Tuesday, May 26, 2020

If I were scheduled to teach next fall I would insist that it be totally online.

This piece is meant to be a retort to the Mitch Daniels piece in the Washington Post, Why failing to reopen Purdue University this fall would be an unacceptable breach of duty.  But before getting to the health risk issue, some background first.

Before the pandemic, my wife had planned to retire from the U of I this spring (now it has been shifted to this summer, but we'll see).  I've dreaded the winters the last few years and wanted us to become snow-birds after Thanksgiving.  The Econ Department asked me to teach my Economics of Organizations class again.  I told them about this desire to move to a warmer climate in the winter and asked whether I could teach online to accommodate that.  I was told that we don't teach undergraduate classes online.  So, in this pre-pandemic setting, not teaching this fall was the equilibrium outcome.  I was okay with that as I didn't much enjoy teaching last fall.

The reason for that is ironic under the present circumstances.  Though I had not intended this as the outcome, the bulk of my students turned what was supposed to be a face-to-face class into a totally online course.  I explain what happened in this post, Should We Offer On Campus Students Online Self-Paced Courses As A Scheduling Option?  In a nutshell, I didn't require attendance nor give any grade incentive for that.  Plus, I viewed the in-class discussion as the culmination of an investigation into the subject.  The homework was preliminary to that.  But the grade was based on the homework. There was no class-participation credit for the in-class discussion.  As most of the students are quite instrumental about their grades, not attending class should have been the predicted outcome.  Yet if the students themselves perceived that face-to-face instruction was much better than the online alternative, they should have wanted to come to class.  That they didn't offers a revealed preference argument that the students themselves don't perceive face-to-face instruction as that valuable.  But the idealist in me found this very disappointing.

There is, nonetheless, a perception that face-to-face instruction is far better that online or, if we take a more expanded view, that the full residential experience on campus is far richer than the experience of a commuting student who takes on-campus courses but otherwise doesn't interact much with fellow students outside of the time when on campus.  I would argue that this is potentially true and when I was an undergrad (1972-76) I felt that potential realized for me. So I surely don't want to deny it is possible.  But, I fear that potential is rarely realized.  Indeed, in the Daniels piece he cites a variety of current bits of data about Covid-19, but he doesn't make any reference to the learning benefits of students being on campus versus students residing with their parents and taking online classes.  He does cite information that the students and their families are chomping on the bit for the students to return to campus but, frankly, the explanation for that can be quite other than that the students will learn more that way.  The families are going stir crazy with the college kids living at home.  I'm hearing that from some of the students I'm still in touch with from last fall.  So I don't doubt it is generally true.  Yet that in itself is not an argument to have face-to-face instruction in the fall.

Now, let me get to the health issues.  I, for one, am in the at-risk group.  I recently turned 65.  Last year I had pneumonia and a CT-scan showed some unresolved issue with my lungs.  (I was to have a follow up scan this April, but it didn't happen for obvious reasons.)  And, in addition, I'm overweight.  So I can personalize this.  But there are other scenarios to envision, particularly where the instructor is not in the at-risk category but the instructor lives at home with somebody else who is.  What about  that?  This part of Daniels's essay raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

On arrival in August, each Boilermaker will receive a kit including face masks and a thermometer for daily temperature-taking as well as the Protect Purdue Pledge asking for a commitment to at least a semester of inconvenience, not primarily for the student’s own protection but for the safety of those who teach and otherwise serve them. I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying, but also challenge them to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work.

Who bears the risk if the students don't fully demonstrate this altruism?  If it is reasonable to think that students at home now are going stir crazy, why isn't it just as reasonable to assume that for the first week or two the students will comply by the safety guidelines, but then they'll start to slip in taking the safety precautions.  Once that slippage has occurred broadly, the health risk will rise substantially.  If that can be forecast with some likelihood, isn't it then reasonable for an instructor to self-insure against that outcome?

How would Purdue feel if the students all came to the live class session, but the instructor came in by video and was projected on the screen at the front of the room?   Would that be a viable option for the instructor?

This is the unmentioned part in Daniels' piece.  There is an external perception that face to face is better.  That external perception is what will allow Purdue to keep tuition as planned for this fall.   With enrollments strong, this in turn will keep Purdue from making various budget cuts - furloughs, layoffs,  etc.   Let us note that faculty and staff are important stakeholders in the university.  The budget cut scenario is one that any university leader would prefer to avoid and thus might be willing to trade off some safety to avoid the budget cuts.

But now let's drill down.  Suppose I'm a faculty member with tenure, who in an effort to self-insure against the virus says the class will be taught totally online.  (I will briefly describe how that would be done below.)  Now suppose the department pushes back at the faculty member and says this is in breach of contract and grounds for dismissal.  The faculty member is stubborn and says the course will be just as good taught totally online.  The back and forth between the faculty member and the department eventually finds its way into the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.  There are then copycat incidents of this.  How does it resolve?

Suppose it resolves in the favor of the faculty member.  Now consider the same situation, but the faculty member is an adjunct (here at Illinois we refer to such instructors as specialized faculty).  As an individual the instructor has far less bargaining power than a professor with tenure.  But there is a union for specialized faculty and it is reasonable to suppose the union will take up this cause.  The basic argument is that the rhetoric of safety is not the same as actually ensuring safety.  Counting on 18-22 year olds to act in a mature and disciplined manner across the board is overly optimistic.

I have several friends who have told me they hate to teach online. One might imagine that instructors like this would return to face-to-face instruction when the institution enabled it, especially if they weren't in the at-risk category.  Would a system where instructors opt in regarding mode of instruction be sustainable, at least until an effective vaccine has been developed and broadly administered?  For this fall an opt in approach is problematic, as returning students already registered for their courses earlier in the spring.  But these students have already been thrown some curve balls with the move to totally online instruction after spring break.  Would they readily adjust to a scenario where some classes were totally online and others offered face-to-face?  Indeed in what I've been reading, most of the latter will be offered in a mixed mode where about 1/3 of the students will attend the live session, the rest will get it online, and the students who attend face to face will rotate through the semester.   This seems to be the model that is emerging to ensure safe social distancing.

It seems to me odd that this is the answer now being advocated, regardless of what the mode of instruction was prior to the pandemic.  In other words, it is to hold whether the course was taught as straight lecture or if, instead, it involved a flipped classroom with active learning techniques employed in the live class session.  But those active learning methods typically require small group work.  Safe social distancing might render that difficult if not impossible to administer.  And if the prior mode was straight lecture, do we really believe that straight lecture is more effective face-to-face than it is when done online?  In my class from last fall, the answer depended on student preference.  There are some students who want face-to-face lectures.  Those are the students who attended class in spite of the lack of grade incentive.  Will such students be satisfied with this new model?

My course is intended for juniors and seniors who are economics majors.  There is the occasional student who is majoring, instead, in psych, or poli sci, or soc.  And sometimes there are masters students in economics.  Enrollments have typically been in the high 20s or low 30s.  Here is the class site for last fall.  A feature of the class is that students write weekly blog posts (under an alias that I assign) and I make extensive comments on their posts.  The eventual goal is for the students to think of their learning as a conversation on the subject matter, one that connects the theory to their personal experiences.  The students also do homework in Excel, which is auto-graded and which they can't submit for credit till they get all questions correct, so they get exposure to the math models we cover in the class.

Were the class taught in totally online mode, I would divide the students into 4 groups.  Each live session in Zoom would be with one of the groups and we'd operate in discussion mode throughout.  In this case I'd make attendance in the group discussion mandatory and give credit for the student showing up.  Students in the remaining three groups would be able to watch these sessions after they've been recorded, but doing so will be optional for them.  I might have a participation grade for those involved in the discussion, which would be to award good questions and thoughtful comments.  Other students might then watch the discussions so they get a sense of what good participation looks like (as well as to get a feel for the content covered in the discussion).  About a month into the semester I would divide each group into A and B subgroups.  Each subgroup would be involved in leading a session later in the semester, presenting the content to the other subgroup, who serves as the live audience.  This too would receive a quality grade.  It would be expected that the subgroups meet on their own to figure out how to do their presentation as best as possible.  They would also have to deliver their presentation content for evaluation.

Earlier in this piece I talked about the benefits of students who interact with their peers substantially in an out-of-class setting.  When I did this it was with students who lived in the same place I was living.  So geographic proximity mattered, a lot, to achieve that benefit.  It is conceivable that if students work in groups as sketched above and if some of those groups are effective, that bonds among the group members will form.  This might then encourage perhaps virtual interaction after the course concludes or possibly face to face interaction if the safety issues are resolved by then.  Lecture mode of instruction is likely unable to produce these effects.  But a single course as I've sketched might not produce them either, because the interaction is insufficiently intensive.  The logic here, however, is not a return to face-to-face instruction.  Instead, it is tracking students in a way were they are more likely to bond from their repeated interaction. 

I don't want this piece to go on and on (it could) so I will make one more point and close.  The mode of instruction is tied to the perception of the value of the degree to the graduates.  The fear is that online degrees will not earn the grads the same jobs that they'd get if they attended face-to-face.  And if, a year hence, the safety issues are no longer a concern that thinking may solidify.  In that case we're solving a short run problem only.  But let's face it, that labor market for new grads will be soft regardless of the mode of instruction because of the macroeconomic consequences of the pandemic and that softness is likely to persist for some time.  As I've written in a recent post, current students have taken a big capital loss on the human capital they've acquired and on the various credentials they've amassed.  In this case they may just want to get through to the degree, no matter how this is achieved.  Yes, the students want to be on campus rather than live at home.  But, no, that's not because they clamor for face-to-face instruction.

