Thursday, June 29, 2006

On Talent And Fear And Inhibition

Sometimes popular movies serve as a good vehicle for considering learning issues. The Karate Kid, one of the great schlock movies, “wax on – wax off”, offers many good views of learning such as providing good and easy to understand metaphors to frame things, showing the value of intense effort, and demonstrating the importance of fundamentals, “learn balance.”

Another movie that may be less obvious in its insights for learning is The Way We Were. Apart from the music, this movie is compelling in large part because the personas of the two stars, Streisand and Redford, seemed to fit so perfectly the characters they played. Streisand had only made a few movies before this one, but she won the Oscar for Funny Girl, her first movie, and obviously was a huge star before that from her singing. She conveyed Jewishness and with that lefty politics and huge enthusiasm for all endeavors simply from her talk, even without resorting to her schtick, which she did multiple times during the movie.

Redford, it’s hard to believe he will turn 70 later this summer, was perfect for the Hubbell Gardner character to whom, “everything came too easily.” His persona was defined by his role as the Sundance Kid and subsequent films such as Downhill Racer and The Candidate simply reinforced the image of immense talent but in a cool and laid back way. (To be fair to Redford and unlike Streisand, where one has the impression that what you see is what she is, I saw Redford in an earlier movie with Jane Fonda, Barefoot in the Park, where he comes across quite unlike his later image.)

My stereotype is that it should have been the Streisand character who was the writer. She had the background and the struggle for it. But it was the otherwise country clubish, attractive yet bland Redford character who was the writer, the creativity and how to express it making for certain possibilities (falling for Streisand) and certain tensions that woudn’t otherwise be there. Indeed, the heart of the story is that Hubbell Gardner can’t balance the two sides of his being and instead bounces from indulging one to immersing in the other.

The Redford character reminds that talent is found in unlikely places. It also tells us that much learning happens easily, en passant; it’s not all a question of repeated failure and climbing out of the pit as I wrote in my
Killing The Puppy post. And the juxtaposition of the two characters makes apparent that what is easy and en passant learning for the one may be difficult or near impossible for the other. This is an oft repeated lesson at faculty teaching workshops, because the faculty likely were stars as students and those whom they teach may not be.

But the movies also teach because they are fiction and unlike real life and hence lend contrast to that. Characters in movies almost always do, not always for good, but certainly they are almost always active. Inaction on screen would be dull for the viewer. But inaction --- stagefright that keeps the performer from doing the show, procrastination that keeps the writer from starting to compose at the keyboard, fear of conflict that keeps the employee from having the hard talk with the co-worker are an important part of real life. And in both the teaching and mentoring context, the issue is what to do about it.

I’m of the mind that there are fears to indulge and fears to overcome. I can understand a more heroic point of view that all fears should be overcome, but to me sometimes prudence trumps heroism. If you do believe in both types of fears, as I do, then the question is how do you determine the one from the other and then in the latter instance what does one do to restore confidence?

A child is right to fear fire and should not be encouraged to put his hand in the flame a second time. The problem is in receiving a false positive – getting burned in a figurative sense from an atypical situation that is unlikely to recur, where the more robust or less sensitive person would roll with the punch or, as the saying goes, get back on the horse. In this case fear is the wrong lesson learned and the paralysis the person feels prevents the person from fully realizing their potential.

I’ve had many such fears in my lifetime. As a child I was nipped by an unleashed dog in our neighborhood who was chasing my brother and me and as a consequence developed a fear of dogs that truly was overwhelming in childhood (I would walk around the block rather than see the German Shepard bark at me from behind the fence) and that persisted into my adult life, although now we have a dog at home and that familiarity has lessened the fear of other dogs. After being able to swim in water over my head for a couple of years, the Swim Counselor at camp threw me into the lake when I wasn’t expecting it and I gagged and couldn’t breath for a few seconds as a consequence. I spent a couple of summers as a shallow water swimmer (and tried to avoid that counselor) before I returned to the deeper part of the lake.

It’s possible for me to talk about these childhood incidents. It is much harder to discuss their adult counterparts. I’m guessing that is typical. We don’t talk about it much, if at all. Most of us muddle through. But for the person who is really struggling, it creates the impression that the rest of us aren’t having those sort of difficulties at all, that we’re Hubbell Gardner types for whom everything comes easily. That makes the problem worse for the person who struggles.

I believe that if one knows to look and listen for problems of this sort one can find evidence of such struggles, but it is much easier to do if the other person is overt about it either in speech or in writing than if that person clams up, in which case one can make some inference that ther is a problem but essentially no inference about the source of that problem. It is even easier to note look for this sort of thing when you see the same person being open in one context while being clammed up in another. When talent and aptitude are expressed in that open setting but obviously not in the other it seems a reasonable surmisal that there is some inhibitor to which the person is reacting incorrectly and this is the case where efforts towards restoring confidence seem most in order.

A few nights ago there was
a piece on the News Hour about High School Dropouts some of whom ended up attending alternative schooling programs and earning their GEDs. They did interviews with a couple of these students who spoke of the alternative schools as treating them as human beings and developing a sense of confidence that they could succeed in the workplace. There are the elements of the appropriate way to mentor or teach in that. It seems to me that in addition the appropriate thing to do is in an anayltic but human fashion pinpoint the sorurce of the problem as precisely as possible. And then offer training and practice in that dimension.

If it is correct that performance is being blocked by some profound inhibition rather than the person simply doesn’t have the ability to to the task, the training and practice should not have to last too long; the bird can leave the nest so to speak. But there must be enough of it so the person can confront their own demons and overcome them. Perhaps this is what professional development is really about.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What, me worry?

Some weird stuff is happening, so it occurred to me we might start a looking-for-our-ideal-in the-past Ezine. Let's call it Truly Mad Magazine. Here's a sampler.

