Monday, June 22, 2015

Backing In

Today I want to speak in metaphors, using the outcome of golf tournament that concluded yesterday evening as a way to consider many other aspects of life.  One of the big underlying questions in the system of rewards in which we live is whether we get what we deserve based on the merits - our effort and the performance that effort generates is sufficient in itself to explain the reward - or if we somehow luck into it.  I have been in the luck into it camp for some time, though I must say that until that golf tournament I had mainly thought of luck as different.  Good luck amplifies the performance, so you seem to act at a higher level.  Backing in is a different way to consider luck and to note that much reward is based on relative performance. If your own performance is okay, but not great, yet everyone else is mediocre, you can then back into the title.  In the record books it appears as a win.  But to the viewers, it is not so much a win for you as it is a loss for your competitors.

Let me talk about it in the context of the golf tournament first, which is where idea seems most obvious. Read the first few paragraphs at the link about the mind set of Jordan Spieth, who ended up winning the tournament.  He did not feel like a winner till the very end.  He felt like he blew it, which he did.  He had a lead but then double bogeyed the 17th hole to move into a tie for the lead.  He then birdied the 18th, which gave him a chance, but only a chance.  If he had made a par on the 17th he would have had the thing won or at worst possibly enable a playoff the next day.  As it was, he could lose the thing outright.

Indeed, that appeared to be what would happen.  Spieth was in the penultimate group.  In the last group was Dustin Johnson, who bombs his drives and embraces a low key nothing-ever-bothers-me look. After Spieth made his birdie at 18 Johnson is one stroke back.  But 18 is a par five.  After Johnson hits another bomb off the tee and makes a perfect approach shot, he looks to be in excellent position to make his eagle and win the tournament outright.  At worst it seemed he'd make birdie, which would set up that playoff with Spieth.  Instead, he ends up three putting the green and losing the tournament to Spieth by one stroke.  If you were watching this, and I watched all day, (that is a different story that I might write about in the next day or two) you had the sensation that Johnson lost it, not that Spieth had won it.

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Now I want to apply this metaphor to other aspects of life.  Presidential campaigns seem a place to start, but I'll leave that particular example to the reader, other than to note that it might get us to consider more broadly the role that inheritance plays in our own lives.  So as not to step on the toes of anyone else, I'll focus on my own situation next.  Is backing in a way to reflect on my academic career, in part or whole?

As I transitioned from economic theory to learning technology, there is no doubt that this move was aided by being in the right place at the right time and with being friendly with important people who enabled my success.  This was first Larry, then Burks, then a bunch of other folks as well.  So there was a lot of luck, no doubt.  But during that time I really didn't aspire to make that transition.  It just sort of happened, so that doesn't quite fit.  And a year later when there was a lot of pressure on about whether online learning would lower the cost of instructions, pressure that led to the SCALE Efficiency Projects, which in turn resolved that pressure, I did perform what was necessary to get us through that circumstance. 

There is a broader sense, however, where all of this was a kind of backing in.  Illinois is a research university and at research university, not surprisingly, research is king.   Teaching and learning, in contrast, particularly at the undergraduate level, were considered second tier activities, at best, though as I've written elsewhere the institution's outward looking face represents teaching and learning as a perfect complement to research.  Inwardly, however, we knew it wasn't.  Thus, without the technology hook there was no way to consider teaching and learning seriously and make it one's career.  Online learning allowed me and many others to back into this.  The technology offered a veneer.  Using technology in support of learning was innovation, or so it seemed.  The place was about innovation. 

There is a lot of irony about this for me at a personal level, and for the institution as well.  Over the years I've come to view the technology as of modest importance and what matters most is to have an innovative/entrepreneurial faculty member who is willing to experiment with the teaching.  When I see that sort of behavior in others, it clearly comes with a recognition that this is self-expression and what the person wants to do, but the behavior falls largely outside the norms that define the place. So these people have a sense that they are mavericks, even if they also are very good citizens and publicly spirited.  The place really wasn't entitled to have any instructors of this sort, if considered from the underlying norms.  Yet in the mid 1990s it seemed such people were abundant, though at the time it can be said that the Internet captured the imagination of many. 

