Friday, June 18, 2021

Becoming A Fossil

Han Solo:
Where did you dig up that old fossil?

Ben is a great man.

Han Solo:
Yeah, great at getting us into trouble.

I will make no comparisons between me and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this post, though it's true that in the past few years I've taken to wearing a hoodie during the winter months. Rather, the quote leads off this piece because it conveys the intended meaning of fossil that is in the post title.   

While I do want to consider a few examples of my drift toward being a fossil, what I really want to do is juxtapose these with questions about the labor market, to try to illuminate potential issues that are being batted around now. In particular, there have been many pieces as of late on the aging of society in America, overall low population growth, and labor market shortages.  The immediate thought is that senior citizens working some, even after they've reached the retirement age, would become a normal thing.  Some senior citizens do that now, President Biden for example.  Perhaps better examples come from the guy who makes deliveries for our florist and the guys who run the shuttle service for the car dealer.  I suspect they do this work to amplify their income and because it is do-able and not too stressful for them.  So it happens already, but perhaps not at the scale that it needs to happen in the not too distant future.  What things would need to be put into place in the not too distant future for it to happen at the appropriate scale?  Or is that even possible?

My Drift Toward Becoming A Fossil

My first example of becoming a fossil is my blogging, which I began back in 2005, partly because I found the listservs I was on then inadequate for sharing my ideas and partly because I didn't have a colleague in the know to have a coffee with on a daily basis and I needed some way to express my formative thinking.  Before too long I became part of the .edu blog community, which meant reading and commenting on other blogs in this community as well as writing my own. I developed a reputation for writing long and complex posts.  At the time there was a slow blogging movement whose members' inclination was to write in a manner contrary to the general drift of writing online.  Indeed, Barbara Ganley, who appears in the photo that leads off this piece became a friend and colleague for me till about summer of 2010, when I retired.  

I do want to note that I was different from the other .edu bloggers in the job I held at the time.  At the start I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies at Illinois, a very large research university.  That was a fairly high level administrative position.  Most of the other .edu bloggers had mid level positions and weren't part of IT management on their respective campuses.  So, part of the audience for my blog was vendors who wanted insight into the thinking of upper IT management on the various campuses.  Virtually none of my peers job-wise wrote a blog.  Consequently, the vendors glommed onto what I wrote.  Likewise, on more than one occasion I wrote on politically contentious ed tech issues that non-IT administrators on my campus would read.  For example, after the fact, I learned that this post caused some consternation.  But I heard that from a friend, not from the people who were upset with the post in campus administration.  I learned to write in a style of reasoned argument, which meant I wasn't a cheerleader for a particular cause, and tried to be evenhanded in the posts, asking questions that others didn't seem to be asking and making conjectures about possible answers but not giving definitive solutions.  Reasoned argument, formative thinking, conjectures about answers to puzzling questions, and slow blogging go hand in hand.

After I retired, in summer 2010, I continued to blog but there were changes in how I went about it.  I wrote on more varied topics, sometimes nostalgic posts about childhood, other times about national politics and/or economics.  The posts that were about undergraduate education, still the core of what I wrote, were based more on my own teaching.  I would teach one class a year during the fall semester.  Those experiences informed what I wrote about.  On the other hand, I stopped reading other .edu blogs for the most part. While I did read Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education some, much of their stuff that is written by staff is arms length. And with their opinion pieces that are typically contributed by some faculty member, you have little sense of the author ahead of reading the piece. So it is unlike reading someone's blog who writes regularly and whose voice thus becomes familiar.  I'm an introvert by inclination.  But I value exchanging ideas in a social setting with colleagues.  The upshot is that for me there was much less of this sort of social interaction and much more of me simply working through my arguments in my head.  My introvert tendencies were amplified as a result.

Two consequences of this are first that my frequency in posting went down.  When I started I was making a post almost every day.  After retirement, that went down to about a post a week.  Then it lowered even more.  Over the past six months or so it has been one or two posts per month.  And the second consequence is that posts have gotten much longer, so that even after I go to the keyboard it usually takes two or three days and possibly a week to complete the thing.  This combination of low frequency and very lengthy posts cuts against current trends in informal online writing.  My audience has fallen accordingly.  While I regret that, I'm writing this stuff now as therapy for me, to help me understand things.  Making sense of things is what keeps me going, so I intend to stick with doing the blog writing that way. Later in the piece I will discuss that there may be some hidden benefits from this approach, which are not so fossil-like.

Let me turn to the next example.  This is about being a mentor for Illinois Promise, a scholarship program on campus for students who come from poor families.  Early on in the program it was found that students who had mentors had higher retention rates than those that did not.  So, thereafter the program tried to encourage mentoring, although it remains opt-in for both the mentors and the mentees.  I became a mentor the year after I retired and have done it most years since.  I didn't try to be a mentor in 2018-19 for health reasons, nor in the following year because I was teaching in fall 2019 and I thought that was enough for me.  But I wasn't teaching in fall 2020 and even with the pandemic, I thought I could mentor fine online, using Zoom fairly frequently for interactions with the mentee and/or writing online asynchronously in whatever application the mentee preferred.  (I seem to recall that WhatsApp was mentioned in this context but of that I'm not sure.)  Given the circumstances, the program was okay with totally online mentoring.  I did go through the mentor training and had some further interactions with the person who was in charge of matching students to mentors.  All of that seemed to go reasonably well.  Yet I wasn't matched with a mentee, the first time that's ever happened.  

In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal.  But it's precisely because it's not a big deal that I want to analyze the situation, to come up with plausible reasons for this outcome without, I hope, ruffling any feathers. In this analysis I will introduce the usual economic jargon, which is helpful in considering the overall labor market issues, and some non-economic factors as well that otherwise may not come up in the discussion.  

Mentors can be retirees like me, or current faculty or staff, or current students, particularly those who are also in Illinois Promise, and I believe members of the community who are not otherwise affiliated with the university can also serve as mentors.  Who should the student want to be their mentor?  Let's try to tackle that question first.  

If you conceive of the mentoring as mainly about academic issues, with the student life component relevant only insofar as it impacts the academic side, then the students should be looking for expertise on the academic side from the mentor.  Expertise in the academic side should be related to the formal education the mentor has and, more importantly, the research the mentor has been engaged in, which might be listed on the bio document that students get to peruse, as well as time on campus to understand how things work at the university.  The place is big and bureaucratic and sometimes to cut through that and get answers to questions requires understanding of the system.  In both cases you'd refer to the expertise as human capital.  In a coarse way, human capital can be measured.  In this dimension, retired faculty and current faculty have more human capital than current students.  

But it may be that even on the academic side of things there is a student perspective that eludes most faculty and staff.  Other students on campus would have an advantage in understanding the student side of things.  This is an example of specific human capital, the type that comes from direct experience with a specific organization.  Juniors and seniors in Illinois Promise who started as first-year students will "know the ropes." Recalling their own trajectory on campus, they might be better able to get a new first-year student up to speed.

Then, let me turn briefly to student life issues.  It may be that the mentee is more concerned about being lonely, coming from a high school that doesn't send many students to the U of I, than about anything else.  A student mentor might then solve this problem by introducing the mentee to other students on campus who are in Illinois Promise and want to be their friends.  In some ideal, perhaps, the Illinois Promise student would become friends with students on campus from a diverse set of backgrounds and circumstances.  Maybe that is possible, particularly for a very outgoing student.  But for the shy student, loneliness is surely a concern.  If mentoring might be a path out of that, that's the path the student will select.  

Let's return to the academic issues but consider this from a different angle.  In the late 1990s I experienced this "natural experiment" in the class I was teaching then, a very large intermediate microeconomics class, my SCALE project.  A significant part of the innovation in that class was to use undergraduates who had previously taken the course and done well in it as TAs, who would have online office hours during the evening. (Intermediate micro typically did not have graduate student TAs at that time.)  While this proved to be quite popular with the students, some of the students requested that these TAs also hold face-to-face office hours.  I accommodated that request.  By a scheduling glitch, those TA office hours overlapped some with my office hours.  The TA would be sitting in an office just across the hall from me and students who went to the TA office hours had to walk past my office, so I could see them do that. On quite a few occasions, students would opt for the TA rather than see me, though I was available for them at the time.  This experience offers something of a puzzle. 