In the "I have no clue why this is happening department" a quick consult of the Sitemeter referral page for my blog reveals quite a few hits, maybe twenty or more, coming from a Google search for "Tom Lehrer, Pedagogy" or some perturbation thereof. They seem to be coming from different people all around the country. Weird! Could these be generated by a robot?


In the "Couldn't be more true department" of course I have to find out myself whether there is some news about Tom Lehrer, so I do a Google search on him as well as a search of the New York Times and CNN sites. I don't find any news that could trigger these searches, but I do find an interview with him from 2003 where when asked about doing musical satire on our current president responded to the effect that he didn't want to do a satire of the president, he wanted to obliterate him.


In the "Watch out for your political analysis column because it might apply close to home department" Frank Rich wrote his typical column today describing the absolute depravity and complete cynicism of the Bush White House and the resulting incompetence in the provision of the public good. He refers to this piece by Alan Wolfe from the Washington Monthly, who argues this is a necessary consequence of the Conservative agenda coupled with the political reality that government spending will not actually be cut because the citizenry want the goodies that are being doled out.

So long as conservatives denigrate government while relying on government to
achieve their objectives, Rumsfeld's vision of how to fight wars is the only
kind of conservative foreign policy one can have.

This piece was depressing enough to read, thinking about the state of our nation, but it is all the more so once you realize that by taking out a Gingrich here and a Delay there the essential argument holds intact for the provision of services at a big research campus like mine whether by Central It or the Library or any other centralized unit, when it is the Deans of the various colleges who run the show and they want to protect their own resources for their own agendas. Such is the legacy of RCM (Responsibility Centered Management).


In the "Kids of patricians make good politicians but their children are not to be trusted department" let's bring back Noblesse Oblige. It worked in The West Wing, didn't it? In the meantime, it seems the Nouveau Rich continue with the feeling of obligation but the detest for government by funding enormous good works projects that literally swamp the now old money foundations funded from the estates of the robber baron industrialists.


And, finally, in the "Universities have to generate more of their revenue from their alumni department" what are we to make of Ray Ozzie's new lofty status as the Chief Software Architect at Microsoft? Hmmm. I wonder if I should joined MSN?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bird Brains

My campus is now talking openly about planning for Avian Flu. Today’s New York Times has a piece about the first confirmed human to human transmission of the disease. That gave me the woolies. So I’m paying attention to the issue now. One of the issues they’re asking on campus is whether classes can continue via distance learning – the instructor teaches from home and the students may very well be at their home, living with their parents, till the crisis is over. Let’s assume that Internet service is not interrupted. (If Internet access is lost during the pandemic, all bets are off.)

This type of thinking might very well encourage a lot of instructors who otherwise wouldn’t consider this sort of thing to start thinking about podcasting or vidcasting, or perhaps taking audio and video clips and embedding in Web site that might include text based materials or other type of content that instructors might display during class.

Since I’ve played with this sort of thing myself quite a bit I’m going to list a few issues that were relevant for me and I’m guessing are broadly of concern for this sort of thing. I’d like to know what the best practice is to address each of these issues.

1. No ex post editing --- I believe one can do quite a bit with multimedia and for those with the time and inclination to edit the content in a manner to the way a film maker builds a movie, more power too them. But to me, that is just too time consuming. I want a “good enough for government work” solution that is available pretty much as soon as I’m done recording it.

2. Getting rid of hiss and background noise --- I think this is a biggie and from some of the recordings I’m seeing this is a problem that many others are having. My sense of at least a partial solution is that in the sound control panel on the computer, the input volume is probably set too high and hence the microphone picks up a lot of the background noise. Better to have that input level set lower. Then the recording device will pay more attention to the voice input and less to other sources of sound. But beyond this are their other like tricks? If so, it would be good to share them.

3. Recording and encoding at the same time --- My campus has a site license to RealProducer Plus as part of a deal on the Helix server. The software enables my webcam input to be recorded directly and output into their .rv format. I know there is a lot of discussion about using non-proprietary formats, with mpeg 4, seemingly the new standard. However, I don’t know of a way to convert to make video in mpeg 4 format without producing it first in some other format. In this otherwise delightful presentation by Leigh Blackall, he does describe the process as first a capture with CamStudio and then a conversion afterwards. Indeed, I believe this is pretty much true of any screen capture video. So the question is can one do the same idea by pointing a camcorder at the computer screen with the camera connected via usb and then used as input for a recording/converting application like RealProducer.

4. Looking into the camera - If the camera is mounted at the top of the computer screen, there is an enormous temptation to look at the rest of the screen and then, at least for me, to have my eyes dart back and forth between the two. This, unfortunately, looks somewhat unnerving for the viewer. So it is better to look into the camera. I’m getting a little better at that as I practice, but I find I have to make a conscious effort of doing that, in which case I lose my training of though on the topic I’m covering. Straight voice recording might be better, just for this reason.

5. Compelling materials to show – If it is just the presenter, with no guest with whom to have a dialog and no students to do Q&A, then straight presentation can get pretty dry. One needs something to spice that up and get the audience interested. Perhaps showcasing Web sites can work and providing links so the students can try on their own after stopping the presentation. But whatever it is, there needs to be an opportunity for the students to do so something interactive and relevant to break up the presentation and keep their attention.

Even with the knowledge of the best practice on these points, there is the next question of whether most instructors can readily learn to do this (meaning how much implicit knowledge is really required to make this work). Does anyone have a thought on that one?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How do students play at their schoolwork?

I was reading Barbara Ganley’s latest post this morning, and since I’m mentioned I feel compelled to respond in some way. Before I do, however, let me make some more mundane observations. Barbara says Middlebury has 12-week semesters. Jeez! Here it’s 15 weeks and another week afterwards for finals. They’ve got higher prices and smaller portions. How can we publics compete?

