Friday, July 30, 2010

Very Prescient

This was invented in 1975. I learned about it from Diane Ravitch's book.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Flow Pigou Effect.

This is what Paul Krugman has been saying for some time, but now from some official types at the Fed. It doesn't really seem that they have the instruments to stem the tide. We need a public works program. The ordinary Pigou Effect says that with a drop in the price level real financial wealth has increased so spending should rise on its own accord. The flow effect, however, predicts the opposite. If deflation is expected to persist, there are gains to be had by hoarding cash. That becomes self-fulfilling.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The curse of the early adopter

If there is one consistent lesson that one gleans by studying school reform over the past century, it is the danger of taking a good idea and expanding it rapidly, spreading it thin. What is stunningly successful in a small setting, nurtured by its founders and brought to life by a cadre of passionate teachers, seldom survives the transition when it is turned into a large-scale reform. Whether charter schools are a sustainable reform, whether they can proliferate and at the same time produce good results, is a question yet to be resolved. Whether there is the will to close low-performing charters remains to be seen. Whether there is an adequate supply of teachers who are willing to work fifty-hour weeks is unknown. The biggest unknown is how the multiplication of charter schools will affect public education.
The Death And Life Of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch
Chapter 7, penultimate paragraph.

We early adopters think it should be otherwise. That our early success should readily replicate. We do not see ourselves as exceptional, so why not? Our greatest sin is hubris. But we aren't the worst sinners. At least, we react to evidence and try to keep our beliefs consistent with the data.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Are we Ketman?

I have been reading the Diane Ravitch book The Death and Life of the American School System after being intrigued by the review written by E.D. Hirsch. Once I realized this was the same Hirsch who authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know which, once upon a time, I actually read I was surprised by how much of what Hirsch said seemed reasonable to me. When I used to teach the large section of intermediate microeconomics (about 10 years ago) my experience was that many of the students couldn't read the New York Times and make good meaning of the pieces I encouraged them to read. I found a Newsweek piece from back in 1987, A Dunce Cap for America (this link is to Ebsco which your Library must subscribe to to get to the record) that talks about Hirsch's book and Allan Bloom's The Closing of The American Mind. The Newsweek piece actually has a line, "Should it take a Ph.D. to read The New York Times?" Then a little later in the piece it has a Pop Quiz:
Here are some things E. D. Hirsch says literate Americans should know in high school. He asks only general familiarity and common associations -- instant recognition, not encyclopedic expertise. (Answers are NEWSWEEK'S.)
1. 1066
2. absolute zero
3. beginning, In the
4. big bad wolf
5. Currier and Ives
6. demonstrative pronoun
7. Doctor Livingstone, I presume?
8. Earp, Wyatt
9. epistemology
10. flapper
11. Get thee behind me, Satan.
12. Hegelian dialectic
13. Hickory, Dickory, Dock (text)
14. I think, therefore I am.
15. Jolly Roger
16. Kafka, Franz
17. Knock on wood
18. lean and hungry look
19. Marx Brothers
20. Nantes, Edict of
21. n.b.
22. open shop
23. Planck's constant
24. Presley, Elvis
25. quadratic equation
26. Remember Pearl Harbor!
27. Remember the Maine!
28. Sherlock Holmes
29. Slough of Despond
30. Typhoid Mary
31. uncertainty principle
32. utilitarianism
33. vector
34. wave-particle duality.
35. Win this one for the Gipper.
36. X-chromosome
37. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
38. Zeitgeist

Answers 1. Norman conquest. 2. molecular motion ceases. 3. Genesis 1:1. 4. Who's afraid? 5. quaint printmakers. 6. this and that. 7. Stanley's greeting. 8. brave, courageous and bold. 9. knowing about knowing. 10. '20s party girl. 11. Jesus to Tempter. 12. thesis, antithesis, synthesis. 13. mouse in motion. 14. Descartes routs doubt. 15. pirate flag. 16. "Metamorphosis" author. 17. to ward off bad luck. 18. what yond Cassius has. 19. Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo. 20. right for French Protestants, 1598. 21. nota bene (Latin: "note well"). 22. nonunionists allowed. 23. quantum theory cornerstone. 24. king of rock. 25. has a squared unknown. 26. World War II battle cry. 27. Spanish-American War battle cry. 28. Elementary! 29. swamp of despair in "Pilgrim's Progress." 30. famous carrier. 31. you can't know a subatomic particle's position and momentum simultaneously. 32. useful=good. 33. line showing size and direction. 34. light behaves like both. 35. Ron's gridiron tear-jerker. 36. the female one. 37. newspaper's reply to doubting tyke. 38. spirit of the age.
I didn't know a few of these - I'm a bit weak on religious references, especially Christian ones, I never read Pilgrim's Progress, and while I think I know what a relative pronoun is, that to which we refer, I was hard pressed to identify a demonstrative pronoun. But I took the point of the whole list. In order to understand stuff, you have to know other stuff. So as an author or a teacher it sure helps to know that there is some common ground of stuff that your readers or students can be expected to already know. Indeed this is true for any adult communication whatsoever. There must be a common base.

