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. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

I was not a sheep. Were you?

I've started reading the book Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.  At the beginning of the book he describes the syndrome.  Students at elite universities, who outwardly look super competent and in control, are in fact inwardly quite miserable.  They play a game of jumping through the various academic hoops.  They are good at playing the game.  But they find it all artificial and have nothing behind the game that is real with which to sustain themselves.  They are so busy playing the game, acing their classes, doing xyz extracurricular activities, building the killer resume.  They have no time for themselves, to enjoy life in the here and now, to learn about their own wants and needs, to explore for the sake of exploration, and to give themselves a break when they don't meet the superlative performance standards that they have set for themselves.

In this description, Deresiewicz does not blame the students themselves.  He says, and mainly I agree with this part, that these students are simply reacting to the environment they find themselves in, one created by the adults who cohabit this world with them.  Parents are one part of the adult world.  In trying to provide the good life for their children, they have inadvertently created a living hell.  The schools are just as guilty, in how they go about teaching with an emphasis on testing and especially in their admission processes.  It reenforces the jumping through hoops mentality. 

At the outset of the book Deresiewicz says he himself was like this when he started college at Columbia University in 1981.  Apparently he grew out of it sometime later.  Reading that makes you ask about your own situation at the time you started college.  My post title comes from answering that question.  I started college in 1972.  Did that nine year difference matter for producing my answer?   As I will try to argue below, I believe it did matter, a lot.  There were also some things idiosyncratic to me that mattered too, so I wonder for my contemporaries, how they would answer this question.  Were any of them sheep in the sense of how Deresiewicz uses the term? 

The Academic and Social Environment for Kids Entering College Circa 1972

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  The focus centers on factors that seem to me to have militated against turning students into sheep.  The factors should be taken as interrelated, not orthogonal.  Indeed, it was their interplay that provided their force.  These factors may have diminished in their presence over time or vanished outright.

The Generation Gap - The expression was very popular when I was in high school and it seemed that many of my friends and classmates had a falling out with their parents as teenagers.   Where before the gap manifest the kids would accede to their parents' wishes, afterward they would be their own boss and push back against their parents if they felt what the parents were requesting from them was unreasonable.  And, of course, in a battle of egos sometimes there'd be pushback against the parents, even when what the parents wanted was perfectly sensible.  Emotional struggles are not always rationally based except on the ultimate question, who really has the authority?   That the generation gap as an expression was so well known gave license to the kids to experience it themselves at some critical juncture in their teen years.   Nowadays, perhaps, the kids would repress their anger and cave into the parents wishes, as that is perceived to be norm behavior.

The Counterculture - The emblems were many.  Long hair, rock music, smoking dope, and a strong distrust of authority were among the more prominent examples.  The Draft still mattered.  The Vietnam war was winding down but had not yet reached its conclusion.  Watergate was still to become a household word.  Most kids embraced the counterculture to some extent already in high school.  They had the opportunity to do more so when they went away to college.  Implicitly, the counterculture was an indictment against the 1950s stereotype, popularized in TV shows like Leave It to Beaver.  The counterculture offered an alternative path.  It perhaps bread cynicism as a consequence or, if not that then, then a kind of nihilism, which is what I experienced at MIT and what ultimately caused me to transfer to Cornell.  So the counterculture could be criticized in its own right.  But it had pluses too.  It did not produce sheep.

The Comparative Paucity of AP Classes and Availability of Enrichment Classes - This section heading understates the differences between then and now, because it doesn't consider the importance or not of the AP exam and earning college credit in high school.  For example, I took AP Chemistry in 11th grade, but did not take the exam.  There was nobody who argued for taking it or not, if memory serves.  The decision was left entirely to me.  I did take the exam for calculus (AB, the school did not offer the BC version) a year later yet most of my classmates did not take the exam and most of them goofed off in the class rather than take it very seriously.  So at the time the school didn't see its own reputation as hinging on how many students were in AP classes and how many took the exams and did well on those.  I did take several classes that were elective and special topics.  In my senior year I had a number theory class and a Jewish history class.  Those, I believe were for one semester only.   As a junior, I took a class called math team workshop.  That class was for the entire year. My guess is that such courses have been entirely crowded out by the expansion of AP offerings, an unavoidable consequence of the academic arms race.

An Abundance of Free Time for Playing with Friends, Watching TV, or Self-Nurture - Homework existed but didn't take very long to complete, no more than a half hour per day.  This left many hours in the day to do as I wanted.  I had several friends with whom I had something I'd call an intellectual social life.  It created a taste the for the same in college.  In high school these include Jimmy K., who was also my doubles partner in tennis, Lenny G., who was clearly the smartest kid in our class yet was genuinely a nice guy, and Michael S., with whom I went to a math summer program at Hampshire college and the following year attended some Saturday classes at NYU aimed at bright high school students.  Related to this, there were a bunch of kids who hung around the Math Department office and played a lot of Chess there.  I also had a different group of friends for playing schoolyard basketball or going to the movies.  And I read quite a bit on my own, often challenging myself with the reading, even though I also watched a lot of TV.  There was time for all of this.  While I may not have reflected upon this till much later, implicitly I came to believe there was as much or more learning in these informal channels as there was with the formal schooling.  I expressed this view many years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  

Little Emphasis on Credentialing via Extracurricular Activities
  - This is one that might have been different if you were pre-med.  (I was not.)  Or perhaps it differed too if your GPA wasn't quite as high and you were trying to compensate for some perceived academic deficiency.  Then, maybe you did some extracurricular activities so you could have these as bragging points.  Otherwise, you did the extracurricular things because you had an interest in doing them.  In that sense, while they were more formal they were still an extension of the self-nurturing idea.  And for many of them, they were actually done during the school day.  You got excused from your regular class to do the activity.  That was true both for Math Team competitions and for practice sessions for It's Academic (which got me out of Hygiene Class, yippee!)  Of course, if you wrote a piece for one of the school's periodicals, that was done on your own time.  I did a bit of that too, but not so much that it sucked away all the free time.

* * * * *

When I was in college, especially after I had transferred to Cornell, I had the sense that many of my peers put on an act when interacting with adults, particularly their professors, quite possibly with their parents, and if they had a job on campus then with their boss as well.  These people might have also put on an act with other students, especially if they didn't know the other students very well.  Here, putting on an act means saying what they believe the other person wants to hear.  These same people would be much more forthright with their friends, where they felt comfortable opening up and saying what was actually on their mind.  I had one floor mate during my senior year when living at 509 Wykcoff Road who definitely led this sort of dual existence, Sue S.  She was a Hotel-ee, quite attractive, and capable of producing a very good performance.  She relished her time with the rest of the people who lived on our floor, when she didn't have to try to impress any of us.

