Saturday, September 28, 2013

Music from summer camp

Sometimes I surprise myself going from topic topic to, seemingly entirely disparate, yet there is some connection that manifests which drives the sequencing.  On Thursday after class, I was in slight distress in the afternoon.  I had posted an early feedback survey for my course and a couple of students in their comments pointed out that my approach was more than a little scattered.  I wanted to respond that this was more like the real world than the orderly approach they've experienced repeatedly in their other courses.

Early yesterday morning when I got up to go to the bathroom, prompted by this image of a scattered reality, I started to recall the movie M*A*S*H, which I think was the first film I saw where people spoke at the same time, signifying dissonance and countervailing currents.  Indeed, my inclination immediately thereafter was to make up a slide in PowerPoint akin to something we saw in the first full day of the Frye Leadership Institute in summer 2003 about chin up leadership.  It looked something like this, the closest thing I've seen or heard in formal education that seemed in tune with Robert Altman's approach to film direction.

Chin up leadership
Chin up

Of course there are some rather serious themes in Mash and some of the characters are downright prescient about about what is going on (particularly Radar O'Reilly).  Then there are the adolescent humor bits.  There were several of those.  The most elaborate was the football game against a rival unit, with lots of shenanigans during, including giving an opposing top player an injection while he was lying on the field after a play and hidden from view of the the rival bench, to get him out of the game so he couldn't perform any more.  But there was also pure inanity, embodied in the absurd messages delivered over the the loudspeaker  - tonight's movie is Mash, though maybe that is from the TV adaptation.

Camp Oxford, where I went for sleep away camp, had such a loudspeaker as well.  It was in the Headquarters (HQ) hut, which was in the middle of a horseshoe comprised of 25 bunks where the campers lived.  The open end of the horseshoe led down to the lake, North Pond in a map of upstate New York.  It was thinking about the loudspeaker that led me to think about Camp Oxford.  Then I quickly realized how much structure there was imposed on the lives of us campers.  Music was a big part of that.  Structure with music is what I remember of camp, yet somehow I think of reality now as dissonance and countervailing trends.  Hmm.

Many of the songs were bugle calls borrowed from the military, recorded to vinyl and then played over those same loudspeakers, when the time was right.  We woke up to First Call, which nowadays you might hear if you watch the Kentucky Derby.  If you slept through First Call, you would wake up for sure when they played Reveille.

You've got to get up
You've got to get up
You've got to get up in the morning.

You've got to get up
You've got to get up
You've got to get up right now!

Da da da da da da, da da da da da da

Immediately after Reveille, we went outside in our PJs and slippers, perhaps a robe as well, and did some light calisthenics. Over the loudspeaker we'd hear the command for the particular exercise and then a count out of the beat.  After that, we'd get dressed, based on the uniform of the day given over the loudspeaker - shorts, shoes, light sweater or jacket. After everyone was dressed there'd be a call to Assembly.  Each group would line up and then we'd go to the flag raising.  The flagpole was right in front of HQ.  After the Flag was raised, they'd place Mess Call, and we'd go across the street to the Mess hall for breakfast.

The pattern was a little different for lunch since each group would be involved in its own activity and possibly on a ball field far away from the mess hall, so when hearing Mess Call that group might barely have time to put the balls and gloves away and could be a few minutes late getting to lunch.  The situation around dinner time was closer to what happened at breakfast.  There was Assembly for the Flag lowering.  Then we went off for dinner.

I view myself somewhat anti military symbols, a distrust dating back to the Vietnam War, which was well underway my last few years of camp.  But listening to the bugle calls now, I find them very familiar and somewhat comforting to hear.  I wouldn't have guessed that to be my reaction, but it is.

We had music frequently while we were at mess.  There was a piano player, Daddy Joe.  He probably had a broader repertoire, but the only song I can recall him playing, which he seemingly did every day, was Tequila.  I liked the Daddy Joe version better than the original recorded by The Champs.   At other times we did sing-alouds, usually near the end of the meal.  The head counselor in my first few years was Tony Boch.  (He was Italian and this was a Jewish camp.  Boch was a short form of his real last name.)  He would lead us in what I think was an Italian song (or a street version of one) about various instruments in a band or orchestra.  There was one kid in the camp, in particular, who loved to sing this song.  Tony would do a line.  The kid would do the next line.  Then the full camp would come in with the refrain.

There was a very odd-to-an-outsider activity at mess once a week, but to explain it I need to give some background first.  Each day after breakfast there was cleanup.  You had to make your bed - hospital corners for the sheets and the one woolen blanket in blue or gray that was on top of the bed, with the two other woolen blankets wrapped in jelly rolls and placed at the foot of the bed.  Then each camper in the bunk had a job - sweep, kybo (bathroom) and outside are the ones I remember.  Most bunks had eight campers.  There were seven of these jobs.  The eighth position was off.  You didn't have to do a cleaning job when you were off.

After cleanup there would be inspection.  A counselor from another group would come and inspect each of the bunks in the group for how well they did in keeping the bunk tidy.  The inspector would give a rating to each bunk on a 10-point scale, taking off one tenth of a point for each thing he found that shouldn't be there.  A 10.0 was perfect.  A 9.9 was pretty darn good.  The bunks would be in competition for the highest average rating over the week.  The winning bunk would get a prize.  That prize was "delivered" once a week at the lunchtime mess.

Tony would have a bunch of pies, either blueberry or apple if memory serves, one for each group.  As he called out which bunk in a group won, a counselor from the winning bunk, sitting at a table with the campers and the other counselors in the bunk would go to the middle of the mess hall.   There he would wait for Tony to toss a pie from the head table where Tony was to where the counselor was standing.  It seemed to me that Tony always loosened the pie from the pie pan that was containing it.  Sometimes in the toss the pie would remain largely intact and in the pan and the counselor would catch it.  In this case the pie would be brought to the table of the winning bunk and consumed on the spot.   Other times the pie would come completely out of the pan during the toss and much of it would end up on floor.  The counselor would get only a little bit on his fingers, not enough to go around the table.  When that happened the entire camp would sing:

Because he didn't scoop
Ice cream for the group. 

Sure enough, the next time the group was at canteen, which happened during the evening once or twice a week, canteen was where the kids bought candy to bring back to their bunks, there would be ice cream for everyone.  

There was also singing at other times when you were with your group, perhaps at a campfire, maybe after a Watermelon League (inter-group) softball game.  Each group had their own song.  I was in the Cub group for my first two years, in bunk 3 the first time and bunk 5 the second.  I remember the Cub group song quite well.

Men of the Cub group
Men of the Cub group
Sweep the fields like we have swept the fields before
Till the last man
Of the enemy clan
Conquers all to rise no more.

Alleveevo, Allevivo
Alleveevo vivo ves
Come a seven
Come eleven.
Come a rickety-rackety yes, yes, yes.

Then the first verse repeats.  We also sang at the end of the day, many groups together in some ensemble activity, whether after watching a movie at the Rec hall or doing something else.   First we sang the camp alma mater.

