Sunday, June 28, 2015

Q: Did you read the book?
A: No, but I saw the movie.

One of my friends in Facebook posted something recently about the exercise benefits from walking.  (Those benefits are considerable.)  That coupled with some recent conversations I've had with students about ancillary (non-course) reading got me to wonder about the following.  What about exercising our minds?  Do we do a good job of that or might our habits encourage us to be lazy in this regard?  For students, in particular, is it enough that they get mental exercise from the courses they take?  Or should they be getting something substantial from non-class diversions as well and, if so, what should those be?  The same sort of question can be posed for working adults.  While my primary interest in posing the question is with college students, I realize that most people who will read this piece are well past college.  So I will try to give them some reason for reading beyond this first paragraph.

In posing these questions I used the word "should" and before trying to answer these questions it is probably worthwhile to pose another.  What criteria are to be applied in determining what makes for good mental exercise? To get at that let's first consider what it is we hope to get out of such exercise.

I am slowly (re)reading Bolman and Deal's book Reframing Organizations.  This time it's the fifth edition.  Previously, I read the fourth edition.  It serves as a second textbook in my course on the economics of organizations and is there to give the students recognition that other than an economics approach can have value too. The first couple of chapters give lots of examples where things don't go so well in organizations.  The question is why.  Part of the answer, inevitably, is that the world is complex and that we need to understand how people react to complexity and make decisions with an imperfect understanding of what is going on.

When I attended the Frye Leadership Institute (now Leading Change Institute) back in 2003, in our very first session Rick Detweiler, one of the institute deans, put us through our paces on "Chip Up Leadership."  He showed us a graphic very much like the one below.  There's a lot of stuff going on at our respective campuses and in Higher Education as a whole.  It doesn't come from just one direction.  It comes from everywhere.  This graphic might be a good first visualization of complexity for somebody, especially for a person who previously thought all the arrows tend to point in the same direction.

Chin up leadership
Chin up

As my friend Lisa likes to point out, we tend to embrace information that reinforces our previously held world view and ignore information that challenges our own uni-directional perspective.  One clear goal of the sort of mental exercise I'm talking about here is to have the experience of identifying a few arrows that don't line up.

While so far I have mentioned complexity in the workplace, it should be clear that it also matters a great deal as a citizen and in in our politics.  Below is one of my favorite lines from George Orwell that hits the nail on the head.

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

This is the first sentence of the closing paragraph in an essay about people's intellectual schizophrenia, particularly in regard to political life.  By this Orwell is talking about maintaining truth in a proposition that we should know is false simply by reviewing other things we already know to be true. This essay is a very good read and serves as a rather frightening warning about all the stupidity the collective mind seemingly can lock onto.

Onto this image of complexity let's layer on a related idea - that what we see of the world is mainly the projection of our own minds.  I am not making this up. I subscribe to a variety of services that give recommendations about what to read.  There is way too much for me to track down all of it.  But I do sift through the recommendations and occasionally sample some of the suggested writing.  One source of these is The New Yorker.  Last week there was a message from Henry Finder with recommendations about articles by Atul Gawande.  As I have been favorably disposed to Gawande's writing in the past I've now read several of these suggestions, though some I had already read previously.  One of the new ones for me is called The Itch

It's a good read so I don't want to give away the story ahead of time.  Here suffice it to say that some of the story is about the neuroscience of mental projection - the itch is all in our head, if you will.  An interesting aspect of this is that sometimes the mind can be fooled and the mental projection thereby changed.  This type of fooling the mind can be the basis of treating a patient who has a disorder that stems from a mental projection.  Beyond treating such disorders, the neuroscience suggests a question that I can't answer (I'm not a neuroscientist) but where I presume the answer is yes nonetheless.  Through trying to make our own mental projections as explicit as we possibly can, and then via experience and coaching about potential alternative views, can we modify our own mental projections to make them less rigid and more accommodating of complexity?  If we can, the mental exercise I have in mind should be partly aimed toward this end.

There is then that the exercise should vary depending on where we are in our development; it should move us along from our current position in a way that makes us better off.  I think it is helpful to imagine a continuum where at one end is the free thinker who comes up with all ideas via independent thought and at the other end is a member of the Borg, part of the hive mind and incapable of thinking or acting on one's own.  I'm comfortable in arguing that neither extreme is an ideal point for any of us.  Even Thoreau, after living at Walden pond, did not remain a hermit thereafter. 

I also suspect there is not one right ideal point for all of us, but just the same that most of us feel we are currently not at our own ideal point.  As a teacher of college students, I dare say that most students don't come to their own ideas independently enough.  Outside of how students go about their studies, which itself tends to make students followers (of what the instructor spits out, social media encourages group think.  The like button itself encourages a "ditto" response.  In the classroom students are afraid of looking stupid.  Outside the classroom are also frightened by the prospect of loneliness.  Independent thought might very well be a turnoff to others.  So the bias, I suspect, encourages conformity.  Consequently, most of us will drift toward the Borg end of the spectrum unless we consciously try to counter that effect. 

In trying to come up with examples of people who are excessively independent minded, my list is far shorter and the well known examples are of people who suffered a huge amount of personal torment and possibly had mental illness.  Vincent Van Gogh, for example, ended up committing suicide. So rather than try to come up with examples of people I actually know in this category, at the risk of embarrassing them and me, let me mention a movie that is watchable called Mozart and the Whale, about two people with Asperger's Syndrome who fall in love.  Life is too hard for them.  A bit more conformity would have made things much easier.  Some things we should just do with no questions asked.  Every little decision we make is not worthy of social commentary and critique.

Let me close this section on a somewhat different note, about the balance of play and work that should be in any type of exercise.  The real payoff to exercise doesn't result unless it becomes a routine activity done out of habit.  Making new habits, more healthful ones than the prior habits they are aimed at replacing, surely is not easy.  The fun part is there to encourage sticking to it. But if it is all fun, can it be healthful too?  With mental exercise, in particular, the test of it working is whether there is learning.  It is possible to fool ourselves that we are learning something new when we really are not.  As I'm writing this piece I'm asking myself whether I'm just spitting up the same story I've already told many times before or if there is something new here.  It's not easy to come to a determination because we're making a mosaic, with the basic ingredients things we already do know.  So, as Jonathan Lethem wrote so eloquently, each of our creations is a plagiarism.  What I have come to realize is to give it some time and try to see the larger pattern.  Glaciers move, if however slowly.  If you want evidence of that movement, however, you'll have to wait.

* * * * *

So there is no mystery as to the right sort of exercise, at least at the broad strokes level, we make sense of complexity by coming up with stories to explain what's going on.  Everyone makes sense of complexity that same way.  Good stories line up with many of the arrows and seem to explain things pretty well.  Bad stories don't fit the facts very well.  There is a different way stories can be good or bad.  Story telling is an art.  A good telling engages the listener, a bad one not so much.

Much of the exercise then is simply to experience the stories told by others and do this a lot.  This will give a sense of what makes for a good story, in both meanings.  The other part of the exercise is to imitate the story tellers, trying one's hand at similar stories that have a bit of the person's own experience in it as well.  This imitation story telling can happen in many different guises, with some of the common forms having a conversation with friends, daydreaming, and writing.  For those who get enough practice of this sort, they may then venture further from their inspiration and try their hand at stories that feature more of their own inventions.  Everyone needs a lot of practice of this sort.

* * * * *

Issues do emerge however when you get down to brass tacks, as the title of my post suggests.  It matters how the practitioner gets the stories.  Reading the book is a different sort of experience from watching the movie.  Many people have commented on this and I will do this as well in what follows. 

But first let me comment on the authors I've mentioned above.  While with Orwell you might be able to get at some his work through the movies (I watched the film version of 1984 not that long ago), you don't really get to know him that way.  It is not surprising to me now that we read both 1984 and Animal Farm when I was in high school.  Sometime later I also read Homage to Catalonia on my own.  You can't get at that book via the movies.

Likewise with Thoreau, you can get at him indirectly through the movies.  By doing some searches at IMDB, I learned there is a film called, New Walden.  And you can get at some of Thoreau's ideas via more popular movies, such as Gandhi, an Academy Award winner, or even Bound for Glory.  I found both of these movies compelling, but the viewing experience was entirely unlike reading Civil Disobedience, which I would recommend as a summer read, if you have some time to spare.