On human capital grounds, regarding understanding economics and how the course was designed, I had much more human capital than my TAs.  That much is indisputable.  Evidently, the students who went to office hours and went to see the student TA when I was available didn't base that decision on human capital considerations. It seems to me a psychological explanation better explains the student choice.  Going to office hours can be psychologically uncomfortable, because the student is showing that they don't understand something which they feel they should be getting.  This is tantamount to admitting they are stupid.  It's hard to admit you're stupid in front of an authority figure.  (Indeed, some students are uncomfortable when in front of an authority figure without the not understanding something an issue at all.)  It's easier to open up about not understanding with a peer.  Doing so seems less consequential.  

So, I conjecture this issue matters in the mentoring as well, even if the mentoring does focus on the academic side of things.  The mentees may simply be more comfortable with student mentors.  

Thus, getting back to the question of who the student should want as a mentor, the analysis shows it can cut either way.  There isn't one right answer.  

Now let me further embellish my recent experience with not being matched to a mentee.  I'm quite sure that at the training I attended (in Zoom) I was the only retiree in the session.  And in my interactions with the person who was running the matching, a former Illinois Promise student herself, I was told there are only a few retirees now wanting to serve as mentors.  When I started as a mentor there were quite a few retirees doing it.  What has happened in the interim to effect this change?  There are two factors that are evident to me.  One is the pandemic.  The other is change in the leadership of Illinois Promise.  That the pandemic matters here seems sensible, as the pandemic has mattered for all our ways of going about things.  But how and why it matters is less obvious to me.  So I'll mention it only and move on.  Regarding leadership in the program, when I started the Director's spouse was a dean on campus of a small college.  This would seem to bias her views about mentors in favor of current and retired faculty.  The current leadership, as I've already suggested, may be biased in favor of mentors who are current Illinois Promise students.

It is tempting for me to think of this change as generational and an example of what happens more broadly in society.  When the younger generation takes over, the privilege of the older generation is then transferred to the younger generation.  This may be too broad strokes for serious consideration, but I will use it nonetheless to talk about ageism and what may be a significant issue with redeploying retirees into other lines of work.  I think the issue is not so much a person's chronological age.  Rather it is continuity or not with the work environment and the confirmation bias (which we all have) about those who lack such continuity.  In other words, the person can seem a fossil, quite apart from the person's capabilities, because others who are younger perceive it that way.   And, if that's right, to re-employ retirees in large numbers it would require some way to combat those perceptions or to find areas of work where those perceptions don't matter.

Let me give one more quick example before turning to the labor market issues.  With some irony, I did not teach in fall 2020.  I was asked to teach then, but I told the Econ department that we planned to be in a warmer climate after Thanksgiving, so I would only be able to teach if near the end of the semester I could move the course online.  This was before the pandemic and the department refused to make that accommodation - all undergraduate courses were to be taught face-to-face.  The department went through a change of leadership soon thereafter and nobody tried to reverse this decision after the pandemic made it clear that most instruction would move online.  

As a consequence, I don't know the attitudes of students who went through this experience via my own teaching.  There has certainly been a lot written about it, but I tend to put a lot of stock in my own teaching experience and learning from that.  Now I am lacking that way.  Does that make it impractical for me to teach again in the near future?  In other words, does the lack of experience from not teaching last fall trump all the prior experience I do have, because the ground has moved under our feet and things are truly different now?  I don't know. I simply want to note this might be an example of a third way to become a fossil - missing out on a big common experience that significantly impacted the mindset of others. 

There are other ways where my mindset and experience is different from my sons, both who are in their late 20s.  I don't play video games, having stopped doing that in 1999.  Other than reading the Harry Potter books aloud to them when they were kids, I don't read fantasy fiction.  I don't listen to hip hop music.  I don't participate in fantasy football.  And, mainly, I don't watch current movies.  All of this creates some distance between me and people of their generation.  In itself, it doesn't make me a fossil.  But taken together with those factors described above, it contributes to that perception.

* * * * *

Retirees and the Labor Market

The above can be thought of as background material for what will be argued in the rest of the piece.  The underlying questions I want to address are these.  If there is a chronic labor market shortage because of demographic factors, should retirees who are fossils or are near to becoming fossils re-enter the labor market to increase supply and ameliorate the shortage?  If so, how might that happen? 

Let me make some caveats before addressing the questions.  First, labor market shortages that are evident at present might be fully attributable to consequences of the pandemic, particularly that parents with young children had to reduce their labor supply or withdraw from the labor market completely.  This shortage is no doubt real, but it is near term.  If we get past the pandemic and return to something we call normal, this shortage will fix itself, at least one might hope that to be the case.  Here we're focused on a more long term issue.  With low population growth and the aging of the population overall, the fraction of the population working full time is likely to shrink.  That will produce its own shortage, or so the thinking goes.  

Second, there are some factors cutting the other way, notably the increasing importance of artificial intelligence as well as the ongoing automation of many work tasks.  These factors reduce labor demand.  As a result, the above mentioned labor shortage may never manifest.  Nonetheless, there are apt to be substantial issues of timing as innovation will be implemented unevenly in the future.  Moreover, there might very well be increased challenges regarding income distribution, further skewing an already unequal economy where the 1% capture far too large a share of income for that to be healthy.  Indeed, the income distribution issues may swamp the issues of overall growth of the economy due to labor shortage.

Third, the population of retirees should be partitioned into at least three components.  Component A consists of those people who are incapable of working, either face-to-face or at-a-distance, because of disability that is physical or mental.  Component B consists of people who are retired involuntarily. They lost their previous job for whatever reason, were unable to find a new job, and then left the labor market.  They may then refer to themselves as retirees because of their age and for the dignity in the name, although their income and/or health care are inadequate in retirement. Component C consists of those people who retired voluntarily and, absent any large unanticipated expenditures since retirement, have adequate income and health benefits.   With mandatory retirement ending 35 years ago, these categories are sufficient when considering the retiree population.  General human capital is likely to be concentrated among retirees in component  C, even after accounting for vintage effects and human capital depreciation.  This means labor demand will be higher for those people in component C.  Conversely, due to the income differentials, labor supply will be higher for people in component B.  Both of these factors taken together present challenges in coming up with a meaningful approach or set of approaches to get greater labor force participation from retirees. 

Fourth, the labor market is segmented and it may be better to consider each segment on a case by case basis.  Labor shortage may impact some segments chronically, while other segments remain entirely unaffected.  So it might be better to imagine segment specific strategies than one grand strategy for the entire market.  

Last, the pandemic has given legitimacy to working online at a distance.  That certainly was happening before the pandemic, but it was more exception than rule.  In the new normal it might become a co-equal to performing work face-to-face at the workplace.  For many retirees, in particular, this offers an avenue to participate in the labor market where otherwise they might not participate at all. 

With the above questions and the various caveats, I think I've done a reasonable job of problem definition. Good luck to any and all who aim to provide a general solution.  In what follows I have a far more modest aim.  I will focus on my own writing and experiences that speak to the issues, which I hope will illuminate further questions that need answers.  I know my preferences and capabilities may not generalize to the larger population (I'm a member of component C) but how they played out in my case might help in considering the broader issues.

About fifteen years ago I wrote a post, Second Careers and K-12. At the time I was 51 years old, with almost 10 years as an ed tech administrator in various positions on campus, and 16 years before that as a regular faculty member.  The first 6 years as an ed tech administrator were terrific, though I confess that at first I thought I was under qualified, lacking prior administrative experience and not well educated in how people learn.  I was able to make up for those shortcomings rather quickly and I learned the job suited my temperament and my talents. Further, most of the faculty who embraced ed tech then, the innovators and early adopters, did so by making clever adaptations of the technology in the courses they taught. I thought the real magic was in those adaptations rather than in the technology itself.  And the small units I ran were able to help these faculty members do the experiments with technology that they wanted to pull off.  Even after our mission changed, to bring these benefits to majority faculty members, we were able to encourage them to rethink their teaching in light of the technology, which is how I hoped adoption would occur.  But that didn't last. 

As usage increased there was a need to move to an "enterprise approach" and with that the small unit I ran became part of the larger technology organization.  On the back end (servers, network, security, etc.) that was all for the good.  But the culture of the larger organization focused on the technology itself and my unit, accordingly, became the tech support for the learning management system as its core activity.  I had more visibility and was being paid more after the merger, but my heart wasn't in the work any more.  So, in fact, when I wrote that piece about K-12 I had already arranged to take another position in the College of Business, to see if I could find what had attracted me to the work at the outset, as they were just getting going then in implementing ed tech in a strategic way.  (They are going gangbusters now.) But I also realized that might not happen, in which case I would need to look for something else, ergo a second career. One thought then was that teaching in high school might rejuvenate me.  Another thought was that public school education, in general, is an area where there is a chronic shortage of qualified teachers.  Turnover is extremely high.  Finding alternative sources for hiring new teachers seemed an imperative.  The post then explored the nexus of my personal needs and the social need. It was a think aloud, as most of my posts are.  It was not meant as a game plan for the rest of my career. 

