Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Flying in from the left and other nonsense

Q: What automobile company and insects should a presenter worry about?
A: Audi ants.  ;-)

Leading off with a bad joke that everyone else knows is bad too sets a tone - it's all downhill from here.  Yet bad as that joke is, there is a point.  When an instructor makes a presentation it is good or bad depending on what the audience gets from it.  If the presenter has a good idea of what the audience wants, then that should be used in the presentation in a fundamental way, either to confound the expectation because there is more learning that way, or to comport with it so as to make the audience appreciative. Obviously, this is harder to do with a one-shot performance, e.g., giving a talk on the road, than it is with teaching a class.  There will be more variability in what the audience wants with a one-shot presentation and the presenter must take a stab.  Sometimes that will be off the mark.

I get turned off and very sick
Seeing presentations that are slick. 

There are two parts to this.  One dates back to when I was a graduate student going to the Sherry-Chase Lounge for a drink or two during the awful winter my second year and then debating with my friend Nick, for what seemed to be hours on hours, which was more important, form or content. Nick was the form guy.  I was the content guy.  Things haven't changed much since then.  I'm a content guy.  Most instructors are content guys.  If the presentation has gratuitous animation in it (as distinct from animation that illustrates the content) what does that convey about the content itself?

The other part is whether the instructor should emulate either a corporate sales spiel or a professional actor delivering a monologue, perhaps utilizing props.  I say no to both.  A sales spiel is biased as to what conclusion the audience is meant to draw.  Personally, I hate to be sold things this way because I want to make up my own mind.  Likewise, in an academic setting the presenter should want to make a good argument and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions.  The slickness of the presentation is orthogonal to whether the argument is compelling or not.  As to emulating actors, there are a handful of people in the profession who can pull it off.  (Lawrence Lessig and Michael Wesch come to mind.)  Bully for them.  For the rest of us, however, such emulation makes us appear both less genuine and also less professional, since ours will be a poor imitation.  We are better off with a presentation that has a feel of "a home movie" because then our audience knows it is from us.

Death by PowerPoint is an error
Creating boredom more than terror.

The terror is with the presenter, who is afraid of boring the audience.  It's what drives presenters to put gratuitous animation and other special effects into their presentations.  Maybe that will keep the audience awake.  It will, for about ten seconds.  How about after that?  What then to do? 

My answer to this is to consider presentation in different aspects - face-to-face or online, technical or conceptual, on novel content or where the content is covered elsewhere, and possibly other ways to compartmentalize presentation.  For online technical presentation, as an example, I've learned over the years that my lecture benefits students even if the subject is covered in the book, because the language I use in explaining the ideas coupled with going through the math derivations is something that the students themselves can't produce when they read the textbook, and it is that sort of thinking that they need.  Might other students be bored with it?  Yes they might.  The success measure is that some benefit, not that all do.  In contrast, since I like to write a lot, for conceptual stuff I ask whether I can produce an essay that conveys what I want to say, rather than deliver an online presentation.  Alternatively, if there is a well written piece out there that covers the issue well, a snip with a link to the piece may be all that is necessary, though my sense is that if it won't be on the test then only a handful of students will read it.

Face-to-face presentation is a different matter.  The rising popularity of flipped classrooms offers an indictment of face-to-face presentation in general, especially as the common fare in a class.  Much of the time there needs to be some method to assure students participate.  Canned presentation tends to block that, so it should be used sparingly.  Perhaps a spot lecture is needed when students show they don't understand an important concept.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

* * * * *

I was prompted to produce the above by seeing an ad for Prezi in my Facebook News this morning.  When Prezi first came out, I took some interest in it as did many learning technologists.  But I never became a Prezi aficionado the way I am an Excel aficionado.  The reason, I suppose, is explained above.

Prezi offers, at least this is what I recollect from when I tried it, an approach based on zoom in and then zoom out, where all the zoomed out content resides on a single virtual canvas.  In delivering a presentation, one zooms in to a bit of that canvas, and when that is done there is zooming out and back in again to some other bit of the canvas.

If you look at a PowerPoint presentation in slide sorter mode, it is one virtual canvas.  Slides are numbered and normal presentation gives a linear progression of the slides. But one can do nonlinear moves by inserting hyperlinks to other slides within the presentation (or to content on the Web).

Soon after I first got exposed to PowerPoint, I explored slide transitions and animations.  Over the last several years I've opted for no slide transitions and instead of animation to have several slides on the same topic, where a subsequent slide has the content of the previous slide and then some new stuff as well.  When this is math, the older stuff is grayed out while the new stuff is in black, for contrast.  This is easier to build than animation within a single slide and gives something of a similar effect when I make a screen capture movie of the presentation, without conveying any sense of it being slick.

Given this use, what does Prezi add?  In general, what does Prezi add?

When I read a blog post and make some determination of its quality, that it is in a WordPress blog or a Blogger blog is entirely immaterial to me.  Why should Prezi or PowerPoint matter?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Stop on a dime

Consider the juxtaposition of three recent articles.  The most recent is Thomas Friedman's column from yesterday, How to Get a Job At Google, Part 2.  It was written presumably as a result of the outpouring of interest in Part 1, which at the time was meant at a one and done piece.  Its contents were snips from an interview with the head of Google's HR department, Lazlo Bock, getting his take on what applicants for a job should be bringing to the table to have a decent chance of getting hired.

The next is a piece from the Tomorrow's Professor blog called Mindsets Toward Learning.  It argues that there are two views of intelligence.  The more common view, promulgated by the widespread administration of IQ tests in early childhood, is that IQ is fixed, the luck of the draw determined by the kid's genetic makeup, and as such a prime determinant of how much the kid will learn later in life.  The newer, alternative view is that anybody can learn and intelligence can grow with the learning.  What is needed is commitment to personal growth and an awful lot of effort to buttress that commitment.  Students with a fixed view of intelligence often block their own learning.  They fear they are not smart enough to "get it." That's becomes self-fulfilling prophecy as they then don't put in nearly enough effort to master the subject matter.

The last piece is an essay by Hanna Rosin from The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid. Parenting for Rosin's generation (and prior generations) meant that kids were often left on their own with other kids.  They got their bumps and bruises that way, sure, but that way they learned to engage in their play, to take risks and all that is attendant with doing so, and to develop a sense of confidence from the accomplishments they achieved.  Nowadays children are always in the presence of adults because good parenting has come to mean keeping kids harmless from the threats of the playground (or elsewhere).   The adults initiate on behalf of the children, with a benevolent goal in mind.  The adults want to ensure safe choices are made.  But the consequence is children don't learn from their mistakes, because they are not allowed to make any.  They lose a sense of agency that childhood should provide, which is the fundamental message of the Rosin piece.  Add to this the ultimate in irony - childhood is not actually safer (in aggregate) in spite of all these parental efforts.

Take these three articles themselves as a whole and envision a letter written to rising high school seniors and their families based on the triumvirate. It might go something like this.

Dear Student -

Please don't be too upset with your parents.  They meant well, with the organized games, the constant encouragement, the insistence that you get good grades whether you understood what you were studying or not, and the making of so many rules for you not to break that you hardly did anything on your own.  It's time for all of that to stop on a dime.  You must chart a new course, one of your own making.  You must really go for it.  Accept that you will struggle from time to time.  But persevere.  With perseverance will eventually come accomplishment.  That's what you should build on.  It's getting to the point where you won't be able to reverse course.  You need to do this now. 

We have confidence in you.

Very truly yours,

Authors of the Triumvirate

It used to be that college was about a search for the meaning of life, the age-old questions.  The study of the liberal arts gave the right academic counterpart to that search.  That hasn't gone away, of course, but now it is coupled with developing expertise in a field that will have value in the job market post-graduation.  Further, the entering college freshman is expected to show prescience, both on the meaning of life questions and on finding the field that best matches the student's inclinations. Only with prescience can the student integrate the two.  Thus, one might imagine the student responding:

Dear Authors of the Triumvirate -

Thank you very much for your timely letter.  I understand.  But if you were looking at this from my angle you'd know a letter alone will not suffice.  I'm not sure what will.

