Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Retards

It occurred to me not long ago that behaviors I had previously taken as adult expression of creativity really were nothing more than rehashes of childhood experience, fifty or so years later, modified to be delivered with current technology.  As a kid, for six years I went to sleep away camp in upstate New York.  It was a long deal - eight weeks each summer.  During the last week or so we had "Color War," the Blue Team against the Gold Team.  Every event was a competition.  If you won, that gave points to your team.  The winning team had more cumulative points.  One of the competitions was done after dinner at the Rec Hall.  The counselors in your group and who were on your team would have previously written snippets of mock lyrics with a camp theme, done to well known tunes, mainly from Broadway musicals.  Your group would  rehearse these during "rest hour" or some other downtime.  Then, during the appointed evening, your group would perform these song bites.   I can't recall whether there was piano accompaniment or not.  It doesn't matter.  At this level, all campers were performers.  Allan Sherman produced the same sort of content, though he did full songs that way.  The key was to produce a humorous and perhaps mildly satirical lyric, to the rhythm of the familiar music.  My Son, The Folksinger provides an excellent example of this genre.  I haven't been to the borscht belt in many years and have been in a university setting for a long time, so try to be more cosmopolitan in my current efforts, but the essence of what I do now can be found in these origins.

Though for the most part I did like summer camp, I believe the main reason we went was so my parents could have a vacation from us.  Yet we did do family vacation too, now and then.  Some of that was before we were old enough to go to camp.  One year when I was three or four that was in Cuddebackville.  I know it only from watching home movies.  We spent some time on a lake in a motorboat, with a kid named Phillip steering the boat.  I have no recollection now of how we knew him or his family.  The next year or the year after that we were at Green Acres.  I had an ingrown toenail and got injections for it that made me cry.  We hung out around the pool and I had to be extra careful, because of my toe.  The next time it was Sha-wan-ga.  We were with our parents there for breakfast and dinner, but in the day there was a camp.  I recall playing punchball and kickball.  There was also some wooden structure we hung out in to play indoor games.  This was probably the first time I spent extended time with kids who had Down's Syndrome.  I remember feeling uncomfortable about that, but I'm not sure why now.  Maybe it's because I couldn't understand what they were saying.  I also have this rather odd and disturbing recollection of finding human feces in the corner of that structure.  It's only a memory fragment and after all these years it easily could be a complete delusion, but I suspect it's real and somehow I associate that recollection with the Down's kids.

Fast forward several years to my last year at sleep away camp.  I was thirteen then, my second year in the Seniors group; this time in bunk 19.  We had a kid in our bunk named Gary and he was quite peculiar in many ways.  For one thing, this was a Jewish camp and he wasn't Jewish.  Though the camp did have Arts and Crafts and Nature activities, most of the time was spent playing team sports, mainly softball and basketball.  Gary was a complete incompetent in all things athletic.  It's as if our maker had assembled Gary wrong, with his legs on backwards.  I was not a very speedy runner, at best average for the group, but I was much faster than Gary.  He couldn't run at all.  And when he swung a bat to hit the softball there simply wasn't any oomph.   There's no way he could have enjoyed playing softball.  Why was he there?

Some of my bunk mates teased Gary mercilessly, if I recollect correctly they then occasionally escalated with physical taunts. The teasing and and the taunting bothered me and in that sense I was different from most of my bunk mates.  (One other kid in the bunk also was not athletic and he stayed out of the taunting, as did another kid who was diabetic.)  I had been teased a lot as a kid, at camp and elsewhere.  Much of that happened because I was so much larger than the other kids.  For the most part, being very big is not a disability.  By thirteen my motor skills had caught up to my size, but five years earlier they hadn't, so then I couldn't readily retaliate and "had to take it," in a good natured way.  That's a big part of why I was teased.  Some of it, though, was from the counselors, who came up with unflattering nicknames for me. That was just the way things were done then, ignorant though it may seem from a current vantage. 

I had no desire to become Gary's friend.  We didn't really have anything in common.  Nevertheless, I did become his protector of sorts.  I stayed close to him at the end of a ball game on our way back to the bunk.  I don't think Gary asked me to do that.  It's just that I didn't see any point to the teasing and the counselor's weren't always around to stop it.  If I could, I should.   My bunk mates wouldn't bother Gary when I was near him, so they wouldn't have to deal with me.  In that way, the responsibility became mine.

