Sunday, November 26, 2006

Feeling tugged in too many directions

Sometimes we get trapped in the metaphors we live by. For the last several days the email message from the Campus spam filter, which lists all the messages that got blocked at the central mail relays and hence didn’t get through to my account, arrived in my Junk Mail folder. Unexplained but not a mystery that I will dwell on, today’s message arrived in my Inbox. That we are subject to censorship and suppression of information not of our own choosing and that in this country of the Bill of Rights it occurs in haphazard fashion with predictability only in hindsight makes one feel ill at ease, uncomfortable in the general smugness and the lack of rhyme or reason.

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Right before the Holiday I watched Brian Williams on Charlie Rose. I must have been desperate for some type of stimulation because Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, is not the type of guy I would normally watch --- too plastic, too predictable. And much of what he said was in that category, platitudes about what a great job he has, too namby-pamby even when talking about Bush’s avoidance of reality in Iraq. But Williams said something that I hadn’t heard before and maybe it’s part of my generation’s current state of mind (Williams is 4 years my junior). He cheerily reported that the first things he looks at in the newspaper are the obituaries. It is odd to be fascinated with the accomplishments of those who have died recently, and how those people affected us, isn’t it? Perhaps not.

The various news outlets certainly have been playing to this angle as of late. For example, the handling of Robert Altman’s passing has been played as a center stage news event, even if the movies we know him for, mainly Mash but also Nashville and a few others, appeared more than 30 years ago. To be fair, Altman kept creating movies to the last. And his influence is likely greater than I indicate here. One of things I really liked about his approach, something I subscribe to as it is applied to my own domain, is keeping his actors in a relaxed and festive environment, allowing them to improvise at their own discretion, as the best way to produce a really creative result. But surely there is more than a bit of nostalgia at work in playing up his passing this way.

The effect on me, not just from Altman’s death but also the passing of Milton Friedman, R W. Apple, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Styron, and others is a sense of loss of deep intelligence; these were really smart people whose absence creates a void that will be hard to fill, a void seemingly all the larger because of the sheer idiocy of the Bush administration, a void that makes it hard to feel idealistic about the future. Idealism is a feeling of youth, one that folks my age associate with the Kennedy presidency, even if we were too young to be justified in that belief (I was only in the 4th grade when Kennedy was shot and hence have no direct adult memories of the time). Galbraith served in the Kennedy administration, as did Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who for reasons that I can’t recall provided me with the mental image of an intellectual, at least till I went to graduate school and started to read the writings of some of the great economists. Kennedy, whatever else his failings, chose to have great minds work for him.

Bill Gates on Charlie Rose, while talking about how Microsoft is waging a multi-front war – with Google over search, with Apple over iTunes, and with Sony over Playstation, not a strategy that would seem to commend itself it the appropriate analogy is military history, but an approach that does make more sense if instead the right comparison is with financial investment where the adage of every financial advisor is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” recounted some of the naiveté early on at Microsoft where the management idea was to bring in really smart people and then give them free rein to make things happen, without concern for whether the individual’s comparative advantage was in doing the task to which he was assigned. So, surely intelligence is not sufficient, and on this my personal experience jibes with Gates’ observation. But equally surely, it is necessary, isn’t it? Armed with this realization, how can one be idealistic today?

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Barbara Ganley, in her initial post after visiting here the week of Halloween, wrote many complimentary things about colleagues here with whom she visited and about me she wrote that it was as if we’ve been having these type of conversations/arguments for a very long time, a feeling that I share and so I think it was a good way to capture the essence of that visit. But at least for me, that type of feeling is not something new. It goes back to the time when Altman was in his heyday and I was an undergrad at Cornell. At least in terms of tone and just wanting to keep talking it really is the same thing.

And yet nowadays we might think such conversations emerging as an outgrowth of blogging, a place where connections are made. In the early to mid ‘70s we would have said the same thing about smoking pot. Both the sense of openness and synch were a big part of then, at least they were for me. Nowadays I can’t imagine folks my age using pot as a way to break down barriers and create an emotional bond, but I think those who look to the genesis of blogging only from the perspective of networked computers are missing a part of our history that we should tie into. Conversations about pot smoking are probably rightly censored, especially in household like mine with young adolescent kids. They are entitled to learn about my own experiences in this regard, calling them either “finding self” or “indiscretions” as they see fit, but it should be their curiosity that drives such discovery and until they express such on their own I’m quite willing to help preserve their sense of innocence. So I for one will not be further drawing ties of this sort. Nevertheless, it seems to me an obvious connection to bring out and I encourage others whose children have already left the nest to explore it in depth.

True to her promise, Barbara gave a full explication of how she teaches the first two weeks of the semester in her second post after her visit here. There was a lot of interest here in the scaffolding of that, given how much of a point she made that the students are not ready to blog as a well functioning community at the outset of the courses. So I found her Cracking Open the Course page quite interesting and from there I read Charles’ Knowledge Tree, the one other students were to read for inspiration.

But I’m afraid from there I lost track of teaching the first two weeks and instead found myself in my own past, the first two years of graduate school at Northwestern, and where Charles’ recollections are of romance and nostalgia mine are of intense cold, austerity, and a lack of humanity. I lived four blocks from the Howard Street El stop, along Sheridan Road right before the bend around the cemetery that serves to separate Chicago from Evanston. My first winter there we had a day where it was minus 26 degrees (minus 72 with the wind chill factor). I had never experienced anything like that. The second year we had the big snow, the storm (and the lack of getting the plows out on a Sunday morning) that got Jane Byrne elected mayor. My car was buried under the snow for 6 weeks, which was just as well because there was no place else to park it. During that time I had to take the El to school. And most of my meals were canned soup and sandwiches, because I couldn’t do real grocery shopping and had to buy stuff from the convenience store on the corner.

