Thursday, June 04, 2015

Shyness and Kindness

Economists aren't much concerned with the emotional side of decision making.  Even behavioral economics, with its hyperbolic (time inconsistent) discounting and its thinking fast and slow (time inconsistent and inconsistent in other ways as well), abstracts from much of  the emotional side in decision making.  Here I'm referring to stress and how people respond to it, quite apart from the merits of the case in the situation where a choice must be made, irrespective of what those merits are.  It seems to me that we should pay more attention to the emotional side, learn to speak openly about it, and teach our students about it as well.

Let me begin with a mantra I developed  when I was a campus level administrator:

Anybody can be a hero in a sprint.  Nobody is a hero in a marathon. 

The slogan makes the most sense if the normal situation is neither sprint nor marathon, but something else and that while not entirely stress free is reasonably manageable.  Then the decision maker encounters an unusual situation, in which case an important thing to identify is whether it is a sprint or not.  In a sprint the adrenalin rush, putting in yeoman's hours, and in general rising to the occasion is sufficient to restore things to normal.  The fire does get put out.  People can breathe a sigh of relief.

This, however, is not the right way to respond in a marathon. With the sprint response the person will wear down completely, well before the issue has reached any sort of resolution.  What then?  Part of the answer must be self-protection.  The person needs to get enough sleep, exercise with some regularity, eat right, provide enough recreation that is real diversion, etc.  In other words, everything that we associate with wellness needs to get done. 

But often that necessity is ignored.  Part of the reason is that people don't make the right determination of whether it is a sprint or marathon.  Another part is that they feel responsible and the sprint response is the only way they know how to discharge that responsibility.  A third may be that early on the sprint response is actually thrilling, so it becomes addictive.  The harm from wearing down takes a while to happen.  Absent the proximate cause, the problem is ignored until it is too late.

Many of my friends in higher education who hold administrative positions seem to have gotten beaten up on the job.  The circumstances I'm referring to are self-evident to other campus administrators (or former administrators like me) but may be invisible to faculty and staff who haven't had to confront stress of this sort.  Budget duress is one obvious cause.  Another is the always on Internet and that criticism is apparently omnipresent.  There also may be less civility in our normal discourse - people understand that unless they complain, LOUDLY, they will be ignored.  This factor likely is a byproduct of the other two.  I mention it here because people tend to understand the tactical advantage conferred by their own loudness but to disregard the impact it might have on the well being of others at whom the loudness is directed. 

There is a natural tendency to block/deflect criticism when it is painful to address it squarely.  It may be necessary to do this as a survival skill, but it goes against the grain when considering what thoughtful leadership is supposed to be about, in particular thinking gray.  (See the first chapter of the Contrarian's Guide to Leadership.)  One wonders whether it is possible for campus administrators to sustain thinking gray while not getting beaten up in the present environment.   Finding that seems like the search for the Holy Grail.  It is that question which motivates the next bit, a look at antecedents and some consideration on how they matter, in the hope that something constructive might be done even if finding the Holy Grail remains elusive.

* * * * *

I'm taking my lead here from Eric Hoffer.  The following is from a post written five years ago that I think gives a good summary of the issues.

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. Once living above nature is possible, a different battle commences, the one with our inner selves. The fall happened in the Garden of Eden, when innocence was lost. As we evolved from brutes, the devil emerged to do us ongoing battle. The devil was there with God, right at the outset. Compassion is the result when a battle with the devil is won.

Let's translate this into the current discussion.  I will define shyness here as stress found in a situation that many others (who are confident) would not perceive as stressful.  The shy person is aware that others think of the circumstance as ordinary.  Hence there is shame about being shy.  The sense of shame compounds the stress.  The molehill has turned into a mountain.  It is the shame piece rather than the initial stress where the devil is found. 

The shy person gives into the devil by making an apparent safety play - not engaging with others and remaining quiet.  There is fear of calamity in doing otherwise.  But complete disengagement is not really safe, as it means life passes one by.  Over time, with at first very tiny experiments at interaction, the shy person learns to overcome these limitations to some degree, finding some circumstances where engaging in them more fully is possible. Then when interacting the shy person is apt to be charitable and collegial, understanding full well how fragile comfort and security in interaction actually is.  This is where the devil has been defeated and compassion found.