I knew how to pronounce Gary's surname, but I didn't recall how to spell it.  I did a Google search for him, trying one version, then another.  On the second version I found a hit, born in 1955, the same year I was born, and from Scarsdale, which seems possible.  That probably was him.  The entry said he passed away in 1998.  If it's the same guy, I suspect he lived a troubled existence for his entire lifetime.  I hope he's more at peace now.

* * * * * 

There's needs to be a trigger to come to memories of this sort.  I've been cooking on several things for a while, some of which will be revealed in the rest of the post.  The actual trigger was the movie Charly, which I watched in part the other night night.  I've seen it several times before and liked it, though it produced no special reaction.  This time, however, it pushed me over a cliff.

The movie is based upon Flowers for Algernon, first a short story, later because of popular demand a full novel.   It is about a laboratory mouse, Algernon is his name, who is part of psychology experiments.  Algernon receives an operation that raises his intelligence, temporarily.   After observing the positive results with Algernon, the thought is that something similar might be done with humans.  Charly is the human who gets the operation.   At the beginning of the movie  Charlie is a complete imbecile, with very low intelligence, though earnest in his endeavors and with a gentle disposition.  Cliff Robertson, who won the Academy Award in the lead role, portrays this mainly with his mouth, wide open most of the time and apparently out of control.   Charly too is a laboratory animal.  One of the tests he is put through is to have a maze on a piece of paper that exactly mimics a physical maze Algernon is to run.  Charlie must complete the paper maze without lifting his pencil from the paper.  He races against Algernon.  The mouse wins the race.  They race again with a different maze.  Algernon wins this one too.

Charly works at a commercial bakery, as a helper.  His co-workers play gags on him.  Charly is the butt of their practical jokes.  Evidently, they don't see the harm in this.  It entertains them to put one over on him.  Charly is too stupid to know that it's a gag.  He goes along with it, to be one of the boys.  At the end, everyone has a good laugh, Charly included.  The co-workers don't have a clue that these gags do bother Charly.

The lab experiments bother Charly too, but the psychologists apparently aren't aware that his ego is taking a bruising from losing to Algernon.  In that way the psychologists, smart in understanding human behavior, are extraordinarily insular in understanding human feelings.  Nowadays, of course, there are protocols for human subjects research that are there, in part, to guard against this sort of insularity.  The movie was made before those safeguards were put into place.   Nevertheless, I found it quite disturbing that the highly educated psychologists in the film could be so insensitive and that was part of a very believable story line.  How can that be?

* * * * *

We're told nowadays that learning things by rote is unhelpful and such knowledge doesn't stick for long.  But as kids we learned mindlessly an entire lexicon.  Some of that was the repertoire of jokes that made the rounds.   Others were bad things to say that we used either to be playful with our friends, yet in a mocking way, or to be overtly critical.  Calling somebody "a retard" is one of those.  (See definition 4.)  Likewise, a term I used above to describe Charly, imbecile, is in this category.  We learned more than just individual words this way.  We learned sing-song lines too.   This one, particularly insensitive I've been told as an adult but pretty common in use when we were kids, is done while attempting to clap your hands but having them miss:

If you're a spastic and you know it clap your hands.  

A question I've been asking myself recently is whether we learn to treat certain people in certain circumstances this same way, thoughtless behavior that perpetuates, because it never occurs to us there's a harm being done to someone, perhaps because the behavior itself has been learned in a sing-song way.  If that's true, then in the domains where it happens we don't grow up.  We remain children instead.  Why do some people do grow up and others don't?  I wish I knew.

* * * * *

I'd like to think I treat people with common decency, but I must confess that often I fall far short of the ideal suggested by the example with Gary.  I've puzzled about this on occasion and whether that bothers me or not when I do.  Here are some tentative conclusions.

One  explanation might be termed ethical shirking.  In order to do the right thing, some minor fear I have needs to be overcome.  I'm full of phobias, some sensible, others silly.  I've been afraid of dogs much of my life.  The last seven years we've had a dog, a golden doodle named Ginger.  I'm definitely not afraid of Ginger, though unlike my son I won't try to grab stuff out of her mouth when she's got a good hold of it.  Having Ginger has helped lessen the intensity of this particular fear.  But it hasn't gone away fully.  It comes out when I go for a walk and see a dog (on a leash held by the owner) and have to make a mental judgment to continue walking on the path I was headed along or if to cross the street or in some other way divert my path to avoid close contact with the dog.  My resolution of this is quite idiosyncratic.  Sometimes I cave into the fear.  Other times I show some spine.   I want to stress here that this is with a dog on a leash and the owner is somebody I don't know.  If the dog is somehow out in the open without the owner, I almost surely will cave.  If I know the owner and he or she is around, I almost surely will not be fearful in the first place.