I mention Sue here, because in spite of my list of factors above it seems clear to me there were forces to produce sheep even when I was in college, and Sue gives an example where I saw this sort of performance.  These forces didn't just suddenly appear from out of nowhere when Reagan became President.  They've been there right along.  The list above was meant to argue that there were counter forces which helped to establish a more healthy balance.  Thus, one type of reading of Deresiewicz's book is that the gaming of the system, which accelerated since I attended college, has crowded out those counter forces and, to use some math jargon, what we now have is a corner solution where before we had an interior solution.  If that makes sense, the issue is how to restore some balance.

Now I want to turn to factors that may have been more specific to my circumstance, which worked against my putting on an act in college and kept me from becoming a sheep.

As a Tiger Mom my mother had a spectacular failure - A few of my classmates from Junior High School went to Bronx Science.  Another one went to the School of Music and Art.  Doing this was a major schlep and would also clearly put the kid in a more competitive environment.  For both reasons, I didn't want this.  I wanted to go to the local high school, to be with the kids I knew from Junior High.  My mother, who was a language teacher, had a different idea.  First, my local high school was brand new and had no established reputation.  She wanted me to go to a place known as a good school.  Fair enough.  Second, she wanted me to take Latin.  Benjamin Cardozo HS, the local school, did not offer Latin.  So I ended up going to Bayside High School on a zoning variance so I could take Latin.  This proved a disaster because there was an important factor that my mother hadn't anticipated.  When my sister had followed this same route, four years earlier, Junior High School went through ninth grade.  So she started High School in tenth grade.  But I was in the first cohort of students where the Junior High was converted to a Middle School, so I started High School in ninth grade.  But the old model was still largely in place.  Most of the students who were at Bayside for ninth grade at that time were poor students - such as kids who had attended parochial school but couldn't get into the Catholic High School.  Apart from the Latin, which was okay, the academic environment wasn't stimulating at all.  I quickly became very unhappy about it and then transferred to Cardozo as a result.

The upshot from this failure is that my mother lost her authority over me.  I simply didn't trust her to have my real interests at heart.  I held this experience against her for a very long time.

I had my "crisis" in tenth grade - One of my questions in reading Excellent Sheep is why the kids Deresiewicz writes about didn't have their own crisis in high school, while they were still living at home.  One infers from how Deresiewicz tells the story that while the seeds for such a crisis may be there the reaction is to cover up the the situation and seemingly capitulate to the many demands that are placed on the kids.  In this telling, the kids are at or near the breaking point when in college for a couple of years, but they still have some reserve left while in high school so don't fall over the cliff then.

I had quite a very hard time that year, so I wouldn't prescribe a crisis as the cure to the problem, but looking backward at the that time it was very liberating in its aftermath.  (Perhaps a more healthy cure would be simply to disobey parental mandates and then argue with the parents afterward.  The kid needs to seize control of some parts of his life and if that requires disrespecting the parents for a time, so be it.)  First, the doubt I had about playing the game of getting good grades didn't have to be so secret, so I didn't feel compelled to do things for the grade when otherwise it didn't interest me.  Second, and equally important, it took some pressure off regarding parental push, for fear that would send me over the deep end.  And, third, it allowed me to search for some alternative way to frame those factors that drove me to learn.

There was subtraction (of activities) not just addition - The first of these that I recall was stopping attendance at Yiddish school, which I went to on Sunday (or perhaps Saturday, I can't remember) mornings till I was 11 or so.  There were lessons in reading the language, singing folk songs, and Jewish History.  I was okay with it for a while but eventually lost interest.  My parents were okay with me stopping and did not contest that.  The next thing I stopped was music, being in the band at school and playing the clarinet.  I also took clarinet lessons from one teacher and piano lessons from another teacher.  I was in the Queensboro band in 8th grade and the orchestra in ninth grade.  We had practices Saturday mornings at a Junior High School in Forest Hills.  (A parent had to drive us there and pick us up.)  That all stopped after ninth grade.  The reason here was a bit different.  I may have maxed out on the piano at that point but I still had some interest in the clarinet.  However, our school was on split session and when in 10th grade we were on the late session (11:40 AM to 5:40 PM).  I took two science classes that year, both Bio and Chem, so my schedule was quite full.  I had to drop something to fit that in.  The only thing I could drop was band.  Then, after 10th grade, I dropped French.  I might have enjoyed French had my mother not been a French teacher.  Under the circumstances, it was my least favorite subject, and given my emotional state I was able to drop it once I passed the Regents exam, which fulfilled the language requirement. 

I learned to relish personal idiosyncrasy - My sense of humor developed right along, cultivated by my dad who relished telling a joke, even if he wasn't the greatest with his delivery, and perhaps also a prior disposition that was basic to my makeup. But it wasn't till later in college and then in graduate school where I consciously recognized it as a value that for me was on a par with academic achievement.  It helps a great deal in keeping the demons at bay and in enjoying whatever I engage in.  It also helps when being with other people, whom I hope enjoy being with me.

* * * * *

Now as a teacher of college students, the core hypothesis of Excellent Sheep seems readily apparent in some subset of the students I have.  It appears particularly strong in many of the students from China and Korea.  But it also is quite evident among many of the higher achieving White students.  I had always thought some of that was the Midwest versus the East Coast.  New Yorkers, in particular, tend to be more brash.  Kids from Illinois, particularly those from downstate, are more circumspect.  Yet it is evident that other factors have come into play to exacerbate the jumping through hoops mindset.  My belief is that No Child Left Behind has had horrible consequences on students who aspire to go to an elite college, the unintended consequence of the excess in accountability.  And there may be an equally important change as curricula have been modernized - parents are unable to do the homework the kids are assigned.  So the parents can't tell by other means whether their children are learning.  Grades get emphasized as a consequence, to the detriment of actual learning.

Parents may be surprised to see a low correlation between GPA and real understanding (also real creativity).  Likewise, faculty may also be surprised this way.  Making that point more overt is a first step about having a very public discussion on how to change things for the better.  It is my view that prior to such a conversation, each person needs to ask themselves, was I a sheep?  And, especially if not, then they also need to ask, why not?  Any change for the better will find its basis in the answers to those questions.

So ask away. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Krugman does IO

The IO in my title stands for Industrial Organization, one of the fields within Economics.  The Econ department at Illinois used to offer a separate course on Antitrust.  I don't recall when it stopped doing that, but for my purposes the reader should view Antitrust to be subsumed within IO.