Hoffer makes another related point, about the source of creativity.  Hoffer divides people into the strong and weak.  The strong are satisfied with the status quo and therefore don't require things to change.  The weak are distressed by how things are as they are traumatized by their current circumstance.  The weak look for solutions out of their dilemma.  That is the spur to creativity.  If a good solution is found the weak become strong as the status quo gets overturned.

It seems an easy translation to map the weak-strong distinction into the shy-confident version.  Much of Hoffer's argument remains intact.  But there is one point that needs elaboration.  Is the now confident person who was once shy compassionate about they shyness of others or instead, having repressed the memory of the former shy self, like the strong as Hoffer describes them?  I can imagine it either way, though my guess is that compassion would fade as the memory of the shy self fades with it.   In my way of thinking, this is another place where the battle with the devil manifests.  We should not let those memories die an easy death, painful as they might be.

This is especially important if most of us are like fish - sometimes in water, other times not.  In other words, if even the seemingly gregarious and confident person is placed in a sufficiently unusual and alien circumstance, the person then will act in a shy manner.  There are potential lessons to be learned from these experiences.  If we are to become more tolerant of one another, this is how it will happen.

There are other aspects of world view that differ whether one is strong or weak.  Looking at our personal history, the strong are likely to recount an earlier age when everyone was strong, as the weak were invisible to them then.  My post from a few days ago can be understood in this way, a weak person taking the strong to task for romanticizing the past, though the example I used had nothing to do with sexual misconduct, and I am a guy, rather large physically, so by an eyeball test wouldn't be taken as weak.

There is also the matter of how our social strictures should be designed to manage transgressions, when the weak get injured via some predatory behavior.  The strong are apt to embrace Social Darwinism.  In other words, the weak need to learn to fend for themselves from the School of Hard Knocks.  In contrast, the weak and their protectors among the strong think that society needs to defend the weak.  The predatory behavior must be proscribed.  Other protections need to be put in place as well.  You see these positions in our national politics when talking about income distribution, just as you see them on our campuses when considering Freedom of Speech versus showing respect for all individuals when in public discourse.

* * * * *

The previous discussion was done in quite an abstract way, making the argument divorced from any specific context.  I did that deliberately, to deflate the balloon so it wouldn't pop.  But now it's time for a real example that makes the emotion more evident.

Before getting to it let me make the following observation.  I'm writing this piece finishing it up Friday morning, a day after I started it.  In the middle of the day yesterday I read this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, For Northwestern, the Kipnis Case Is Painful and Personal.  The piece linked to another authored by Professor Kipnis, the one that started the maelstorm called, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.   (The Chronicle errs by keeping these pieces behind its pay wall.  There is a general public interest in the issues raised in these essays, so they warrant a broader viewing then other content the Chronicle delivers.  For folks at Illinois, the links to the full pieces should work if you are on the Campus network or from home using VPN if you used TunnelAll as the Group when you connect.)   For as well as Professor Kipnis makes her argument, she wasn't an eye witness to what the graduate students went through.  So I thought it would be useful to consider a different situation, one where I was an eye witness, where the power relationships were similar but where there was no issue of sexual predation.  In that other context I draw something of the opposite conclusion that Professor Kipnis reaches.  Either one of use must be wrong or context matters a great deal in making these sort of arguments.  That is worth puzzling about and might add some additional interest to the example I provide.

This is about my first year in graduate school, 1976-77, coincidentally also at Northwestern, and in particular the macroeconomics courses we were required to take.  In the first quarter we had Robert Eisner, who seemed to us students at the time the real world embodiment of the fictional Professor Kingsfield from the film The Paper Chase.  Both kept a seating chart of the class using Delaney cards for that purpose.  Both would call on students in class by making reference to the seating chart, addressing the students as Mr. (or in one case Miss, there were 27 of us at first, only 1 was female) followed by last name.  Both would make some marking on the Delaney card based on how the student answered the question.  (It is worth nothing that John Jay Osborn, who wrote the novel that the film was based on meant it as a searing critique of the brutality of Harvard Law School in the way it treated the students.  While the film showed some of that, it also glorified this trial by ordeal by presenting it from the perspective of Mr. Hart, a student who flourished in this environment.  As I've come to learn, sometimes Hollywood takes rather dark fiction and puts a shine on it.  Another example of that is The Natural.)  Many of my classmates were intimidated by this course and on occasion humiliated when then couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer to Professor Eisner's question.  Fear can motivate some students to study hard.  But I've come to conclude it is not a desirable environment to promote in the classroom, as I will elaborate on below.

