Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Age of Anger

Several different things that I've read or viewed as of late have caused an ill feeling inside.  Here I want to talk about three of them and see if I can bring them together into a coherent narrative.  The first is the film version of 1984, which stars John Hurt and Richard Burton.  I watched it because I wanted to see another film with Burton after recently having viewed The Night of the Iguana.  On the link to Burton from the Night of the Iguana page, 1984 was one the films IMDB featured for further Burton viewing other than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had seen not that long ago.  Plus, the campus Library had a copy of 1984.   It turns out, however, that while Burton's role in the film is important, the leading actor clearly is Hurt, and Burton's supporting role deliberately tones down on the passion front, so the film disappointed on that score.  But I found it remarkable as social commentary on the present, which is what I want to talk about here.  (The film actually was released at the tail end 1984, which I suspect was no coincidence.)

The second is the recent book by Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.  The book is most interesting as an articulation of an aspiration and as a goring of certain myths that Liberals cling to.  It is weak on explaining how to get there from here and in several places where an argument is being made there seemed to me to be a jump to the conclusion before all the necessary antecedent steps were presented.  It is unclear whether Geoghegan is trying to pull a fast one or if he is unaware that his reasoning is spotty in places.  As a consequence, I found this book more of a slug than was really necessary.  (Some of the stuff on the Wagner Act and what it does or does not permit employers to do when there is a strike was also a slug, but that part probably was necessary.)  Nonetheless, Only One Thing Can Save Us is exactly the sort of thing that we need right now to consider what the Liberal agenda really should be about.

The third is the barrage of emails I have been getting from the Democrats.  Most are of the form - here is the latest outrage, sign this petition, or of the form - in order to wage a broad based campaign against the Republicans we need donations from lots of small donors like you, please indicate how much you are willing to contribute.  I was getting just these sort of emails before the the midterm elections last year.  Look how that election turned out.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein 

What I'm not hearing from the Democrats, but desperately wish I were, is some kind of coherent strategy to generate greater voter turnout.  I've recently posted on this need from the point of view of macroeconomic policy.  It should be evident that the same need exists from the political perspective, if the Democrats are to become the majority again.  This lack of strategy is depressing to me.  Indeed, these emails are for me worse than no communication whatsoever.  It is like rubbing salt in a wound, where this adding insult to injury is being done by people I should be sympathetic to.  I wish they were aware that they are alienating me in the process.

Here's a little aside before I paint my little picture. When I was growing up we had at home the collection by Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization.  Then it was ten volumes.  An eleventh volume was published subsequently.  One of those volumes I had remembered as The Age of Reason, though apparently the full title is The Age of Reason Begins.   This was the age of Shakespeare, Montaigne, etc.  In my way of thinking, Reason is of higher order than Anger.  Thus, if we now live in Age of Anger while part of the Renaissance was the Age of Reason, we have gone backwards.  That was the purpose of my title.

I did a little Google search on The Age of Anger.  From that I found this Letter to the Editor, which I thought was spot on.  People begin with anger at themselves, self-loathing.  This is then outwardly directed - prodded by talk radio, cable news, various sites on the Internet and/or by the political parties, possibly other organizations.  The self-loathing is partly a consequence of not pushing back firmly at social threats, out of principle, not anger.  With sufficient principled push back, moderate outcomes can be achieved and a sense of reasonableness can prevail.  Without such push back, an us versus them mentality can take over.  The entire process can then become a vicious cycle. 

The letter was itself a comment on a column by Nicholas Kristof that urged readers to Hold the Vitriol.  The date of the piece is interesting to me, November 2003.  Maybe hindsight makes the past look more benign than it seemed at the time and maybe because I was working full time and putting in yeoman's hours on the job that I paid less attention to national politics then.  Even acknowledging that, however, things seem much worse now.  Kristof refers back to the previous decade when Bill Clinton was President and the hostility confronted from the Right.  That reference made it seem a starting point for such overt anger expressed in our national politics.  While I'm no media historian, for non-print journalism I'd point to two TV shows that began in the early Reagan years - Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group.  Both had bombast that I don't recall seeing on news/commentary shows before then.  Both shows repeatedly illustrated a lack of tolerance for alternative views.  And while they had an air of fairness to them, they had a definite rightward tilt.  Until then, it is my impression that the news/commentary shows were rather staid.  Following them, some of that sort of programming got more and more extreme, both with the in your face style of the shows and with positions articulated.

* * * * *

In the poignant opening scene, members of Oceania are gathered in a large hall facing what appears to be an enormous TV.  Each is wearing the same type of blue overalls.  Gender matters not for attire.  They are sitting on benches watching the monitor. On it there is the personage of the rival nation-state, Eurasia.  They hate this man.  They are angry.  They start screaming, yelling epithets for everyone else in the hall to hear.  As their passion swells they arise from their benches and get louder and louder.  This culminates in their giving salute, both arms raised and crossed in front.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, we don't yet know his name from the movie but we're sure it's him nonetheless, follows along with the others.  He is feigning his actions, because he knows he is being watched and he doesn't want to bring attention to himself.  The essence of the entire film is captured in this first scene.  Mind control happens by keeping the members in very public places in front of large TVs, forcing them to listen to the latest outrage and then to take pride in the latest victory in the ongoing war.  Anger and patriotism are thereby coupled.  It is much easier to capitulate to this manipulation than to resist.  Most if not everyone else in the room are unlike Smith and earnest in their actions.  They have become slaves of the state, whether they realize this or not.