Most of Paul Krugman's columns for the NY Times Op-Ed page deal with Macroeconomics and a related field, Monetary Economics.  He sometimes writes about politics rather than about economics.  And he sometimes ventures away from macroecon issues in writing about economics.  When the Affordable Care Act was in its gestation stages (and before that too) Krugman had many columns on health care, where he would regularly extol the virtues of Medicare and VA Hospitals, while lambasting private health insurers. 

In today's column Krugman ventures onto new ground (for him). He takes on, particularly in its very public fight with Hachette. What bothers him are the essentially predatory practices of squeezing its suppliers, some of whom happen to be book publishers.  In that Krugman likens to the Standard Oil Trust and considers Jeff Bezos to be a latter day John D. Rockefeller.  The Robber Barons abused there power.  The reaction was first muckraking, to expose the predatory practices, and then Trust busting, embodied in the Clayton and Sherman Acts and the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt.  Krugman doesn't say this in the piece I linked to, but he hints at the need for a like response today.

This is where, in my opinion, the analogy with Standard Oil is less than helpful.  Here are some of the issues as I see them.

There are other big and powerful companies today that squeeze their suppliers.  Walmart and Apple are two that are well known for doing that.  Is the argument that they all need to be disciplined away from their abuse of power, or is publishing somehow different from these other industries?  What is the operative principle on which to answer that question?

The piece from the Guardian that I linked to above in reference to Hachette says there really is no difference.  Given that, publishers need to get used to the new world of eCommerce.  I am less sure, since writing is such a solitary effort and since that with books as distinct from shorter written pieces, there can be rather long lead times (years) from initiation of the idea to the delivery of a well written and well edited manuscript.  Incentives need to be in place to support that activity which, from a Baumol's costs disease view, will not tolerate process innovation aimed at cost reduction.  On the flip side, I do think that much of the fight with Hachette is about economic rents that well known authors and the publishers who have them under contract received in the old model, which is now being "disrupted" by Amazon's approach.  The Baumol's cost disease part of the argument worries me, while the loss of economic rents to star authors does not.

But my real concern in writing this post is that even if Krugman is right about the abuse of power, there may not be remedies available now akin to the Trust busting of a century ago.

  • eCommerce may be a different animal.  The most obvious way to look at this from an economics perspective is to consider sales tax and eCommerce.  Everybody understands there is a massive amount of tax avoidance going on with eCommerce or, viewed alternatively, the burden of reporting the tax obligation has shifted from the sellers to the buyers.  In Illinois, for example, when I buy something from Amazon and they withhold no tax in their purchase price, I am supposed to compute what I owe and pay that on my Illinois Income Tax.  (Just to avoid confusion, the state calls this a Use Tax, rather than a sales tax.)  Of course, few people do this with their online purchases (and many are probably ignorant of their tax obligation).  States like Illinois could go after Amazon, if not for withholding the tax in the purchase, then for not giving customers a ready way to calculate their tax obligation for the year.  
    • Going after Amazon (and other online retailers) in this way would be one approach to restraining its power but...
    • ...doing so would be enormously unpopular with most people.  They've gotten used to the implicit subsidy they've been receiving by purchasing online. 
    • The reality of the tax avoidance allows Amazon to maintain its uniform pricing policy, which would be impossible in the presence of tax that varied from state to state.
  • Multinationals are much harder to govern.  If the Justice department were actually to go after Amazon for violation of Antitrust law, it would undoubtedly encourage Amazon to shift its activity outside our national borders, where the behavior would be subject to the laws of the host country and the host country's desire to enforce those laws.  These sort of relocation efforts are frequently driven not by the core economics, but by which host will be most generous on tax and regulatory matters.  
    • In other words, trying to do something about the predatory practice may not stop the practice at all but only alter where the practice originates from.
    • Nowadays capital can flow very quickly indeed.  The adjustments we're talking about here need not take long at all.  So, in spite of good intentions to restrain abuse of power, one needs to be wary of unanticipated reactions.
  • There doesn't seem to be concern for the little guy here.  I'm talking about the little guy who works in the supply chain that Amazon controls.  Joe Nocera had a recent column about the Amazon and Hachette battle, but he takes a different view than Krugman.  "Does Amazon have a dark side? Yes, it does — primarily in the way it has historically treated its warehouse workers. But to say that Amazon has to be stopped because it is giving people what they want is to misunderstand the nature of capitalism."
Let me wrap up.  Like Krugman, I am uncomfortable with Amazon's power, but I'm also troubled by Apple's power and Walmart's power. Yet I buy from all three of them.  More to the point, I don't see how we can really restrain that power in the latter two.  Why should we think we can do otherwise with Amazon?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Questioning Our Own Competence

Miyagi: Hai - can see. No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.
The Karate Kid (1984)

With all the press about the CDC and the poor handling of Ebola containment, it occurred to me to refocus this attention on ourselves and ask about our own competence, especially in tough situations which we may find ourselves in from time to time.  I thought that Joe Nocera's column from yesterday was instructive.  He writes: 

Are there extenuating circumstances? To hear infectious disease specialists tell it, the answer is yes. Like all federal agencies, the C.D.C. saw significant cuts to its funding thanks to sequestration. Another expert, Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me in an email that because the chances of Ebola being imported to the U.S. were considered low, preparing for it was not considered a good use of scarce public money. “The budget cuts,” he wrote, “have directly reduced preparedness.”

In addition, the C.D.C., like many federal agencies, had its mission transformed after 9/11. Julie Gerberding, an appointee of the Bush administration, changed its emphasis to bioterrorism and other potential security threats. “She also brought in efficiency experts who were anathema to scientists,” says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the seminal 1994 book, “The Coming Plague.” Morale plummeted, and many of its best scientists fled.

You might think this sufficient to get the CDC off the hook.  Yet he concludes:

And now comes the C.D.C. — the most trusted agency in government — thrust in a role for which it was designed: advising us and protecting us from a potential contagion. With every new mistake, it becomes, in the public eye, just another federal agency that can’t get it right.

Nocera is a straight shooter.  You might not always agree with his point of view, but you should concur that he doesn't try to be manipulative nor does try to win talking points just for the sake of the argument.  He calls them as he sees them.  Given that, the conclusion to be drawn from his piece is that in the public eye the mitigating circumstances don't matter.  They're excuses, nothing more.  What matters is the mission.  Competence means delivering on the mission, doing that well.  Everything else is just blather.