For the more contemporary writers I mentioned, Gawande and Lethem, perhaps you might learn a bit about them via popular media.  I believe Gawande appeared on The Colbert Report and I heard Lethem give an interview with Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air. But there is no counterpart for the particular essays I linked to in other media. You either read those or you miss out.  Those are the only alternatives.  This much of the argument is that reading is still necessary as a way to stay informed.

Of course, you can't read everything that is out there.  Nobody can, not even the most bookish of people.  Given that and given that each of us will read different things, by happenstance and in accord with our own interests, who is to say that a student doesn't read enough?

Yet if we are to think of the triad in how kids allocate their recreation time: (1) playing computer or video games, (2) watching TV, and (3) reading, who is to say that most kids get a good and appropriate balance here?  There are some obvious reasons why reading might get short changed.  It can't be done with friends, the entry requirements are higher to make good progress with it, and the lags are longer to get some satisfaction from the activity.

Some may respond, so what?  So reading suffers in competition with alternative forms of recreation.  What of it?  Indeed, 10 years ago the NY Times Magazine featured a piece called Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  If the argument in that piece is right, why read any more than you absolutely have to?

I don't dispute that there is some puzzle solving in any form of media consumption.  But with reading, there is the issue of making good meaning from what is being read as an ongoing challenge for the reader.  This is quite apart from any puzzles posed by the narrative.  In contrast, entry into the narrative of a TV show is more or less immediate.  A viewer can do this with autonomous mental processes only.  That leaves the conscious mind to focus on the narrative, or perhaps to mull over what happened at work that day, with the chatter on the TV serving more as background noise to enable this sort of reflection.

My sense is that too many students, including students we think of as quite able, aren't sufficiently skilled at making good meaning from what they read.  Here I'm talking about pieces meant for a general audience.  If you take that as a starting point and then ask whether students are aware that they aren't fully understanding, what conclusion will you draw if the answer to that question is yes?  How could reading possibly be enjoyable for you if you didn't get it?  There are the elements of a vicious cycle in these questions. 

What might be done to break this cycle?  I definitely don't have a fully formed program to address this question, but I wonder about the following.  Do college courses actually contribute to the vicious cycle, by having the readings so arcane and the textbooks so dry that nobody would consider reading them for pleasure?  If so, could one construct a set of courses based solely on readings that touch the students in some way?  And if one did this, might the students learn more about the subject matter because they actually did an liked the reading?

More broadly, my view is a reading program based on the reader's intrinsic motivation should be tried.  This would require finding readings that fit in terms of the reader's current capacity to make meaning, the reader's interest in subject matter, and the quality of the writing to evoke a strong response.  There are reading coaches for some select students at the grade school level (those with a proven learning disability).   If we had reading coaches much more broadly deployed might we change the trajectory we currently seem to be one where each successive generations reads less and less for pleasure?

My hope is that it would.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Backing In

Today I want to speak in metaphors, using the outcome of golf tournament that concluded yesterday evening as a way to consider many other aspects of life.  One of the big underlying questions in the system of rewards in which we live is whether we get what we deserve based on the merits - our effort and the performance that effort generates is sufficient in itself to explain the reward - or if we somehow luck into it.  I have been in the luck into it camp for some time, though I must say that until that golf tournament I had mainly thought of luck as different.  Good luck amplifies the performance, so you seem to act at a higher level.  Backing in is a different way to consider luck and to note that much reward is based on relative performance. If your own performance is okay, but not great, yet everyone else is mediocre, you can then back into the title.  In the record books it appears as a win.  But to the viewers, it is not so much a win for you as it is a loss for your competitors.

Let me talk about it in the context of the golf tournament first, which is where idea seems most obvious. Read the first few paragraphs at the link about the mind set of Jordan Spieth, who ended up winning the tournament.  He did not feel like a winner till the very end.  He felt like he blew it, which he did.  He had a lead but then double bogeyed the 17th hole to move into a tie for the lead.  He then birdied the 18th, which gave him a chance, but only a chance.  If he had made a par on the 17th he would have had the thing won or at worst possibly enable a playoff the next day.  As it was, he could lose the thing outright.

Indeed, that appeared to be what would happen.  Spieth was in the penultimate group.  In the last group was Dustin Johnson, who bombs his drives and embraces a low key nothing-ever-bothers-me look. After Spieth made his birdie at 18 Johnson is one stroke back.  But 18 is a par five.  After Johnson hits another bomb off the tee and makes a perfect approach shot, he looks to be in excellent position to make his eagle and win the tournament outright.  At worst it seemed he'd make birdie, which would set up that playoff with Spieth.  Instead, he ends up three putting the green and losing the tournament to Spieth by one stroke.  If you were watching this, and I watched all day, (that is a different story that I might write about in the next day or two) you had the sensation that Johnson lost it, not that Spieth had won it.

* * * * * 

Now I want to apply this metaphor to other aspects of life.  Presidential campaigns seem a place to start, but I'll leave that particular example to the reader, other than to note that it might get us to consider more broadly the role that inheritance plays in our own lives.  So as not to step on the toes of anyone else, I'll focus on my own situation next.  Is backing in a way to reflect on my academic career, in part or whole?

As I transitioned from economic theory to learning technology, there is no doubt that this move was aided by being in the right place at the right time and with being friendly with important people who enabled my success.  This was first Larry, then Burks, then a bunch of other folks as well.  So there was a lot of luck, no doubt.  But during that time I really didn't aspire to make that transition.  It just sort of happened, so that doesn't quite fit.  And a year later when there was a lot of pressure on about whether online learning would lower the cost of instructions, pressure that led to the SCALE Efficiency Projects, which in turn resolved that pressure, I did perform what was necessary to get us through that circumstance. 

There is a broader sense, however, where all of this was a kind of backing in.  Illinois is a research university and at research university, not surprisingly, research is king.   Teaching and learning, in contrast, particularly at the undergraduate level, were considered second tier activities, at best, though as I've written elsewhere the institution's outward looking face represents teaching and learning as a perfect complement to research.  Inwardly, however, we knew it wasn't.  Thus, without the technology hook there was no way to consider teaching and learning seriously and make it one's career.  Online learning allowed me and many others to back into this.  The technology offered a veneer.  Using technology in support of learning was innovation, or so it seemed.  The place was about innovation. 

There is a lot of irony about this for me at a personal level, and for the institution as well.  Over the years I've come to view the technology as of modest importance and what matters most is to have an innovative/entrepreneurial faculty member who is willing to experiment with the teaching.  When I see that sort of behavior in others, it clearly comes with a recognition that this is self-expression and what the person wants to do, but the behavior falls largely outside the norms that define the place. So these people have a sense that they are mavericks, even if they also are very good citizens and publicly spirited.  The place really wasn't entitled to have any instructors of this sort, if considered from the underlying norms.  Yet in the mid 1990s it seemed such people were abundant, though at the time it can be said that the Internet captured the imagination of many. 

But in this Illinois was special...then.  NCSA was at Illinois and the Mosaic browser came out of NCSA.  (This is another example of backing in.  Mosaic was a skunkworks project by a handful or graduate students.  The institution then appropriated the narrative and attributed the innovation to the place.)  This followed Plato.  There already was a history of technology in support of learning.  This history created an ambiance that empowered the maverick instructors, whether they were actually hooked into what the place was known for or not.  And cash flowed then.  That helped with the empowerment.

So while the institution may very well have backed into the the good works of the maverick faculty, at the time it appeared that the institution was cultivating these people.  And to the extent that I came of age as an administrator then, I was able to ride that wave.

I feel much more like a maverick now, doing my own thing with teaching irrespective of how it fits (or doesn't fit) with the institution's way of doing things.  Part of the irony for me now is that this maverick view may give me a better sense of what the institution should be doing than I ever could get when I was doing my campus job.

* * * * *

One of the disappointments I have with teaching, and I suppose that many other instructors are similarly situated, is that I make myself available for students to attend office hours and many of the students really should attend some of those, but the vast majority of the students don't.  In fall 2013, I had a student who was the exception.  She came quite regularly.  She worked a job as a legal intern, so used to meet quite late in the afternoon, and she'd be pretty tired by then.  But she was diligent in keeping up with these meetings.  Ultimately she did quite well in the course, even though at the start it was a struggle.

I wish this was the norm for students who find my course challenging, but it is far from it.  I want to use that observation as backdrop for two different ideas that I seem to have back into and that might be worth considering further.