It is possible to resist, to preserve one's sense of independence, capable of generating one's own thoughts.  A heretical book, authored by "Goldstein," offers a plan for insurrection and overthrow of the state.  Those sensing a need to resist have a desire to read this book.  But the thought police are everywhere.  If caught, a person must deliver a painful confession.  This is captured on video and delivered to the nation on those TV monitors.  Thus, a stark tradeoff is offered.  One the one hand is mindlessness which is bundled with anger, pride, and a sense of security.  On the other is thought, secrecy, and paranoia.  The state leaves no doubt as to which choice it wants the person to make.  Yet some do resist, at their own peril.

Before moving on from 1984, let me say that I read the book such a long time ago that I was unsure of what was actually in the novel and what was unique to the movie version.  The fear and paranoia I suppose was in the book. I'm less sure that the screaming and overt expressions of anger were in the book as well.  If you reflect on just this behavior, it seems clear there is a socio-biological need for such expression.  This is why we have big time sporting events played against hated rival teams, so these emotions can find expression in a comparatively benign way.  When such games are watched on TV, we distinguish between doing so with home team announcers, who typically are quite biased in favor of their side, from national announcers, who strive for neutrality in their broadcast.  What this opening scene shows is politics as sport with true homers for announcers, but where this it not diversion from work; it is life itself.  That is the dystopia.   As social commentary about our current reality it is not 100% spot on.  But it seems to me not too far off, which is why this movie is worth watching, evening now.

How might this dystopia be averted with democracy restored?  This is the question that Geoghegan takes on, though he looks at it as much through an economics lens as a political one.  Indeed, in considering his book you can readily invoke the old saw - economics is about politics and politics is about economics.  Put a different way, politics is about power and those without power, even if they have great numbers, will only get a very little piece of the pie.  Democracy in outcomes, then, requires some power to accompany the numbers.  For Geoghegan, a new kind of labor movement, one modeled after how things are done in Germany, is the way to restore power to the masses.

To Geoghegan, democracy should happen as much within organizations as it does in how government gets elected.  Much of his book concerns getting labor to have real representation on corporate work councils.  In other words, he'd like to cast the relationship between labor and management as a partnership with equal say, rather than as vertical arrangement with labor at the bottom and management at the top.

But we are nowhere close to that now.  At present Labor is very weak and organized labor, think AFL-CIO, UAW, and other unions, seem wedded to a past that will not repeat.  In that past the union hierarchy held power while the rank and file had to toe the line.  In other words, the structure itself wasn't really democratic.  This is why a different approach is necessary. 

How does this brave new world come into being?  As I said, this is the part of the book that is hardest to embrace.  It brings to mind that old New Yorker cartoon.  Geoghegan offers up two different strands of possibility.  One amounts to guerrilla tactics for labor - quick hitter strikes that show elements of protest aimed at getting the point across yet with sufficient limit that there is no retaliation for striking by the employers against these employees.   The idea is to use existing law in a clever way, understand what the employers are actually fearful of and use that against them, and thereby push the agenda along.  If all these employees had law degrees a la Geoghegan, this might work.  Absent that, this union labor would need free consulting from lawyers like Geoghegan to orchestrate such a strategy.  How long would it take for it to achieve the desired result?  Who knows.  In the meantime, what lawyers apart from Geoghegan would do such pro bono work?

The other strand comes from looking to the past, The New Deal in particular, and noting that the first labor movement was as much a top down creation of FDR's Presidency as it was a grass roots uprising. We need something top down again from The Kennedy School of Government types who occupy the halls of power in Washington.  Even if you buy the argument that there is such a need, how do you get any consensus whatsoever among those folks for the type of legislation and programmatic change that will matter and in a good way?  So this part of the book I found not convincing at all

A different part of his argument made much more sense to me.  This regards the role of education.  Geoghegan views education as essential but as to the role of college he is skeptical, even antagonistic in many cases.  Indeed he argues that the call for many more to get college education is a mask for the lack of promotion that what labor really needs is power.  Ask yourself whether a college education would be necessary for most workers if labor did have power.  Then ask whether a college education will matter if labor continues not to have power.

Geoghegan wants to divide education into two different domains.  The first is about literacy and good citizenship.  He argues here that we did better on this score in the post WW II era than we are doing at present and does so by comparing the denseness of newspaper articles in the late 1940s, when most people didn't have a college education, to the quality of newspaper writing today, where there is much more fluff and where even on the serious pieces the writing tests the reader's acumen less.  This is true though the fraction of the population with college is much higher now.

I concur with Geoghegan on this decline in general literacy.  As a long time reader of the New York Times, my sense is that it was more challenging to the reader when I first started with it, in the late 1960s, than it is now.  The schools take the brunt of the criticism for the decline in literacy, but I believe there are several other important factors to consider.  One of those is the much greater abundance now to alternatives to reading.  I am thinking mainly of video games and the movies but also counting things like Facebook which though textual in part don't provide coherent argument, so the young mind is challenged less to produce meaning of what is going on.  Tying this back to the theme of the post, it should be evident that literacy encourages reason.  It's absence does the opposite, thus makes anger as the norm more likely.

The other part of Geoghegan's education argument concerns the human capital side.  If you want to be a university professor, you need a college degree, indeed you need a doctorate, qua human capital.  As most college education has such folks as instructors, who if they are like me never held a real job of any responsibility, how can they possibly teach their students in ways that will be relevant for the work these students will do post graduation?  In other words, college education is not in the spirit of the master-apprentice model.  But human capital accumulation best occurs under that model.  Thus the production of human capital should be divested from college and done either by the employer on-the-job or, as Geoghegan argues, be done by the trades themselves and then mediated by the union. 