What I write in the following might be taken as a sequel to that post, regarding what I learned since I retired back in summer 2010, four years after I became an Associate Dean in the College of Business. I was slated to retire early, given that the job in the Business School only partially rejuvenated me work-wise.  But the retirement itself was expedited by the budget crunch the university experienced after the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 and eventually the voluntary separation program that was instituted so the university could reduce the size of its payroll. 

A good deal of this is what motivates a retiree particularly, what distinguishes work from play, and then further, what is the difference between work for pay versus work as a volunteer activity?  These questions have answers that are different for a retiree than they are for someone in their 20s who is just starting out or someone in their late 30s or early 40s who is in mid-career.  Here are some of the factors that matter for why the answers are different. 

Personal Health

In the 1980s and early 1990s (before my older son was born) I played quite a bit of golf and developed "the bug" for it. I still have my bag and clubs from then and more recently would entertain myself by going to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls.  But, now I have pretty bad lower back pain from arthritis and bone spurs.  The last time I went out to hit a small bucket (I think this was in summer 2019, but of that I'm not sure) I couldn't make it through even half of the balls.  My back was really hurting and I had to stop.  This is the sort of thing that keeps one from doing the activity.  If I didn't experience pain like this, surely I would spend a lot of my leisure time playing golf. 

Likewise, in the 1980s and through the 1990s I would go jogging, for the aerobic benefit and as a way to manage my weight.  But near the end of the 1990s I started to have knee pain and around 9/11 I gave it up entirely.  Foolish me, I didn't take up walking as a serious activity till many years later.  As a result and as compensation for the stress I was feeling at work, my weight ballooned. Eventually I did take up walking.  It didn't provide the aerobic benefit as far as I know, but it was regular exercise and gave good body motion. In the winter months, I rode the stationary bike in our exercise room.  But that was far less satisfying.  Eventually, we got rid of it and replaced it with both a treadmill and an elliptical.  I discovered that with either of them, my arms would bear some of my weight so there was less pressure on my back and I didn't feel pain there.  Eventually, the walking brought about the back pain and I made the switch to the treadmill, even in the warmer months. The elliptical was always a challenge for me, fodder for one of my rhymes but not something I could stick with for a long stretch of time. We do have a TV in the exercise room so I can watch (with subtitles) while I'm walking and break up the routine now and then by lifting light weights.  I've found I can stick with this as long as I'm not hurting too much elsewhere, but doing it is more obligation than passion. The upshot is that I needed something else to really occupy me.

The Creative Attitude

About a year ago I wrote a post called, Is Now an Apt Time for College Students to Embrace The Creative Attitude?  The paragraph below is from that post

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.

One of the reasons I liked to read Maslow is that he seemed to have found what makes me tick.  Sometimes, writing blog posts like this is a way for me to embrace the creative attitude.  Other times, it would happen when making a learning object in Excel that I would use in my teaching.  Most instructors wouldn't think to do this sort of thing and would rather use publisher-supplied materials.  I liked making my own as there was challenge and art in doing so and it engaged me totally, most of the time.  Of course, nothing is ever so pure and the sense of full engagement is lost when I get stuck, such as what I wrote about here in making a homework assignment in Excel on the economics of bargaining, having experienced getting past the being stuck stage and doing so on multiple occasions.  I do look forward to these episodes of complete absorption and have been able to make it my raison d'ĂȘtre. Sometimes reading provides this feeling.  That happens more with fiction, though in the last few years I've noticed that it takes quite a while for me to get into the book.  

I do also want to make a bow to James Thurber's Walter Mitty.  While it's true that when I first started to write a blog I had so much backlogged experience to write about that it felt as if the words just flowed out of me with no effort whatsoever, nowadays that is no longer true.  Prewriting is necessary.  And for me, prewriting is a lot like daydreaming; maybe they are one and the same. There is a bit of a puzzle here.  You have to be doing something when you're prewriting.  I noticed as a teenager that I liked to wash the dishes (though I was inherently lazy about housework) because the activity was sufficiently autonomous that I could do my imagining simultaneously.  (I wasn't writing then, but I was being like Walter Mitty.)  Now I apparently waste a lot of time on the computer screen (mainly solitaire but some Sudoku as well) where there is likewise enough autonomy in that to allow the prewriting to happen.  But the reality is I'm also stuck with some regularity and then I'm prone to procrastinate.  I waste time then that is purely dissipative.  Nothing comes from it at all.  And sometimes I can't tell which I'm doing.  This is more for writing the blog posts than doing work which is externally imposed and may have a deadline.  I get down to business then more quickly, the obligation to others does provide an effective incentive. Yet there are limits to that.

Play Or Work, Which Is It?

I like this quote:

You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play.
Warren Beatty 
The last time I taught a class, fall 2019, I showed this quote to my students. They asked: who is Warren Beatty?  (Maybe it's not that I'm a fossil but rather that the current generation of college students is under-educated.)  In any event, I think this quote continues to apply in retirement, though one needs to expand the notion of what may count as work.  The critical issue is not whether you're paid for doing it.  What matters is whether others benefit from your effort. 

Anything posted on the open Web is a public good in an economics sense.  This means it's non-excludable; one person's consumption of the good doesn't block the consumption of other people.  In contrast, private goods are fully excludable.   Of course, not all public goods are valuable.  Those that have value create a great deal of benefit for a few of those who access it or create a modest benefit for the many who access it.  In this way of thinking, it's mainly play in the making if the finished piece generates hardly any benefit, while it's mainly work if the finished piece creates a good deal of benefit for others.  Yet during the process of creation, when you are not already a well regarded author you can't know what the ultimate benefit will be.  You can form an expectation ahead of time, based on how your other works have been received.  With blog posts, you can measure that reception imperfectly, by the number of hits the post gets, whether those hits are first time readers or regular readers, any comments the post receives, trackbacks and pingbacks, and perhaps by having your entire blog syndicated on some other uber blogging site. You might prefer the expression "making a contribution" rather than refer to the writing as work, but that's more a linguistic preference than anything else. 

I do want to make another point that I think is more important.  There is an ego reward in writing a post that gets an unusually large number of hits and/or gets some comments that commend the author on a job well done. If the writer can treat these ego rewards as something in the background, nothing more than that, it's fine.  After all, the writer can't control what others will say or do.  But if those ego rewards start to become part of the prime motivation for writing new blog posts, that's the road to perdition.  A bad case of writer's block will develop.  The creative attitude will be lost, as will any sense of play.  I wish I could provide some advice for how to avoid this from happening, but all I can do is issue the warning. 

Volunteer Or Work For Money

My attitudes about this have evolved.  In retirement I receive a pension from the State University Retirement System (SURS).  At the time I retired the pension was substantially less than the salary I received during the tail end of my working for the university.  In 2010, that discrepancy was more than offset by the separation payment I received.  But starting in 2011 there was a substantial discrepancy and my focus was on working to make up that difference.   At that time one of our kids had just started at the U of I and the other was still in high school.  If he too went to the U of I, which is ultimately what happened, that would be quite manageable financially.  But if he went to a private university, such as Northwestern or U. Chicago, that would be quite a financial bite.  Further, I had a thought that I'd be doing some consulting,  on which these income expectations were based.  That ultimately did not pan out.  The overall economy was still pretty shaky at the time and consulting opportunities were less available than I had anticipated.  In retrospect that may have been for the best.  Giving people reasoned advice I can do.  Selling them a bill of goods cuts against my nature.  I'm afraid that too much consulting ends up being the latter. 

In spring 2011 I taught two courses for the Economics Department, Intermediate Microeconomics and Behavioral Economics.  That was the only time I taught two courses in a semester since I've retired. This more or less made up the income gap between my prior salary and my current pension.  But that was a one and done thing.  Indeed starting in fall 2012, I would only teach one course a year on the Economics of Organizations.  At or around that time I did some one-off volunteer work, for example, producing a training document for another university, where I knew the head learning technologist there from my earlier administrative work. I made a brief but ultimately aborted effort to get involved with teaching in the local high schools.  And I schmoozed online quite a bit with a former colleague about possibly consulting with him, though nothing ever came of it. 