One of these I've talked about before - modular instructional video something, like Khan Academy stuff, but on more advanced topics and possibly using software to illustrate the ideas rather than simple capture of writing on a blackboard or whiteboard.  But the main thing is where the videos are located - in some public repository, YouTube for example. And the other thing that he videos answer the question why, as well as how.

Back in spring 2011, I made a bunch of these sort of videos for intermediate micro.  They are available at my ProfArvan channel and are the ones from four years ago.  Some of them continue to get hits.  In contrast, I did an experiment with a Website called Asked the Prof, and invited students who might have viewed one or two of my videos to pose a question about intermediate micro that I would answer at the site.  That experiment failed.  The flow was never more than a trickle and for now it has stopped completely.  I don't have a complete explanation for this, but I'm guessing the reasons are mainly psychological.  Students come to the videos looking for some help on something they don't understand.  They do this in preference to going to see their own instructor by attending that instructor's office hours.  Ask the Prof, however, reposts their queries so all can see.  Even though they can give just a first name, and really they can give an alias, I'd have no way of knowing who they actually are, that seems enough to deter the queries.

Now to the new one.  I started to mentor an Illinois Promise student sometime this spring.  He's been on campus for a while but started out as a music major and only recently transferred into economics. That makes the situation unusual as most of the mentoring happens with first-year students, the research showing that is the time of greatest risk for these kids in adjusting to campus life.   In fact, we've had only a few prior sessions and these were all a tad awkward because he had expressed a career interest that I wasn't sure economics was a great fit for and because I lacked expertise in this area.  But he told me this summer he'd stay in Champaign to get caught up on the math requirement rather than try for an internship.  (He had an internship last summer.)  I told him that I'm pretty good in math and might be able to help him with it should the need arise.

The eight week summer session started last Monday.  Last Friday I got an email query from him about some of the math that he was confused on.  Rather than simply answer his questions, I made a brief PowerPoint and then a short video based on it to cover the fundamentals that would be needed.  I then answered his questions.  He was appreciative of this and asked if it were okay to ask more.  I said sure.  We had quite a flurry of back and forth about this.  Email is not the best way to do this.  Face to face meeting would be better.  But email was do-able.  It's not clear that face to face meeting will happen, even in the future.  We'll see.

I don't believe the mentoring is set up so that the mentor should become a tutor in some course.  And I certainly wasn't looking for that when I said I'd serve as a mentor.  But why not?  This kid needs help with the math.  Lots of kids need this sort of help but don't get it.  If the kid is comfortable with getting it in some way, isn't that better than nothing?

* * * * *

There is something to be said for a win being a win, if you end up winning by backing into it.  Most of my experiments with teaching fail.  When something seems to work, let's not look down our noses at it because it wasn't planned that way.

On the flip side, as a sports fan I'm not yet ready to anoint Jordan Speith as the heir apparent to Tiger Woods, even though Speith now has two majors and he is still only 21.  It could be, but I'm not convinced yet. Now if he wins the British Open, that will be a different matter.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Cool Software Or Knowing How To Tell A Story?

In my Facebook News Feed this morning there was an ad for PowToon, a cartoon making software that has a free version to it, but really has a tiered pricing structure. In the old days, I would have put in substantial amount of time into playing with software like this and find out what it was capable of, making a few cartoons myself to put the technology through its paces.

I no longer have the energy to do this, even though I have a lot of time on my hands.  Part of this is definitely simply aging and having less oomph in all things as a consequence.  Another part, however, is lessons I learned from the last time I tried something like this. 

It began with this Mockumentary that I made eight years ago.  If you view it now you'll find the technology it demonstrated rather quaint.  I leave it to the reader to determine whether it is still really watchable.  At the time, I shared it with some friends and I got a positive reaction to it, though I will note it didn't get a very wide viewing, so they may have been humoring me more than anything else with their responses. 

It used Camtasia and PowerPoint.  The music was a midi version of the song converted to an MP3 and then inserted into a sound track in Camtasia.  All the images were found on the Web, either jpegs that were downloaded or screen shots of content found online.  I subsequently found even easier ways to produce the content.  My ultimate goal was to get students to make these sort of things as their project in my course.  In this the technology should empower the students, which is why ease in the production technique matters. 

As to the content of the piece, the key was finding a quote from Steve Jobs in talking about the Kindle.  He said it would fail because, "nobody reads anymore."  In retrospect it is hard to know if he was talking out of both sides of his mouth then or if changed his mind after the Kindle started to make headway.  It certainly seems that the iPad was response to the challenge the Kindle posed. 

In any event, I glommed onto that quote and particularly the word "nobody."  I found a New Yorker cartoon that had a picture of a nobody sitting around a table with a couple of others - somebodys.  And the music I chose was Your Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, which I also used as the punchline, so the video plays like something of a shaggy dog story.  Putting the pieces together, this focus helped to keep them connected.  Establishing some theme that carries through for the entire piece is necessary to turn the presentation into a story. 

A year later I had students make something similar in a course I taught for campus honors students.  I had some students make something similar this past fall, as an extra credit project.  I do think doing projects of this sort has some long term value.  The thinking in making something like this is very similar to the sort of thinking needed in writing a good one pager, especially one that serves as executive summary for a longer document.

It may be harder to find an overall theme that can be easily represented and that encapsulates all the ideas in the presentation in that projects that the students work on than it was in my mockumentary.  But it also might be that students don't know how to find such a theme, even when one might be available. 

Instead of the dreaded six paragraph essay, the introductory rhetoric class should teach students how to tell a story.  Even if it did that, however, the students would need a lot of practice to get that lesson to stick.  Right now it seems they get neither the lesson nor the practice ahead of taking my class.  That makes me lukewarm on wanting to try this sort of thing again and the real reason why the technology doesn't grab me now.  Maybe an instructor with more energy than I have will try it and let us all know how it worked.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trade but at what price?

You don't need to be an economist to know that things are different now.  It used to be that if you were Liberal that the single variable you cared most about as representation of how the macro economy was doing was the unemployment rate.  Inflation came next in importance.  If you were Conservative the order of importance was reversed.  There was thought to be a tradeoff between the two represented by the Phillips Curve.  Maybe for a while there was.  Now that no longer seems to be the case.  Having a job is no longer a plum.  As the gallows humor goes - now you need to have two or three of those jobs to make a decent living.  In other words, when we used to talk about the Phillips Curve most jobs were good jobs.  Now good jobs are rather scarce.  We never used to talk about income distribution.  Now its the rage.

On matters of trade, particularly trade across national boundaries, I'm afraid that our rhetoric is biased in favor of hardware, which is clearly private good and sells at a price, and against software, which is often public good (meaning the incremental cost of another user getting it is essentially zero).  I am using these terms metaphorically here.  Digital video is considered as software in this view.  Likewise, a prescription drug is software.  I hope the reader can come up with many other such examples.  In this piece I will be concerned mainly with how software is priced, though let me briefly mention that bundles of software and hardware packaged together also should be a concern.

Consider doing a Google search and then going to some of the Web pages recommended by the search engine.  Is that trade?   I use a program called StatCounter (the free version, which has ads in it) to track hits on my blog.  No doubt my use of StatCounter is trade.  But what of people who read my blog?  Is that trade too?  There are no ads.  No money changes hands as a consequence.  Below is a list of the origins for the last several hits on my blog.  Does the fact that all of these are from abroad make those hits international trade?

India FlagGhaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
Chile FlagTalca, Maule, Chile
Switzerland FlagGeneve, Switzerland
Greece FlagAthens, Attiki, Greece
Greece FlagThessaloníki, Thessaloniki, Greece
France FlagFrance
France FlagParis, Ile-de-france, France
France FlagFrance
Hong Kong FlagCentral District, Hong Kong 

If it is trade, but non-monetized trade, how can it be valued?  I can give an economic theory answer.  If the people who generate those hits are better off having reading whatever post(s) they looked at, then the value is the sum of their willingness to pay for the privilege.  But that theoretical answer is not very satisfying in practice.  As is well understood in the economics of public goods, practical attempts at eliciting people's willingness to pay in order to allocate the cost of the public good to the users will fail miserably because of what is termed the free rider problem

As an author rather than as an economist, I have a different conception of the value of my blog posts.  The number of hits, something which is easy to count, is a poor measure of value.  Here I think the well known Dorothy Parker quip is applicable.

You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think. 