On a different and perhaps more interesting point demonstrating yet again how small the world is and how even if we start from very different places there is a good chance our paths will cross, Barbara cited Will Richardson who cited Donald Murray, and as I’m reading that on Barbara’s blog, before reading the post on Will’s blog, I’m saying to myself, “Donald Murray, that name sounds familiar. Where do I know that from?” And while I had not read Expecting the Unexpected I had read part of a different book by Donald Murray that I came to because I was attracted by the title. And perhaps still more to the point, I came to that before I was even vaguely aware of other Edu bloggers who were writing on similar issues.

That earlier post of mine also shows my Econ training coming through and why I’m probably unlike other Edu bloggers in some respects – at the core I believe in tradeoffs, not perfection – and by poking holes in arguments as best as I can I hope to elucidate some of the tradeoffs being made that otherwise seem to go unnoticed.

Barbara wrote a lot, as is her want, and below I’m going to focus only on one paragraph, but there is much meat in it, perhaps the heart of the matter, at least it is in my view.

Sometimes a great talk can stir debate and inquiry, and foster learning. Yes, I agree. But the problem is that too many teachers rely on this method as the primary method. We also focus on the impossible timeframes for our courses and measured amounts of material to be covered rather than thinking about ways we can assist our students to learn about how to learn within our field. We err on the side of the accumulation of what we call the basic materials of our disciplines--often through reading and lecture instead of providing ample time for messy learning curves or the relationship between hands-on authentic learning activities and deep learning. We do not have enough time for our students to go find examples of processes we study in the classroom out there in the world and to play around, to be imaginative, to see what would happen if they mixed A with B. We ask them to gather information and soak in knowledge rather than play around with it. And our students are stressed out. We are stressed out. As we know, with the Web, information and knowledge are easily accessible. But how do students learn how to play around with that information if we don't give them opportunities to do so-- collaboratively--discussing, conversing, arguing, doing, inventing, failing. This is the beauty of a school, it seems to me--that we have the potential to grow rich, diverse learning communities that reach out beyond their own scope to the complex world beyond.

Until I became a full time administrator and hence when teaching did so as an overload and as a gift to the Econ department so I could choose the course I would teach, I did a lot of teaching in a large section of intermediate microeconomics, with up to 180 students, and a substantial amount of lecturing of the type that Barbara questions in the above paragraph. So I have a good deal of hands on experience at that sort of thing and agree that as a rule it is not particularly satisfying, for students or instructor. But there are several qualifiers to that and it is the qualifiers which I want to emphasize.

When I was in high school, either 11th or 12th grade and now I can’t recall which, I along with two other guys in my graduating class would travel to NYU on Saturday mornings (one of the parents would take us to the subway stop in Jamaica and then we rode that into the City) to attend a lecture. In the fall it was on Relativity and Geometry. There was no taking attendance and no grades. This was just getting bright high school kids exposed to an interesting approach to college level thinking.

One of the things I recall from this experience was a critique of the standardized tests in Math asking questions of the form, which is the next in the sequence. Here is a specific example.

Q: 4, 14, 23, 34, 42, 50. What comes next?

A: Lexington Avenue. Those are stops on the F-Train.

The point, meant to be a serious one, is that one can rationalize a finite sequence of numbers with an infinite family of different polynomials. Then what comes next in the sequence depends on which particular polynomial was used to generate the first few terms. The professor did teach us the “method of successive differences,” which if applied correctly guarantees (according to him) the “right answer” on any of the standardized tests. This I recall some 35 years later. Unfortunately, I don’t recall any of the relativity. C’est la vie.

This type of going to lecture was not an isolated event for me. I graduated from Cornell in January 1976 and then hung around Ithaca for another semester. I did some Library research for a prof in political science on Congressional voting on Educational measures (my recollection is that even then the argument was that so called Great Society spending programs actually redistributed wealth toward the richer school districts rather than to the poorer ones as is generally perceived) and I washed pots in a Sorority in exchange for my meals. But that left a lot of free time on my hands and part of what I did with that was to attend an introductory Political Science lecture with a girl I was pretty crazy about at the time. She was a grad student. So both of us went for the benefit of the lecture itself and that only. I’d call it the entertainment value or the intellectual stimulation value. There is something to that and I believe lecture should be considered in that light quite independent of the “power relations” that Barbara stresses in her post and that is also a big deal in the paper by Ron Burnett that she cites.

A different sort of qualifier stems from this observation. The bulk of the students whom I taught in intermediate microeconomics were Business majors or Business major wannabes, and for the most part they really detested the course. They didn’t understand why they were required to take it and they were frustrated that my course entailed more work than courses in their major. There would always be a smattering of engineering students and occasionally a few Econ majors with enough of a Math background to have a realistic shot of getting into a decent Econ grad school program. Those kids really liked the course and appreciated the way I taught.

To get a better feel why, consider the following problem.

A father and his young son are at a beach that abuts the ocean. They are staring out at the water and see several large vessels, some near to shore, others further out. After a fashion the son asks the dad, “Looking straight out there on the horizon in any direction, how far is it to the point where the ocean touches the sky?” The father responds, “You know, I’m taller than you, just about twice your height. So I see a different point on the horizon than you do where the ocean and sky touch, even if we follow the exact same line. In fact I probably see out twice as far as you.”

Is the father right? And in either case just how far is it to that particular point on the horizon?

I’m not going to answer that one. Instead, let me say there are those type of people (I’m one of them) who find the challenge of this sort of problem fun, as is using the appropriate math to solve the problem. And there are other people who would find spending time on something like this more painful than going to the dentist. Among the engineering students, there are many of the first type of person. Among the business students, there are mostly the second type. The problem itself has absolutely nothing to do with economics, but identifying types this way would go very far in predicting whether the individual valued and felt they learned anything from my intermediate microeconomics course.