The brutality of the weather matched what I was experiencing in the econ graduate program. Two of the students dropped out in the second quarter – many of the students weren’t prepared for the intellectual rigor of the program – and while that was evident I was miffed that the program seemingly expressed no concern for the well being of these people. That second quarter we had Macro from Bob Gordon, someone who has done interesting empirical research on productivity growth or the lack thereof, but who as a teacher offered very little when it came to people skills, he looked at the floor rather than at us when he was lecturing, and who because he was the director of financial aid at the time and could use performance in his class as a metric for who was meritorious in that regard and because aid was comparatively scarce at the time created a terrorizing effect hurt the self-esteem of many, including some who did ultimately get their doctorates from NU. Whether my classmates and I would have been more into arguing about the economics in our free time outside of class had our instruction been less like The Paper Chase, I can’t say.

I must add here that with the Math Center faculty and students I fell into by the third quarter of the first year there wasn’t this type of tone, but the rest of the students in my cohort weren’t really involved with the Math Center and so I had the same sense of isolation about my studies as I had as an undergraduate, but in the undergraduate setting it made sense. In grad school I hung around with Econ classmates socially and that social life was not intellectual about the economics.

So I lost an opportunity to learn about vigorous intellectual argument and that truth might emerge from that even if the conversation gets heated at time. This is clearly the approach of Milton Friedman. Seminars at Chicago were well known to produce smoke as well as light and if there were a flaw in the paper, the presenter might not be able to get through the session. During the late ’80s and early ‘90s we had a Chicago economist here, Pablo Spiller, who was the senior Industrial Organization guy and who ran his workshop in the Chicago style. I became one of those people who gave harsh critique to the presenter and it was a role I liked because my technical training encouraged me to find the flaw in the argument/model.

Is there a way to reconcile the Milton Friedman view that truth come out of a Darwinian struggle waged as argument with the Robert Altman position that actors have to feel festive to give their best performances? I’m struggling with this. I’d like the answer to be yes but at first and even second blush it seems otherwise. When a bond has been formed among us, can we indeed air all ideas or do we risk losing credibility by doing so and hence have to self-filter to preserve the bond? What in Barbara’s teaching approach survives when teaching economics rather than writing and at a place like Illinois rather than at Middlebury?

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In my new job I started in with the naïve belief that my main goal was to transform the culture and that blogging would be a key element to that. I’m finding the on-ground issues that folks are dealing with more urgent and it has caused me to take a step back and reflect. Until now all things technology have been done with a bottom up approach creating a diversity of solutions that from the students perspective creates bewilderment and costs them time. The expressed concern of the students regards better management of course logistics.

Most instructors lecture. And the ones I’ve talked with are either tenure track faculty who are quite concerned about putting in any time into activities outside of their direct research, while those I’ve chatted with humor me when I talk about how blogging may help them, even in their research where it might create a bigger audience for their work and it might help to expose some of the process ideas that lead to the creation of a publishable paper, they clearly have other fish to fry; or they not on the tenure track but then are teaching huge classes and have other burdens like advising and supporting co-curricula activity. The status quo fits into their approach, though there definitely are stresses, these folks are not in a position to take on risks so better to deal with the known stresses than to try something else that might prove to be a disaster when there only seems to be a vague upside to it. And, of course, for the very same reason these instructors don’t hold the students to a high account. Viewing time as money, doing so would break the bank.

The College runs a large variety of high tuition professional programs, some face to face at distance, and technology in the classroom has become a significant concern, at present as an indicator of the quality of the environs – adult learners who are paying substantial tuition have certain expectations about the facilities that may or may not tie directly into the quality of the learning experience itself. The last week or two I’ve put in a significant amount of time on learning, for example, why teaching with a pen sensitive monitor, like the Smart Sympodium is unlike teaching with a Tablet PC (PowerPoint in Slideshow mode functions differently in XP, no eraser or marker pen, than in the Tablet PC version, which has these functions) as well as the intricacies of VGA capture and in particular whether that can be done well when the instructor hand writes out presentation on his Tablet PC or alternatively does a demo in Excel that involves some manipulation of data. These are logistical matters of a different sort. We’d like to do this right, especially given the clientele, but exactly what does that mean? And do we have a way to train the faculty who teach in these programs to use the technology effectively?

I’m still in my honeymoon period in the new job and will be there at least till the break between the fall and spring semesters. The current question running through the back of my head is whether making logistics the initial emphasis of my work is correct tactically --- satisfy the current expressed needs in an effort to build goodwill or burn up that goodwill before getting to the heart of the matter.

But behind all of that is a more fundamental question. I want to create the preconditions so I can openly learn from the students, the faculty, and the administration what they really want and I’d like those conversations to happen in a setting where each of these participants has some depth of knowledge regarding the possibilities. So I’d like to do the metaphorical equivalent of Barbara’s first two weeks of the semester, building a bond so we have a common language for conversation. But I don’t have the luxury of enrolling these folks in my eLearning/CIO class and the question is how to make the bond without that or whether it is even possible.

Maybe I need to tell them what they want to hear and filter the rest.

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