But I associate Bloom and Hirsch with the right wing on education, particularly William Bennett, to whom I have a distinct aversion. So I was surprised to read in Hirsch's Wikipedia entry that he is described as a Liberal, which perhaps explains why some of his review resonated with me, though I still had some reservations. Hirsch has it in for John Dewey and his disciples. So, I wonder. Does it really have to be one or the other but not a little bit of both? Must these ideas be argued in such a doctrinaire way? Can't we enjoy reading Hirsch and like reading Jerome Bruner too? If in fact we want to know what we should know then there appears no tension whatsoever, at least to me. The issues arise when it appears that ignorance is preferred and, then, what to do about it. I will write a subsequent post on Ravitch's book when I've finished reading it and try to take on those questions.

I found her history of the events immediately preceding and succeeding A Nation At Risk fascinating. I was an Assistant Professor at the time and pretty locked into my econ research, so this gave me a different perspective of what was happening in the Department of Education then. I should add that the ANAR document itself is well worth the read. It seems to hold equally well today as it did when it was written, though now the risks are even greater having gone through No Child Left Behind, and the emphasis on accountability that continues under President Obama.

Ravitch's history makes the following argument. Politicians shy away from divisive issues that split right down the middle. While in the immediate sequel of ANAR there was a push to define standards, the Left and the Right could not agree on what those standards should be. This produced stalemate that never has gotten resolved, a quagmire that might have produced a new synthesis if we persisted and worked away at it but instead generated a search for the quick and easy way out - which was found in testing and accountability. This part of the history has some interest to it since the evidence in support of the new approach apparently can be substantially questioned because aggregate test performance depends on demographic factors - race and income of the student families - and evidence that originally seemed to provide strong support for the learning benefit of the new methods in retrospect seems to be attributable entirely to a change in the composition of the population that received the treatment. But after reading this I started to get depressed because there was stonewalling on this point. It seemed like a WMD-type argument applied to student learning.

So I looked elsewhere for solace. What I found was this recent blog post by Tony Judt, which gives a comparative of Czeslaw Milosz's Captive Minds, written in the earlier 1950s and focusing on the plight of intellectuals living within the Soviet sphere who couldn't openly argue their ideas and ultimately succumbing to the totalitarianism, since then their thoughts didn't have to be challenged by an unwelcoming public, with current day intellectuals in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere in the West) who have remained too passive in the wake of WMD and the horrific excesses of capitalism that led to the burst of the housing bubble and what ensued thereafter. That thinkers get cowed and then ultimately come to like that in some way because they feel they are not threatened is an interesting idea, one worth exploring. Milosz refers to these intellectuals as Ketmans - minds without moral backbones.

The thought hits close to home. Ravitch in a later chapter that I've yet to read takes to task the charitable Foundations which are providing funding for much of the new school reform - mistakenly applying business principles to the learning environment according to her. One of those is the Gates Foundation, which has recently funded a new Educause initiative, Next Generation Learning Challenges. Will Ravitch's concerns find their way into this program? I know too little about Ravitch's concerns and what NGLC is likely to do to comment intelligently on that question now. As I do learn more, if I see a cause for alarm I will chat this up a bit with colleagues. What then?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is Daniel Pink Confusing Us About Motivation And Economic Incentives?

A couple of days ago I ended up in a "video trading" episode with Norma. She wanted me to watch this one, a mock radio broadcast, from a few folks at Michigan State. Norma liked the message of the show, particularly the bit near the end that a lecture was a lecture and can't we do better than that. I was less impressed with the video. Technique-wise it was too cutesy for me and message-wise I thought it was a bit too much singing to the choir. Focusing on the technique, I responded with this particular RSA Animate video, which is compelling to view even if I don't fully subscribe to its economic message. Since our group is constantly looking for ways to improve communication between instructor and students, I sent it partly to provoke Norma on whether it were possible to produce some of the effect of the video without the need for skilled animators. Norma responded with this other RSA Animate video that features the voice of Daniel Pink, reflecting on that video triggered this post but I didn't view it for a while. Then, getting back to a critique of the first video Norma had sent, I responded that I didn't believe faculty who lectured and were skeptical about the benefits of learning technology would be convinced by that video. This presentation by Eric Mazur (where he does lecture himself quite a bit) is more convincing because he talks not just about his teaching but also about the students response and in that describes "plug and chug" a method for arriving at the answer while not illuminating at all why the answer is correct. So Mazur had a need to change the teaching method because the students weren't "getting it."

I mentioned to Norma when we went for a coffee that I had seen Pink's TED talk so I knew most of what he was going to say. But afterward I felt that was too smug of me, so I did watch the RSA Animate video. I found it off putting so I watched again to figure out why. It begins with an attack on a straw man version of homo economicus, which given my disciplinary affiliation may have roused my hackles. But it's what he says later in the presentation that I believe is truly pernicious.