In the meantime, my wife got a promotion at work and with that a good pay increase.  Paying for the kids' college no longer looked like it would create a strain, and the reality of our day to day spending was that it seemed entirely unchanged by me being retired.  Consequently, the salary at the time of retirement stopped being a reference point for me regarding current income.  It's also true that there is a 3% COLA on SURS pensions while for a good part of the 2010s decade salary increases at the university were rare and modest when they did happen.  So there was some sense of catching up income-wise, purely from the pension, and less of a felt need to generate additional income.

My desire to keep teaching came from a different place.  I had spent 14 years as an ed tech administrator and undergraduate education was my focus.  I was totally wrapped up in it all those years.  Even after I stopped working I couldn't let go in thinking about undergraduate education.  Teaching was a way to enable continued involvement, albeit from a different perspective.  I would be able to have substantial and ongoing contact with students and learn from them.  And I would be able to have teaching experiments to see what might pique their interest and engage them further.  This is why I continued to teach after it was clear that the income needs really weren't there. 

There are some unpleasant aspects to college teaching, much of which surrounds assigning grades and the various ancillary consequences, cheating on exams for example, though those consequences go well beyond cheating. I'm also no fan of the process where students can add or drop a course freely during the first two weeks of the semester. And while I understand that seniors need to go to job interviews, that this has become a legitimate reason for missing class I find disturbing.  So I've come to view the payment I do get from teaching as a compensating differential, to offset these various sources of unpleasantness.  Indeed, I'd be willing to teach as a volunteer activity, if all this unpleasantness would go away.  To illustrate the point, in my recent project that I called The Non-Course, I conceived of my coaching of students as a purely volunteer activity.  

Let me turn to my real and significant volunteer work, which began in fall 2015 and has continued since, for a human rights organization in Uganda now called Universal Love Alliance (ULA). I will detail some of my involvement in the next section, which will focus on how volunteer work should be structured if it is to attract people like me.  Here I will content myself with discussing my motivation for participating, which has evolved over time. Some of these factors will generalize to others, but then some of them will be specific to me. 

At the start I knew nothing about the work that ULA does nor about the issues in Uganda that would encourage the work. So, at first it really was a stab in the dark.  I tried it only because the teaching wasn't going well and I had told myself that I needed to find something else to occupy my time.  ULA came along then and they wanted me to participate.  If the teaching had been going well I would have declined the invitation and that would have been that.  In other words, that much was serendipity. 

While the initial group that I was part of failed and indeed a couple of the group's members were running a scam so they were eventually forced out of the group, the experience enabled me to have a direct conversation (via Facebook Messenger) with the Executive Director of of ULA, Turinawe Samson.  We soon became friends and informally I became his mentor.  This wasn't planned; it just happened.  What allowed it to happen is the trust that quickly developed between us.  I value collegial relationships greatly, as I wrote about in this post called Affection.  I soon had similar friendship/trust relationships with others at ULA in leadership positions. 

At the outset I didn't know what I could contribute to the effort.  I found that some of the technology ideas I was trying to advance in my teaching could be modified and then used in ULA work. And my experience as an administrator was helpful in the mentoring with Samson.  So while the work that ULA does is quite different from anything I had experienced earlier while working at the university, I found that I had relevant skills to do this work. It wasn't like I was starting at square one. 

Over time I became quite knowledgeable about what ULA does and how it contributes to making Uganda a better place for all.  And I became aware that the people who worked at ULA were perhaps the most genuinely good people I had ever met.  They put their hearts and souls into helping marginalized people.  Their dedication to the work impressed me a great deal.  And as I became their friends, I did not want to see them fail.  That is why I stick with it.

What readers might find surprising is that it is not ULA's mission which drives me.  I certainly believe that all people should be treated with common decency, so my views are in accord with the ULA mission.  But I have never been an activist and apart from undergraduate education have never been driven in my own efforts to fulfill some grand vision. Having a means of self-expression was always more important to me.  Back in 2012, immediately after Halloween I spent 5 days in the hospital because of an infection in my shoulder, where I had rotator cuff repair about 6 weeks earlier.  I spent some time then thinking about the motivation of nurses, whom I saw much more frequently than doctors.  Nurses are close to being egoless, surrendering themselves to the needs of the patients. At least the good nurses are like that.  This may be the image most people have of the dedicated volunteer.  But it is not me.  While I support ULA strongly, I still find a way for self-expression in the work, at least some of the work.  It is true that there is less novelty for me now than there was at the beginning.  Some of the work just has to get done and I do it out of obligation. But if that were the entirety of things, I think I'd give up and look to do something else.

How Volunteer Work Should Be Structured For Someone Like Me

Much of what I do for ULA is ghostwriting/copy editing.  I wrote about this in a post from a few years ago. ULA is a non-profit and it needs revenues to operate.  One of the ways it secures revenues is through grants that are awarded competitively.  That means a grant proposal needs to be submitted.  Writing such a proposal takes some skill, one that is not there among the ULA staff in Uganda.  The ghostwriting fills in this gap in capability.  But the ghostwriting is not limited to just writing grant proposals.  ULA does workshops on contentious topics that require the attendees to suspend their own prior judgements and reach new conclusions based on the information provided at the workshops.  Part of the workshops involves giving the attendees written training materials.  The quality of the writing in those documents matters for the effectiveness of the workshops.  Well written materials are more persuasive.  Then there is a lot of correspondence that occurs between ULA and potentially important connections with people outside the organization.  These are possible donors, or leaders of other organizations who can provide very useful advice, or administrators in organizations that have provided grants to ULA already, where it would be good to establish a personal connection to enable the grants to recur.  So, the emails and related documents also need to be well written.  

My authoring or editing of this writing is highly visible within ULA and within its sister organization ULAF (a foundation that does fundraising on behalf of ULA) where all Board members are volunteers.  But mainly it is invisible to the recipients of the writing who might very well infer, incorrectly, that the document(s) were written and edited by ULA staff.  Ghostwriters of books get paid for their efforts.  I want to explain why this still can work with the volunteer work.  The main point is that I've already had my career and had previously developed some reputation, both as a writer and as a thoughtful member of the ed tech profession.  I really don't need further recognition now.  What I need is to know that the writing does advance the ULA cause.  I have gotten feedback to that effect.  That is enough.  
Let me briefly connect the ghostwriting to my blog writing.   If writing were like riding a bicycle, there wouldn't be a connection.  Having once learned how to write you can then write on demand thereafter.  Alas, I don't think it works this way.  I think you need to keep practicing to maintain proficiency.  But if the ghostwriting itself happens sporadically, then some other means of practice is necessary.  I will posit here that writing these blog posts has the indirect benefit for me to serve as the needed practice for ghostwriting.  In coming up with that idea I thought of Bill "Spaceman" Lee, a major league pitcher who played for the Red Sox during much of the 1970s.  He had an unusual form of warmup, throwing to his catcher from much further away than the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate.  This loosened him up so he was relaxed when he started the game.  Likewise, the blog post is a kind of warmup activity for writing that is more constrained, following the rules that others provide. It's really the prewriting part that is key. The blog posts require a lot of prewriting.  So I'm ready to perform the necessary prewriting when working on stuff for ULA.

Members of the ULAF Board play the role of an advisory group for ULA, rightly or wrongly.  (We have been told by at least one potential funder that an active Board of Directors in Uganda that ULA relies on is important to them in assessing the organization.  ULA does have such a Board of Directors, but circumstances make it quite difficult for that Board to meet with regularity.)  The ULAF Board sometimes has back and forth with each other without including the ULA leadership from Uganda, just to work through our own thinking, and then has follow up conversation with the ULA leadership included.  Also, individual ULAF Board members might have an extended one-on-one thread with Samson.  I do that quite regularly.  There are a host of issues to work through and talking about them helps to come to a sensible resolution. 
So I find myself part of a team of volunteers who both together and individually have the back of ULA.  We know each other quite well and interact in a friendly manner, even if on occasion there is disagreement in how we should proceed.   We have a chronic need to increase the donor support that ULAF tries to elicit and to make ULA more visible to potential friends and donors.  This may ultimately necessitate changes in the composition of the ULAF Board.  In that case I hope that the tone and style of interaction we currently have can be retained.  I believe those factors sustain each and everyone of us. 
I want to note one other thing here, which is about the intensity of the effort.  Episodically, it is a full time job, when there is an urgent need to get work done.  Mostly however, it is a couple of hours a day only, or less.  But that time is not prespecified.   As I'm usually online a good chunk of the day, connections can be made at any time and work can follow after a connection is made.  I would say that on average it is somewhere between 15 and 20 hours a week, which is about what I want it to be.  I don't want to be working full time now.
Let me now briefly speculate on how such a volunteer effort might be brought into assisting in K-12 education. In the earlier piece I mentioned on second careers the thought was that I'd become a teacher and get paid for the effort.  I'd be a substitute (in the economics sense) for current teachers.  Instead, imagine a team of volunteers, perhaps with retirees or current college students or anyone else who is interested in doing this sort of thing and has some capability that would be useful, that operates in the background to help teachers.  This might mean helping them respond to student writing, making learning objects for them to deploy, serving as mentors so teachers can talk out their issues with an interested listener, and possibly many other activities that can be tried based on the expressed needs of teachers and the capabilities of the volunteers.  This volunteer group would serve as a complement (in the economics sense) for current teachers.  I think this has a much better chance of working than what I wrote about 15 years ago.  And if it is a group that provides this background support, rather than a single individual, it might be able to manage turnover and bring in new members to the group without too much disruption.  At least, that would be the hope.

