Saturday, January 19, 2008

Those Who Can’t

Bobby Fischer has died. With it commonplace nowadays to talk of multiple intelligences, his was a singular genius, wrapped up in a highly idiosyncratic personality. I have two remote connections to Fischer. I believe he attended the same High School as Barbra Streisand, Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. One of the science teachers there, Morten Roggen, was later the head of the Biology Department at the high school I attended, Benjamin Cardozo in Queens. I knew Roggen when I was a student, though I never took a course from him. The other connection is through a Chess Master mentioned in the obituary, Shelby Lyman. Lyman came to our high school, I believe in my senior year not too long before Fischer’s first match with Spassky. Lyman was the annotator of that match on Public TV in New York. He came to my High School before achieving this notoriety, to give a simultaneous exhibition --- play 20 or 30 games all at once. I was the opponent in one of those. I hung around for a while but as others lost and I needed to make moves more quickly, the pressure mounted. Ultimately, he creamed me.

With loose ties like this, we are perhaps five or six connections from everyone else on the planet, or so it seems. The Internet makes it seem all that much closer. I hadn’t thought about Roggen in quite a long time – there was nothing to occasion the thought. But one quick Google search and there he is, mentioned in a New York Times piece on the Westinghouse Science competition, still at Cardozo, at least at the time this piece was written 10 years ago. Ironically, it was my graduating class that produced the overall winner of the Westinghouse prize, Nina Tabachnik, the first girl to do so. Nina was fourth in my graduating class. I was fifth. (The school had so many students it was run on split session. That graduating class had in excess of 1150 students.) Loose connections are begat from others that are a little tighter.

* * * * *

A different New York Times piece from a few days back set me off for some reason. As it turns out I wasn’t the only one upset by this piece. At core is the issue of whether theorizing gets too far out in front of any potential data to confirm or refute the theoretical arguments. When I was a grad student in the late1970s, theory was definitely King in the Economics profession. (This comical depiction of the Econ clan, written by a serious economist, makes the point forcefully.) At a New Year’s Eve party I attended, with some economists present, I spent some time talking to a rather well known econometrician who argued that economic theory is dead. Real economics deals with data.

I have gone through my own personal metamorphosis in thinking about economic theory. I was trained as a theorist. That training prized rigor in the analysis and generality of the results and the regimen encouraged the student to think very hard about a problem, often for quite a long period of time. But at about the time I became aware of learning technology I started to become disillusioned with economic theory, in parts because the results were so disappointing. Theoretical economics has very little predicative power about what we can observe. General equilibrium theory admits almost anything as an excess demand correspondence; the restrictions are extremely weak. Game theory is no better. The Folk Theorem of repeated games says that any individually rational outcome can obtain, so much for economic determinism. And on the normative front, things don’t fare better. Arrow’s theorem, a gigantic result particularly at the time it emerged, tells us there is no foolproof way to make a social choice. The Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem gives the strategic analog – there is no dominant strategy mechanism that can bring about efficient public good allocation. The dismal science is, unfortunately, just that.

* * * * *

Here’s a bit on information literacy trivia before I get into my subject. The full quip from which I stole the title of this post reads as follows.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I was pretty sure it was from Eugene O’Neill, but I did some quick Google searches on quotes from O’Neill and found nothing. I then found the line on this page, where it is attributed to H.L Mencken. That didn’t seem right to me. I went to a meeting and came back still disturbed by this seeming incongruity so I went to my hard copy of Bartlett’s, fifteenth edition copyright 1980. I looked up O’Neill and Mencken and didn’t find the line under either of them. So I went back to Google and searched some more. I ultimately found another source, which attributes the line to George Bernard Shaw. The first time I saw that, when I read G.B. Shaw I associated Shaw with O’Neill. Coming back a second time I could see my error – Shaw and O’Neill both were playwrights who lived around the same time and I temporally treated them as one person, but I nonetheless understood Mencken wasn’t the right guy because he wasn’t a playwright. I attribute the mistake to the aging process, which ultimately will victimize us all; surely I’m already partway down that path. Aging masks certain distinctions but keeps others. I went back to my hard copy of Bartlett’s and looked up Shaw. I found the line, but written as follows.

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”. The attribution is Man and Superman, 1903.

I trust Bartlett’s in hard copy. That must be the correct cite. Now I’m wondering why I learned the line differently. Many other people seem to have learned it that way too, as I first wrote it, although that’s not the quote. It’s interesting what subjects can keep you fascinated on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.