Pink is a very slick presenter and he does emphasize an important point, which I put in my own words as follows:

Main point of Dan Pink's talk: When we are already intrinsically motivated applying extrinsic motivation, in the form of reward for good behavior or punishment for bad behavior, is self-defeating because it detracts from the intrinsic motivation, a much more powerful force.

I completely agree with this point. When intrinsically motivated we lose sense of ourselves. We are totally into the activity, whether reading a great book, watching a fascinating movie, or working through a problem or puzzle that has captured our attention. The object of that attention becomes the entire universe. It is as if we are in a bubble that we are permitted to remain inside so long as we focus only on its contents. Extrinsic motivation of any kind makes us self-conscious. It bursts the bubble. Intellectually, it is like holding up a mirror. Once we look at ourselves, it is very difficult if not impossible to re-enter the bubble.

Some examples from the world of sport bring home this point forcefully. In the movie Chariots of Fire there is a scene were the coach, Sam Mussabini, is teaching the sprinter, Harold Abrahams, about why the one American sprinter, Jackson Scholz, lost the 100 meters race in the previous Olympics to his compatriot, Charles Paddock. The slide shows Scholz looking not straight ahead but rather to his side so he could eye his competition. The looking askance cost Scholz the race and the prize of being known as the "World's Fastest Human." In the recently completed British Open, the gracious and understated champion, Louis Oosthuizen, repeatedly gave the response to interviewers before he started the final round that what he must do on the course was to "stay in the moment" and not "get ahead of himself." He had an idiosyncratic method for doing that, with a red dot on his golf glove that he would look at just before making his swing, a reminder to focus on what was at hand. Golf more than sprinting gets at what Pink is talking about with tasks that require cognitive engagement because most of the time the golfer is planning and considering his next shot. So high caliber golf is mainly about management and planning. Then that gets interrupted periodically by the need to make shots.

Unfortunately, Pink can't leave well enough alone. His presentation creates the impression that we have a complete understanding of the psychological and economic incentives when acting in concert. On the latter he says the following: (The full transcript of the presentation is here.)
Fact: money is a motivator at work, but in a slightly strange
way. If you don't pay people enough they won't be motivated.
What's curious is there's another paradox here, that the best
use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take
the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough that
they're not thinking about money, they're thinking about the
work. Once you do that, it turns out there are three factors
that science shows lead to better performance, not to mention
personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This is a bad message for the rest of us to hear, at least in this form, because it creates the impression that the bubble can be preserved. That is wrong. Even sans the economic considerations, the bubble will eventually burst of its own accord. The movie ends; we finish the book we are reading; we find a complete resolution of the problems we have been working on. And economic incentives can intrude entirely from the outside. In solving that set of problems we come up with an interesting and novel resolution. Word about that gets out, in large part because others are interested in the solution. But then, some of that interest gets transformed into interest about us. Though we were happy with the job and what we were getting paid in it, that was then. This is now and now the situation is different. Or, perhaps more realistic at present, the economic downturn has forced the old economic relationship to become untenable. Now there has to be downsizing or wage givebacks or other economy measures to keep the institution afloat. These are changes unrelated to individual performance. They are nonetheless present and force employees to be self-conscious about their own employment.

I have been singing the praises of Maslow as of late. Maslow argues there is an ongoing tension in all of us. We must make a choice for growth or for safety. Having made one such choice we are soon confronted with another. Maslow is extremely generous in regarding the individual, arguing essentially that the choice made is always the right one because the safety needs are in conflict with the growth needs (which are realized by putting ourselves in a bubble) and while the latter are higher level the former are primary. The individual only opts for growth when safety appears assured and the individual himself is the best arbiter for when this is the case. (This seems entirely consistent with what I took to be Pink's main point.)

Pink does rightly point out that economic incentives are mainly about eliciting participation. Call it "buy in" if you will. But the need to do that is definitely not one and done. Just as with the individual choice for growth or safety, the economic unit must elicit participation of each individual on an ongoing basis. There is therefore an inherent tension between the next elicitation of participation and the desire not to want to burst the current bubble. Sometimes the schedule for annual performance reviews and annual salary increases (remember those?) comes while the employee is immersed in an important project. A supervisor does his or her best to balance these two out. There is no magic formula to manage both of them perfectly.

* * * * *

Now I'll be more pedantic and get at Pink's straw man. Pink begins with a presentation of a tournament or contest, where higher performers get greater rewards and then Pink segues to a piece rate scheme where an individual performer gets more reward the more (or the better) he produces. Pink seems to confuse the two though they are actually quite different and should naturally emerge in different circumstances. He then goes on to imply that economics taught us long ago the lesson that one of these two schemes is the best way to elicit effort out of people. When I was in graduate school (the late 1970s) the rage was implicit contracts, the birth child of Arthur Okun. There were no tournaments or piece rates in Okun's conception. Wages were flat and sticky. There were two core underlying reasons - risk aversion and fairness. Risk aversion argued that units which were large enough to diversify against economic risk should absorb risk from others who couldn't diversify. So firms should absorb the inherent productivity risk of their employees. Fairness meant that similar employees should be treated similarly. When performance differences could be readily attributed to idiosyncratic variations that the employees couldn't control, that meant flat wages instead of tournaments.

The implicit contract view was about long term relationships and required fulfillment of promises on both sides of the market in exchange for which both earned "economic rents" from the relationship. For their part, employees were obligated to fully engage in the work. Implicit contracts provide a view about work that I embrace and I believe many others do as well. Yet it is not perfect. Long term relationships based on promises rather than contractual agreements are subject to one or both parties "cashing in" at the expense of the other party. Indeed, this is a serious problem. But rather than focus on how to best mitigate the problem we seem to have arrived onto the belief that it is not possible. Enter Pink's straw man, who resides in a much more myopic universe.

Implicit contracts don't perfectly resolve the tension between encouraging intrinsic motivation of employees and eliciting their participation. Nothing does. But implicit contracts do give a much better tradeoff than does the naive economic incentives that Pink takes to task. Because of his visibility, Pink could do a big service to the economy as a whole by embracing a more sophisticated view of the economics part of the equation. In the meantime, the psychologists rule and the economists drool. And the rest of us scratch our head about how to get even a glint of intrinsic motivation into our employees as the economy remains in the crapper.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Everything cycles back to kid games. When our boys were toddlers my wife taught them and me a variety of nursery rhymes. One of those was Trot Along. With one kid on your lap you'd say the magic rhyme inserting the kid's name at the appropriate place, and then having the kid fall over or in, depending on the verse. We loved it, great family fun.

Kids learn mispronunciation first so before long trot along got transformed into troddle. And silliness begats more silliness so I started to improv on the locations.

Troddle off to Italy.
Troddle off to France.
Watch out (kid's name).
Or you might lose your pants.

Troddle off to Ithaca.
Troddle off to Poughkeepsie.
Watch out (kid's name).
Or you'll turn into a gypsy.

Not too long ago I told a colleague about this sort of childlike improv. Now she informs me that she can't stop doing it and is getting her family to do likewise.

On a listserv I participate in, we've been discussing the Newsweek piece on the decline in creativity. Somebody on the list asked how we are doing about providing a good environment for creativity in our own workplace. I mentioned this to some of the folks I work with and got one response that people who need a creative outlet will find it outside of work if they don't have the opportunities at work.

Looking for a place to start? Try troddle.

Troddle off to Venice.
Troddle off to Rome.
This guy has been at work too long.
So now it's time to go home.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lessons for Higher Ed from the NBA

When I was a grad student taking the middle of the three core macroeconomics courses, in early 1977, we got exposed to a debate that I didn't really understand at the time about economic policy - rules or discretion. This was specifically for "Monetary Policy" but thinking back I wonder if "Fiscal Policy" also was part of the equation for those advocating rules - mainly the so called Monetarists. Discretion was a Keynesian notion. The argument for rules was that it would help in the forming of stable long run expectations which, in turn, would drive the demand for money and affect other economic behavior. Discretion adds noise to the system, which would make things worse long term. This was the start of the Carter years and stagflation vexed many economists at the time. Carter mostly inherited the problem, a long run consequence of not taxing enough to finance the Viet Nam War and the ensuing Wage and Price Controls that were implemented under Nixon, which put substantial inflationary expectations into the system. The OPEC price hikes then served as a trigger to make things unravel.

At the time I was for discretion. The economy was under performing and we learned that stimulus was the way to move toward full employment. I still believe in that to a certain extent and mostly agree with Paul Krugman that we need another stimulus package. This country needs to do a lot more in the way of infrastructure spending, the renovation or replacement of bridges and the improvement of our water systems kind of infrastructure, even if investing in that is politically unpopular. And there is a need to boost aggregate demand near term. But I disagree with Krugman in his total fear of deflation. We need some targeted deflation in my view. The two most obvious areas are in Health Care and Higher Ed.

Before getting to that, take a quick look at this income distribution table. It is based on U.S. 2005 data, so before the financial crisis started. Roughly 3/4 of the over 25 population were earning under $50,000, with a majority of those earning less than $25,000. Some significant fraction of those must be retirees, but it is actually startling to consider the size of the low end part of the income distribution. The table shows that less than 7% of the over 25 population are making more than $100,000. (Those who work in the "cash economy" may have significant income that is unreported, though obviously that has fallen off considerably since the economy has gone into its tailspin. And even without that let's not fool ourselves into thinking people who reportedly make under $50,000 are well off. Mainly, they're not.)

Now let's briefly look at physician salaries. This post has a nice table that gives median salary by specialty. Do note that some component of the salary is a compensating differential for malpractice insurance premiums, which can be substantial and which correlate with salary. So it would be more informative to net out these premiums and have a table of that. Then one would like to see a time series of such a table. I don't have that here, but I think it not unreasonable to conjecture that there is hyperinflation - in physician salaries as a whole but particularly in those specialties that are at the high end in physician compensation. I bring this up simply to raise what I think is an obvious point. In the rather long and heated debate about Health Care Reform, there was comparatively little written that I am aware of of how much much physicians are compensated. There was much more on the form of compensation and that fee for service provides perverse incentives. Those perverse incentives don't, however, explain hyperinflation in salary. Something else explains that - persistent scarcity.

Now let's turn to Higher Ed, particularly research institutions. Here's a table of average faculty salaries by institution and by rank. It is important to note that faculty salaries in this table are given as 9-month salaries. The vast majority of these faculty earn an additional two ninths in summer salary, paid by a research grant or for additional teaching or other service rendered in the summer. A disciplinary division of these salaries would be even more informative. Humanities faculty are surely paid substantially below average, while Business faculty are paid well above. Stars in a discipline might command a substantial premium, earning double the average, perhaps even more.

The market for the stars has historically been a big driver in the Higher Ed hyperinflation. A star who is at institution X gets heavily recruited by institution Y. The star gets a big bump, whether movement ultimately occurs or not. The bump is mainly entirely orthogonal to the star's productivity. It is a recognition thing. The star will have pretty much the same productivity at either institution. Then, under the old rising tide lifts all boats theory that was in operation before the recent financial crisis, other faculty salary would also go up so they would not be envious of having the star present. If the costs could be passed on, either to donors who endowed chairs or to students in the form of higher tuition, why not? There has been historically little to no counter pressure to apply the brakes in the face of this salary escalation.

Now with revenue drying up the question has emerged, though still not yet front and center, what reasonable brakes can be applied. This piece, which appeared yesterday in our local paper, makes clear that leaders on my Campus are between a rock and a hard place. In spite of the economic downturn, the market for star faculty remains unabated. The Campus either runs the risk of losing its better people or runs the risk of raising expenditure at a time when it should be cutting spending. We've already had furlough days. Ask the rest of the the faculty and staff to take further cuts so the stars can get what the market will bear is a a very bitter pill to swallow.

This is a problem that can't be addressed on a campus by campus basis. It needs a systemic solution for Higher Ed as a whole. We are not the first sector of the economy to witness an out of control competition for the stars of the profession that had the potential to fully undo the profitability of the sector. The problem is a collective Prisoner's Dilemma played at the Department Head, Dean, Provost, Chancellor, and President level. We'll be better off if peers didn't compete for the stars, to hold salaries down. But these campus leaders can't afford not to. Just because the economy has gone into the tank, it doesn't mean this problem will go away on its own accord.

The world of professional sports has found an imperfect but workable solution to the problem - a salary cap. The salary cap doesn't completely rule out the competition, as all the to do about LeBron James surely demonstrates. But the cap does act as a real and credible brake on overall spending. So we witness stars voluntarily taking less so the team can better operate within the cap. And as a result of the cap the entire system is more transparent.

Applying a salary cap system would be much harder to do at the research universities. There is no one cartel like the NBA to administrate and enforce a cap system. There are many more personnel who would have to be covered by a cap and even if there were firm caps at the Campus level how those would get pushed down to have effective caps at the College and at the Department level would still be a significant thing to work through. But, cycling back to my original macroeconomics theme, rules could be designed that would do precisely that and we in Higher Ed could learn to play by those rules.

Of course the devil is in the details. Yet there is a lot of mileage to be had simply by recognizing that we need a solution that is systemic. Responses by individual institutions, no matter how well intended, can't solve the problem. We aren't there yet with that recognition. I hope we get there quickly.

In the meantime, however, there will be a look for other solutions. At my university the State of Illinois pays the lion's share of the benefits for employees - mainly health care, also retirement (though the state has not been making its contribution for the last several years). As the state pulls the plug on funding the university (and all other public higher education in the state) those benefit costs will be passed on to employees. That seems inevitable and appears to be a substantial savings, in reality a wage reduction to the faculty and staff. But the stars will have that cut offset and perhaps even see other increases, for the reasons I've already articulated. This will offset the savings and leave budgets out of whack.

There may then be a further adjustment, to select areas of excellence where this luring of the stars remains but then either to entirely get out of other areas of specialization or to stay in them but have a more cursory presence. This sort of response is predictable. But it is not stable, especially if there isn't coordination on this point across all of Higher Ed. One might envision regional cartels forming to counteract this. My university is part of the CIC, which could become a virtual mega university. Each member institution can maintain excellence by being part of the consortium and cut down substantially on the need to be great across the board. But I think that mainly a pipe dream. The member campuses, even if in fiscal straits, are strong while the CIC is weak. And further, even if the CIC were successful there are still other big publics (think about the big athletic conferences), the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, etc. all who very likely will still be playing the game of competing for star faculty. So it won't truly solve the problem.

We really should be talking about a salary cap for Higher Ed as a whole. I wonder when that idea will see the light of day.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Running Economic Experiments Online for Teaching Principles and Intermediate

When I was in graduate school, probably during my second year though maybe it was toward the end of the first year, we spent an afternoon of fun doing tw0-sided auction experiments to do a live simulation addressing the question whether a market comes to equilibrium. I'm not sure the experience had a profound effect on me. Occasionally when I taught intermediate micro I would take part of a class session to do such experiments in an abbreviated format. Students want to know that a market will come to equilibrium. The session was aimed at providing the students with the requisite intuition.

Now many years later I've been thinking about teaching intermediate online and what might be done to engage the students. In the back of my head when I pose a question of this sort to myself, I have a technology in mind to facilitate the teaching. In this case It was the forms tool in Google Spreadsheets. Students could submit their information via a form and the spreadsheet could tabulate all submissions so the class as a whole could monitor that. (Also, the url can otherwise be kept private so the rest of the world wouldn't monitor the activity.)

For about a month or so I've been keeping this thought on the back burner, envisioning that the experiment would be done in rounds delivered asynchronously, perhaps one round a day. But I wasn't satisfied with that for a variety of reasons - students might find it insufficiently compelling so wouldn't be drawn in, the rules were that the first one who accepted an offer had the rights to it but that rule was inconsistent with asynchronous participation, and it just seemed clunky. Because I wasn't satisfied I didn't act on it.

Then a few days ago I asked - what if the auction were held in a live synchronous session, either face to face or online, but where all the the student participants submitted their offers via the forms. All of a sudden this started to make sense to me. I envisioned that if I could get this to work in the simple two-sided auction that I had participated in while a grad student then I could modify the economic environment and do many other experiments as a way for the students to "experience" the economics they'd be studying. So I started to play with this by building forms and seeing what would happen as I submitted various responses with the forms.

Envisioning this as totally online, I thought we'd do a live chat session during the auction. The spreadsheet would record the offers, but there were issues. What if a students made a mistake in submission and sent something in that was nonsense. That would have to be voided. Could it be done automatically or was there a need to do it manually. Likewise a student might want to withdraw an offer, seeing it disadvantageous relative to other recent transactions. How would that work? And when an offer was accepted that would have to be recorded and then then offer would need to be taken off the list of currently active offers. Could all this be automated too? I reasoned that if I'm the "auctioneer" then either I'd make mistakes with manual recording or it would be a time consuming process. So I wanted to automate as much of this as I possibly could.

Alas, I made a discovery yesterday with the Google forms. It is simply not possible to keep running totals of results. Each new submission adds a row of data to the spreadsheet. The newest data comes into row 2. All previous data gets pushed down a row. If you have formulas in other columns than where the data is being collected, those formulas get pushed down two. Not being able to keep running totals, it is not possible to automate the entire process. But I've come up with a reasonably Spartan schema for the manual recording.

You can check out the form and the spreadsheet. Make a submission or two or three to see how it looks. The key to the manual recording is that if a letter (A for Accept, W for Withdraw, V for Void) in front of a price, then from the spreadsheets perspective the entry has been converted to alpha format and so gets ignored in the calculation of maximum bid or minimum ask. The rest of the recording should be just a copy and paste. Still, I don't yet know if this really can work work for the students. They will need three tabs open - one for the spreadsheet, one for the form, and one for the chat. Perhaps each can be put into a frame within one page, and in the not too distant future I'll experiment with that a bit. But there will be a lot of info on the screen then and I'm not sure that will work. So that needs to be tested.

Also, I need to test how long it takes to run one round of such an experiment and how many students can be accommodated during it. Ideally you can do 4 or 5 rounds in an hour with a few minutes left to spare for reflection at the end. But that needs to be tested too.

I should also add that earlier I tested using mail merge in Outlook as a way of giving the students in advance the data they need to have to start the auction going. (Buyers know the value of buying one unit of the good. Likewise sellers know the cost of providing one unit of the good. Both the values and the costs are idiosyncratic. The students don't know their distribution in advance. At the end, the distribution can be shown and if the transaction price settles down it can be compared to the theoretical equilibrium price.) From a sending point of view, that works like a charm. There is quite a different issue whether the students read their email frequently enough to use this as a good way of distributing the information for participating in the auction. That too needs to be tested.

Assuming all those tests get passed, perhaps following substantial modification of how to teach the course, it then becomes incumbent to integrate these experiments with the rest of the class and to figure out how many of these experiments would be fruitful to use over the duration of the semester. In my head I've been able to come up with quite a few different scenarios to e run as experiments. Whether once the novelty has worn off students continue to enjoy participating in them and taking them seriously, I don't know. But I would like to try this.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


The coffee in the army,
They say it's mighty fine.
It's good for cuts and bruises,
And tastes like turpentine...