* * * * * 

Wrap Up

If the logic argued in the previous section makes sense and we wanted to generalize from it further, it may be that certain segments of the labor market where there are shortages try to attract retirees via volunteer activities while other segments with shortages try to attract retirees by having them come out of retirement and paying them for the work they do (and perhaps giving them the necessary training so they can succeed in doing that work).  For this to succeed, the component C retirees would have to opt for the volunteer activity or not participate at all, while the component B retirees would have to opt for the paid work or not participate at all.  Achieving this would produce what economists call a separating equilibrium.  We'd then be interested in such equilibria where a sizable number of retirees do participate. 
Getting from here to there will take quite some doing.  I hope this piece illuminates those things that will need to be done to make it happen.  That's the full picture in a nutshell.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Can We Overcome Our Own Selfishness?

I was thinking of writing a post with a different title - Why Is It So Hard For Us To Get Along? - but as I pushed the ideas a little bit I kept coming back to the issues represented by the current title. So let me give a quick sketch of how I got here in my thinking and then get to those issues in one particular, but very important case.

I went to Junior High School 74 in Bayside, Queens New York.  I started 7th grade in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There was busing to achieve integration in school. But, as I've written several times, there was tracking via SP classes at 74 and later via Honors classes at Cardozo, the local high school I attended after graduating from 74.  The tracking created a school-within-a-school effect and the so-called academically elite kids were not really exposed to integration in their academic classes, with only a small number of exceptions. Ironically, one of the exceptions was economics, which I took in the fall semester of my senior year.  My vague recollection is that it was a nondescript course, more macro than micro, with some attempt to give students familiarity with variables that economists care about, e.g., unemployment rate, GDP, and inflation.  It had no impact on me whatsoever and was not a factor in why I eventually chose to go to graduate school in economics. But as it was my only experience with a truly integrated academic class (this class included many non-honors students who weren't bused to Cardozo) it's just too small a sample for me to make sweeping judgments about what a full curriculum of this sort would have been like.  The takeaway point for what I want to argue here is that when I was in Junior High and High School there was plenty of room for the implementation of integration to improve over time.

And this perspective is only my own as a student.  What about the perspective of those students who were bused in?  Did they or their families see benefits from integration regarding the quality of the schooling?  I don't know.  But I do know that at the time in high school there were three different types of diplomas offered: academic, general, and commercial.   The tracking I referred to earlier was within the academic category.  In principle, for those students who expected high school to be the culmination of their formal education such categories might make sense to better prepare students for the world of work. But if a school is perceived by its academic achievements then it might "strategically" shortchange students in the non-academic categories.  And I believe that some years later NYC got rid of the other types of diplomas because they were perceived as discriminatory.  But I have no information about how bused-in students were distributed over the diploma categories nor any information about what non-integrated NYC schools were like prior to 1966, other than my own elementary school experience.  So I will just make a theoretical statement.  If average quality of schooling was notably higher for bused-in students, then integration of the schools might be socially preferred even if quality of education dropped a bit for those students who weren't bused to school.*

But there were other reasons why the integration was less than perfect and these may have mattered more.  Many kids went to parochial school rather than to public school.  I never fully understood this.  Among the kids I knew who went to public school, many also went to Hebrew school, which had meeting times that did not overlap with public school.  I recall that when I was in elementary school a few Christian kids would leave early on Wednesday afternoons to attend religious training. So there was some overlap in this case, but it was modest.  And I have no clue about the respective tuition rates then at those parochial schools that were full substitutes for public school and those other parochial schools that operated outside of public school times.  Clearly that matters in drawing any inferences here.  My prior would have been that the parochial schools that operated outside of public school hours would have the majority of kids.  I believe that to be the case of the Jewish students, but not for the Catholic students. (In NYC at the time, those two groups together constituted a majority of the population, though I'm asserting this from memory.  I did a quick search online for this information but didn't find it.)  This is the part I'm referring to when I said above that I never fully understood this.  And I believe this division between Jews and Catholics about the religious training of the children preceded busing in the NYC public schools.

There were also ritzy prep schools, where I know even less than I know about the parochial schools.  I will use the tennis player John McEnroe to illustrate.  According to Wikipedia he grew up in Douglaston, not too far from where I grew up in Bayside, and graduated from high school in 1977, five years after I graduated.  I'm not 100% sure that he would have gone to Cardozo had he attended public school, but it seems from that Wikipedia entry that he went to Trinity School instead, an elite private K-12 school. 

The conclusion I'd like the reader to draw is that regarding school in New York City at the time I was growing up (50+ years ago) there was stratification of students by race, religion, and parental income/wealth.  (One surely could also discus stratification by gender, but not with the very broad strokes of evidence that I'm utilizing here.) There were efforts to reduce the stratification by race via busing to achieve integration of the schools.  But there were no efforts to reduce the other sources of stratification at that time, as far as I know.  One might argue that New York was already such a "melting pot" that there was no need for the schools to play this role.  I think that argument is wrong.  In an American Politics class in college we read parts of Beyond the Melting Pot, which spoke about persistent cultural difference well after assimilation should have occurred.  And this word assimilation begs the questions, assimilation into what?  Was there a distinctive American culture that we all learned?  If so, how did we learn it.

Much later, sometime in the early 1990s, when I had been a faculty member for over a decade, I read Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, a book whose title suggests a refutation of Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.  In a nutshell Levine argues that we can readily maintain two identities and there is no problem doing so.  I can be American and I can be Jewish.  Both identities co-exist without difficulty.   But then, there is the question of how the American part gets educated.  I would argue that public schools play an indispensable role here.  

In any event, this provides the initial conditions I want to consider.  In the intervening 50 years or so, has there been progress?  Do we get along better now than we did back then in ways that are obvious to all?  If not, why not?  

Now I will put on my economics hat.  There is an elegant explanation for why we don't always make progress, innovation notwithstanding, and instead remain locked into the status quo.  The quintessential example is the QWERTY keyboard, which was invented to slow people down in typing when the mechanical keys would jam if you typed too quickly.  (The linked paper by Paul David is quite interesting and readable by the non-economist.)  We no longer have any issues with the keys jamming, but the layout of keys on the keyboard persists.  The explanation is about interdependencies.  Too many other things would break if the layout were changed.  (Not the least of which is that old fogies like me would balk at learning a new system, compared to now when typing is more or less an automatic process.)  Interdependencies can sustain the status quo, even in the presence of substantial innovation.  (The academic calendar is another example.  The summer break is a vestige of an agrarian economy that no longer exists yet we still have the summer break.)  

Particularly with regard to race and the persistence of racism, we don't normally talk about identifying the sources of interdependency.  Maybe we should do that to inquire whether these are so fixed that realistically nothing can be done about it.  Alternatively, maybe our focus should be on changing these linkages in a way that they no longer block the more fundamental change we'd like to see, although doing so will be arduous.  Yet doing difficult things for the greater good may be the right antidote for our social ills at present.

Evidently, our national politics provides one big source of this interdependency. I thought this piece by Michelle Goldberg quite insightful on how those who preach "family values" are using that lens as a way to attack "critical race theory" and thereby generate high voter participation rates. Is there a way to espouse a strong anti-racist message that folks who put great stock in family values would find palatable and non-threatening?  It seems to me an interesting question to ask, but one beyond my own competence to answer.  So I will merely pose it here and push on.