Let me point out further on this score that it has long been understood that students want a more practical education than most college instructors are willing to provide.  The gap between desired education and the education that actually is provided is apt to be a source of frustration for the students.  Such frustration also contributes to anger.

My final bit on Geoghegan allows me to segue to the Democratic party.  Geoghegan argues that the Democratic party has abandoned labor in all but name.  One big example of this is where the Democrats stand on the teachers and school reform.  Geoghegan is from Chicago and he is very disappointed in Rahm Emanuel as Mayor.  The public schools and particularly school closings follow a pattern of elite privilege and minority dislocation that is anathema to little-d democratic values.  So Geoghegan argues that much of the disruption that labor can cause should be directed at the Democratic party itself.  It is an interesting argument.  I doubt it can work, but on this one I would love to be proven wrong.

Let me make my last point and then close.  It seems to me that members of the Democratic Party listen to each other, but they don't go outside to hear voices that might generally be sympathetic but are not themselves within the party.  For example, in the last election the Federal Minimum Wage was one of the big issues.  Nobody with a liberal perspective is against such a proposal, but many feel that wages are still too low for people who are working well above the minimum.  The primary agenda, then, should be to raise wages across the board.  Does raising the minimum wage do that?  If not, what would?  That primary agenda was buried, perhaps implicit in some of the infrastructure proposal and elsewhere, but certainly not front and center.

If the Democratic Party had a coherent plan for raising wages across the board, its job then would be to educate the public both about the issues and then about how the plan addresses the issues.  Much of what the Democratic Party should be doing should occur on this education front.  Now there is very little of that sort of thing.  As I said at the outset, instead there is a lot of blather about outrage at the Republicans.  This is demagoguery.  We see negative campaign ads all the time because demagoguery works.  It makes people angry.  People then act out of passion.  But the reality is the Republicans are better at it than the Democrats.  The Democrats should stop responding in kind and instead do something else.  That they are not is what makes me angry.  How long will it take until they figure this out?

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 blogspot.com, 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.

* * * * *


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)
7.to make a profession, avowal, or declaration.
8.to take the vows of a religious order.
Source: Dictionary.com

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. 

* * * * *

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 there 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 a 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. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Falling from Grace

What is it about Richard Burton's voice that we find so compelling?  The tonality?  The elocution?  That it comes from the face, full of fury and passion, weather-beaten yet with a knowing intelligence?  Or is it that it was trained to do Shakespeare, Alas poor Yorick! Yet it seems more at home speaking lines from Tennessee Williams, lines which belong to a depraved soul struggling to hold onto some piece of his humanity.  

I am referring to The Night of the Iguana, which I watched yesterday.  It had aired on TCM a few days earlier. It seems to me this was the perfect role for Burton and it really is a great movie to watch him perform, though if you are looking for human uplift you won't find it here, at least not till the very end.  One of the interesting things is that Burton sweats a lot - they are in Mexico near the ocean and the temperature is over 100 degrees.  But the other characters, mainly women, are not sweating nearly so visibly.  Burton, it seems, is perpetually working off a hangover and this is how he does it.  The alcohol, doesn't affect his speech, the one way the film is perhaps less realistic, but a sacrifice necessary so that Burton can display his talents.  Otherwise the story is very convincing.

With the drunkenness you expect debauchery as well, but there isn't any, only a pretense of some as the nymph, played by Sue Lyon, puts Burton in seemingly compromising positions.  This is how she entertains herself because she chafes at the over protection of her chaperone and in Burton she finds a kindred spirit.  He is sympathetic to her circumstance, but he is not attracted to her in a romantic way.  She is too immature.  Burton needs someone who understands the ways of the world.

The cast is excellent.   All in all, this is a movie definitely worth viewing.   I now want to use that observation to pose the following questions.

1.  The movie is not available at Netflix.  It is available for streaming at Amazon Prime, but there is an incremental charge.  Why?  Who comes up with sort of pricing.

2. My guess is that movies like this appeal to an older audience, one with memories of Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for example.  Would younger viewers find this as appealing as I do?  (Here I mean somebody in their late 20s or early 30s.)   In other words, does knowing the actors as personalities matter in enjoying the film?  Would Burton seem as such a powerful actor to people who saw him for this first time in this movie?  If the answer to this is yes, doesn't it seem odd not to encourage showing his better work more?

3.  My sense is that my kids never watch TCM.  I don't know if TCM has an exclusive license to the movies it shows or not.  They are still too young, in my view, to appreciate this picture.  (The older one is 22; the younger one will be 21 in 11 days.)  I forced them both to read The Grapes of Wrath but otherwise have ignored their cultural education.  It would be good if they discovered some of these older gems on their own.  What might be done to encourage that discovery? 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Being engaged at the U as a prof
In a field known as worldly philosophe,
Making the rounds is a rumor
That my true aim is for humor
At a level well below that of a soph.

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Partial Credit

When I was a kid in the 1960s it was a fairly common practice for kids to skip a grade, maybe even two grades.  The first opportunity for this was to skip third grade and go directly to fourth grade after second grade.  I was not one of those kids who skipped third grade but I do recall when I was in Mrs. Minsley's third grade class and that sometime in the middle of the school year she "inherited" those students who were slated to skip.  So these kids really had part of second grade and part of third grade in the same year.  Looking back at this, I don't know if it was done to ease the transition for these kids or because of some staffing problem at school.  But I do know that for a while we had a very large class.

