faculty member who was unable to serve.

In this role of pinch hitter, the task to be done was already set.  I might tweak it a wee bit, but the structure was in place already and the focus would be to perform the job well.  There is nothing wrong with being a pinch hitter.  It is clearly a necessary function.  But it doesn't capture one's imagination.  When I was a kid I pretended that I'd be the next Mickey Mantle.  That was the fantasy.  Not once did I pretend that I'd be the next Phil Linz.

When I do cast myself as the star of the team I typically come up short.  A case in point is given in my recent Inside Higher Ed piece.  My goal at the outset for the students in the discussion group was to get them to be more creative about their learning in their other classes.  Had I been successful at that, it would have really been something.  But I failed.  Perhaps there was no chance at success from the get go.  Or perhaps our discussions were too little too late in their academic careers.  In any event, it seems I often aim high but then don't get there.  It is pretty much the same with my teaching.  (More on teaching in a bit.)

Being kind to a student with tsoris is a reactive thing.  You are not preventing the problem from cropping up to begin with.  You are dealing with the problem in some manner after the fact.  And here I'm talking about small acts only, something that usually can be addressed in a single face to face meeting, often in only 10 or 15 minutes.  It's not a big deal and afterward when the student says, thank you, the correct response is, think nothing of it.

As a teacher my own personal metric of success is to see evidence of intellectual growth in the student.  Once in a while that happens....maybe.  Perhaps it never does and thinking otherwise is merely self-delusion.  The Campus Strategic Plan has as its second goal to provide transformative learning experiences for students.  The teacher, envisioning himself in the Mickey Mantle role, expects to hit a home run and thereby produce such transformation in his students by himself.  When it doesn't happen it cuts deeply into his idealism.

Recently there seem to have been several pieces like this one, about youngish faculty members who are leaving higher education because of this sort of disillusionment.  I believe I understand that sort of thinking and if I were in my mid 30s I might do likewise.  Indeed, I've considered the possibility of in the future not teaching the one course a year I currently do teach.  Some of the students can be infuriating, with their lack of commitment to their studies and the games they play to get through unscathed grade-wise.  I've had about enough of that.  But then there are the kids with tsoris who indicate that to me and let me help them.  That matters.  Perhaps it matters a lot, even if it doesn't match my preconception of what my role as teacher should be.

* * * * *

There are two bits to the Mr. Chips 2.0 in my title.  You think of the kindly old professor as something of a commonplace at a small private college.  It doesn't quite fit in with the image of a large public university, particularly nowadays where many of the instructors undergraduate students see in their classes are adjuncts and where especially in the high enrollment classes where there are rules that seemingly govern everything and then the student is expected to deal with any problem that may arise by himself or herself.

Indeed, much of the tsoris is a consequence of the institution seeming to be too big.  Perhaps there is somebody on campus who can address their problems, but the students don't know how to find that somebody.  It may be that in the past they tried to address some other problems they had, only to find that they were running around in circles.  Armed with that sort of prior experience, they develop an attitude that nobody cares about them.  The act of kindness then comes as a pleasant surprise.  We learn more when we are surprised.  Perhaps the students learn that decency can happen.  Maybe they can demonstrate they've mastered the lesson by themselves being kind to another student or a friend or family member who could use the help.  I really don't know if this happens or not.  I hope so.

One thing that makes me optimistic about this is something I learned at mentor training for I-Promise students.  There was such a training session earlier in the week. Susan Gershenfeld told the group something that she has also said in previous training sessions that I've attended.  Mentors tend to think that what they do doesn't matter.  Mentees, in contrast, think the mentoring helps them enormously.  This difference in perspective is something to bear in mind.

I also want to point out something I learned many years ago from reading Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.  Causes are not always proximate to effects.  Sometimes there may be quite long lags between the two.  Just because the instructor offers up a lesson doesn't mean the student is ready to embrace the lesson then and there.  It may take quite a while for the lesson to sink in.  The instructor may no longer be around when that happens.  But that doesn't mean it never occurred.

The other bit about Mr. Chips 2.0 is that some of it happens online.  Rumors to the contrary, at least some students still do email.  These students respond, quickly, to email from their instructors.  Kindness can be expressed in writing and delivered online.  Face to face is not necessary all the time.  Depending on the situation, sometimes email is better than face to face.  Surely it is quicker.

And sometimes a mere expression of concern can matter, with no solution to the problem offered up beyond that.  If you are going to set up a meeting about some issue that a student has, that probably will create an expectation beforehand that the issue can be resolved.  I've got one student now who has a rather serious health problem that forced him to miss class earlier in the semester and potentially could impact his performance later in the term.  There's not one single thing I can do to fix that.  All I can do is assure the student we'll deal with the situation if and when it arises.  That much can be done electronically.

* * * * *

Time abundant retired faculty can afford to be kind to students.  I know many who are and I'm beginning to understand the attractions to them from doing so.  But their absolute numbers are not that great.  So one wonders if those numbers could be buttressed by many other faculty who are in mid career and who therefore are not time abundant at all. If it were possible, then one might ask whether students could experience some of these instructors during their first year on campus.  That's something to keep scratching our heads about.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Will I use Google Apps for Education in my teaching next year?

