Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Inadvertent Intimidation

Sometimes even the seemingly most innocuous encounters provide revelation. Our new Business Instructional Facility lies between the building where I have my office and the lot where my car is parked. The design, I believe common to many business school buildings, features a huge common area, we call it The Atrium, with vertical space three stories tall from first floor all the way to the roof, with casual seating, a coffee shop on one end, and hallways at each corner extending to classrooms and offices. It's a hang out place and a great location for an informal meeting. I often walk through, to and from my office, surely so in inclement weather or when it is very cold outside, and other times too. On Monday afternoon I was headed to the Post Office to mail some personal letters (Campus Mail handles the work related stuff) and by chance I bump into one of our Assistant Deans for Undergraduate Affairs, a very nice guy who runs the college's Honors Program. He says,

"You economists sure make a simple game complicated."

You see, my dean is an economist and an avid baseball fan. He was an early enthusiast of Bill James, the baseball data guru. Many empirical economists – meaning their research involves the statistical manipulation and analysis of pre-collected numerical data, primarily to test economic hypotheses – who are sports fans as well like to take their work skills and apply them informally in their recreational pursuits. Major League Baseball, in particular, is an attractor because of all the data that is recorded in the normal play of the game. So he shares his hobby with other empirical economists, now scattered around the country, once former colleagues in the Econ department here. We get various emails from my dean, each about some tidbit of curiosity. I'm not an empirical guy. By training and scholarship I was a theorist before turning to learning technology. But I'm a buddy with the rest of them and because this is all pretty casual stuff I can and do chime in from time to time with my own surmisals. My Assistant Dean colleague is also on the list though not an economist. He is an avid baseball fan and a little older than the rest of us, so is capable of providing good anecdotes from when the rest of us were kids.

That morning we got an email from my dean about a table published in ESPN Insider. It had a screen grab of a table which plotted the batting averages for all at bats in Major League Baseball last year conditional on the number of balls and strikes in "the count." Mostly the table was unsurprising. Each additional strike lowered the batting average while each additional ball raised the batting average. There was one exception. The batting average was actually higher when the count was 3-1 than when the count was 3-0. How could that be? After scanning the table to see that mostly it produced what you'd expect for ordering the count by batting average, I puzzled over the anomaly for a few seconds, trying to come to an explanation for it in my mind. It really didn't take more than that.

As a baseball fan, I know that often on 3-0 counts the batter is under instructions to take the pitch, a walk is as good as a hit, or so the saying goes. A walk doesn't count in the batting average at all. When the player is given the "green light" to swing away at 3-0 the player might very well "go for the downs," meaning that he makes a swing hoping it will produce a home run. In more ordinary swings the player may instead focus primarily on making good contact with the ball, hoping to hit a line drive. My conjecture is that the go for the downs swing likely lowers the batting average, but it still can be worth it because a home run is much more valuable than a single. Batting average doesn't discriminate between the type of hits at all. So what I wrote in response to my dean's email:

"It would be great to have such a table with slugging percentage instead of batting average."

Thinking my meaning obvious, I didn't elaborate. I guess whether it is obvious or not depends a great deal on the audience.

None of this would have raised an eyebrow for me had I not been at an appreciation luncheon earlier in the day for faculty who reviewed applications for the Campus Honors Program. During the lunch we learned some facts from the program's director. Admission at the campus level is a bit down. Private schools have been expanding their waiting lists, apparently not knowing what their yields will be in these uncertain times. In those cases where we are the safety school, the student rationally keeps us on hold right till the deadline. The same thing seems to be the case for CHP. We were shown preliminary numbers. They were on the light side of their targets. Students have till this evening to have posted (by snail mail) an acceptance. So the numbers are apt to drift upward. The program has the ability to recruit students after they've arrived on Campus. So they can fill their cohort that way, if necessary. But due to budget cuts, they may want to keep their numbers lower, rather than dilute the quality of their offerings, simply make those offerings available to a smaller number of students.

There is a provider logic to that thinking. Yet there are many more students who are qualified for an honors program than the program can admit. So I found the thought of shrinking the program rather distressing. That thought bothered much of the rest of the day. I'm still bothered by it.

After the director's remarks we began a discussion of the teaching experiences some of the instructors were having this semester in their CHP classes. The first couple of faculty reports were glowing. The students are brilliant and they are doing all these wonderful things. Then the tone of the discussion took a marked turn. A history professor, I don't know him but he seems a decent guy and down to earth while some of the others in the room are a bit cantankerous, reported that his class didn't go very well at all. Some of the students hardly participated. They were very quiet. One normally thinks of disruption resulting from a loud outburst. It turns out that sustained silence by a significant number of students can disrupt a class, particularly when the instructor doesn't anticipate the behavior ahead of time.