Oxford fair and true
With our hearts we belong to you
As we love all the old and new
That we think of when we are gone.

Sunset and starry night
Our cherished and fond delight
As we linger by the pale moonlight
To await the awakening dawn.

Through the years our memories cling around us.
Through the tears our voices ring around us.

Let there be no goodbye
For the thought of you never dies
We'll return to you by and by
Oh, Oxford the camp that we love.

This was followed immediately by the singing of Taps.

Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lake
From the hills
From the sky
All is well
Safely rest
God is nigh.

I want to close with a couple of things that were a bit more idiosyncratic.  Language was used then in a way it no longer is.  One expression I remember that was chanted with some frequency, though I don't recall it's significance now:

You're no good you
You piece of wood you

Then a bunk mate of mine, Alan, and I made up a very simple lyric sung to the Call to Services (the linked version is slower than what I remember) that we had on Saturday, done jointly with Camp Guilford, the girls camp.  At the time Alan and I referred to many people as a "tool," not meant as a compliment.  Our lyric went like this.

Tool ool ool
Tool ool ool.
Tool and a little dodo bird
Tool and a little dodo bird
Tool and a little dodo bird.
Tool and a little bird.

Perhaps life now seems so less ordered to me because there is no music used regularly to give it structure.  And maybe it is because I grew out of it.  I didn't like my last year in camp, when I was in bunk 19.  But now I find it compelling to revisit the  earlier years when I did like camp.  The folks who designed it and were the first owners, Marcy Hessel and Sid Fiedler, knew a thing or two about how such a place should be run.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Is it just me or have universities become more intrusive in what they require employees to report?  So far I've had to complete ANCRA training (this is new) and fill out a disclosure of non-university activities that could create a conflict of interest (this has been around for quite a while).  I'm anticipating in the near future having to do the Ethics training.  At least I don't have to do the time reporting, since I'm only working 25% time.  But I do wonder what will be next on the reporting front.

Before getting to that let me note that in my class students had to blog about opportunism and come up with a scenario where the possibility for opportunism was there but where the person (possibly themselves) refrained from taking advantage of the situation.  We will discuss their posts later this morning.  The canonical economics example of opportunism is the "snake oil salesman"  (for a latter day example think originators of sub-prime loans) and, hence, there is an element of deceit in opportunistic behavior.  This provides the source of my title.

But, of course, the title is meant as a play on words.  It occurred to me while reading this piece from today's Chronicle, about Northern Illinois University and its new reporting requirements for staff about their use of social media.  If I'm like most, people there will be both a rational and a visceral reaction to the piece.  The rational reaction is that institutional auditors do have a job to do in identifying potential liability for the institution.  But they should not have the last say on how the institution addresses that, as there may be competing "upside" risks that don't concern the auditor but should be of concern to other campus leaders.  In this case, the article is about the potential chilling effect that such regulation will create, dampening the creativity and enthusiasm of engaged staff who are doing effective work in getting the message out to their respective audiences.

I asked myself what I'd do if my campus adopted the same requirement.  Then I got quite angry.  The requirement treats staff as if they are children.  Doing that is infuriating.  When I'm angry, I respond in kind.  Were we to require completion of such a form here, I would lie on it.

Near the end of the piece Steven McDonald, who used to speak here at the Faculty Summer Institute when I was the head facilitator, gives what seemed to me a sensible view that there needs to be an education effort about what the institutional goals are for communication via social media.  In theory, that sounded like the right answer.

In practice, I'm much less sure.  Real education is labor intensive and if not well done can achieve much the opposite of what is intended.  Massmails won't do the trick.  Further, some behavior is so ingrained at this point (e.g., people having Facebook open while they are at the office) that if the institution seems to condemn that behavior it possibly will experience quite a backlash from the staff.

Sometimes leaving well enough alone is optimal.  Certainly, it is an option to consider.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Out-of-the-box thinking 101 - employer pay for college

Yesterday I attended most of a symposium on the future of Higher Ed that was held at the I-Hotel near campus.  I hadn't gotten much sleep for a couple of nights in a row - worried about my class and some of the usual stuff about getting up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep.  So I was a bit more crabby and off my game.  Today, after a decent night's sleep, I'm ready to chime in.  Most of what I heard seemed like the same old, same old, not all that different from an event like this held fifteen years ago.  What was different, however, was the strong emphasis on college cost and student indebtedness.  That you wouldn't have heard about when I was the one hosting such a conference.

The common sense "analysis" of the problem is that there is a need to find a low cost way for students to get a college degree, so students can reap the reward from the degree and not have to go into hock to do so.  Way back when, that was done via night school.  First generation, mainly recent immigrant students would get their degrees this way.  They'd get ahead of where they would have been otherwise, and eventually their children would go to a residential college and find the good life from that.  This pattern has been disrupted by various changes in the economy.  The jobs that those night school graduates had gotten have been drying up and the tuition for college has reached a level where that first generation now has no confidence that they can deliver for their offspring.  There is a further issue that appears to be emerging on the other side of the labor market - employers increasingly reporting that they can't find candidates for job openings.  You hear about that now and then.  You don't hear about anyone taking constructive steps to address the issue.

As an economist steeped in general equilibrium theory and the escoterics of subgame perfection in non-cooperative games, as well as the non-economics but relevant systems approach to thinking about management and organizations (Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline), I have a tendency to give a nod to common sense, but be quite suspicious of its conclusions, especially when it is applied to complex social problems.  There is a strong inclination to mistakenly treat symptom as root cause and thereby come up with a quite wrong headed solution.  In this case the problem with the common sense solution is that it treats higher education over here and the labor market over there, taking the latter fixed while it tries to jerry-rig the former.  What is needed, instead, is a conjoined solution.

Economists looking at the problem (at least the one authoring this piece) would begin with a theoretical ideal, describe that, and use it to provide context for looking at solutions, imperfect though they might be, that best approximate the ideal.  Here the theoretical ideal is given by making a perfect capital markets assumption - the student can borrow as much as he or she wants and will pay back the loan via the increase in wages earned in the future.  If all of this were certain, the amount of college would be determined by the usual marginal benefits equals marginal cost conditions that set the optimal investment level.  (Yesterday at the symposium, there was discussion of the "public good" aspect of a college degree.  I concur; there is a strong public good benefit.  I would add there is or at least can be a strong consumption good aspect - college to be enjoyed as a thing in itself by the matriculating student.  I don't want to deny these other benefits at all and I agree it is too narrow to focus only on the human capital aspects of college education that have market value.  But here I will ignore the public good and consumption benefits as I don't believe that looking at them helps in considering how the college education should be financed.)

The first step in moving away from the perfect capital markets ideal is recognizing that all of this is not certain, but that the tuition costs are far more certain than the student's future wages in the labor market.  So there are risks - first in an entering student completing college and then, having attained the degree, in future earnings.  These risks are currently borne by the students themselves (and their families).  They are risks that can't be diversified away, at least not as things currently are done.  And for middle and low income students, in particular, college as it is currently financed has become too much risk to carry.