The campus finally seems positioned to roll out Google Apps for faculty and staff.  I am glad to see it.  The is a very good thing.  Even just the form tool that is associated with the Google Sheets and Google Drive could have a profound effect as it could be used to get early feedback from students.  (For example, see my post on The Grid Question Type.)

However, it is no panacea and I'm wondering if it is too little too late, especially with regard to what I currently do, which makes extensive use of Google tools, but the regular commercial kind.  Below I will illustrate with a variety of issues.

Students don't consistently use their campus email

Many students do use campus email but many other students use a commercial account (often gmail but sometimes something else) and simply forward campus email to the commercial account.  There are probably many reasons why a student would opt for the commercial account but let me list offer only two here that seem obvious to me.

(a)  Students want to use a lifetime email address, one that was good before they became students at the university and one that will be good after they graduate.

(b) Asian students, in particular, often want to use an "American name" on their account rather than the name as it appears in the class roster.  They can do this with a commercial account, but they can't do this with their campus email.

If a good fraction of the students are not using campus email regularly, it is an inconvenience to force them to use it for access to Google Apps.

What about open access to documents?

My preference is to make my files available to anyone on the planet who might be interested in looking at them.  Right now, I use the university's service for posting PowerPoint, PDF, and Excel files and I've had one reasonably successful experiment posting an audio file in MP4A format.  Ironically, I went to only after in using the commercial Google Docs (now Google Drive) I found that many students could not access the commercial version when they were logged in with their campus accounts.  So I'm wondering if the reverse is true.  If I used Google Apps for Education would the rest of the world be denied access to these documents?

This is an issue that doesn't seem to be on the radar of anyone else on campus, but it should be.  The campus has an outreach mission.  That mission would be much better served if the campus had a significant OER presence.  At a minimum, it should be that instructors have the option of placing their course documents in and open to the world container.  The LMS already offers a closed container for distributing course documents.

Admittedly, Web documents rather than downloadable files offer an improvement on collaboration possibilities, so Google Drive is attractive for students doing group work.  I don't make heavy reliance on that in my teaching, but other instructors might. My focus here is on the documents the instructor distributes to the class.   Box is a little clunky for this in that it is a multi-step process.  Upload the file, change it's access to allow anyone with the link access, then provide the link in a location where the students can find it.  But it is quite good thereafter and the preview function, particularly for PDF files, is good enough that download isn't necessary much of the time.

Blogger is not part of the Google Apps for Education Suite.

I don't know why Google does this, but my view is that Blogger is much more functional than Google Sites and as I have students blog under a class assigned alias, keeping a blogroll of their most recent posts in the sidebar of the class Web site, the students need access to some blogging software.  Truthfully, they could use the campus blogging service at, which is based on WordPress.  I have tested that enough to know the site owner can adjust the screen name to whatever that person wants.  But if part of the idea of Google Apps for Education is to offer an integrated set to tools, why isn't the blogging tool integrated in as well?

My further experimentation is facilitated by using commercial tools.

While my usage of technology in instruction has settled down a great deal, so this year's class site is functionally quite similar to last year's site, I'm always open to doing things better than I currently do or trying different wrinkles to get at functions I can see would be valuable in my own course.  In the past, for example, I've tried Scribd,,, and other external hosts for content.  I've got a bunch of video content at my ProfArvan YouTube channel.  (Note that each of these hosts readily makes content publicly available.)  In the past, before the YouTube service improved, I used for video.  So it seems an obvious proposition that even if a suite of tools is currently very attractive, it need not remain that way for very long.  There is simply no way for the campus to change and upgrade the tools it supports at the same rate that the market does.  I am reluctant to become too reliant on campus tools, just for that reason.

Let me wrap up.

As I was the one leading the campus edtech efforts ten years ago, I know all too well how difficult it is to get all instructors to use campus supported technology.  Many will.  Many others, however, will find it is not for them, for whatever reasons.  When I left CITES to go to the College of Business, I soon learned of a complaint from the MBA students, that their classes were in too many different environments with no obvious advantage (from their perspective) for any one particular environment.  It seemed instructor whim mattered, but at the expense of student convenience.  Partly for that reason and partly because at the time there wasn't enough resource to offer a college specific alternative, we standardized on Illinois Compass.  That created some momentum for standardization and even some of the reluctant faculty came on board eventually.

There was behind this decision some substantial effort put in place to encourage it.  I knew the environment quite well and was able to get my staff up to speed with it and gained them administrative access so they could do trouble shooting when necessary for college faculty.  That faculty would get helpful and friendly support for using the College recommended app but would be more on their own otherwise mattered for their use.  I don't recall a single faculty member at the time whom I would call an innovator with technology and there were only a very small number whom I would describe as early adopters.

Now I find I'm one or the other of those.  Several years ago I did try blogging with Moodle, for example, but didn't like it at all.  I much prefer letting my own taste dictate on these matters.  I know full well that means I must do my own trouble shooting and tech support much of the time.  So be it.

As a retiree, I know that it is unlikely for much of my practice to be embraced by full time faculty, since it is labor intensive and most instructors already have too much on their plates.  But at least what I do is out in the open, so if anyone did care to look they could.  If teaching innovation is to diffuse around campus, the majority adopters need to become aware of the novel practices.  Workshops mainly end up preaching to the choir.  Broader diffusion would be facilitated by having course sites open and then letting social networks do their thing.  That ideal might drive the choice of what the campus supports down the road and/or might eventually get the campus to give its imprimatur to the use of commercial tools that innovative faculty have deployed in an interesting way.  I'm not sure whether Google Apps for Education advances that ideal or if instead it fits into the same old closed container model.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


A quick demo of audio streaming using the campus Box service as the host.  Below the player is a screen shot of the access stats from a different audio stream that I used in my class this past week.  Nice!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Don't Use Generic Names for Specific Instructional Practices

This is a response piece to a new essay in the 7 Things You Should Know series, this one about Personalized Learning.  While I'd like to support the concept in this piece, I had a strong negative reaction to the use of this particular expression as the label for that concept.  I also thought that there are a couple of important underlying issues that should be brought out in the open but are for the moment veiled.  So here I'd like to mention them and argue for their importance. It would be good for that argument to continue and then be carried by others.

The mantra - teach the student not the subject - is surely good and important.  It is something all instructors should aspire to, even if they end up doing it only some of the time.   Smart quiz/homework software is also surely good and I wish it were more important than it currently seems to be.  I got hooked on the idea back when I taught with Mallard and later when I became the executive sponsor of Mallard and saw how other instructors were putting it to very good and interesting use.

More recently I have been promoting the notion of High Touch teaching on campus.  (For example, see this post Everybody Teaches as well as the remaining posts in the Everybody Teaches series.)  By high touch teaching I mean - small classes taught in a seminar style where a significant part of what the instructor does is to respond to students, in speaking or in writing or both ways.

In case it isn't obvious, high touch teaching is personalized.  So are office hours in larger classes, Writing Across the Curriculum courses where the papers students produce are on varied topics and where the instructor provides response to that writing, one-on-one mentoring, and quite possibly many other educational settings.  But these are instances of personalization that don't fit the definition provided in the 7 Things You Should Know essay.  If in general personalization in instruction should be encouraged wherever possible, while being mindful of resource limitations that make it far less than ubiquitous, it does a disservice for the technology mediated kind of customization to the student to appropriate the label that really should attach to the broader of idea of teaching the student.

Now that I've got that one off my chest, let me turn to the issues.  The first is about how the student profile is formed and what information is available for construction of that profile.  When I teach a class at Illinois the student profile gets constructed mainly by the their blog posts, sometimes amplified by additional things the students tell me about themselves in email, or what I may garner from them in person if we have an office hours visit.  The way Illinois interprets FERPA,  I can't see transcript information for the student unless the student releases that to me voluntarily.  So I don't know their grades in other courses or what courses they've taken, how they've done on standardized tests, or any other instructor's opinion of the student.

In the 7 Things You Should Know Essay, the transcript information is available to the software up front so there is a pre-formed profile of the student even before the class has started.  Would an institution like Illinois be willing to take such an approach?  If so under what circumstances?  Does having this up front profile information matter a lot or only a little?  How do we know that?  If it turns out that it does matter a lot, would Illinois consider changing it's interpretation of FERPA to allow instructors access to student transcripts?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions.  I've got a feeling that for the time being the campus is so absorbed with other issues that it would not be fruitful to explore these questions here at present.  But Illinois is not the only public institution that has made a rather restrictive interpretation of FERPA as part of its policies.  So these questions can be posed readily elsewhere, at a place that might be more willing to explore them now.

Let me switch gears again and now consider the pedagogy of math instruction and what smart software is good at as well as where it is of limited use.  While I don't teach math per se, I do use a considerable amount of math in the economic models I do teach and I design interactive Excel worksheets that embody many of the principles smart software should have as a homework tool.  What I say next is based on my experience.

The software is excellent at being judgmental/non-judgmental.  It lets the student know if he or she is right or wrong, but doesn't make an opinion about the student in the process.  The students like this... a lot. So this sort of software engages the students and likely encourages time on task.  It then helps get the student familiar with the material and proficient in manipulations that must be done to produce answers.  All of this is good and necessary.

My experience, however, suggests that students can know the manipulations quite well but can't explain why a particular manipulation works, nor why that is the appropriate manipulation to do when confronting a particular problem, nor what the process is which generates the result.  Any one of these things requires producing some narrative to tell what is going on.  Students can become aces at manipulation but remain incompetent at producing explanations in the form of narrative.

It is my view that real understanding of the math requires competence in both dimensions, manipulation and producing narrative.  Software is good for developing proficiency in the former, but not the latter.

There is an obvious argument here that we should have both software mediation and human mediation in learning as well as where each has its comparative advantage.  This is not in the 7 Things You Should Know essay, but many take software mediation and human mediation to be substitutes when they really should be understood as complements.  (I am using these terms as they typically are employed in a course on intermediate microeconomics.)   The lure of the substitutes way of thinking is that it seems to offer a route toward effective instruction at very low incremental cost (the cost to an additional student once the software has been designed).  We really need to get past that sort of thinking and instead talk about building a full understanding of the subject matter in the student, irrespective of the cost.

Anything less than that doesn't cut it.  This is a case where half a loaf  may be better than none, but it is not much better.  We should want the full deal.  That would be much better.

How do you get there for here?  I really don't know.  But if others also started to unpack these sort of underlying assumptions, maybe some folks could begin the search to find an answer - one that works.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Eponym's Impact

Have you ever wondered about how you've been effected
By the given name for you that your parents selected?

With that choice were they trying to shape your life -
Your choice of career, who you'd take for your wife?

It's something that now I'd really like to know.
Did they understand these things from the very get go?

As to this query some of you will look askance
Understanding response to a name will be mainly by chance

For it's the little things that one's name determines most.
That's the take away you should get from reading this post.

Some names begat nicknames ad infinitum
Turning whatever you're doing at the time into an item.

Other names work well with your persona to blend
Then image and name blur and both doth extend.

As for me the urge to rhyme has proven uncanny
A probable consequence of being named Lanny. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

We need active fiscal policy

If the economy's slow growth causes pains
Let us return to the ghost of Keynes.
With the sluggishness never ending
We need more government spending.
Monetary policy can't do it alone, he doth complains.

Friday, September 04, 2015

It used to be only on Saturdays

Isn't Thursday night football rather crass?
Surely some players will have to miss class.
Is it really impudent
To ask, are they students?
The money machine doesn't tolerate such sass.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Everything Is Copacetic

Who remembers the first time they were allowed to drive with no other adult in the car?  For me this happened when my dad was having a minor surgery to correct Dupuytren's contracture, except that since he was a pretty severe diabetic no surgery on him was really that minor.  The doctors who were performing the surgery were the same ones who had set my broken arm in a cast the year before.  Indeed, if memory serves, my dad got his hand problem diagnosed on one of the check up visits for my wrist fracture.  At the time of my dad's surgery, my mom was already at Deepdale hospital in Little Neck.   She called home.  Either she wanted me there just for the moral support or she wanted me to bring some stuff from home that my dad needed.  That part I don't recall.  I do remember it was snowing lightly outside.  I made the drive without incident.

Heredity is a strange thing.  You wonder how much of what shows up was there inside the person all along and what is due to upbringing.  Who knows?  This weekend both boys were home for brunch yesterday.  In talking with them you could tell that they each have a bit of the cheapskate in them.  I have that too.  My dad had it, big time.  I'm delighted to see it in my kids, actually.  It doesn't mean you can't be generous with others.  It does mean that most of the time you aren't overly indulgent on yourself.

For the last year or two I seem to have the start of Dupuytren's contracture in my right hand.  There is a tendon in my palm between the pinkie and ring finger that seems to be popping out of the skin.  It's an eye sore, but mainly it doesn't hurt.  I do have stiffness in the right shoulder, which does hurt on occasion.  Some combination of arthritis and the aftermath of rotator cuff repair is the cause.  Then there's a hernia in my belly button.  And the big toe on my left foot feels like its permanently stubbed.  Yet none of this is too debilitating.  Everything is copacetic.  It was an expression that my dad used a lot.   It's becoming my expression now.  I mean it as a kind of mantra.  We all have tsoris.  We should be able to enjoy life, nonetheless.

A lot is being said these days about the anger that is out there.  Our politics seems to be about that now.  Maybe the anger can be put toward a constructive purpose.  I don't know.  But I do know me, well enough to understand that ongoing anger would put me on the path to depression.  So I want something else - a little bit of humor, a touch of joy, some spark of creativity, anything that produces delight.  Everything is copacetic says those things should be ordinary.  It also says that those are the things which should occupy our minds.  

Given all the remakes of movies and TV shows I wonder why now we don't have a remake of Pat Paulsen for President.  There is plenty of humorous satire out there.  That genre has found its place in the popular culture.  But to me much of it is too vindictive.  There should be a way to make fun of the pols without ripping them.  Surely that is harder.  True wit is an art.

I guess I'm suffering from Gail Collins being on book leave.  She is a true master of the humorous understatement.  But even her most recent columns had more bite than is her usual way, with anger getting the upper hand.

Maybe everything is not copacetic after all.  Perish the thought.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gallup et. al. should elicit rankings of candidates, not just the top of the list

It is understandable that for actual voting in a primary that each voter chooses a preferred candidate only.  That has been our tradition.  But for polling purposes, especially with a crowded field, who voters rank as second and third matters, as does how far down the list one might go before the voter thinks staying at home is the better option or voting for the other party is the better option.

So why don't the people who do the polls figure this out?  That's a mystery.

It's quite conceivable to me now that Donald Trump would be ranked last by many of the voters who vote Republican but don't have Trump ranked first.  Of course, we don't know this because this sort of information isn't being solicited.  If we had information of this sort, would the press continue to report that Trump is leading in the polls?  If, instead, a weighted voting scheme were used, and if some other candidate garnered quite a few 2nd and third places in the rankings, that person should be considered the leading candidate, in my view. 

This, of course, goes for the other side as well, though there are many fewer candidates.

If such information were gathered and then disseminated, might it impact how voters vote?  In other words, might voters choose their second or third ranked candidate because that person stands a better chance of winning the election?

Majority rule works great when there are two candidates only.  It doesn't work well when there are many candidates, none of whom get anywhere close to 50% of the votes.   The situation isn't even that novel (although the number of Republican candidates is larger than what it's been in prior elections).   What is novel now is the funding, which is going to slow down the thinning out of the field.  So the sort of information I'm suggesting should be elicited is even more important now.

Might any of the pollsters contemplate a change in their approach as a result?

Friday, August 28, 2015

A correction or a bubble that has burst?

I don't fully subscribe to the Efficients Market Hypothesis, but I do believe future movements in stock prices can't be predicted by extrapolating from the recent past.   Nonetheless I find the graph below of the Dow over the last month much more comforting than what that same graph looked like on Tuesday morning.  So I can stop being Chicken Little and turn my attention back to teaching and least for a while.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Registered Students Who Don't Come to Class....

....benign manifestation, registration gaming, or a sign of some real underlying trouble?

I've finished teaching my first two class sessions.  There has been some weirdness regarding attendance and students not showing up.  I've got three students who have been registered since the get go but who have missed both of the class sessions.  In all my years of teaching, that has never happened.  I've got one more student who added the class on Tuesday but didn't show up for the class on Wednesday.  Then there are many who came Monday, are still registered, but didn't show up on Wednesday.  In this last group, that is closer to the usual pattern for kids who end up not coming to class regularly during the semester. (I don't require attendance but I did encourage them to come in my syllabus and in what I said in class on Monday.)  But in the recent past attendance has been high the first two weeks and then trails off after that.  This time around, the honeymoon period seems too brief.

I want to first cover the possible explanations for students not coming to class.  Then I want to review the scant evidence I have that speaks to the matter (information about individual students from Banner) and offer up my guesses as to which explanation best fits the situation here.  I will conclude with a brief discussion of the impact on my motivation and the possible impact on the motivation of the other students who have shown up so far.

Where I used the expression benign manifestation in the extended post title, I meant benign in an ethical sense.  If the students were sick with the flu so missed classed for that reason, obviously that would not be benign for them.  But missing class for health reasons is in accord with how the system should work and does not otherwise pose a challenge to how the system is structured.  In this case, we'd all wish the students a speedy recovery and I'd hope to seem them in class next Monday.  I do think this is the least likely possibility.  Given that, I'm listing it first, for otherwise I'd be apt to not consider it a possibility at all.

The registration gaming I mentioned comes in the form of course hoarding, by which I mean the student registers for more courses than the student plans to take, and will ultimately drop one or more courses in the current portfolio.  The extra class or two serves as a kind of self-insurance in case one of the planned classes doesn't pan out.  The university frowns on course hoarding but really can't block it effectively.  Indeed, it may inadvertently encourage the practice.

This can happen when a student earlier in their time on campus gets closed out of a course the student wants to take or is required to take.  I have no idea how prevalent being closed out of a course is, but I've had some of my former students tell me it can happen regularly in some minors, where the majors have registration priority and the minors only get to pick at the left overs.  And I know that it used to be the case in Econ that intermediate microeconomics had enrollment caps below demand, even though it was a core course for the major (and for Business students and other majors as well.)  Course hoarding can then be seen as a kind of tit for tat student behavior in response to having prior experiences with being closed out of other classes.

If this is what is going on, it needs to be understood that course hoarding is a learned behavior in response to inequities that the system itself produces.  In thinking about this I'm reminded of the closing scene in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  Paul Muni plays a once innocent man who is imprisoned on false charges and then becomes subject to a brutal penal system.  He ultimately escapes.  When asked how he survives as a then fugitive on the run he responds, "I steal."

To belabor the point, ethical lessons tend to be learned not so much within classes but rather by finding ways to cope with the system as it presents itself.  Do we really want to be sending students the implicit message that when they have the opportunity to do so they should hoard courses?  Such behavior makes them indifferent to concerns about other students, who might be closed out of a class as a consequence of their hoarding.   If instead we want students to be aware of the social consequences from their actions, we should be asking: how can we send a credible message as to the alternative?  The campus jaw boning on the matter is not credible and indeed may contribute to student cynicism, which I suspect is already deeply entrenched.

If I really wanted to market the third explanation, I'd refer to those kids who don't come to class as SINOs.  The implication is that such kids lack sufficient commitment to be referred to as students.  This is not a new issue.  The expression, a Gentleman's C, certainly predates when I was an undergraduate back in the early 1970s.  But what may be comparatively new, is the kids not bothering with any pretense to the contrary.  And if that is true, one needs to ask why.  Is it because these kids don't believe their delinquency will be of much consequence?  Or is it because these kids don't care, no matter what the consequences are?  And then we need to ask, is this behavior still confined to under achieving rich kids?  Or has it spread much wider than that?

Let me turn to the evidence about the registered students.  Each of those who missed both classes is male.  (The class as a whole has a substantial male majority, which is a bit unusual.)  Two of the three are transfer students.  (Most of the rest of the class started as first semester freshmen.)  Two of the three are from richer suburbs of Chicago.  Two of the three are Econ majors.  The third is majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability.

I don't recall any of my students previously having that major.  It is conceivable that economics would be quite useful to this major.  But I don't think this major is "close" to economics in the way that Political Science is or in the way the various Business disciplines are.  For those reasons, my guess is that this particular student is practicing course hoarding with my class.  The other two students, the Econ majors, I suspect are SINOs.

My purpose in the previous paragraph is not to elevate my personal speculation but rather to indicate the type of thinking that would be required to look at this situation far more systematically, from a campus perspective.  Indeed, I'm writing this piece to encourage a campus investigation into the matter.  I believe that is warranted.

Finally, I want to take on the criticism aimed at me that I'd expect to arise from some reading this piece.  To wit, stop being a priss, take attendance in your class, and make it required.  That speaks to the subject matter of the course, the Economics of Organizations.  And one of the messages I want to deliver to my students is that sometimes private performance incentives don't work very well.  What works better is an appeal to social norms of good behavior.  In the economics literature this idea is articulated by George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner, in his paper on labor markets as partial gift exchange.  This is the economist writing about the role of collegiality in the workplace.  Collegiality can trump performance contracts, especially when doing well at work is hard to measure quantitatively, but also otherwise, because people often perform better when trying to do the right thing as distinct from performing when trying to advantage themselves materially.

Given this, I really don't want to take attendance in class.  That would cave into an approach about performance at work that I want to de-emphasize. So I find this lack of attendance a challenge, because it is a direct threat to one of the core messages my class should provide.  I am bothered a great deal by that.  Partly this stems from the realization that a great deal of student behavior is driven by social norms.  When the norm is that the other students do come to class, each individual student is inclined to attend as well.  If what I am seeing is happening broadly in other classes, it signifies a change in the social norm.  We should then attempt to understand the causes for this change and we should try to resist it, if we possibly can. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Bears Are Biting

Where once we were lyrical
About the East Asian miracle
It's time now to sing the blues
As we all pay for past dues.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Learning PowerPoint 2016 the Hard Way

I took all the documents I had on my PC and copied them over to my iMac.  For reasons I don't understand, to access these documents in the Finder, I first have to open the computer itself, then go to a folder called PC Files, then one called Documents, and finally I see the stuff I copied over.  If you go to the Documents folder on the iMac, you cant access the files that way.  I now know this, but I don't have a sense for why that is the case.  Yet it offers an inkling to what I say next.

I've experienced enormous difficulties with opening pptx files from within PowerPoint.  I should note here that I have Office 365 and to activate that you have to go through an authentication screen first.  For those files that were deep in my iMac, every time I tried to open one of them, that authentication screen came up, and then when I'd authenticate it would come up again.  The file would never open.  It was very frustrating.

It finally occurred to me to copy the file to the Documents folder from its original location.  Once I did that I could open the file without the authentication screen coming up at all.  I was ecstatic with this discovery because now I can use PowerPoint, where before I couldn't.  However, I don't know why it works.  Why can I open files in the Documents folder but not elsewhere on the computer?  This is one way where the Mac and the PC are different.  Once you know how it works, fine.  Until you do, it's sheer aggravation.

Here's another one along these lines.  I like to make Notes pages from the PowerPoint that have an image of the slide and under that the text of the speaker notes that are associated with the slide.  This I save as a PDF and post along with the regular PowerPoint file.  On the PC what you do is choose Save As.  Then you selection filed type and choose PDF.  Then there is a button called Options.  You click that.  Select Notes pages and click a checkbox to include the slide image.  That works like a charm.

Silly me, I expected it to the be the same way on the Mac.  It isn't.  Indeed, Save As is much more limited on the Mac.  It doesn't even allow PDF as  format.  However, there is an alternative, Export.  For that PDF is a possibility.  But there is no options button.  When you Export as PDF it produces slide images only.  I was disappointed by this.

Ultimately, I learned that you can get Notes pages by choosing Print.  On the lower left there is a button that says PDF.  If you click on this, there is an option which says Save as PDF.  I wouldn't have put it there, but I'm glad I finally found it.

You'll find something in the last place you look. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Course Web Site - Out in the Open

I've been putting together my class Web site the last few days.  There is still some work to do on it, but there is enough done at this point for somebody to get a decent impression about how it works.

It is not glitzy, but I believe it is user friendly.  It doesn't use any tool that is brand new.  Nor does it use any tool that is specific to education.  The basis is Blogger, then Google Calendar, and files are made available from  There are a few Econ in the News items posted.  These make use of the snipping tool Kwout, which provides a link back to the source in addition to the screen shot from the piece.  I do exactly the same thing on my own blog.  I believe it is perfectly consistent with Fair Use and thus is not a copyright issue.  (More about copyright below.)

The domain is rather than and there is no campus branding on the site.  Some may consider that a limitation of this approach.  I do want to note that the Campus offers a blog service (based on WordPress) and I did briefly consider it as an alternative host to the approach I've adopted.  The WordPress blog that I experimented with didn't offer the sidebar gadgets that I've got on this site.  It would be less convenient for the student user.  In my way of thinking, convenience trumps branding.

During the first several class sessions I make a PowerPoint file associated with a particular class session available in advance.  Those PowerPoint files have images culled from the Web, but the various images come from different sites, with no one site contributing more than a single image.  I think that too is consistent with Fair Use.  However, I embed a musical selection that plays throughout the presentation when it is viewed in slideshow mode.  That is probably not consistent with Fair Use, especially when the music is there just to provide entertaining background rather than to enhance the educational purpose.  (One might make a case that the music for this particular presentation contributes to ideas in the presentation.)  If I were teaching a class with hundreds of students, I'd select the music from the Public Domain, such as is available here.  But that would add yet another layer to my time in developing the content, as I'd have to listen to this music first and determine whether it is appropriate for the presentation.  Given that the enrollments in my class have hovered in the mid 20s the last few years, I've not done that and instead inserted music that I was already familiar with.

My main reason for making these presentations was for students who add the class after the first day, so they can catch up on what they've missed.  The presentations can be viewed in two different ways.  In slideshow mode with the timings already built in, the presentation can be seen in a few minutes.  Part of the role of the music there is to convey that the presentation lasts as long as the song lasts.  This gives the student a quick overview of the content.  There is then a written explanation available in the notes pane that goes into some depth and will take the student more time to get through.  I post PDF versions of the presentations that students can access as an alternative to the PowerPoint.  Here is an example.   The preview that Box makes of the PDF is good enough for viewing, so the file need not be downloaded and the student needs only a browser to access the content.  However, the links don't work in the PDF and the music doesn't play, so it is less fully functional than the PowerPoint itself.

The copyright issue aside, everything else I'm doing could be emulated by other instructors and with campus sanction.  I do want to note that I need an electronic gradebook and a way to distribute files that should not be publicly viewable, made available to the class only, such as their responses to an online survey (for which I use Google Forms to administer).  So I do use an LMS for these functions.  But that use is quite limited.  The bulk of the interaction happens out in the open.

That does not seem to be the norm and nobody I know who works for the campus in the learning technology area seems to be pushing for open class Web sites.  It seems to me that should change.  We need to get past the lawyers putting fear into us, which is one reason why LMS class sites still prevail.

One benefit of open sites, were they prevalent, is that students who are trying to decide which class to take could look at the site from the previous offering of the class and get a lot more information about the course than they can get just from the course description.  So students would clearly benefit from that purpose.  Another possible benefit is from re-use of content by others who are not in the course: students elsewhere, instructors elsewhere, and those among the public who might be interested in the subject matter.  We are the land grant college for the state of Illinois.  This sort of re-use is consistent with the land grant mission.

What would it take to get my campus, or any other campus, headed down the path toward open course Web sites?  I don't know but with this post I hope to nudge others to help move us in that direction. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Questions for Bernie Sanders

The Facebook sidebar produces lots of odd fluff.  As example, there was a bit on Bernie Sanders getting irritated with a reporter for asking about Hillary Clinton's hair.  (This exchange is reproduced here.)  I wouldn't have known about this otherwise.  Maybe ignorance is bliss.  In this case, the little bit of knowledge prodded me to write this post.  It gives a bunch of questions I'd like to see reporters ask Sanders.

Part of this is on whether the various constituencies who make up the coalition that votes for a Democratic candidate can get to a unified view of what the goals should be.  Another part of this is on the issue of running for office versus actual governing and whether one says much about the other.  What follows was informed by this recent essay written by John Cassidy and this piece by Nate Cohn, each of which says Sanders is likely to do quite well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but then struggle thereafter unless conditions on the ground change rather dramatically.

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Question: Senator Sanders, to date in talking about raising taxes you have focused on the very rich, the upper one tenth of one percent of the population.  What about those who are quite well off but not uber rich?  Are they taxed enough already or might you consider also raising taxes on this segment of the population, which will be defined here as those in the top 10% of the income distribution?

Background:  With the Bush Tax Cuts, both on capital gains and marginal income tax rates, the top 10% are now paying less in taxes than they were when Bill Clinton was President.  There is also the matter of making Social Security sustainable, which Paul Krugman has said will require some adjustment on the revenue side.  That adjustment might happen by a substantial raise on the cap of earned income subject to FICA.  Does the Senator endorse raising this cap and if so to what level?

Question:  Senator Sanders, recently some of your events have been blocked by protesters from Black Lives Matter.  You have announced that you will address racism in the near future.  Do you favor the argument put forward by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay The Case for Reparations?  If so, might that become a centerpiece of your campaign?

Background:  On the politics, it seems that Bernie Sanders is not well known by Black voters and at present very view of them who do know him are apt to vote for him.  If he is to get beyond Iowa and New Hampshire he has to do something dramatic to change that.  Were he to do so, would he be able to hold onto the Liberal Whites, who until now have been his core source of support?  On the merits, many Holocaust survivors received reparations from Germany and Senator Sanders is surely aware of this precedent.  Thus it would be a profound ethical statement for Senator Sanders to talk about the tragedy of slavery in America in the same terms as one talks of the Holocaust.  And it would be a very strong argument to claim that healing in race relations necessitates that Whites make amends financially.

Question:  Senator Sanders, in your campaign you've laid out a strong Progressive agenda focused on helping ordinary citizens do better economically.  If elected, can you accomplish this agenda via Executive Orders only?  Or must there be legislation approved by Congress to get your agenda done?   If so, won't much of your agenda be DOA when you assume office?

Background:  The Congress elected in 2008, where the Democrats controlled both branches, accomplished quite a bit.  Much legislation was passed then.  Since then, Congress has been gridlocked.  Current forecasts have the Democrats possibly retaking the Senate but the House remaining majority Republican.  Given that, what actually can be accomplished? If the answer to that is not much, what does rhetoric that suggests otherwise actually achieve?

Question:  Senator Sanders, there has been much discussion about America's leadership in the world militarily and diplomatically.  Can America show leadership globally on the economic policy front?  If so, what would that look like?

Background:  Much of Senator Sanders appeal to date comes from his focus on income redistribution and his advocacy of a Robin Hood like approach.  There may be some stimulus to the overall economy that would emerge from such an approach, as the marginal propensity to consume among ordinary citizens is greater than the MPC for the rich.  But more direct efforts at economic stimulus have not gotten as much attention in Sanders' policy proposals.  Yet Europe has been in the economic doldrums since 2008 and now China seems headed there as well.  In Europe, in particular, the politics of austerity has been a winning formula.  (Prime Minister Cameron's recent reelection offers a case in point.)  Might an American embrace of Keynesian stimulus under a Sanders Presidency shake up this policy consensus and thereby get the global economic system back on track?

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There seems some similarity to me between the Bernie Sanders candidacy now and the Barack Obama candidacy eight year ago.  Each tied into the idealistic passions of the voters.  But the Obama candidacy was vague on many points (such as whether the Government Option was crucial to Obamacare or not).  And given that we were in full crisis when President Obama took office, perhaps that lack of specific policy proposals was a good thing then, so he could get done what the situation demanded and practice the art of the possible.  Now, where things certainly aren't rosy but we are not in immediate crisis, getting more novel ideas on the table would be a good thing.  Bernie Sanders is in a unique position to do this and it might be his single biggest contribution, whether he becomes the candidate or not. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Candy A___s

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

I'm reacting to a piece in the Atlantic The Coddling of The American Mind.  The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, make some points I agree with, but I think they go too far and they don't give full context for their arguments.  As I've written about these matters before, first in a post called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define and then in a different post called Don't romanticize the past regarding how students dealt with threats of violence and disagreeable speech, I will content myself here with providing brief summaries of those arguments and raise a series of other points that authors should consider.

1.  We had our own paranoid delusions.  When I was in grade school in the 1960s, we had fire drills, which made sense, and shelter drills where you crawled under your desk, which made no sense whatsoever.  The risk of a nuclear bomb going off certainly seemed real enough.  That you could do much if anything ahead of time to mitigate its consequences surely was a flight of fancy.

2.  Students blocked invited speakers when I was in college (mid 1970s).  This is nothing new.  My memory here is not great, but I believe William Colby was invited to Cornell to speak right after he stepped down as Director of the CIA and his visit was blocked by the students.

3.  The authors ignore the impact of a specific event on Campus behavior - the shootings at Virginia Tech.  This traumatized all of us in Higher Ed.  One reaction to those shootings that may be sensible - every campus now has an electronic emergency alert system.  But many other reactions were contemplated, such as being able to lock classroom doors from the inside, or educating the students on escape routes from the classroom, and some of these may have even tried.    Given this backdrop, I found the example the authors used in the piece one where I agreed fully with the student and the subsequent decision by the UCF administration. You don't joke about killing people.  You just don't.

It should be no surprise that students are exhibiting similar sensitivity. At the University of Central Florida in 2013, for example, Hyung-il Jung, an accounting instructor, was suspended after a student reported that Jung had made a threatening comment during a review session. Jung explained to the Orlando Sentinel that the material he was reviewing was difficult, and he’d noticed the pained look on students’ faces, so he made a joke. “It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions,” he recalled saying. “Am I on a killing spree or what?”

After the student reported Jung’s comment, a group of nearly 20 others e-mailed the UCF administration explaining that the comment had clearly been made in jest. Nevertheless, UCF suspended Jung from all university duties and demanded that he obtain written certification from a mental-health professional that he was “not a threat to [himself] or to the university community” before he would be allowed to return to campus.

4. More generally, there is a lot of insularity and lack of sensitivity as to what might make others uncomfortable.  This happens among certain students as well as faculty and staff.  There is then the matter of what to do about it.  The part where I agree most with the authors is that outright bans on speech don't educate these people to make them more aware of how others react to what they say and do.  Indeed, the bans might create resentment where before there was only cluelessness. In my Boundaries essay, I came down against mandatory training because we don't do that well at all, but considered possible other efforts that would be more effective.  There is an argument to be made that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  But that doesn't mean the disease doesn't exist.  It means we need to search for a better cure.

5. The authors make an argument about how victims of trauma learn to de-traumatize.  I thought that argument was incomplete.  What was left out is that the victim needs to control the pace of this learning.  That pace should not be thrust on the person involuntarily.

Finally, let me make this point about risk assessment and risk mitigation.  Most of us don't do it well at all for risks that are outside our ordinary range of experience.  It is natural to want to minimize such risks even if we end up exacerbating them in the process.  But perhaps we learn from the experience in a constructive way and then do it better in the future.  So the authors need to ask whether they are encouraging that learning to happen or trying to block it because they find the idea of speech bans so intolerable. What, then, comes next?