I had angst about college before receiving your letter.  Now it is overwhelming. 

Respectfully yours,

Anxious Student

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Knowledge versus Intelligence - My Take

Doing it the hard way is always easier.
Corollary to Murphy's Law

It now seems fashionable to say that intelligence is malleable and can grow over time.  Witness Mindsets Toward Learning from the Tomorrow's Professor blog.  On the one hand, I was happy to see Mindsets... as it seemed to confirm that a recent post of mine, Personal Transformation for Average Students - A Hypothetical, was at least in the ballpark on the goal if not the method. On the other hand, I was unhappy with Mindsets... as it seems to confound knowledge with intelligence and treat them as one and the same.  Below I will give my personal definitions of the two and then try to illustrate how they differ, but are related.

Mindsets... is written as an open letter to students, particularly those who are at least implicitly pessimistic about their own learning, because much of what they are studying seems over their heads.  The goal of the piece is laudable.  But because of the confounding I mentioned above, I found it less than satisfying.  Much of the basis of the letter is the research of Carol Dweck.  The difficulties I have with Mindsets... point to some issues in translating research results about learning into action plans for potential beneficiaries of that research.  A couple of years ago I had similar issues when I wrote about Ellen J. Langer's book, The Power of Mindful Learning.  It is not that I disagree that we should teach with a mindful learning approach.  We should.  It is that the experiments Langer reports about don't go far enough.  So good implementation needs to go beyond known research into areas that likely will be beneficial but the research hasn't confirmed that yet and it may be a long time coming.  (Atul Gawande's piece The Bell Curve has a very interesting presentation about going beyond known research in the practice of medicine.)  Going beyond known research might simply be a stab in the dark, in which case it should be frowned upon.  If it is done by expert practitioner's, however, it can be substantially better than mere trial and error.  These practitioner's have educated guesses about what will work. Those guesses are a product of intelligence coupled with knowledge rather than a result of just knowledge alone.

One exemplar who is given for the students in Mindsets... is Thomas Edison.  This well known quote of his, I believe, illustrates the issues at hand.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

One big issue that Mindsets... correctly identifies with students, the ones who view intelligence as fixed, is that they don't put in nearly enough effort in their learning.  They are (mistakenly) pessimistic that the effort will not be productive, because they are lacking in that one percent that is genius.  Mindsets... is written as to put round-off error into that quote.  In the revised form, it is one hundred percent perspiration.  The message to the students is - you can learn as long as you put in the effort.  One might envision a dialog between the students for whom Mindsets... is intended and the authors of the piece.   The initial response by one of these students might be something like this:  "Okay, I need to put in additional effort.  How much do I need to put in?  When will I know that I've done enough?"  The authors, wanting to be truthful, might respond:  "You'll know when you understand what you've been studying.  It takes as long as it takes."  That is surely correct.  But it is an answer that won't please the student.  It leaves too much uncertain, both the time to get there and what understanding means.  In the presence of this uncertainty the student might fail, in spite of the effort.  Thus, my reading of Mindsets.... is that it wouldn't be persuasive in getting students who believe that intelligence is fixed to change their opinions.

We've reached a good juncture to give my definitions. I want to offer my disclaimer first.  I am not an education researcher.  I'm a practitioner.  These definitions might not concur with what scholars in the field would say.  They do make sense to me.

Knowledge - the concept is fundamentally retrospective.  Knowledge is acquired through experience of one sort or another.  It is exhibited primarily through recall, especially when it is quite clear what is being asked for ahead of time.

Intelligence - the concept is fundamentally prospective.  Intelligence is about "seeing" possibility in the presence of uncertainty.  There is prior knowledge of two and two.  Intelligence is about putting two and two together.  Intelligence is exhibited by showing a possible result that other knowledgeable people don't see.

The two often interplay.  Expression of knowledge in a novel context requires intelligence, because it must be determined whether that knowledge is appropriate for the context and the appropriateness is uncertain.  Conversely, it is already in the definition that expression of intelligence requires some prior knowledge. That the two concepts interplay doesn't make them one and the same.  They are two different concepts.

From this there arises two questions.  a) How is new knowledge acquired?  We call this generation of new knowledge invention.  (Mindsets... talks about how Edison invented the light bulb.)  b) How is already confirmed knowledge transferred from an expert to a novice?  There seem to be two possible answers to question (b).  One is via imitation.  The apprentice imitates the master.  After enough training of this sort, the apprentice becomes a master.  The other possibility is that the novice behaves as an inventor-in-waiting.  The novice discovers the knowledge as if it were fundamentally new.  After all, the knowledge is new to the novice.

The apprentice approach aims to establish competence in the novice, but it doesn't require expressions of intelligence.  One key component of the inventor-in-waiting approach is an expression of intelligence.  Learning this way requires expressions of intelligence on an on-going basis.  A third idea, related to the other two, is creativity.  As with the other two definitions, I will give my practitioner notion.

Creativity - the concept is distinct from intelligence but follows from it.  Intelligence is about generating the Aha! moment.  Creativity is about producing something useful, given the Aha.

Invention clearly requires both intelligence and creativity.  It also requires prior knowledge.  Otherwise there will be repetitions of reinventing the wheel.

Mindsets.... ignores the issue of whether students who view intelligence as malleable act as apprentices or as inventors-in-waiting.  That is one deficiency in the piece.  But there is an implied bias in Mindsets... toward the latter because it is a piece directed at the students, not at their teachers.  The authors clearly have in mind that students can change their mindsets on their own.

Let me close with the other problem in the way Mindsets... is written.  If, indeed, we want to encourage students to pursue a "discovery" approach to their own learning, but the students are skeptical that they're able to do this, a direct argument is unlikely to be persuasive.  Better would be to identify a context, quite possibly outside the school setting, where students already do use discovery methods to learn.  For example, one might have a conversation with students asking them about playing computer games.  Have they ever used cheat codes?  Why?  Have they had the experience where they've made good progress without the cheat codes?  What did it take to do that?   After a conversation of this sort one can pop the meta question?  What fundamental difference, if any, is there between playing a computer game and going about school work?

Let us get back to Edison.  The authors of Mindsets... do use this quote.

I have not failed 700 times. I've succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a light bulb.

The quote is clear evidence of Edison's optimistic outlook.  Might it show something else as well?  Although each of those times entailed some perspiration, could it be that the experiences were fun for Edison as well?  In other words, did Edison treat these experiments much the same way as current day kids treat playing computer games?

It may end up that it takes 700 tries before the result is attained, but at each try until the last one the inventor is looking for that short cut which will get him to the promised land in one fell swoop.  The finding of that short cut is fun.  And it requires intelligence.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The real change of seasons

Wind blows.
Who knows
What shows
Tomorrow will bring?

Much sun
Kids run
Such fun.
True signs of spring.

Early morn
Near dawn
Coffee on
Nesting birds sing.

The news
We choose
Ensues
Baseball's the thing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Complaint about the Facebook Notes Tool - A repost of a Status Update

The last post I wrote - Untutored Big Hitters - was composed using the Facebook Notes editor.  It is a pretty crappy writing tool because it is not WYSIWYG about the line spacing.  A single return produces a line space in the actual note but no line space in the editor.  It is very hard to proofread without enough white space for the text - so you go back and forth between editor mode and preview mode while proofreading.  That is a pain. 

As I posted in a Status Update yesterday, the instructions for how to report a bug in Facebook don't seem to actually work.  You click the little triangle, but there is no item to report the problem.  So I'm going to repost this Status Update on my blog and hope that somebody who works at Facebook actually reads it and then forwards it to the right people.