I don't know if fear of failure is the same as fear of dogs in the ill feeling it generates within.  But I think the response to the fear is similarly idiosyncratic.  Sometimes I cave in.  Other times I show character.  I should note that cave in happens just because of an ill feeling inside, without any attempt to ascertain the true risk.  Here is a particular example, to serve as illustration and make the ideas less abstract.

For many years when I was a campus-level administrator, I was the head facilitator for the Faculty Summer Institute on Learning Technologies.  One year the steering committee decided to have an outside speaker come to talk about Web design for people with disabilities.  In fulfilling that mandate we ultimately decided to invite Norm Coombs, an emeritus professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on these matters.  Norm happens to be blind.

FSI has a lot of moving parts to it, Murphy's Law tends to favor technology events that have some complexity to them, and a good part of my job as head facilitator was to demonstrate to each person involved that their piece of the puzzle had been well considered, in itself and as part of the whole, and that I was available to help in the spur of the moment, if the need arose.  There was quite a bit of planning in getting FSI to work.  The actual week was kind of hectic nonetheless.

Though I've interacted some with blind people on campus, as part of our efforts with accessibility, they were local and knew to navigate on their own or provide for the assistance they needed.  Our interaction was work related only.  In Norm's case he clearly would need a chaperone, to get from the airport to the hotel, to get from the hotel to where he was speaking, and more generally to accommodate his needs.  I was fearful of playing the chaperone role.  I didn't know whether I was up to it.  And I didn't know how time consuming it would be.  The first issue was the fear.  The second issue was a rational time allocation question.  To address both, I got one of my staff who was willing to be chaperone and wasn't otherwise obligated during FSI, Jan, to play the role.  That went quite well, as did Norm's presentation.  However, I was more aloof with Norm than I was with other guest speakers we had, whom I tried hard to befriend and put at ease, because I mistakenly thought that doing so would mean I'd have to perform the chaperone functions for which I was ill prepared.

The next year we had Norm back.  He had done such a good job the year before, it made sense to do that.  But Jan had retired by then and all my other staff were obligated with FSI work.  So the chaperone job fell to me.  I went through a bit of dread about that, complicated by the fact that there was extremely bad weather the afternoon Norm was to have arrived.  His flight ended up being very late.  When I did get him from the airport, it took me only a minute or two to realize that all my worrying was for naught.  I could perform the chaperone function with little fanfare.  All it took was for Norm to have a good hold of my arm, to walk at a modest pace, and to have a more or less steady stream of conversation that included but wasn't restricted to discussing the obstacles he'd have to encounter - escalator, car door, etc.  Afterward, I was rather ashamed of myself for being frightened about this.  On the plus side, Norm gave another very good talk and this time we connected quite well.

Fear is not the only reason for sometimes straying from decency.  Some of this is simply numbness. Time allocation may be part of the issue, but it is not one and the same with it.  The numbness is perhaps explained by the same finding that shows the rich are less empathetic.  The numbness is a learned behavior, in the same way we learned to filter by eyeball much of the email that comes into our Inbox.  Prior experience suggests paying attention is a low expected reward path, so ignoring it is optimal.  Sometimes this happens even when there are some early warning signs to the contrary.   I'll return to this point in my last subsection.

* * * * *

I've been making some but slow progress with Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  Part of the reason for the slow pace is that the book paints a picture of human nature that I find unattractive.   Another part is that in reading it and asking whether what it describes is me or not, I find myself more exception than rule, part of which may be my training as a PhD economist, the academic career that occurred afterward, and my role as a campus administrator.  In all of that there are lots of elements of education that cut against the picture Kahneman depicts.  Still another part may be that I don't really want to accept his conclusions for the rest of the population.  I maintain a hopeful conceit, that they can be educated to be like me in these respects, without having to go through the regimen I experienced.  It would be disheartening to abandon this view, because much of what I'm trying for in my teaching would have to be discarded as well.