The hit is very much like leading the horse to water.  Value happens when the reader has found what she was looking for in the search or, even if not that, it gives the reader some ideas she didn't have before.  I have two ways of knowing that my posts have some value.  One is via reader comments where they say as much.  Another is from observing readers who repeatedly come to the site.  Why make a return visit unless there is value expected in doing so?  For the others who visit the site only once and don't comment, I don't know if there is value or not. 

Software pricing can seem quite arbitrary and often is.  Consider this little example.  After all these years of being addicted to The West Wing, I think I've finally reached the point where I'm fatigued with the show.  I watched it first in reruns (I believe on the Bravo Network).  Then I got the entire series as a boxed set of DVDs.  Then I watched it online via Netflix and Amazon Prime.  (We have both, go figure.)  When it was TV programming it was public good, paid for by the commercials.  The DVDs made it into a private good.  My wife paid for it when she gave me the boxed set as a gift.  Streaming the video over the Internet puts it back into the public goods arena.  Netflix pricing is pure access pricing.  It's like buying a library card.  Once you are a member you have access to everything in the library.  (Unlike a book lending library, you never have to worry about another reader checking it out first.)  The value of access then depends on what's in the library.  Amazon Prime offers something of a mixed model.  Some items are pure access, like Netflix.  Others are pay per view.  The odd thing with The West Wing is that when I first went online to watch it it was pure access for both Netflix and Amazon Prime.  But now it is still pure access on Netflix yet pay per view for Amazon Prime.  Why?

This is not an isolated example.  Another is the schlock but adorable movie about George Sand and Chopin called Impromptu.  It used to be pure access at both Netflix and Amazon Prime.  It is no longer available at Netflix and is now pay per view at Amazon Prime.  Access, it seems, is for a time window only.  Outside this time window access is limited.  Whose interest is served when what was once freely available to members of the subscription service is no longer free or no longer available at all?

With hardware pricing the usual trajectory over time is for the new product to be fairly pricey at first and then for price to come down, as a result of learning by doing in production, Moore's Law, and entry by rivals, all of which encourage price to drop.  The trajectory of software pricing should be different, especially software like the videos I've mentioned above that once produced have no incremental production costs such as from needing to be remastered or modified in some other way.  Better here to think of the production costs as entirely sunk, at least at first pass.  Those costs were incurred in the past.  Standard economic efficiency arguments would then suggest that socially optimal pricing would be to make the items free and readily available, after they have had their run where access charges or pay per view were in force to cover their production costs.  That we are not seeing this but rather something else suggests that market power is determining the pricing.  Whether that is market power by the Hollywood Studios or by Netflix and Amazon or a combination of the two I can't say.  I don't know the contractual details between the parties.  An insider, I'm sure, could set us straight on this matter.

I am writing this piece in reaction to Tom Friedman's column from this morning.  I didn't like the column at all.  Friedman takes as a given that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good thing for America and therefore since House Democrats blocked it they must be evil in some way (they are moving leftward in a populist way).  But the argument presented amounts to trade is good - by assertion.  If you are against trade you must be evil.  It seems to me we could make the discussion a bit more nuanced as follows.  TPP might lower entry barriers for small companies who then can export to Pacific countries that they find difficult to penetrate at present.  TPP might also enhance market power of large multinationals, particularly those in the software business (as I've defined software above).  How much of it is one and how much of it is the other?  And how would you know the answer to that?  Posing it this way, we might conclude that the devil is in the details of the agreement.  Who understands those details?

Even the opponents of TPP (I'm thinking specifically of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren here) seem to have fallen into a trap in arguing about this because they use NAFTA as a point of reference and therefore consider it only from the angle of whether it is a jobs destroyer or not.  Most economists when thinking about market power and legislation think of intellectual property law and antitrust law.  On the first, I've written a while ago about how horrible copyright law is at present in a piece called Kopy Wrong.  Term structure is much closer to the pure monopoly solution (favoring Hollywood) than to the socially optimal answer and the nature of the business, as a consequence, has come to rely on the occasional blockbuster with many quite expensive bombs being produced as well in the oft chance it will turn into the next big cash cow.  I am less knowledgeable about patent law, but I do have a sense that sleeping patents are now being used by the big guys as a way to deter entry and to beat up on rivals.  How much attention is that issue getting?  Companies that we now think of as innovative, like Apple and Google, might readily become ossified, content to earn their monopoly rents, if they no longer need to be concerned about the threat of entry.  What does TPP do on this score?   I have no idea.  Does Friedman know?  Do any of the other pundits who are supporting TPP know? 

Antitrust law, here I mean the Sherman Act and the subsequent Clayton Act, came into being because the way the Constitution originally envisioned industry should be regulated, by the states, proved to be inadequate by the late 1800s.  I wrote about this in a post on Progressivism, with the relevant section of the piece linked here. By essentially the same argument, in Friedman's flat world the right scope of authority to regulate large multinational companies would itself be an international organization.  Thus, one role that TPP might play is as the 21st century analog of antitrust law.  Is it doing that?  A cynic might argue that what's happening is that the big multinationals are writing the legislation themselves as a way to block subsequent legislation of this sort that might have more teeth to it.  Does anyone know which is happening here?  How would one tell?

Let me take on one other point that Friedman makes and then wrap this up.  It is on the immigration issue, particularly by East Asian young adults who are going to college in the U.S. and whether they should be on the fast track for a green card after they graduate, if they so desire.  The recommendation sounds like the smart thing to do.  (The ones I've had in my class are often quite talented and even more often very hard working.)  But like most of the ideas in this piece today, this one isn't fully fleshed out.  Consider Chinese nationals, in particular.  They are apt to be the only child in their family.  What of their parents?  Can the parents get a green card too?  What sort of immigration policy would it be if it allowed the child but blocked the parents?  Alternatively, since the parents would not have gone to college in the U.S., might not be nearly as proficient in English as the child, and yet might consume social services without having previously paid taxes to fund those social services, if the parents are part of the package it is less obvious that overall it is a good deal.  It might still be, but it is a harder case to make.

Indeed, that is my main point.  Even when considering the market power issues, overall TPP might be a good deal.  But you really need to work these things through, because it might not.  And then it might be that reasonable people disagree about whether it is a good deal or not.  But instead of working it through you get endorsement of TPP coupled with the criticism that anyone who is against it is a populist of the far left or the far right.

Can't we do better than that in arguing about the policy? 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reverse Engineering a Smart Kid

When an 8 or 9 year old shows some aptitude and inclination for sports, an adult who spots this may know himself what sort of activities - the things to practice and how much time to put into that practice, movies of star performers to view who might serve as role models, coaches to seek out for more specific advice and possibly private training - will help the kid advance further and sustain interest at the same time.  Alternatively, suppose the kid shows neither interest nor inclination but the adult would like to jump start the kid as an athletic performer.  Can that be done?  What activities would be involved here if it were possible?  How would he know these things stand a chance of working?

Perhaps something similar might be said/asked about musical performance, dance, comedy, drama, art, and any other activity where an audience can see and/or hear what is going on with the kid.  That rules out activities where the kid uses her mind, reading being the quintessential example but watching a challenging show on TV should also count, as would playing on the computer.  These activities of the mind are largely invisible to the adult.  A parent, teacher, or librarian might see a kid absorbed reading a book, that much of what the kid does is viewable by others.  But what the kid is thinking while the kid reads is anyone's guess.  Similarly, when kids are at school (and at pre-school too) their behavior in ensemble activity can be observed to some extent.  The teacher can recognize who is following the discussion and who appears distracted and some performance variables can be garnered in this setting.  It is much harder to get at anything interesting about the kid's thinking when she is engaged in solitary activity. 

Perhaps the best that can be done here is for the kid to perform some after the fact reflection, record that either in writing or speech, and then have those reflections shared.  On this point let's borrow from Weight Watcher's who argue that tracking all you eat by writing it down makes you more mindful of what you are putting into your mouth and helps you stick to your diet, without having lots of little cheats that most dieters are prone to indulge in.  While too much of this might make a kid anal retentive, a bit of it each day could give the kid focus.  When I was a kid we did something like this with individualized reading.  You kept a notebook where you'd write down each book you read, title and author, perhaps when you started and finished it, and a sentence or two about what you got out of the book.  Then, once a week, you'd have a conference with your teacher, after the teacher had a chance to read through your notebook.  Something similar could be done now.  Those student-teacher conferences could be recorded as well.