The Notes tool used to accommodate some html.  Now it doesn't.  It is not good now.  If it doesn't get fixed soon, this is the sort of thing that would drive me to make Google+ my primary tool.  I've got friends in Facebook and it is easier to communicate with them via the Notes tool.  But if the tool is sub par, that becomes too much of a burden. 

Untutored Big Hitters...

...In Golf And In Life

I watched a good bit of the coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament last week.  It was entertaining.  Bubba Watson, the winner of The Green Jacket, is a fascinating character, in part because his drives go for so much distance, whether in baseball or in golf the long ball is captivating, in part because he is self-taught and his swing is unorthodox though quite effective, and in part because he wears his emotions on his sleeve.  Most other professional golfers try hard to be inscrutable.  Bottling up the emotional side is necessary for that. Bubba Watson's demeanor is unlike most other pro golfers.  He is much more what you see is what you get.

One of the surprises for me in all the commentary abut the Masters that I heard on TV and in what I read online is that there was no mention of John Daly.  To me, Daly's story is similar to Watson's.  Both came to the fore as players who could outdrive the field.  Both developed driving styles that were unorthodox and they were self-taught in doing so.  Ultimately it is the relationship between the self-teaching and the prodigious driving that I want to focus on.  Both learned to also have good touch around the green, which in combination with the driving made them formidable competitors.  Both now have two major championships to their credit.  Both also demonstrate their inner demons publicly on occasion in a way most other players never do.  Both also rose from rather humble backgrounds and that may very well have contributed to their later development.

Of course there are differences too. Watson is tall and lean.  Daly in his prime was average height and chunky - keeping his weight under control was a constant battle.  Watson is now quite a family man.  Daly has been married multiple times and is currently unmarried.  These differences notwithstanding, to me it seems these players are of a type.  Let me consider now a third ball player who seems to be of the same type, though he was far more successful than Watson or Daly.  I'm talking about Babe Ruth.  The following is from a piece I wrote in 2005, a few months after I had started to blog.


A little side story. Not too long ago I read Robert Cramer's biography of Babe Ruth. Cramer cites Ty Cobb on how Ruth learned his swing. Since Ruth started as a pitcher, nobody coached him on his hitting. He therefore learned to hit in an uninhibited way. Since "small ball" was the approach to baseball at that time, if Ruth had started as an outfielder he would through coaching have been forced to learn a more compact swing and would have never become the prodigious home run hitter and savior of baseball. I'll get to the relevance of this story in a bit.

So it would seem that while most players in sports benefit from having a lot of coaching, there are a handful of big hitters who were better off developing on their own.  I'd like to see if I can get at why that is.  Then I'd like to translate that story into settings other than professional sports.

I will take as my starting point this essay by Ericsson et. al. on developing expertise.  http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice%28PsychologicalReview%29.pdf.  The key, according to these authors, is a regime of "deliberate practice" where at each step the individual tries to do something just out of reach.  This is the immediate challenge.  As the person practices performance improves and eventually the challenge is met.  When that happens a new challenge is needed and when that is found the cycle repeats.

Most of us don't become experts in areas that at one time we were interested in.  The reasons are multiple.  One is fear of not being able to rise to the next challenge.  Another is getting bored with practice so not putting in enough time to master the current step.  A third might be what is called the Goldilocks problem.  How big should the next step be, in what direction should it be taken, and what criteria determine that? Too small a step or a step in too familiar a direction and the person will feel unchallenged and get bored.  Too large a step or a step in a too alien a direction and the person will become frightened by the likelihood of failing.  What is required is a step that is just right right.  How is that step found?

Two possible answers to that question are: (1) by coaching and (2) by self-experimentation.  The coach is himself an expert who matches the orthodoxy of the sport (or perhaps his idiosyncratic view of that orthodoxy) to the talents of the player and the player's current performance level.  The matching process then generates the next step, with the thought in mind that following a sequence of such steps will bring the player to the top of the profession and demonstrate excellence in accordance to the orthodoxy.  Self-experimentation is different.  The player develops an intuition for the next step to try and goes with that intuition on what to practice.  The intuition, in turn, is part of an inventive process.  It is based on enormous self-knowledge but it is less dependent on the current orthodoxy.  Bubba Watson's initial stance and footwork through the golf swing, for example, are completely non-standard (though one commentator I read mentioned that they are something like what Jack Nicklaus used to do).  Yet his method works for him, very well.  He wouldn't have found it via coaching.  He had to try it on his own, see what results he got from it, and then tweak it till it was quite effective.

The coaching approach is more likely to produce progress that ultimately results in expertise.  Self-experimentation will generate more failure along the way and thus likely be slower.  But once in a while it will produce surprisingly good results.  Thus someone who is talented and persists in a regime of self-experimentation is more likely to produce outlier great performance than would his counterpart who relies on a coach.

There is another piece to the puzzle, I believe. This has to do with live performance, not practice, and what approach the player is most comfortable with when, "the pressure is on."  Most of us choke in such circumstance.  The pressure gets to us.  But some of us can stay in the moment and continue to perform at a very high level.  What allows the person to do that?  On this, the following quote from Jordan Spieth, Watson's playing partner in the final round of the Masters, who ultimately tied for second for second place is quite revealing (the source is here http://espn.go.com/golf/masters14/story/_/id/10785511/2014-masters-jordan-spieth-says-sting-loss-last-awhile):


"In the long run, it's probably better that it worked out that way than if I pulled it off, because now I'll sit back and look at it and realize you just have to stick to that original game plan out there and you can't get greedy, and that's what I did just on that one swing."

In other words, Spieth represents one view of high-level performance - have a good script at the outset and then stay on script.  Don't improvise. Elsewhere in the linked piece Spieth said that while he had a bit of nerves, he was mainly calm out there.  The staying on script approach goes hand in hand with somebody who can remain calm under pressure.

Bubba Watson's personality is the diametrical opposite of Spieth's.  Jim Nantz referred to Watson as a creative golfing genius, meaning he was constantly improvising on the golf course.  But Nantz also referred to Watson's soft underbelly - he can get fidgety and lose his concentration.  One might conjecture that Watson is an ADHD type and the creativity becomes a way for him to manage that.  Staying on script would produce horrible results for Watson, because he'd soon stop paying attention and his performance would suffer.

ADHD may not be the only driver for why others like to improvise in the live moment, but then I believe feeling a sense of boredom from staying on script has to be at least part of the reason.  In any event, I believe it a reasonable conjecture that there is a strong relationship between the preferred method of live performance and the way performers prefer to engage in deliberate practice.  Those who like to stay on script in the clutch opt for coaching with deliberate practice.  Those who want to improvise under pressure opt for self-experimentation.

Now let's segue from sports to medicine.  This essay by Atul Gawande called the Bell Curve is one of my favorites.  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/12/06/041206fa_fact?currentPage=all.  It is about treating cystic fibrosis, where a good chunk of the issue is whether the patient sticks to the regime of treatment through thick or thin.  Many do not, because the treatment is arduous, so the patients cut corners, ultimately to the detriment of their own health.  The doctor who has achieved the best results on treatment, by far, is Warren Warwick.  He improvises a great deal and is quite aggressive about it!  Others go more by established best practice.

When you first think about improvisation you probably think about Jazz or off Broadway Theater. I don't know how to tell who the big hitters are in those environments.  But there is a myth, which surely has some basis in fact, that many of the star performers live (or lived) life on the edge, particularly in regard to alcohol and drug use.  This need for extremity outside the performance setting seems to be correlated with the personality that craves improvisation.  Billie Holiday and John Belushi are two names that exemplify this view.  One wonders if that edgy feeling can be generated but in a more healthful way.  Recently I've become taken with the music of Melody Gardot.  Her story is quite unusual, to say the least.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melody_Gardot.  She is committed now to using music to improve the health of others.  If she can do that and continue to be a big hitter with her compositions and her performances, maybe it will point a way to finding this more healthful alternative.