I want to use the above as backdrop and turn our attention to teaching, my own teaching especially.  With that let me take as starting point the U of I Strategic Plan, where it says:  

Goal II:  Provide Transformative Learning Experiences

So I asked myself, what evidence do I have from the student performance in my class that some of them are being transformed by my teaching approach?  The answer, disappointingly, is that I have no evidence of this whatsoever.  I'm 0-fer. There is much in my method that I consider innovative.  But the method doesn't seem to be taking with the students.  It's like giving a cactus too much water.  

Personal transformation is no small matter and we should not expect large changes in somebody in a brief period of time.  In reflecting from the teacher's perspective on witnessing the students learning, Ringo's Starr's lyrics are instructive.

Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues,
And you know it don't come easy.

I believe I understand this.   And in this blog I've written about the mitigating circumstances, ad nauseam.  Others have written about mitigating circumstances as well.  But I tend to view my own teaching with a public eye.  It makes me impatient to see real results.  When I don't, I'm prone to get angry.

I'm angry at the kids who choose not to come to class, especially given that the total enrollment is only in the mid 20s.  I'm angry at the kid who comes, most of the time, but seems too laid back to care about what is going on.  I'm angry at the over achieving student whose approach blocks all real learning by not taking any personal risks whatsoever.  I'm angry at the mediocre performance of the class on my first midterm, and the incompetence the students demonstrated with that performance.  And most of all, I'm angry at the mercenary tendencies of many of the students, who have sold their souls to the devil, so they can get a job in the finance/banking sector and become part of the 1 percent. 

It is my anger that marks my incompetence.  

I wish I could put the genie back in the bottle and have my idealism about student learning return, for with anger comes lack of hope.  This semester, for the first time since I returned to teaching after retirement, I've asked myself whether I should give up on the teaching.  If what I do doesn't matter for the learning, then why do it?  For the paycheck?

Before I got involved with learning technology, 20 - 25 years ago,  I would regularly teach an intermediate microeconomics class of about 60 students.  About 5 students in the class would "get it".  Another 5 would blow off the class entirely.  The middle 50 would struggle, not like the course much at all, and see little take away from their efforts.  At the time, I thought my teaching poor because of such a low batting average.  Now I would take that batting average in a heartbeat.  Getting through to some students would make it all worthwhile.  

There are no bad students, only bad teachers.  I'm one of them.  The problem is that there aren't enough good teachers to go around.  Incompetence has become the norm, not the exception.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The ability to reason requires (lots of) practice.

I have not yet mistaken my wife for a hat.  But I have had this applied topology problem that probably is transparent in its solution, yet it has continued to vex me from time to time.  My key ring now has only two keys on it, the key to the car and the key to the house.  The car key is quite large since the remote control is built into it.  But the house key is modestly sized and once in a while my juggling of the keys while still in my pocket gets the house key lodged into the ring, where how to get it unlodged is not apparent to me.  When the key is stuck in this position it is not possible to use it for its intended purpose, as the key ring itself blocks insertion of the key fully into the key hole.

Yesterday I returned home from a lecture on campus around 5:30 PM only to experience the discomfort, nay the panic, of the topology problem returning while in my left hand I had an umbrella, a handbag with my laptop, and another bag with the exams from my class that hadn't been picked up.  Rather than be sensible and put that stuff down, to focus full attention on the topology problem, I take a stab at its solution with just my right hand.  I fail miserably, increasing my frustration in the process.  Fortunately for me, my wife and son returned from work soon after that.  So I presented the problem to my genius son.  He was as incompetent at it as I.   He then handed the key ring to my wife, who returns the house key to its proper position in a jiffy, so we can all make our way into the house.  The least theoretically inclined and mathematical of us has the most practical sense, by far. 

There were mitigating circumstances that might rationalize my inability to work my way out of the predicament.  I hadn't slept well the night before.  The next day (now yesterday) I was going to give back exams to the class on which the overall performance was worse than mediocre.  I kept playing through my mind how that class session should be conducted.  I thought I came up with the right play for that but it was still a case of delivering bad news and I've come to dread doing that sort of thing.  The class session itself hadn't gone particularly well, or so it seemed to me.  So I was still ruing that later in the day, when the applied topology problem hoist itself upon me, where I was totally unprepared to deal with it.  

Elsewhere I've written that when reaching about my age professors become better teachers because the slowing down of the thinking and the inevitable many faux pas that accompanies the aging enables the teacher to empathize more for the student.  I still think this is true.  Nevertheless, I'm horribly disappointed with where my students seem to be as learners.  The ultimate responsibility for that may be with the system rather than with them as individuals, the realization of which is about as far a my empathy will take me.  But I have to wonder why more of the students don't buck the system and figure out to learn for themselves in spite of the apparent pressures to conform.  Why does memorizing the stuff that is spoon fed to them in their classes and regurgitating that on the exams become, in essence, addictive behavior.  Don't they get that this is not really learning.  It's not even a good imitation, though admittedly in those classes where the instructors indulge this addiction it provides something of a safety play for how the students will do on the exams.

My students were already aware of my displeasure with their memorizing.  They weren't surprised when I brought that up yet again in discussing their performance on the exam.  I did surprise them in a different way.  I gave the entire class a bonus for the performance, mediocre as it was.  My thinking was first that for the kids who scored at the median or lower, I'd have lost them for the rest of the semester if I hadn't provided the bonus.  They'd be too bummed out.  My goal was to take grades off the table as much as I possibly could, while simultaneously letting them know that I do still care about their performance.  The other thing I did was to suggest the possibility of an extra credit project, briefly described here

At the moment I have three takers for the extra credit project (24 students sat for the exam).  One was the high scorer on the midterm.  The other two were under achievers.  Each has now been allocated a paper to review.  I'm interested to see how much progress they can make on these.  My hope is that translating these pieces by well known economists according into language that students can understand according to guiding questions that I provide will require the students to stretch themselves mentally and require them to to give their own meaning to what they are reading.

We'll see.  I usually have high hopes when I try something different.  At the least, the students will not have a standard routine to follow to do these projects. That in itself might produce some unanticipated benefits.  I am meeting one of these students tomorrow afternoon.  I hope to have a better sense of what he might get out of this project from that conversation.  But I also hope, on the flip side, that I can convince him to put in the sweat equity needed to make the project worthwhile and for him to get a sense that his understanding will grow as he does that.   