Further, those reflections and student-teacher conferences, when considered in aggregate, especially in conjunction with more ordinary school performance information, would be an incredibly interesting object of study.  Would the reflections of a really good student be qualitatively different from the more typical student?  If so, how?  Can kids who seem to be slow starters catch up with their classmates with the right sort of encouragement from the teacher?  What does that encouragement look like?

I have two interrelated core beliefs about how smart kids learn and the type of habits we'd like to see established in all kids so they can be smart.  Both of these are based on Ericsson et. al. and their notion of deliberate practice, as the way expertise gets developed.  The smart kid is one who gets lots of the right sort of practice in learning.  Other kids get less practice, or none at all  The first belief is about learning as play/entertainment.  Kids will persist at play.  It's what they want to do for its own sake.  The smart kid has discovered how to make learning a playful activity.  It would work wonders if all kids could discover that.  The second belief is that when kids encounter areas where they are less proficient than their peers they immediately need to get friendly coaching to let them slowly improve their performance in this area.  With the coaching and the steady practice that accompanies it, they learn to overcome their shortcomings and not let those harden into phobias.  They develop confidence that they can transcend their own limitations.  In contrast, once the phobia has formed it becomes incredibly difficult to undo it.  Learning may be permanently blocked in this case. 

I'm not sure at what level in school kids become concerned with their grades, but I suspect it is much earlier than is desirable.  A friend who goes back to elementary school with me recalled one of those experiences that really set her back.  She got a bad score on a math test in third grade that became known to the class as a whole because she protested it with the teacher and the teacher responded none too kindly.  This was third grade!   In my college teaching now I see many students who are math phobic.  I suspect that this can be tied to such early experiences that had no associated remedy to get the kid over the hurdle.  We need to understand this phenomenon much better than we currently do.  The people who argue for accountability need to understand the inadvertent blocking of learning it engenders.  The way to show this is to get evidence of the sort I'm talking about here - students reflecting on their current experience.  It is possible to do this and it is how the learning agenda can be fundamentally altered. 

Whether my beliefs about smart kids are spot on or not, an ethnographic approach to the kids reflections would help us understand these ideas and related matters.  It also would help teachers be able to individualize their instruction in a way so that all students can make improvement from where they currently are.  We are now overly concerned with snapshot performance measures of entire classes and entire schools.  We should be much more focused on whether kids are improving - moving down their own learning curve.  This approach would get the kids to think that way as well.

There is a related issue that needs to be considered seriously about workload for the teachers.  If teachers have to grade homework and exams, how will they have the time to carefully consider student reflections as well?  The answer to this, I believe, is that two quite different things need to happen.  First, there must be much greater automation of homework, while at the same time making the assignments more meaningful and not mindless drill.   I observed mindless drill in much of what my kids did for the math homework when they were in high school.  Automation is especially possible with math but is also do-able in some science and social science subjects.  It is a shame we haven't made more progress here.

The other part is to make teaching more labor intensive.  People will ask how this is affordable, given that many states are in fiscal trouble and if anything have been laying off some of their teachers.  Consider this possible solution.  National service, for both young adults and able bodied senior citizens, should be on the radar for those arguing that college should be free.  It is a natural to tie national service to free college, just as has been done for military service for years and years.  It is also clear the our labor market will be soft for years and years to come, so arguments against national service because they rob the labor market of talent are not compelling now.  There is then the further thought that good students are not going into teaching at present.  But if they experienced life as a teacher via national service and enjoyed the activity, some would make it a career. 

Let me make one more point and close.  Even Diane Ravitch errs by asserting that our schooling is pretty good in wealthier school districts, so assumes the entire problem with K-12 education is in schools in low income districts.  But many kids from the wealthier districts don't learn up to their potential, though they mask the non-learning better.  Instead of real learning these kids play the credential game.   In my view they do this because they have been stigmatized in various ways - "I'm not good at x."  Maybe in some instances they really aren't.  But in many cases they simply haven't allowed for deliberate practice over a sufficient duration to let them really learn.  The above arguments that I am making should probably be tried in wealthier school districts first, to see if they matter there.

Maybe well to do parents don't want to admit that their daughter hasn't been learning to the fullest, but it does seem to me that some persuasion on this point, based on the sort of evidence I see when teaching some of these kids as juniors or seniors in college, is more apt to convince parents, thus enabling piloting of these ideas.  And the wealthier school districts almost certainly have ways to get around apparent resource constraints.  So I'd start there.  But I mean these suggestions to ultimately find their way for all kids in school if they seemed to work well when tried in pilot mode.  For those who are not pleased with current reforms, doesn't this sound like something worth trying? 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The School of Giggles

Max Beerbohm once declined to be lured into a hike to the Summit of a Swiss Alp. "Put me down," he said firmly, "as an anti-climb Max."
From page 40 of the Puns section in Jokes, Riddles, and Puns which in spite of (or maybe because of) the title is the middle section of the book. 

My dad got us that book in 1962, when I was 7.  His inscription said:  To Marlene, Lanny, and Peter - The joke's on me.  I have that book now.  It's something I took out of the old house before my parents sold it.  The book is a constant reminder of my dad and how important humor was to him.  Here's another from the book, our favorite.  It's from the last page of the Riddles section and is #2 in a series about the Bigger family.

Q:  Mrs. Bigger had a baby.  Now who was bigger?
A:  The baby, because he was a little bigger.

As much as I liked jokes of this sort, at some point in my life, I think it was during high school but maybe it was college or even later, I segued mainly from telling canned jokes to mostly trying for spontaneous humor, reacting to the situation, whatever it was.  I don't know what drove that exactly, but I'm guessing it came out of playing with friends.  Below are a bunch of snippets to illustrate.

* * *

This is before high school.  How much before I can't remember.  David Sterman was my best friend and his family had a second home in New Jersey that I went to on occasion along with them.  On the return of one of those trips David and I are sitting in the back seat of their car, with David's mom and dad up front.  His dad is driving.  We are laughing uncontrollably.  We did that fairly often.  Apparently we were getting on the nerves of David's Dad.  He told us to stop, but we wouldn't or couldn't.  So he made us count the license plate numbers of the cars ahead of us.  My parents never did that with us.

* * *

This is either junior or senior year in high school.  I'm not sure which.  We're on the math team and we took a course called math team workshop, which had its own weirdness and humor built in, from the antics of Harold Rosenthal, the former chair of the math department, to Feuerstein claiming he had a proof of The Butterfly Theorem, only he didn't. Mr. Conrad was the coach.  He told us if we didn't know the answer to a question to write eight over five pi.  (I'm spelling it out here.  We were supposed to write it in symbols.)  Not surprisingly, at a math meet there is a problem I can't get so I follow instructions, or so I thought.  Afterward Mr. Conrad gives me some grief, not because I didn't get the problem but because I wrote eight fifths pi.

* * *

Now it's definitely senior year in high school.  I'm playing on the tennis team, first doubles with my partner Jimmy Kraft.  And I'm driving him bonkers because in the middle of a match I'm singing to myself the jingle from the Diet-Rite Cola Commercial.

People who don't need it, drink it.
Folks not on a diet, try it.
Everybody likes it...Diet-Rite Cola.
Everybody likes it...Diet-Rite Cola.
Everybody likes - and you know why?
Cause it tastes so good. 

Kraftella thought this was a distraction, which is why it was annoying him.  But I have an inner need to keep singing it, a way to stay in the point.  The second line of the ditty grabbed me.  As a result, the rest did too.

* * *

This one is probably senior year too.  I am with some friends from the Program Office (possibly Leslie and Margot, maybe the Grooper as well) and one or two teachers (one was definitely Mr. Sarrel) and they've decided to go to Stratford to see a play by Shakespeare.  On the drive up we pass a pickup truck that has a bunch of tires in the cargo area.  I say aloud, "I wonder if that driver is tired."  My Sarrel responds, "Oh, Lanny!"  His response was appropriate.  It was a terrible joke, with no cleverness to it at all.  But it is one I remember telling, with it clearly situational, and evidently I didn't care about making a fool of myself in the presence of an adult, something that seems particularly important for developing a sense of humor.

* * *

This one may be both junior and and senior years.  There were several commercials on TV that were for the NYC metropolitan area only.  One of those was for a place that sold appliances called JGE.  In the commercial the tagline was - What's the story Jerry?  Then Jerry would tell you how he can get the appliance for you at the wholesale price.  A different one of these was for Savings Bank Life Insurance.  The tagline there was - No dice Nevada, you can't buy SBLI.  Somehow Billy Seiden and I internalized the No dice Nevada part and used the line quite a lot when talking with each other.  (For a while we were very good friends.)  Why this line was appealing, I can't say.  But there is no doubt that we glommed onto it.