My conjecture is that if one sorted types this way then lecture on a “math oriented” course such as intermediate microeconomics would be a fine way to teach, presuming there are only the engineering types in the class. This is pretty much for the reasons Barbara identified. They are self-directed in the learning. They do play with the material and make it for their own in that fashion. And the lecture for them serves as new stimuli, a source of yet other problems that they haven’t yet considered but are eager to solve.

I will conjecture further, that if one could identify a different type of play that the students should be doing in other disciplinary settings, for example in taking a history course where the above type of problem solving affinity is likely useless, then one could be effective with lecture that promoted that appropriate type of play, again viewing the lecture as a source of stimulus and the students largely self-directed.

And still one more conjecture. In the setting where the lecture and the play are interconnected in this way, the power relationships that Barbara laments become less important. The tests will be perceived as “fair” and the students will regard them as giving appropriate feedback on their own sense of understanding. Instructors will generally enjoy teaching in this setting and will feel less of a need to exert ego to establish authority. And students will enjoy the class too, in spite of the fact that lecture is the predominant mode of instruction.

These conjectures notwithstanding, the scenarios being depicted above don’t coincide with my realm of experience in teaching intermediate micro. Many of the students who exert effort in the intermediate micro course don’t engage in play at all. Instead, they memorize and seemingly act on the belief that the one is a substitute for the other. They memorize in spite of my exhortations to the contrary, a conditioned response qua school survival skills that has literally been drilled into them since the early grades in primary school. Many of the students I’ve seen have extraordinary capacity for memorization and in some respect that is awe inspiring. But, of course, unless the memorization is accompanied by some other activity that incorporates interesting use of what has been memorized, there is no deep learning.

Indeed, I’d be inclined to say there is no learning whatsoever. And that’s what seemingly happens in much of college “education” today. For example, see my little thread with Gary Brown. I don’t believe there is much if any disagreement between us (or between Barbara and me) on what is happening in many, many classrooms and it is something to be alarmed about.

The disagreement is with how the problem is best addressed. Right now I believe, though I may be stereotyping a bit in which case give me a virtual slap in the head, every teacher who has moved away from the lecture approach that I know teaches critical thinking anew, as if that course is the first time students have a chance to reflect in this mature manner, their entire prior formal education being done in the pour into the student’s head manner.

Suppose instead, that students do have some successful teaching earlier on what critical thinking is like – they learn to play with ideas, issues, and materials on their own, to turn things inside out and try them on just for the heck of it, and make their own sense of meaning from that process. And they learn to discuss and share their experiences with like minded peers and benefit from that. What would you do in the subsequent course?

I would lecture.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Need To Keep Learning

LinkYesterday, I must confess, I was pretty much a bum. After taking our older kid to 4-H Camp, a 90 minute round trip diversion to Allerton Park to deposit him and get him registered, I spent most of the rest of the day either napping or watching the U.S. Open golf tournament. My excuse was that it was Father’s day and I hadn’t slept well the night before, either too much job stress or too much partying with friends or most likely a bit of both. I didn’t even have enough energy to write a blog post, something I normally look forward to and something for which I try to make the time.

Actually, I watched some of the golf on Saturday too including a post-round interview that Phil Mickelson had with Bob Costas, which was surprising in itself since the tournament was still to be played on Sunday and also revealed that Mickelson expected to only get a couple of hours sleep Saturday night, implicitly planning to perform on Sunday via the adrenalin that surely would be pumping through his system and with the seemingly new found maturity (had he won this would have been the third major championship in a row for Mickelson) from having gone through the experience before.

Hemingway taught us that courage is grace under pressure and I’m sure others who watch the golf major championships do so in part to witness courage, presumably ever present in our sports stars even if it is seemingly lacking in ourselves and our colleagues. But Hemingway did not have the last word on the subject. Lombardi modified the view with his famous line, fatigue makes cowards of us all. In other words, we might possibly see courage when watching a sprint, but we’re less likely to see it in a marathon.

Golf is interesting for that reason; a four-day tournament on a tough course is a grind; but also because in medal play golf necessitates watching the leader board in that the player’s correct decision to make matters not just on the player’s own circumstance but on the circumstance of competitors as well. If leading with a few holes to go the rational decision maker qua golfer will be more conservative, to avoid mistakes and thereby preserve the lead. Conversely, if the player is a couple of shots behind, then the player will “go for it” to make up the lost ground. I wrote up some formal math notes on this idea about a year ago, when I made a post about using Tablet PCs for doing math and science. But then I was really asking about the decision making of a basketball coach and letting their team should three-pointers instead of two-pointers.

Golf, as an individual sport, has the decision making and the execution of the golf swing done by the same individual and so what is most interesting about it from a learning perspective is whether the individual can simultaneously make those two roles compatible. (There is a caddie who servers as a partner in the decision making, but the ultimately choices are up to the player.) Certainly, performing well in both roles is not an easy thing to do. There have been two popular movies about golf recently, and especially in the one about Bobby Jones there was an emphasis in portraying the character as being prone to go into a fit when the performance was not just so. Of course if the performance does not vary and one can eliminate risk in the decision making, then one can be more aggressive overall, even when leading the tournament. Some of that may explain the meltdowns we’ve seen, yesterday on the 18th hole by Mickelson, and more spectacularly on the 18th hole at the British open a few years back by the heretofore unknown Frenchman, Jean Van De Velde.

But the situation with Mickelson I think is harder because when he was playing the 17th hole he was tied for the lead (with Colin Montgomery who along with Mickelson double bogeyed the 18th) and the mindset of someone who is tied for the lead with one hole to go should be quite different from the mindset of a player who is ahead by a stroke.

Add to this mix that the course with the extremely thick rough and severely sloped greens was very difficult to play and that Mickelson overall was not having one of his better rounds, already over par before the 18th hole. And there is one more variable that I read about on the ESPN Web site this morning. Mickelson doesn’t carry a 3-wood in his bag and is unlike most other players in this respect. (Players are entitled to carry I believe 14 clubs. Mickelson has had two drivers in his bag, one for the hook the other for slice, and he may carry an extra wedge too.) While 3-wood might have been the right play, his options on the 18th were driver or 4-wood. He chose the driver.