The search for low-cost ways to attend college, when viewed this way, is the search for a safety-play in this otherwise high-risk universe.  But socially, that might be quite wrong.  Instead, what might be preferred is to keep the riskiness of the system as is, but to get some other parties to bear the risk.  To me, that seems optimal as does that the other parties who are the obvious candidates to bear the risk are the future employers, especially those who are currently sitting on a pile of cash and can diversify the risk much better than the students can.  This is the impetus for an employer-pay-for-college approach. 

Readers, who properly should be skeptical about suggestions such as this one,  might ask, if this is so much better than the low-cost college alternative why doesn't it happen on its own accord?  It is a fair question.  The answer is that it does happen now, in niche areas, but is certainly not ubiquitous.  Looking at the niches might help in ascertaining what would need to be done to make the practice more widespread.

Let's consider two quite distinct areas.  One is graduate professional education for mid-career employees who have climbed the job ladder and are highly valued by their employers.  In this case, the productivity risk is much less than for new college grads.  Further, these employees are implicitly bonded to their employer.  Even if the professional education raises their future productivity substantially, they are apt to remain with their current employer, so the current employer has a reasonable belief that it can capture a good share of the productivity gains, thereby rationalizing the paying for the professional education investment.

The other is the remuneration of NCAA athletes in the revenue generating sports.  The pro teams don't overtly pay the college tuition and incidental costs.  But implicitly they do, especially by not maintaining minor league/development leagues for the players who would be high predictors for making it at the professional level and by having a draft system, so that players as they leave college are not immediately free agents.  The draft system means that younger pro players are bonded to their teams.

Between these two examples I believe there are the elements of what an employer-pay system must do.  First, of course, it must bring a good chunk of the wages it would pay employees (say in the first five years of employment after graduation) forward to  the college years.  The employers absorb the productivity risk this way.  In, return for that, they are entitled to extract some risk premium, which would be done by paying those graduates substantially less in that five-year period than they would otherwise earn,  the wage reduction covering the college cost and then some.

Second, the system must address the issue that some other employer will poach the productive employee - get the productivity reward but not incur the cost of paying for college.  If this can happen freely (as is the case now) that would kill the incentives for employer pay.  So there must be some legal form of bonding to the employer.  Concomitantly, there needs to be some cartel pricing for the wages of new employees, so the solution works both for the students and the employers.  Tilted one way, as already argued, the employers won't have incentive to make this sort of investment.  Tilted the other way, this would appear like indentured servitude.  What is needed is to minimize the tilt in either direction.

Third, the system must come to address how particular students get matched with their future employers and how the matching can become at least approximately efficient.  Now we have a system based on recruiting and internships, as the primary identifying mechanism, followed by a standard market where near grads are free agents who collect offers (if they are lucky enough to appear attractive to potential employers) and chose the one they prefer.   Employers, in turn, use both the recruiting and the internships as screening to whittle down the list of their preferred job candidates and from there make offers accordingly.  Can such a system survive if the wages paid get taken out of the equation? 

I suspect not.  The incentives to cheat would be too great.  Under the table payments would emerge as a way for an employer to attract preferred candidates.  That would unravel the entire thing.  If that is right, a different approach to matching would be necessary, such as a draft like what the pro sports leagues do or, instead, like the National Residency Matching Program, where ultimately the match is determined by the process rather than by being the highest bidder.  This would still afford reason for pre-play communication like internships, so each side would have more information about the other when approaching the matching process.  But it would preclude any bidding that would undermine the system. 

Can this work?  First, let me say this essay is only meant as a brief sketch of what might be done.  It is not a fully fleshed out plan, not by a long shot.  In adding flesh to the ideas here and in making tweaks to what has already been suggested (Why 5 years of bonding to the employer?  Why not 3 years or 7 years instead?) many other related issues will likely emerge.  (For example, the system might reasonably serve those future employers who are large and have substantial accumulated cash balances.  But what of new ventures just beginning to make their way?  How would they attract talent in this system?)  Second, my purpose in this piece was not to answer whether this can work or not.  I don't know the answer to that question.  My purpose was to ask, why aren't we even attempting to consider this sort of alternative?

It is hubris to refer to your own thinking as out of the box.  I do so here not as self-promotion, but because I'm frustrated that others don't seem to be producing non-obvious but interesting possible solutions to the problem.  Instead, there is only the conventional thinking, which makes it seem like higher education is now in a race to the bottom, following in the footsteps of K-12 over the past twenty years or more.  There was much talk at the symposium about crystal balls and making prognostications for where higher education will be in five years.  My prognostication is decline, unless we do something serious and substantial to reverse that.  So put on your thinking caps and come up with your own out-of-the-box alternatives.  That's what we need to make things better.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


You don't hear the expression "Renaissance Man" used much these days, certainly not as an ideal, and not for an adult but rather for how a kid should develop.  I looked it up in Wikipedia and found there it identified with polymath, conjuring up images of Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. This is not how the expression was used when I was a kid, where diversity of interest was implied but world-class expertise was not.  "Hobby" is another word you don't hear too often nowadays.  My conception of a Renaissance Man is somebody with many hobbies. It was an ideal embodied in my dad's approach to the education of me and my siblings.  Some outdoor activities we did serve as example. 

In our backyard we had a gazebo, a screened in structure that we used mainly for storage of the bikes and lawn furniture, but on the weekends during the spring and summer we would eat a lunch out there on a picnic table, with the food cooked in the outside fireplace.  Though the food variety was pretty similar to what I'd grill today, mostly hot dogs and hamburgers and also baked potatoes, the quality of it was quite different.  The fireplace was wood burning.  The wood we simply gathered in the backyard from fallen branches (we had a lot of trees).  My father would use old newspaper to start the fire.   There was a grating to place over the burning wood.  You wouldn't put the meat directly on the grating, but you could rest a hand grill on it so the meat would could cook several inches above the fire.  Even this way, the hot dogs often came out blackened on the outside.  And for the potatoes, my dad simply threw them directly into the fire, without any aluminum foil on them.  They'd come out completely charred, with the black coating thicker than your fingernail.  Mostly you didn't eat that, but scraped it off instead.  What was left over was remarkably tasty.  We liked doing this sort of thing so much that sometimes we'd replicate it in the winter at Alley Pond Park, bringing along a thermos of hot chocolate to help keep us warm.

I want to be clear about what this was. Sometime in the 1980s after I had been a faculty member at Illinois for while, I became aware of Paul Proudhomme and Cajun cooking.   The particular delicacy that everyone was raving about was Blackened Redfish.  My dad's stuff, also blackened, might seem similar.  It wasn't.  My dad called the potatoes Mickeys (see definition 3), an expression that emerged during the Great Depression.  In other words, it was cooking that came out of utter desperation and it was cooking that my dad was still comfortable with, although in the 1960s the poverty he had lived through as a young adult happened long ago.   Further, the cookout was lunchtime fare and in that a contrast to what we'd otherwise have.  It wasn't meant as a substitute for going out to dinner as grilling on the Weber is meant for my family now.  Lunch wasn't supposed to be fancy.  It just had to be good enough.  That was my dad's philosophy in a nutshell. 