* * *

I could go on.  Instead I want to switch to the present.  Quite often now when a friend writes something - a post in Facebook or an email message, for example - I get a feeling inside me that I need to say something clever in response.  Sometimes I act on that feeling.  Other times I let it pass, especially when I sense that what I've come up with may cause regret after the fact.  So the feeling is there quite often, even more frequently than I express it.  I have no doubt that the origin of the feeling can be found in the elements sketched above, though how much of it is nature and how much is nurture I really don't know.  I do sense my father in me.  Every time this feeling arises I am reminded of my dad.

I wonder how many other people have something like this as part of their personality.  We all repeated jokes we were told as kids, but I'm guessing that not everyone moved onto situational humor and the improvisation that goes with it, after they "graduated" from the joke telling.  While there are some who are quite at ease engaging in friendly banter with people they know very well, which indicates they have the wherewithal to perform situational humor, they nevertheless wouldn't dream of trying out anything like that with people who are only remote acquaintances. For me, I do it with a broader audience.  This way, I get a lot of practice.

Apparently there is some connection between humor and creativity, thought the research reported in the piece at the link is about people viewing the humor generated by somebody else and that making them more creative, while above I've been talking about generating humor on a situational basis.  I wonder if that too has been studied.  This piece suggests yes, but the author appears to be a consultant, and it is unclear to me how much science there is behind what he has to say.

So now I'm just going to assume it is true and assume further that in society as a whole we want to produce more creative people.  Given that, we should want kids to learn to make situational humor from the elements they find then and there. Where might they learn this?  Are they getting lessons in situational humor now, either in school or on the outside?

My sense is that the accountability movement one associates with standardized testing and No Child Left Behind is particularly humorless.  Then the focus on improving tests scores may be turning kids into dullards.  What a horrible punchline.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Second Opinion - From Ourselves

What if Facebook added another button in addition to "Like?"  Suppose it said "Cogitating."  What would you be trying to communicate by clicking that button on somebody else's Status Update?  Might the person who posted the Status Update prefer that sort of response some of the time?

A less commented upon aspect of our always on, face into our portable devices culture is how we come to react to the information we receive on those devices.  The first-thing-that-popped-into-my-mind reaction seems prized over a more deliberate sort of thinking.  The syllogism that springs from such an observation goes like this.  If we are creatures of habit, and our habit is to give snap responses, then that is how we will make judgments all the time. And we'll come to believe that making such snap judgments is thinking, though it really isn't.

I am not entirely opposed to what Malcolm Gladwell calls thin slicing of information.  It is appropriate in certain domains, where an expert is looking at information of a repetitive sort from which a pattern has already been established.  What if the determination is being made by a non-expert, or if the circumstance is a one-off, or even if it is a repeat it is one where a pattern has yet to be found?  Do we really want snap judgments to be made in these instances as well?  Perhaps the reader can identify some instances where thin slicing is still desirable.  I don't want to deny that possibility.  But would any reader want to argue that it is desirable all the time?

I'm particularly interested in making judgments of the form - this is boring, let's look at something else, or of the form - this is really bad, can't we turn our attention elsewhere?  Consider the Big Bopper's famous song Chantilly Lace and, in particular, the tag line from the song - You know what I like.  Doesn't that sound like it blocks anything new, including stuff that is potentially pleasing?

I did a Google search on "how can you avoid snap judgment" (without the quotes). On the first page of hits is a piece by Judith Johnsson at Huffington Post Healthy Living site called, Why You Should Break the Habit of Snap Judgments.  Here Johnson is referring to condemnation of others, something we do all too often, without recognizing the harm that is so created.  I agree.  We also need to stop making snap judgments about our own preferences.  There is harm in doing that as well. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Shyness and Kindness

Economists aren't much concerned with the emotional side of decision making.  Even behavioral economics, with its hyperbolic (time inconsistent) discounting and its thinking fast and slow (time inconsistent and inconsistent in other ways as well), abstracts from much of  the emotional side in decision making.  Here I'm referring to stress and how people respond to it, quite apart from the merits of the case in the situation where a choice must be made, irrespective of what those merits are.  It seems to me that we should pay more attention to the emotional side, learn to speak openly about it, and teach our students about it as well.

Let me begin with a mantra I developed  when I was a campus level administrator:

Anybody can be a hero in a sprint.  Nobody is a hero in a marathon. 

The slogan makes the most sense if the normal situation is neither sprint nor marathon, but something else and that while not entirely stress free is reasonably manageable.  Then the decision maker encounters an unusual situation, in which case an important thing to identify is whether it is a sprint or not.  In a sprint the adrenalin rush, putting in yeoman's hours, and in general rising to the occasion is sufficient to restore things to normal.  The fire does get put out.  People can breathe a sigh of relief.

This, however, is not the right way to respond in a marathon. With the sprint response the person will wear down completely, well before the issue has reached any sort of resolution.  What then?  Part of the answer must be self-protection.  The person needs to get enough sleep, exercise with some regularity, eat right, provide enough recreation that is real diversion, etc.  In other words, everything that we associate with wellness needs to get done. 

But often that necessity is ignored.  Part of the reason is that people don't make the right determination of whether it is a sprint or marathon.  Another part is that they feel responsible and the sprint response is the only way they know how to discharge that responsibility.  A third may be that early on the sprint response is actually thrilling, so it becomes addictive.  The harm from wearing down takes a while to happen.  Absent the proximate cause, the problem is ignored until it is too late.

Many of my friends in higher education who hold administrative positions seem to have gotten beaten up on the job.  The circumstances I'm referring to are self-evident to other campus administrators (or former administrators like me) but may be invisible to faculty and staff who haven't had to confront stress of this sort.  Budget duress is one obvious cause.  Another is the always on Internet and that criticism is apparently omnipresent.  There also may be less civility in our normal discourse - people understand that unless they complain, LOUDLY, they will be ignored.  This factor likely is a byproduct of the other two.  I mention it here because people tend to understand the tactical advantage conferred by their own loudness but to disregard the impact it might have on the well being of others at whom the loudness is directed. 

There is a natural tendency to block/deflect criticism when it is painful to address it squarely.  It may be necessary to do this as a survival skill, but it goes against the grain when considering what thoughtful leadership is supposed to be about, in particular thinking gray.  (See the first chapter of the Contrarian's Guide to Leadership.)  One wonders whether it is possible for campus administrators to sustain thinking gray while not getting beaten up in the present environment.   Finding that seems like the search for the Holy Grail.  It is that question which motivates the next bit, a look at antecedents and some consideration on how they matter, in the hope that something constructive might be done even if finding the Holy Grail remains elusive.

* * * * *

I'm taking my lead here from Eric Hoffer.  The following is from a post written five years ago that I think gives a good summary of the issues.

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. Once living above nature is possible, a different battle commences, the one with our inner selves. The fall happened in the Garden of Eden, when innocence was lost. As we evolved from brutes, the devil emerged to do us ongoing battle. The devil was there with God, right at the outset. Compassion is the result when a battle with the devil is won.

Let's translate this into the current discussion.  I will define shyness here as stress found in a situation that many others (who are confident) would not perceive as stressful.  The shy person is aware that others think of the circumstance as ordinary.  Hence there is shame about being shy.  The sense of shame compounds the stress.  The molehill has turned into a mountain.  It is the shame piece rather than the initial stress where the devil is found. 

The shy person gives into the devil by making an apparent safety play - not engaging with others and remaining quiet.  There is fear of calamity in doing otherwise.  But complete disengagement is not really safe, as it means life passes one by.  Over time, with at first very tiny experiments at interaction, the shy person learns to overcome these limitations to some degree, finding some circumstances where engaging in them more fully is possible. Then when interacting the shy person is apt to be charitable and collegial, understanding full well how fragile comfort and security in interaction actually is.  This is where the devil has been defeated and compassion found.

Hoffer makes another related point, about the source of creativity.  Hoffer divides people into the strong and weak.  The strong are satisfied with the status quo and therefore don't require things to change.  The weak are distressed by how things are as they are traumatized by their current circumstance.  The weak look for solutions out of their dilemma.  That is the spur to creativity.  If a good solution is found the weak become strong as the status quo gets overturned.