The line itself conveys that the doers among us move toward the place of their work, but the rest of us, full of incapacity, move away from our personal defeats; yet if you run from something you must find another haven, and if we’re all in the same boat perhaps we find the same answers as to the haven to choose. Is Higher Ed that shelter for me? And what about for many others like me? Those questions have been lingering in the background all week, while I’ve been going about my work.

In the middle of my sophomore year in college, I transferred from MIT to Cornell. That literally was running away for me, but I note it here not for that but rather because it marked a change of mindset for me in thinking about college. Much of that mindset change was reflected in the music I listened to. My memory, as we’ve already seen, is not perfect. So I may inadvertently omit some key songs from this list. But I do recall at MIT listening repeatedly to Whammer Jammer from the J.Geils Band, Dream On by Aerosmith, Midnight Rider – the Joe Cocker version, and You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. These were all part of the repertoire, the Boston rock music of the time, or so it seemed from our dorm room near the Charles River. Nowadays, you might hear the Carly Simon song on Classic Rock radio, but I don’t think I’ve heard the other tunes for upwards of 25 years.

After a relatively harsh first semester at Cornell, where I hadn’t fully adjusted to the change and lived in an all male dorm, I found my niche as a junior at 509 Wyckoff Road. Though we did a lot of activities as a larger group, I quickly became best friends with a particular housemate who was enrolled in a one year Master program in Engineering and who happened to be a Deadhead. (A year later he was pursuing a doctorate --- at Berkeley, with part of the reason for going there to be close to Jerry Garcia.) Student that I was, I took Grateful Dead 101. There was the music, certainly. The centerpiece was the Skull and Roses album. There were other Grateful Dead albums, and the Allman Brothers, the Moody Blues, and a little bit of Bob Dylan. Yet it wasn’t just music. There were texts too. There was Jack Kerouac. And the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. These called out. (That Neal Cassady was a featured character in both really helped to make the connection.) If you can do, you’re on the road. This was the key challenge I felt in my late teens and early twenties. Can you live in the real world and deal with real people? Are you up to it? Turns out, I really wasn’t.

Consider the alternatives for what would be next after graduation – Peace Corps (in retrospect I should have considered that more seriously, but at the time I didn’t), a job wearing a suit (and for me that probably would be as an actuary in training), Law School (I took the LSAT, in part because my dad was a Lawyer, but I didn’t do well on that test), grad school in Math (but I didn’t think I had the passion for that); unsurprisingly, none of those were attractors for me. Economics won because it had a novel angle – math but not pure math, some social science even if that was done in an abstract manner, and with a free ride (fellowship) so no reason to feel it was a commitment, at least not at first. Grad school was a tweener – not a job, not medical school and a path to a guaranteed high income, but not bumming around either. I kind of knew my own answer to Dylan’s question in Like a Rolling Stone without ever having been out on my own.

Perhaps the grad school choice is different for students who go in the same field that they majored in as an undergrad. Then there is continuity. Perhaps that leads to a greater sense of moving toward a goal. For me, knowing I couldn't hack bumming around and that my parents wouldn’t help me financially if I did that, grad school was the preferred alternative to getting a job. That was the those-who-can’t aspect. At first, it wasn’t an embrace of academia or teaching. It’s hard to embrace something you know so little about. Then, once that choice was behind me, I made what is referred to in economics jargon as a “rolling plan.” I’d do it seriously one quarter and then reconsider my options. It turn out that this approach is the equivalent at a personal level to a non-denial denial. I didn’t ask myself explicitly is this what I really want to do with my life and does it afford me avenues of self-expression and self-realization that answer the meaning of life question. Posing those questions, the key thing I did at Wyckoff Road, didn’t happen once I got to grad school. But in the process of doing the economics seriously, I got hooked/locked-in. I came to like the intellectual rigor of the economics and enjoyed living a life that was mostly in my own head, though there was much else of my program that I disliked and I felt my own cohort was anti-intellectual, especially compared to my time at Cornell.