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Second Mile Is Easier

I like to cheat on things.  Maybe cheat isn't the right word and maybe like isn't the right word either.  What I have in mind is doing things half-assed, washing my hands, doing a workout on the elliptical, pouring the vermouth into the martini glass, that sort of stuff.  The thing gets done but a pro would have done it better, not necessarily out of higher skill but surely out of more concern for doing it well, so demanding proper technique in the process.  Fundamentally, I'm a schlemiel.  The cheating on things is the schlemiel rising to the surface.  Most of the time the output is good enough.  Once in a while I find the soup spilled onto my lap.

Yesterday was a non-teaching day for me, so I planned to go for a walk.  It was a little cool in the morning so I waited till near noon to set out.  The routine should include stretching exercises first, just a few minutes of those to limber up and get the blood flowing.  Recently I've passed on the stretching and just started on the walk, with no ill effect from the shirking till yesterday.  But it was still a bit cool when I set out so the stretching was more important than it had been.  We are so much smarter in hindsight and would be so much better behaved if we always had the wisdom of hindsight to guide us.

It's about a half mile from my house till I cross Windsor at the corner where a branch of Busey Bank is.  A normal person taking my route would cross the street twice at that corner, once headed North toward Kirby, the other headed east just to get on the side of Duncan that has a sidewalk for the full extent between Windsor and Kirby.  On the west side of Duncan, the sidewalk ends just after the bank.  My preferred route has me crossing Duncan there, waiting for traffic to clear, once in a while running a few steps to beat the car because traffic hasn't cleared but I was too impatient to wait any longer.  This is jay walking, but I actually feel safer doing it than I feel when crossing at the corner, where cars have a tendency to jump the light.   On my return I avoid the corner entirely and cross Windsor further down to the west, near the Espresso Royale, another bout of jay walking done for pretty much the same reason.

Everything is going okay after I've crossed Duncan and head north to Kirby, but things sour by the next block or so.  The top of my left foot starts to hurt and as I continue walking the pain intensifies.  I start to ask myself whether I should turn back, lest I get into real trouble, severe enough pain that I can't make it home.  Or is this the sort of pain that will go away when I've warmed up sufficiently?  This is one of the big mysteries of the universe for the arthritic person of my age.  The old pains in the usual locations are familiar bedfellows.  An armistice has been made between them and me.  We each can proceed about our business.  A new pain in some other spot is an entirely different animal.  Is it just passing through or is it making a bid to join the club of regulars?

Mentally the trick, one I understand but haven't yet mastered, is to get the mind focused on something entirely different for a while, so lost in thought that the pain goes unnoticed.  Let that persist for a while, a minute or two, maybe longer.  Then when self-awareness returns see if the pain is still there.  By the time I find myself reaching the soybean field on the west side of Duncan, signifying a mile from my starting point, the pain in the foot appears to have vanished.  I promise to myself that I will do the stretching exercises the next time I take a walk, but I've made those sort of promises before, many times.

This story is not about a reformed schlemiel who is now on the straight and narrow.  It's about what the mind grabs onto when pain is no longer a distraction.  Yesterday, that was easy.  The object of attention was color, magnificent hues from the grass, the trees, and the sky.  A confluence of factors created this beauty.  It was dry and crisp outside so there was a kind of clarity outdoors that is rare for this area.  This explains the blueness of the sky.  We've had an unusual amount of rain this summer and it's continued into the fall.  Most of the trees have held onto their leaves as a result.  Many of those trees had an interesting color pattern, with green leaves lower down and dark red leaves near the top.  This transition between the green and red is something I don't remember seeing before.  A photographer or a painter should capture it before all the leaves have dropped from the trees.  The grass too seemed especially green, particularly those lawns that hadn't recently been mowed, as the cuttings don't pick up the moisture in the same way. 

I was wearing sunglasses, because it was very bright outside.  I asked myself whether those changed the colors and contributed to the intensity of the effect.  Perhaps they did.  When beauty springs upon us, sometimes good fortune smiles too.  The look created is something you'd want to bottle.  The best I can do is to write about it a little.

The forecast today is for cloudy in the morning and rain in the afternoon.  And cloudy or rainy is in the forecast for the next several days to follow.  But in about a week hence, weather conditions are supposed to return to the way it was yesterday.  If that forecast holds I encourage everyone to go for a good long walk on that sunny day.  Know that it gets better as you keep walking.  And hope that it will provide a good picture for your mind as we head towards colder weather. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Better Screening for College Entry? Or No Screening at All?

College Admission : Harvard
Teen Health : __________
a) Acne,
b) In-grown toenail,
c) Obesity,
d) Manic depression,
e) All of the above.

I only recall one class in high school that with deliberation tried to prepare us for the various standardized tests which would follow.  This was English in ninth grade.  We did vocabulary exercises - new words to memorize, quizzes on their usage that followed. I don't remember whether we specifically had the dreaded verbal analogy questions or not.  I was not very good at those questions, nor was I good at remembering word meanings for words outside my working vocabulary. It's tough to get a verbal analogy question right if you don't know the meaning of the words.  Sometimes it's still tough, even when you do.

You might think it more fitting to have these type of drills in 11th grade, when the students take one standardized test after another.  Or possibly in 10th grade, in anticipation of all the examinations to follow.  Or you might think that back in the early 1970s there'd be none of this whatsoever.  The schools weren't graded by how the students did on the PSAT and the SAT.  So why coach the kids that way?

The explanation in my case was that my English teacher in ninth grade was also in charge of the College Placement Office.  All applications to colleges went through him and his secretary.  He internalized the benefit of placing students at elite colleges, even if the rest of the school didn't care.  So we got the vocabulary drill, whether it would actually help us two years later or not.  The far longer lived lesson, one I will never forget, is to detest verbal analogy questions.  This seems all the more remarkable in my case, since as my regular readers know I get genuine joy from making puns and doing other word play.  There is nothing like school to take the fun out of learning, by forcing it into a memorization schema, especially when the kid has his own way of learning already and is making progress with that.

As it turned out, I did apply to Harvard.  I got rejected, of course.  My verbal SAT score was too low.  But perhaps more telling in my case was the interview I had at the Harvard Club in Manhattan.  Wearing a suit, which I was not comfortable doing, and with the dark tones about the place from the wood paneling and padded leather chairs, I felt out of my element from the start.  I had the shakes and the sweaty palms.  It was a time when I'd say anything just to please the interviewer, prostitution without the sex.  Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I recall telling him that I was a plodder.  Why I thought that would be a sell point I don't know.   Perhaps it was a way to show modesty.  But it was completely inaccurate.  I was then and still am highly intuitive in my thinking, doing most of it by how it feels, doing it quite quickly then, a bit slower now but still pretty quick much of the time.  Either for lack of self-awareness or because I was overwhelmed by the circumstance, I chucked the real me for some plastic imitation.