If we can get real on this we can get through the current crisis.  At least, I hope so.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

College Instruction as Therapy for the Students/Rethinking Teaching Loads

I have been having email threads with a handful of students who took my Economics of Organizations class last fall.  Most interesting about this is how forthcoming they seem to be and welcoming of my emails.  During the course some of these same students were more guarded in their exchanges with me.

From the seniors, they seem to be improvising with regard to what they will do after graduation.  One student had been planning to go to law school.  She was accepted at several places where she applied.  But she has not opted to attend any of them this fall.  Instead she's looking for a job now.  While she didn't elaborate on why she's had this change of heart, one might expect that it has something to do with paying law school tuition now in this very soft labor market.  I really don't know how one finds a job this summer without having interned for the company the previous summer, but maybe she can persevere enough to land something.  Another student, who had gone the internship route and got a job offer from the bank where she interned last summer, had second thoughts (many of them) about whether this sort of work really was a good fit for her.  Indeed, she struggled last fall and this spring as well, because school seemed artificial to her.  That was before the pandemic.  Now she is reconsidering taking the bank job, given that jobs are so scarce having an offer is nothing to sneeze at. 

From the juniors I gather the following.  Internships still exist but will be done online and many have been shortened, from the full summer to one month, some even to one week only.  As there is learning by doing, it's hard to imagine the benefit of a one-week internship, but if companies have a policy of making their new hires from their pool of recent interns, maybe there is a logic to it, anticipating some likelihood of hiring in spring/summer 2021.  But, on the flip side of this, the companies will know much less about the interns this way and the interns will have less of a sense about whether they will eventually be offered a job by the company or not.  So, the uncertainty multiplies.

The word therapy in my title comes from recently reading Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, where he talks about logotherapy based on such a search for meaning.  In the process of having an email thread with one of the juniors, I stumbled onto this video and shared it with him.  He was impressed by the video and was able to connect the message in it to the instruction he has been receiving.  Much of that instruction is heavily rules based, essentially assuming the worst in student behavior, and perhaps inadvertently encouraging that bad behavior to occur.  To be fair to the instructors, in large classes rules may be necessary to keep the teaching manageable.  Too much idiosyncrasy from the students can be overwhelming.

But it should be noted that students who do everything by rules that are externally provided don't learn how to make their own life decisions.  Evidently, in the present environment making life decisions is crucial for all of us, graduates and college students alike.  So, one wonders if instruction can be made less rules-based.   Judging whether this is possible based on my experience the last few years, where most students won't attend my class unless a grade incentive is provided for doing so, an individual instructor moving away from a rules-based approach will fail.  What's needed is a more systematic approach, that changes student mindset and acculturation, with the aim of getting student behavior to be driven mainly by a sense of responsibility.  (Frankl talks a lot about responsibility in the part of his book devoted to logotherapy.) Incentive might still be needed for some things, e.g., 8 AM classes might still need a grade incentive for attendance, but otherwise the incentive approach would largely be pushed into the background.

From my little bit of recent interaction with former students, I'm thinking that students during college, and perhaps recent grads as well, need some mentoring to help them think through these life decisions.  Previously, mentoring in college might have been thought of as helping students get through till graduation.  Now I think it should be broader, helping students to get through life and how to make the important choices in a way that seems somewhat principled and not so seat-of-the-pants.

Alas, one-on-one mentoring doesn't scale well.  So the formal mentoring I'm aware of on campus is offered mainly to low income students, through a program called Illinois Promise, and the mentors themselves volunteer for the work.  I have done such mentoring, but I've found it easier to interact with former students (perhaps by email rather than face to face) because having taken my class there is already some bond between us.   One wonders if mentoring can become part of the on-load work of instructors, possibly by first having them teach a seminar class version of the course they are already teaching, and then also to rely on upper level students, juniors and seniors, to mentor freshmen and sophomores, with some eye on getting the mentoring to scale better.

My sense of things further is that formal programs that are required might not work very well at all (it's getting back to the rules-based approach) but voluntary programs where the mentor can give a prior demonstration of empathy for the student do have a chance to be useful as therapy.  When the mentor is an instructor, how does one reconcile a volunteer activity with it being on-load work?  This too is a matter of acculturation, something we should be thinking through now.  When I was a full-time faculty member in economics, being involved with the recruiting of new faculty members was an on-load yet volunteer activity.  Most of the faculty members in the department felt recruiting to be very important.  Yet participating in it wasn't something listed in your CV.  I'm thinking that mentoring students needs to be elevated to that level.

* * * * *

If capacity utilization of a resource is 100%, then to allocate a bit of the resource to yet another use, it is necessary to for some other current use to be disabled.  With that sort of thinking understood, I'm guessing that the initial response to making mentoring an on-load activity is for the faculty to push back and request that the number of courses they teach be reduced.  But giving course reductions in this case would break the bank.  What can be done about that?

In Economics, when I was hired back in 1980, the standard course load among tenure-track faculty was four courses, two in the fall and two in the spring.  Now the course load is three courses a year, as that became the norm in the discipline at other research universities in the country.  We might envision a reversion to the earlier norm, but with the time spent on that fourth course to be allocated to mentoring instead.  In this way of thinking the time for mentoring would come out of either the faculty member's research time or from the service work they do.  The move from a four course load to a three course load reflected a resource abundance within Economics as a discipline. That resource abundance is no longer there, but the institution has become used to tenure-track faculty teaching 3 courses.  Having them mentor students would be a reasonable way to adjust to current circumstances.

Much undergraduate teaching is done by specialized faculty, who are not on the tenure track.  Many of them do no research at all.  Teaching is their full time work.  How can we get them to embrace mentoring under the circumstances?  I wrote about something similar some years ago, the second out of six posts labeled Everybody Teaches.  In this case, the focus was on these specialized faculty (there I referred to them as adjuncts) who typically teach the same course from one year to the next, often in a large lecture class setting.  Over time the courses tend to get stale and become very mechanical (done by the rules).  The post was about ways for the instructor to experiment in the teaching with the aim of keeping the instruction fresh.  A critical piece of that is getting the student reaction to the changes made in the course.  In the post, the instructor would learn this by teaching one discussion section, more intensive than typical discussion sections taught by graduate student TAs.  The student mentoring, which would happen the following semester, can then be seen as of value to the instructor in getting a sense of the student beyond the class the instructor teaches.  It thus can be viewed as a complement to instruction, in which case the specialized faculty might do it willingly on load.

Of course, this needs to be worked through.  As such faculty are now unionized, the union would need to go for it.  That consideration is beyond me here.  I simply want to note that if the mentoring becomes a feature of what undergraduate education is about, then it can be thought of as a necessity to attract enrollments.  The university and the union's preferences should be aligned regarding wanting to have more students on campus who are paying tuition.  Beyond that observation, I wouldn't want to guess as to the outcome of bargaining on this matter.

I want to turn to a different issue with teaching loads and then close.  There is a peculiarity with using course loads to measure teaching obligation as the measure doesn't include course enrollments.  A different way to measure teaching obligation is by FTE (course enrollments times credit hours per student).  Consider a course that gives 3 credit hours and has fifty students.  This generates 150 FTE.  Now consider two sections of the same course, with each section having 25 students.  The FTE are the same in both cases but the teaching load is twice as high in the second case as the first.

I'm bringing this up here because of how campuses seem to be responding to bringing students back to campus in the fall.  For the sake of safe social distancing, the model that seems to be emerging is for about 1/3 of the students to attend per class session, with the other students getting the instruction online, and then rotating the students through who comes and who gets the instruction online.  An alternative approach would be to break the class into three sections, each taught in blended format.  Then all the students get the same content taught face to face and the same content given online.  Further the total time in class for all three sections would match the total in class time for the course before the pandemic.

This alternative makes more sense to me except that it would mean the teaching load had tripled.  So it could only work if instructors agreed to that.  If the class had originally been slotted for three hours on one day per week, then the instructor could implement this alternative informally, by dividing the students up into three groups, each of whom came for one hour only.  It gets harder for the instructor to coordinate if the three face to face sections are separated over several days, because then the students are somewhat out of sync with regard to the online content.  So there is that issue as well.  In the old days, the three hours in a row was done only as a special request for instructors who wanted to contain their teaching to one day a week.  Now it might be viewed as a benefit for implementing this blended model without having to deal with the course-load issue.   Three sections that met for one hour on the same day each week, but were not offered back to back, might be the most preferred way of doing things.  Yet it could only happen if the instructor assented to this in spite of the increased course load.

* * * * *

Let me conclude.  The point I'm trying to make above is that the pandemic should get us to rethink what the approach to instruction should be, rather than to best approximate a return to how things were done before.  The combination of the pandemic and the soft labor market make it necessary to ask - what would instruction be like if that were the new normal?  Your answers to that question may be different from mine, and I'm okay with that, but I'm not okay with proceeding without having the question posed at all.  We need to do that.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Drive Through Polling Places Or Other Solutions

The Republicans seemingly have no end of dirty tricks to tilt the elections in their favor, while then treating the rest of the process as legitimate, so Democrats seemingly need to accept the results.  I, for one, am still wincing over the Senate not taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  That, as much as and perhaps more than the Russians interfering in the election, may have tipped the results to Trump.