It seems an easy translation to map the weak-strong distinction into the shy-confident version.  Much of Hoffer's argument remains intact.  But there is one point that needs elaboration.  Is the now confident person who was once shy compassionate about they shyness of others or instead, having repressed the memory of the former shy self, like the strong as Hoffer describes them?  I can imagine it either way, though my guess is that compassion would fade as the memory of the shy self fades with it.   In my way of thinking, this is another place where the battle with the devil manifests.  We should not let those memories die an easy death, painful as they might be.

This is especially important if most of us are like fish - sometimes in water, other times not.  In other words, if even the seemingly gregarious and confident person is placed in a sufficiently unusual and alien circumstance, the person then will act in a shy manner.  There are potential lessons to be learned from these experiences.  If we are to become more tolerant of one another, this is how it will happen.

There are other aspects of world view that differ whether one is strong or weak.  Looking at our personal history, the strong are likely to recount an earlier age when everyone was strong, as the weak were invisible to them then.  My post from a few days ago can be understood in this way, a weak person taking the strong to task for romanticizing the past, though the example I used had nothing to do with sexual misconduct, and I am a guy, rather large physically, so by an eyeball test wouldn't be taken as weak.

There is also the matter of how our social strictures should be designed to manage transgressions, when the weak get injured via some predatory behavior.  The strong are apt to embrace Social Darwinism.  In other words, the weak need to learn to fend for themselves from the School of Hard Knocks.  In contrast, the weak and their protectors among the strong think that society needs to defend the weak.  The predatory behavior must be proscribed.  Other protections need to be put in place as well.  You see these positions in our national politics when talking about income distribution, just as you see them on our campuses when considering Freedom of Speech versus showing respect for all individuals when in public discourse.

* * * * *

The previous discussion was done in quite an abstract way, making the argument divorced from any specific context.  I did that deliberately, to deflate the balloon so it wouldn't pop.  But now it's time for a real example that makes the emotion more evident.

Before getting to it let me make the following observation.  I'm writing this piece finishing it up Friday morning, a day after I started it.  In the middle of the day yesterday I read this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, For Northwestern, the Kipnis Case Is Painful and Personal.  The piece linked to another authored by Professor Kipnis, the one that started the maelstorm called, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.   (The Chronicle errs by keeping these pieces behind its pay wall.  There is a general public interest in the issues raised in these essays, so they warrant a broader viewing then other content the Chronicle delivers.  For folks at Illinois, the links to the full pieces should work if you are on the Campus network or from home using VPN if you used TunnelAll as the Group when you connect.)   For as well as Professor Kipnis makes her argument, she wasn't an eye witness to what the graduate students went through.  So I thought it would be useful to consider a different situation, one where I was an eye witness, where the power relationships were similar but where there was no issue of sexual predation.  In that other context I draw something of the opposite conclusion that Professor Kipnis reaches.  Either one of use must be wrong or context matters a great deal in making these sort of arguments.  That is worth puzzling about and might add some additional interest to the example I provide.

This is about my first year in graduate school, 1976-77, coincidentally also at Northwestern, and in particular the macroeconomics courses we were required to take.  In the first quarter we had Robert Eisner, who seemed to us students at the time the real world embodiment of the fictional Professor Kingsfield from the film The Paper Chase.  Both kept a seating chart of the class using Delaney cards for that purpose.  Both would call on students in class by making reference to the seating chart, addressing the students as Mr. (or in one case Miss, there were 27 of us at first, only 1 was female) followed by last name.  Both would make some marking on the Delaney card based on how the student answered the question.  (It is worth nothing that John Jay Osborn, who wrote the novel that the film was based on meant it as a searing critique of the brutality of Harvard Law School in the way it treated the students.  While the film showed some of that, it also glorified this trial by ordeal by presenting it from the perspective of Mr. Hart, a student who flourished in this environment.  As I've come to learn, sometimes Hollywood takes rather dark fiction and puts a shine on it.  Another example of that is The Natural.)  Many of my classmates were intimidated by this course and on occasion humiliated when then couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer to Professor Eisner's question.  Fear can motivate some students to study hard.  But I've come to conclude it is not a desirable environment to promote in the classroom, as I will elaborate on below.

For my part, my reaction to Eisner was different.  He reminded me of my dad, which was a good thing.  I needed a father figure then.  He definitely sounded like a New Yorker, which for me was welcoming.  This was my first time staying for an extended period away from the East Coast and I was bothered by being the only New Yorker in the class.  (The Yankees being in the World Series and watching them at Norris Center along with others from New York also helped in this respect.)  And though I had only taken very little economics as an undergrad at Cornell, I was academically better prepared than most of my classmates and thus ready for the work the faculty threw at us.  (That said, we read Keynes' General Theory in Eisner's class and a good chunk of it was over my head.  But my guess is that the same can be said for many other economists who have read Keynes.  It is a sophisticated book and it's tough to make good meaning in some sections of it.) 

This sense of intimidation in the classroom continued into the second quarter of macro, this time taught by Robert Gordon.  He was also the director of graduate studies and the one in charge of making the financial aid decisions for the second year students.  He used his class as a screen for that purpose.  It made the students ruthless in a way that was its own sort of nonsense.  At the time we had readings from bound periodicals in the Library.  (In the first quarter the readings were mainly from a book by Breit and Hochman or available in the Reserve Room for a 2 hour loan.)  One student for sure, and perhaps a couple of others as well, tried to get a leg up on the rest of the class by getting to the bound periodical early and either re-shelving it in an improper location, so the rest of us couldn't find it, or ripping the article out of the binding, so the rest of us couldn't access it at all.  Perhaps some competition in the classroom is beneficial for learning.  But this was unfair competition that clearly was pernicious.

I should add here that the funding environment was brutal that first year and the program wasn't forthcoming about that fact until the first quarter was well underway.  Some of us, like me, were on fellowship.  Others received no stipend and indeed were paying tuition as well.  I don't know how many were on fellowship that first year but I was told that funding was being cut, so there'd be a smaller number on fellowship the second year.  (By the second year some students became research assistants and got funding that way, which was a partial offset.)  At the outset I had thought my fellowship was guaranteed, but it turns out it wasn't.  This tight funding contributed to the tension many of the students felt in the classroom.

The first of our cohort to drop out left after the fall quarter.  Another dropped in the middle of the winter quarter.  I found it particularly upsetting.  The program didn't seem to care about these people at all.  They were emotionally distressed.  One may have gone over the deep end.  That part I don't know well, but I have some memory of seeing the guy wandering aimlessly around campus.  Ultimately about half our cohort left.  In the second year, I believe there were only 13 of us.

I give Northwestern  high marks for the Economics training I received during that first year taking core courses.  I give them a failing grade, however, on showing human decency and caring about the welfare of each student, regardless of how the student was performing in the classroom.  I don't believe that Eisner intended the intimidating environment he created in his classroom.  I think it was just the style he was used to.  I'm less sure about Gordon.  But given that they gave us exams as well, it really wasn't necessary to use classroom performance as an additional screening mechanism.  Indeed, it didn't happen that way in the microeconomics sequence.  It also didn't happen in the third quarter of macroeconomics taught by Robert Coen.  Under Academic Freedom each professor has wide discretion on how to run his own classroom.  But if somebody else served as advisor to these students and learned how distraught they were about their classes, that evidence could be presented to instructors in a way that protected the individual identities of the students.  In turn, the instructors might then modify their approach in conducting class in a ways students would find more welcoming.

* * * * *

This experience in the first year of graduate school had a profound effect on my own teaching.  I have never used a seating chart and don't call on students in class as a performance measure.  Students sit where they like, on a first come first serve basis, though I'll admit that when I've taught in a classroom that has many more seats than students I do encourage those at the back of the room to move closer to the front.  Students can opt into the class discussion by raising their hand and having me call on them.  Students can also choose to remain quiet.  The decision is theirs to make.  While I don't do it perfectly, I try to make the classroom interesting and welcoming for the students.

I do think it is necessary for students to open up about their own formative thinking on the subject matter.  That is a critical aspect in their learning.  I give them more than one channel to do so.  Apart from participating in class discussion, which is voluntary, students are required to write weekly blog posts that I comment on and then they respond to my comments.  Many students are initially shy in this writing activity.  But the vast majority of the class comes to like it.  The students find my comments thoughtful, most of the time, and the comments are divorced from any grading, which comes much less frequently.  Constructive feedback on formative thinking is a way to encourage the students to open up in subsequent writing, possibly also in class discussion.