The other time to skip a grade was in junior high school.  There were two versions of SP classes.  SP stands for Special Progress.  Today you'd call it an Honors Program.  One version of SP was three years and at the time covered grades seven through nine.  The other version of SP was two years.  You covered those three grades in 2/3 of the time.  In other words, students and their families were given the choice either for enrichment or for acceleration.  I was in the three year SP, though my junior high school was converted to a middle school when the new high school opened, so I actually had ninth grade in high school.

A bright and precocious kid might have been able to skip grades twice and still fare quite well with the new cohort the kid entered, though apparently that not happening with regularity was a big reason why acceleration became less common.  But there are also risks with gifted children following an enrichment route only, especially if the way students are assigned for enrichment leads to a rather large fraction of the overall student population being so assigned, with the enrichment itself then, of necessity, targeted toward the middle of that group.  The outlier students may then become bored with school and alienated as a result.  My friend and former colleague, Al Roth, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did and was a few years ahead of me at school, dropped out of high school and never graduated for these reasons.  Obviously, he was able to get on a good path after that.  Not all gifted kids are so fortunate. 

The way giftedness is usually defined, it is unclear whether such children simply develop some of their intellectual faculties early, such as starting to read at a very young age, or if they continue to learn more rapidly than their peers throughout childhood and adolescence and perhaps thereafter as well, indicating a difference in kind in the way people learn.  This suggests possibly confounding the one for the other.  For example, giftedness might actually be reference to a certain personality type.

A number of gifted children develop the INTP personality profile of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): description 1, description 2. The characteristics of this profile include the tendency towards social rebellion, the intense ability to focus etc. Again, these are also characteristics of the Autistic Spectrum. 

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect that reading at a very young age doesn't correlate strongly with any one personality type.  Further, sorting out the effects of parental push versus the kid's own supplied motivation probably takes many years to fully unravel.  Given that the expression Tiger Mom has now entered the vernacular,  one wonders whether the gifted child label is more for the parents than for the kid. 

Thinking back to my own childhood, I don't believe I was ever bored in school.  In high school and maybe in junior high school too, this was because I had a cohort of friends with whom I could have a social life that on occasion had some intellectual aspects to it.  In elementary school, the reason was different.  To a large extent I was able to follow my own inclinations, much of which allowed for a good chunk of the learning to happen outside of school.  (Even at school, some of the time I was allowed to do stuff on my own while the rest of the class did other things.)  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.

Reading was different. Pretty early on, perhaps fourth grade, we had SRA. This history by Don Parker is a fascinating read, if a little melodramatic. We also had individualized reading. (Those who preach a learner centric approach likely will be intrigued at how early this piece is and yet that its critique is not about “teacher centric” so much as it is about “grouping,” where all students read the same book.) And now I must confess that my memory fails, or that I’m not able in looking backward to attribute cause to school or elsewhere or in some combination.

Elsewhere in this case was the public library, but also books that were at home. I recall a series that I believe Random House produced. The books were numbered, each around 150 pages, dealing with a character or event in American History – Kit Carson, The Transcontinental Railroad, Fulton’s Folly, Appomattox, etc. I’d read at least one of these a week, sometimes one in an evening. And there were biographies by Clara Ingram Judson from the school Library. This was an enormous education. I soaked it in. Once the momentum started it self-sustained. I’m really not sure of the spark. What does it matter?

There is something missing from this description, because it talks about reading only, not about what I did with the information that had been acquired from past reading.  This time in elementary school also marked the beginning of certain habits of mind forming in me.  These habits entailed putting information from different readings together into a more coherent picture and being able to retrieve bits of information from the reading and apply it in context appropriately.   I am unable to say now whether those habits of mind are part and parcel of my personality or something separate from it but which my personality was disposed to develop.

I don't believe anyone ever told me to develop these habits, though it is possible that somebody did and I simply have forgotten that episode.  I do believe it was an advantage that school didn't place too much demand on my time, so I could be freed up to self-teach at an early age.  I wonder if this sort of habit forming was less frequent with the kids who skipped third grade and/or had two-year SP, because they lacked the time for the habit to develop.  The current fashion of giving bright kids mountains of homework has the consequence that the kids don't learn about their own likes intellectually.  Thus, they are less likely to see learning as play, which I think is crucial for motivation. As a consequence, they can't task themselves in the direction of what they should focus on next with their learning.

Every once in a while I contrast myself as I remember to what I see in the students I teach now.  It does seem to me that many of these students, the vast majority of whom are juniors or seniors in college, don't have those habits at all, to my chagrin.  Later in that PLAs Please post, I wrote:

How many kids have a PLA? Do we know enough to say what starts them down the path? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Access to plenty of interesting things to read and view would certainly seem necessary. Whether it’s enough, I can’t really say.

I do have this feeling that we’re trying to do in College what individualized reading and the public library did for me in elementary school. And that if the kid doesn’t have a PLA by the time he graduates from High School, it sure will be tough sledding trying to get the kid to establish one thereafter.

In the spirit of imitating The Creator, I believe that most instructors try to recreate in their students images of themselves as learners.  Thus I take it as my primary mission as an educator to cultivate these productive habits of mind and only secondarily to teach the subject matter of my  course on the Economics of Organizations.  I feel that should be role of other instructors as well.   Given that, it is so disheartening to observe that most students don't see developing these habits as their job, not even a little bit. 

But is that the mission?  Illinois is one of the better public research universities nationally.  In the Campus Strategic Plan, the second goal is to provide transformative learning experiences.  As developing such habits of mind would certainly imply personal transformation in the student, it is not hard to see the strategic plan as telling us this is indeed the mission.