The latest seems to be not sending bailout money to the USPS, even as there has been a huge amount of such money for the Airlines.  Why the one but not the other?  The argument is that if the USPS goes belly up, now slated for September, then voting by mail can't happen.  But voting by mail, in this pandemic, would greatly expand the number of potential voters who do participate.  That favors the Democrats.  By restricting participation, the Republicans up their chances at re-election.  This is unseemly.  Yet that is no deterrent at all.

What might be done to counter this?

My first answer comes from a message I got from my health provider a week or so ago.  They are beginning to return to non-Covid healthcare, while trying to respect the guidelines for safe social distancing.  One of the things they are offering are ordinary blood tests done by drive through.  I'm curious as to how that works in actuality.  Assuming it does work, might there be drive through voting done similarly?  The voter in the car is given a ballot and an envelope, as well as a clipboard and a pen or pencil.  The voter completes the ballot, inserts it in the envelope, and then returns it along with the clipboard and writing implement.  Sounds clunky to me, but it is do-able, isn't it?

I want to note that for many years I've voted early, often the very first day that's available.  It is typically not crowded at the polling place.  While the usual arrangement where the various people at the tables who sign you in and give you a ballot doesn't respect safe social distancing, I don't think it would be too hard to do an alternative that would work and would be safe.   The number of people voting then is meager (and it's all retired people).  So it shouldn't be hard for them to keep safe social distancing while completing their ballots.   The question is whether more people could take advantage of early voting, perhaps by (a) having scheduled times for them during which their employer gives them paid time off or (b) having scheduled times on the weekend where the polls are open.  The purpose of the scheduled times would be to not overrun the polling place.  That could make the process break down.

I get email from various Democrat politicians.  Some have been making noises about the USPS.  And there have been articles about this in the New Yorker and the New York Times, though the articles are about the postal service itself, not about the election.

If this latest dirty trick is allowed to happen and if it does sway the election, it does seem to me we'll be at the point of complete fracture in our politics.  Indeed, it's remarkable to me that hasn't happened already.  One would like to believe that the process has built-in stabilizers that restore normalcy when it seems things are tipping over the deep end.  I hope that's still true, but I fear it isn't.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Fending Off Depression - My Take

In the just-because-you're-paranoid department...I whispered to myself, "joke about the stoic and the cynic" and then did a Google search for it as I didn't remember the joke itself.  The first item offered up in the search was what I had whispered.  I tried it again whispering, "joke about the rooster and the shyster" but this time the items offered up weren't close to matching what I said.  Nevertheless, I turned my microphone volume down to zero.  I'll have to remember to adjust it again when I do the next call or recording.  It then occurred to me that I'd be still safer if I weren't connected to the Internet.  So I've disconnected Wi-Fi and will write this post offline.  When I'm ready to post it I will connect again.  I had done a full virus scan of my computer just yesterday.  It found nothing.  But is that software to be trusted?  (I use Norton now after the campus cancelled its contract with McAfee.) If I operated in offline mode the bulk of the time, connected only once in a while to download things to read and to post things that have been written or recorded, it would change my behavior substantially.  Might that be for the better?  I left my browser open as I went offline.  There was a tab for my Facebook feed and another for my Twitter feed still open and I noticed that the time of my posts did update even while offline.  One wonders what other processes continue in that way.  I have it set so Firefox deletes the cookies when I close the browser.  Maybe I need to be doing that more frequently as well.

I'll get back to the above near the end of this piece.  Now I want to explain the purpose of this post.  As a lot of college students are confronting depression, many even before the pandemic, and a whole lot more since, I think it useful for them to hear about how others deal with the issue.  My belief is that college instructors and administrators have coping strategies for themselves, for the general stress that work life brings, and more specifically all the additional burdens that the pandemic has imposed.  One way that we learn is by imitating those who seem to have their act together.  (This is called the master-apprentice model.)  Regarding how to keep depression from getting the better of us, I think this way of learning is better than the alternative (the discovery model) where we figure things out for ourselves, for fear that premature conclusions lead to drastic actions that will be regretted later. If your own health is okay and you are able to get enough to eat and you reside in a place that isn’t physically threatening to you, there is no immediate danger.  Going stir crazy from the stay-at-home order doesn’t count as an immediate threat. Yet your worries may be substantial and, of course, worries can be a source of depression.  Hearing how others deal with this can be useful.  Some of what you hear might make sense to you, enough so that you embrace it for yourself.  That can be helpful.

I surely don’t want to claim any monopoly on coping strategies, nor am I a mental health professional.  But I have been through two episodes of depression in my adolescence.  And I had a bout with prostate cancer in 2018, where during treatment they queried me once a week about whether I was experiencing depression.  (I joked with the nurse then and said, of course I’m depressed.  Everyone in the nation is depressed.  But that’s about politics.  I’m not depressed about my health.  The week after the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the playoffs I said I was really depressed, and that got a good laugh, because of course I wasn’t.)  This is to make a point about language.  We all experience disappointments and sometimes we say we’re depressed when we’ve experienced a major disappointment. But disappointment and depression are not the same thing.  We rebound from disappointment and return back to our normal selves.  Depression is an absorbing state.  There is no rebound.  There is only sinking further into the hole, unless there is treatment or some radical change in environment.  At most, disappointment can serve as a trigger for our inner demons to launch themselves and move us on the path toward depression.

In good company, we normally don’t talk about depression.  For college students, however, there was a crisis with student depression that got a lot of play last fall.  So students now may be talking about it, if not with their parents or teachers than with some of their friends, or possibly with counselors.  Yet part of the crisis is an apparent shortage of mental health professionals to provide counseling so the students can work through their issues.  In the absence of a sustained conversation with a mental health professional, students might benefit from hearing a teacher they like and respect talk about coping with stress. Possibly an employer, where the student did an internship and where the student thought the supervisor sensible on work matters, might also talk about coping.  After Robin Williams committed suicide I wrote a blog post, Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves, in part for me to make sense of his actions for myself, but also because my think-alouds in these posts sometimes benefit the readers in their own thinking.  Indeed, in this case several Facebook friends thanked me for that post.  Yet that suicide was a singular event.   The pandemic now is directly impacting all of us.  So I’d encourage other college professors, high school teachers, and employers to discuss their own coping strategies.  There will be a natural audience for these type of pieces and that audience will appreciate what is written, especially if it is grounded and consistent with what the readers know about the personality of the author.

What follows are a bunch of coping strategies offered up as advice.  They are based on my personality as I understand myself.  Some of these may be universal.  Others may be specific to me.

Express Your Current Thinking

During and after my first experience with depression in 10th grade I developed a habit of mumbling, which my parents found quite annoying.  I did it a lot at the dinner table.  I don’t think I did it much at all when I was hanging around with friends.  The obvious logic in mumbling is to say what’s on your mind without it being heard by those who are around you.  The saying what’s on your mind is a felt need.  The not being heard is a safety play, for if you were heard it might very well produce an angry response, with that escalating further in some tit-for-tat.  If you are looking for a fight then you should be heard.  Otherwise, not being heard keeps the fight from happening, even if the mumbling itself is annoying to others.

I don’t want to encourage mumbling as the answer.  Instead, I would suggest either writing out what you are thinking or making a voice recording of your thinking.  You probably want to do this in a way where what you produce is hidden from others.  If it is writing, you’d call it a diary or a journal entry.  I suppose you can have an audio or video diary as well.  If you have a friend whom you trust implicitly, then having a conversation with the friend might be an alternative.  Such friends are rare, however, and in the current circumstances the friend too may be having coping issues.  So the diary or journal would be the way to go.

Now let me explain the benefit from doing this. Absent the self-expression, the same thoughts play over and over again in my head.  I stew about things and prolonged stewing about things without doing anything to change the situation can be a source of depression.  What I’ve found is that if I externalize this thinking somehow, I can then move onto something else.  It’s good to do that.

Identify Your Fears


The idea here is that if you know enough about what really frightens you now, you can make some peace with yourself on an approach where those fears are managed.  Sometimes management means avoidance of situations that would trigger the fear. Other times it means working through an internal argument in your head about how you can deal with the fear in an ongoing way.  I will illustrate with my own situation at present.

I have a great deal of fear regarding intense physical pain that remains persistent.  Momentary pain is a different matter.  With the prostate cancer, there wasn’t much pain associated with it.  There was some discomfort during the radiation treatment itself, but it was only 10 or 15 minutes per session.  The real fear, which remains to this day though I am in remission, is that the cancer would spread elsewhere.  I was absorbed with that concern.  I’ve made some adjustments to diet on the recommendation of my doctor to lessen that risk.  It’s the type of thing that actually combats depression, as it seems like reasonable problem solving rather than lack of agency.

I have a second fear about the potential for dementia, as my mother’s side of the family seemed to experience quite a bit of it, and I don’t have a good way to distinguish between ordinary senior moments, whose frequency seem to be on the increase, from a gradual move toward dementia.  I had a rather frightening experience about a week ago, where I drove to the nearby Walgreens to pick up a prescription.  I go through the parking lot to get to the drive-thru window.  There were an unusual number of cars backing out of the lot when I arrived, so I was checking my rear-view mirrors a lot and did so also after I had gotten my prescription.  For some reason, I found myself driving south on Duncan Road yet still looking at the driver’s side mirror.  I don’t know how long I was doing that, maybe only a second or two. While it was happening I felt fascinated by what I was seeing.  After I realized what I had been doing, I felt horrified.  It occurred to me that this is how I will die, in an accident because I wasn’t paying attention to what I should have been doing.  As as kid, I often didn’t seem to be paying attention to what I was doing, and would frequently drop the dishes that I was supposed to be putting away after they had been washed. This was my nature then and it is still my nature now.  It has proved very productive when I was working, to be so absorbed in some line of thought.  But maybe now it is the road to dementia and losing track of the ordinary world.