For my part, my reaction to Eisner was different.  He reminded me of my dad, which was a good thing.  I needed a father figure then.  He definitely sounded like a New Yorker, which for me was welcoming.  This was my first time staying for an extended period away from the East Coast and I was bothered by being the only New Yorker in the class.  (The Yankees being in the World Series and watching them at Norris Center along with others from New York also helped in this respect.)  And though I had only taken very little economics as an undergrad at Cornell, I was academically better prepared than most of my classmates and thus ready for the work the faculty threw at us.  (That said, we read Keynes' General Theory in Eisner's class and a good chunk of it was over my head.  But my guess is that the same can be said for many other economists who have read Keynes.  It is a sophisticated book and it's tough to make good meaning in some sections of it.) 

This sense of intimidation in the classroom continued into the second quarter of macro, this time taught by Robert Gordon.  He was also the director of graduate studies and the one in charge of making the financial aid decisions for the second year students.  He used his class as a screen for that purpose.  It made the students ruthless in a way that was its own sort of nonsense.  At the time we had readings from bound periodicals in the Library.  (In the first quarter the readings were mainly from a book by Breit and Hochman or available in the Reserve Room for a 2 hour loan.)  One student for sure, and perhaps a couple of others as well, tried to get a leg up on the rest of the class by getting to the bound periodical early and either re-shelving it in an improper location, so the rest of us couldn't find it, or ripping the article out of the binding, so the rest of us couldn't access it at all.  Perhaps some competition in the classroom is beneficial for learning.  But this was unfair competition that clearly was pernicious.

I should add here that the funding environment was brutal that first year and the program wasn't forthcoming about that fact until the first quarter was well underway.  Some of us, like me, were on fellowship.  Others received no stipend and indeed were paying tuition as well.  I don't know how many were on fellowship that first year but I was told that funding was being cut, so there'd be a smaller number on fellowship the second year.  (By the second year some students became research assistants and got funding that way, which was a partial offset.)  At the outset I had thought my fellowship was guaranteed, but it turns out it wasn't.  This tight funding contributed to the tension many of the students felt in the classroom.

The first of our cohort to drop out left after the fall quarter.  Another dropped in the middle of the winter quarter.  I found it particularly upsetting.  The program didn't seem to care about these people at all.  They were emotionally distressed.  One may have gone over the deep end.  That part I don't know well, but I have some memory of seeing the guy wandering aimlessly around campus.  Ultimately about half our cohort left.  In the second year, I believe there were only 13 of us.

I give Northwestern  high marks for the Economics training I received during that first year taking core courses.  I give them a failing grade, however, on showing human decency and caring about the welfare of each student, regardless of how the student was performing in the classroom.  I don't believe that Eisner intended the intimidating environment he created in his classroom.  I think it was just the style he was used to.  I'm less sure about Gordon.  But given that they gave us exams as well, it really wasn't necessary to use classroom performance as an additional screening mechanism.  Indeed, it didn't happen that way in the microeconomics sequence.  It also didn't happen in the third quarter of macroeconomics taught by Robert Coen.  Under Academic Freedom each professor has wide discretion on how to run his own classroom.  But if somebody else served as advisor to these students and learned how distraught they were about their classes, that evidence could be presented to instructors in a way that protected the individual identities of the students.  In turn, the instructors might then modify their approach in conducting class in a ways students would find more welcoming.

* * * * *

This experience in the first year of graduate school had a profound effect on my own teaching.  I have never used a seating chart and don't call on students in class as a performance measure.  Students sit where they like, on a first come first serve basis, though I'll admit that when I've taught in a classroom that has many more seats than students I do encourage those at the back of the room to move closer to the front.  Students can opt into the class discussion by raising their hand and having me call on them.  Students can also choose to remain quiet.  The decision is theirs to make.  While I don't do it perfectly, I try to make the classroom interesting and welcoming for the students.