Yet a learner's needs are not so generic that they can be fully specified externally. Are most of the undergraduate students at Illinois gifted, in the sense I've described above?  I don't know.  If they are and if school coupled with pressure from parents and peers has forced them into following a less intellectually nurturing mode because the alternative seems more productive GPA-wise, this is a tragedy that we should try hard to reverse.  If many are not really gifted, is it nonetheless appropriate to encourage the students to acquire these habits of mind, or will they end up torturing themselves in so doing because they will never achieve proficiency this way?  This is the $64,000 question.

* * * * *

In much of my teaching over the last few years, I've implicitly assumed the answer to this question is yes.  I've modified my approach accordingly to where it is quite different from what students get in their other Econ courses.  Instead of straight lecture, we mainly use Socratic methods in class, with occasional spot lectures on the math models, though there are also micro-lectures online for that on a good number of the topics.

There are two types of homework.  The first is on the math modeling for the economics and done in Excel, which autogrades the student responses.  If students get an answer wrong, they can change it and continue to do so till they get it right.  The title of my post refers to my requirement that they get all the answers right in order to receive credit for doing the homework.  In my course evaluations, some students objected to this approach.  And some objected to my use of the homework as a readying activity for the in class discussion of the models.  They wanted me to lecture first and only have the homework after that.  I fought that for a while but have since caved in some, which is one reason why there are those online micro-lectures.  The other reason for them is that when I do an extended lecture on a math model with some subtlety face to face, many of the students can't really follow it and their eyes start to glaze over after a few minutes.  With the online lectures, I don't see that look on their faces.

The other part of the homework is weekly writing done online, where the students are supposed to tie their personal experiences to the economics issues we are studying.  They each have their own blog and write under an alias I assign. (You can find the student blogs by looking at the left sidebar in the main class blog and scrolling down a bit.) The students write to a prompt that I provide, though they have the option to write on something else of their own choosing as long as they can relate that to the issues we are studying.  The option is hardly ever exercised.

I will comment on each of the posts, often providing several paragraphs of response, if the students get their posts done before the deadline.  (In my class, the deadline is Friday at noon, but I typically only begin to read the posts over the weekend.  If they get something to me while I'm still reading other posts, then they are fine and I'll read theirs as well.  If they get it done only on Monday, then it is more hit or miss whether I'll read it.)  I have learned that such response is much better if it is reaction, the same sort of thing you'd do in conversation with a colleague, and only very little bit a corrective, or not at all.  Students want their own thinking critiqued.  It is something we faculty can offer them.  But at present it is outside their experience before taking the class.  So it takes them some time to relax in the writing and develop their own voice, because at a first they are very afraid their performance will be judged harshly.  Once they relax, many students who say they otherwise don't like to write do take to the blogging.  That in itself is a minor victory.  But I want more.  I'd like to see the students start to push themselves in the writing and get more ambitious with what they can accomplish by force of their own arguments.  Alas, I don't see this happening at all.

There are two possible explanations for why this doesn't happen.  (There may be other explanations as well, but I will focus on these two as they suffice to articulate my thinking on the issue.)  First there is the matter of incentives.  What does it take to get an A in the class?  While I believe I have quite high standards for what I'd like to see from the students in their intellectual performance, I am not a particularly tough grader.  If I were, with my course an elective rather than required of everyone, most of the students would drop.  If the final enrollments were substantially lower than the 10-day enrollments, I might not be asked to teach the class again.  This is the nature of the beast.  The incentives produce grade inflation and a package of other vices that go with it.  A few years ago I wrote a very long post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?  In that post I offered up several recommendations for how to address the problem.  The first was to move to a grading system that I called uniform standardized ranking.  This would eliminate grade inflation as a possibility, but would thereby take away substantial discretion on the part of the instructor in the process.  The latter makes it unlikely we'll ever see something like it as an alternative to what we do now.  I wrote that essay not expecting all the recommendations to be implemented in full.  (Another recommendation, about tenure track faculty mentoring adjuncts, is less objectionable in principle, though it too is unlikely to see the light of day.)  My purpose, instead, was to argue that these issues need a systemic solution rather than adhere to the belief that the high character of the individual instructor is sufficient. 

The other possibility is ignorance.  The students don't know how to drill down with an inquiry they initiate.  They touch the surface and feel they are done.  They don't know how to go deeper.  They don't understand that going deeper requires coming up with questions that don't have immediate answers.  They don't try to generate such questions.   Even when such a question emerges of its own accord, they don't have prior experience of struggling over it and in the fullness of time have some discovery happen which addresses the question, in part or in whole.  As I said above, they also don't sense a need to try this approach out as an alternative to what they've been doing right along.  They are all well aware of the expression, critical thinking, but if tasked to identify in themselves when they practice critical thinking and what they do when in such mode, many would draw blanks.  To be fair, a few students are not like this.  These few have more on the ball.  Yet on the idea that students learn more from each other than from the instructor, it seems to me that the many drag the few down rather than having the few encourage the many to raise their game. 

What might be done to break out of this low-level equilibrium?

* * * * *

How many other instructors have these sort of thoughts?  Surely some do.  In the first year of this blog, when I was working full time as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies for the campus, I wrote a post, Where is experimentation with teaching happening?

Some time ago I read A Life in School by Jane Tompkins. The book was recommended to me on the particular issue of where instructor ego belongs in teaching. Tompkins was a Professor of English (and I believe is the wife of literary theorist Stanley Fish). The book is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. After being completely miserable about her own teaching, Tompkins came to the conclusion that she was getting in the way of her students' learning. She kept modifying the approach, producing some interesting outcomes but never ones that satisfied her that she had "found it," that right way to conduct a class.