So while we can’t possibly know what was going on in his head the last few holes, here is my suspicion. He got a little ahead of himself and started to thinking about winning the tournament. (The admonition is to play one hole at a time. In other words, he was human. I’d certainly have done the same if in his shoes.) He had the lead for a good part of the back nine and when Montgomery tied him (in part because he lost a stroke to par) he felt like he was in a dogfight. And that thought, in conjunction with the fatigue, set the stage for the 18th hole, although the circumstance had changed and he had the outright lead.

Mickelson made several mental mistakes on that last hole, first at the tee box, and then afterward not taking his medicine for an errant drive. One clear lesson from the experience is that there is a need to play till the end, which means think through each shot, including club selection, and don’t as they say “dial it in” at least not until the outcome is fully decided. So the player must constantly re-evaluate his circumstance and can’t afford to take a mental break until the tournament is over.

But I think a larger and perhaps more general lesson is that there is a tie between humility and good decision making over time, particularly in stressful situations. Mickelson knew he was putting himself through the ringer emotionally in this tournament, but he didn’t cut back on his public “obligations” and ultimately the bad choices he made on the 18th hole probably can be tied to other choices he made during the tournament that might not seem so overtly tied to his performance. Prior success is a wonderful thing to have but we need to attend to our physical and emotional well being just as the golfer needs to think through the golf shot and we must continually assess the circumstance for itself and not simply trust that things will be fine because that’s the way they’ve always been.

If our students were a bit more humble about their academic performance, perhaps they’d engage in the schoolwork earlier on and avoid some of he cramming and all nighters. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Curse Of The Engaged Student

Somehow, my last post tweaked the funny bone of George Siemens and as a result he was kind enough to direct some traffic my way from his blog, Thank you, George. In the process of finding the reference, I also saw his post on Digital Maoism, a critique of how everyone is reacting to Wikipedia (as distinct from a critique of Wikipedia itself) by Jaron Lanier published in Edge. I thought this was quite a good read, certainly thought provoking.

What do you do when you’ve read something that you feel was well done and made an interesting point, but to make the question slightly harder to answer, isn’t a blog post? I know it would add little value, at least in this one instance only, to simply reprise George Siemens’s post in my blog, because folks who regularly look at edu blogs are apt to find this info on George’s site. So I was thinking about sharing with an audience who wouldn’t find the information on their own, because they don’t read edu blogs, but who would have big benefit from reading the Lanier piece.

Regular readers of my blog will note that in early May during the last day of class I gave books away to my students (really just loaned the books) for summer reading and to get them to think about economics beyond my course, even if they wouldn’t take any more courses in economics, which they won’t. (In the main they’re engineering students who have finished their social science distribution requirements.) So it occurred to me to let them know about this this article and yesterday I sent them an email to that effect.

I don’t know how this has worked overall, but I had one student, for this post I’ll call her M., who seems to lap up everything I give her in the extra curricular area and (implicitly) keeps asking for more. The book she chose from my pile is Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis. I wouldn’t have chosen that for her. While it really is interesting on investment backing circa the early 1980’s, its’s also a bit raunchy and clearly written for a male audience. She loved it. She sent me email to that effect and said she debated the book with her dad at the dinner table and ultimately got him to read it.

Now it’s one day later from when I sent the class the reference about the Digital Maoism piece, and I should point out that while it wasn’t emphasized in the course we did talk about about the Iowa Electronic Markets and the idea that markets efficiently aggregate information, so the Lanier piece provided a good counterpoint to that, and lo and behold here is an email response from M. with the verbatim:

Wow....maybe I don't think about the things I encounter on adaily basis as
carefully as I should. This was an extremelyinteresting article. I
never considered the importance of alisted author, or really thought about the
validity of someof the sites I check for information. Thanks for
passingthis along! Hope you're having a great summer also! (By theway, my
little sister is reading Liar's Poker now, too.)

I kind of knew she would respond to my email, but not so quickly and so appreciatively. I know she is an outlier as a student, but her enthusiasm has shifted the conversation for me. The issue is not the technology and how to teach with it. Instead, it’s what to read and what will keep the interest up. I hope some of you will help, because I’m tapped out.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Killing The Puppy

I first found out that I was a really good student after the initial marking period in 7th grade. Weird memories of that time creep back into my head. We had to wear ties to school. This was public school, JHS 74, on Oceania Street one block south of the Long Island Expressway. I think we had “assembly,” once a week. At this one, the principal called out my name and I had to walk to the front of the room and shake his hand. I had a 93.2 average and it turned out that was the highest of any student in the grade for that marking period. There were probably a few hundred people in room. I don’t believe I anticipated this “honor” in advance and I think I was embarrassed.

There were other reminders, some painful. Near the end of the school year we were all going around with our yearbooks, the ones that your classmates and teachers and family write in. My sister’s was the best. Written in an inward bending spiral, she wrote, “Undertake your undertakings before the undertaker takes you under.” One girl in my class, not someone I knew particularly well, wrote that I made her uncomfortable in class because I raised my hand and gave answers to the teachers’ questions. It’s funny, those are the only two that I remember at all and that yearbook is long gone now. Here are a couple more of those. For a brief period of time I had a girlfriend and a couple of days in science class I changed my seat to sit next to her. Some other girl in the class, I believe she had put me up on some intellectual pedestal because the next year she nominated me to be president of Arista, though I clearly wasn’t popular enough to get elected, was emboldened to tell me that I shouldn’t have this particular girl friend because she wasn’t good enough for me. It’s strange, but I suppose typical, that people put you into a box, even when they have good intentions for you.