Perhaps then, all of us amateurs who play at improvisation can become big hitters.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Personal Transformation for Average Students - A Hypothetical

Can average students be remade into deep learners through a regime that aims to alter their habits of mind, in addition to teaching them specific subject matter?  I submit that we don't know the answer to this question.  The hypothetical presented in what follows is meant not so much as a program to jump into (since it is highly idiosyncratic to me - my strengths, my competencies, and my views about teaching) as it is intended to provoke others to ask what like programs might be done to get at an answer to this question. 

Before going further, let's suppose that we learn the answer to the question is yes, it can be done, but the costs are quite high to achieve that end.  The following question then becomes operative.  Whose call is it to make whether to incur those costs or not?  I will give an idealistic answer here, based on the current University of Illinois Strategic Plan.  Goal two is to provide transformative learning experiences.  That should be for all students.  Then, in the Principles part of the plan, there are multiple lines about keeping tuition from exploding.  Taken together this means that either taxpayers or donors have to want to incur these costs, so indirectly it is their call, one that the rest of the community embraces.  In the rest of this piece, I'm going to assume that support will be forthcoming.  Otherwise, why stir up trouble with this sort of investigation?

There is a puzzle to be solved by any successful intervention.  Deep learners are largely self-directed in their learning, even when taking classes.  The instructor may provide launch points, via the choice of readings, topics emphasized in lecture, and the assignments given.  The student is grateful for being provided with them and considers all of these.  But then the baton passes to the student who explores the subject in the student's own manner, who makes up further questions to be answered as early ideas are discovered, and who is largely unconcerned with grades in the entire process.  The inquiry itself is its own reward.  Average students are much more externally directed, will do what they think they are being told but not venture beyond that, and are extraordinarily concerned with grades as passport to whatever good things come after school. The puzzle is how via external direction average students can be encouraged to be internally directed about their own learning.

I have a better sense of what won't work than what will, based on my teaching experience.  Since the mid 1990s I have tried many different interventions at the course level aimed at getting students to learn better.  Sometimes these have had positive effect that were evident to me.  Yet none, taken individually or in combination, have led to the type of personal transformation I asked about in the opening question.  None of the interventions have been sufficiently intensive to achieve that.

It is pretty easy to understand why.  Students are taking on average four other courses.  If those other courses encourage the student to act in an externally directed manner that is a much larger force in favor of stasis.  Further, since now I teach upper level courses rather than freshman classes, the students have had substantial reinforcement for an externally directly approach before I get to see them in my class.  Much of the behavior I witness in my students comes from habits developed in taking these earlier courses.

This suggests what is needed is a substantial curricular innovation that happens quite early in the students' college experience. I experienced the requisite intensity twice as a student.

The first time was a six weeks math summer program at Hampshire College that I attended between my junior and senior years in high school.  My recollection of the experience is imperfect but it went something like this.  We had three hours of class each morning.  For the first four weeks (out of six) I was in a class on number theory and group theory taught by Marty Arkowitz.  We were given rather extensive homework to do each day.  After lunch there was time either for R&R, for me that mainly meant playing tennis, or for working on the homework.  At 5:17 (1717 in military time, the number 17 figured prominently as a symbol of our nerd behavior) there was a theorem given for the entire program by the director, David C. Kelley.  After dinner there was a regular volleyball game, some socializing, and possibly more work on homework.  That was Monday - Friday.  On the weekends there were often field trips.  I recall one to Tanglewood that was delightful and another one, hiking in the Berkshires, that I found rather dreadful.  If memory serves we also saw a Red Sox game on a different weekend.

A few years back Kelley made an inquiry to alums from the program about the impact the experience had.  I wrote a long missive back.  The following is an excerpt from that which shows that in spite of the intensity, the program in itself was not personally transformative.

My take aways from that at this point are first some factoids - a linkage between Mersenne Primes and Perfect Numbers, though I'd have to look it up to recall the exact relation - 945 is the smallest odd abundant number - and some stuff about Cosets. The larger lessons were two. There were students who were much brighter than I was or much further along than I was at approximately the same age, a very useful thing to discover early on in life. In addition to Paul, Marcia and Henry were in this category. One day I recall Henry doing a proof of his own result in the front of the room. I had no clue what he was talking about. (Along with the intelligence there was the ego part of this and Hampshire was my first experience of ego battles by bright students showing off.) The other lesson was that things could get hard and that I needed some mechanism of ratcheting up my own thinking to manage that. I didn't have it at Hampshire. I developed something of that sort as a junior in College, but not completely then. More of that happened in grad school. In Marty's group I believe the first two weeks or so went reasonably well for me but then I sort of hit a wall and I didn't know what to do about it. I floundered in his group after that.

This issue of "a student hitting a wall" and what to do about it is a big one.  Any limited duration program that is intensive will have to squarely confront the issue. 

The other experience was my first year in graduate school at Northwestern.  The doctoral program in economics was quite intensive.  This time I experienced personal transformation.  But many of my classmates did not and the experience for them was quite brutal.  Indeed, Robert Eisner's macroeconomics class the very first quarter bore some similarity to Kingsfield's contract law class in The Paper Chase.  Aside from many of my classmates hitting a wall intellectually, it turned out there was inadequate funding to support us all on fellowship the second year.  I initially thought my fellowship was guaranteed as long as I was a student in good standing.  Apparently not.  The scarce funding led to competition among the students that increased the brutality of that first year and in my mind did nothing to contribute to the learning.

Undergraduate Engineering education has a reputation for being brutal in this sense.  Many students wash out.  At Illinois, those students are fortunate to be able to transfer to other colleges on campus.  A survival of the fittest approach might produce personal transformation in a few of the middle tier economics students, but at what sort of batting average?  And then what of the students who wash out?

I have also experienced this sort of intensity in an adult education context both as an attendee, The Frye Leadership Institute (now Leading Change Institute), and as a provider, Faculty Summer Institute where I was the Head Facilitator for the first ten years, and in the Educause Institute - Learning Technology Leadership Program where I was one of the faculty for three years. These were different to my student experiences in several respects.  The attendees were mid career professionals, so much more rooted in their work. The duration was less, not quite a fortnight in the case of Frye, a work week in the case of FSI and LTL.  And essentially all the work done outside of plenary session was in groups.  Further, in LTL in particular, there was monitoring of the group work by the faculty so nobody would go over the deep end.  I have a sense that these experiences were largely successful (I wrote about the first LTL experience voicing that opinion) with the impact as much emotional as intellectual, maybe more so.

In the program I suggest below there is a hybrid design based on these experiences and on what I've learned from my teaching.

* * * * *

Two issues need to be addressed before getting to the program itself.  I want to take those seriously here.  A third issue arises that I will simply wave my hands at, but mention here so it is understood that with any real intervention this issue will have to be dealt with seriously as well.

The first is how to identify the students.  Intensive interventions typically appeal to elite students, but they are not the intended audience.  We're looking for average students who don't know they should be seeking personal transformation in college but are not a priori negatively disposed to the idea when it is brought to their attention.  It is hard to envision a non-coercive way to select those students who are negatively disposed.  For those who are already positively disposed to the idea, one expects that they are the better students who don't require this sort of intervention.   The ones in neutral who are invited to participate will need some sort of inducement.  That may create its own selection bias.  C'est la vie.  Purely random selection violates human subject protocols.

The second issue is when the intervention should occur.  Candidates are a summer intervention, perhaps between the senior year in high school and the first semester of college, or during the first semester in college, when the intervention would have to substitute for the talking of regular classes.  An add on in addition to regular classes during that first semester couldn't possibly be intensive enough.  A summer intervention might ultimately prove desirable and popular, especially if the various experiments that this post is supposed to engender generate positive results.  But in the experimental phase it might be perceived as a cost add to attending students and their families. (Whether it is or not depends ultimately on the time to degree.  If the students can cut off a semester during their senior year because of that leading summer, then there really wouldn't be a cost add.  Yet who will know this in advance?)  For this reason, the envisioned program is taken to happen in the fall semester of the first year.