The University is a cloister. The work there is necessarily divorced in many ways from what goes on in the rest of the world. In college towns like Champaign-Urbana, that is doubly so. Urban campuses may be similar to mine in how they deal with the work, but there the faculty and the students still are residents of the city and must deal with the aspects of life implied by that. So, it turns out I moved to the cloister in stages and ironically some parts of my grad student life brought me closer to Kerouac than I’ve been before or since. I lived four miles from Northwestern, in Rogers Park, in the far northeast of Chicago. My neighborhood had mostly folks who had nothing to do with Northwestern, only a smattering of students and definitely no faculty. Across Sheridan Road (my address was 7707 Sheridan Rd.) there was a sub-community dubbed “The Jungle.” The residents were mostly Black and when you walked the streets there you felt a need to have your wits about you. I did most of my grocery shopping, at least that first year, at the Dominick’s on Howard Street. Odd that I remember this, but it didn’t have one of those auto open doors and I remember developing a habit of holding open the door for the next person, regardless of who they were. These non-university folks were real people and they deserved to be treated decently. I’m not sure why but for the most part I didn’t feel fear for my physical well being (growing up in New York I felt that fairly often) and holding the door for people was my tiny way of saying I’m OK – you’re OK. Sometimes we’d share a sentence or two and then that would be it. I can’t say I led an organic life as a city dweller. But there was a substantial part of me that was not yet ensconced in school.

There is a fine line between running away from failure and opting out of a situation because there are discomforts that anyone with sense would avoid. I chose to come down here because of the university, not because I wanted to live in a small town. But the small town aspect of the place creates its own hooks, the same way that studying economics seriously does. For those of us who grew up in a city but have worked in a college town environment most of our adult lives, perhaps we are less troubled from asking ourselves which side of that line we are on; maybe we’re no longer troubled by it at all. For those who grew up in a small town, found the university as a student and then remained after graduating, the path may have been different but the sense of cloister may be even greater. Further, the creature comforts that we’ve increasingly become accustomed to, comforts that are a consequence of a comparatively high family income, numbs us even more. Let’s face it, because academics are remunerated in accord with their advanced degrees and because income inequality in the society as a whole has risen dramatically since I was in graduate school thirty years ago, we academics who were firmly part of the middle class now find ourselves part of the income elite, if only in the lower tail of that group. That income disparity creates its own sense of cloister. And ultimately it makes the issue of which side of the line one is on a distinction without meaning.

* * * * *

Of course, there is a different kind of those-who-can’t issue inside of academe. It is manifest most clearly in the increasing reliance of adjuncts on campus – as a way to hold down the costs of instruction. And, further, it is manifest in how salary increases and promotions are decided. Many others have written about the issue. So here I want to take a look at it from a different angle, from the culture within academe.

There is a hermitic aspect to being an academic. Writing a manuscript, cleaning a data set, working through a model – all of these have a strong solitary aspect to them, even when done in collaboration with others. But for a regular faculty member there is an offsetting social activity that advances their own learning more generally. It is the workshop or seminar series, a place to see papers presented and learn about interesting ideas that others have generated, and on occasion a place to showcase one’s own work. Any department that has a good and vigorous intellectual life has an active seminar series. It is the perfect counterpoint to the more reclusive work that faculty do otherwise.

Many adjuncts I know do no research at all. Quite a few of those, not inclined to a hermitic existence by their disposition, are nevertheless fairly isolated from peers. They may be extremely busy, spending a lot of time with students, but for many of them there is no counterpart to the workshop where they can learn from their peers on a regular basis. So their isolation is more complete than with regular faculty. And that more than anything else serves to re-emphasize their those-that-can’t status and in that respect is more important than their precarious position contractually, though obviously that matters too. The thought has occurred to me more than once that if I were 25 years younger and relatively new to college teaching, I’d probably be an adjunct. I wonder how I’d survive in that circumstance.

There are community building aspects regarding teaching and learning on campus. I’m part of one of those, a seminar on Undergraduates Engaged in Inquiry. Some adjuncts participate, but not as vigorously as the faculty who are regulars in the group. And many don’t participate at all. There are a handful of adjuncts on campus who have a strong reputation as excellent teachers and who do spend a lot of their time learning about or inventing for themselves new approaches to their teaching. They innovate and get reward from that, both in terms of recognition and occasionally financially too. But these people are the exceptions.

Somehow, there needs to be an intellectual community that attracts adjuncts more broadly, that encourages their professional development as teachers, and in the process makes them feel more a part of the place --- doers rather than stopgaps. I don’t know how that can get done --- perhaps a small grant program for adjuncts that combines an initial faculty development activity with an ongoing workshop, though I’m really not sure how this should look. Learning technologists should be part of it, but probably in a supporting rather than a lead role. Who should take the lead? Again, I’m not sure. It would be best if it were self-sustained by the adjuncts themselves but, clearly, there is a chicken and egg problem with that. I do think it time that the issue receive a broader vetting than I’m giving it here. I would participate in further discussions on the topic if others were interested.