A different source is based on economic dislocation.  This isn't about losing a particular job.  It is about an entire sector of work drying up.  For a long time the culprit was manufacturing and the blame was on offshoring and automation.  It was blue collar workers who experienced this dislocation. Many of them are white and without a college degree.  When they lost their good manufacturing jobs they didn't want to switch to lower paying service sector work, which they viewed as namby pamby.  Indeed, an important factor to consider with this economic dislocation is that it engenders a sense of emasculation.  The image of the man as the provider for the family was defeated by the facts on the ground and there was no alternative positive image that they could embrace.  Among the social consequences to note, the opioid crisis took firm hold within this sub-population. 

It's my understanding that this is the core of Trump's base. MAGA as well as the anti-immigration and the implied racism that goes with it serves an emotional compensation for this sub-population, who are frustrated by their poor employment prospects.  They blame the Democrats who abandoned them, recalling that when private-sector unions were a strong force in this country they were aligned with the Democratic party.  In this story, they were thrown under the bus to make room for the new identity politics.  

My knowledge of labor history in the U.S. is a little rusty, but I believe some of this story is revisionist and perhaps outright wrong.  Those who recall the TV show All In The Family might remember that Archie Bunker worked on the loading dock, was a union guy, but was a very strong Nixon supporter. This was at a time when unions were still strong.  How can this be explained?  It's easy enough if you include the Vietnam War in the picture.  That war created a different divide within the country, the hardhats versus the hippies.  Being a union guy, but already in the Republican fold followed from being for the war.  And this was the early 1970s.  In the next decade, Reagan busted PATCO, and thereby signaled to the private sector that his administration would accommodate a hard-line response to unions.  Yet somehow Reagan remains a hero to these Trump supporters. 

It may be that Biden's aggressive economic policies can fundamentally change this ethos by raising the economic well being of blue collar types of all races and ethnicity.  But it will take time for that to happen, to experience this economic improvement and modify expectations that this change is permanent.  I really don't know how long that will take. But I'd guess that if the Democrats don't maintain control of both Congress and the White House for at least the next couple of election cycles, there won't be enough time for this change to happen.  

Further, we need to consider the messaging that voters are exposed to.  Trump's base is passionate about supporting their guy.  The messaging aims to stoke anger in the base and it has done a remarkable job of doing that.  The constant exposure to the messaging is addicting and one can embrace the message regardless of the economic circumstances of the individual. From my point of view it has been this way since Nixon invoked his Southern Strategy and came more firmly into the spiel under Reagan, which is when the so-called culture wars surfaced..  Making low taxes and deregulation the focus of the economic policy, coupled with the union busting I already mentioned, made the economic policy favor the rich and well to do.  The symbolic wins, particularly the not so veiled racism, kept the base in line.  Since I view the economic issues as paramount, particularly in times when otherwise life seems ordinary, meaning neither pandemic nor war, that the base settled for these symbolic rewards only makes it seem to me that they've been played. At present, that's just my thinking. It's not in the messaging of the Biden Administration, as far as I can tell, probably because they don't want to inflame Trump supporters now given how tense the situation already is.  However, it may become part of the messaging over time, particularly if the economic policies are perceived as a success and blue collar voters increasingly come to accept that the government has a significant role to play in simultaneously providing needed public goods (infrastructure) and the good jobs that go along with that provision. 

Would the reality and future prospect of a middle class lifestyle reduce the racism of White blue-collar workers?  One hopes so, even if that happened only gradually.  If the primary source of emasculation was removed, what emotional need would continued racism provide?  I'm not a sociologist, so don't really want to get into the status needs of individuals and groups. Those may very well persist, in which case some racism will endure, though I'd predict it would be much milder than what we currently have.   So, possibly, this is an example of interdependencies that can actually be changed, both the reality and the perception of that, via a sustained economic policy aimed at doing so. 

Were it only so easy.  Unfortunately, economic displacement will continue unabated with the new culprit Artificial Intelligence and with the old reasons for displacement still present.  This will impact white collar workers whose jobs may no longer be necessary.  Will they be able to reeducate sufficiently to find new work in a different sector of the economy?  Or will they languish and go through a life cycle similar to what displaced blue collar workers have previously experienced?  I wish I knew the answer to that question.  I don't even have a good feel on this to let the free market sort things out or to have government play a big role in the solution.  Is a guaranteed minimum income a possibility?  Who knows? Might the retirement age become lower, with 55 the new 65 for that purpose?  Again, who knows?  All I will speculate on here is that Trump's base might expand significantly in the future if this happens more rapidly than expected and good solutions for this new type of displacement are not readily found. 

Now I want to make a brief aside before making a segue to the next idea.  This piece has taken me a very long time to write.  I started it well before the violence in Israel erupted and at the outset I expected it to take only a day or two to write.  That it has taken so much longer is evidence of my personal struggle with the ideas I'm presenting here.  I certainly haven't resolved those to my satisfaction, but I have made enough progress with them that I think I can finish writing this piece now.  

It turns out that selfishness as a concept is not sufficient to consider. Consider the hypothetical world that economists refer to as complete information, where all decision makers have all the information at their fingertips.  Further, economists assume individuals are rational.  In this setting, selfishness is the issue.  But that hypothetical world is not the world in which we live. In reality there is incomplete information.  Sometimes what people don't know is a matter of happenstance.  Other times it is that the information is too complex for them to process in a meaningful way, so they ignore it even if the information is available. Still a third possibility is that people deliberately choose to be ignorant, meaning they could acquire the information, perhaps by reading about it, but choose not to do so.  I want to consider all three taken together as insularity, though in the mind of the individual it is deliberate ignorance which most people consider insularity.  

The reason for considering all three together is that to a third party it may be difficult or indeed impossible to understand which is the true explanation for the person not understanding what is going on. It may then be that for highly complex information there is a need for simplified versions that are available to the layman.  In this way everyone becomes somewhat aware and experts learn to communicate with the rest of the population in terms they can understand.  For the case where the person deliberately opts for ignorance, undoubtedly this choice is driven by the perception that knowledge might create an undue burden that the person would like to avoid. Education might counter that perception, either by demonstrating that the burden is not so large or by making the point that mature adults would accept the responsibility of the burden because it is the right thing to do. If that's correct, then willful ignorance is itself a kind of selfishness.

The particular case I want to apply this idea to is upscale voters who typically vote for Democratic candidates.   Elsewhere I've referred to people in this income category as the professional class - households in the top 10% of the income distribution but below the top 1%.  These are people who are comfortable financially, borderline rich perhaps, but not the uber rich.  I'm in this category.  And I'm guessing that many of them are, like me, horrified by what has happened since Trump has appeared on the national stage and terribly frightened of the possibility that there will be an encore performance.  These people would be willing to do a lot to prevent that from happening, especially if they could be convinced that their collective efforts really would matter in preventing a Trump Act II.  This is the backdrop for the following. 

Suppose the big project that most Democrats can agree upon is to remake America as a middle class society.  This means many things.  It means good educational opportunities are available to all.  Likewise, it means decent healthcare is available to all.  And it also means readily available childcare so the parents can earn a decent living while working.   Further, it means median household income makes one feel middle class, part of the mainstream, and a citizen proud of the country who wants to contribute to keep the country's well being.  Further, the household income distribution is not too skewed, meaning those households with income below the median are still within shouting distance of the median and likewise for those households with income about the median.   The big picture question, then, is how do we get from where we are now to this remake of America as a middle class society?

In my way of thinking Biden's current economic plans are focused around raising the incomes of low income households, dealing with the child care issue, and addressing other areas of concern (global warming) that we don't normally think of as an income distribution matter.  There remains the issue of compression of household incomes for households above the median.  Can that be a voluntary matter, with household members stepping up and willingly accepting the income reduction?  Or must it be coerced, for well off households will resist compression in their part of the income distribution?  For the last six or seven years I've argued in a variety of posts that we should be trying very hard to make this a voluntary matter.  But nothing I've read elsewhere seems to give support to my view.  Instead, it is implicitly assumed that we're all selfish, so such compression in the income distribution would require an involuntary taking. 

Under normal political circumstances, the Democratic party would never make an educational appeal to upscale voters, hoping they will willingly accept compression of the income distribution as a consequence, for fear of driving such voters out of the party and into the hands of the Republicans, where selfishness in matters of income and taxation is part of their core ethos.  But we are not in normal political circumstances now and likely won't be for some time to come.  If there ever was a time to make such an educational appeal, it's now.  

Such an education won't happen in a few brief moments by a viral video that captures the issues for all.  Rather, it will take a sustained effort that treats the learners as intelligent adults, yet they are perhaps baffled by many economics issues, as indeed I find myself baffled even though I have a PhD in economics.  Below I list some questions and my tentative answers to them, which others are free to challenge on the analysis.  Any such education of upscale voters will need answers that are understandable and in accord with the economic analysis of administration economists. 

On Taxation at the Federal Level

  • The U.S. Government has the ability to issue new debt (government bonds) to finance additional spending.  This is an alternative to raising taxes to finance additional spending.  When should it use one method and when the other?

    Old Answer: When the economy is operating well below capacity, a high unemployment rate an indicator of this, then deficit financing to boost aggregate demand is appropriate.  In addition to the direct benefit the spending provides, there is a multiplier effect that helps to bring the economy back to operating near full capacity.  When the economy is already at full capacity, then the new spending should be financed by increased taxes.  Depending on how those taxes are raised they will either reduce private consumption or private saving and that is what is really paying for the new government spending.
    New AnswerKrugman had an interesting column on this recently and I'm basing what I say on that.  In the past we've worried about the Debt to GDP ratio.  But interest rates have been very low for quite some time.  Krugman argues that this is likely to be continue to be true in the long run, due to low population growth, which we can expect will persist. So we should worry more about debt service - the interest payments on the debt.  Partial deficit financing may then make sense, even when the economy is at full capacity. But there will still be a need for some of the new spending to be financed out of tax increases.  The right balance between the two still needs to be worked out.

  • If taxes are to be raised is there a right balance between raising rates and capping deductions?

    My Answer:  Deductions are sometimes referred to as tax expenditures - government policy to encourage a certain type of spending initiated either by individual citizens or by localities.  So, for example, the mortgage interest deduction encourages home ownership over renting.  Likewise, the deduction for charitable giving encourages donations to charity.  As there is a standard deduction, which most taxpayers will use, the tax benefit for itemized deductions accrues to wealthier taxpayers.  In that sense, itemized deductions are the opposite of progressive taxation (where marginal tax rates rise with income).  So, in my view these deductions should be capped, in aggregate, not with a hard cap that is the same for everyone but with a percentage cap that is hard so the actual cap varies with income.  Undoubtedly non-profits that rely on donations will object to this.  That is a separate issue and needs to be worked out elsewhere.  If there were such a percentage cap imposed on deductions, raising additional taxes would require raising rates.  In my view this should be done based on a principle of progressive taxation - the higher income taxpayers would face higher rates.

  • Is there a socially desirable set of tax rates that we should stick with? Or should rates continue to vary with economic circumstance?

    My Answer:  Some will point to the tax rates that were in place right before Reagan became President as offering the ideal.  However, if one looks at the history of tax rates since then one will note that they have changed with some frequency.  This suggests strongly that which party is in power matters as to what the tax rates will be.  Let me wave my hands here and assume that isn't an issue.  Instead imagine rates are set by a benevolent social planner.  (This is a convenient dodge that economics professors use to discuss optimal taxation.)  In this case one might imagine the planner determines that long term ideal set of rates and then announces that we'll get there in a series of steps rather than in one fell swoop, so taxpayers who will see their rates rise can make adjustments to that.  How many steps there would be and how frequently a new step would be take still needs to be determined.  Once the long term structure has been set, it would be good to stick with it, though temporary tax increases remain a possibility if dire circumstances suggest they are needed.

On State and Local Taxes and Spending

  • Given that some states (or localities) are high tax while others are low tax and K-12 public schools are financed at this level, how can we guarantee a decent education for all students?

    My Answer: This is truly a disaster, in my opinion. Plessy v. Ferguson is no longer the law.  But as Jonathan Kozol documents, for example in The Shame of the Nation, it is still the practice in Apartheid schools.  The short term answer, and this will be quite a heavy lift politically, is to extend the Biden economic initiative by providing substantial funding to schools in low income areas.  This money must go directly to the municipality or even to the individual schools.  It should not be filtered through the states, which will likely redirect the funds to wealthier districts.  In the longer term, either the Federal government takes over the funding of public schools, or the states and localities figure out a way to equalize funding for schools across districts.  This won't be easy.  We should not kid ourselves that it will be otherwise.  But it is necessary.

  • If adjacent states have quite different tax rates, how does one prevent wealthy people from migrating to the lower tax state so they can lower their tax burden?

    My Answer: The logic of state government goes back to the colonial period.  If we were to design government jurisdictions anew, we might find that local government is still necessary but state government is not.  For example, that each state has its own public university system instead of one national public university system is very hard if not impossible to justify on efficiency grounds. I view this as another example of lock in that was discussed above.  One possible solution to this is to have some of what is currently state expenditure to evolve into federal expenditure, so that what remains at the state level is small and those tax differentials become smaller as well.  Another possibility is to incentivize states to equalize their tax rates with their neighboring states, via Federal grants.   A third possibility is to make the tax deduction for state and local taxes depend on the tax rates in neighboring states. 

On the Free Rider Problem and How to Avoid It Derailing Upscale Voters from Paying Higher Taxes

  •  The reality is that what any individual contributes in increased taxes is a drop in the bucket compared to the aggregate contribution.  If others were indeed unselfish and did pay more in taxes, wouldn't it still be rational for an individual taxpayer to remain selfish and look for ways to avoid paying any tax increase?  But if this is true in general, wouldn't it defeat the underlying idea entirely?

    My Answer: A group of peers needs to monitor each other.  The group as a whole needs to agree to the increased tax burden and then with some frequency the group needs for each member to account for how the member is meeting that burden.  Making this an individual matter will encourage the selfishness to stick. Instead, letting this become a social matter has a chance for such a change to take hold.

In the above I've stuck with taxes and haven't considered the question of consumption of local public goods as a choice.  It too is a big deal issue.  For example, will parents send their kids to the local public school even after changes in zoning restrictions mean kids in that school will come from families with varying incomes?  Or will the wealthier parents opt for a stratified solution, like what I described was happening in NYC when I was a student?  I don't have a full answer for this, but I do want to note the following.  If somehow we were able to return to a middle class society with much less income variation about median household income, there would be far less incentive for parents to game the system to get their kids into elite schools as the financial return from doing so would be far less. So I think it is possible to imagine a world where most every kid went to the local public school and each of these schools was of decent quality.  Getting there from where we are now, however, will be an enormous undertaking. 

I want to close.  I meant my bulleted list of questions and answers merely as suggestions of what is needed to consider educating the populace on the desirability of flattening the income distribution and how that might be done. Surely these issues would need to be debated and fleshed out a lot further.  And it may be that other relevant issues I haven't considered at all need to be brought to the fore. So be it.  

And I want to make a bow to my own selfishness.  I have a tendency to write quite long posts.  Partly this is to allow my own formative thinking to give a full exploration of the subject matter.  And partly it is because I think the reader needs context for considering what is said, so I want to provide that context.  But I'm fully aware that this cuts against the trend where shorter pieces are apt to gather more readers, while longer pieces are ignored.  It's true that I'd like to have more readers.  Yet in this choice I opt to first and foremost please myself.  Maybe some selfishness can never be overcome.


*I have felt for some time that in our social thinking too much burden for a child's education has been placed on school and not enough thought has been given to education opportunities outside of school, which can be substantial.  The most obvious of these is having the student develop a strong reading habit, which would promote self-education and help the student develop a very important life skill.  Unfortunately, it cuts against current trends.  It is also true that reading itself is asocial and without some subsequent way for the student to talk about what was read with others the reading may be seen as a path toward loneliness.  

Nevertheless, if the criticism of classes that are not tracked is that is that very bright students might get bored, giving such students more opportunity to learn on their own may be a reasonable answer.  Further, there might be some social interaction found in such students helping other students who are more challenged by the course content.  If this is done in a non-threatening way it can benefit both students and seem a natural thing to do.  