The third issue is how to go from a collection of courses taught in that first semester to a single program that is perceived holistically and what institutional barriers must be broken through to attain that goal.  One conception would be a set of Discovery classes that the students would take in lock step and where the instructors had done substantial coordination via pre-planning and subsequent activities that entailed all of them ensemble.  This conception speaks to the expense of the intervention.  It also suggests the actual program would emerge from an extended negotiation by these instructors, the outcome of which is hard to anticipate in advance.  An alternative is for a single instructor to teach all of these courses, but to fewer students so as to keep the effort from being too overwhelming.  That instructor must then have a vision of what the program would be like.  On the bureaucratic side, permission would have to be granted by the departments who normally offer these courses when, as typically would be the case, that solo instructor is not a department member. The permission would assert that this program is indeed a worthy substitute for the offered course so students should receive credit for it.  As I said, here I'm just going to wave my hands about this issue.

The program I have in mind entails four real courses and one fictitious course, which I will explain momentarily.  The four courses are: (1) principles of microeconomics, (2) calculus of a single variable, (3) the first required writing course, and (4) learning and memory.  Of these, the first three are general education courses.  The fourth is offered as a mid level psychology course.  It's inclusion here is to make the students study their own learning and do so part and parcel with everything else they are studying.  The fictitious course I'll call Intervention.  It is there for two reasons. First, each of the listed real courses carries 3 credit hours and I want the program to be 16 credit hours, to convey the requisite intensity.  The program will meet two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch Monday through Thursday.  With a little arithmetic, one can see we need an additional four credit hours and the fictitious course supplies that.  Also, credit in Intervention will be given only to students in this program.  So it can be used as an identifier in the student transcript when comparing subsequent performance with other like students who have not had Intervention.  That would provide one sort of metric on whether the program was successful.

My certified expertise is in economics and my undergraduate degree is in math.  I have taught principles of microeconomics before and I believe the undergraduate degree sufficient to claim expertise for teaching calculus.  But I've never taken a psychology class and I stopped taking English after my senior year in high school.  I have acquired knowledge in these areas mainly since I became interested in learning technology.  That began in 1995 after I had been at Illinois for fifteen years by then. Both subjects remain as ongoing areas of interest even now.  I believe I would do better in teaching writing and learning to my students than I would do in teaching math and economics, because I would take a "natural approach" to the former based on my own self-discovery, while I'm prone to take a more formal approach to the latter given the disciplinary training I've had.  My recent teaching suggests this.  It is how others should consider a program such as this.  If other research faculty after reading this piece find they are inclined to try a similar program, they likely will encounter the same sort of issue.  I would encourage such efforts though, as I said above, the bureaucracy likely would hold them back. 

The aim would be to have 4 or 5 students in the program.  By my count, that would produce either 64 or 80 "instructional units" (IUs are the product of credit hours and number of students enrolled) and therefore be comparable in production to my teaching last fall where I had 23 students and produced 70 IUs (one student was a grad, which counts for 4 credit hours instead of 3).  The reason for this sizing, apart from not over taxing me as the instructor, is the need to monitor each student on a daily basis for how the student is doing - whether insufficiently stimulated or hitting a wall or more or less properly engaged.  While the goal is to keep the group in lock step, there is also a need to coach at the individual level to get the student to rise and meet the next challenge.  This is what will generate the intensity.  It simply can't be done with large numbers of students.

Students would get credit for the program as long as they demonstrated sufficient effort.  This would translate into a satisfactory grade for each of the component courses.  There would be no letter grades.  The idea here is to explicitly lessen the impact of extrinsic motivation and get the students to see what it feels like when they get intense feedback from the instructor but no letter grade.  Ultimately the goal will be for the students to provide the feedback for themselves about their own performance as part of being self-directed in their learning.  Let them first see what feedback feels like when it comes from an interested outsider.  There is also an aspect of insurance to this approach.  The experiment with this program might fail completely.  In this case the students will remain externally directed thereafter and will pursue their studies accordingly.  The students should be held harmless grade-wise if this is the outcome, as long as they have put in solid effort during the program.

Students would be recruited for the program from among those who have been admitted as econ majors or are undeclared in their major but have indicated an interest in economics.  Among this population one wants students who haven't already placed out of the required courses that are part of the program.  One also wants middle students.  If one arrayed this entire population by standardized test scores, for example, one would want to recruit from the middle two quartiles.

The obvious carrot offered in such recruiting is the high degree of interaction with the instructor that results from having only 5 students.  The obvious stick is that these students will be expected to work quite hard and be under substantial scrutiny to ensure that outcome.  Students who will be living away from home for the first time may very well not want that scrutiny and prefer the freedom to decide their own academic commitment for themselves.  There may also be indirect penalties from participating in the program.  For example, many econ majors are business major wannabes.  Transferring into the College of Business is a difficult thing and typically require very good grades during the first year.   With the program offering no grades whatsoever, that may make these students look less attractive than their peers who did well in regular courses.  Potential recruits need to be made aware of these sort of issues ahead of time.

The students who do apply for the program should do so knowing the program description and understanding both the upside and the downside.  It is hoped that this would generate at least 5 applicants.  (I believe there are around 225 new Econ majors each year.)  Assuming there were more applicants than that other criteria would need to be used to select the 5 who get admitted to the program.  One idea would be for the students to appear academically similar in their preparation.  So if there were several applicants near the 50th percentile and one or two near the 70th percentile the former would be preferred.  This would facilitate keeping the class in lock step.  Given that, diversity of the students in their backgrounds would also be a plus.  For example, I'd prefer to have two students of one gender and three of the other to either four-one or five-zero. 

* * * * *

In this section of the essay I'd like to talk about the habits/ways-of-going-about-things we'd like to see cultivated in the students and the methods by which that might be achieved.

Normally, I abhor lists but here I think it useful to organize ideas. So I will list the big picture goals that I envision.

