Monday, October 17, 2005

More on Deferred Gratification

I’m now in Orlando and finished with my first pre-conference meeting at Educause. It was an interesting session but all these meeting rooms at the convention center are without windows and though spacious they make it hard to concentrate for the entire (3+) hours. How can I complain about that after they gave us an excellent lunch and we did have interesting discussion? Let me get back to that one in a bit.

I didn’t sleep well the night before so last night after the ballgame ended (Congratulations White Sox! Ozzie Guillen has my vote as manager of the decade.) I went right to sleep and slept in till almost eight. Having noted there was a Starbucks across the street from my hotel, I put on some shorts and my tennis shoes and headed over there for a vente coffee. I couldn’t imagine starting the day without it. Last night I had some decaf from the room during the game --- it didn’t quite hit the spot.

I know I’m not alone in this craving for Starbucks (back in Champaign I go to Espresso Royale, which has a near monopoly on upscale coffee places in town). Yesterday evening I drove up from Boca to Orlando and made two stop on the Florida Turnpike. As it turns out Starbucks has one of the concessions at their rest top areas. At each place, the line was enormous, and this was after 6 PM. I think we as a culture have the Starbucks habit. What was once an indulgence has now become a necessity.

By the standards of my parents (I’ve written before about them. They both lied through the Great Depression and their views about work and spending were formed by that.) I am spoiled, no doubt about it. The singular periods where I totally ignored that aspect of my persona was when I went to visit them before my Dad passed away six years ago. On those trips I suspended my needs entirely to accommodate their wants. That way we got along and I understood that. Sure I believe in giving people their own “space” in my interactions with them. But I almost never will deny my own needs in the process. Indeed, I’ll spend some time identifying some of mine so they feel comfortable doing likewise.

What’s the point of this discussion about personal self-indulgence? Here is the question. Suppose for a second we buy the argument that the biggest thing we can teach our kids, whether as instructors in a class or as parents, is to have some patience, do things for the long term reward rather than the immediate joy and more broadly push ourselves in ways that we’d expect their to be benefit down the road, but not immediately. This includes things like studying hard, taking up pastimes that are nourishment for the mind, and being more serious and ambitious about the future. Then we should ask: are we in a position to teach those things to our kids? Have we shown the sacrifice that we want them to develop? Can we teach this if we ourselves are so pampered? And if we don’t pay the price for something, how can we breed anything but the nihilism that seems present in so many of our students?

Those questions seem straightforward enough but perhaps they are too simple. In fact I do put in a lot of hours at work and I think about work fairly regularly in my “down time,” for example during that drive up from Boca. I typically get into the office by 9 AM and am often there till 7 PM or later. So the way I’d refine the above question(s) is as follow: If I’m a confirmed workaholic in some dimensions but I’m self-indulgent and spoiled in other dimensions, can I teach the kids to defer gratification so as to invest in themselves (and society) but tone down the latter? On the parenting side this is very tricky, because the TV, the video games, and the computer games, are all immediate gratification baby sitters that we give to the kids so we can do our own work (or have a few minutes of peace and quiet.) We might have to work less at our jobs so we can work more with our children to teach them this lesson.

But let me take this up in the setting of college instruction. What about in that setting? In days of yore (up to and including spring 2002) I used to teach a large section of intermediate microeconomics and I used a lot of technology in that. I had lectures online (PowerPoint with voice over), quiz questions done in Mallard for students to learn the basics, and problem sets done in a team framework and submitted through WebBoard, with TAs online during the evening to help students with the work. There were a lot of College of Business students in this class and they were quite critical of the course – too much work, more than for courses in their major, stuff was dull or too dry, they had to learn it on their own, I didn’t teach it to them. If anyone thinks that teaching students nowadays to be more serious about their own futures and to work harder to get there will be something easy to achieve, they have another thing coming.

And if individual instructors try this on their own while their colleagues continue with business as usual, well, the chance for this to backfire is enormous and it might take quite a while to establish a reputation for the instructional equivalent of tough love, before any of it will work. So I believe that if this is to work for individual instructors, they have to defer some gratification themselves in their own teaching and possibly how they are perceived as teachers via the course evaluation questionnaires.

This doesn’t bode well. While there might be an equilibrium where all of us instructors are very demanding on our students, the students in turn are serious and put in a lot of effort to do the work, and all are relatively content with the outcome, how do we get there from here? My sense is that large public universities will be the followers in resolving this question (I wish it weren’t true but the economics of instruction suggests that will be the case). Who will be the leaders? Small private universities have the aura of coddling their students. That doesn’t quite mesh with promoting a deferred gratification view.

This is a topic that more of us in learning technology should be talking about. The Net Generation, if anything, is more immediate gratification oriented than its predecessors. (Recall that I don’t usually like to make generational learning type arguments. But there is no doubt that in terms of hours per week exposed to various media that can provide instant gratification, those numbers are higher for my kids than they were for me growing up, and I believe that is typical). So a reasonable argument can be made, I believe, that says to irritate them by working them to the bones rather than accommodating them in their every expressed need. That debate is not happening now. It should be front and center.

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