A third fear, on financial matters, I mainly deal with by avoidance.  Senator McConnell argues that states should declare bankruptcy to manage their current huge deficits.  In this case the states could renege on their pension obligations to current employees.  The source of my income now is my pension through SURS.  My wife will retire soon and that will be the source of her income too, once she is retired.  If the State of Illinois does renege on their pension obligations, we’ll go from being very comfortable financially to having a very small source of income and inadequate savings for the long term.  Partial measures, like making the pension subject to Illinois Income Tax, are not a concern for me.  Likewise, getting rid of the COLA wouldn’t bother me.  Losing the entire source of income, in contrast, would be devastating.  But there is nothing for me to do about it now.  I don’t obsess about money.  I have recently come to track the Nikkei and the DJIA on a daily basis, more or less like how students track the MyGrades area of the LMS.  But this is more to understand the economy as a whole than to consider the situation of me and my family.  It is an object of fascination for me that the stock markets can remain relatively stable, after an earlier down slide, while the real economy is going to hell in a hand basket.

A last fear, related to the previous one, perhaps the opposite side of the coin, comes from recalling a scene in Schindler’s List near the end of the movie, where Schindler breaks down because, in spite of saving the lives of many Jews, he could have saved many more.  I do charitable giving, some of it targeted to the organization I also support with volunteer work, Universal Love Alliance.  Should I be giving that much more now?  Is my fear about losing our income simply an excuse to limit my current charitable contributions?  I’m a trained economist and yet I don’t know how to think this through.  But making some bow to the issue is nonetheless useful.

Confronting your fears doesn’t make the fears go away.  What it does do is to keep you from being delusional about them.  They remain contained.  You can live with that.

Be Aware of Environmental Sources of Depression

The second time I had depression, in fall 1973, I was a sophomore at MIT and the people I hung out with in my dorm all seemed to me very nihilistic about school and life in general.  The nihilism was a coping strategy for them.  But it didn’t work for me and I could feel myself sliding into the depression I experienced in high school.  On a trip to Cornell I developed the sense that things would be different there and I knew quite a few people at Cornell already, including my brother.  So it occurred to me to transfer there, where previously that thought about transferring had only gotten as far as asking - could I have moved into another dorm at MIT?  I rejected that idea.  I didn’t think I could explain it well and I was afraid of moving to a place where I didn’t know people.

If the environment seems overwhelming you need to either change the environment yourself or move to a totally different environment.  Either of those can be acts of self-preservation.

I’m aware now that students living at home with their parents might find that difficult and yet there is no alternative for the time being.  Given that, the question is whether the student can change some of the circumstances of living at home.  The option of moving out might not be realistic for quite a while.  So making changes at home that all can accept might be the best that can be done for now.

Limit Your Anger

There may be others who thrive on being angry, essentially all the time. For such people anger is empowering.  Anger enables the fight instinct and with fight the person has a sense of agency.  Anger also seems a way to combat fear.  I want to acknowledge this because it doesn’t work this way for me.

Sustained anger is the path to depression for me.  I’m a person who relies on my own sensitivity and on reasoning things out.  Anger blocks the good that is in me.  When I don’t stay in touch with the good that is in me, I lose my sense of agency.

I’m guessing that most people are like me in this respect. Nevertheless, they are susceptible to being stoked.  Further, the subsequent feelings of anger can be addicting, so they end up craving repeated stoking.  The media manipulators, on both the right and the left, fully understand that.  There is money and power in attracting more eyeballs.  Taking a stoking-the-audience approach may very well be a winning strategy for them.  But if members of the audience are addicted to the feelings they get when being stoked, this can lead to depression and/or reinforce depression that is already present.
The first step in making an improvement to the situation is to recognize there is a problem.  In this case, I think it then sensible to monitor one’s own anger.  How frequent are those feelings?  Then one might experiment with the environment.  If there is some TV show or Website that is monitored repeatedly, stop doing that for a day or two.  Is there any impact on the anger?  Going cold turkey on an addiction is very hard to do.  But understanding there is an addiction can make it more manageable.

Learn About Yourself Enough To Know How You Behave When on Your A-Game

I know that with friends and family as well as in a good work environment, I like to joke around, make wisecracks or puns, and share rhymes I write. This is what I do when I’m not stressed out and am enjoying myself.  I also know that when I’m on my own, I try to be reflective and think things through.  Writing blog posts like this is a way to encourage that.

Before the arthritis came big time I used to enjoy golf and jogging. Earlier it was tennis or squash.  Now I do the treadmill.  It’s not the same, but it is something.

The thought is for the person to on a regular basis try for A-Game behavior.  Make the trying routine, even if what happens when doing the A-Game is creative and unique to the situation.  If you do your A-Game with some frequency and there is some internal (feel good) reward from doing so, it will make you more resilient to handle the inevitable disappointments that come along.  Conversely, it you try for A-Game behavior and you get no satisfaction from it at all and this happens over a sustained period of time, it is evidence that you are depressed.

Give Yourself A Break Now and Then

I’ve found this one to be big for me.  I have high standards for my own performance.  I can get on myself pretty hard when I don’t live up to those standards. Then I’m my own worst enemy.  My way of managing this is to lighten up, take delight in ordinary yet whimsical things, and actually elevate them in importance.  It’s a way of maintaining inner balance.

Embrace the Creative Attitude

I wrote about this in a recent post.  To illustrate, I want to return to my opening paragraph, which may have seemed weird to the point that I might be going off the deep end.  What I wrote about really did happen.  But writing about it was a judgment call.  I wanted to illustrate getting fully engaged in a situation that presents itself, without expecting it ahead of time. In this case, the first question that popped into my mind was this.  Has the AI in Google’s search engine gotten so good that it can simulate mind reading?  My second thought was whether I’m communicating in a way I’m not aware of but the computer can pick it up.  Thoughts of The Tell, which is described in the movie Rounders, occurred to me.  When I’m typing into the text box for Blogger, which is what I normally use as my editor, does Google process that in real time so when I then do a search that search is conditioned on what I’ve just typed.  Or might it be my inadvertent audio input, which is what I wrote about in that paragraph?  For me, having an experience that seems puzzling is a trigger to explore why it happened.  I can get completely wrapped up in that without having any prior intent to get so involved.

I don’t want to tell anyone else what they should get wrapped up in.  I only want to reiterate what I said in that earlier post on the creative attitude.  Being completely absorbed in an activity is a mentally healthy thing to do. Having regular experiences of such absorption is a way to ward off depression.

* * * * *

Let’s wrap up this post.  I’ve given a variety of suggestions, each of which makes sense to me.  I’ve also tried to provide enough about my own experience to show why these matter.  What I’ve said may appeal to a certain personality type only (my Myers-Briggs type is INTP).  It may very well be that other types need different coping strategies.  On just this one point it would be good to hear from other teachers and authority figures about how they go about things.

There is also the matter of the credibility of the sender of the message.  For students, they may be more trusting of their own teachers.  This is another reason why it would be good to hear from others about these issues.

Many people are uncomfortable in talking about depression.  It’s time to come to terms with that discomfort.  The mental health crisis among college students is real.  We all should be talking about it and sharing ideas about how we keep depression at bay for ourselves.  It’s a necessary conversation to have.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Reconsidering Elitism in Public Education

The core argument in this piece is that we should expand elite offerings at public schools and public universities as a way to enhance social welfare and address the issues that ail us in education.

What does this mean in plain English?

I'll try to illustrate with a few examples.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the flagship university of the U of I system and is generally regarded at the best public university in the state of Illinois.  Illinois State, in Bloomington-Normal, is a good university but is less prestigious.  What I'm arguing is that some students who ended up at ISU should instead be attending the U of I.

Similarly, within the Urbana-Champaign campus some colleges are considered elite and are more restrictive regarding admission, while other colleges are more accepting.  Since I teach economics, which is in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and many of the students I teach would have preferred to be in the Gies College of Business, what I'm arguing is that some of these econ students should actually be admitted to Gies, by an amount that is more than a mere drop in the bucket.  The increased numbers should be on the order of 50% to 100% of current enrollments. And I mean this to be a sustained plan over at least a decade, maybe longer, enough time to evaluate the impact of such a change.  In this piece I want to argue for why this is apt to be a change for the better.

Then, let's face it, there is elitism in public high schools and middles schools, elementary schools too.  This goes under the name tracking, or honors programs, or gifted programs, or some other labeling the makes the students in such programs seem to be the elite.

I am arguing to make the elite student more abundant, as a policy matter, thereby lessening the value in the distinction of being designated an elite student.  I hope to explain why this would be helpful in addressing key issues in education and why public institutions, in particular, should feel obligated to proceed along these lines.  From a social-welfare point of view, the same argument applies to non-profit but private educational organizations.  However, I believe it will take substantial coercion of such institutions to achieve this end.  So I will focus in this piece on public institutions, because the argument is easier to make in this case. If that argument succeeds in convincing readers, the private educational organizations can be taken on then.