  • Personal Commitment - When I started the graduate program at Northwestern I told myself I'd give it my all for one quarter before beginning to ask myself whether I like studying economics and is doing so suitable for me.  Before the end of that quarter I was already hooked on the economics and understood that an intensive effort on my part was the only way I'd learn economics deeply.  The undergrads in this program must make a similar promise, both to themselves and to the program.  They must not question the effort level if the work is do-able given the effort level.  They may reasonably question assigned work that is over their head even when putting in maximum effort or for which the volume required is clearly excessive.  Alas, the only way to determine the latter is for the students to monitor their own time input and such monitoring can preclude engagement.  So the hope is to encourage the commitment via carrots and making the initial experience enjoyable.  This speaks to the next point.
  • Intellectual Play - Much of the ensemble time needs to be spent on generating questions and then using discovery methods into providing tentative answers.  Generating questions is fun.  Going on an exploration is fun.  Trying out possibilities is fun.  Guessing at which possibilities to try first is more fun.  The students are econ majors.  Why?  Is there anything about how the world works that they don't currently understand but would like to know?  Why?  How might they go about knowing it?  Do they have some dreams of how that would happen?  What would get the students to open up and talk about those dreams?  Play needs a climate of trust.  The students need to become unguarded during the ensemble time.  The early part of the program must be devoted to creating the right sort of environment.
  • The Reading Habit - Students must learn to read a lot, to read for meaning, and to read not just what is assigned but enough other things so they have a good picture of the ideas they are reading about.  They must be able to take well written pieces aimed at a general audience and reconcile the message in those pieces with their own world view.  Reading is not just getting what the author says but also testing whether what the author says is something the reader agrees with or not.  What things are used for corroboration and what other things are used to dispute the author's point?  These things must be found, either in what the student already knows or in something the student discovers.
  • Getting Unstuck/Being Bothered Intellectually - Learning entails a lot of stumbles: misconceptions may precede good understanding, having no idea whatsoever on how to address a question, or making a foolish mistake and then basing subsequent ideas on that shaky foundation.  The emotional response to such situations is equally as important as the intellectual one.  Students must learn how to deal with their emotions when all is not flowing well.  The initial response might well be panic, because there is an inappropriate expectation that all will be done quickly.  The real issue is to produce a mature response thereafter.  Does the student understand the question being asked?  Is there a way to frame the same question differently so the student might make some progress on it?   Can the student let go of this and get onto something else?  Letting go should be very hard.  Students should learn to feel they have it in them to answer the question and also feel it imperative to do so.
  • Drill Down and Seeing the Forest - Sometimes there is one correct way at looking at things.  But other times, and specifically in considering social science issues many of the times are these other times, the same issue needs to be considered in excruciating detail, on the one hand, and then again at the 60,000 foot level, where it is aggregated in with a bunch of related issues.  Students need to be able to do both.  When drilling down they need to understand why the detail is interesting and they need to have a feel for what questions to ask that might reveal interesting detail to look at.  They also need to understand the big picture and how the piece they've been focusing on fits.  The zooming in and zooming out are both necessary and reflects a more mature understanding than can be achieved by only one or the other. 
  • Making Formative Ideas Overt - Let's first consider writing.  Many students operate under the impression that thinking happens first, over here, and then the results are written up afterward, over there.  They are unaware of the power of writing to learn, where writing itself is used as the means to explore the ideas further.  This blog post, long as it is, provides an example.  The ideas are formative and surely could stand improvement.  The piece suggests where my thinking is now, not where it will eventually end up, after getting the reaction of others and some reconsideration on my own.  Students may be more used to the idea that formative ideas are expressed in discussion with others, but many classes may not encourage that sort of conversation and students might not find intellectual discussion outside a course setting.  In this program they will get a lot of it.  One hope is for them to become comfortable with a sense that their early ideas are unlike their more mature ideas.  If they are to become self-directed in their learning, a good bit of that is to want to see their ideas grow (and then have some means for doing so).  
This list of goals probably could be made longer but it is enough for this piece.  Let's proceed to a discussion of means.  The semester would be divided into thirds, about 5 weeks per.  In the first week or two the important things would be to establish a productive routine, get the students to become comfortable with that and with one another, and for them to being to establish a sense of competence in doing the work.  Much of the work would entail the making of objects - essays, presentations in PowerPoint with voice over, Excelets - Excel worksheets with numerically animated graphs to illustrate the math and the economic theory, and possibly other objects as well.  The making of the objects would be one chunk of the out of class work.  Another chunk would be a review and critique of the objects made by the others in the class.  While I'd expect me as instructor to review all the objects, students might review some subset of objects in a way that each student got such a review, ensuring that students got meaningful feedback on their work and from more than one source. The last chunk of out of class work would be reading. Readings would be selected broadly, not just from textbooks, some from contemporary periodicals, others that are well known pieces but are more dated.  The hope is that students would find much of the reading compelling, an eye opener, and make them eager for more.

In class time would prepare the students both technically and content-wise to make the next set of objects, to discuss the previous set that has been made, and to discuss the general academic themes that the objects are aimed at illustrating.  Some of the readings done, out of necessity, will have no parallel object that the students make and will simply be discussed for themselves.  After a fashion the class as a whole will try to get at the question whether the understanding of such readings differs whether there were objects assigned for the readings or not and/or whether the students come to make, implicitly or explicitly, objects for those readings to facilitate their understanding although they were not assigned to do so.

While there would be an ongoing light informal evaluation of how things were going, to make necessary tweaks in process and content and to adjust the pace of the class to match how the students seem to be doing, not until the end of the fifth week would there be a formal evaluation of what had gone before.  The formal evaluation is aimed at first, getting students to consider their learning and their effort and come to some sense of what a cost-benefit analysis would produce as a conclusion, and then to have the students consider how things have gone and compare that to the way they went about their learning in high school.  That part of the evaluation is meant to feed the middle third of the class.

In the first third the subject matter would only be economics, math, and writing.  The learning theme would be introduced in the middle third.  Two important issues would be made paramount.  The first is transfer.  What mechanism do the students opt for to achieve transfer?  (Memorization is particularly bad here as it only allows the students to reproduce the ideas as they were presented originally.  To use the ideas in a novel context requires a deeper form of understanding.)  The second is motivation.  When the program is fun, what makes for that?  What do the students look forward to?  What do they dread but they know they must do?  Why isn't that part fun?  Coupled with introducing learning into the program, the class as a whole will become involved in modest program redesign, with the aim of taking the lessons from learning and modifying program activities to make the learning better.  And some evaluation of those modifications will be done to see if things did improve, remained unchanged, or got worse.

During the last third, students would be given more freedom to read pieces of their own choosing, write on topics they found relevant, and, from time to time, where they take over direction of the class as a whole, perhaps by first making a presentation on a subject they have researched and then leading a discussion afterward.  The idea is to give more control and responsibility to each student.  I have done this sort of thing in the past in teaching campus honors classes, where the students giving the presentation did so as a group.  Here because of the small numbers, I'd expect each student to do this individually, aided by my coaching.  It is meant as a push toward self-direction with the learning.

While the formal program is meant to happen entirely during that first semester, to help the students in the subsequent semester adjust to taking regular classes and yet to continue to practice the deep learning ideas they got in the previous semester, one hour per week should be set aside for the group to meet and discuss what is going on.  As this would not be for credit it would not be possible to make those meetings mandatory, but they should be strongly encouraged.  If the students prefer to meet without the instructor present, that would be fine.  And if individual students would prefer one-on-one meetings with the instructor on an as needed basis, mentoring is not otherwise a part of undergraduate instruction, that should be available too.

In this regard I'd like to note here that when I started at Northwestern in grad school I felt disadvantaged relative to my classmates, because I didn't major in economics as an undergraduate and felt under prepared as a consequence.  It took some time for me to compensate for those shortcomings in economics preparation and to also realize that my math preparation, which was better than what my classmates had as undergraduates, was ultimately more important than the economics preparation.  I suspect something similar will happen with this program, if it is successful.  Having completed the program the students may feel disadvantaged relative to their classmates, because they haven't yet experienced what taking a large lecture class is like while their classmates have.  I hope they come to the same sort of conclusion that I did, that their preparation from participating in the program is ultimately more valuable to them and that they end up learning more as a consequence.  I don't know if that learning more will immediately show up in good performance on exams.  If not, my hope is that it will show up in course grades down the road, and in non-graded learning situations thereafter. 

* * * * *

If the program were modestly successful, either a few students were transformed while others were not or the students were in some gray area where the outcome could not be determined with any certainty, I probably would want to try it again.  The hope would be to learn from my mistakes and see if I could improve performance the next time.  If the program were highly successful, I probably would not want to try again and instead move entirely into proselytize mode and encourage others to try it.  The program is meant as a proof of concept.  Once the concept is demonstrated to be plausible next steps need to be taken.

It is easy to write the previous paragraph.  This one is harder.  If the program were a complete failure - all the students dropped out after a few weeks because it was just too intensive for them without them finding suitable rewards to match the intensity, or the students stuck it out but collectively forced me to teach in a way that I was sure wouldn't be transformative by threatening to drop out otherwise - I would become very depressed indeed.  I might then abandon my interest in undergraduate education, for the experiment would have demonstrated that the profound change I want to see is not attainable, at least not by methods I can envision.   I view this outcome as unlikely.  But unlikely is not the same as impossible.  I wonder who else might be interested in this sort of experiment and what their expectations would be regarding outcomes.

Let me conclude here by noting that in its imagery associated with the Strategic Plan there is a tendency for the Campus to: (a) focus on non-course experiences such as internships or working in a faculty member's lab, (b) concentrate on experience in the STEM disciplines, and (c) emphasize the accomplishments of the best students.  It seems to me there are interesting and legitimate questions that need to be asked: (d) Can courses themselves be transformative? (e) What of the many students who major in the social sciences? and (f) What are we doing for more typical students regarding personal transformation? 