In the fall we had to rake the leaves, particularly in the front yard.  There were a couple of trees that produced a prodigious amount of droppings.  Each kid would have an area to cover and rake the leaves  in that area into a pile, then make another pile nearby, and continue in that manner until the lawn had been done.  Here my dad explicitly said, "you don't have to do a perfect job."  Indeed, you couldn't because as you were raking the trees were delivering more of their deposit.  When the piles started to accumulate it became somebody's job to put the leaves into a trashcan.  I recall our trash was picked up three times a week and when I was young they would allow leaves and other yard waste to be put into the trash, done directly with no bag to contain them.  Later, either because the city outlawed it or because my dad just became ecologically minded, I'm not sure which, we'd take the trashcan full of leaves and dump it in a pile in the backyard where my dad intended to make mulch.  Once in a while we'd splash down into that pile.  I recall my sister doing that and then burying her under more leaves after. Work and fun were interwoven that way.

Also in the fall on many Saturday afternoons my dad would play football with us and my friends.   It was different than what most people think of as touch football.  He said this particular game was invented by the Kennedys and he called it association football.  There was only one down.  Forward laterals were okay.  One hand touches were also okay.  The game featured improvisation more than running a play, because if you had the ball and were about to be touched, you had to get rid of it quickly. Also, my dad imposed his own ground rule, that was put in place because we were of different ages and different skills.  At the start of the down he would say, "give him a chance" and not allow an immediate touch before the play really had gotten started.  My dad was plenty competitive.  You'd see it on the tennis court.  But he understood that when kids play participation beats winning.

I should add that my dad was the only parent among my friends to play with us on the weekends.  I became a Cub Scout and there were definitely other parents involved in that.  I think I was not quite eight when Cub Scouts started and somehow I was allowed to join at the time because I was bigger than my friends who were in the Cub Scouts even though I was younger than them. When I was eleven I played in Little League.  As with Cub Scouts, there was parental supervision.  What made my dad's participation unique in our football games was that was unmediated by any formal structure.  He adapted to the kids environment, not vice versa.  We played on 212th street, where parked cars were natural obstacles on the field and where the neighbors could watch us if they had nothing better to do.

We also did a variety of arts and crafts.  For a while my siblings and I would go to some Center in Whitestone off of Francis Lewis Boulevard where our time was divided between arts and crafts and physical fitness.  For the former, we made sculptures out of paper mache, strips of newspaper and some godawful smelling glue to bind it together.  My memory of this is rather unpleasant, the foul odor dominating over any sense of creativity in action.  In the gym we passed a medicine ball around, although that was not literally true.  It was too heavy for us to lift.  So we'd role it to the next person, not quite a real workout but some activity nonetheless.

My dad had us doing arts and crafts at home as well.  We often made tiled ashtrays.  Our job was first to get the right shape of tiles, which were on a mesh backing, to fit the metal ashtray.  Then we'd glue the mesh to the ashtray, possible using a few different pieces of tiles in mesh to get a good covering.  Most of the work was in making the grout and filling the spaces between the tiles with the grout.  The result was an interlacing of the tiles, usually in a variety of different colors, with white spacing in between.  You could buy fancier ashtrays in the department store, but these were functional and not unattractive.  We also did leather work on occasion.  My dad had metal tools to make imprints in the leather.  I know I made a bookmark for my mom this way.  I don't recall other things we made, but I know we did this multiple times and got somewhat proficient at imprinting the various shapes.

We had a live-in maid when my brother and I were very young.  She slept in the basement.  We went through quite a number of different people in this job.  As we got older we switched to a day person who was with us for many years, Louise.  She cooked the dinner in addition to doing the cleaning.  During the first summer of the World's Fair, my cousin Kim from Denmark stayed in our basement and sold Danish Hot Dogs at the World's Fair.  After he left the basement no longer needed to serve as an extra bedroom and we got a ping pong table down there.  It was a tight fit.  We had a built in bar in the northwest corner of the room.  It had a sharp corner that would hurt you if you bumped into it.  And the east wall was quite close to the table, which was set up at a bit of angle though more or less in a north-south direction.  The particulars of the setting encouraged me to learn an unorthodox inside-out backhand so that when I was standing next to the bar my follow through wouldn't go into it and the spin imparted on the ball angled it toward that east wall in a way that would make a point for me if the opponent didn't reach it quickly.

I'd like to know the cumulative effect of these activities on me now.  Before trying to get at that, however, let me talk about one other activity, playing the piano.  When I started, we had what was once a player piano but then was converted for normal use.  After some time, my parents bought a new upright, which probably had a better sound, though I can't really recall.  My brother now has that piano in his house in Ann Arbor.

I took lessons from Mr. Anson, who came to the house.  My sister had been taking lessons from Mr. Anson for some time and I would occasionally watch and listen to these.  It was why I was interested in having lessons as well.  I started when I was eight.  Each year Mr. Anson would give you a statuette of a great composer.  Since my brother also took lessons from Mr. Anson, starting a year or two after me, we ultimately ended up with quite a collection of statuettes.

Lessons were part review of the music that was practiced during the week and part introduction to new pieces that would be practiced the following week.  The music itself was also divided into two categories, classical (think Sonatinas by Muzio Clementi) and show music by such composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, and with other popular music thrown in, such as some of the hits by the Beatles. For the classical stuff, you had to learn the proper fingering as well as the correct notes and doing so was work as much as it was pleasure.  For the show music, Mr. Anson taught a style where the right hand played the melody and the left hand could improvise on the accompaniment, playing either block chords, possibly at different positions on the keyboard and in rhythms that might vary from one play to the next, or playing arpeggios that also showed variation in how they were performed.

I was never great at the Classical stuff, ultimately getting as far as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Mozart's Fantasia in D-Minor, and Chopin's Waltz in C Sharp Minor.  These were delivered in a tolerable but certainly not elegant manner.  I most definitely could not reproduce that level of delivery now.

It was different for the show music.  I got to the point where if I knew the tune ahead of time I could give a decent rendition the very first time through.  It was easier to do this with slower moving pieces, for sure, but I could even attempt the quick ones this way.  This skill has stayed with me and in that way I continue to enjoy playing the piano as an adult.  I would do it more often if the font on our sheet music was somewhat larger.

The downstream impact of the piano lessons is most obvious to me.  On occasion the family would sing at the piano, where I'd be playing.  We did this with some frequency, sometimes even when company would be over.  Singing along at the piano is quite an enjoyable activity.  I have a distinct memory during my last semester at MIT (before I transferred to Cornell) where we had a party in the dorm.  Slightly bombed on Gin and Tonic, I was at the piano playing.  I didn't have the gumption to ask a girl out on a date at the time, but a rather attractive blonde who lived a floor below me sat down on the bench next to me to sing along.  A number of other people stood behind us, also joining in on the singing.  The sheet music Mr. Anson had given us included the lyrics. (He had his own ditto machine and would bring copies of individual songs that we'd put into a loose leaf binder.)  So I learned the words to these pieces as well.  I too would sing along to the piano accompaniment.