On the other hand, I'm not arguing to treat all students as perfectly equal, which some might consider the ideal.  I believe that treating students as completely equal, irrespective of student intellectual and emotive capacity at any fixed time, is impossible.  To ignore student differentials when they are evident, purely in the name of equality, would be self-defeating.  So, while the temptation to be a purist on this is definitely there, that's not where we're headed.  Later in this essay, I will argue for why some apparent elitism is necessary.  What I would like to see, whether this is possible or not is to be argued thoroughly, is for all students to count in the social welfare function that determines how public education goes about things.  It seems to me now that non-elite students are ignored.  That's what needs to change - dramatically.

* * * * *

With this, I'm trying for two different things in this piece.  One is an explanation for why the mental health issues among current college students are so acute.  This requires an explanation of causality.  In this part, the current post is a sequel to my previous one, about students embracing the creative attitude on their own.  Here we're considering what in the academic environment might be changed to make for substantial improvement in student mental health.

The other is why the system doesn't have auto-corrects that are built in which would remedy the immediate issue, at least eventually.  It doesn't seem there is an immediate remedy.  Why is that?

So, I'm hoping that this piece will get others to pose these questions as well.   But I also want to note, those who are managing the elite units in public education have an incentive to leave well enough alone.  I don't want to get into combat with such folks.  My objective is more modest here.  I merely want to get such folks to ask - is there something that can be done to better the situation overall.

Then, further, I surely don't mean this piece as the last word on the matter.  Rather, I mean it as a beginning of an investigation as to what institutions might do, together, to ameliorate the issue.

* * * * *

I'd like to begin this section with a little jargon from economics, which I think will be helpful in framing the issues.  An economic rent is a payment to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to elicit its supply.  The concept was first developed by David Ricardo, who was concerned that the landed gentry would earn rents from tenant farmers and thereby suck out valuable resources from the economy that otherwise might be invested in productive activities. Rent seeking is competition done where the prize at the end of the tunnel is an economic rent.  The rent seeking, if itself otherwise not productive, dissipates the surplus from the economic rent.

Now let's consider a different notion from economics, product differentiation.  To keep things simple economists talk about vertical product differentiation, in which case the products differ in quality where everyone can agree which product is of higher quality and which of lower quality, and then they talk about horizontal quality, where the products are different but people will disagree as to which they prefer.  Vertical product differentiation is often associated with what is called second degree price discrimination (menu pricing) where the seller offers the buyer a variety of choices.  The most expensive is associated with the highest quality.  Seating on airplanes conforms with this approach - first class is better than coach and it is more expensive to fly first class.  Conversely if you are buying a particular model car of a certain year, car color acts to differentiate one car from another, but there is no price differential based on color.  Vehicle color is an example of horizontal differentiation.

Still a different economics notion is efficient risk absorption.  The standard example is buying insurance against some potential significant downside risk.  The insurance company, through diversification from offering many similar policies with independent risks, is better able to absorb the risk than the insured.  Indeed, that is necessary for the insurance market to work.  Yet there are limits to efficient risk absorption when the insured can impact the likelihood of the loss or the magnitude of the loss, should loss occur, and where lessening the risk is costly for the insured.  So it is well understood that the insured must still bear some of the risk, via deductibles, co-payments, and the like.  And sometimes there is absolutely no market for insuring certain risks because this moral hazard is simply too great to enable a market to function.  In particular, when a student enters college, the student can't purchase earned income insurance to cover income risk in the labor market that the student will experience after graduation. So the student and/or the student's family bears that particular risk entirely. Students whose families are reasonably well off can partially diversify this risk with holding other financial assets.  Other students, whose families are of more modest means, bear the full brunt of this risk.

Now a bit of an aside.  When I started working as an assistant professor, in fall 1980, there was debate going on about whether a college education was a public good, in which case the tuition should be paid for by the state and funded from tax revenues or if, instead, college education was a private good, so tuition should be paid for by the student and/or the student's family.  One can agree there is a mixture of the two but then disagree about the relative importance of each component.  Milton Friedman famously took the position that college education was primarily a private good.  Indeed, at public universities the share of the cost of education borne by the state has declined over this time period, which suggests that the private good view of college education has increasing credence with the electorate.  Nevertheless, there remains a popular view that college education should provide a path for upward mobility,  thereby justifying need-based scholarships.  But at what volume are these offered and how much upward mobility is actually generated?  Bernie Sanders popularized the notion of free college as a way to get at this matter.  Yet community colleges have always been a lower tuition alternative, at least for the first two years of college.  Elite public education needs to be factored into this discussion.  Does free college merely end up being the lower quality version of some second degree price-discrimination approach to tuition? Further, if there is a threshold family income above which the student isn't qualified for free college, let us note that the family will bear the income risk.  On middle income families, that can be quite a burden.

Thus an argument can be made that some other party should bear that income risk.   Some years ago I wrote a speculative post on employer pay for college, reasoning that the future employer could better bear the risk, and then would extract what was paid in tuition by lower wages to the new graduate over some pre-specified period of time. A similar argument could be made that the Federal government pay for college and then have the graduate face higher taxes over a period of time.  If the student could commit to living within the state after graduation, it could be state government that does this.  The difference between this approach and the current approach with student loans is that the amount actually paid back would vary with future income, not just with the amount of tuition paid.  This strikes me as the right way to manage the issue, but might never happen because there is no champion to advocate for it and it could end up a political football.

Let me turn to the next economics issue, which is related.  Capitalism features income inequality.  To illustrate, there is a well known story about when a reporter asked Babe Ruth how come he was paid more than the President of the United States.  The Babe responded, "I had a better year."  The story illustrates that we associate higher earnings with higher performance and, as I mentioned, that's a feature of the system, not a bug.  However, there is now a growing consensus that income inequality has been growing over the past 40 years and the consequences have been extremely pernicious.  You hear that in the expression "the hollowing out of the middle class."  The causes for this increase in income inequality are many and varied.  I will list a few of them: income tax rates have become less progressive, manufacturing went into decline, labor unions lost their power, greater lobbying and increased campaign contributions occurred so the rich could lock in rents that had been previously generated, less enforcement of antitrust law, etc.  There is a growing consensus that we should start having the pendulum swing in the other direction.  I believe, and this may be controversial, that public education should be part of this effort in reducing income inequality.  To do this, assuming that on average, the future earnings of elite students are higher than the future earnings of ordinary students, this means there should be earnings compression.  How would that happen?  One possible way is for public education, across the board, to embrace a more progressive tax system.  This may not be the best way to achieve the result.  I would welcome others who can think through a better alternative.  But, I want to note here, that elite public education may now be encouraging increases in income inequality.  Elite public education therefore needs to take a look at itself to see if the charge sticks.

Let's move on to the last economics idea to be considered here.  This is the notion of sector-specific hyperinflation, sustained price increases in a sector at a rate that is higher than the general inflation rate.  This has happened in healthcare.  It's also happened with elite higher education, and here I'm including private non-profits as well as public colleges.  Full tuition at these places has experienced hyperinflation over the past 40 years. One measure of how elite these colleges are is their selectivity in admissions.  Highly selective colleges have excess demand for the slots they are to fill.  (There is a substantial measurement issue with how much excess demand there actually is as many elite students apply to multiple colleges for admission and, to my knowledge, these students don't provide their rankings among those colleges as to which is the most preferred, the next most preferred, etc. But that there is excess demand seems unmistakable.)  The excess demand persists because the supply of slots at these elite colleges doesn't grow.  That supply is fixed to generate a predetermined quality of education, which, ironically, is determined to a large extent by the quality of the new admits.  (Though I'm no great fan of standardized testing, the scores can be used as a way to measure the quality of the new admits.)  Hyperinflation is the result under chronic excess demand.  If this much of the fundamentals we can agree upon, and if leadership in higher education overall has some responsibility on keeping costs under control, then expanding the slots at elite colleges and within elite programs is a rational management strategy.  The additional students who fill these slots will have to come from somewhere; a good number of them will likely be students who otherwise would attend a non-elite college.

* * * * *

Here will be a brief bit on teaching to the student rather than simply teaching the subject.  The best example I have of this, which I believe worked pretty well at the time, was the SRA reading program we had in elementary school.  Students differed by the speed at which they read and the comprehension they showed in what they read.  The students were put into different categories, color coded, that were sorted in vertical fashion, so they could receive instruction according to their current reading level.  They would demonstrate mastery at that level and then advance to the next level.  This is in accord with current views of developing expertise by deliberate practice.  In my school, when the class did SRA, students changed where they sat so that all the students working on the same color level were in the same row of seats.  And the sorting of students progressed from one level to the next.  So kids could see who the better readers were and who the worse readers were.  I don't know if that was necessary as part of SRA or if it simply was easier for the teacher to manage the students that way.  In any event, teaching that does target where the student is currently along a trajectory of growth invariably invites students to make comparisons between themselves and other students.   Of course, the teacher does this too when assigning grades

Not all instruction can be done via self-study as with SRA.  Sometimes the teacher must teach the class as a whole.  Which student does the teacher target with this instruction?  Will it be the elite students who always raise their hands while the more ordinary students who keep quiet?  How does the instructor get greater participation from the ordinary students?  This is the argument for tracking, that makes learning better for all the students as there is less variation of student quality within each class.