I do think it is necessary for students to open up about their own formative thinking on the subject matter.  That is a critical aspect in their learning.  I give them more than one channel to do so.  Apart from participating in class discussion, which is voluntary, students are required to write weekly blog posts that I comment on and then they respond to my comments.  Many students are initially shy in this writing activity.  But the vast majority of the class comes to like it.  The students find my comments thoughtful, most of the time, and the comments are divorced from any grading, which comes much less frequently.  Constructive feedback on formative thinking is a way to encourage the students to open up in subsequent writing, possibly also in class discussion.

Starting with a fall 2009 seminar for students in the Campus Honors Program, I've gone through something of a sea change in my own thinking about class discussion.  I first wrote about it in a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which was a reflection on the issue as it pertained to that honors class.  Going in, my ideal was universal participation in the class discussion by each student contributing to it.  Since writing that post I've not taught in the honors program and, if anything, get even a smaller fraction of the class to participate in discussion on a regular basis.    What I've come to realize is this.

Some students who are perfectly comfortable raising their hands and asking a question or voicing an opinion nonetheless prefer to listen in class.  They are quiet not just in my class, but in all their classes.  That is their nature.  Other students are quite shy in the classroom.  It is not my job as a teacher to get them to overcome their shyness.  Indeed, as their inclinations are formed as much or more by the other classes they take, whatever I do in my classroom at most contributes to this overall environment rather than determines it decisively.  Giving students the opportunity to speak in class is consistent with this view.  Requiring them to do so and then evaluating their performance is not.

I also have some evidence, not a lot but some, of students overcoming their shyness in ways where they control the pace at which they do so.  Consider this rather poignant ultimate post for the semester from a Chinese-American student who is quite forthcoming about her own shyness in class.  A different student, this time an international student from China, also didn't say a word in class.  But she volunteered to participate in a weekly discussion group I ran this spring and became the most regular participant in that group.  I want to note here that in the discussion group, where there were two other students, both male and both international students as well, I did feel the setting sufficiently comfortable that I would ask them individually to contribute to the discussion if they hadn't don't so for a while.  It was non-threatening to do this sitting around a table drinking coffee or some other beverage.  The discussion group itself was not for credit.  Thus, I have seen that an otherwise very shy student can get comfortable in the discussion group setting, although it took a little while to reach that point of comfort.  Humor mattered a lot here.  It was easier for me to joke with them in the discussion group than it is for me to do likewise in class.  The humor helps everyone to relax.

It remains an open question for me whether something like this can scale and afford shy students opportunities to open up with instructors more on their own terms.  If it is possible, shouldn't it be a direction for the campus to head in?

* * * * *

I wonder what Professor Kipnis would make of the above argument.  I also wonder whether Professor Kipnis has witnessed shy students in her own classes or been aware of her own shyness or phobias in some areas not covered in her Chronicle essay.  It is possible that students in the School of Communication at Northwestern, where Professor Kipnis teaches, are prone to be extroverts and thus the experience may be much rarer for her than it is for me.

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow develops a term he calls WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) to explain how a decision maker ignores information that is potentially available but not immediately and instead focuses solely on what is at hand when making a choice.  Reading her essay it was unclear to me whether Professor Kipnis was guilty of WYSIATI or not.  It might be she knows shy people, students and otherwise, but regardless of the context her view is that shy people need to learn to interact socially in a competent way and not drag their feet about it.  My preferred approach then would be too soft for her taste.

Alternatively, as I suggested above, it might be that the context matters.  I don't have a ready explanation for why the context should matter so I'd like to leave it an open question whether it does, while noting that if it does matter, discerning why might illuminate not yet articulated issues that are important to consider.  I will make one more point and then close.

The rhetorical style in Professor Kipnis' Chronicle essay is to argue for her preferred view of the matter and then to diminish counter arguments.  This is the style in a debate.   People take sides of an argument in a debate.  One side wins.  The other loses.   For those trying hard to think gray, perhaps hearing the full debate is just what the doctor ordered, in which case making a strong argument is the responsible thing to do.  But it may be that both sides are not presented equally well.  Then we get preaching to the choir instead of real debate.  In this case the socially responsible thing may be to present the issues not as one side in a debate but rather as a thinking gray exercise itself.  I tried to do that in the section of this essay where I discussed Eric Hoffer's philosophy.  As a general matter, if essayists in academe were to pose this sort of question for each public piece they write and then produce works of both types as a consequence, perhaps it will take some pressure off our campus administrators and keep them from getting so beat up.  That would be a good thing, wouldn't it?

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