Indeed the singing of the show tunes became its own thing even when there was no piano around.  When I was in Vancouver and then living with my not-yet-wife, we would on the weekend often drive past North Vancouver into the hills for a walk and a picnic.  On the drive we'd be singing the entire time.  Old Man River was a particular favorite as was the opening number from Fiddler on the Roof.

After my kids were born one of my favorite activities was to hold one of them next to my chest with their head on my shoulder, my ear touching their head.  I would gently start singing to them, the graveling voice seemed a wonderful way to get them to sleep.  Haul Away Joe was a particularly good number for this.  When it took a little longer I would go through more of my repertoire.  Night and Day is an octave or two higher, so perhaps not quite as good for getting the baby to fall asleep, but I was entertaining myself as well as the baby and I enjoyed the variety.

There are no such obvious derivative activities that are a consequence of the other lessons of childhood that I've describe above.  What endures, instead, is a tone and a certain approach to things.  In the book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink advises the reader to "celebrate your amateurness."  While my dad would never have embraced Pink's jargon, his philosophy to teaching us kids embodies that ideal.  It encourages a generalist's approach when most of us, instead, tend to become hyper professional, certainly in our work but also in our leisure pursuits.  Graduate school in economics encouraged me to be hyper professional with the economic theory and for ten to fifteen years afterward I was most comfortable when talking with other economists and still to this day find it harder to have reasonable conversation with folks entirely outside of academia if I don't know them already.

Becoming a parent and getting involved with online learning reversed that.  My more recent found pleasure in writing has pushed me further in the direction of the generalist.  Especially when I don't write overtly about economics (where the professional side still shows through on occasion) the hypothetical reader whom I write for is a generalist who is quite good at making sense of arguments expressed in plain English, but who has an aversion for ideas expressed too technically, for lack of expertise and for fear of missing the forest for the trees.

I have a feeling that if we had more generalists we'd be more tolerant of one another.  Amateurs can err in a benign way that offends no one.  Experts don't make mistakes, in the popular conception of expertise, and it offends the sensibilities of others when it appears that the expert has made an error.  In the opposite direction, experts often don't have the patience to engage in conversation with those less informed or talk down to them when they do.

Further, expertise is niched.  To get deep into a subject one must also become narrow.  In turn, the narrowness also contributes to a lack of tolerance, because we have less in common with one another.  It is a way in which "progress" is really more like regress.  Instead of moving forward toward democracy, we are sliding backward toward tribalism.  And it is why my dad's views about learning still seem powerful to me, rather than some quaint way of doing things from a bygone era.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My personal saga through the adjunct-tenure track lens

I wish that Joseph Heller were still alive and somehow found his way to write about Higher Education. Barring that, I wish that somehow Heller's satirical voice could find its way into my head so that I could marshal it just once, for this post.  I'm at an odd place in my own thinking and teaching, almost certainly closer in spirit to Jane Tompkins than to Heller, confused about what I should want, yet still idealistic that something better is within reach.

Let me begin with labels.  Are former faculty who have retired but now teach part time adjuncts?  Or are they yet a different category?

There was a thread yesterday that I participated in about a piece from a few days ago, The Adjunct Advantage, that appeared in Inside Higher Ed.  The piece was about a study done at Northwestern that compared the learning gains of students, some taking their courses from adjuncts, the rest taking their courses from tenure track faculty.  The finding was that the students learned more from the adjuncts.

My mind flashed to when I was a doctoral student at Northwestern, about 35 years ago, and whether had the study been done then if it would have showed pretty much the same thing.  I was a TA my second year at NU, 1977-78.  TAs taught in the introductory courses in Economics: macro, micro, and stats.  At the time, Robert Eisner was on the faculty and he was one of the leading Keynesians nationally, approximately the same age as my father.  He gave the intro to macro lectures.  If possible, students should have the experience of learning at the feet of the Oracle and in that spirit many universities then embraced the idea that star faculty should teach the in intro course, if they were willing to do so.  Eisner was.

It was a different situation with micro.  The stars in the department taught graduate courses only.  The first quarter I TA'd it was in micro it was for Assaf Razin, a first class economist but a visitor to the department.  I was his only TA.  I had either two or three sections; I can't remember which.  What I do remember is that Razin was headed back to Israel before the quarter really ended, so he had me submit the grades on his behalf.

The second quarter I TA'd for Mary Alice Shulman, who taught a larger lecture of micro.  Shulman was an adjunct.  She supervised several TAs.   Again my memory is hazy on this, but she may have wanted us to attend her lectures.  I didn't do that.  I was pretty full of myself at the time about my knowledge of economics, micro in particular.  I thought I knew more than she did and I believe I TA'd that way as well, more or less crafting myself what I'd present to the students rather than following strictly what I was told to cover.  I don't believe there was any real tension about this.  The students liked the course and the other TAs and I interacted perfectly well with Shulman about exams, etc.

Now let me provide one datum that speaks (at least to me) on the adjunct-tenure track issue.  It is looking at Mary Alice Shulman's course through the eyes of one of her former students, Daniel Pink, the well known writer and public speaker.

Economists would have said people being paid to do this would have done a better job. In some ways almost theoretically impossible. Took my first economics course in 1983 with a professor at Northwestern, Mary Alice Shulman. Terrific teacher. If I went to her and said: Bunch of people who don't know each other get together, agree to do something for free, would triumph over corporation: she would say No. Like going to a physics professor and saying I'm going to throw a ball out of a second story window and it will float into the air.

I know it isn't fair to blame the teacher for a student's misunderstanding of what the discipline says on the matter, especially when it is more than 25 years later from having taken the course.  (Pink had Shulman as a prof five years after I TA'd for her and that quote is from a few years ago.)  But I don't think Pink has the story right and since I wrote about that some time ago and entirely outside the context of the adjunct-tenure track issue, I think it worthwhile to juxtapose that he liked Shulman as a teacher very much but gets what economics has to say on the issue quite wrong, whether that is Shulman's responsibility or not.  This is not quite Catch-22, but it's getting close. 

Now let me add a different spin on this.  My last year or two at Northwestern, there was a visiting assistant professor whom I befriended and who eventually would be hired full time by NU.  He originally started at Illinois.  He was a theory guy, like me, and though very nice was also somewhat reserved and quite cerebral.  I don't think he taught the intro course but he did teach intermediate micro and it was a struggle for him.  He was uncomfortable doing it.  Though I had been quite popular as a TA, well received by the students, I struggled just like my friend did when I first taught intermediate at Illinois.  Content-wise, the course was completely correct.  Intellectual accessibility-wise, it was over their heads.  Had the Onion been running its contest about the worst teacher on campus, I would have been a leading contender.

So in making a comparison in the effectiveness of the teaching between Mary Alice Shulman and either me or my friend, attitude-wise it would have been no contest.  Shulman would have won hands down.  Learning-wise maybe it would be a little closer, but still Shulman would have been the clear winner.