* * * * *

Never Volunteer.

* * * * *

Facing external stress,
We are prone to repress.

* * * * *

In the seminar on the memoir that I took at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, we spent a good deal of time discussing and trying out techniques for unleashing dormant memories. These activities sensitized me to the need. In my book I want to argue for the proposition that intuition is largely a learned thing and that developing intuition is something others (friends and teachers) can foster. But based on my reading since I've returned, primarily Maslow and now Marion Milner, see my previous few posts plus the comments there, perhaps I've been underestimating the impediments. This got me to think about impediments in the development of my own intuition.

I started high school in 1968. Though I was a very good student, I had several serious sources of frustration. I was a fresser, completely undisciplined about my eating, and prone to use food as a safety valve. I had a poor body image, deeply ingrained from always having been the largest kid. And I didn't know how to be myself in front of girls, so didn't have a girlfriend. My parents were useless for helping to work my way through all of this. Indeed my mom, who pushed quite hard on things including making me choose to attend a high school that was inappropriate for me and which I transferred from after only a few weeks there, ended up seeming a source of authority that I had to contest or end up suffocating myself.

But I didn't know how to do this and lacked both the wherewithal to learn healthy coping strategies and the confidence that I could arrive at a good place on my own. Yet I couldn't shut down completely. That's not my nature. I had ideas, lots of ideas. They required some form of expression. So I started to mumble.

If the right people aren't there to listen, you end up talking to yourself. I still don't completely understand why that expression needed to be aloud. Somehow it is tied up with the urge to raise your hand in the classroom when you have the answer to the question and you know nobody else does. There's a showing off in that. I wanted to show off to my mom even while I didn't want her to hear my answer, resistance and non-resistance rolled into one. There is no courage in mumbling. But it demonstrates an unmistakeable need for self-expression. The doing something in the moment can trump a longer term sense of preservation.

I love Maslow but I think some of what he says requires refinement. He says that at every juncture we have to make a choice between safety or growth. That much is correct but then I believe he errs. I had a taste for growth. Much of my childhood was quite wonderful in that regard. When the need for safety became paramount after having opted for growth for quite a while, I didn't all of a sudden go cold turkey on growth. I looked for a compromise instead. With foresight, the compromise almost certainly can't work. Mumbling creates tension. Other people want to know what you are saying. The tension contributes to what can become a downward spiral.

The issues didn't instantaneously resolve when I went to college, but I believe the mumbling stopped when I moved away from home.

Could a friendly teacher or counselor have helped me to give up mumbling while I was still in high school? A variety of people tried to make me tougher, not to address the mumbling specifically, more as a necessary survival skill in general. I don't think it was the right answer. I needed something that was very gentle yet also strongly affirmative.

I will need to think a lot more about whether that can be produced with some abundance and, if so, how.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Gems from Maslow

These are all from the 2nd edition of Toward a Psychology of Being in hard cover.

The primal choice, the fork in the road, then, is between others' and one's own self. If the only way to maintain the self is to lose others, then the ordinary child will give up the self. This is true for the reason already mentioned, that safety is a most basic and prepotent need for children, more primarily necessary by far than independence and self-actualization. If adults force the choice upon him, of choosing between the loss of one (lower and stronger) vital necessity or another (higher and weaker) vital necessity, the child must choose safety at the cost of giving up self and growth.
p. 52

5. The person in peak-experiences feels himself, more than at other times, to be the responsible, active, creating center of his activities and his perceptions. He feels more like a prime mover, more self-determined (rather than caused, determined, helpless, dependent, passive, weak, bossed). He feels himself to be his own boss, fully responsible, fully volitional, with more "free will" than at other times, mast of his fate, an agent.

He also looks that way to an observer, for instance, becoming more decisive, looking more strong, more single-minded, more apt to scorn or overcome opposition, more grimly sure of himself, more apt to give the impression that it would be useless to try to stop him. It is as if now he had no doubts about his worth or about his ability to do whatever he decided to do. To the observer he looks more trustworthy, more reliable, more dependable, a better bet. It is often possible to spot this great moment - of becoming responsible - in therapy, in growing up, in education, in marriage, etc.
pp. 106-107

They also show a surprising amount of detachment from people in general and a strong liking for privacy, even a need for it (97).