I hope others can take up these questions as well.  They are questions that need answers.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Flipped Registration?

For the first time I can remember, the Econ department at the U of I is trying to assist students in the registration process by offering students a session where each instructor would give a brief preview of their course, so students would be better informed when they do register.  With its focus on 400-level courses, this session is specifically targeted at rising juniors and seniors, but should also be of interest to current first year students who are further along than usual, as well as Masters students who are looking to broaden their studies.  The intent in giving this session is unmistakeably good.

However, the logistics are more problematic.  By my back of the envelope calculation, there are at least 450 students (and likely quite a few more) who would benefit from attending this session.  But the large lecture hall where it is supposed to be held has 280 seats.  Then there is the method for how students will be notified about the session.  Is that method email?  If it is, instead of worrying about not having enough seats, it might be more of a concern as to whether a significant number of students will show up.

Then there is the issue of how much information will be presented.  The following table is taken from the Timetable for fall 2014.   The course I teach on The Economics of Organizations is an Econ 490.  In fact, there are 10 different courses all listed as Econ 490.  This means there are twenty different courses in total that need to be covered in the two hour session.  That is a lot.  And while we've been advised to present for 5 minutes only, who ever heard of a professor who sticks to a brief presentation when it is possible to pontificate for much longer?

ECON 411 Public Sector Economics
ECON 420 International Economics
ECON 440 Economics of Labor Markets
ECON 450 Development Economics
ECON 469 Economics of Risk
ECON 471 Intro to Applied Econometrics
ECON 480 Industrial Comp and Monopoly
ECON 481 Govt Reg of Economic Activity
ECON 482 Health Economics
ECON 483 Econ of Innovation and Tech
ECON 490 Topics in Economics

So it occurred to me that instead of giving a live 5 minutes, I'd make a video that students could watch on their own time.  To that end, I made a PowerPoint presentation yesterday and did a screen capture with voice over this morning.  (The PowerPoint can be found linked from the description of the video.)  This is no great shakes and I don't want to maintain otherwise.  But surely it is better than nothing.

There is just one issue.  How do the students become aware of this video?  The obvious (to me) answer would be to provide a link to it from the course timetable.  Yet I've never seen such links in the timetable. I wonder whether the Banner software allows for this.  If it does, what sort of business process would allow such links to be inserted into course entries?  It would seem that the department would have to solicit instructors for links and upon getting a response from the instructor then insert those links just as they insert the course description.

My first year or two of being an Associate Dean in the College of Business, the then Dean wanted students to have such materials available to them prior to registration (think of the syllabus from the prior offering of the course rather than a video).  At the time, I investigated doing it with Blackboard Vista.  The software did allow public pages, but the way we had authentication configured blocked that functionality.  I am not sure what the situation is with the current Blackboard Learn or Moodle.  but that there are multiple LMS being used means that is not the right way to address the issue if done systematically.

There is the further issue whether instructors have given forethought to their fall courses at this time in the spring.  To the extent that there is not much variation in the course from one year to the next, the syllabus from the previous offering would be just the ticket.  Otherwise this is asking the instructor to be prepared well in advance, not very realistic in my experience.

In spite of these issues in implementation, it seems to me that if several people put their heads together on this, something better than what happens at present could be done.  And if that did happen, I could imagine the idea going viral because the need is there.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The (un) Natural

I've just finished reading Malamud's book.  I'm irked by how different it is from the movie.  I'll explain this in a bit.  But first, ask yourself if you were a novelist of some regard how you'd feel if Hollywood paid you a ton of money to secure the film rights, but then changed the story as to pervert its meaning.  This is different than condensing things to to make a picture that people will sit through and then making additional minor accommodations so the story in the movie flows smoothly and makes sense.  Every novelist will anticipate that.  What I'm talking about here is taking something that is gloomy at its core and presenting it as sunny instead.

The movie came out in 1984.  The original copyright on the book is 1952, so it had a good run without the movie around.  Malamud may therefore not have been too concerned about a rewrite in the film version.  And he passed away in 1986, so probably had other things to occupy his mind when the movie came out.  But as a viewer/reader the timing was different for me.  I don't believe I ever saw the movie in a theater, but I've watched it a ton of times on TV.  Until reading the book, I thought it ranked with Field of Dreams and Bull Durham as the latter day equivalent of It Happens Every Spring, in the sense of lovable fiction that helps baseball fans and fan wannabes renew their passion for the game.

But that is not what the book is about.  Roy Hobbs, who is portrayed as a wholesome figure in the movie, he just had horrible luck when he met Harriet Bird on the train, is not really a likeable character in the book, at least not till the very end.  He cares about himself and getting what he wants, and that's all.  Consider this paragraph from pages 162-63:

The fans dearly loved Roy but Roy did not love the fans. He hadn’t forgotten the dirty treatment they had dished out during the time of his trouble. Often he felt he would like to ram their cheers down their throats. Instead he took it out on the ball, pounding it to a pulp, as if the best way to get even with the fans, the pitchers who had mocked him, and the statisticians who had recorded (forever) the kind and quantity of his failures, was to smash every conceivable record. He was like a hunter stalking a bear, a whale, or maybe the sight of a single fleeing star the way he went after that ball. He gave it no rest (Wonderboy, after its long famine, chopping, chewing, devouring) and was not satisfied unless he lifted it (one eye cocked as he swung) over the roof and spinning toward the horizon. Often, for no accountable reason, he hated the pill, which represented more of himself than he was willing to give away for nothing to whoever found it one dull day in a dirty lot. Sometimes as he watched the ball soar, it seemed to him all circles, and he was mystified at his devotion to hacking at it, for he had never really liked the sight of a circle. They got you nowhere but back to the place you were to begin with, yet here he stood banging them like smoke rings out of Wonderboy and everybody cheered like crazy. The more they cheered the colder he got to them. He couldn’t stop hitting and every hit made him hungry for the next (a doctor said he had no tapeworm but ate like that because he worked so hard), yet he craved no cheers from the slobs in the stands. Only once he momentarily forgave them—when reaching for a fly, he almost cracked into the wall and they gasped their fright and shrieked warnings. After he caught the ball he doffed his cap and they rocked the rafters with their thunder.

Indeed, there is much other darkness in the book, including the fans themselves, particularly the ones who went to see the Knights play before Roy Hobbs was on the scene.  And perhaps the worst part, in the book Hobbs takes the money from the Judge.  The movie makes him out to be virtuous where in the book he wasn't.

Given these differences, it is odd to read in the book scenes that one remembers from the movie, but where the context is different as a consequence of casting Hobbs' character differently.  So I wouldn't call this a great read.  It might have been more enjoyable had I not seen the movie before.  But then, truthfully, I probably wouldn't have read the book.

Malamud's writing is pretty linear chronologically, not much in the way of flashback, though other characters are curious about Roy's past, while he is unresponsive to their queries.   But the Hobbs character goes into frequent reverie.  The train ride that starts the book, where he strikes out the Whammer which itself serves as introduction to Harriet Bird, haunts him through the rest of his life.  This you can only get in the writing.  Movies are not good at getting into the thoughts of the characters, particularly when those characters are not all that verbal. 

And there is one puzzle for me.  It is minor but I'll mention it here, because I don't understand why Malamud did this.  The Knights are substitutes for the NY Giants in that all the other National League teams at the time were mentioned by their real name, including the Brooklyn Dodgers, but there are no Giants.  The difference is that Knights were inept until Hobbs arrived.  Could Malamud have written the story using the Giants name instead of the Knights?   These are the sort of choices novelists make that I'd never be able to master.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Shards on Income Inequality

The Oligopsony Hypothesis

Everyone knows what monopoly means.  A single seller has market power due to an absence of rival sellers.  Oligopoly is similar to monopoly.  There are a few sellers, each with some market power.  They compete against one another, but not so much as if there were many more equally capable sellers.  Monopsony is similar to monopoly in that it is about market power, but it is now the buyer with the market power.  In theory this can happen in any market.  It is frequently considered with regard to the labor market where the mental picture to support the model is the single factory small town, where that employer dominates the local labor market.  Oligopsony is similar, but now there are a few buyers who compete with one another.