But in this Illinois was special...then.  NCSA was at Illinois and the Mosaic browser came out of NCSA.  (This is another example of backing in.  Mosaic was a skunkworks project by a handful or graduate students.  The institution then appropriated the narrative and attributed the innovation to the place.)  This followed Plato.  There already was a history of technology in support of learning.  This history created an ambiance that empowered the maverick instructors, whether they were actually hooked into what the place was known for or not.  And cash flowed then.  That helped with the empowerment.

So while the institution may very well have backed into the the good works of the maverick faculty, at the time it appeared that the institution was cultivating these people.  And to the extent that I came of age as an administrator then, I was able to ride that wave.

I feel much more like a maverick now, doing my own thing with teaching irrespective of how it fits (or doesn't fit) with the institution's way of doing things.  Part of the irony for me now is that this maverick view may give me a better sense of what the institution should be doing than I ever could get when I was doing my campus job.

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One of the disappointments I have with teaching, and I suppose that many other instructors are similarly situated, is that I make myself available for students to attend office hours and many of the students really should attend some of those, but the vast majority of the students don't.  In fall 2013, I had a student who was the exception.  She came quite regularly.  She worked a job as a legal intern, so used to meet quite late in the afternoon, and she'd be pretty tired by then.  But she was diligent in keeping up with these meetings.  Ultimately she did quite well in the course, even though at the start it was a struggle.

I wish this was the norm for students who find my course challenging, but it is far from it.  I want to use that observation as backdrop for two different ideas that I seem to have back into and that might be worth considering further.

One of these I've talked about before - modular instructional video something, like Khan Academy stuff, but on more advanced topics and possibly using software to illustrate the ideas rather than simple capture of writing on a blackboard or whiteboard.  But the main thing is where the videos are located - in some public repository, YouTube for example. And the other thing that he videos answer the question why, as well as how.

Back in spring 2011, I made a bunch of these sort of videos for intermediate micro.  They are available at my ProfArvan channel and are the ones from four years ago.  Some of them continue to get hits.  In contrast, I did an experiment with a Website called Asked the Prof, and invited students who might have viewed one or two of my videos to pose a question about intermediate micro that I would answer at the site.  That experiment failed.  The flow was never more than a trickle and for now it has stopped completely.  I don't have a complete explanation for this, but I'm guessing the reasons are mainly psychological.  Students come to the videos looking for some help on something they don't understand.  They do this in preference to going to see their own instructor by attending that instructor's office hours.  Ask the Prof, however, reposts their queries so all can see.  Even though they can give just a first name, and really they can give an alias, I'd have no way of knowing who they actually are, that seems enough to deter the queries.

Now to the new one.  I started to mentor an Illinois Promise student sometime this spring.  He's been on campus for a while but started out as a music major and only recently transferred into economics. That makes the situation unusual as most of the mentoring happens with first-year students, the research showing that is the time of greatest risk for these kids in adjusting to campus life.   In fact, we've had only a few prior sessions and these were all a tad awkward because he had expressed a career interest that I wasn't sure economics was a great fit for and because I lacked expertise in this area.  But he told me this summer he'd stay in Champaign to get caught up on the math requirement rather than try for an internship.  (He had an internship last summer.)  I told him that I'm pretty good in math and might be able to help him with it should the need arise.

The eight week summer session started last Monday.  Last Friday I got an email query from him about some of the math that he was confused on.  Rather than simply answer his questions, I made a brief PowerPoint and then a short video based on it to cover the fundamentals that would be needed.  I then answered his questions.  He was appreciative of this and asked if it were okay to ask more.  I said sure.  We had quite a flurry of back and forth about this.  Email is not the best way to do this.  Face to face meeting would be better.  But email was do-able.  It's not clear that face to face meeting will happen, even in the future.  We'll see.

I don't believe the mentoring is set up so that the mentor should become a tutor in some course.  And I certainly wasn't looking for that when I said I'd serve as a mentor.  But why not?  This kid needs help with the math.  Lots of kids need this sort of help but don't get it.  If the kid is comfortable with getting it in some way, isn't that better than nothing?

* * * * *

There is something to be said for a win being a win, if you end up winning by backing into it.  Most of my experiments with teaching fail.  When something seems to work, let's not look down our noses at it because it wasn't planned that way.

On the flip side, as a sports fan I'm not yet ready to anoint Jordan Speith as the heir apparent to Tiger Woods, even though Speith now has two majors and he is still only 21.  It could be, but I'm not convinced yet. Now if he wins the British Open, that will be a different matter.

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