Let’s fast forward a few years. I’m now in tenth grade and the wheels are beginning to fall off emotionally. It’s the first time that my grades are starting to slip. My self-esteem is definitely taking a beating. And I can’t help but notice that I had been propped up emotionally by the GPA, like a junkie on a drug high. Now that my grades are declining, am I worth less as a human being? And is my real source of motivation the ego stroking I receive when I get a score of 100 on a test? All of that started to seem quite artificial. But I didn’t have something else more real to put into its place; at least it wasn’t obvious to me what that something else should be, so I floundered for a while. It was to be still two years before I read Kafka, but I was probably more ready emotionally for it in tenth grade than I would be as a senior.

Ultimately I came to some peace with myself on these issues, but that wouldn’t happen till graduate school or later. The real value was in the doing, or the reflecting, or simply living inside my own head and then, perhaps more importantly, interacting with people, any sort of interaction on just about any topic as long as that was open and with a real back and forth. Everything else didn’t matter as much. If there were head pats along the way, fine, no problem. But when it all boils down to looking for the next curtain call, it’s really a huge distraction, and not a healthy one.

Blogging can create this problem. The author gets encouraging comments from a post and then looks to recreate the conditions that generated those comments, because the comments aren’t just communication from the readers, they are also virtual pats on the head that “validate” the writing of the initial post. All the possible paths for being connected, from Google, to Technorati, to, to Sitemeter create a large set of possible pats on the head to indulge the ego. Again, its not the pats per se where the issue lies. Is with the reaction to try to recreate that circumstance, the looking backward, the focus on being stroked.

Consider this metpahorical, but actual example. You are playing ping pong. As you get into it with your opponent, some kibbitzer asks, “What do you do with the hand that doesn’t hold the paddle while you play the point?” If you actually pay attention to that question, you’re done. You’ll lose the game and won’t be able to play ping pong again till you forget about that question, because apart from the serve nobody who plays ping pong focuses on their off hand. The focus is on the ball and the hand with the paddle. As you get interested in the other hand, and the only reason why you’re interested is because the kibbitzer posed the dumb question, you can’t concentrate on the game.

My intent with this post, however, is not to talk about blogging, nor is it to talk about my adolescence and school. With the latter, I was merely trying to establish my bona fides as someone who understands the emotional aspect of grading and GPA. What I want to talk about in this post is teaching really bright kids, especially early on in college, and getting them to make intellectual leaps in their thinking and to begin to get them to consider that is their lot in life and how they should spend their time. These are the kids for whom “general education,” which I will define perhaps in an odd way as college education where it is not overtly obvious that it is career relevant, is most critical because these kids do have the capacity to make such leaps and in the process of changing their world view develop they also make commitments to their own personal growth that endures well beyond whatever course served as the initial stimulus.

But these kids have the most puppy in them of all the students. The socialization they’ve had on the grade front is so powerful and so complete that they become victims of that. Being a good student can mean being too conservative at taking intellectual risks, and therefore ruling out before the fact a chance to grow. Of course this problem exists with less able students as well, but to borrow from my economic jargon, the opportunity cost of going the conservative route is lower for them, because the flowers are less likely to bloom even if they take the risks. So consider a course in the freshman year aimed at such bright students where the primary (but unarticulated) goal is to encourage the students to take intellectual risks so as to create leaps in their imagination, quite irrespective of the subject matter. This, in fact, is what our Campus Honors courses here are supposed to do.

But it isn’t so easy, for the following reason.To quote my colleague Jerry Uhl from the Math department here, “Learning is about failing, repeated failing.” It is uncomfortable being in a state either of complete ignorance or having the awkward feeling of partial knowledge, it is ego deflating when initial stabs produce less than satisfactory results, and to the extent that learning is viewed by students as a competitive sport, it also raises the fear that the others are progressing along so nicely and it is only this particular student who is not getting it, so he is falling behind.

Thus, to use another metaphor, you the instructor want the students to jump into this pit of blackness and then you want to help them climb back out where they can see again, but now with their views altered by the experience. And what I’m after, still not completely satisfied with what I’ve tried though I believe my students were grateful for the experience, is how the instructor should communicate with the students while they’re in the pit. If you communicate with them as a puppy while they’re in the pit, with pats on the head and nothing more, you are being dishonest. Their performance is not wonderful. The writing needs a lot of work. They quite possibly are missing some of the esential points in what they are working on.

Sure, there is a need to say, “I’m OK and you’re OK.” But beyond that, the talk must be about the work and where it is situated and about the direction they need to move in their thinking. They need to make mods in what they are doing and you need to be seen as being helpful in suggesting the mods to make. This approach to teaching is what I mean by my title, Killing The Puppy, and I really believe that too much exuberance at this time, for example exhortations of the form “Great job,” especially provided to the product of what the students have produced to date rather than to the process they’ve been using, can be quite damaging. The students themselves know they are not on terra firma and want useful suggestions, not platitudes. But that is not easy to provide unless the ego stroking has been suspended and students and instructor both are willing to be open about what is going on. The instructor communicates via the coaching an interest in the student learning. Undeserved applause for the performance early on actually communicates the opposite.

There is still another point if I can push the metaphor of the pit and climbing out a bit more. Semesters are an entirely artificial time interval to take sojourns designed to promote leaps in the imagination and if the course has two or three projects as part of the course requirements then at the culmination of each project there is a need to provide some type of summative evaluation, i.e., to give it a grade, because the academic culture demands it. And then there is a the real possibility at project’s end that the students are still in the process of getting their vision back into focus. They don’t yet have a mature view based on what was learned in the process of doing the project. So here, especially, the problem crops up about what should be communicated, satisfy the puppy instinct in the students or be more square and overtly less satisfied with them, because now part of what is communicated has a grade involved.

Summative assessment for an early project can be viewed as formative for what comes next. So my sense is that the tone should not change much and if the projects seem squished in that they’d benefit from another week of hard work, that needs to be articulated. For the ultimate project, and by this time all of us want the semester to end even if we’ve enjoyed the course, just because we want to do something different, it may matter less. But why start with pats on the head then? If the students are to have a lingering memory of the course, is that pat helpful?