I nodded my head in assent as the history professor told this story. I reported that my class in the fall had similar issues, as I wrote about in a post called Teaching Quiet Students. A math professor then elaborated the issues along two dimensions. Students drop his CHP course early, when their first impression is that they can't penetrate the material. The irony here is that CHP encourages students to take courses outside the student's comfort zone. This lack of faith in their own ability to make good progress in alien territory acts as an inhibitor in producing the CHP ideal. The other point the instructor made is that very good students in his class end up intimidating the other students, who must feel that they can't imitate the quality of performance the very good student produces as a matter of course. Some of the others who wouldn't be quiet otherwise are driven toward that behavior because they feel they can't measure up and they want to keep that fact to themselves. If we improve by practice, as indeed we do, the gap between the very good student and the rest only widens as a consequence. So this becomes a self-enforcing negative spiral.

Here I start to think that the elitism inherent in CHP is counterproductive. The quiet students need nurture. If that were suitably provided they might delight, as the instructor does, in the high level of performance of the very good student. With adequate protection that performance doesn't make for a threat and they can see it for its creativity and its contribution. Without the requisite protection, however, the other students are on the defensive, of necessity. Their own egos are on the line. Of course, this issue is not new at all. It's been with us certainly since when I was a student, probably since the concept of college came into being. But my sense is that the problem is becoming more aggravated recently and that discussions about quiet students will become more frequent and more pronounced over the next year or two.

* * * * *

I was cooking on these themes after returning to my office from the Post Office. While I had several work related tasks to do, I needed some distraction. Over the weekend I saw that Barbara Ganley started a new blogging venture. I took a quick look at the new site, Open View Gardens, over the weekend and vowed I'd read her first post for real in the next couple of days. So I take to read her post that Monday afternoon. Perhaps when you're cooking everything looks like it belongs in the stew. Quite likely nobody else seeing Barbara's site would recognize any similarity between her topics – natural foods, gardens, and building a community in conversation around these ideas – and my themes. Instinctively, however, I have a gut reaction. If you'll pardon the bad pun, they are two peas in a pod. And since I'm kind of upset with my themes, my initial reaction to her site is negative.

I don't intellectualize this all at once. Initially my thoughts are not of what transpired earlier in the day but rather of a different email my dean had sent a couple of weeks ago, about a new game for the Playstation 3 called MLB 10. It is an extraordinarily realistic game about Major League Baseball, but it is so complex and so difficult to learn for the uninitiated that it will discourage all but the diehard sports gamers. Indeed that is the thrust of the piece. The game is anti-democratic in its design. It's intended for users who have already logged hundreds if not thousands of hours playing similar sports games, implicitly signifying that novices are not welcome. It offers no pathway for novices to develop expertise. The author of the piece finds this off putting. Some of the big multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft, do recognize the need to bring in new users all the time. It's part of their design. Why isn't it part of the baseball game? Is it just too hard to build in all the detail for those who want it and yet also have a simpler alternative for those who are just getting started?

While I don't explicitly think about this, I have in the back of my mind the piece, Watching TV Makes You Smarter. The core idea being that we humans are learning creatures and TV programming has to be helping viewers learn or they will lose interest. But to do that the programs have had to become more complex over time, so viewers have more to figure out in understanding a show. This move toward complexity appears inexorable. The makers of World of Warcraft can counter this move toward complexity by designing into their environment a path for newcomers. A business organization can make such a decision deliberately. I'm not sure an individual can make a likewise commitment if there is little or no learning for the individual in providing the path for newcomers. Barbara is just about the most democratic person I know and cares deeply about making learning accessible for others. But she cares about her own learning too. Can she, through geniality in character or force of will, keep herself out of this trap? I don't see it, so I'm not happy with her site.

On the other hand, the site is brand spanking new and it takes quite a bit of hubris on my part to make that sort of prediction based on the very little online evidence and no understanding of what is happening on the ground at all. I've been schooled that if you don't have something good to say… Yet when I first encountered Barbara online, it was by challenging her in something she had written. And she had requested comments on the new site. So, without an ideal solution, I did a part serious comment and a part punt – I wrote a little rhyme about my own tuning out.

Not surprisingly, in her response she asked what I really intended. I hadn't thought through the sequence of moves that would ensue from my comment. So that evening I reflected some more on her post and my themes. I thought about something I read not too long ago that different generations have quite different attitudes toward food and nutrition, with some young adults regarding questions of what to eat along ethical lines but baby boomers like me thinking of food as a necessity of life, nothing more. (I wish I could find this reference, which I thought was the New York Times Magazine, but I struck out in trying to pinpoint it.)

My belief is that we've erred in the education of young adults, with too much emphasis on choice and not enough on obligation. The example that sticks in my head is customization achievable at an espresso bar. Everyone can get their own individual choice. Each customer in that way becomes a designer of his or her own drink. In concept the designing function may be fine but in implementation it creates a sense of entitlement. Individual entitlement that is just for ourselves may be ok, but I believe further that thinking it will be just for ourselves creates a focus on the exception rather than the rule. Often one person's entitlement blocks or impedes another's.

Bright and open students should see it as their obligation to offer succor for their classmates. Quiet students should understand that functional groups have all participate. When they don't speak up they are reducing the effectiveness of the group as a whole. Obligation should trump here. But in a world of entitlement, it doesn't. Rightly or wrongly, I associate the ethical stance about which foods to eat with an entitlement approach about choice. In my reflection I see this linkage between what Barbara wants to do and my earlier themes.