* * * * *

There’s yet one other way where those-who-can’t manifests on campus and to discuss that let me consider another one of those road-not-taken questions. Suppose I had not found learning technology administration and had instead remained as a regular faculty member with a modest research agenda, producing my one or two papers a year and getting them into reasonable journals if not the top-of-the-profession outlets. Would I just keep chugging along or would I have felt a need to change my research portfolio, perhaps working with empirical types rather than straight theory, perhaps working with social scientists who are not economists, to do some interdisciplinary work.

In asking this question I’m making note of the following. Economics as a major is as popular as ever, but the graduate program here and I believe at many other places as well is much smaller than it was when I came here in 1980. So from a teaching load point of view, the average load entails more undergraduate instruction. People who do pure theory research, like I did, find themselves in a position where their research is irrelevant for their teaching. And it is not a stretch to ask whether the research is relevant for anything else. The reinvention of the research agenda would, no doubt, be done in a search for relevance. The alternative of chugging along, at least implicitly, is an argument that indeed the research is relevant for other things.

But that sort of thing can be measured, at least indirectly. The most obvious way of doing this would be by looking at citations. If one can trace out a chain of citations that go from the pure theory research to other work, either widely recognized theory, or more applied work that has clear value in itself, that chain provides a justification for the work. But what if that chain is a closed loop, with the theory papers each citing other theory papers but not going off to something else that has established value? What then? Quite possibly the theorists themselves defend their turf, but the rest of the world comes to view them as a bunch of eccentrics only.

I don’t want to characterize all of economic theory this way, but I believe there is a problem here and the problem goes outside the economics discipline. Further, the rules of faculty governance and the role of tenure exacerbate this problem. What happens when those who can’t are at the top of the food chain? It’s not a pretty picture.


Downes said...

Interesting ramble covering (as usual) a lot of ground.

People who have studied the foundations of probability and the foundations of logic recognize a certain arbitrariness to those disciplines.

Probability, in particular, can be interpreted three major ways (charaterized by Reichenbach, Carnap and Ramsay) resulting in three different semantics. When one says 'the world is improbable', does one mean, (a) as compared to all previous worlds, (b) as compared to all logically possible worlds, or (c) as compared to all the worlds we are willing to place money on?

My own perspective, in both cosmology and economics, that research (properly so-called), calculation and measurement will only take you so far. A significant proportion of the cosmologists' or the economists' output is based, not on measurement, but on recognition. Sometimes we see this acknowledged with code-phrases ("this year's economy is similar to what we say in 1992") but more often is not explicitly acknowledged at all.

The thing with recognition is, there are no rules regarding domain. Everything is relevant, because the variables are so intertwined, there is no real saying what is salient and what is coincidental. The person who first noticed a sine wave (properly a property of electricity and oceans) in economic data was operating on the principle of recognition, as was Pascal when he said (with no real knowledge of the alternatives) that this is the "best of all possible worlds".

Teaching, I think, is more an art of recognition than of measurement, which is why the best teachers can identify the students with the most potential before even the first exam result comes in, and why teachers can learn more and more about their discipline even without doing 'research'. The acquisition of a capacity to 'recognize' is a function of the accumulation of experience, preferably as diverse and as difficult as possible.

Recognition, properly so-called, is a logical process, not magic or intuition. When you pick out the face of your spouse from a crowd of people at an airport, this is not some random event or happenstance, but a knowable and identifiable process of human cognition. We can understand that *some* process is taking place, even if we cannot measure that phenomenon except by the grossest indicators.

I think that what we'll find, after enough investigation, is that measurement in both economics and education has been employment more for political purposes than for research purposes.

Which, of course, is what people with enough experience in both fields have long since recognized.

Lanny Arvan said...

Stephen - thanks for your thoughtful comment.

As a sidebar, I'd point out that economists still debate whether probabilities are objective or subjective and the various conundrums that arise if you allow the latter some of the time whether those subjective probabilities must conform with a history of loss frequency when those data are available.

I agree with your point about recognition and teaching, but would add that some of teaching is framing the discussion and that part is done ahead of time. So one thing the instructor does measure is the usefulness of that frame in advancing the conversation and then whether what seemingly worked with one cohort of students will continue to work with another.