I have no idea how much teaching happens in this style but grade inflation is a well known concern that indicates the contrary and from a Writing Across the Curriculum seminar I took a while back, I know that much in evaluating student work occurs as instructors rationalize the letter grade they assign. So I’m not sanguine about this and, if that is correct, it is a shame.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Today we’ll try an olio on a bunch of different themes.

Yesterday I posted a comment to Barbara Ganley’s blog and this morning she had responded to me (and to the others who had made comments) with warm and heart felt remarks of her own that showed she had thought about what we said, this in spite of returning from a conference in the UK. I know that if I made a transatlantic flight then I’d be crabby and disoriented afterwards and not inclined to be generous of spirit in anything I’d write. So I do want to note how unlike that Barbara seems and this must be at least part of the reason she has such a strong reputation as a teacher. I will try to read through at least part of her archive of posts to get a better sense of the range of her ideas on blogging. My comments may have given the impression that we’re far apart in thinking about issues. Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t, I don’t know, but it seems worthwhile to find out. BTW, there may be some problem with the Middlebury blog server, since it seems now that there are now comments to Barbara’s most recent post.

One of the things Barbara remarked about is whether students communicate differently with their professors depending on discipline and in particular whether students are more circumspect with Econ faculty than they are with English professors. I don’t know about that, but I’m interested in a similar comparative where the defining feature is the instructor’s age. I’ve now reached the point where getting carded means I’ve had a good day, where most of my peers compare notes on the amount of gray we have (mine is mostly in my beard), and where the senior moments are becoming sufficiently frequent that I’m not sure if I’ve really lost the trend of thought or simply wasn’t paying attention to begin with. For the class I taught this past spring, there was about a 30 year age differential between me and my students, so I’m guessing that I’m older than most of their parents. I don’t believe I’ve yet experienced teaching students where I’ve also taught the parents, but that is likely in the offing in the next few years.

I believe the instructor’s age matters. In my case, and although I’ve tried many different things in the teaching, I believe the age conveys a sense of rooted-ness and that the things I evidently value, based on the nature of the work I had the class do, comes from substantial experience and reflection. A younger instructor trying to do similar things might be perceived by the students as following the latest fad and not really knowing whether the approach is a good one. Also, and while I still have needs for ego gratification, I’ve been around the block enough to know that I don’t have to dominate the conversation in class to get those rewards, and can intercede more based on the economic points that should be raised. Then, too, relying on the crotchety aspect of the aging process, I’m more willing to please myself in thinking how to teach the course and care less about what “should” be taught.

Let’s switch gears and consider time frame for staying within one version of an enterprise learning management system. We use WebCT Vista here and started with version 3.x in our production service during the fall 2004 semester. While WebCT has released several service packs and we’ve implemented (most of) them, we’re still in the 3.x product line and likely will stay there for another academic year, with the plan to implement Vista 4.x for the fall 2007 semester and some transition/pilot/testing between now and then. Using the metaphor that my colleague Kathy Christoph from Wisconsin taught me, that managing an enterprise LMS is like steering an aircraft carrier, the turns are slow and one has to plan in advance to execute them, as well as our bias here that stability and reliability of the LMS service trumps any other consideration, the three years that represent our current plans for staying in the Vista 3.x environment probably provides a good rule of thumb for how long we’re likely to within any environment in the future. I don’t know if this maps well with how smaller universities think about these things, but without committing my colleagues as peer institutions to agree with me, I believe they are reaching similar conclusions, because of huge reliance on these systems on their campuses and like concerns about reliability of performance.

Some time ago, I posted some comments on Campus Technology’s Website, in response to an article by Chris Vento about open standards versus open source in LMS development. One of the points I raised, imperfectly to be sure but I think relevant, is on the product development cycle and when companies come out with new releases. If companies are coming out with new versions on an annual basis, we simply won’t keep up. We do seem to be able to stay approximately current with the “service pack” releases, and to the extent that those are mostly bug fixes and only a little bit of feature changes, and that our own internal testing process gives us a good sense of what is likely to happen when the service pack is implemented in production mode, that extent of innovation seems to be manageable. Major feature changes with a significantly new version are hard for us to handle especially within a narrow time window.

One more gear change. I’m part of an internal group here discussing “messaging convergence,” which is in part driven by the observation that some students have moved away from email in favor of more rapid response modes, notably IM, and that the proliferation of cell phones (as well as the offerings of network vendors) seem to be bringing voice communication and text messaging into a unified framework. Relative to the others involved in this conversation, I’ve been pretty much a stick in the mud. (For example, somebody proposed that the campus offer a Jabber service and I thought the students were doing fine with what is provided by the market.)

Part of my issue can be cast by making a too simple assumption that students can be lopped into one of two categories – engaged and disengaged. I want our IT services to enhance the experiences of the former, and then I’m really not so concerned with whether the students uses these services in a curricular, co-curricular, or purely social way, but I don’t want to offer IT services that seemingly exacerbate the disengagement in that they will only be used in a social context and not at all for academic purposes.

This nuance seems to be lost on my peers in our discussions and my sense is that they feel we should be the provider rather than the market so the students feel happy with us as an IT organization for providing the infrastructure to support their online existence. We are not very good now in answering where our comparative advantage lies, what enablers we should provide to leverage what the market does well, and how supporting the academic mission should define (limit) our scope.

Other places, including some public universities, don’t seem to be troubled by these issues, for example offering a blog service to everyone on campus whether there will be an academic benefit or not. They may be wrong but they get the advantage of learning by doing. There’s only so far one can go about essentially empirical matters based purely on self-reflection.