Then events conspire to show I'm throwing stones in a glass house. This year we've been ordering the beans for our morning coffee from Peet's, two pounds delivered every two weeks. It's been like clockwork till this past Monday. We didn't get a delivery then. That evening I start to get a bit desperate about what we'll do Tuesday morning. We had some French Roast left though not enough for a pot of coffee and a half a bag of some old rot gut from a local supplier. We could tolerate one morning of mixing the two. But I really want good coffee in the morning. (Fortunately, the shipment was delivered yesterday.) Is it any more than splitting hairs to distinguish what we crave from what we feel we deserve? It serves me right for ignoring my own foibles.

Then I also note that I'm frequently none too sensitive to the novice's need that things won't accelerate beyond comprehension. I don't believe this lack of sensitivity is from deliberate boasting on my part. Rather I think it is that once I get into something, that's where I want to be. It takes a while to get focused and intense. Let the intensity subdue of its own accord. While engaged, however, much else is a blur.

Barbara, in contrast, is much more outgoing and willing to engage with others, seemingly at all times. One of her favorite ideas is the notion of "reciprocal apprenticeships" where all the participants learn together, helping each other as they go, sharing their insights and discoveries with one another.

Is Barbara's topic for her new blog broad enough that she can keep going back to the well for something new, different but not more complex, welcoming all while continuing to pique her own interest? I don't know. What seemed impossible on Monday evening looks like it might be do-able two days later. Thinking it through and identifying the pitfalls, surely there is a challenge here, but that doesn't mean the challenge is insurmountable.

It's funny, with this writing I've not done one whit to resolve the themes that were disturbing me so much on Monday. But I'm not quite as distressed after getting this post out of my system. Perhaps we can overcome those challenges as well.


Barbara said...

Wow, Lanny, what a post! I'm delighted to have contributed to your stewing (heh-heh) over the problems of choice and entitlement, exclusivity and accomplishment. I welcome your thoughtful questioning of my new endeavors and website--you do indeed push my thinking, and that is a good thing.

First off, on the subject of teaching quiet students--a couple of nights ago a former student of mine--an exceptional though exasperating student in that she kept all her learning to herself, refusing to utter a word in class--called to talk about a class she is teaching at UCLA. She can't rouse them to engage actively in class, and in their work outside of class they do not seem particularly motivated either. What to do, what to do, she asked. I said that all she could do was to maintain her own modeling of passion for the subject, for learning, for learning within, yes, this notion of reciprocal apprenticeships. If she had spent time designing a course that had ways in for all kinds of learners, if she had insisted that the students orient themselves to the course from their own experience--sitting on that suitcase before stepping through the threshold of the class--and if she had spent time on nurturing the community of learners, helping them to see that they each had something to teach, something to learn, then she had to let them take responsibility for the experience. Some classes have bad chemistry, but that does not make them bad classes.

We have no idea what students are really learning or when they will learn. Tests, simulations, essays capture the immediate grasp of concepts and skills (within whatever context we have thrown them). Passive learning can be powerful for those who lack confidence and the central skills (see Etienne Wenger's work on communities of practice, on how some of the most creative, interesting ideas come from the edges, among those who are seemingly disengaged). Perhaps what she needed to do was to allow students to express their learning in more ways than she had offered.

Ah, you're saying, too much choice. No, I'm saying, thoughtful choice--every choice my students made about what and how they learned and contributed had to be argued for within the context and confines of the subject and the semester. Choice tied to the learning. Choice that includes failure.

As for my views on food and opening up our narrow sense of the local, I'm not talking about promiscuous eating. I'm talking about moving out of our own narrow experiences and perspectives of the world through the powerful learning terrain of food as culture. We all have views on food, and so it's a topic that naturally invites everyone in--what you rightly point out, is whether I can pique the interest of those who do not want to spend much time thinking about what they eat. As far as breadth and depth of topic--food is tied to history, politics, economics, health, science, literature, art--you name it.

I have lots more to say on the topic, and will over at my blog, when I can get out of the early-season garden. For now I just want to thank you for shaking the tree and expressing your doubts and concerns.


Lanny Arvan said...

On the quiet student front - I believe the problem is systemic. It will likely take some time to establish that proposition, but if it is true then it requires a systemic response. I should also say that on the flip side, some of my most talkative students also showed a good deal of insularity in their behavior. In my class they were all women and self-possessed as to ignore their peers to a large degree. So that insularity needs to be addressed as well.

Also, I think there are some cultural aspects to the above. Many of the Asian-American students were quiet. Among the women in that group, they showed a persistence and a willingness to endure some hardship or indignity that I didn't see in the other students. Among the talkative students, one had some Latin American culture in her background. The others were white and I believe none were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants. (My mom was an immigrant and my father's parents were immigrants, so I'm referring to kids like my children or those with even longer lineage in America.) I believe the notion of entitlement is greater with these students. It may be too strong to say that our culture has a tendency to spoil these kids, but perhaps it does force them to compartmentalize their lives much more so than when we were growing up.