In the grand scheme of things this was all no-harm-no-foul.  I got a reasonably good education thereafter, though I had my struggles in college, which I will not belabor the reader with here as I've done that elsewhere.  The reason for bringing up the above at all is to set the stage.  The reader should ask herself what features of potential applicants would make them attractive to colleges?  How did the reader do on these metrics when she went through the process?  Is being an attractive applicant good for the student in the life to be led post graduation from college?

These questions were triggered by a piece Adam Grant wrote for the Sunday Week In Review, Throw Out the College Application System.  The piece leads off as follows.

THE college admissions system is broken. When students submit applications, colleges learn a great deal about their competence from grades and test scores, but remain in the dark about their creativity and character. Essays, recommendation letters and alumni interviews provide incomplete information about students’ values, social and emotional skills, and capacities for developing and discovering new ideas.

Adam Grant is something of a wunderkind academic.  I learned about him a year and a half ago reading this piece in the Times Magazine, Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?   I liked that essay very much, even if the underlying theme was not novel to me.  Among other places, you can find it in Akerlof's paper about Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange and Okun's piece The Invisible Handshake and the Inflationary Process.  It was good to see this theme about human decency in the workplace emerging again.  It was about time.  And Grant seemed a living emblem for the idea, walking the walk in his own way of interacting with students and colleagues.

So I approached the piece on College Applications with eager anticipation.  But my reaction to it was first disappointment, then anger, then wondering whether Grant should have a long conversation with Carol Dweck about what college is/should be about, and finally that this piece needs some critique from an economist like me.

The upshot of Grant's argument is that the wrong people are getting into the very good colleges.  These are spineless and unimaginative kids who nonetheless are excellent test takers.  Let's not admit these kids but instead take in the creative and high minded.  What could be wrong with that?  If you buy the core hypothesis then you'll likely buy the rest of the argument too, that there are ways the kids you want to admit can be identified through the right sort of psychological testing.  So let's move to a system with that sort of testing post haste.  (Grant is a psychologist and much of the piece is an assertion about the reliability of such testing.)

Grant ignores, however, that the kids who are currently getting through (and their families who are providing the encouragement to do so) are gaming the system and indeed that much of their lives has been spent jumping the current hurdle and focusing on how to get over the next one.  There was gaming of the system back when I was in high school, witness what my ninth grade English teacher did. But it seems pretty clear that the gaming is much more intensive now than it was then.  That observation, in itself, suggests several follow up questions that seem relevant but are absent from Grant's piece.

1)  Does it make sense to have a more effective screening mechanism for admission to college if the forces toward gaming the system remain unabated and might even be accelerating?  My sense is that, no it does not.  Indeed, without reducing the gaming itself, changing the way admissions are done amounts to a kind of gaming by the particular college.

2) Contrary to what Grant asserts in his piece, might it be possible for well trained gamers to credibly fake creativity and high character?  Here I am reminded that when I took the SAT the College Board asserted unequivocally that coaching via what we now call test prep would have no effect on student performance on the exam, because it measured aptitude.  Nobody believes this anymore and test prep is a booming business.  All the evidence that Grant cites, I suspect, come from measurements taken where the system has not yet been gamed.  Does that evidence speak at all to what might happen a la test prep if the approach to admissions were altered?

3)  What is the cause of the gaming itself?  Can that be alleviated to some degree?  Wouldn't our efforts be better placed in that direction than in perpetuating the current regime but screen better?  As many others have pointed out, a good bit of this is simply excess demand being manifest.  Population growth has increased the demand for slots at elite colleges (including the demand from international students).  The number of slots have not grown as fast, though at places like Illinois there are now roughly 20% more slots than when I started here back in 1980.  I don't know what those numbers look like at Harvard or other elite places, but I suspect the pipe has not grown fast enough.  The other obvious factor is the rising income inequality, which has increased the return to elite college degrees, even as the average return across all colleges may be falling.  Thinking this way, is better screening what we want or should we be arguing instead for more supply at the high end?

4)  Can bright but spineless kids be fundamentally transformed into responsible and creative individuals?  And shouldn't that be the purpose for college?  If you pre-screen for these attributes aren't you getting college off the hook regarding what it should be about?  I have to say here based on my own teaching that if the answer to these questions is yes, then that yes must be qualified with - but this will be very hard to do.  The students have been trained like Pavlov's dog to be hoop jumpers.  They've had many years of that sort of conditioning.  There is a lot of unlearning that needs to take place for those yes answers to emerge.

5)  Do the answers to these questions change when going from small scale (one institution) to large (the entire economy)?  I believe the answer to this is yes.  A couple of years ago I wrote a post, Gaming The System Versus Designing It.  While I considered issues other than college admission in that post, I believe the upshot is still applicable here.  We have become very good gamers, but we remain very poor designers.  We cling to a belief that what will work in the small can work in the large, all the while ignoring internal feedback loops that the will emerge and tend to counter achieving the results at scale.

But a design answer is what we need here.  The problem is both worthy and complex.  Let's not assume a quick and easy answer will do the trick.  It won't.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Elite College Student - Great At Jumping Through Hoops...

...but not developing his or her own point of view.

I found this quite a compelling show to watch/listen to.  Many of the themes I've been railing about over the years regarding undergraduate education come up in this discussion.  And there are some themes, such as the relationship between parenting a la Amy Chua and how the kids go about their college years, which is intensely interesting and I haven't written about it much at all except in regard to my own situation when I was in high school.

I know Loury a little.  He was an Assistant Professor at Northwestern when I was a graduate student there.  I had never seen Deresiewicz talk before.  He sounds like a faculty member, which he once was but no longer is.  He does seem to be getting a lot of mileage from his book Excellent Sheep.  One wonders what is next for him.

I thought Loury's style in doing this interview quite interesting.  He never really contested any of the assertions made by Deresiewicz, though he paused a few times without saying anything, as if he had told himself ahead of time to hold his tongue.  The questions he asked were all what I'd call framing questions.  They were aimed at sharpening the argument, not at derailing it.  From my perspective, the diagnosis of the problem part of the discussion is pretty much spot on.  The more speculative part of the discussion, what might be a cure, was less satisfying and seemed totally infeasible to me in the current environment.