For Tompkins experimentation was a kind of penance. For me it's a form of self expression. I don't think it is fundamentally different for me to scheme up an experiment with teaching method than it is for me to design a module in Excel that presents Econ concepts in a novel way, or for that matter experimenting with a theme for this blog. I thrive on trying things. I'd much rather learn that way, at least at this point in my life, than reading the literature and accepting best practice.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I might have more leverage with students about getting deeper into the subject matter if I did so outside the role of the instructor who assigns a grade.  Further, because the way we do blogging in my class is where some trust is built between the students and me, it might be that some would be interested in having such discussions after the course concluded.  So I tried something unusual.  I invited my students to join in a discussion group that would meet weekly, not be for credit or a grade, and would focus on the question of what the students might do to get more out of their own learning.

Such an invitation was extended at the end of the course in fall 2013.  That failed.  There weren't enough takers to make it a go.  I tried it again near the end of the semester in fall 2014.  This time there were three takers.  We have been meeting on Friday afternoons at 3 PM this semester.

No doubt the selection entailed in volunteering to join such a group favors the overachieving students.  That part didn't surprise me.  I didn't anticipate, however, that all the members of the group would be international students.  Two are Chinese; one is Korean.  Also, two of the three were very quiet in class.  One never said a word during class discussion.  (I did not give out points for class participation as this is rather hard to track without interrupting the back and forth.)  It turns out that part of her motivation for joining the group was to have the experience of giving voice to her ideas, doing so in an environment that was safer than the class, owing to the smaller numbers.

Given the makeup of the group, we began with discussion of The University of China at Illinois piece.  Many of the ideas in that piece resonated with the group.  Each of them does spend a good chunk of time at the Library.  Socially, they don't interact much at all with domestic students.  I would characterize each of them as "over programmed."  One is taking 24 credit hours; another is taking 20 credit hours.  The one who is taking "only" 18 credit hours is working two different jobs.  The two guys in the group regularly report being tired from too much work.  Lack of sleep has been a recurrent theme.  The girl in the group is quite conscious of it and tries for at least 7 hours each night.  One of them reports getting only 3 hours a night, on average.  Apparently, that little amount of sleep is common among their peers. They are also extremely grade conscious and have very high GPAs.  We had one discussion about the index number problem, this in reference to an argument from me that they might learn more overall by putting their efforts mainly into only one of their courses, while largely ignoring the others.  On this issue I won the theoretical battle, but lost the war about their actual practice, which remained unaltered in spite of the theoretical argument. 

The overall question that we've been trying to get at is how the students might be more creative as they pursue their studies.  Language being what it is, this morphed into whether the students are finding Flow, and what they might do to encourage flow to happen more frequently.  For the guys, flow seems quite a rare thing.  One reports putting in yeoman's hours debugging a program he has written (he is a double major in economics and electrical and computer engineering), more or less unhappy the entire time but feeling obligated to do this sort of work nonetheless.  The girl, who is double majoring in economics and psychology, with a clear predilection for the latter, reports that she enjoys the challenges posed by a research project in one of her classes, where she must learn by reading some of the literature ahead of time and where she doesn't understand things at first but does make better sense of what is going on over time, especially if she can do this well in advance of any class deadline.  This is better regarding her engagement with the learning, though I am still not getting from her how or if she inserts herself into this reading.  In my view, such insertion is a necessary piece of finding flow.

The entire discussion shows the limits to what Carol Dweck has been preaching.  These kids put in substantial effort.  On that dimension they get high marks from me.  But they seemed trapped in the following dilemma.  Is there any reason to learn the subject matter of a course beyond what it takes to get an A?  They have each mastered how to get good grades.  Does getting good grades mean they are growing intellectually?  Or is there a kind of tyranny of building the great resume, where more lines are better but where what any one line signifies is impossible to determine?  In other words, the current rat race in school apparently produces enormous breadth, but I suspect it does not produce that much depth. Yet if depth is what it takes to get true intellectual growth, then these kids are not really growing or are growing only very modestly, in spite of their impressive set of credentials.  To the extent this this problem is typical, it explains why college is producing a large group of over achieving dullards, something akin to the problem identified in Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

For about two months we've been having a back and forth where from the students point of view the discussions probably seemed they were with a daffy but benign professor, fun for themselves perhaps but with little real take away, while from my perspective the discussions were enjoyable in that I got to understand these kids a little bit beyond what I could ascertain from the class but they were also frustrating in not advancing my agenda at all.  Indeed, I started to feel I was hitting the same wall I had been hitting in my teaching.

We needed to have a different sort of conversation.  Early last week it occurred to me to try to simulate in our discussion what an in depth investigation looks like.  We had this sort of simulation last Friday, spending about 45 minutes dissecting a single sentence that one of them had written.  We did this first from the reader's point of view.  What would it take for the sentence to be true?  The sentence was the conjunction of two overt claims and one implicit claim.  They had read it earlier as a whole for the overall picture communicated by the sentence, but it hadn't occurred to them to analyze it piece by piece.  What does one get out of such an analysis that isn't evident immediately by taking it all in at once?  We also spent some time on potential claims that might have been made but weren't.  This too hadn't occurred to them to consider.  What should one infer from the observation that these claims were not included?