Why is oligopsony interesting to consider now?  In yesterday's NY Times Paul Krugman took on "the skills gap" argument and contrasted it to insufficient aggregate demand (for product and hence for labor input).  In particular, he cited this paper, Is There Really a Shortage of Skilled Workers?  The evidence points to insufficient demand.  This is done by dividing unemployment into various categories and contrasting unemployment within each category with before the housing bubble burst. The results show uniformly that unemployment is higher now across the categories.  It is quite convincing that a skills gap explanation can't be the complete story.  That paper and Krugman's column too makes it seem that those who argue for a skills gap are perpetuating a hoax, thereby inviting the wrong policy response.  The oligopsony alternative can accommodate the empirical results and yet make those who argue there is a skills gap not guilty of deceit.

One place where it seems obvious to me that monopsony power has increased since the downturn is employment at the U of I (and likewise at other major universities located in college towns).  The impact is greatest, not on faculty, the stars among the faculty have an international market and must be compensated competitively or they will work elsewhere, but rather among the academic professional staff, many of whom have strong local roots.  Staff reductions have been achieved, through attrition, the voluntary separation program, and in some cases forced severance.  This has happened with no reduction in scope or intensity of activity, with the consequence of increased burden on those AP's who continue to work.  Their real wage has declined as a consequence. 

Traditional approaches to market power look at concentration.  If a traditional oligopsony explanation makes sense here, one would have to explain what's going on by seeing the big guys more and more dominating the labor market.  I'm guessing there is some evidence of this, especially since the housing bubble burst.  But I think the weak aggregate demand story certainly has some merit as well, so what might be most interesting to consider is how that interplays with an oligopsony story and if as a consequence even comparatively small employers act now as if they have market power in the labor market.

If that is what is going on, the increase in the minimum wage is a good and appropriate tonic for improving the lot of low wage workers.  But it is unclear that it will have much if any ripple effect on those who are currently making more than $10/hour.   The normal antidote economics would recommend here is to find counter forces to oligopsony.  Two possibilities are (1) against the big guys increased pressure from application of the antitrust laws and (2) against all employers increased unionization.  Neither of those look likely, however, in the current environment.

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Is Government Impotent to Solve These Problems of Income Inequality?

If you were to travel back to the late 1970s and queried people about whether they trusted government or not, you would find distrust across the political spectrum.  This was the aftermath Vietnam and Watergate.  Certainly there have been incidents since that have fed on the distrust theme.  Have there been, in contrast, substantial actions since to reaffirm the positive role government can play?

In his previous column, Krugman makes an argument that we need a latter day Teddy Roosevelt.

And they’re right. No true American would say this: “The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and follow that statement with a call for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes ... increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

The quoted passages in the above are from Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism Speech.  If delivered today, would the public trust the government enough to pull off the ideas?

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The Social Obligation of the Ten Percent

Via Bernie Sanders' newsletter (Bernie Buzz) I became aware of this documentary featuring Robert Reich, Inequality for All.  I found it off putting that it wasn't freely available.  (At Amazon.com it is available for $3.99 rental, $4.99 for the HD version.)  I haven't watched it yet and so won't remark on it here.  Instead, I want to comment on thoughts that bit of irritation triggered.  They are based on this question.  For those of us who are comfortable income-wise, what goods and/or services should we give away freely and what other goods and services should we expect to be compensated for? 

At issue here are two underlying questions.  One is about principle.  Can one come up with a set of  principles to help answer the above question?  The second is about thinking through the consequence in aggregate if all those who are comfortable income-wise acted in this principled way.

I am going to come up short on both of those.  As a practical matter I answer the first question via intuition.  Whether a principle can be distilled from that I will leave for some other time.  On the second question, the best I can offer is that if I am typical, can we think through the consequence in aggregate from that sort of behavior?

When I do something of value for no compensation, I typically insist on some degree of control or on some quid pro quo where I benefit in some non-income way.  Here is an example.  Last fall one of my then students asked me to supervise her in an independent study so she could earn honors at graduation.  I gave her a couple of alternative projects that I was interested in.  She chose one of those for her independent study, which she is doing this semester.  I am not otherwise teaching this semester so am not a current employee.  I do supervise the project by kibitzing on her blog postings and ancillary work.  Would I have done similarly had she been the one to offer a project of her own choosing?  Probably not.

I have made much online content and make it freely available to anyone who is interested.  I'm quite willing to share my stuff that way.  In contrast, I get solicited, seemingly on a daily basis and perhaps more frequently, to make some charitable contribution.  I hate when this happens.  I don't like being put in the position of being a cheapskate so actively seek not to become connected to the people making these solicitations. 

Also, and this is consistent with a behavioral economics explanation but not with economic rationality, when I was employed full time by the university I did make charitable contributions via payroll deduction.  The retirement system doesn't have an analogous system for charitable contribution (at least I'm not aware of one).  So I seem to be willing to contribute when the organization where I work makes a charitable fund drive.   But individual solicitations I abhor. 

If someone wise and fair said - this is how much you should contribute and if you do it once (per year) then I'll make sure it gets to the right place - I'd much prefer to do that even if my total contribution was substantially greater that way.  In other words, I'd rather pay more in taxes than have greater discretion about charitable contributions.

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Factoids about the Income Distribution

Below is a table of household income for the upper ten percent.  It is from 2012. 



The full spreadsheet from which this screen shot was taken offers the entire income distribution.  In turn, this is taken from a Census table, HINC-06. I have added the Percentage and Cumulative columns to enhance readability.  From the full spreadsheet, one case see that median household income is about $50K.

Here are some caveats before proceeding further.  The income is not indexed, by location, size of household, net worth, pending financial need, or other possible factors that would add descriptive power.  Saying that the upper ten percent are comfortable income-wise is a generalization.  Some people in this income category may nonetheless be financially challenged.

With that, the bottom of that top ten percent has income not quite triple of the median income.  Those in the penultimate row have income in excess of four times the median.  Those in the last row have income that is many more multiples of median. 

If the reader were playing Robin Hood for the society as a whole, what cutoff income level would be chose to define the rich and how much should be robbed from them to give to the poor?  These questions are implicitly asked in many pieces discussing income inequality, without making reference to the actual income distribution.  Knowing the numbers should help making the discussion more real.

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Wrap Up

I'm a member of the professional class, one who has benefited income-wise from the rising income inequality in society as a whole, as what I did got compensated more as a result. My sensibilities are middle class.  While I'm not as penurious as my parents were (they came of age during the Great Depression) particularly in regard to spending on themselves, I respect the financial hoarding they did.  If the facts about upward mobility weren't so grim, I'd prefer that my parents ways would serve as the model for how to rise out of poverty.

But the facts about upward mobility are indeed grim.  And, in the case of household income, another fact seems to be that members of the professional class often marry others from that class.  When both spouses generate income in this case, the family will inevitably be in the top ten percent.  So it feels like Robin Hood should rob from us.

The income tax seems the natural tool for Robin Hood.  And many have pointed out that the real scandal there is on the low capital gains rate, vastly favoring unearned income over earned income.  But even on earned income marginal tax rate rates in the higher brackets could be a bit higher and those who are like me income-wise would hardly skip a beat.

My family learned a lesson from my mother's situation and my mother-in-law's situation.  Both required long term care.  Both used up essentially all of the their estate in the process.  So there is a reason not to just give it away when Robin Hood comes to the door.  But we could be a bit more like my parents in our spending, couldn't we?  That's the sort of question those of us who are comfortable should be asking.