That is not the full picture, however.  At the time intermediate was taught by several different instructors.  Two I knew about were Mike Scherer and Leon Moses, both very experienced and well known economists, closer to the Eisner mold than to me and my friend.  The year after I was a TA I ended up as a grader for Moses and from that we ended up writing a couple of papers together on inventory investment.  I have no direct evidence about how Scherer and Moses were perceived as teachers by the students nor do I know how much the students learned in those courses.  (I have no recollection whatsoever of the quality of the homework that I graded.)   But it is certainly within the realm of possibility that those were very well taught courses and that no adjunct would have done as well because Scherer and Moses had rich experiences that they could bring to their teaching, while an adjunct could not.

* * * * *

I want to now consider the issue from a more analytic perspective, taking on three dimensions of the question at the same question.  The first is on the time devoted to teaching.  For a tenure-track faculty member who is spending at least 50% of the time on research, teaching can be perceived as tax on the person's time, particularly the sort of teaching that has no positive feedback effect on the research.  (Doctoral level teaching is more apt to provide such positive feedback than undergraduate teaching.)  In this conception, the instructor might find undergraduate teaching mildly annoying and on the margin will engage in (time) tax avoidance.

The second dimension is on the financing of the instructor.  I believe it to be an indisputable truth that compared to when I started at Illinois, tuition now covers a much greater share of the cost of the student's education.  At Northwestern, annual tuition for undergraduates (full freight) is around $45,000.   I used to think there was a rough equivalence between the price of a new automobile and annual tuition at a good private university.  I drive a Civic Hybrid.  With that, the rough equivalence ceases to exist.  You need to consider, instead, a low to middle end BMW.  Ask what you get in the BMW that is not in the Civic, besides the status.  The same sort of question should be asked about undergraduate instruction at private universities.  What instructor backgrounds enhance the quality of instruction?  (Let's pose this in a way orthogonal to the issue of instructor time commitment.)  Does being a researcher raise the quality of the course by how the instructor goes about addressing the subject matter?  Alternatively, does lots of experience in industry matter?  Or does someone who investigates how students learn the subject offer an advantage?

The third dimension is to consider intelligence of the instructor in relationship to the intelligence of the students.  Is it better for these to be similar, so the instructor has greater empathy for the issues students have with learning the subject.  Or is it better for the instructor to be somebody who, as Sir Ken Robinson presents humorously in this Ted Talk, lives in his head while most of the students, instead, live in the real world.  Put differently, undergraduates developmentally are in transition from a black and white world where there are right answers to a different world where subtlety of understanding matters and providing an answer to a serious question is more like peeling an onion and then creating different perspectives, each of which suggests its own answer.  And on this one, does it matter whether we are talking about a course that is a distribution requirement versus a course taught in the major?

My view on this for some time has been that as the undergraduate tuition has risen in real terms tenure-track faculty would, of necessity, have to focus more on undergraduate instruction, that new hires would be considered more carefully by how well they teach as much as for their research, and that particularly in disciplines that don't generate a lot of grant-supported research this sort of rebalancing constitutes a common sense adjustment to the financial realities. 

The Inside Higher Ed piece about the Northwestern study challenges this view, suggesting a two-track alternative instead.  But it doesn't address the following.  If tuition is funding adjuncts who do the bulk of the undergraduate teaching, what is funding the researchers?  If the answer to that is tuition as well, how can that sustain?

My view is buttressed by my own experience teaching the last several years.  As my friend Ed has pointed out to me, I may err seriously by trying to generalize from my own experience.  Having retired and teaching part time, I am time abundant and therefore can devote more time to my teaching if I so choose.  I've done that.  Much of it has been experiments with method and approach, which is how I'm like Jane Tompkins.  My conclusions about positive benefits from this are more on the student attitudes front.  A good number came to like the blogging and based on what the cohort last year said, more than half "had their eyes opened" as to how economics speaks to ordinary experiences they were already having, getting to understand the issues from a richer perspective.  If trying to measure understanding via exam performance, which stressed the math modeling part of the class, the results are far less satisfying.  A good number of students showed they weren't getting it this way or, rather, that their prior math preparation was inadequate for them to get much out of my class.  Already after my first homework submission this semester, I've gotten some comments that are similar this time around.  One student wrote:

I've never done an assignment like this before, it was interesting. The questions were of medium difficulty, I may need an Intermediate Microeconomics refresher, as math is not my strongest subject, but I was still able to calculate the answers. I greatly appreciated the ability to find out on the spot whether or not my answers were correct or not.

The student is referring to this interactive Excel Homework which the reader is welcome to try (but please don't submit your answer key afterward).  If you do try it, you'll want to first look at this Tutorial (watch it full screen) so you'll understand what is expected of the student in giving an answer to a question.

That homework is supposed to be review of intermediate micro.  I learned from some of the other comments that for many students it was not review.  So I did a chalk lecture in class last week on the Edgeworth Box, something I hadn't planned to do previously.  This sort of on-the-spot remediation requires knowing the discipline, not just the course being taught. 

I have never taught to the textbook, perhaps a difference between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts that doesn't get discussed, and in this course I frequently feel a need to go beyond what is in the book.  We are beginning to venture into new topics, that the students would not have seen before.  One of those is transfer pricing.  There is a worksheet on it in the second homework.  A few students have completed it already.  One wrote that she hoped we'd go over it again in class because while she was able to get correct answers to the questions, she wasn't sure whether she understood the underlying concepts.

Transfer pricing is a form of administrative pricing internal to an organization, where an upstream division sells some good or service to a downstream division.  Having been an administrator in the campus IT organization for some time and watching how it seemed to "over engineer" its services, as perceived by the various college IT administrators,  there was an economic puzzle as to whether this was a normal thing to expect in a transfer pricing setting.  So I extended the economic model that the book provided to allow for an additional variable - quality of service - and showed that the upstream division preferred higher quality than was optimal (because it meant more surplus accruing to that division) while the downstream division preferred lower quality of service, for similar reasons.  This is where the economics is really beautiful.  It gives a coherent explanation for the reality I've observed and some insight into the causal factors.  Teaching to the book would never have brought the issue to light.  My administrative experience dictated the need.

There is, of course, the question whether the students can learn the lesson.  That remains to be seen.  There is the related question if they learn it in isolation only or as an exemplar of a larger lesson to peel the onion and try to explain with the economics what is in front of their nose.  At this point, one can only hope.

* * * * *

Let me circle back and close.  The ideal I depict based on my own teaching may be so far removed from the norm as to not be useful to guide thinking on the issue, though it is clearly close to the norm  given in the promotional videos of the university that are shown on TV at the halftime of the football games. 

It seems to me that if you're paying for a BMW you should be pretty idealistic about what is happening under the hood, even if your knowledge of auto mechanics is nil.  Given that, we providers in Higher Ed shouldn't be putting the innards of a Civic inside a BMW shell.  At the least, we should debate the issue before jumping on the bandwagon of the Northwestern study.

Saturday, September 07, 2013


I've been very fortunate in that most of my life I've had a best friend.  Growing up, it was David.  He lived diagonally across from me.  Both our houses faced 56th Avenue.  His was on 211th Street.  Mine was on 212th Street.  There was one big difference between the two places.   My house had a one car attached  garage and the driveway was rather steeply sloped, good for when we got the sleds out in the winter, but not for much else.  The garage at David's house was a separate structure, for two cars, and the driveway was flat.  It became part of our infield.  (As I'm thinking back on this, I know that 56th Avenue itself was on a hill, with a base near Oceania Street to the west and rising till 214th Street to the east.  Now I'm wondering whether the driveway at David's house really was flat or if it was at the same grade as that hill.)

We moved to Bayside in 1959.  That first year I attended a private nursery school, Flushing Progressive.  I believe I had gone there a year earlier as well, when we lived in an apartment on Parsons Boulevard.  I carried a mark from that earlier experience, a blackened tooth that resulted from some kid whom I was playing with slamming me into an elevator door. Luckily, that was a baby tooth.  There was no carry over after it fell out and the adult tooth appeared in its place.

My parents probably kept sending me to that school because it was where I knew people.  The teachers had worked patiently with me on my fine motor skills.  Lunch was served downstairs but you had to carry it on a tray upstairs to where we ate.  I couldn't do it at first.  I kept spilling the food or dropping the tray altogether.  In this case, slow and steady won the race.  I still have my report cards from Flushing Progressive.  They indicate I had a gentle disposition while working through "my problem."  It's hard to tell cause from effect here, but surely this was a hugely formative experience not of the academic kind. 

There were other reasons to continue at Flushing Progressive.  My dad took the Subway to work and the school wasn't too far from the last stop on the number 7 IRT line.  Further, my mom played tennis at Kissena Park and it was not too far from that.  Then, too, it was an all day deal, while Kindergarten at Public School was only half day.  So it was daycare before there was something called daycare.

I did have a good friend from Flushing Progressive, Wendy.  I will always associate her with the candy Pez and the TV show Fury.  At school during playtime I would get on all fours and Wendy would ride on my back, just like in the show.  She came over to my house once and I have a distinct memory of us being in the candy store on the corner of 48th Avenue and Bell Boulevard, where we got the Pez with the fun dispensers.

Friendships like that don't survive a school change, especially when it takes a car ride to get the kids together.  For first grade I went to P.S. 31.  I needed some new friends.  Not one to take the initiative at that young age, I recall my mother bringing me to Steven's house, where he and David were playing.  Steven lived 5 houses in from 56th Avenue on 211th Street.  I recall going upstairs where the kids were playing, perhaps with Mr. Potato Head.  I must have seemed an intruder at first, but we soon were playing well together.  Sometime later (perhaps years, it's hard to pinpoint through this sort of recollection) we would play with those plastic toy soldiers that preceded GI Joe, making up stories of the battles they were in.  And I have some vague memory that we also played with Mr. Machine.

The next year a new elementary school opened up, P.S. 203.  One of the boundaries for which school to attend was 56th Avenue.  So David continued to go to P.S. 31 while Steven and I went to 203.  It's funny how this worked out.  For five years my friendship with David was based on play only, not on school.  As kids, that's the way it should be.  We became very close.  We spent our afternoons together, at one house or the other, or outside playing ball.

I don't know when we started to play slapball, but I'm quite sure it was David's older brother, Lesley, who taught us and who made up the ground rules, of which there were many.  There were only 3 bases.  The pitcher stood in the street, but near the driveway and pitched diagonally to home plate.  A Pensie Pinkie (not a Spaldeen) was used and it had to bounce once before the batter would take a slap at it.  The three bases together formed a scalene right triangle.  First and third base  (there was no second base) were on the "mall" that divided the westbound part of 56th Avenue, that formed the rest of our infield, from the eastbound part of 56th Avenue, that was part of the outfield.  The mall had a curb around it and was raised a short step above the street.  The pitcher's mound was approximately on the same line as the path from third to home.

If a slapped ball reached the mall or beyond on a fly that was an out.  This was a game that encouraged you to hit a hard grounder or low line drive.  The game could be played with between four to six people.  On defense there needed to be a first baseman in addition to the pitcher.  If there was a third player, that person played shortstop/third base.  In real baseball or softball, that's where the best athlete plays.  In slapball, however, that position was like being told to play the outfield when the kids couldn't hit it out of the infield.  Mostly what that position did was to chase the ball when it got through the infield.

There were assorted obstacles in chasing down the ball.  The mall itself was used by many to walk their dogs.  So you had to watch out for the dog poop.  Then there might be a car coming on the eastbound side of 56th Avenue.  When that happened, somebody might shout out

Car, car
Stick em in the ashcan two by two. 

At that point, play would temporarily stop.  It resumed after the car passed.  The other obstacle to encounter happened if the ball made it all the way to the lawn on the other side of the street. We were afraid of the old lady who lived in that house.  She very well might yell at you.  "Get off the lawn!"  So we hoped she wasn't watching us.  Even then, we'd dart for the ball and return to safety as quickly as we could.  There was a fairly large tree in the mall.  You couldn't throw the ball back in until you had cleared enough of the branches.  So a ball that made it through to the old lady's lawn had a fair chance of becoming a home run.  For this reason, our rule was that if after the relay the ball reached the garage before the person rounding third arrived a home plate, the person would have to go back to third.  Likewise, in a bases loaded situation, having the ball hit the garage before the runner on third made it home was a force out.

In the beginning, Lesley (who was at least five years older than David) was the designated pitcher.  He acted kind of like a benign camp counselor.  He taught us the skills we needed to make it a game.  And gave us nicknames to personalize the experience.  Mine was lannabase.  You can see where that came from.  David's sister, Julia, was soolie.  David was either sophol or darmus.  I never figured out the origins of those.

Eventually we got skilled enough where there was no designated pitcher and we took turns doing that.  I liked to deliver a curve ball.  I'd make a circle with my thumb and middle finger. Then the Pensie Pinkie would be inserted and my index finger would help to make sure the ball didn't fall out of its hole.  As I would make a gentle throwing motion aiming to bounce the ball, I would flick my middle finger.  That imparted spin on the ball.  It wouldn't fool the batter.  There was plenty of time for the person at the plate to adjust to the direction of the ball.  But by making the ball come in at more of an angle, there was a tendency for the batter to pull the ball, either hitting it foul or at the pitcher.  I was not a great fielder.   If the ball was hit a few steps to my left with any pace on it whatsoever, it almost surely would get by me.  So I looked for any trick I could find to have the ball be hit right at me. 

David was always a better athlete, with good hand-eye coordination.  He was much earlier at being able to catch the ball with one hand.  I relied on both hands and even then made plenty of errors.  Much of this must have been due to gifts of nature.   But there was another factor too.  Around the time that President Kennedy got shot, I got my first pair of glasses.  It was nighttime when I got them and I remember the various lights along the highway seeming so much sharper than they had been previously.  It's hard to catch a ball when you can't detect its flight until it's almost upon you. 

Slapball was our favorite game, but there were other ball games too, especially useful if we didn't have four players.  With three we might play roly poly.  One person would bat and fungo the ball (still a Pensie Pinkie) to the other two who were in the "outfield".  This game was played entirely in the street on the westbound part of 56th Avenue.  The batter stood in front of David's house.  The outfielders stood up the hill closer to 212th Street.  If one of the fielders caught the ball on a fly it would be that person's turn to bat.  If the person got the ball only after it had already hit the ground, then the person had a different chance.  The batter laid the bat in the middle of the road, it's length in the direction between David's house and the old lady's house.  The fielder would roll the ball down the hill attempting to have it hit the bat.  If it did (which happened only rarely) and if the batter didn't catch the rebound on the fly then the fielder would become the new batter.  Otherwise the batter would take another turn fungoing the ball out and the process would repeat.

If it were only David and me, we might then play stoopball.  We played that at my house instead because that had better steps, which had sharp angles instead of rounded edges.  If you got a "pointer," where the ball hit the sharp edge squarely,  it would travel quite far.  That's how you'd get a home run.  Sometimes we'd use an old tennis ball for stoopball because we didn't have a Pensie Pinke.  The tennis ball was a bit firmer, which mattered most because sometimes the ball would bounce off the step and instead of ricocheting back into the field of play it would continue on its original path and hit the house.  Once or twice I broke the outside light above the front door that way.  My dad was none too pleased by that. 

I did participate in more organized sports, mostly in summer camp where softball was the game of choice for the first few years and then basketball became preferred later on.  David and I both did little league during the spring of sixth grade.  He made the "Majors."  I only made it to "Triple A."  The more organized ball was fun too, but it required adults and had to be planned in advance, done on a schedule.  Slapball was something we did spontaneously when we wanted to.  There's something good about having kids control their own game playing.

Further, it was cheap and remarkably safe.  You'd think playing in the street would carry risks with it, particularly from automobiles, but kids become more aware of their environment that way and make adjustments to mitigate the risk.  Learning to throw and catch a ball soft enough that you don't need a glove is a real plus.  And the entry level skill you need to start playing is pretty minimal.  The first time I had a real hardball catch with a kid at summer camp, I mistakenly put my right hand in front of my glove and the split the nail on my middle finger.  Klutzy kids will have their bumps and bruises as they learn to play ball.  Some of those early accidents might end up blocking further learning.  There was no such risk with slapball. 

And it taught a kind of approach where winning mattered but it surely wasn't the only thing.  After the game David and I would always have fun, giggling a lot and doing a lot of silly kid stuff.  There was a balance in the total picture that seems to me to be missing now.  I wonder if we can ever get that back. 

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The rise and fall of using non-campus supported software for teaching

My teaching approach has evolved to rely intensively on rss feeds in the course presence.  There are two different uses.  One is for calendar/scheduling.  The other is for student blogs. 

It used to be that Google Calendar generated a feed for "upcoming items" that could be displayed by a gadget (widget?) in the sidebar.  It is a very useful function for the students to be able to see what is upcoming in a simple way and from that become aware of what they must read, what files to download, what assignments to do, etc.  When that worked it offer functionality superior to what I see in the LMS.  However, sometime in fall 2012 that gadget stopped working in Blogger.  It is no longer supported. 

So I tried to come up with an alternative.  I made an entirely separate blog just for the schedule.   Then I made five labels.  They are for: the class session on Tuesday, the class session on Thursday, the prompt for the student blog posts, the homework in Excel, and the exams.  Every item (which was also to appear in Google Calendar if they preferred that view) would get one and only one label.  Each label generates its own rss feed.  I put those five feeds into the feed gadget and called it Upcoming Activities, which appears in the sidebar on the left of the main class blog.  In concept this would do the trick. 

Only yesterday I realized that the feeds weren't updating where the gadget displayed them.  I still don't understand why.  My work around, which may not have solved anything other than the immediate issue, was to make a new label and delete the old label.  When the gadget displayed the new label, the most recent item appeared.  But whether the new label updates, I don't yet know. 

If the feeds don't update then the convenience benefit from having an open site like this is significantly diminished.  For the student blogs, in particular, I track them in a feed reader.  This way I can tell what I've yet to read.  My approach is to comment on every post students make, if they get the thing in before the deadline.  So tracking their posts is a big deal. 

On a different but related item, for the student blogs I have them post under an alias, the name of a famous economist concatenated with course name and semester.  This way they can blog out in the open but people outside the class won' know who is writing the post.  I believe that is reasonable privacy protection, but I still can't "require" that.  I need to give the students the option of using a campus supported (or in this case LAS supported) alternative, one that requires authentication for access and thus is entirely unavailable to those outside the class.  I have a Moodle site for the class anyway, because I need a grade book and a way to send secure messages to students.  There is a blogging function in that and it looks improved from when I last used it (in spring 2011).  Each post now gets a permalink, so students can make linked references to the posts of their classmates.  And it now enables attachments. 

I still feel that course sites should be public, not locked inside an LMS.  And it is better if student writing online is also public.  The openness online helps to convey a tone of being open intellectually in class.  But if feeds don't update, it becomes much more of a hassle to go this route. 

Let me add one more thing.  Back in the 1990s when I used Mallard, I thought it was okay for students to receive an auto-grade for an online quiz and if they didn't get it completely right then to retake the quiz to get a better score.  But the feedback then would only come when they submitted the entire quiz.  If there are many questions  in the quiz then there can be a substantial lag between when the student makes the mistake and when the student gets feedback about it.  That is not good.  Alternatively, if there are only short quizzes to reduce the lags, then there needs to be a lot of these.  Then the student is constantly being graded and the MyGrades area is filled with quiz score results.  I don't think that is good either. 

What is desired, in my view, is to have a self-test function, with immediate feedback after answering a question, but then for the student to receive a participation credit for having done the entire quiz successfully.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, questions must be sequenced about one larger problem to solve.  If random parameters have been used the realizations must stay the same from one question to the next and values calculated correctly for a prior question can then be used in a subsequent question.  This way they can see the larger picture instead of being trapped by minutia. 

I can do all these things in Excel, using the IF function and conditional formatting.  It is much more flexible this way than the LMS quiz tools, in my experience.  I've designed it so when they've completed the assignment it spits out a code that they paste into Google forms so they can get credit.  This way, they get no immediate score for doing this.  It is a manual step for me to take the data from the completed forms and upload into the grade book.  So there will be some lag in that. I think this is right pedagogically (even if it is a bit more work) because the student gets the message that doing the work is important and must be done frequently.   But grade assessment happens with much less frequency, so the students don't feel they are constantly being prodded by the professor.  Nobody like that feeling. 

As with the student blogging, I think my way of doing assessments in Excel is better.  But if I moved to Moodle for the student blogging, would I use the Moodle assignment tool to submit the Excel results or move to the quiz tool and abandon the Excel outright?  I don't know.  I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.  In the meantime I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the feeds start to update.