Maybe I’m behind the times.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Spine or Optimism

A piece in today’s Chronicle (you need to subscribe for the link to work) says that Higher Education Professionals are subject to lots of stress, more so than in other industries. This is a U.K. study and whether the results translate to the U.S. is moot, but the primary recommendation of the report is nonetheless strange to me. The report argues that managers at all level in the organization need to take great care for the welfare of their subordinates. This, of course, makes sense, but it says nothing at all of the mission or scope of the work itself which, if it feels like putting square pegs into round holes, may be the primary source of stress. What of that issue?

It’s probably a mistake to equate management with leadership, but for rhetorical purposes I’m going to do that now and ask the following question. Knowing in advance that the nature of the work is apt to be a source of stress, what tone should the leader adopt? While angst and desperation are possible responses to stress, we associate those attitudes more with artists and alienated youth than with leaders, so I’m going to rule out those alternatives in advance and focus on the two other alternatives that are in the title of my post.

Spine conjures up images of Harry Truman, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” while optimism brings to mind the pony story that most of us were told in childhood, a version of which is here. In the metaphor of life as a poker game, the leader with spine plays the cards that are dealt, doesn’t fold and accepts the consequences, both good and bad. The optimist, in contrast, leader or otherwise, may be somewhat self-delusional about the realities in order to find a path to transcend them. Optimism is all about transcendence and rising above the current circumstance via our imagination and different ways of framing reality, finding new solutions that have yet to emerge. So the optimist may sometimes appear to be reckless, where the leader with spine will seem cautious.

One senses in America, especially within the Bush White House, that there is very little spine. Certainly the Op-Ed columns in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, and Frank Rich paint this picture vividly. (You must subscribe to Times Select for this link to work.) Indeed, Rich makes clear there is a disconnect for U.S. military personnel in Iraq when they return home and see nothing about war preparedness back here. Prosecuting a war would seem to favor the leader with spine, but what we seem to be observing instead is misguided optimism.

An unexpected demonstration of spine as of late is from Brian Cashman, General Manager of the New York Yankees. (I’m a Yankee fan, in part to preserve a vestige of growing up in New York, though I’ve lived in the Midwest for my entire adult life.) The Yankees have had a disproportionate number of injuries this season, with some of their stars out of the lineup and others performing below par because they are not physically right. The Yankees, known as the best team money can buy with the highest payroll in Baseball, did not make their characteristic move to buy a good player as replacement from another team that is cash constrained or to do likewise in a trade where the Yankees give up minor league talent. Instead they’ve been starting role players in pivotal roles and asking their hurt but not disabled stars to grit their teeth and bare it. Certainly the Yankees are not the dominant team they were a few years ago, but the approach seems to be working reasonably well. At this writing they are a half game behind the Red Sox and playing competitive baseball.

Yesterday afternoon, when the rest of the family was out of the house, I watched Capote. (I had Tivo’d it off of Pay Per View the night before.) This is certainly not light fare, but it is a compelling story and worth watching. It is the story of how Truman Capote came to write, “In Cold Blood,” why the story of these brutal murders in a small Kansas town was so important for him to relate, and how he personally got caught up both with the towns-people and then especially with one of the murderers himself, Perry Smith.

Capote, already a famous writer and celebrity, was out to transform the nature of fiction. In that sense he was extraordinarily optimistic. He wanted to chronicle an event that was graphically real and showed immense conflict. The movie depicts Capote clipping the story of the murders out of the New York Times, as if it were made to order for what Capote was trying to accomplish. And then what ensues is truly weird for the outsider, the viewer. While others would be repulsed by the subject, Capote is fascinated and gets close intellectually with his subjects. He finds a certain identification with Perry Smith, both in the creativity of his art and his writing, and because both of them were mistreated as children by their mothers.

This closeness gives an authentic quality to the writing of In Cold Blood that captivates the reader and the film depicts several scenes where first Capote’s publisher and then the more general public are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the work. But as Capote gets closer to completing the book, a moral dilemma emerges that ends up making Capote feel like it is he who is the prisoner and this creates a serious depression and downslide in Capote’s capabilities to act and communicate with others. Capote envisioned himself as an observer and chronicler but he was finding himself in the position of the friend of the murderers and his book and his personal fame were giving him credibility to influence the main outcome, whether the murderers would themselves be executed.

Capote rightly noted that the murderers had inadequate legal counsel at the original trial, so he initiated an appeal process. But although that trial may have been stacked against the defendants, there may have been justice in doing so, given the brutality of the murders. Capote finds himself in the role of judge, a role he initially desires but ultimately doesn’t want, and then a role he can’t accept. The movie depicts Capote as a drinker, but one who is in control of the situation at the beginning. At the end he is a confirmed alcoholic and completely trapped by what he himself has wrought.

Before the closing credits, some lines of text appear on the screen indicating that Capote never finished another novel. So while many of us remember him as a celebrity, for example appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, his creative flames seem to have been consumed by the experience of writing In Cold Blood. I would not have made much note of this except for having read this recent book review of A Writer’s Life, by Gay Talese, where essentially the same thing has happened, at least according to the reviewer.

Perhaps it is the case that optimists need their self-delusions to spur the creative act only to eventually suffer the risk that producing the new thing takes something out of them that they can’t replenish and hence never re-attain the vibrancy of their peak period of creativity.

We often don’t think of leaders as creative individuals. Instead we think of them as having the choices designed by others and then being hard nosed about which choice to make. There is no doubt that it was Truman’s choice to drop the A-Bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but it is Oppenheimer rather than Truman who is associated with the program to develop the bomb.

So we want spine in our leaders. And spine seems in such short supply nowadays.

Let me bring this back down to learning technology and perhaps more broadly to information technology. I know that I personally have wanted to have it both ways, and I believe many CIOs as well have felt likewise. I’m coming to the realization that it is one or the other, but not both. When I first got started I used to believe that Ed Tech administration was a place for creativity and when I expressed that to others I’d get strange looks. I’m beginning to come around to their point of view.