But there can be lock-in with tracking so once on the fast track the student stays there, regardless of seeming performance, and likewise, once in the slow track the student stays there, possibly by not trying very hard with the learning.  In this the elite students can start to believe it is an entitlement, rather than a temporary solution.

There is then the reality that schools are now measured by standardized test performance and elite students then become valued commodities, since they enhance (some) school performance measures.  Further, if transferring to another school is an option, the school then has some reason to accommodate the elite student, to preclude that outcome.  Parental pressure on the school surely matters here.  So, some tracking seems inevitable that is beyond the amount that benefits all students.  The issue is whether that can be limited whereas now it appears to be off the charts.

* * * * *

Now I want to start to put the pieces together.  The idea that getting an education is at least partly rent seeking has been with us for a very long time.  I found this commercial of Abe Lincoln going to an employment agency looking for a job - you ain't going nowhere without that sheepskin, fella - which was on TV when I still was in high school.  And I can certainly remember students who were referred to as grade grubbers, both when I was in high school and when I was in college.  (Pre-med students had a bad reputation that way.)  So it wasn't just the degree, it was the GPA too, or so it seemed. 

The thing is, students can go about their schooling in different ways.  My preferred way is for students to embrace the creative attitude, as I discussed in the previous post, do that intensively, and then get the good GPA as a byproduct from that.  In this way the student will learn to direct the learning and that will tend to produce good mental health.  (I want to be clear that this is not foolproof.  Bob Seeger's phrase - the awkward teenage blues - are still possible even with students who have embraced the creative attitude - so mental health issues can emerge from that.)  But, let's agree that many students go about things differently - even good and conscientious students.  I wrote about this in a post called, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams? The quick and dirty answer to that question is that many students are not confident in their own ability to learn deeply, so they try for a different method that still is apt to produce reasonably good results as far as achieving a good score on the exam.  They are doing this to get the approval of others, mainly parents and teachers.  They do not learn to direct their own learning this way and the approach is far less nurturing regarding their own mental health.  If they have other activities, hanging out with friends or pursuing some hobby deeply, they can self-nurture that way.  This requires free time outside of school, however.

Now, let's do a longitudinal comparison between when I graduated from high school, 1972, and high school graduates now.  The incentive to treat school as rent seeking is far greater, given the increased income inequality and the greater income return to elite education.  Purely on those grounds, the Amy Chua tiger mom approach to parenting makes sense, perhaps starting when the kid is in grade school, because of the big investment that elite college education now is.  But this pushing comes not just with concern for the kid's GPA.  It also includes orchestrating the kid's extracurricular activities.  So the kid is fully (I would say over) programmed and the kid is not a driver of any of this, except perhaps by choosing not to rebel against the parent exercising control.  Early on, pleasing the parent might make the kid happy too.  Eventually, however, the kid will find no identity of one's own and no way to learn even what the kid wants for himself or herself.  This is quite bad for the kid's mental health.  For example, see Hanna Rosin's piece The Silicon Valley Suicides.

Many of these kids obsess about their GPAs, but actually fail to learn important life lessons as a consequence.  See Adam Grant's opinion piece, What Straight-A Students Get Wrong.  Then the argument is to save these students from themselves, reduce the incentive for rent seeking.  Depreciating the value of the credential, both the degree and the GPA, would be helpful here.  Further, if colleges did this then the same notion can be pushed down to the high schools, and so forth.

However, if only one college did this while the rest continued with business as usual, or one academic program did this but elsewhere it didn't happen, then the likely outcome would be an out migration of elite students to go elsewhere and a decline in the revenues that the innovating unit can garner.  With regard to elite public universities, in particular, one might not see the out migration of in-state students, because of the large tuition differential with comparable alternatives, but one is apt to see a decline in out-of-state students or international students, who pay much higher tuition rates.  Therefore, to embrace the recommended solution at scale would require the bulk of elite public institutions to do likewise.

* * * * *

Keeping the previous paragraph in mind, I want to again look at these sort of decisions from the perspective of a single elite college within a larger public university.  I base what I have to say here on the four years where I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business (2006-2010) where there was a weekly meeting of other A-Deans and Department Heads.   Part of this period overlaps with the start of the Great Recession, which may have made everyone even more mercenary than they otherwise would be.  During this time period, the college got campus approval for students to pay a college-specific surcharge, in addition to the base tuition that all students pay. This may have further impacted my impression as I observe the following.

The way a high selective academic unit operates in determining the number of students to admit is very much like the standard textbook model of the monopolist that sets a uniform price when facing a downward sloping demand curve.  The standard result is that such pricing maximizes the producer surplus for the monopolist, but there is a loss in social surplus as compared to the alternative where the good is supplied in a competitive market.  This loss of social surplus is not a concern to the monopolist, but it is a concern to a planner who wants to maximize the social welfare.  (Note that if the monopolist can practice first degree (perfect) price discrimination, there is no loss of social surplus, but that textbook ideal is typically not feasible.)  So the argument is that the next larger containing unit, in this case that's the Urbana-Champaign campus, should be like the social planner and encourage more students to be admitted to the College of Business.  That would be welfare improving.

But under the approach to these decisions I was aware of when I was an Associate Dean (I'm guessing this is still true now, though I don't know that for a fact) each college gets to determine the desired number of new admits.  (Managing the yield on acceptances is a tricky matter, which I don't want to get into here. We will focus on the admit decision only, implicitly assuming that we can invert the yield function so to determine the number of new students.)   It would thus require a major change in campus culture to move the admit decisions for each college to the Provost's Office.

Likewise, the admit decision for the campus as a whole is determined by the campus, but by a similar argument that admit decision should instead revert to the U of I System or perhaps even to the Board of Higher Education in Illinois.   One might hope that individual units would be good citizens and thus could retain decision making power over admission after receiving edicts from above about what the ultimate goal is.  Keeping the decisions local can be argued because actual supply of instruction will be much better understood at the local level.  Yet, if my experience is still relevant on this, when money is especially tight, the incentive to behave as a monopolist is especially strong.  Counting on the good citizenship of each local unit may then be wishful thinking.

* * * * *

I want to conclude here.  With that, I will briefly talk about my motivation for writing this piece.  While I have tried to take an arm's length and analytical approach in giving my argument, I'm really quite emotional about the issue of student mental health, as I've had several students last fall who were at varying levels of going over the deep end.  One, whom I gave an Absent from Final grade to and who in middle January seemed to be making up the coursework she missed in the fall, suddenly stopped doing the remainder of the work and I haven't heard from her since.  I sent her an email about a week ago to find out what's up but got no response.  Under the circumstances, that's really all I can do.

Kids like this, and there are quite a few of them, still matter.  I was able to help some others get through the course.  Higher Ed is responding to the crisis by talking about the shortage of mental healthcare professionals on campus.  That's an issue, but it is not the issue.  The issue is us and making how we go about things more humane, and more educative at the same time.  When will we wake up to see the need to do that?

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Is Now an Apt Time for College Students to Embrace The Creative Attitude?

Before getting to the question in my title, I'd like to encourage readers to have a go at The Admirable Crichton, a play by J.M. Barrie, the same person who wrote Peter Pan. The story is about a class-based society with a strict pecking order, where a group of them is then shipwrecked, after which both the priorities of group members and the pecking order changes dramatically, only for them to be rescued near the end and returned to the way things were, but then with the memory of what things were like when they were stranded on the island.  It is comedy/mild satire, so pretty easy reading.  It is also, perhaps, a good reflection on our present circumstance, where the physical distancing owing to the coronavirus feels like being shipwrecked.  When we do return to the new normal, how much of what we are experiencing now will matter in shaping that?  This play let's us consider an analogous situation to work things through, which might be very helpful in considering the present.  (I found the rendering of the play at the Project Gutenberg site hard to read because there are no margins nor line spaces between paragraphs.  So I pasted it into Word, which I found easier to read: Act I, Act II, and Acts III & IV.)

Then let me note that while this essay is aimed at students who are currently in college, it might apply equally as well to high school students, and to college graduates who have recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. In what I write I will focus on current college students, but I hope it is not too difficult for others to translate the message to their own circumstance. 

The Creative Attitude is an essay by Maslow, well worth the read, and perhaps multiple reads.  (I made a Word version of the article because the PDF version which is available from Proquest has a very light font that's hard to read.)  I am going to appropriate Maslow's meaning for my own purposes. (I have sketched my own path toward the creative attitude in this post.)  First, it means being completely absorbed in the present activity, so much so that everything else fades into the background.  Second, this absorption is active, not passive.  Being hypnotized is not what we're talking about here, nor is vegging out.  Third, the creative attitude becomes a part of one's personal philosophy, so it is something to strive for in as many situations as possible.  Most people can describe some circumstance that produces complete absorption for them.  But then it is the particular environment, it would seem, that induces the state of absorption.  (For many college students, playing video games achieves this effect.)  Armed with the creative attitude, the individual can become absorbed in many different environments and it is the individual's fascination with the environment that drives the absorption.  Fourth, this becomes something that the individual wants to do, in advance.   Experiences of complete absorption are enjoyable, in retrospect, though while going through them the complete absorption precludes making a determination then and there of whether it is enjoyable.  It is this retrospective preference for experiences of complete absorption, that provides the motive for embracing the creative attitude.

Note that so far I haven't said a word about the product that the creative attitude produces - a work of art, a musical composition, innovative computer code, an essay such as this blog post, etc.  Maslow points out that we should separate out the initial conception of the idea for creation from the hard work that follows to deliver a completed product.  That hard work requires additional factors, particularly mastery of technique and then determination to see it through.  Maslow didn't concern himself with these additional factors in the linked essay, nor will I do so here.  This means you can be displaying the creative attitude as a member of the audience to a performance, or by listening to a wonderful piece of music, or by reading a good book, provided that you are completely absorbed in the activity at hand rather than having your mind wander while doing it.  Indeed, it is my belief that developing the reading habit is the best way to eventually embrace the creative attitude.

Conversely, you can be doing tasks autonomously while your mind is focused on something else - developing the concept of your idea.  Donald Murray calls this prewriting.  It is where the bulk of the effort lies, even if it happens while you are doing the dishes, driving to go shopping, or folding the laundry. For me, it is producing an internal narrative that I can buy into.   Contrary to Murray's labeling, however, I find that the prewriting and writing intersperse, though there might be quite a long period of earlier thinking that is needed before any writing is produced.  After that initial period I typically don't compose a complete essay at one sitting.  I might write a paragraph or two, then get stuck.  That begats another round of prewriting.  I should also note that now I write longer pieces than when I first started with this blog.  Then I was writing a post every day and for the most part did compose them at one sitting.  That no loner suits me, both in terms of time allocated to the activity and regarding my temperament now.  Then I wanted to get the piece out and be done with it.  Now I want to touch all the bases.  So my approach has changed over the years.  But, I think it useful to have a less linear view of the creative process.  It's better to envision it as a cycle that renews itself than as a line segment with fixed starting point and ending point.

Having provided some sense of what we mean by the creative attitude, we can now consider why students should embrace it and why it is timely to do so.

Maslow likens the creative attitude to self-actualization, being all we can be, and he likens complete absorption to a peak experience.  Presumably, the more frequently a person has peak experiences the more mentally healthy the person will be.  It is well known now that many college students are not mentally healthy, they are experiencing anxiety and depression.  Indeed, there has been a crisis in higher education regarding student mental health that existed before anyone heard of the coronavirus.  Now, many others are also experiencing anxiety and depression, as graphically illustrated in this recent piece by David Brooks.  Does it matter what the cause of anxiety and depression is?  I think so and I will try to elaborate on that in a bit.  But first I'll make the broad strokes reasons for an embrace of the creative attitude.  It is something an individual can do for himself or herself in an attempt to improve mental outlook and to develop a better sense of resiliency.

Maslow, though he is writing in the early 1960s, quite a long time ago, laments the pace of change of knowledge and that in order to keep up the individual must embrace the creative attitude to continually learn new approaches and be exposed to new ideas.  Nowadays, we'd use different jargon - learning to learn, self-teaching, and lifelong learning.  In this sense, Maslow views the creative attitude as a necessary precursor to self-teaching.  In so doing we equate creativity and learning.  This equation is not perfect, as there are still some things learned by rote, e.g., home address, phone number, and birthday.  But the rote learning is limited to those things that require spitting the knowledge back out exactly the same way it was learned. In contrast, learning something that can be used in a context other than where it was originally learned, what is termed transfer, does require creativity, so in that case the equation is more exact. Thus, a second reason for embracing the creative attitude is to become a better lifelong learner and thereby be better able to handle the curves that life throws at us.

Now I think it worthwhile to ask, has the student already embraced the creative attitude?  If not, why not? About a dozen years ago I wrote a post called PLAs Please, which focused on student self-directed learning and enrichment outside of school (so it counted both reading interesting books and magazines and going to stimulating movies and concert performances).  When I was in high school, some kids did that and indeed much of what they knew was learned outside of school, not in it. Further, this was not done as a credentialing activity but rather to satisfy the interests of the students.  I didn't have the terminology, the creative attitude, at the time of writing that post, but if I did I would have argued that this is the way for a student to develop it.  More recently, those who are high academic achievers but who don't embrace the creative attitude are termed Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.  Sheep are members of the flock; they don't lead the flock. The derision in the term stems because the students have opted out of directing their own learning and left that task to others - parents and teachers.  Thereby, they lose all sense of intrinsic motivation.  This framing places the onus on the students.  No doubt parents and possibly teachers as well share some of the blame by not encouraging students to be more self-directed in their learning.

In looking at the possible reasons for selecting one path or the other, let's sort them by cultural reasons, on the one hand, and self-protection against failure reasons, on the other.  I'm very wary of cultural stereotypes, and propagating those. But yesterday I had a Zoom call with some of my extended family, where my siblings and I were cracking jokes throughout, but my cousin from Denmark and another cousin from Florida, on the other side of the family, said they don't have conversations like this very often.  Why not?  So I am biased to associate Reform Judaism with comedic humor - we all want to be some semblance of Groucho Marx.  On the flip side, I wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed called The Student's Dilemma, based on a discussion group I had with three former students of mine, each an international student from East Asia, where it was evident that their high school education abhorred not following the pre-arranged script for their learning.  So, I think it futile to ignore these cultural differences, some of which stifle creativity.

The self-protection against failure is harder, as we all fail at one time or another, but some of us are not so scarred from it that we require self-protection thereafter.  Further, as somebody who will admit to being phobic in many areas, fear of heights and fear of dogs two of the more obvious ones, I want to observe that some of my fears are based purely on my own experiences, while others are more concerned with a social context that was beyond my control.  There is ordinary nervousness - stage fright - that can be present because others can observe our performance, rather than because our prior performance was inadequate.  Indeed, our prior good performance might make the stage fright all the worse, as now we feel it necessary to get above the bar that we ourselves set previously.  Self-protection, in the form of getting off the stage, can happen even if the others never ridiculed prior performance.  It is protection against the future threat that it might happen.  (A nerd who knows he is not hip, when with others who value being hip, may feel extremely uncomfortable even if those others have never indicated there is some problem.)

In this context embracing the creative attitude is taking on some risk, so moving away from the safety play, because the consequences from the safety play have proved intolerable.  This may then be seen as an act of rebellion. But really, it will be an individual trying to assert control of the circumstance rather than abiding by what others say should be done, because what others say hasn't worked.

In the wake of the coronavirus, the motivation is different.  The labor market for new grads is likely to be very soft. I wish I had more data on this from my former students.  In the absence of that, I'm guessing that many students who are graduating this semester, even those who were previously offered a job, will end up unemployed after graduation.  This is because the economy is tanking overall, not because their own performance is substandard. These students have experienced a huge capital loss on the human capital they have acquired and on the various credentials they have amassed, as early poor performance in the labor market is apt to have significant negative impact on earnings into the future.  These are the big investments the students have made in their lives up to this point.  The vast majority of these students won't have diversified this investment.  So the loss is real and it is devastating.

I don't want to claim expertise about how people regard large financial losses versus how people deal with the grief from loss of a loved one.  But with the latter we associate five stages of grief.  Depression is the fourth stage and acceptance is the fifth stage.  If such a parallel makes sense, the embrace of the creative attitude should wait at least till the first three stages have passed.  Indeed, the need for the embrace won't be felt until that has happened.  Recalling how I dealt with the death of my mother and then the disposition of her estate in late 2012 and then much of 2013, I think there is a blur between depression and acceptance, at least there was for me. As the embrace of the creative attitude is likely to take quite a bit of time even after it has been initiated, waiting for the depression to conclude by itself is probably waiting too long.  But each student who goes through the embrace must opt in for themselves.  So they get to determine when it should happen.

* * * * *

In this section I want to talk about impediments to embracing the creative attitude and possible reasons not to do it.  This is my truth in advertising section of the essay.  Really, I mean it to temper early idealism so the students who do embrace the creative attitude have a better sense of what they are getting into.

First, students will need to devote a significant chunk of time each day for an extended period of time (I'm guessing that would be about 2 - 3 months).  Do they have that much time available?  Or are they already obligated with care for loved ones, being a full-time student, doing telecommuting work, or possibly other obligations.  Squeezing out more hours in the day by planning to sleep less is not an answer.  Lack of sleep makes us dull (and also can amplify the depression).   There is also coming to grips with this requirement as in the circumstance prior to the coronavirus, where instructor expectations (in a normative sense) of how much time should be devoted to a course are typically quoted as 3 hours per week for every credit hour per course.  In contrast, students are apt to put in much less time than that, closer to 1 hour per week for each credit hour per course.  So students may be impatient about the requisite time commitment, as they won't have prior experience as to why this is necessary.  But that is because they largely haven't experienced learning things in a deep way.  The creative attitude facilitates that sort of learning.

Second, many students are hooked on multiprocessing as the way to get things done.  Multiprocessing is anathema to the creative attitude, which requires complete absorption in one thing.   Can the student give up multiprocessing for a good chunk of the day, possibly by being away from laptop, tablet, and phone?   How will the student prevent their own cheating on a prior commitment to do just that?  On the flip side, one might ask whether student mental health would improve without embrace of the creative attitude, merely by going offline like this as an ongoing matter.  My own experience with this recently is a sense of addiction to being connected that is hard to combat.  When I'm reading a novel in a paper book, rather than on my Kindle, deliberately chosen to address this issue, I still frequently crave looking at my phone. On occasion, when what I'm reading truly is drawing me in, this craving goes away.  But not everything I read satisfies this requirement.  So this is a struggle for me.  I'm guessing it will be an even greater struggle for the students.

Third, there is how to deal with fear of failure.  Many students have this fear with respect to their regular schoolwork.  They often "manage" the fear by procrastinating, not initiating doing the work till very close to the deadline, so providing a ready excuse for a mediocre performance.  On the plus side, the embrace of the creative attitude is possible to achieve with only the student aware of the student's performance.  As much of the fear of failure concerns looking stupid in the eyes of others, that can be avoided.  Yet sometimes we are our own harshest critic and self-criticism must be confronted squarely.  There is a need to persevere in spite of that.

Fourth, particularly for students with ADHD or some other learning disability, the program I will suggest in the next section may be inappropriate for them.  There is a delightful Ted Talk, Do schools kill creativity, given by Sir Ken Robinson.  He points out that some students crave motion, so, for example, dance can be considered creative expression.  And it may be to become an active listener the student must physically act out what the student is hearing.  I don't want to deny this possibility.  I simply want to note that I don't seem to have this need for motion, so can't readily suggest how it should manifest.  Students who do have this need then may be thwarted by a program that doesn't acknowledge the need.  Something else will be necessary as a substitute.

Last, for students who have been experiencing depression even before the coronavirus, there is a need to make themselves an object of study (as will be explained in the next section).  But self-examination of this sort might initially lead to self-loathing.  For a person already experiencing depression, this might push the person over the edge and make the person suicidal.  As this can be anticipated, there are mitigations that can be taken which reduce the likelihood of going over the deep end.  The student should be made aware of these beforehand and then make a judgment about whether proceeding is worth the risk.

* * * * *

I'm going to suggest a three-pronged program for embrace of the creative attitude.  This program is aimed at students who were already experiencing depression before the pandemic.  Those students who were doing reasonably well emotionally before the pandemic might focus on just the first two prongs.  I want to note that these prongs need not be mutually orthogonal.  One might support another.  That's for the individual student to decide.   The prongs are:
  1. Practice of complete absorption as a reader or as a member of the audience. 
  2. Practice of complete absorption in self-expression that produces some sort of product.
  3. An examination of self that aims at producing a personal philosophy that the student can live with.
With each of these, I think it is worth keeping in mind the notion of deliberate practice, which is aimed at producing personal growth.   Ultimately, that is the goal.  Initially, however, taking on things that the student expects to find interesting may be the more urgent objective.  How to feed that interest is the question to address.

For example, if it is agreed that the first prong will be devoted to reading, then the student might ask whether there is something that the student read, either as part of school or as pleasure reading, which held the student's interest.  Might the author(s) of that piece have written other pieces that the student might then read?  Alternatively, are there other pieces of the same genre written by others that might interest the student.   Then there is the question, does the student have any friend or classmate who also wants to engage in reading this way?  Might they form a reading group to choose the readings and discuss them, with the social connection part of what supplies the motivation to sustain the effort.  Still a different way to pick something is to consider a movie that the student liked.  Is there a book or short story on which the movie was based?  Might that then be tried?  Not everything that is tried will be compelling.  But if the students finds nothing compelling, the sense of complete absorption will not be attained. 

In addition to doing the daily reading, I think it would be good to do some record keeping about how long the student stayed at it and how close to complete absorption the student became, as well as any other thoughts that occur about the experience.  I'm well aware that monitoring of this sort can impact the experience itself, so detract from the complete absorption.  I would try then to monitor by recall later in the day or the day after, not immediately after the session.  Recall may be imperfect.  That's okay.  One cares about these measurements longitudinally, so after a month or so the student can get some sense of whether improvement is happening or not.  Precision of any one particular measurement is not the issue.

Regarding the second prong, one real reason for doing this is that various matters may be weighing heavily on the student, both personal and in the external world, and it would be good for the student to express these concerns in some way, so they don't simply continue to go around inside the students head.  This might be done by keeping a written journal or, if writing is difficult, then making voice recordings of the student's current concerns.  For a little while, say two weeks or so, that should be the extent of it, simply giving voice to what the student has already been thinking.

If I'm like these students in some ways, then it will be natural to read these journal entries or listen to the voice recordings.  Part of that is simply to reacquaint the student with the concerns.  But then the student might also do this with a more critical eye.  Did the student tell the full story or were certain key ideas omitted?  Was there a logic to the ordering of the ideas or does it read more like a stream of consciousness?  Quality-wise, how does this product compare with what the student has been reading for the first prong?  As the student will be a novice writer, it is reasonable to expect that the student can see ways where the quality of what is produced can be improved.  Two possible ways this may occur are first, to produce a second draft of what has already been produced and second, to be more effortful in the production of new journal entries.  With regard to the latter, the student should discover the need for prewriting as part of that increase in effort.

The student may find at this point that with the prewriting itself time consuming, it is necessary to produce pieces with less frequency or only do the actual writing as a paragraph at a time, with it taking several days to produce a full piece of writing.  The bigger issue than the quality of what is produced is whether the creative activity itself is engaging for student.  In other words, is there intrinsic motivation for doing the activity?

There is then an issue of whether what is being written is too personal to share with anyone else or if the student wants to have other eyeballs on the work.  I would advise a student who is experiencing depression to err on the side of caution here, for fear that negative external feedback will be quite damaging.  Nevertheless, if there is a good friend whom the student can trust and if the student has put in substantial effort in producing the work, getting the friend's reaction to it might be a natural thing to do. Positive external feedback can be a spur to do more of this sort of thing.  Sometimes even negative feedback can be such a spur.

The ultimate goal here is not to produce another writer.  It is to develop a strong sense of the need for prewriting and with that to realize that something analogous is necessary in any episode of self-teaching.  In other words, it is to get the student to understand what needs to happen in order to achieve deep learning.  It is also to come to terms with whether such deep learning can happen as the student is completely absorbed in the activity and to get a sense of when effort that is not completely absorbing is also necessary. 

If the student can find complete absorption in pursuit of the first two prongs, the student will have discovered the power of intrinsic motivation. This simple observation gets us to consider the third prong.

Someone who is experiencing depression will want a way out, to learn to live within the person's own skin.  This means understanding what the person wants, devoting a significant amount of energy to that, having reasonable expectations about achieving goals, and learning how to give oneself a break when coming up short on those goals.  But there must also be a looking backward in time as to what came before that caused the depression.

In general, depression results because the person feels trapped in a situation not of their liking, with no sense of agency how to get out of the situation, and quite possibly no view of an alternative that would be more to their liking. This might be coupled with a strong sense of anger at others who seem responsible for creating the situation.  This can be anger at parents, anger at schools, and anger at themselves for having allowed this to happen.  It may be all the harder to deal with this now, because the student may have very well moved back in with the parents as part of the the social distancing that their college imposed, and this living arrangement might be expected to persist for quite some time, especially if jobs after graduation remain difficult to come by.  So the challenge will be a daunting one and it might take some time for the student to simultaneously take control over many life decisions while making sufficient peace with parents that everyone in the family can live together under one roof.

If in pursuit of the first two prongs the student does indeed make a bow to intrinsic motivation, yet in the look back the student realizes that all motivation was externally provided - getting good grades and building a good resume - the student will begin to see that certain myths had been propagated and the student had bought into them, hook, line, and sinker. In subsequently rejecting those myths various ideas about money will surely emerge.  Parents, who may have acted out of the best interests for their child without realizing the torture they were creating in the process, undoubtedly were concerned about the financial well being of the child after graduating from college.  All the extrinsic motivation emerged to address that as the underlying goal.  The reality in the current macroeconomics as a consequence of the pandemic, is that it may be impossible now to ensure financial well being for the student if and when something approximating normalcy is achieved after the pandemic fades into the past.

Yet the student will need to ask whether this goal of financial well being after graduation, to be pursued no matter what, was sensible prior to the pandemic, or if the parents projected their own fears onto their child in a way that prevented the child from developing as a full human being.  Further, the parents' excuse surely will be something like - all the other parents were doing the same thing for their kids, so they didn't have a choice in the matter.   Will they come to understand what they have done?  Will they then express regret for it?  If they do that, can the student forgive the parents for not truly trusting the child to direct matters according to the child's own inclinations?

To go from being an excellent sheep to being an adult who is capable of driving one's own life choices will surely take more than two or three months.  What I believe can be achieved in that comparatively short period of time is for the student to identify wanting to go down that path and feeling somewhat confident that self-teaching in the future, based on both need as dictated by the labor market and by inclination as driven by the student's interest, can be functional and sufficient to keep the student's head above water.  Self-confidence doesn't just happen.  It must be earned.  And it is not earned by pleasing others.  It happens as a byproduct of pleasing oneself.

* * * * *

An argument that has been going around for some time, Hanna Rosin's piece The Overprotected Kid was my first time reading about it though I surely was aware of it earlier, is that parents in trying to provide a safe environment for their children inadvertently blocked the children in learning life lessons for themselves.  They grew up being more brittle.  The widespread depression among college students now is evidence of that brittleness. That much of the argument I agree with.

Some are arguing, in addition, that these college kids need to experience hardship which they must navigate on their own.  That is the only way they will learn the requisite life lessons.  I think that's is cruel and unnecessary, especially given that evident hardships they will face nonetheless as a consequence of the recession we invariably are experiencing now and likely will be experiencing for quite some time to come. An alternative is to focus directly on the learning of the college kids and encourage them to embrace the creative attitude.  It has a decent chance of being effective without the need for additional undo hardship, which will surely now push many of them over the deep end.  Do we really want that?  I, for one, surely don't.