Friday, November 28, 2014

Pensions for State of Illinois Employees - Again

The piece linked below is now almost a week old.  So it no longer counts as news. But it's been on my mind and now that Thanksgiving has past, I thought I'd write a bit on the topic.  One has to wonder whether defined benefit versus defined contribution is the real issue.  My guess is that it's not.  To me, the real issue is how generous the benefits are.  This discussion about defined benefit versus 401(k) plans masks this issue.

In the plan that I retired under, 8% of my salary was withheld for pension.  I didn't pay state income tax on that amount.  (I also didn't contribute to Social Security.  My retirement income is in lieu of Social Security.)  In theory, the state matched my contribution dollar for dollar.  So each year 16% of my salary was going to fund my pension.  Plus there was interest earned on already accumulated funds.

But since I was in a defined benefit plan, the above was all an accounting fiction.  The annuity I'm currently receiving doesn't depend on contributions and accumulated interest.  It depends on a formula based on years of service, average salary over the last four years of service, plus the COLA increases received since retirement. This formula does not depend, for example, on age at retirement.  If you are 10 years younger than somebody else, but have the same years of service (because you started earlier on the job) and the same last four years of salary income, then your annuity per month will be identical, but your expected annuity earnings over the time of retirement will be much greater, because you should expect to receive that annuity for a much greater duration.

Given that I retired at age 55 (the earliest possible age) I'm maximizing on the duration of retirement variable.  When I did a quick and dirty calculation to compare expected contributions to expected benefits, I got a ratio of something like 1 to 3.  (This calculation didn't include any risk adjustment.  If inflation returns big time and outstrips the COLA adjustments, then those later year benefits would have to be discounted accordingly.  Since I retired four years ago, the COLA 3% per year has exceeded the inflation rate, so my actual benefit per year has risen in real terms.)  But even if I were 65 when I retired, the definted benefits would be generous, with a ratio of contributions to benefits of something like 1.7  (Note that I worked 30 years and got an extra year of service credit for unused sick leave when I was being a prof full time - the first 15 years of work.)

Why is the defined benefit so generous for me?  One reason is how my wages grew since I started in the job.  There was roughly a seven-fold increase in pay, a not quite 7% annualized rate of increase. Early on this was because inflation was running higher than that.  Later it was because of job switching, with each job switch accompanied by a nice pay increase, while salary increases within job were rather modest.  For someone with fewer job switches the formula would be still less generous.  But would it produce a contributions to expected payout ratio that is on par or would it still be generous?  I don't know but my guess is that it still would be generous, which is why the unions resist so much a move to the defined contribution sort of pension.

In a perfectly competitive labor market, if pension benefits go down then wages paid must go up.  Otherwise the jobs will look less attractive and the people who are candidates to fill the jobs will choose to work elsewhere.  For those state employees where the labor market is perfectly competitive, such as the market for new assistant professors, should this change in pension provision go into effect, they will have to earn a salary premium as compared to working elsewhere.  Otherwise, we'll be unable to recruit them.

Of course, the labor market for many state employees is not perfectly competitive.  Most state employees, particularly those who are long timers, are earning considerably more in their current jobs than they could earn elsewhere.  That differential is an economic rent, which accrues to the employees.  One way for the state to save money on such employees is to cut their wages.  In effect, that is what the move to a defined contribution retirement plan would be doing, while at the same time keeping the nominal wage paid unchanged, so to the naive a claim could be made that it is neutral on compensation.  But that would not really be true.

There is one further issue between defined benefit and defined contribution plans if they were otherwise constructed on par.  This is on whether an individual with a a pot of money from a defined contribution plan can annuitize that in a reasonable way (convert it to fixed monthly payments that will exhaust either after a known time horizon has past or at end of life).  The ease of doing this is greater the larger the size of the pot of money.  Those with modestly sized retirement accounts will not fare as well and if they can only select fixed duration alternatives they will end up bearing the risk that they outlive their retirement savings.  Really, they should not bear this sort of risk.  The state should because it is much better able to diversify the risk.  This last is a reason to stay with defined benefit plans, really the reason.

But this reason is not how people are thinking about it.  They are thinking about it from how generous the plans are.  I expect a lot more hyperbole on the issue before (or if) we ever get to a resolution.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Believe It OER Not

I'm schizophrenic and in several different ways.  I suspect that many of my friends and colleagues in higher ed are schizophrenic too.   One dimension of the schizophrenia that might not be so common but it quite strong with me is about letting go versus still caring.  It has come to the fore especially over the last 4+ years since I've been retired.  I love flaunting that I take naps - both that I have the time to do so and the peace of mind to be able to find that temporary reverie.  The next LMS? - I don't care.  The future of learning spaces? - I don't care about that either.  Yet the truth is that I remain vexed about where higher ed is heading specifically in regard to undergraduate education and where my campus is heading in particular.  An overused expression as of late is "race to the bottom."  We seem in it, at full stride. Might it be possible, via forethought and quite public argument, that we can identify a shared mission to benefit both the students and their university and thereby move, not quite so quickly, though still with all due speed, to a somewhat higher plateau?  In this post I will try to sketch what some of that forethought might be about. In my dreams, that sketch would be sufficient to engender a good chunk of public argument about the ideas.

Another dimension of the schizophrenia, this one I'd guess is much more common, is about whether universities should be guided internally by hard headed business practices - is there a revenue stream to attach to the activity in a way where revenues cover the costs? - or if, instead, social obligation should drive the mission and revenues be damned. The circumstance that brings this issue into focus on my campus juxtaposes the decline in state dollars as a fraction of the university's budget with the university's historical mission as the Land Grant college in Illinois.  During the four years that I was an associate dean in the College of Business, it is this particular schizophrenia that bothered me the most, as my peers (department heads and other A-Deans) seemed to feel comfortable ignoring the mission aspect when the revenue piece wasn't forthcoming.

Let me include one further dimension, not meant to make for an exhaustive list, but to round out the other two so as to be able to construct a picture with more depth. This one is on charitable giving versus what I would call social gifting,  The issue from the point of view of the donor is whether they are two separate things or substitutes for one another.  The IRS has confounded the issue for us, by having us consider gifts to organizations rather than to individuals and by calling it a charitable contribution if the organization has not-for-profit status.  Plainer meaning would require the recipient of charity to be poor or in need in some other obvious way.  In contrast, social gifting is done irrespective of the status of the recipient other than that the recipient benefits from the gift.  An instructor who goes out of her way to help students in her class, students who are struggling and might fail the course absent her help, is providing a social gift. Others might not see it that way and argue instead that she is merely doing her job.  That really is the point.  The boundary between doing the job and social gifting is amorphous.

Given that, at issue when juxtaposed with charitable giving is whether the abilities of the giver should matter as much as the needs of the recipient.  The university has a charitable fund drive each fall.  It is something done without much reflection at all, yet it has the imprimatur of the university behind it.  Social gifting on campus, in contrast, happens in a much more ad hoc way - whether through students in an RSO doing volunteer work for a good cause, a service-learning course situated in the community, the teaching example I gave above, or many other small but uncoordinated acts of selflessness on the part of the giver.  The reason to consider social gifting from the institutional perspective is that a much larger consequence might be attained were this done than with comparable effort to charitable giving, because the social gifting reflects the expertise of the giver.

* * * * *

The above is meant as preliminary matter for considering institutional embrace of MOOCs and OERs.  My campus, which is a Coursera partner, seems to be going gangbusters over MOOCs, as they now have found a place with a business model behind them.  This has been happening while the attention given to MOOCs by Educause and other national ed tech organizations has cooled considerably.  That cooling notwithstanding, the embrace of MOOCs on campus may be a very good thing, because it is happening with eyes wide open rather than merely as a matter of faith.  Time will tell whether this was a good choice or not.  Yet I can see it having a clear side benefit now.  The people who support ed tech activities on campus and are involved in MOOC creation have a clearer mission, a more obvious sense of purpose.  That in itself is empowering.  Its good to see friends and colleagues so engaged.  

Yet in a different way that I find regrettable, the embrace of MOOCs seems to have crowded out in the campus thinking any effort to promote OERs.  Let me take a brief sojourn on how OERs might emerge and what the campus should be doing about this. 

First, here is a quickie definition.  OER to me means online modular content, such as simulations and micro-lectures, that is freely available to potential users of this content and is findable by them.  This conception of OER doesn't require a depository, such as MIT's OCW, nor a referatory, such as MerlotUNESCO provides a definition that includes licensing for re-use.  Maybe that is necessary when considering OERs from the institutional perspective.  It has been my experience that it is not necessary in the transaction between creator and users - the licensing is implied by the the placing of the content where users can find it.  What OER rules out in my definition is that the content can't reside in a closed container that requires authentication to get access.

Further, the focus on modular content is meant to get at the online stuff that accompanies courses with a substantial on-ground component.   Many of those courses are taught with some Learning Management System.  Out of convenience primarily, also perhaps because a culture has developed to support the practice, most of the modular content created for these courses also resides in the LMS.  There is no necessity for this, especially when the content has been created by the instructor.  The content could just as easily be place in an open container.  For example, here are two folders meant for my current class that reside in my university account at Box.com.  The first is for presentation content and the second is for Excel files, most of which are self-grading homework.  This is sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the content be open.  Let me defer on the content being findable for a bit and first get at the question of audience for such content.

When Merlot was a brand new initiative, the focus on audience was other instructors who are teaching the same or a similar course at their own institutions.  The thought was that if somebody has developed a really great module on some topic, then it would make a lot more sense for other instructors to use that module too rather than develop something similar themselves.   But as content of this sorts proliferates the instructor who is willing to use content created by somebody else needs to identify the really good content and distinguish it from the mediocre stuff.  Absent some way to find good content quickly, the search for usable stuff might prove too daunting.  Merlot's solution at the time was to have the content peer reviewed, an interesting thought but ultimately one that didn't work well.  I suspect that most faculty today don't know about Merlot at all, let alone check their site to see if there is interesting content for the course they teach.

An alternative solution to the identifying-quality-stuff problem is to rely on institutional branding.  Indeed, UNESCO's embrace of OCW as the quintessential example of OER fits with the further idea that the instructors who utilize the content developed elsewhere will be teaching in an LDC, where the online content may be even more important than it is for the class where it was originally developed, because substitute content, such as from a textbook, may not be available.  Thus OER was conceived as a way to export educational material in a very inexpensive way from the rich nations to the poor, one that bypassed the normal market processes.  While MIT, as first mover, got a lot of mileage out of OCW, it doesn't seem to have produced a lot of coattails among other providing institutions, as far as I can tell.

For a while iTunes U was a hot item and seemed to offer a solution.  Content could be branded by institution but housed in a common repository for all participating institutions.   Yet interest in iTunes U has cooled considerably since 7 or 8 years ago and it really never was a place for modular content but rather for full lectures that were recorded by campus video producers.  For content directly produced by instructors, other video repositories were preferable then and that remains true now.

This brings me to consider a different audience - students who are taking the same course on their own campuses but are looking online for supplemental material on a specific topic or a small subset of topics.  Many students are reluctant to ask for help from their own instructors.  Finding supplemental help online is much gentler on the psyche of the struggling student.  And it may be substantially more convenient as well.

This audience is potentially much larger than the audience of instructors who might use the materials.  Hence, even if one is still primarily interested in the instructor re-use of the content, the student use can be considered as a way to crowd source the evaluation of the content, with crowd sourcing more effective than peer review.  Further, while we have been considering the adoption decision by other instructors, the creator needs feedback too as to the quality of what was produced.  The class where the content is initially deployed offers one venue for getting feedback on the content quality.  But students in that class will tie evaluation of the content to how well it prepares them for the exams the instructor writes.  Students elsewhere won't evaluate the content in this way, since to them it is supplemental only.  They will evaluate it only on whether it helps them to understand the topic at the time they work through the content.  So their evaluation will be interesting to the creator, especially in those cases where the external audience is quite positive about the content but students in the class are antagonistic to it.

Now we're ready to get at the issue of how to make the content findable by the audience.  I offer a few bits of evidence on this point from my own experience.   This is not a controlled experiment and I don't want to claim otherwise.  But I think it is highly suggestive.  First, take a look at the results of a search at archive.org on my name.  Focus on the audio (podcast) content and video content only.  None of the items have gotten more than 100 hits - meaning very low usage.  Next tale a quick look at the Web site called The Economics Metaphor.  This is a blog that has the audio content available in individual posts via an embedded player.   This is also quite a bit of other content.  But that site also gets very limited traffic.  Finally, take a look at the videos in my profarvan channel at YouTube.  There is much more traffic at this site.  The one video called Income and Substitution Effects (a real barn burner) has over 15,000 hits.  There are quite a few videos with more than 1,000 hits.

The conclusion I draw from this is that to make the content findable there must be a video micro-lecture about the content, even if there is also a simulation on which the video is based.  (The Excel files that form the basis of my videos can be downloaded too.  The links to those are in the description of the videos.)  The videos themselves must be housed in a place where the users looking for similar content will find it.  YouTube may be the single best place for that.  A more diligent person than I am might place the same video in different places, Vimeo and DailyMotion, for example, in addition to YouTube.  The content will compete for attention with other like content at these sites.  That it is findable is not the same that it will be viewed.  But clearly, the former is necessary for the latter.

* * * * *

The above is the easy part.  The hard part is getting tolerably good content produced in significant enough volume that it matters at the level of the institution.  There are several impediments to reckon with here

1.  It is quite time consuming to produce good content.

2.  The creator needs understanding both of the technology and of the learning issues in order to produce good content.

3.  Much of this should happen in the high enrollment courses, where there is apt to be a much larger audience for the content, but such courses are increasingly taught by adjuncts.

4.  The textbook publishers have incentive to keep this activity from happening, as potentially production of this content could undermine their sales down the road. Further, the large course instructors typically exhibit substantial lock-in to the textbook.

5.  Somebody with the facility to produce high quality content may prefer to do so to amplify his or her own income rather than to give away the content for free.  Such people, therefore, are candidates to product ancillary materials for a textbook, if they are not doing so already. 

6.  Undoubtedly there are other issues that I'm unable to anticipate here but that would emerge were an effort put forward to try to generate such content.

Instead of trying to develop a coherent plan to address these issues, one that I don't really have, let me instead make a case for why such a plan is needed and provide some elements that might very well be put into such a plan.

A.  Rich kids who have gone to good suburban high schools bypass many of the high enrollment classes by already having the AP credit to place out of them.  Those who do take these courses, then, are apt to be from less well off families and poorer schools districts or are the less able students admitted from those suburban high schools.  Partly for this reason, it is imperative for the campus to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be.

B.  The high enrollment classes are taken disproportionately by first year students.  It is their initial experience with college.  There are many inadvertent but pernicious consequences.  Students often get comfortable with being anonymous in class and find they can get by with little effort most of the time and then some cramming right before exams. Rote is rewarded, disproportionately so.  This is the other reason to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be - to counteract these tendencies.

C.  There needs to be a sustained faculty development program aimed squarely at the adjunct instructors.  Many are too isolated and don't have a community of peers to rely on to improve their own teaching.

D.  Students can and should be involved in producing online content.  At present the campus promotes undergraduate research as a way for students to become more engaged with their learning.  Being part of an ongoing, instructor-led project to develop online content for the instructor's course would also engage students in their learning and have the additional benefit that the product that results from this engagement would have positive social value.

E.  Some metrics of quality are needed to assess whether faculty development activities and student produced content are at all worthwhile.  Usage of OER content provides metrics that would be interesting to look at and that stand apart from the usual course evaluation data which we tend to rely on.

F.  Illinois is certainly not the only only campus facing issues with the high enrollment classes.  If parallel efforts happened at peer institutions, then instructors should also become importers of OER content developed elsewhere and quite possibly become part of a community of practice for both developing and sharing OER content.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  OERs may be less sexy than MOOCs.  They certainly imply less control of how the content will be used or whether it will be used at all.  But OERs are more consistent with the outreach education mission of the university.  Further, they are more consistent with making an effort with online content development across the board. (Though I focused on high enrollment classes, above I didn't mean that only high enrollment classes should produce OERs).  Therefore, pushing OERs offers potential to positively benefit the entire curriculum.

I confess that there is quite a bit of wishful thinking here, too much of which is based in my own experience.  Now retired, I am not time constrained in my own content production.  I've been doing stuff in Excel since 2001, have been recording my voice in an instructional setting for even longer, and have substantial accumulated knowledge that others might find difficult to replicate.  And for many years learning technology was my job.  During those years I lived my job. 

These are all weaknesses with the argument put forward here.  The weaknesses notwithstanding, it seems to me there is enough upside to consider OERs seriously and then argue the case, for and against.  I hope the piece will encourage others to do just that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Solitary Boy

What would childhood be like if there were many playthings but no friends, not because there weren’t other kids around, but because this one didn’t want to fit in? He was stubborn from the get go and preferred to pursue his own inclinations, regardless of the consequences, with other kids his own age and with his parents too. Would he need an imagined companion for comfort and to play out dialogs with himself? Would he feel bored much of the time? Or would he discover ways to amuse himself and focus his attention?

Might it ultimately prove an advantage for deep learning, not having to accommodate the wishes of others and thereby not needing to remain sensitive to the expression of those wishes, which are often demonstrated in a non-verbal way? Monitoring those wishes would have required him to devote precious intellectual energy on his immediate surroundings. In addition to the stubbornness, our boy had a very keen mind. He learned with that to concentrate, to become absorbed with the current object whether adventure story, magic trick, or intricate puzzle, and to block out everything else. The ability to block out worldly things kept him pure and true to himself. Other children have this purity as infants but eventually lose it through socialization, particularly when at school. Somebody who maintains such purity looks increasingly odd to others as he gets older. He lives in his own universe, without himself being aware that he emanates eccentricity.

Now imagine that you have become Tinker Bell, able to watch the goings on in any setting without giving any notice to yourself.  And imagine that you find yourself in the house with the boy, when he was a young child.  The house is cavernous and the goings on complex.  You can't make heads or tails of it and because it is a blur you don't pay much attention.  But you persist in the spot and keep watching.  Eventually the boy comes into sharper view and you begin to understand his manner and his disposition.  And it fascinates you, because your own experience was different.  You weren't always a Tinker Bell.  You were once an ordinary boy, one with friends, one who was readily socialized.  This boy is so different from what you knew.  And then you begin to get jealous.  Maybe you could have been special too, if only you had borne some hardship as a child and learned what it felt like to be lonely when very young, which then propelled you to explore your own imagined world. 

The Luzhin Defense - Initial impressions after reading the first few chapters. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Damn you, Saul

The good news is that there's a bit less pain today in my knees after getting cortisone injections, one for each knee.  The bad news is that I was exhausted afterward and then didn't sleep well at all last night.  I'm not sure what explains this, but it wasn't pain.  I took it easy yesterday and had essentially no pain after the procedure.  Maybe it was the trepidation beforehand. Or perhaps the local anesthetic did a number on my head, though I don't know why that should be.  (The nurse just called from Carle and said maybe the steroids did affect my sleep.)  Then too, I am giving a midterm today and was corresponding with a handful of students yesterday who seemed jittery.  Whatever it was, I am a bit of a zombie this morning. 

What does a zombie think about, especially one who is also an INTP in Myer-Briggs personality typing?  No doubt the answer is Homeland Season 3.  I've watched through the DVDs once before on my computer.  This time around I'm watching them while I do my exercises, half the elliptical and half the treadmill, with some other light exercises in between.  (As my mind flits from one thing to another in true zombie-mode, it occurs to me that I didn't do the exercises yesterday because I was supposed to take it easy.  That may be the real reason for the lack of sleep.)  It's a good show for exercising to, because it is a real grabber.

There is something of a fatal flaw in the story line, a confounding of Sunni and Shia and as the piece at the link shows, I'm not the only one to have noticed.  When I was reading Econ papers on a regular basis, if I came to what I though was a fatal flaw in the story I would put the paper down and move onto something else.  Why bother with the rest?  But this is a TV show only, probably much of the audience doesn't notice the issue, to them the Middle East is just one big cauldron of one problem following another, and as I said the show is a grabber.  For me, the main attraction is the character Saul Berenson.

The lead on the show is Carrie Mathison and she is a compelling character in her own right.  Carrie is as intense as it gets.  She is Saul's protege, brilliant but impulsive.  Saul is more thoughtful and deliberate, seeing things more strategically.  He is also a cultural Jew.  As this piece points out, these two aspects of his persona match perfectly to form the larger whole.  I'm not nearly as Jewish as he is, but I see a good deal of similarity between his approach to addressing issues and mine.

Since I don't want to be a spoiler for the show, I hope what I say below doesn't give away too much of the plot.  In season 3 Saul has become interim director of the CIA after a catastrophe was perpetrated on the agency.  Saul and Carrie launch a secret plan to catch the people behind it.  To anyone else, this would be an incredible long shot.  But to Saul and Carrie, in the outrageous world of spying in which they live their work lives and the rest of their lives too, it is what makes sense.

Part of the plan is for it appear to the rest of the world that Carrie has gone over the deep end.  She is put into the ward of a hospital where the other patients are "crazies."  She is given the treatment that crazies get.  Some of it is too much for her.  Multiple times she says, "Damn you, Saul." (And some other expletive about Saul too.)  She and Saul have a very affectionate working the relationship.  But they push the limits of that relationship and it leads to some brief friction from time to time.

Regarding my own situation, it seems to me that I too like to hatch long shot plans that to me have a solid logic to them but end up being too far out of the box.  Further, I'm doing this mostly as an outsider, with no way to implement the plans myself.  So readers of this blog will know that from time to time I generate a rather detailed idea for a plan, only to find it go nowhere.  In contrast, I've come to realize that in some of the little things I do have consequence and occasionally the consequence is positive.  Most little things don't matter.  But if one does enough of them some will matter.  And it us much more do-able to have a diverse portfolio of little things.  So I had just about convinced myself to reorient my attention toward the little things and stop generating these big ideas that go nowhere.  But then there's Homeland.

Damn you, Saul.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A bit more on the Kindle Fire HD, Excellent Sheep, and my knees

I've now read enough with the Kindle Fire to draw a few conclusions.
  1. You absolutely need to have a case for it.  I've got one from Amazon, called Origami, which is how it folds when you want to stand the thing up.  But mainly I use it with the flap down to cover the buttons in the back, so that those don't get touched inadvertently as you hold it while reading.
  2. Because the thing is only 7" and is pretty light, I tend to hold like it I would hold a paperback book, in the center bottom.  For the book that breaks the spine, but was always my pattern anyway.  For the Kindle Fire, the old pattern emerged.
  3. I had an original Kindle.  At the time they said they were trying to simulate a real book so didn't have back lighting for the screen.  In retrospect, that looks like a lot of bs.  Back lighting is definitely better, and the only issue is how to maintain battery life with a well lit screen.  
  4. Apart from the books themselves, the other apps I mainly use are the browser (called Silk) and email. Even though Amazon Prime is trying to be your all everything provider, I don't listen to music from them, but rather use Spotify.  I haven't figured out whether I can upload my own MP3s onto it or not, but I haven't tried to do that either. 
  5. After not using it for a while and an upgrade to the OS, the thing lost connection with the campus wireless and for a few days I thought it was a real problem.  It turned out that all it had lost was my login information, but I needed to scroll down to find that stuff.  It really should not require the scrolling.  So there is a design issue of sorts, but otherwise the wireless seems to work quite well. 
  6. If you like to type with a Tablet, I think you want a larger screen.  For me with the built in finger keyboard, it is fine for a brief note, but I wouldn't want to write an essay on it. 
* * * * *

My original reason for reading Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz, was that I thought the book might stimulate a conversation on my own campus, even though we are a Public University instead of a ritzy private one, as to whether something similar is happening here.  Having finished it over the weekend, I no longer believe it to be the right vehicle to promote such a conversation, though the beginning of the book where the problem is identified is worth considering.  But in the middle third of the book the author starts to shill for the Humanities major and I found it much less appealing.  One problem with this part of the book is the Deresiewicz doesn't seem to have heard of selection bias.   He cites a bunch of statistics about how employers have come to figure out that hiring humanities majors (from the most selective institutions) is a good bet, he can't see other possible explanations for why that is other than that the humanities major teaches students just what employers want them to learn. 

The obvious alternative is that these are kids who are very bright and haven't become sheep themselves and that is sufficient in itself to make them quite employable, entirely apart from methods of inquiry they learned by majoring in the humanities.  It is not obvious how you would parse this alternative explanation from the one Deresiewicz assumes to be true, but I found it disturbing that the possibility wasn't seriously entertained.

He goes on and one about the virtues of reading great and important fiction.  There is less than on a page about the possibility that the student has generated his own path and his own readings and that might be a perfectly fine alternative.  Give that this plausible alternative gets short shrift, the message could easily get lost in the volume of stuff that extols the humanities major, English in particular.

The other turnoff is his characterization of the non-humanities majors as featuring rote rather than thoughtfulness.  I've seen that in other books about college students where students who do X are imaginative but students who do Y are dull, invariably shortchanging Y, whatever that happens to be.  I really think it is plain wrong.  Any discipline can be taught with imagination.  Alternatively, the teaching can be dull, irrespective of the subject, English included.  So, to me,  this particular bias towards the humanities would not help in the diagnosis of whether the students here are sheep.

* * * * *

I am scheduled to get cortisone injections in my knees tomorrow, done under local anesthetic.  This is a new treatment for me.  I should be happy to get something that might alleviate the chronic pain.  But in the main, I'm apprehensive.  For the last week or so the knees have hurt less.  Perhaps my mind is playing tricks on me, the fear serving to mask the symptoms.

Stuff like this is helpful as a reminder that it's not just the students who are sheep.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Please call it Experimentation, not Trial and Error

Learning involves false starts, many of them.  The learner needs to get used to that.  Everyone says, "we learn from our mistakes."  Let's hope that is true.  Sometimes from my teacher's vantage it seems students have one or two false starts and that's all she wrote, though I may be too pessimistic about that.  I'd like to put that pessimism aside and start out on a higher plane in this piece by assuming that learning does eventually occur.  Some refer to the entire process, one false start begetting another until eventually something that's been tried seems to work reasonably well, as trial and error.  I wish that expression had never taken hold. It does not accurately reflect what goes on (or what should go on) in most cases. It literally means the following, if thought about mathematically.

There is a set of alternatives; call it S = {s1,s2,...,sn}.  Each alternative in S is deemed equally likely to solve a puzzle.  Beforehand, all that is known is that one alternative, si, solves the puzzle.  The other alternatives do not.  The question is what process should be followed to identify the solution to the puzzle.  That process is trial and error.

This possibly describes a few learning situations.  For example, if you have a bunch of keys on a key ring and they look the same and you know one opens the lock to the door you want to open, you'd go through the keys by trial and error to determine which key works.

Most learning situations are not solved by trial and error.  A priori the alternatives are not equally likely to solve the puzzle.  There are some that are more likely.  If the student asks herself, why dillydally?, then the student has reason to select the most likely alternative first.

Identifying which alternative is most likely requires intelligence.  A model (or if you prefer, a story) is determined to explain how the puzzle gets solved.  The intelligent student either has the model already on hand from the world view the student has brought to the task or the student has to generate such a model via learning from what the student has read, talking with the teacher or fellow students, pure introspection, or these things in some combination.  The alternative that is selected is the one that best fits the model.  And then, performing the experiment offers a test of the model. 

If that seems to work, it's one and done.  The interesting part happens when that initial experiment proves a false start.  I believe it matters a lot here where the model comes from and whether the person has some stake in the model being true.  It is much easier to discard a model as false if one has no skin in it being otherwise.  For the person with skin in the game of supporting the model it seems there are three possibilities:

a)  Stop experimenting entirely and leave the puzzle unsolved so as not to find further evidence that the model is in error.  In other words, refuse to learn because of being quite uneasy about what one will find.

b)  Repeat the experiment under the hope that "I did something wrong.  The next time it will work."  This is making the same mistake twice, something we're not supposed to do.  But we don't give up our old beliefs without a fight.  It is frightening to have to abandon something we hold as true. Resistance to doing that is natural.  So if the experiment suggests we need to abandon our beliefs then an immediate alternative hypothesis emerges - we made some mistake in performing the experiment.  Let's do it again to eliminate the possibility of such a mistake.

c)  We know our thinking needs to change and we start the search for another model with which to repeat the cycle.  

Just to keep things simple in discussing this I'm not going to get at where that prior belief comes from and how deeply it is held.  Also, to keep this from getting too abstract, I'm going to give a very simple example of what I'm talking about here.

I use Moodle as my way for students to check their within-course grades (on homework and exams, etc.)  I upload grades from an Excel workbook where I keep my grade book on my home computer and transfer them into Moodle by first saving the Excel file as a CSV file and then importing it into Moodle.  I only import a few columns at a time and what I've taken to do this year is first export those columns only from Moodle, along with the student bio information, fill in the blank columns with data from my grade book, and then import the filled in version of what I had previously exported back into Moodle.  This year and last the process worked okay, except for the grades of one student in the class.  I would get an error message that the student wasn't enrolled.  Yet the student shows up in the Class Roster in Moodle and there is a row in the Moodle grade book for the student.  So there is the puzzle.  In this case there is a work around.  I can manually enter that student's grades.  But the work around is a pain, so I'd like to find a better solution.

My model in this case is first that I know Moodle has both an import and export function for grades, as any instructor who uses Moodle can discover that these functions are built into the software.  Also, when I had a different problem last year and couldn't get the import to work at all, I got some help from the people who support Moodle about how to rectify that problem.  I followed their instructions and was able to get success, except for the problem I've just described.  My model doesn't go so far as to tell me how to troubleshoot this problem.  Presumably the people who support Moodle, armed with much more experience and possibly with a network of other support people with whom they can consult, likely have a more sophisticated model of what is going on here and with it they might be able to determine how to fix the problem.

I gather from my communication with them that the issue is related to which field within the bio information the instructor uses to identify the student.  I had been using the email address field.  It was suggested that instead I try using the UIN, the student identification number.  That seems to work.  Puzzle solved for me, though without understanding why there is a problem with email address.  And since I still don't understand that, I doubt it would have ever occurred to me on my own to try the UIN instead of the email address.  But it did occur to the support person do try this.

Let me zoom out from this example and now consider alternative (c) above.  There is as much learning in finding an alternative model as there is in doing anything else in the process.  One reason why the person is driven to look for a new model occurs when a pure trial and error approach appears to be a needle in the haystack search.  In other words, when S is a very large set, a different way than trial and error is needed.  One then wants to find an intelligent way to select the next alternative so a tolerable answer can be found in a reasonable amount of time.  That's a good  reason for model generation. 

There may be other reasons, such as wanting to understand similar but not identical puzzles.  One could grind through each of them in sequence.  Finding a model that addresses them all is an alternative that might get the learner to understand each of the puzzles in one fell swoop.  My goal here is not to explicate all the reasons for building models or uncovering models that others have built.  It is enough for now to assert that getting a new model is desirable.

Thus, the process has an element of design in it - finding a model that both can be solved and fits the circumstances provided by the puzzle. Sometimes the new model is a simple tweak on the old, as seemed to be the case with the resolution of my Moodle grade book issue.  Other times, the old model must be thrown out entirely, to be replaced by something completely different.  Obviously, there is more design effort in the latter than in the former.  And in that case, the learner is hoping for an Aha! moment to spark the new design.  It is this search for the new design and the hope for epiphany that is conveyed with the use of the word Experimentation but is completely denied by the expression Trial and Error.  This is the reason for abandoning that expression.

I now want to take the discussion entirely out of the realm where the Scientific Method is practiced in some way, shape, or form and move it to a subjective realm where there aren't right answers, just approaches where some appear more pleasing than others, such as how to make the point I'm trying to make in an essay such as this.  Does this piece convince readers to do what the title asks them to do?

After a little reflection, even if the reader is otherwise sympathetic to the approach I've taken above, there will be a realization that it far from complete in describing learning.  Among the bigger things it omits is puzzle generation.  It assumes the puzzle has been posed already, as has the the set of potential solutions.  Puzzle posing - asking a good question - is a very important skill, maybe more important than puzzle solution.  Irrespective of which is more important, what is clear is that they are interrelated.  Knowing what puzzles the person can solve strongly influences those questions that are asked.  Conversely, framing a question in an interesting way provides strong motivation for finding an answer to it. 

Once one gets on a roll in imaging how learning happens, there will be several other ways where the above will seem too limited.  Typically there are many puzzles that come together.  Some are subsidiary to the main one.  Others are interrelated.  For still others, the main puzzle may be subsidiary to them.

Then there is the sequencing of the learning.  New puzzles don't occur all at once.  They emerge from trying an alternative, observing the outcome, and reflecting on that.  The process is fundamentally open ended.  With learning in the classroom we tend to put some closure on it in mid stream or perhaps even earlier.  There is some imperative that demands a deliverable by a certain due date.  That imperative comes from outside the process.  It means the learning up to when the deliverable is turned in will be partial at best.  This is my teacher's lament about semesters and that instead students should just do research projects that conclude when they produce results, not at a fixed date.  Now I've gotten that out of my system and can return to the narrative.  Let me do so by talking about the puzzle generation and sequencing of learning for writing this post.

In this case, the first puzzle was triggered by my reading some description of how students learn in a book I'm trying to finish.  Trial and error was mentioned in that description.  I was bothered by that as a means of explaining how real learning occurs.  I re-read the paragraph and said to myself - I've got to write a blog post on this.

I do have skin in this game.  Five or six years ago I started to write a book called Guessing Games,  to give my views of what Education should be about.  I'm talking about Middle School through College (and beyond).  In a nutshell, the focus of Education should be on getting the student to learn to find the next model, having reached stage (c) described above. And the core hypothesis is that the student does this by developing an intuition for what might work.  Based on that intuition, the students guesses what the new model looks like. The argument is that we need to encourage our students to become good guessers.  But it is insufficient for students to rely on their gut as to where the solution lies.  They must perform the experiment to see how their solution does and learn from that as well.  The process is reasonably well articulated in Chapter 6, Guessing and Verification.  In that chapter it is argued that the other big thing students must develop, in addition to honing their intuition, is a sense of taste about what makes for a pleasing solution.  In the subjective realm, where most of us operate most of the time, it is this sense of taste that serves both as guide and as judge.  It is what I'm using in writing this essay and figuring out how to sequence the argument.  It's also what I use when proof reading the piece to see if it passes muster. 

I wish I could say that it's all system go for me, but alas I'm aware of a major weakness in my writing that I don't always know how to address, so I want to talk about both the yin and the yang when confronting one's sense of taste.

Being a social scientist at heart, with lots of fundamental training in Economics, but a healthy appreciation of other social sciences as well, I've come to rely on an approach to writing that is based first and foremost on building a model, a simple one so it can be readily articulated, then hanging my prose on that.  Milton Friedman is the quintessential exemplar of this approach.  You may not agree with his economic propositions, but you can't deny that he was excellent at making argument.  Paul Krugman follows in this approach with his NY Times columns, though he is more combative in his writing style in that he consistently assigns blame to others who disagree with him. 

In this blog post I've used Trial and Error both as a straw man and as a way to begin to articulate my model.  The expression "false start," with which the piece is introduced, brings into focus the critical question.  What does the learner do after the first thing that is tried doesn't work?  That question is the main puzzle.  By posing it one can tear down the straw man and replace it with a better hypothesis - there is intelligent guessing about the next model to be tried.  But some of the trial and error approach is retained in my model, the part I've chosen to call verification.

This leads to yet another question.  How do we know whether our solution works or not and does the trial we've put it through actually test whether it does work?  I avoid some minefields in the discussion that a fuller treatment would demand encountering.  The objective realm, where the scientific method provides the standard for hypothesis testing, often doesn't reveal truth so readily, especially in the social sciences where controlled experiments often can't be performed.  There is the further issue that people who have skin in the game about a model they purport to be true tend to overstate how the available evidence supports that model and likewise tend to ignore evidence that contradicts it.  This minefield is important to explore, but not here.  There is already enough to consider in this piece.  It is why I segued so quickly to the subjective realm.

The above pleases me.  The argument seems reasonably tight and well made.  But now there is the problem with the writing to confront.  People, and here I'm referring mainly to potential readers of this piece, don't like being told what is true.  They'd much rather figure it out for themselves.  Telling them is lecturing at them.  Such lecturing rarely works, even if the argument is extremely well done.  My writing often seems like lecturing.  It fails that way.  I ultimately gave up writing that book because at the time I didn't know how to make my writing less like lecture yet still make my points.  It is something I still need to learn, a puzzle I've not yet solved.  A different reason for writing this post is to put the question on the table.  If I could solve that puzzle I'd go back to writing the book.  I believe the argument needs to be made to a general audience.  But it needs to be made well enough that a general audience would want to read about it.

Let me close this piece with one other observation.  It is on the difference between experimentation, as I'm using the term here, and what Donald Schon called reflective practice.  The difference depends on who is driving the activity.  A novice can experiment, anyone can.  But the novice is not yet mature enough to engage in reflective practice.  Only an expert has that maturity.  So the thought that underlies this entire discussion is that learners should be considered apprentices on their way to becoming experts.  They should practice what experts do, even if they are not nearly as good as the experts when they are practicing.  It is the practice that will make them better practitioners and move them down the learning curve toward expertise.

Monday, November 03, 2014

How well does my dad's morality hold up?

This happened a week or two ago,  but definitely on the weekend.  I went for a walk, nothing surprising there.  Inadvertently, I broke with my routine slightly.  I forgot to bring my keys and my wallet.  Therefore I didn't lock the front door.  When I'm going for a walk during the work week, I always lock the house on my way out as nobody else is home.  I take my wallet along with my keys, partly in case I want to stop for a coffee en route, and partly because if I put my wallet on top of my keys I feel more certain that the keys won't accidentally fall out of my pocket.  This time, however, I spaced out on the normal routine.  It only occurred to me after I had gone a couple of blocks.  Then I asked myself whether I should return home to get the keys and wallet.  I decided against doing that.  I'm somebody with a strong sense of inertia.  I needed the walk and was afraid that if I returned home prematurely I'd stay there the rest of the afternoon and wouldn't get the walk in.  I assured myself that either my wife or my son would be home on my return from the full walk, so I wouldn't be locked out of the house.  On this I subsequently was proven correct.

Something unusual happened as I was walking north on Duncan near Kirby where the County Market is.  There was a man standing near the driveway, not moving much if at all, casting an odd figure.  He was heavy set and a little bit hunched over.  As I got closer I saw he had a cardboard sign.  It said, "Will work for food."  When I'm walking outside I've got my iPhone in my left pocket and listen to Spotify or Pandora with my Bose earbuds that are plugged into the phone.  I can still hear street noise this way, but to talk to somebody I have to take the earbuds out of my ears.  In this case, I just walked by the guy without saying a word.  I'd have given him twenty bucks then and there if I had my wallet, a bit of me is still a bleeding heart, but I didn't.  What else was there to do?

My path has me go to the outside of the McDonald's that is west of the bank on the corner and north of the County Market.  I often sit on the stone benches for a couple of minutes, sometimes changing the music I'm listening to and then checking email.  If the arthritis is bothering me, this gives a little break from that. Once done I return on the route I came.  The guy was still there on the return trip.  Like before, I walked past him and didn't say a word.  I should add here by means of explanation, that I make a point of waving or saying hello when I see other people walking in the opposite direction.  Most of them do likewise.  But with this guy I just walk past him without any acknowledgement whatsoever.  It has bothered me ever since.

On occasion when driving around Champaign you see other people whom you assume are homeless or, if not that, then certainly out of work.  One spot where I've seen this multiple times is on the exit ramp off I-74 heading toward Prospect.  Another place I've seen this is in the shopping mall where the Barnes and Noble and Bed, Bath, and Beyond are located.  I've never opened my window to give these people a few bucks.  My visceral reaction at the time is discomfort, not empathy.

Some years ago there was a Black guy who hung around Campustown, usually I'd see him on Daniels Street near the Espresso.  When you'd walk buy him, he'd be sitting on the sidewalk leaning up against a storefront, he would invariably say, "Spare anything?"  Early on in observing this, I'd give him a buck each time I walked by.  After a few years I "learned" to adjust my route to avoid him.

At around Christmas time I'd make a donation to the Men's shelter, which at the time was located in the basement of the McKinley Foundation.  My reasons for doing this was that the guy who ran the shelter had performed our wedding, so this was done primarily out of gratitude to him.  After several years of making such donations, I stopped.  It wasn't a conscious decision to stop.  It was more not remembering to do it.  Subsequently, the McKinley Foundation building got converted to student housing.  If there is still a Men's shelter in town I don't know where it is located.

Nowadays it seems most solicitations for giving come over the phone and then some by email too.  Given the high volume of these requests, this has become for me a certain variant of spam.  Once in a while a friend or relative is doing something as part of a fundraiser - for example, my sister does a walk in Manhattan to raise money for diabetes research - my dad was a severe diabetic.  For that I give something.  Likewise I give when the neighbor kid knocks on the door and is selling something.  But the frequency of this seems to be increasing.  That bothers me.  I care not about the causes for the fund raising.  I just don't want to be thought of as a bad neighbor.

The only time in the last few years where I have given a lot, and in a case where the money wasn't solicited at all, was to my mother's care giver who was struggling to keep her home, which had an underwater mortgage.  She had done such yeoman's service in tending to my mom, I felt this giving was an imperative.  Before I wrote the check I asked my wife about it.  She supported me in doing it.

So I am not completely callous in this regard.  But I've opted to turn a deaf ear to much of it.  And part of what bothers me is that it is uncomfortably close in consequence to what Tea Party types argue.  The poor are not deserving because they don't try hard enough.  I know this is not true.  Yet I can understand why one wants to believe it is true.  For if it were true then one need not feel guilty about not being charitable to the poor. 

I have those guilt feelings.  In my head, the ideal solution to the problem is that much of what we consider to be private charitable giving should instead be public programs financed by tax dollars.  People like me would pay more in tax, which we would understand is our obligation.  A good chunk of these asks for "worthy causes" would go away.  But we are far from that ideal and the issue of what to do given that I find vexing.  This is the set up for the rest of the stuff I write below.

* * * * *

My dad passed away more than fifteen years ago.  Much of him is in me in some form.  And some of that is my dad's ethical outlook, reflected not in any formal training or religious observance. but rather in the ordinary give and take of daily life.

I will focus on two ideas, dare I call them principles, that have served as a guide for me but leave some questions unresolved that I want to broach here.  They come from different junctures of my time with my dad.

The first comes from when I was a kid and my dad would play street football with me and my friends on a Saturday afternoon.  I've written about this before.  The game was association football, a variant of touch football that had only one down per side, allowed for forward laterals, and only required one hand to touch.  We kids were of different ages and different skills.  When a younger or less skilled player was at quarterback, my dad would invariably say, "Give him a chance."  In other words, if you were on defense then don't rush the passer and make a tag before the play has really started.  I have taken "Give him a chance" as an imperative as an adult, most recently applying it to my teaching in one form or another.

The second comes from when I was a working adult and my parents had moved to Century Village West, a very large condominium community for retirees, most of whom are Jewish.  We referred to the men who lived there as AKs, my dad included.  This bit of philosophy is the how the world seems from the perspective of an AK.  My dad divided the adult non-retired population into two groups.  Most were in the first group, SHs.  (My dad would say the SH word out in long form.  I'm using initials here only because I'd prefer not to write an expletive repeatedly in this post.)  These people were SHs because they cared about themselves only and were quite willing to screw others for personal benefit.  The much smaller group were human beings (or in Yiddish mensches).  When I would visit my parents in Century Village I would completely surrender myself to their rhythms and ways of doing things, the only way I knew that we'd all get along.  Being a mensch meant you did whatever it took to get along.  In this case the ethical imploration was, don't be an SH.

To implement either of these ideas in practice, one needs a certain amount of sensitivity as means to perceive the need.  Armed with such sensitivity, give-him-a -chance and don't-be-an-SH have some bite for identifying and then supplying the response that is required.  Absent that sensitivity, you can have the good intentions but remain ineffective, as a host of opportunities slip through one's fingers.

When you give cash for a cause you really have no idea of what happens to the money thereafter.  You give while trusting that it will be put to good use.  But you don't know and life is too short for you to try to monitor the situation to determine otherwise.  So I've come to conclude that much of the giving one does should be in kind and done in the context of work.  Then the needed sensitivity arises as part and parcel of doing the job.  I relish working in a collegial environment.  When I was a campus administrator, I could express the give-him-a-chance type of collegiality particularly with junior colleagues, who might not have been plugged into the people network fully and needed some point of entry to take the next step up.  Providing that was a very little thing.  It didn't require much in the way of effort nor did it create any recognition for me whatsoever apart from the person who was being introduced to the group. For the rest, it just seemed part of the natural order.

Likewise, helping a student in a class I'm teaching, one who is evidently struggling but who would not seek out help on his own accord, is no big deal.  And afterwards, at least in some instances, one can see the kid's trajectory in the class change from a borderline pass to becoming a reasonable performer.  Here I want to point out that I limit offering such help to students who come to class most of the time.  For those who don't come after the first week or two, it remains sink or swim for them.  I am aware they are struggling too, but just as with the homeless whom I don't give cash to, I don't open my figurative window to the students who stop coming to class.  Does this make sense?  I can see arguments for and against. I've only reached a tentative conclusion.  For now, the kids who don't show up in class are out.

It remains a mystery to me as to what determines the circle I draw for when people are inside the circle I'm sensitive to their needs but when they are outside it I am not.  People for whom everyone on the planet remains inside their circles are saints.  People for whom the only ones in their circles are themselves are SHs.  The rest of us are somewhere in between.  As an economist I can see the following question has merit, at least in its posing.  When is drawing the circle larger a mistake because it means those within the circle get less attention than they need?  It is a consideration in what I do even though I don't have a sharp answer to the question.

* * * * **

I still haven't finished Excellent Sheep.  I hope to do so in the next day or two  I got stuck, again.  This time it was in the chapter on courage, exemplified by the protagonist of the book Middlemarch and the life of its author, George Elliot.  Both followed their own inclinations and went against the tenets of the time rather than follow the herd.  The did this on the big choices in life and thereby served as exemplar for Deresiewicz as to what courage is all about.  The person makes the choices.  The person doesn't surrender these choices to others - parents or others in the community.  Indeed the person has to stop listening to these others so that the person can hear her own voice.

This is strong stuff, though not surprising in a book aimed at college students that accuses them in its title of denying their own voices so to please others.  Surprise or not, the question for me is whether it is good advice for these kids.  I'm not sure it is.  And as is my wont in reading something where my doubt is raised immediately with the reading, I start in search of counterexamples to see if I can poke a hole or two in the argument.

My first thought was about those few kids I see around campus who have odd colored hair - blue, or green, or a shade of red that is surely not natural, dyed that way so others will take notice and bring attention onto themselves.  Most of us have at least some of the "Look at me" in us.  Wouldn't this admonition to have courage create the inadvertent consequence of students doing variants on the loud hair color, which I hope does eventually wash out or fade out and is otherwise of no real consequence, rather than take on choices that are far more substantive but far less visible?

Then, a few days ago sitting in BIF drinking my coffee and eating my sweet roll, with my Kindle Fire out so I could try to read more of Excellent Sheep, I got distracted by the table next to me where what seemed like a job interview was being conducted.  You could cut the pretension with a knife.  It seemed so awkward to me - shameless selling of self.  Presumably this was an example of what Deresiewicz argues against.  I knew neither the kid nor the interviewer.  So I had no way of knowing how they are when not in interview mode.  But I have a student like that in my class, one of the kids who is struggling, and I have met him for office hours a couple of times to try to clear up his misunderstandings of some of the technical content in my class.  Those conversations have to proceed for a while till he gets out of putting-on-a-show mode and is relaxed enough to be himself and explain his points of misunderstanding.  Doing so doesn't make him seem like the best and the brightest, but it does make him seem more human and far less robotic.  Give a person like this encouragement to be courageous and I'm afraid you'd never get him to abandon his mask.

The most recent argument that's occurred to me is that such blunt advice to be courageous might turn some kids into SHs when they'd otherwise likely become decent human beings.  The part about not listening to others here is particularly troubling.  So I wondered whether human decency as an imperative should precede courage and the latter should flow out of the former, not vice versa.  Further, I wondered for the very bright but also very shy kid if the advice to be be courageous and follow your own voice would invariably result in self-inflicted wounds. because this would force large choices on the kid before the kid is ready for them, and there would be instances where the kid would have to argue for the path chosen to others (friends and/or parents).  It seemed to me those times would end up tormenting the kid so as to fully unravel the benefits from making the choice.

In other words, given the goals Deresiewicz has articulated in Excellent Sheep, might it be that his argument is being wrecked by good intentions and would actually make more sense if he didn't feel the need to make the alternative path he'd like to see the students follow seem so heroic?  A retort to that question might be that in the absence of a heroic alternative, why would the students abandon the mercenary path they are currently on?  Isn't it necessary to paint the alternative path by appealing to the students' highest ideals?

My response is based on how Deresiewicz characterizes these kids at the beginning of the book.  They are not happy at all, because nothing they are doing feels real to them.    In my opinion they don't need ideals, which at first will feel just as unreal.  They need human warmth.  The need to receive it and they need to give it and see the consequences of that.  Preferably they do this a lot, before they make life decisions for which previously they had no basis in making.

In my view my dad's morality, schlock though it may be, is the ticket.  I wonder if anyone else who has read Excellent Sheep would agree.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Halloween Thought About Teaching

For ideas to stick
Take the longest lick
Place in the kid's head
It'll hold all that's said.
Sugar Daddy

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The purpose of college versus how to achieve it

I'm now about halfway through Excellent Sheep.  I found myself arguing with it in the last several chapters I read.  That is not surprising.  I tend to argue with books like this.  For example, after reading Mindset I wrote a long letter to its author, Carol Dweck, in which I contrasted my way of thinking about the issue she raises, most of which I had given considerable attention via my own introspection, with how she depicts them in her book.  I did get a response from her - we should have a conversation about it.  We'll see if that ever happens.  In the meantime I have some regret about making the points I did in a letter, because I'm not sure it is appropriate now to publish that prior to such a conversation taking place.  So for Excellent Sheep I will forgo the letter to the author and post below some of my bigger issues with the middle third of the book.

Some of this might be a parochial argument, nothing more.  I was a math major and that mattered a lot in my own development, as I will try to indicate below.  Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep, was an English major.  This math major finds the English major too imperial in conception and too ignoring of rather important matters, in some cases because he is so immersed in those matters he simply has lost sight of them, in other cases because he can't see the world of a student for whom humanism is only a part and not the whole.  I hope it's not all parochial, however, and that it is worth raising these issues here.

Let me begin with where I agree with Deresiewicz.  College is first and foremost about self-discovery, about learning to be skeptical of authority and received wisdom, of finding some way to develop one's own world view.

Deresiewicz is adamant about college not primarily being about preparing the student for the world of work, especially if doing that means the student forsakes the primary purpose.  I think that blocks him from considering subsidiary, but to me extremely important, goals that are part and parcel of what self-discovery is about.

Finding flow/self-actualizing/getting lost in thought

Deresiewicz seems most comfortable talking about philosophy and social theory.  He does not talk about psychology at all.  At least he hasn't done so in what I've read so far.  In my view, he therefore misses something quite important.  At an intellectual level, when does joy occur?  Does the student learn that he or she is capable of producing such joy on occasion and that it is not purely a matter of serendipity?  In other words, does the student ever experience life of the mind as reward in itself?

It is tempting to draw an analogy here to falling in love.  Most of us, elite students and otherwise, want to find true love.  We may not know what love is till we experience it, but we sense a need to discover it in advance of the experience.  There is a similar sensing of need with life of the mind.  It provides motivation, before curiosity has done its thing, to position oneself in a way where an investigation driven by curiosity takes place.

In my view of this there is a feedback loop between intellectual experience and intellectual sensing of further such experiences.  Earlier experiences that produce flow generate a hunger for more that is qualitatively similar.  The generation of those early experiences matters - a lot. Therefore, more than a little attention should be paid to how such experiences might be provided.

When stuff is too hard/getting bothered/learning to dig in one's heels

I don't know if this happens with an English major - where he reads something that seems opaque to him and over his head yet he feels he should understand the work and be able to penetrate it deeply because others in the field talk about it a lot.  This happened to me my first semester as a sophomore while still at MIT, when taking Abstract Algebra and Real Analysis.  I needed to raise my game but I didn't know how to do that at the time.  I transferred to Cornell after that semester.  Looking back, my not working hard enough to raise my game was tied up with non-math things that had gotten me depressed about being at MIT.

As a junior I took a Topology course where I found I could raise my game and, tying this to the first point, I believe I found flow when working on the homework for that class, lying on my bed thinking through proofs in my head, where it sometimes took hours to generate an appropriate argument.  I found I could concentrate till I had satisfied my own sense of understanding and that I wouldn't let go of the problem until that point was achieved.  (We had a take home final and when it was done, I could go home for winter break.  That temptation was too great and I didn't do all the problems on it in the way I had done the homework, where the time pressure issue didn't come up.)  So it isn't that I always drove myself to complete understanding of the problem, but in that course I learned that I had the capability of doing so intellectually if I wanted to.

Deresiewicz is so bothered himself about elite education at the college level that he is blind to the fact that being bothered is something learned.  And it is learned simultaneously with developing a sense of things that we care about.  Indeed, and this I got from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, it is the fusion between subjective and objective which is the source of our creativity.  And that often comes out of a very strong emotion - anger.  Being bothered and getting angry about an intellectual issue are two sides of the same coin.

It may be that being bothered by getting stuck on a math problem that you feel you should be able to solve is not the same as being bothered by something of important social consequence.  You might be able to let go of the former.  You should be unable to do so with the latter, unless there is something dead inside you that allows you to stop caring.  But, actually, what I've learned as I've gotten older and my intellectual habits have hardened, is that the difference between the two has vanished, once I get bothered in the first place.  I can't let go of even trivial problems, like seeing a familiar face and then trying to place it.  Once I'm grabbed I'm all consumed.  I don't know if it is that way for college students, broadly speaking, or if it should be that way all the time.  But I am convinced it should be that way at least some of the time and that it is one of the more important things to learn while in college.

Friends/Housemates with whom one doesn't take classes

When I was a freshman at MIT I took several of my classes with my two roommates.  To one instructor in particular, A.P. Mattuck, we became known as the three amigos (though not by that term).  In particular, when writing the evaluations we'd receive at mid semester and end of term, Mattuck would make comparisons across the three of us, but not with any other student in the class.  I don't actually remember ever discussing Mattuck's math homework with Alex, and with Neil it happened only a couple of times.  We did hang out together and had lots of conversations, but mostly this was not about what we were studying in our classes, whether Mattuck's or other courses we took in common. 

After I transferred to Cornell I took fewer classes together with people I lived with and by my junior year the two worlds were essentially separate.  I loved my time living at 509 Wyckoff Road (junior and senior years) and had many wonderful discussions with friends who lived there, but on the topics we discussed, national politics for example - Watergate was the year before, we came at the subject as amateurs.  We were interested in the topics and had passionate arguments about things, but we weren't studying these same things in our classes.  It allowed us to come at these discussions as equals even though some were graduate students and others, like me, were undergrads.  And it allowed us to be open on subjects where we might not be perfectly well informed.

I learned to embrace collegiality that way, a lesson that stood me in very good stead 20+ years later when I became an administrator for learning technology at Illinois and interacted with faculty from around campus, in what I believe was a very productive manner.  We had a common interest, teaching and the use of technology to promote that, which we were passionate about.  But we didn't share disciplinary expertise, so of necessity we had to take a generalist's approach to the subject where the common interest occurred.

That learning from professors in formal courses and what Deresiewicz calls "bull sessions" among students could exist in separate parallel universes rather than cohabit one and the same world doesn't seem to occur to him.  I'm not sure why.  This difference matters to me.  It matters a lot.  We are comfortable with our own kind.  Once I became an Assistant Professor I hung out with other economists and we formed a cabal of sorts; one where each of us was an insider.  This preference started earlier, in graduate school.  There is comfort in being an insider with other insiders.

But the true life skill is to be a reasonably good generalist, to hold up your end of the conversation and ask interesting questions on subjects that you haven't spent much of your adult life investigating.  The guide here is not the subject matter itself, but rather your own curiosity and the ways and procedures of a generalist making an inquiry into any subject matter whatsoever.

For most of us, a Liberal Arts education should be approached as a generalist would, as our expertise will eventually develop elsewhere.  For an English major, however, he is well on his way to becoming an insider in the field and will treat it like an insider would, all the while leveraging the generalist's need to be passionate about the humanities, when discussing the field with people who major in something else.  The generalist's approach is best learned from other generalists or generalist wannabes.

Teen anxiety and coming to conclusions too soon

Deresiewicz discusses an interesting conundrum.  The addiction to being credentialed can become so severe that students over commit to activities and juggle way too many balls in the air.  They therefore don't spend sufficient time on any one activity and are apt to only do surface learning.  In economics jargon, they err by overdoing on the extensive margin by ignoring the intensive margin.  They make this error at their own peril.

Rationally, such behavior can make sense only under the belief that they can learn things very fast, so don't need to put in the time to learn in a deep way.  That will happen by the snap of their fingers, given how talented these students are.  Alas, reality will eventually catch up to the student when this mistaken belief takes things to a breaking point.  At that time the likely initial reaction is for the student to feel completely incompetent - the Jack of all trades, master of none gets morphed into ain't got Jack.  This happens through a combination of greed and ignorance, greed in that the longer the list of credentials the better and ignorance in not recognizing the time requirements to establish even minimal competence in something.  The real issue is not the initial reaction.  It's with what happens after that.  Before getting to what's next, let's simply note that teens are apt to have anxieties about many things, no matter how comfortable with themselves they appear externally.  Indeed, this is one of Deresiewicz's core points.  Here we note it because it feeds into the student's reaction at this moment of reckoning.  One should anticipate overreaction, not a carefully considered and balanced response.

Given that, there seem to be three possible ways for the student to take the next step:

1) Sensible reform where the student learns that mastery of a subject is possible with adequate preparation, that such mastery is desirable at least some of the time, and therefore that the impossibly long list of credentialing activities gets trimmed substantially in favor of a few key areas where the student devotes the bulk of the student's attention.

2)  The student becomes increasing cynical about life. starts to see hedonism as an acceptable end goal in light of this cynicism, instead of as an occasional blowing off of steam, and stops pushing as hard on the credentialing because its artificial nature has become way too obvious.

3)  The student goes into a funk that marks the onset of a serious depression.  The prior two routes appear either impossible, because the student is not nearly as talented as was perceived to be the case prior to the time of reckoning or because the student finds hedonism unseemly and not itself rewarding.  It is this alternative I had in mind when writing the section title about coming to conclusions too fast.  The funk and subsequent depression happen too fast and thus block alternative (1) from becoming a realistic possibility.

In a recent post entitled, I was not a sheep. Were you?, I briefly discussed my own "crisis" in 10th grade and some of the consequences in its aftermath.  Viewed this way, for me (3) happened while I was in high school and I was able to revert to (1) instead of (2) for a time thereafter.  I will add here that after I had been at MIT for a while, having been through the experience in 10th grade helped around the time when I transferred to Cornell.  I was not happy at that time, but I didn't feel at risk of going off the deep end.  It does seem to me that is a real risk to be concerned with for those who haven't experienced depression previously.

Around the time when I was at MIT, there was a lot of quite open discussion about suicide.  MIT "led" the country in its suicide rate.  It was the primary reason for abandoning letter grades during the freshman year and going to a system of written evaluations instead.  I mention this just to note that there are real and quite serious risks about the mental health of highly charged students, once they've reached that moment of reckoning and gotten past the initial shock.

Therefore, it seems to me learning how not to go off the deep end is fundamental to all of the above categories.  But how does one do this without getting close to the edge?  Thus, while I can understand why Deresiewicz is so angry at the way things seem to be going at elite universities, I can't understand how he can be willing to potentially jeopardize the mental health of some of the student readers of his book.  Wile E. Coyote doesn't fall though over the edge, until he looks down.  Excellent Sheep, at its outset, is all about looking down.  The middle of the book is about identifying where terra firma actually is.

Perhaps his response to this sort of criticism is that since these students are exceptionally bright, they will come to this moment of reckoning sooner or later.  It can't be avoided.  All he is doing is serving as the messenger about this inevitable consequence.  And it is better to deal with the problem sooner than later.  Perhaps that is true, but I'd rather hear it as the consensus view from mental health professionals than be told it by a former English professor who can't claim expertise on this matter.   In the meantime, I can see a counter argument to the effect that students confront this issue when they are ready to do so.  Forcing them to confront it before they are ready can do more harm than good.

Learning to be comfortable with being wrong from time to time

I didn't want to conclude this piece with the previous section, because much of it is a downer, while most of what students do who are in the process of learning about themselves is really quite elevating.  So I chose to include this section, in addition, as a better place to begin to wrap up things.

The reader might prefer a different title to this section - The student coming to trust the student's own line of thought.  I chose the title I did because part of parcel with that is to develop a real recognition of fallibility.  Having such recognition, and also possessing a strong sense of risk aversion that many college students have, it is quite possible to imagine that such students never venture their own opinion when doing so would have them stray from the herd.  Not seeing a way to abandon that risk aversion aspect so readily, the only other possibility that makes sense to me is that the person comes to see being wrong once in a while as of no terrible consequence.  Then, nothing ventured nothing gained can be taken as a call to action.  In this case, the venturing amounts to forming a world view that the student has built based on the student's own thinking and prior experience.

This also means that the student has got to learn to not be rigid in maintained beliefs and that when proven wrong the beliefs should get modified accordingly. But there is quite a difference between taking an unpopular position, not itself a reason to change one's views, and confronting evidence that is inconsistent with one's views, necessitating some modification in belief.  The student must not confound the one for the other.   My sense is that extroverts will have a harder time with this than introverts, because they stand to lose more of their friends from taking an unpopular position.  The introvert will have a much shorter list of friends to begin with and they are more likely to tolerate the personal idiosyncrasy of the introvert. 

For me, this is still a work in progress, and I graduated from college almost 39 years ago.  I'm pretty comfortable articulating opinions with peers, irrespective of whether they are likely to agree or not, but when I'm outside my own element, I'm much less comfortable being forthcoming with my views. This is both when talking to power (as a campus administrator, this meant with the Provost, my boss' boss) and with non-academics, especially people I haven't interacted with before, who might not see the world in the way academics do.  My point is that the student won't be a finished product in this dimension at the time of graduation.  But it is necessary for the student to try on this hat while in college and it needs to fit well enough that the student will wear it again after graduation.

Wrap Up

The driving force behind this post is my feeling that while I was in college I devoted all my academic time to pursuit of my own interests and none whatsoever as preparation for a later career.  For that I should get high marks from Deresiewicz.  Yet I went about doing things in quite a different manner than he prescribes.  Indeed, I didn't take an English course or a History course in college.  And while I did take several Philosophy courses, including one on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, with the exception of a course on the Philosophy of Law I got next to nothing out of these courses, mainly because I lacked the proper prior knowledge so couldn't make sense of what I was reading and could make only a little sense of what was discussed in class.  I got much more out of those arguments I had with housemates at 509 Wyckoff Road, and by seeing the various foreign films I saw at Old Rusty (e.g., Closely Watched Trains or Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.)  Academically, I was more interested in political science than the humanities.  I took many courses there, and though parts of a course on American Political Thought were also above my head (particularly Heimert's book on Evangelical causes of the American Revolution), much of the rest penetrated in some way.

Yet in none of this academic experience did I have friends to discuss the subject matter.  I was a transfer student.  I took advanced courses in the subject without taking the pre-requisite introductory courses.  It was all done by the seat of my pants.  There was a plus side to this.  I learned to live with my choices and to trust my judgment, when I felt capable of thinking things through.  And since my major was math, I felt I was getting more than enough "rounding."  I still feel that now, all these years later.  So while I concur with Deresiewicz on college not being mainly about job preparation, beyond that I felt he was overly prescriptive and possibly plain wrong.  General Education, is not the humanities major lite. 

Tomorrow I will try to read the rest of Excellent Sheep.  Perhaps after that I'll have still more to say about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

La de da de de, la de da de da

Mekheye - An extreme pleasure, orgasmic, out of this world wonderful!
Found here.

What counts in this category changes as you get older. For me now, sleeping through the night rises to the top of the list, especially when not drinking the night before.  There is a remarkable calm and freshness to the morning.  Possibility lurks with the first cup of coffee.  Today will be a good day.  Let the ills from the rest of the world not intrude on this reverie.

And yet one can't fully escape.  Our routines don't allow wandering too far from the beaten path.  For me, most mornings I check my blood pressure.  I then record the readings into an Excel spreadsheet.  Though I hate the concept of Weight Watchers I learned from them, for the brief time I was on their diet as an adult, that if you write things down (they meant this for things that you eat, but it works for all things) you become more conscious of them.  The thing about the blood pressure check, though, is that your get a pulse reading as part of the bargain.

What I've found is that my pulse races a bit if I've drunk a lot the night before.  It is much slower without the drinking.  And if there is uninterrupted sleep and no drinking, that is a mekheye.  Intense dreams produce relaxation on awakening. 

This morning my number was 51.  I reached that once before, but never lower.

Maybe fatigue is an ally in producing this outcome.  I hadn't slept well the night before.  The storm and the dog's reaction to it interrupted me in the middle of the night and I didn't get much rest after that.  Yesterday afternoon, when I came home from teaching, I felt completely exhausted.  I ask myself from time to time whether I could go back to work on a full time basis.  The answer yesterday was a resounding, NO! I had a good long nap that foreshadowed the sleep that would come later.

I wish this peaceful state were a more regular occurrence.  Meditation during the afternoon might be in the cards, but I've never been able to sit cross legged on the floor.  So I find the thought of exploring this possibility a bit intimidating.  Plus there is how I was raised - take what you can get.  Shnorrers can't be choosers.