Starting with a fall 2009 seminar for students in the Campus Honors Program, I've gone through something of a sea change in my own thinking about class discussion.  I first wrote about it in a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which was a reflection on the issue as it pertained to that honors class.  Going in, my ideal was universal participation in the class discussion by each student contributing to it.  Since writing that post I've not taught in the honors program and, if anything, get even a smaller fraction of the class to participate in discussion on a regular basis.    What I've come to realize is this.

Some students who are perfectly comfortable raising their hands and asking a question or voicing an opinion nonetheless prefer to listen in class.  They are quiet not just in my class, but in all their classes.  That is their nature.  Other students are quite shy in the classroom.  It is not my job as a teacher to get them to overcome their shyness.  Indeed, as their inclinations are formed as much or more by the other classes they take, whatever I do in my classroom at most contributes to this overall environment rather than determines it decisively.  Giving students the opportunity to speak in class is consistent with this view.  Requiring them to do so and then evaluating their performance is not.

I also have some evidence, not a lot but some, of students overcoming their shyness in ways where they control the pace at which they do so.  Consider this rather poignant ultimate post for the semester from a Chinese-American student who is quite forthcoming about her own shyness in class.  A different student, this time an international student from China, also didn't say a word in class.  But she volunteered to participate in a weekly discussion group I ran this spring and became the most regular participant in that group.  I want to note here that in the discussion group, where there were two other students, both male and both international students as well, I did feel the setting sufficiently comfortable that I would ask them individually to contribute to the discussion if they hadn't don't so for a while.  It was non-threatening to do this sitting around a table drinking coffee or some other beverage.  The discussion group itself was not for credit.  Thus, I have seen that an otherwise very shy student can get comfortable in the discussion group setting, although it took a little while to reach that point of comfort.  Humor mattered a lot here.  It was easier for me to joke with them in the discussion group than it is for me to do likewise in class.  The humor helps everyone to relax.

It remains an open question for me whether something like this can scale and afford shy students opportunities to open up with instructors more on their own terms.  If it is possible, shouldn't it be a direction for the campus to head in?

* * * * *

I wonder what Professor Kipnis would make of the above argument.  I also wonder whether Professor Kipnis has witnessed shy students in her own classes or been aware of her own shyness or phobias in some areas not covered in her Chronicle essay.  It is possible that students in the School of Communication at Northwestern, where Professor Kipnis teaches, are prone to be extroverts and thus the experience may be much rarer for her than it is for me.

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow develops a term he calls WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) to explain how a decision maker ignores information that is potentially available but not immediately and instead focuses solely on what is at hand when making a choice.  Reading her essay it was unclear to me whether Professor Kipnis was guilty of WYSIATI or not.  It might be she knows shy people, students and otherwise, but regardless of the context her view is that shy people need to learn to interact socially in a competent way and not drag their feet about it.  My preferred approach then would be too soft for her taste.

Alternatively, as I suggested above, it might be that the context matters.  I don't have a ready explanation for why the context should matter so I'd like to leave it an open question whether it does, while noting that if it does matter, discerning why might illuminate not yet articulated issues that are important to consider.  I will make one more point and then close.

The rhetorical style in Professor Kipnis' Chronicle essay is to argue for her preferred view of the matter and then to diminish counter arguments.  This is the style in a debate.   People take sides of an argument in a debate.  One side wins.  The other loses.   For those trying hard to think gray, perhaps hearing the full debate is just what the doctor ordered, in which case making a strong argument is the responsible thing to do.  But it may be that both sides are not presented equally well.  Then we get preaching to the choir instead of real debate.  In this case the socially responsible thing may be to present the issues not as one side in a debate but rather as a thinking gray exercise itself.  I tried to do that in the section of this essay where I discussed Eric Hoffer's philosophy.  As a general matter, if essayists in academe were to pose this sort of question for each public piece they write and then produce works of both types as a consequence, perhaps it will take some pressure off our campus administrators and keep them from getting so beat up.  That would be a good thing, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Ten Years a Blogger

Coming up is an anniversary of sorts.  I actually started writing posts for this blog in February 2005, but for the first few months I had a very small audience - the bulk of the comments were from Burks Oakley, who got me started with ALN way back when, ten more years before that, and was one of the handful of people I alerted about this blog. 

The particular event I'm referring to is a post by Scott Leslie on his Edtechpost site announcing my blog and recommending it as a worthwhile read.  From there Stephen Downes picked it up.  Suddenly I had a bunch of readers. 

What has changed in the way I go about writing for the blog over those ten years?  One big thing is that I was much more connected to the profession then, the profession being educational technology or, if you prefer, teaching and learning with technology.  I am quite disconnected now and maybe that makes me less interesting to read.  Another thing, style-wise, I was quite conscious of running two or three parallel threads in each post that I would "weave" together.  I thought of it then as a way to make the writing richer and also as a way to imitate my role model in writing, Stephen Jay Gould (his writing for the New York Review of Books).  I no longer try to do this explicitly, though it happens now and then.  I now simply consider the blogging as a think aloud exercise and aim for coherence in the argument. 

The last thing I will mention about what has changed is that I'm much less interested in the technology itself now.  When I started the blog the campus was just beginning to roll out its enterprise learning management system, which we called Illinois Compass (the software was WebCT Vista), and at the time that was my baby.  Looking back at the history, the technology part of that project crowded out the learning part to a large extent, in a way that seems inevitable to me now.  Then I wanted to be mainstream and pull the campus along, with technology the hook for doing so.  Now I prefer my own idiosyncratic ways even if they don't generate any followers.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Don't romanticize the past regarding how students dealt with threats of violence and disagreeable speech.

I am responding to the article linked above, particularly to the paragraph that's been excerpted, especially the line - those were hardier souls.  I doubt that very much.  Certainly, I was not.

In tenth grade, I was mugged along with a friend of mine while we were on the stairwell at Cardozo H.S.  The school was on split session and in tenth grade we started our classes at 11:40 AM.  This happened before that first class.  The incident caused me a great deal of distress emotionally in its aftermath and was a contributing factor to having a depression later that year.

Subsequently I had a meeting with my mom and some Associate Principals who handled that sort of thing.  They asked me why I didn't fight back.  I was 6'1" and about 240 lbs.  So they seemed surprised, though I've never been in a real fight in my life and couldn't punch my way out of a paper bag. Rationally, I lost 3 dollars, not much in the grand scheme of things.  Who knows what would have happened had I tried to resist. 

I really have no sense of how common it was to get mugged at school, but I was panhandled waiting outside of school quite regularly and gym class was something of a nightmare as well.  So the feeling of being afraid in one's environment was fairly frequent, though I want to make it clear that most of the time I felt perfectly safe.  Had there been a way to feel safe 100% of the time, I surely would have embraced it, even if I didn't learn to tough it out.

For some reason, reading the piece linked above triggered some memory of the Bernie Goetz shooting and that much of the public reaction to this was enthusiastic endorsement

Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson explained the broad sentiment by saying, "It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York, because they've all been mugged."

My point here is that what you regard as sensible behavior versus being completely over the top depends on perception of the risk.  Vigilante justice isn't. But it might seem otherwise when no other deterrent manifests.

I also want to take on the argument that somehow we all learned to argue vigorously with people whom we have fundamental disagreement.  My first year at MIT I sometimes would go to the Union for socializing.  Quite frequently, some Christian Fundamentalists would come over to proselytize.  I had absolutely no desire to engage with them then and on that things haven't changed at all since, except that now I will walk away at the start while then I thought that rude and initially I didn't want to be rude.  I didn't learn anything constructive from these encounters.  To assume otherwise seems to me idealistic beyond belief.

Where I learned about collegiality and disagreement was at 509 Wyckoff Road, after I transferred to Cornell and I argued with housemates about politics (but not about religion).   This happened with people I liked and respected, even if I disagreed with them now and then.  You can disagree if a spirit of trust has been established.  That's as hardy as I ever got.

But maybe Judith Shulevitz, author of the piece, isn't referring to me and my generation but rather to my parents and their cohort, coming of age during the Great Depression and surviving the Holocaust.  My parents probably were tougher than I am, though when they retired they moved to Century Village, a gated community seemingly full of displaced New Yorkers, located in Boca Raton Florida.  So much for learning to deal with the riff raff.