Indeed, that reading is making inference was new to them.  They had previously thought their entire job was to make sense of what was explicitly stated, nothing more. That their job is to find puzzles in what they read and then try to solve these puzzles did became evident to them, after a while.  Then, after we went through that analysis of the reader's job, we went through the thing again, but this time from the perspective of the writer of sentence, who must try to anticipate this sort of reader reaction.  Given that anticipation, what then is the writer's job?  In doing this job has the writer thought through the full set of implications of what he is saying?  For much of the time in this discussion the students seemed engaged in our inquiry, but near the end they started to get bleary-eyed, much like what my students do when I'm giving a math lecture.  Evidently, it was a bit too much for them.  They hadn't expected such an intensive look at the issues.  I want to note here that it wasn't the difficulty of the subject matter that got to them.  What we discussed was plain enough.  Rather it was that I seemed to make so much out of so little.  Couldn't we move onto something else?  Enough is enough, isn't it?

We then started to debrief on what had just happened.  One student said that going after such depth was an exercise in critical thinking and he could see that it could be quite enjoyable, but he couldn't see doing it in his classes, just too time consuming and too risky.  The simulation did produce some results.  But if the the students were to try something like this on their own, they might not get anywhere, especially the first few times they tried it.  Indeed, I amplified this concern by noting that obviously you can't do such drill down on each sentence in an essay, lest you never complete reading what you must.  I followed that up with the thought that you do get better with practice and you develop some intuition about where this sort of drill down might be most profitable.  I should have added that you also get better on the analysis and inference.  You start to see things quicker.

How long does it take to gain proficiency with this?  During our discussion and in prior discussions and in my class too, I've mentioned the work of Ericsson et. al., so the students are aware of the notion of deliberate practice and conversant with the "10,000 hours rule."  Of course, this is why you want to start with such practice in elementary school, so that by the time you've reached college age you are reasonably adept at performing a drill down analysis of some sorts, though still not yet at an expert level.  Starting such practice only in the junior year in college, does it still make sense to try?  On this one, the best I can come up with is - better late than never.

The students did say they would try this sort of drill down in their leisure activities and we briefly talked about watching a film or reading a book and then writing a review of it, where only after that would they read reviews written by experts, and then compare what they've written to the experts writing on the same subject.  This sort of thing, if they kept at it, might be a way to achieve some capability in depth of analysis.  But it does put the effort into the hobby category and outside the work category.  While that is probably sensible for these students, it is disappointing to me that it seems to be the best we can do.

* * * * *

The situation that Illinois finds itself with international students is more than a little odd and uncomfortable.  It is fueled in large part by the decline in state funding.  The steep increase recently in international student enrollments at the undergraduate level (since I started at Illinois in 1980 it has been international at the doctoral student level) the vast majority of whom pay full freight, has provided an alternative revenue source to offset the state budget cuts.  Is this a permanent fix to the revenue problem or only a bubble that will burst in the not too distant future?  How does one get a realistic answer to that question?

It seems to me we should consider the students as grading the institution on the experience they've gotten, with their word of mouth (and the social network equivalent of word of mouth) fueling future demand to attend Illinois or, alternatively, putting a damper on such demand, depending on how that grading goes.  Given that, and given that we'd certainly like to preserve the revenue stream, it makes sense to me we do our own internal grading of that experience, if for no other reason than to shore up areas where we find deficiency.  In such an exercise, I'd encourage us to avoid grade inflation and not give partial credit.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dr. Max Gottlieb

Sometime during high school I got on a Sinclair Lewis jag.  I read Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith, It Can't Happen Here, and Elmer Gantry.  (For some reason I didn't read Dodsworth.)  I no longer can recall what it was about the writing that drew me in.  Evidently I enjoyed the first one, which was either Babbitt or Main Street, though now I'm not sure which.  I suppose the rest were read in search of a similar reader reaction.

Several in my high school cohort went on to become medical doctors and a few went into doing medical research, my brother included.  I wonder if they read Arrowsmith and, if so, whether it served as inspiration for them.  I did not follow that trajectory for career path.  Yet some of that book stayed with me all these years later, while the storylines of the others I mentioned are long forgotten.

Last week I saw that the film version was on TCM and that piqued my interest, so I recorded it with the DVR for later viewing.  This showing was part of a retrospective on Helen Hays, who plays Leora Arrowsmith, the wife of the title character. The movie itself was released in 1931, only a few years later than The Jazz Singer, the first talkie.  It was directed by John Ford and featured Ronald Coleman in the title role.

It is quite viewable, even now, though there are a few observations that might help a current viewer get through the film.  First, each scene is very short and unlike films today in that respect.  Ben Mankiewicz, who introduced the film and gave a little anecdote at the conclusion, said the Ford was  a heavy drinker but swore off alcohol during the shooting of the film.  Then at night, after the shooting during the day, he destroyed a lot of the footage, so his work editing the film would be much easier and the film would get done faster, this so he could return to his drinking sooner.  Hays discovered this, protested what Ford was doing, and the two had a tête–à–tête that was quite unpleasant for Hays, but did lead to a cessation of the practice.  In any event, it is notable how brief the scenes are.

The second observation is how pure, perhaps stereotypical, the characters are.  There are the good guys and the bad, the knowledgeable scientists and the hacks, the noble pursuit of truth and the crass chasing of money coupled with unabashed promotion in the newspapers to further that end.  I don't know if this purity of types is as strong in Sinclair Lewis' book.  But it does contribute to the irony in the story.

The last observation is how science is cast.  The pursuit of knowledge is the highest possible calling, higher even than concern for the welfare of fellow human beings.  Science is also viewed as a solitary enterprise, the intrepid researcher alone in his lab with his experiments.  It is the product of a disciplined mind that is patient enough to see the truth through careful observation of the results from controlled experiments.