There is a specific discussion of the Economics major at around the 18:00 minute mark.  It is especially revealing about the mercenary tendencies of the students.  I would say the argument applies to the students I've seen at Illinois pretty much intact, with the exception that standardized test scores here are lower in Liberal Arts and Sciences (the college where the Econ department is situated) than they are in Engineering and Business.  To a certain extent, the statistics that Deresiewicz cites about the Econ major probably don't consider whether there is also an undergraduate Business major or not.  I suspect at many of the schools he focuses on don't have an undergraduate Business major and Economics then serves as a proxy for it, which it also does at Illinois to some extent because there are many students who want into the College of Business but can't get in.

The one bit of this that I found distracting is the angle of the camera on Loury.  It is not so terrible in the screen shot above, but when he leans back in his chair his face takes up only about a quarter of his side of the video.  It would be better if the camera were set so he is looking squarely into it.  He probably cares about this not a whit.  But he does seem to care about his viewers.  So he should make this adjustment for them, if not for himself.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Intensity, Craziness, and Creativity - Vincent Van Gogh

I have some vague recollection from childhood about The Agony and The Ecstasy and that it was a big deal.  Perhaps I saw a promotion for it on a billboard in Times Square, something akin to Cleopatra in its spectacle.  Or maybe it was because the Pietà had come to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows and as a result all of us became more aware of Michelangelo. Then, too, we had neighbors who lived diagonally across from us on the corner of 56th Avenue and 212th Street, and they were Italian.  Perhaps some of their cultural interests rubbed off on us.  I'm pretty sure that for a while my mother had the book on her nightstand.  She was a voracious reader of novels (yet not at all of the newspaper).  There were certain authors who especially appealed to her.  The works of James Michener emblematized the genre. 

Mostly my taste for fiction diverged from my mom's.  I did read Exodus by Leon Uris, probably in my high school years, this without any provocation from her.  Much later, I read a book that she had urged me to read as a teen, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.  I liked it very much and wrote a blog post about it soon after I had finished reading it. 

All of this to say that I've been aware of Irving Stone since childhood, but I never did anything with that knowledge until recently.  Part of this may have been a phobia about art.  Though I felt compelled to take myself to a museum now and then, and one day while I was a teenager I "ran away from home" and went to both the Guggenheim and the Met, all via walking after getting out of the Subway at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I did this more for the solitude and sense of independence it gave me than from any spiritual uplift from the paintings.  I didn't "get" art then, just as I didn't get poetry.  Mostly, I still don't.

From time to time I would see a movie or read a book that touched on art in some way.  While in graduate school I recall seeing Savage Messiah.  More recently I've watched Pollock, after it came to satellite TV.  Soon after it was published I read Einstein and Picasso, a book that really helped me because it explained the big picture goals that both Einstein and Picasso were after, this to understand simultaneity in their respective mediums.  There are probably other movie and book titles I've encountered that tie to art but that don't come to mind now.

So it's been a low level and very casual interest.  I have an upside down curiosity about art now, as I have an interest in what spurs creativity and how creativity manifests. Further, there is trying to understand myself and my motivation.  When I read a biography about a very creative person, there is always the question - what bits of personality do we have in common?  For example, when I read Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce, I saw some parallels between Joyce and me when in early adolescence, though these were mainly in outer manifestations, not in the creativity itself.   And with connections of this sort apparent there is a further question that emerges.  Is there a personal philosophy to embrace that matches the personality?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I want to discuss Vincent Van Gogh via the film Lust for Life, the book on which it is based written by Irving Stone, and another movie called Vincent and Theo that gives Van Gogh's brother and confidant equal billing.  Stone's book is fictionalized biography, but it is based on actual correspondence between the brothers.  The artist was also a prolific reader and writer.  These other forms of expression helped him with his art.  The writing especially allows us to regard Stone's work as close to the truth in most places.  Particular dialog is imagined, of course.  And there is one love scene that is pure fantasy.  But otherwise the work is true to the letters on which it is based. 

Van Gogh's life challenges us in our conception of success and what it means to be successful.  By the middle class standards that I was raised in, he was a failure, many times over.  His paintings didn't sell at all for most of his life.  Many of great Impressionists, contemporaries of Van Gogh, suffered a similar fate.  The patrons of the arts weren't yet ready to procure the works of these artists.  These rich buyers were too conservative in their tastes and thus didn't understand the impact these works would eventually have.

Nowadays, we have the (not quite) myth of the actor in waiting who struggles to make ends meet by waiting tables or doing other unskilled work, until the big break arrives.  It is unclear to me whether a struggling artist in France in the 1870s could live such a divided life, making enough to survive on while practicing one's art in odd hours.  In any event, Van Gogh did not.  For the most part he was sustained by an allowance provided by his brother.  Theo was an art dealer, an employee of one of the better houses in Paris.  He made a decent but not fabulous living.  The allowance was carved out of that.  In recompense, Vincent sent Theo all of his paintings, with the hope they might sell.  They didn't.

The above understates how much Vincent failed and how he regarded himself as a failure.  Vincent actually got into painting late, in his mid to late 20s.  He did other things before that and made a botch of things, both in his work and in his love life. He started out as an art dealer in London.  His family had that profession in their blood, which is why both he and his brother took a go at it.  While in London he fell in love.  Only she didn't love him back and got engaged to somebody else. Heartbroken by the result, he left London and the work as an art dealer to follow in his father's footsteps, so he went to school to become a minister. 

He performed poorly at the school.  He could not commit a sermon to memory nor could he speak extemporaneously.  So he had to read his sermon from his hand written text, long and awkward constructions.  This was ineffective and his teachers dismissed him - the worst student they ever had. Yet he wanted to serve and that conviction enabled him to become a minister in the Borinage, a very poor mining region in Belgium, not a place to send the more able students.

The miners and their families had a dismal life, earning a subsistence wage only, maybe even less, being exposed to health risk on a daily basis from the coal dust, with fatal accidents in the mines also a possibility. There was child labor in the mines.  It was all very brutal.  Vincent's job was to minister to these poor people's spiritual needs.  He began in earnest with what he had learned at the school, but this was a surface kind of ministering only, and didn't at all address their deprivation.  So he changed his approach to be more like them, live like them, and aid in their physical needs.  He gave away most of his worldly possessions to the families of the miners.  He likewise gave away much of his food.  He often went hungry, for days on end.  He endured personal suffering (which would continue later when he turned to painting).  And he lobbied the mining company, unsuccessfully, to raise the wages of the miners.  When visitors from the church hierarchy came to look in on him, they disapproved of his approach; it was undignified.

Much later in Stone's book there is a recollection of this time by another artist who had visited the Borinage while Vincent was there.  He recalled stories of the Christ minister.  This seems like a good image to have of Van Gogh.  He had a purity about him that others don't possess.  He was entirely unconcerned for his own physical well being.  He believed strongly that these poor as dirt miners were deserving people and that they should have a somewhat better life.  After all, they toiled, doing honest work.  Later, when Van Gogh was in Paris, he became known as a Socialist among his fellow artists.  The roots of his political beliefs are to be found in this experience in the Borinage.

I do not want to recount all of Stone's book. It's better to read it yourself.  (I got a copy from the Undergraduate Library.)  But there is one more aspect of his life that needs mention before talking about his creativity.  That is his mania.  Later in life he had seizures, one of which occurred during the famous episode where he cut off his ear.  The Wikipedia entry on this matter makes it clear that there is no consensus view as to cause.  In Stone's version of the story, epilepsy is the primary explanation.

Further, Stone introduces the idea that the mental illness was part and parcel of Van Gogh's personality.  He does this first by describing at great length the high intensity, long time commitment, and total dedication that Vincent demonstrated while painting.  Then, later, after Vincent has befriended Paul Gaugin, Stone has Gaugin critique Vincent's painting style as if epileptic. Images from the painting burst from the canvas and it is evident that Vincent in the construction of these images worked in great haste and that he himself was bursting, getting paint from his palette onto his canvas.  So the reader is left with the impression that Vincent is exploding inside his head with ideas of how to render nature through art.

That much of Van Gogh's personality I can identify with via my own experience, writing this blog during the first year.  I had many ideas in my head that wanted expression and I didn't have enough other outlets for that.  (One alternative outlet was having conversation with colleagues in the CIC Learning Technology Group, many of whom had comparable positions on their campuses to my Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies position at Illinois.  But our frequency of meeting was only once every three months or so and then typically only for a day at a time, and we had official business to conduct much of the time.)  I found I could generate reasonably good prose (about 1500 words per post) in fairly short order and do so every day.  I also found that I could experiment with style and a little bit with topic. But after a year or so I slowed down.  I began to exhaust the set of issues I found pressing.  In contrast, Van Gogh kept going, developing his technique and sense of confidence.  He didn't slow down at all until the fits of mania made him slow down.

(One of the things, I'd like to learn in the future is to know Van Gogh's paintings themselves, understand something of the issues he was trying to address in their making, as well as to learn when they were done so to understand how Stone's telling of the story maps into those paintings we consider masterpieces today.  In the movie, some of these paintings are on display.  But in my ignorance of the art itself I couldn't distinguish a masterpiece from a prop.)

Van Gogh's need to draw preceded his becoming an artist as his life work   He did it as a hobby, a way to express himself and to relieve the stress from his other work.  He drew, for example, in the off hours while he was a minister.  (One has a sense that he slept very little, even then, and would labor till he was exhausted.  This behavior, in itself, may be have at least part of the reasons for the subsequent mania.)  So when he turned to art as what he would do, he had an inner knowing that it was right for him.

He struck out miserably, however, in terms of receiving recognition and emotional support for the work, apart from his brother Theo.  In fact, where he initially got support and encouragement from other relatives, he eventually got rebuffs that he wasn't making progress with his work.  He remained too primitive in his approach.  In this case, it was the relatives who were wrong, but how would Vincent have been able to determine that in any objective way at the time?  And in the absence of such confirmation, wouldn't his resolve to continue working become shaky?   The issue seems all the more important because he was living off that allowance from Theo and if the work wasn't very good then devoting all his time to painting was being irresponsible, while at his core Vincent tried very hard to be an ethical human being.

Eventually, when in Paris, he met a community of fellow artists with whom he could exchange ideas as peers and as friends.  This provided some of the confirmation that he was on the right track, though his paintings still didn't sell.

Now I want to posit an odd conjecture.  Vincent had no fear of privation, even if it destroyed his health, and later his mind.  He learned to accept it when a minister.  Once privation becomes a normal occurrence, the fear of failure that haunts most of us disappears.  Failure can then be a good friend and an able teacher.  And Vincent trusted himself enough to learn from his errors.  Indeed he was inventing technique as he learned.  He had the independence of mind to do that.

Vincent also spent an enormous amount of time alone, with his paints and his canvases, but without other companionship.  This was true when he returned to live with his parents and again when he was in Arles.  (Though when at his parents' place he did have a one-sided love affair with his cousin Kay, who entirely rebuffed his advances.)  His work was primary for him and he toiled on it till exhausted.
Again, thinking of my own situation, I have the sense that creativity is blunted by various buffers in my life - work, family, and friends.  With each of these "being reasonable" is an important value and enjoying the comforts provided by the circumstance an immediate reward.  But there is also a different thing about me that I learned a long time ago.  After I've had my own bursting and release of creative energy, I need some fallow time to refresh myself.  If I'm too tired I can't think at all and can't produce anything worth a damn.  Van Gogh was totally different in both respects.  There didn't seem to be anything moderate about his personality at all.   He had very few buffers to produce such moderation.  While he did relax some, compared to other talented people I know he did comparatively little of it.  And apart from those brief times of relaxation, I got the sense that Van Gogh was "on" most of the time, leading to prodigious creativity but the mania too.  This comes across more from the reading of Stone's book than the watching of the movies.

Sylvia Nasar's book on John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, is another that I've read which marries intense creativity in the individual with mental illness.  In Nash's case it was/is schizophrenia.  The difference between Van Gogh and Nash, from the reader's perspective, is that for Nash all the creativity was going on in his head and it is much harder to represent what that is like to the reader, even for as able a story teller as Nasar.  As an economist who has done a fair amount of math modeling, I probably have a leg up on most readers in considering what Nash did, yet his process is still entirely opaque to me.  In contrast, Van Gogh's creativity had a physical expression that anyone can understand.  The movies are good for this, because they do convey a sense of what it is like to paint, especially on a wet canvas that is near completion but not completely done.  You can almost smell the oils in the viewing.

Let me close with reference to this piece in Slate, people don't like creativity.  I had always thought of myself as an exception to that rule.  (I do concur with the thesis in the Slate piece.)   Thinking about Van Gogh has got me to reconsider how much of an exception I actually am.  I like my moderating influences, often prefer to compromise than to remain a purist, and my drive is nowhere near as strong as Van Gogh's.   None of this says anything about talent.  But it speaks volumes about motivation.  Though I teach microeconomics, which at root is about making tradeoffs, I live my life trying to have it both ways.  This shows in one fell swoop that I don't practice what I preach and that I'm human.  But it also gives me a different sort of appreciation of genius.  There are plenty of bright and very talented people to go around.  The vast majority of them, however, aren't willing to pay the ultimate price. Van Gogh was among the very few who were willing.