"For these and other reasons they may be called autonomous, i.e., ruled by laws of their own character rather than by the rules of society (insofar as these are different). Is is in this sense that they are not only or merely Americans but also members at large of the human species. I then hypothesized that they should be more like each other across cultural lines than they are like the less-developed members of their own culture."*

* Examples of this kind of transcendence are Walt Whitman or William James who were profoundly American, most purely American, and yet were also very purely supra-cultural, internationalist members of the whole human species. They were universal men not in spite of their being Americans, but just because they were such Americans. So too, Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, was also more than Jewish. Hokusai, profoundly Japanese, was a universal artist. Probably any universal art cannot be rootless. Merely regional art is different from the regionally rooted art that becomes broadly general - human. We may remind ourselves here also of Piaget's children who could not conceive of being simultaneously Genevan and Swiss until they matured to the point of being able to include one within the other and both simultaneously in a hierarchically-integrated way. This and other examples are given by Allport (3).
pp. 181-182

In other words: (a) self-actualization is repressed by concerns for safety, which take precedence, (b) all of us have peak-experiences in which we are most completely human and true to our natures, and (c) the drive of the self-actualizers is essentially inward but it is also universal.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

My career fork in the road framed as what to do in entering college

I've been thinking a lot about developing a personal philosophy and that perhaps the most important thing we can do in Higher Ed is assisting students in developing their own personal philosophies. A lot of this thinking is a selfish sort of reflection. I'm faced with options and opportunities because of my retirement, and I'm finding that instead of simply plopping into what's next I feel a need to give some definition underneath to what it is that I want and what it is that I value. So I suppose it is not surprising that I've been reading older texts to look for wisdom on this - Thoreau, Hoffer, and Maslow. And I've been thinking about the choice of what to do in college, partly because it seems so similar, partly because I struggled with that and ultimately transferred from MIT to Cornell at a time when I had a lot of trouble coping, and because my son is entering college now and while I know I can't push any of this on him I'd hope he would have some of the same sort of questioning. So, without further ado, here's my set of answers to what I'd do if I were going to college for the first time.

If I were attending college this fall for the first time, I would…

…find an intellectual hero to serve as my guide. The hero need not be in the field of study I will pursue. Maybe it’s better if he isn’t. But he must have a personal philosophy I can embrace. My entire college experience will be richer if I can frame it within a coherent personal philosophy. A current hero of mine is Abraham Maslow. I believe his humanistic psychology, particularly his emphasis on self-actualization via peak experiences, provides a very good norm that would serve most students quite well. Maslow’s book, Toward a Psychology of Being, is a great read. I’d hope most students find time for it, though it may be a bit much for an entering freshman. This transcript of an interview with the great man, Remembering Maslow, is more accessible and can be read in one sitting.

…discover the treasure trove that is the University Library, particularly its electronic resources. As wonderful as the Internet is as a ready source of information there will be much to read in college that I won’t be able to find on the open Internet, including most of the work of my professors. On occasion I will end up using the University Library without even being aware of it, simply by having been logged into the campus network. But that will not always be the case, so I must learn to use the electronic catalog to find full text articles that I want to read. The Remembering Maslow piece is freely available to students on my campus via the license from the publisher that the Library has procured.

…regularly place myself outside my comfort zone intellectually and socially too, where of necessity I’d have to take on my shyness, but not to the extreme of making me neurotic. This means persisting at reading things I’m apt to find more than a bit difficult. It means attending lectures and performances in areas with which I’m only vaguely familiar. It also means having one-on-one and small group conversations with faculty and with students of other cultures, even when there is some initial discomfort in doing that. Struggling in this manner provides a good source of empathy for the struggles of others. Over time, it likely will breed confidence though progress is apt to be gradual. Consequently, the admonition not to overdo is imperative because slow and steady does win the race.

…keep from over programming myself to assure enough free time for writing, reflection, and serendipitous conversation. I need some down time to chew on my experiences and what I’m learning. On days where every hour is scheduled with an activity, there is no opportunity for such introspection. Sometimes that will happen, but on an ongoing basis I want to carve out time for inward looking learning so I can keep in touch with myself and have a sense of what progress I’m making as well as to reckon with the challenges I’m facing. I also want to engage with others who are similarly situated so I can learn from their experiences and their thinking. Students are apt to become extremely competitive with one another. The over programming is one consequence of this competition. Alternatively, students can bounce the other way, becoming cynical and nihilistic. The habit for reflection provides a healthy alternative to both of these extremes.

…refrain from looking at the finish line to maintain as broad a perspective as possible and to recognize that I’m getting an education for a lifetime, not just to prepare for the first job that comes along. I know I will narrow later, as I get deeper into the major, where attending graduate school or getting a job becomes more proximate. I need not narrow straight away even if there is a tendency for my classmates to do otherwise. And even when I do narrow I want to maintain some balance by pursuing other interests in my leisure time. Ironically, students will find that having a diversity of interests unrelated to the field of study will help them greatly with their critical thinking and communication skills.

It is perhaps strange to frame my upcoming choices with an attending college metaphor, but it is helpful to me. One particular need I have is to be open in my social environment and not feel a need to be guarded. In college the social environment is where I learned, in some sense more than what I learned in my classes. Particularly since I've gotten involved with learning technology I've tried to emphasize an approach that stems from social environment at 509 Wyckoff Road in Ithaca. I want to do new things as I move forward. But I want to retain the feel that I had my junior and senior years in college.