The embodiment of science in the story is Dr. Max Gottlieb, who is the role model for the story's hero, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith.  Gottlieb is wise in the ways of science and the ways of human nature.  He values research and views medical practice itself as mainly hand holding with the patient (in other words, not science).  He values the friendship of other scientists and prefers their company to being with others.  He can be honest and open with them.  He also fits the stereotype about scientists at the time (and perhaps still).  He is a German Jew who speaks with a notable accent.  He is slender and wears glasses.  (I'm not sure whether they were pince-nez or had ear pieces.)  He has especially long and thin fingers.  He looks old and near the end of the film he is seen doddering before he passes away from a stroke. I'm not sure how old the character is meant to be, but the actor who played him, A.E. Anson, died several years later at age 56.  (I am now 60, which is part of the reason that the Dr. Gottlieb character is more interesting to me than the protagoist.)

All these virtues notwithstanding, Gottlieb does something quite terrible to Arrowsmith.  Bubonic plague has broken out in the West Indies.  Arrowsmith may have found a cure in his lab and he heads down to the West Indies to see if his serum can rescue the population.  Gottlieb asks that Arrowsmith divide the population into halves and administer the serum only to one half.  The other half would receive a placebo.  By observing the outcomes for people in both groups, one could determine whether the serum was effective and rule out the possibility of a cure based on a "placebo effect."

Let me leave aside the science itself, where there is nothing said about sample size for such hypothesis testing, what was already known about plague at the time, and other variables such as dosage of the serum or how far along the patients were at the time they received the vaccine. This sort of hypothesis testing is anathema to experimenting with human subjects.

Soon after I took over the SCALE project on campus in the late 1990s, I was informed by Larry Faulkner, then Provost, and himself a chemist, that we couldn't randomly assign students to different sections of the same course, some of which had ALN (online learning) and others of which did not.  Think of how comparatively benign this sort of random assignment would be.  ALN was in its infancy then so whether it improved, harmed, or didn't matter for learning in a course was an issue of interest.  Yet Faulkner made it clear that students had to express their preference in instructional mode.  We could not make the choice for them.

Now think of how much more dire the consequences were for those exposed to plague in the West Indies.  Everybody in that circumstance wanted the injection.  Who could deny their wishes?  Only Max Gottlieb can articulate this thought.

Initially Arrowsmith goes along with Gottlieb's request.  But when Leora dies from plague Arrowsmith has a temporary breakdown and then, in the wake of his hysteria, allows everybody to get the serum.

At the end of the movie Arrowsmith along with Gottlieb's assistant quit the medical research institute that had employed them, to work in an independent lab where they could pursue their research without influence from commercial interest.  In other words, they returned to the pure life that Gottlieb had championed.  In this way they honored Gottlieb.   Yet in my interpretation of the story, Gottlieb was not deserving of this honor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Myth of Pith

And now forthwith
The myth of pith.

The soul of wit
Or writ misfit?

One wonders why
A sly reply

To one sans clues
His views bemuse

Fiction and fact,
A pact retract.

It will not work
Just irk the jerk.

Then make him mad,
you sad, that's bad.

So you might gather
I'd rather blather. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The macroeconomic policy solution must be married to an electoral strategy

In my reading, admittedly selective but nonetheless informative, it appears there is a growing consensus for the type of macroeconomic policy that is needed to get the economy out of the doldrums. The policy consensus I'm referring to is restricted to those who are Democrats.  In the Clinton years many of them embraced a deregulation/free trade agenda.  Larry Summers was prominent among them.  Now he has turned to a Keynesian view, a natural progression given that underemployment is the core economic problem.  (See below.)

But it should be equally obvious that Republicans do not agree with this agenda at all.  So, if the agenda is to be implemented, there needs to be an electoral strategy that complements it, as a full partner, not as a second fiddle.  The obvious goal of such an electoral strategy is to generate turnout.  The Democrats lost big time in 2014 with a very low voter participation rate.  The discouraged voters are the ones who need to be the focus of the electoral strategy.  They need a good reason to participate.  That reason should be made obvious to everyone.

There is then the question whether the economic policy advocated for in advance of the 2016 elections should be more limited than the full array of solutions one would bring to the fore if the Democrats already had control of Congress and the White House, because it is clear that the Conservative political machine will work hard to counter the message of the Democrats and they have the money advantage.  So getting discouraged voters to sort through this is not an easy task.

I have yet to see others write about what a marriage between economic policy and electoral strategy would look like.  I have done so in my essay How to save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal.  It argues that there should be a sequencing to the economic policy, with step one based on a massive infrastructure investment plan coupled with a debt forgiveness plan on state and local governments.  It suggests not to take on making the income tax more progressive at present.  The reasons are electoral rather than economic.  Even conservatives might buy into Keynesian stimulus now, or at least not resist it too much, so the politics in advance of the 2016 election might not be so much a turnoff to discouraged voters. 

This thinking could be wrong, I admit.  But what I believe is right is a need to understand what will engage discouraged voters and bring them to the polls in large numbers.  The full boat of economic policy might not do that.  So the pundits on economic policy need to be disciplined enough to understand that there is no good in giving the "right answer" if that is DOA politically. What we need is a process that gets an economic policy which Democratic candidates can run on - and win.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Thomas Geoghegan's Lament

Insisting on knowledge
He went to college.

What did he learn?
How little he would earn.

He became frustrated.

It's not that he's shirking.
The system's not working.

Let us all cry
For the little guy. 

With the economy at the brink
Time to give it a think.

For an income distribution flatter
What, if anything, can matter?

Another labor movement
The only chance for improvement.

Impressions of:
Only One Thing Can Save Us:  Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement