Monday, March 23, 2015

The Professor Mind

In a mild act of protest, I have deleted the word "Technology" from my blog title and blog description, though I have kept the word "technical" in the description.  My protest is about the mistake I see being made, for example here, of pronouncing the technology as the driver of learning, now and in the future.  It isn't and it won't be.  At best it is an enabler.  Often it doesn't rise to that role and instead serves as a mask for non-learning in the guise of learning.

For you clever folks who realize I haven't changed the url for the blog, that fits in with keeping the protest mild.  Some battles are not worth fighting.  I did change the url for the blog once, way back when.  It was originally hosted on a campus server.  Then I moved it to, after it became clear it was creating a management problem to be on a server not intended for that purpose.  I lost many readers with that move, most of whom never came back. Once is enough.

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verb (used with object)
1. to lay claim to, often insincerely; pretend to: He professed extreme regret.
2. to declare openly; announce or affirm; avow or acknowledge: to profess one's satisfaction.
3. to affirm faith in or allegiance to (a religion, God, etc.).
4. to declare oneself skilled or expert in; claim to have knowledge of; make (a thing) one's profession or business.
5. to teach as a professor : She professes comparative literature.
6. to receive or admit into a religious order.

verb (used without object) make a profession, avowal, or declaration. take the vows of a religious order.

My title is about definitions 2, 4, and 5 and their interplay.  I wonder how many readers would aver that definitions 2 and 4 apply to their own thinking, which they give voice to often.  Definition 5 seems more contractual and less about thinking per se, though in the old days (meaning when I first became a faculty member) it seemed that definition 5 implied definitions 2 and 4.  I don't believe that is true any more, though I might be convinced otherwise.  (At issue for me is how far beyond what they teach can the instructor go in discussing the subject matter of the course and what differentiates the instructor in such a discussion from the student who has taken the course already.)

Let me begin with the observation that I can claim expertise in Economics, because that is where I have my PhD, but my blog is about learning, where my formal education is nada.  It may not be obvious, but one informs the other.  The habits of mind that were honed doing formal economic modeling come to bear when thinking about learning issues.  The puzzle for me is not my own thinking this way, but rather everyone else and whether they are guilty of an enormous conceit.  In other words, they claim definition 4 applies to them, but do so without real justification.  (One reading of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is that this is human nature, to believe we know much more than we actually do.  That belief then underlies what he calls WYSIATI.) 

Lest the reader think I'm too arrogant in making my prior claim, I want to come clean on my own conceit.  It pertains to belief in "thinking hard" though that descriptor is not accurate, but let me get to the clarification after making the point.  Thinking hard, for a sufficiently long duration, opens a portal into whatever the object of investigation is.  Once the portal appears, it is just a matter of looking at what one sees and then trying to understand it in some sensible way.  Until the portal shows up, however, there is only muddle.  The professor mind, in my title, spends much of the time waiting till that next portal happens to appear.

One might very well imagine this conceit is a delusion, that actually there is no portal, or even if there is one it never arrives.  I will discuss some of my delusional quests below.  But first let me note that part of the art in professing is problem selection, which is trying to find something interesting enough to hold one's attention and yet tractable enough that the portal does appear before interest in the problem wanes entirely.

Let's say for the sake of argument that such a problem has already been identified.  Is it hard work to find the portal?  What does one do to expedite its arrival?  I'm going to begin with an answer to the first question that some might consider a cheat.  If you have your full concentration on the problem at hand, then sense of self is entirely lost at that time.  In those periods of complete absorption, the notion of hard work doesn't make sense.  It might make sense in retrospect, when reconsidering what the thinking was, and it might make sense in prospect as well, since achieving a state of complete absorption is no mean feat.  I used to be better at it than I am now, though now I do have other behaviors to compensate for the less intense concentration.

As I've written about many times, this being unaware of self is true as long as I'm not stuck.  Getting stuck is an entirely different matter.  Then self-awareness returns and with a vengeance.  The getting unstuck part is hard work.  Quite often when stuck I have a feeling that says, "I should be able to get this."  I don't know what the basis of that feeling is, but when I have it I'm bothered by being stuck.  The being bothered provides the motivation to find a way to get unstuck.  There is much prior experience on which the judgment of the problem being do-able and the emotion of being bothered are formed.  But is the prior experience relevant to the current situation?  Often I can't establish relevance, which is why I say I don't know the basis for that feeling.  Once in a while, I suppose, there are false positives, though at the moment none spring to mind, so I don't have an example as illustration.

When I'm not stuck, I'm telling a story to myself and seeing whether the story holds water.  This having an internal conversation is something I enjoy doing.  So I don't need to prompt it to happen.  It will occur on its own accord.  If the story seems to be working I keep going.  If it does not I try to identify the issue.  Then I will retell that part of the story multiple times, to see if the issue is still there or if perhaps it goes away with a slight modification of the story.  An issue that survives several retellings then can trigger a new inquiry, one which either replaces the original problem or is done in conjunction with it. Having a story not hold water is different from being stuck.  As long as there appears to be a possible way out of the dilemma, I'm not stuck.  When I've run out of possibilities to track down, then I'm stuck.  The difference between being stuck and the initial search for a problem to investigate is one that's anathema to an economist, proof that sunk costs really do matter.  If I haven't put in much time at all considering an issue, I can drop it with little fanfare once it seems not a good fit for me.  If I've worked on a problem for a considerable time it's an entirely different matter.  Dropping it then would be like betraying a good friend. You don't do that sort of thing.

How far into the story does the portal appear?  This depends to a great extent whether the problem is a reaction to something else read, viewed, or heard, in which case it suffices to come up with a reasonably convincing counter narrative.  Then it doesn't take too long.  It is different with doing something new on your own, where then you are developing some expertise in that at the same time as you are developing the narrative.  You need to find the right sort of practice for producing that expertise.  That does take time. 

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Here I want to switch gears and talk about my delusions.  You might think of the first type of these as the embodiment of the Vulcan mind meld or if you prefer a real ESP experience with telepathy.  This would be done individually with each of my students.  I'd like to enter their minds, unobtrusively so as not to influence their thinking, just to observe what is going on.  I will explain why in a bit.  Here I do want to note that telepathy is sometimes referred to as mind reading.  That is instructive.  What I do now is have the students write blog posts.  I read those.  Certainly that tells me something about the student thinking.  But there is much thinking that never shows up in the writing.  So I want more than just the writing.

The other delusion is to couple the above capability with time travel.  I'd like to visit with earlier versions of me.  I'd like to see how far along I was with the professor mind at various stages of my own development.  I'd like to get a better sense of causality as to what made it develop more fully.

Let me raise some of the questions I have that motivate these delusions.  The first and most obvious one is this.  Can the professor mind be taught or, perhaps more likely, be strongly encouraged by some early interventions and good experiences which result from that intervention?   For me, math played a foundational role.  Solving a math problem that we'd get on the Math Team (which I was first on in eighth grade in junior high school and then again in eleventh and twelfth grades in high school) was very much in the spirit of finding a portal into what the problem was asking.  So that was an early antecedent for the professor mind for me, though since those problems were timed it encouraged a quick hitter approach to penetrating the problem.  In high school there was also the Problem of the Week, which was not timed, and encouraged a more deliberate sort of investigation.

What I'd like to know about me is really in the last few years of elementary school, where my recollection of school is far hazier.  Were there intimations of the professor mind even then?  Did one or several of my teachers make some suggestions to me that pushed me in the direction of the professor mind?  Then, I'd like to pose the same sort of questions for my students.  Might I have a brief dialog with each of them where I make some mild suggestions, nothing more, but ones that the students are willing to try?  And then, might those simple suggestions show profound change in the way these students think, not immediately but in the fullness of time?

Another question concerns whether becoming a professor was more or less inevitable for me.  I have learned as an adult that my Myers-Briggs type is INTP.  Does that fact coupled with the observation that many of my high school classmates who were my friends became either doctors or lawyers but my path was elsewhere mean that the professor path was the likely alternative?   Or did I simply luck into it?  One obvious bit of serendipity for me was that I took only one undergrad economics course, introduction to macroeconomics.  Sometime in the middle of the course the professor announced to the class that if anyone was good in math and was interested in going to graduate school, that person should come see him.  This was completely unplanned, yet it offered an extremely good fit for me, marrying the math aptitude to a social science interest.  Suppose I hadn't taken that course, or took it as a senior rather than as a junior, or had a different instructor who wouldn't make such an announcement.  What would have happened to me then?

A third question concerns whether the professor mind can flourish without associating it with the professor job.  For example, can administrators on campus who never were faculty members nonetheless have the professor mind?  Might investigative journalists have the professor mind?  After all, isn't their job to see things how they actually are rather than simply how they appear to be?  Are there other professions where that sort of seeing is fundamental to the job description?

One last question is posed in the negative.  Why doesn't the professor mind develop in more people?  I hypothesize that extroverts are much less likely to develop the professor mind, as they'd rather spend their time interacting with others than engaging in reflective thought.  That takes care of about half the population.  Even among introverts, we know that some people are "good with their hands" and express themselves manually rather than through reflection or introspection.  Others might have an artistic bent.  I will assert here that there are many introverts who are neither professor types, nor good with their hands, nor artistic.  Among these, many may not have had good enough educational opportunities to develop intellectually, a manifestation attributable to the income inequality in our society.  For the rest, many fit the description given in Excellent Sheep

Let me return to my delusions and to childhood memories.  I would like to trace the role of grades in my own learning.   I don't want to say they didn't matter entirely, but they only seemed to matter when the measured performance was less than stellar.  For the most part, high grades were expected and when such expectations are confirmed the grades didn't provide motivation or reward.  Even when my performance dipped some, the grades served as an indicator, not as a driver.   They were by-product only.  They were not the main product.  I have the feeling that the professor mind would develop in many more kids if grades for them were also by-product only.  But it seems to me too late to start with this message only after the kids are in college.  And it is probably too late to start even in high school.  There is an error that most adults make, parents or educators, that if measured performance is not emphasized that the kids won't care about their own learning.  That clearly is not true for infants and toddlers.  Does it become true after that?

The entire society should embrace the professor mind and think through that question. 

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