Here I want to discuss Chapter 7 - A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions.  On the one hand, Kahneman makes a point that we all can agree on quickly, we reach quick conclusions using information that depends on context in a critical way.  The information, entirely unaltered, would have a different meaning if read in a different context.  This part is unremarkable and as I said, we can all agree on it being true.

Then he makes the further point that we tend to ignore possible information that is not readily available, a reiteration of the saying, Out of sight, out of mind.  Here I begin to stray from what Kahneman says is typical.  Often I will ask whether my tentative conclusion is indeed correct or if I still need to gather further information to make a full determination.  I discuss these issues at some length in a chapter of my book called, Guessing and Verification.  Kahneman indicates that most other people don't do that.  Instead he says they treat the information at hand as if its the entire universe of possible information.  Kahneman calls this What You See Is All There Is.   Then Kahneman goes on to say that not only is there WYSIATI, but further that people are typically overly confident in the conclusions they derive from WYSIATI.  This overconfidence is a kind of woeful ignorance.  Reading about it depressed me.

Then I recalled one of my favorite lines from George Orwell:

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

This is the first sentence of the closing paragraph in an essay about people's intellectual schizophrenia, particularly in regard to political life.  By this Orwell is talking about maintaining truth in a proposition that we should know is false simply by reviewing other things we already know to be true. This essay is a very good read and serves as a rather frightening warning about all the stupidity the collective mind seemingly can lock onto.  If you juxtapose Orwell with Kahneman, you come to the inescapable conclusion that what you don't see may very well include things that you did see before but are now buried in memory.  It's not just the potentially knowable things that we've not yet experienced that matter.  It's also those things we know but don't immediately come to mind.  (Why don't those things come to mind?)

Kahneman in this chapter seems to be describing Charly's co-workers at the bakery.  This is how they operate.  It isn't a pretty picture.  What would it take to shock them out of their complacency and challenge their assumptions?

* * * * *

In the very small class I'm teaching this semester, now only eight students, three of them have taken some other course from me in the past.  We've had more than the usual amount of conversation in class, because of the small size.  A good bit of what the students have said paints a picture of being an undergrad at Big Public U akin to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, alienated and dehumanized by the bureaucracy and the stress that comes from the lecture/high stakes exam approach to the classes they've taken.  I pointed out to them that there is a paradox of sort in this observation, because as Daniel Pink points out in this video, knowledge work is quite different from manual labor.  There can (and should be) intrinsic motivation for knowledge work.  There really can't be for the manual labor, particularly when the work is repetitive and mind numbing.  For several of these students, school has gone from being potentially rewarding in its own right to dull and dreary labor in its stead.   I've been puzzling for quite a while about this predicament.

In much of my efforts with teaching, I've conceived the challenge along intellectual lines, framing the subject matter in a way that somebody who is otherwise inclined to be engaged would enjoy it. With that I've mainly stressed generating an interesting narrative and deemphasizing the derivation of math models.  That approach has been a partial success, at best.

But with a couple of students, one in particular who is among the three who had a class from me already, I'm beginning to see that treating them as human being in regard to their own welfare as having positive benefits on motivation, and perhaps on performance. 

A conjecture based on this limited experience is that the students want to be treated as adults.  When they find the institution treating them as children, they react negatively in some way - shirking, rebelling, or becoming disillusioned.  Big public universities are apt to be more bureaucratic in my experience than are smaller private universities.  I asked one Assistant Dean in Student Affairs in the College of Business about this when I worked in the College.  She explained the adherence to bureaucracy as emerging from a need to satisfy the taxpayer that things are on the up and up.  (If I recall, the particular issue at hand was the last date a student could drop a course without permission of the instructor.  When I was an undergrad at Cornell in the 1970s, I believe you could drop a class all the way till when final exams were given.  At Illinois, it's much earlier in the semester.)

A lot of attention by my friends and colleagues in learning technology is now given to pedagogy, thinking it the key to unblock student learning.  Perhaps there are some clues here that maybe it is less important than assumed but that we need some substantial additional efforts in treating the students as adults and doing so with decency.   Much of that interaction happens not within courses per se, but elsewhere, with advisers, placement officers, and other possible counselors, as well as and perhaps more importantly with peers.  My experience this semester is that the students themselves often perform below par initially and this itself can bring about a string of pernicious tit for tat.

We need to get past that rather than let it perpetuate.  The institution, however, doesn't seem to have this as a goal.  In that it's not the students who are retards.  It's us.

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