Let me conclude this aside with the observation that even within the SP and the Honors classes there was far from full equality regarding how bright students were, imperfectly measured by their GPA.  I was one of those very bright students.  I don't remember ever being bored, but I do remember goofing off with friends quite a bit.  Was this purely wasting time in an otherwise unproductive way?  Or was some of this developing both valuable social skills and outside-of-school ideas that wouldn't happen with only the formal education.  It is not good social science to generalize completely from one's own experience, but I'm prone to think that since it was more the latter for me, it could be the latter for other students too.  And, perhaps equally important, none of it was the sort of thing you'd put on a resume, so you did it because you wanted to.  Nowadays, with so many kids entirely instrumental about their education, some of this learning as play with friends surely would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Tilting At Windmills - So Compelling Yet Maybe I Should Stop

Now that I'm not teaching, I can admit that every once in a while I had a favorite student.  In fall 2017, my penultimate teaching experience, the student came to my attention in a most delightful but very unusual way.  Each week she turned in her work well before the deadline.  I had never experienced this before. After a while, we had an email thread that served as a critique and commentary on the class.   I had an approach with "soft deadlines" where a due date and time was given for each assignment but students could still get credit if they submitted their work not too far beyond that. For the blogging they did, I would read and comment on those over the weekend.  If some other posts came in while I was still working on that, it was no big deal on my part to allow the submissions into the queue for my reading and commenting.  She had never experienced soft deadlines in a course before and referred to it as - treating the students as adults - which she greatly appreciated, although for her it seemed this rule didn't matter.  Instead, it was all about the tone it set for the class.  The bulk of the students took advantage of the soft deadlines, but in the other direction - they got their work done after the official deadline had past.  Indeed, they may have only started on the blogging over the weekend, while the official deadline was the Friday before. 

More than once during our exchanges she asked me why I simply didn't enjoy my retirement.  Why teach at all?  And then, why put greater effort into the teaching than other instructors did?  It was clear that the reading and commenting on student blogs was time consuming, and no other instructor in the Economics Department taught that way.  Further, it was evident to her that I spent considerable time worrying about students who didn't seem to be trying very hard.  Why would I do that?  I didn't have a very good answer for her.  So I relied on something I first wrote more than 20 years earlier. Teaching good students was always a joy and easy for me to do.  The challenge, however, was teaching ordinary students to see if they could be transformed into good students.  All these years later, I must confess that it rarely, if ever, happened, though I did try to make it happen.  Indeed, it was one of the compelling reasons for me to keep teaching. 

There is much irony in this.  When I first came to Illinois, I dreaded teaching intermediate microeconomics, which many faculty did as part of their undergraduate service teaching for the department.  While I had been a good and popular TA at Northwestern, mainly for principles of microeconomics, there is something different about being the main teacher - for example choice of textbook, setting the difficulty level and tone of the course, as well as selecting topic coverage.  Then there was my age.  I was 25 when I started, not much older than the students I was teaching.  At first they would ask - are you the TA?  So  I felt that I needed to establish my authority.  Many years later I learned the expression - best graduate course a freshman every had.  Intermediate micro is a sophomore-junior course, but the roots of that expression were at play in my class, no doubt.  Then there was that the first time around the class was taught in the dreaded room DKH 19 (which no longer exists) where I would be sweating while at the blackboard while some kids sitting in the back of the room wore winter coats because they were freezing.  There was still another factor that I didn't understand till many years later.  Intermediate micro was required for all Business majors.  Most of them hated the requirement.  It was akin to the requirement of organic chemistry for pre-med students.  So I was apt to confront student resistance, especially from those students majoring in Accounting.

Yet all of this was really secondary.  What truly mattered was my own ignorance.  I had been a math major as an undergraduate and never took intermediate micro.  So I had no sense of what it should be like.  And I grew up in New York, not Illinois. Were the kids different just because of that?  I had wondered the same thing as a TA at Northwestern.  Somehow it wasn't a big obstacle then, perhaps because the Northwestern kids seemed like Ivy League wannabes.  The Illinois students weren't trying for that and I didn't have a different category available to me which I could put them in. So I didn't have a good mental model for how to teach in a way that would be appropriate for them.  I had no such problem when I taught graduate level courses or the undergraduate math econ course. I had confidence in my teaching those courses.  In contrast, I was frightened of teaching intermediate micro and was greatly relieved that in my third year I started to teach graduate level micro, so didn't have to teach intermediate micro at all, much preferring to avoid what I was fearful of rather than confront the fear head on.

About a decade after I started at Illinois I was back teaching intermediate micro, but by then the fear was gone.  There were many factors that explain this.  Here I want to focus on only one.  When I first started I was heavily into the models as things in themselves.  For a math type like me, that's where the interest in the subject matter could be found.  But there were very few math types in my intermediate micro classes.  Over that decade I learned a very important skill, to explain a social situation via a microeconomics analysis. In other words, I learned to tell stories about real-world things where the stories had an economics basis that provided coherence to them.  The students would be much more interested in the stories than in the pure theory, but they could then tolerate the theory as a means to an end.  

With that, I introduced a new part to my intermediate microeconomics class called Econ in the News.  I would take an article from the New York Times, have the class read it, and then we'd do an economic analysis in class via the Socratic Method, where I would ask questions to uncover the underlying economic issues that were at the heart of the piece and hope there were students who would raise their hands to respond to those questions.  I made a rather painful discovery this way.  Many of the students couldn't give good meaning to the New York Times article, which was intended for a general audience.  Of course, I couldn't fully identify the cause.  Perhaps the students had shirked and hadn't looked at the article, then were winging it in class.  But why do that?  It wasn't a very onerous requirement, or so I thought.  Somewhere in that time frame I had a discussion about this with an economist in NRES (Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences) who had drawn the same conclusion.  Every time I saw him we'd bring up the student literacy issue, with inability to read a piece from the New York Times our quintessential example.  This view about the reading ability of typical students hardened over time for me and I still subscribe to it now.

Nevertheless, in the mid to late 1990s, when I embraced online learning (we called it ALN back then), my focus was on something else in my teaching - getting students to be able to do the end of chapter problems from their textbook and providing online office hours with undergraduate TAs to encourage that understanding.  Since my SCALE project was to teach intermediate micro in a large class setting (with 3 times the enrollment of a typical intermediate micro section) I didn't trouble myself on the student literacy issue then. 

The following decade was different.  I became a full time administrator, so I taught less frequently and when I did it was as an overload.  Then I taught smaller classes, the last three of which were for students in the Campus Honors Program.  And during this time I was self-educating on how people learn.  Simultaneously, I got involved with the edublog community where I had many interesting sojourns about promoting learning, and became increasingly comfortable with my own voice in speaking about learning issues, in my blog or on a listserv, of which there were a few that were quite prominent. And I received a lot of positive feedback from colleagues nationally an internationally too that I was on the mark with my analysis and commentary.   

The experiment with my SCALE project was done to please the Sloan Foundation.  Now I was experimenting with the teaching to please myself.  Many of those experiments seemed to work, though definitely not all of them. The successes were more than sufficient for me to keep at it.  (Two caveats are of note here.  One is that CHP classes tend to be smaller than regular classes.  Successful experiments in a small class setting may not work with larger classes.  The other is that CHP students differ from other students, perhaps more in motivation than in aptitude.  As an instructor you're apt to find intrinsic motivation with at least some of the CHP students.  Regular students are typically far more instrumental and want to know whether putting in effort will matter for their course grade.)

The last time I taught a CHP class the campus was in budget crisis, a consequence of the Great Recession. I began to have ethical qualms about CHP classes.  Indirectly, they took teaching resources and allocated them to some of the best students on campus, although every student paid tuition that depended on family income but did not depend on whether the student was in CHP or not.  I thought a compelling case could be made to allocate more teaching resource to ordinary students, provided there was some evident benefit to those students.  So when I retired I vowed my occasional teaching would be regular classes for the Economics department, with my more intensive effort than usual aimed at showing there was such a benefit.  (I also learned, reasonably recently, that the campus discouraged though did not forbid retirees from teaching altogether, which made teaching for the CHP program near impossible.)  If and when retirees teach, it needs to be contrasted with hiring visitors to do the same teaching and/or paying regular faculty for overload teaching.  The efficient outcome needs to be analyzed on a case to case basis. A priori, there is no one right answer.  It depends on the subject matter of the course to be staffed which, in turn, determines the pool of potentially available instructors.  But retirees teaching, so double dipping (they are collecting retirement pay as well), can cause bad press for the university.  The university does not need that at all.

After trying a variety of things the first few times I taught post retirement, I settled on teaching one class in the fall on The Economics of Organizations, where I could combine my prior experience as an administrator along with the economic theory.  (One of the things I learned from those early attempts was that for classes with a significant number of seniors enrolled, teach it in the fall rather than in the spring.  Students who are less than a semester away from graduating are apt to have a serious case of senioritis.  That can be quite discouraging for the instructor who wants to see students fully engaged.  There are some students who graduate after the fall semester, but there are comparatively few of them.)  For fall 2012, fall 2013, and fall 2014 I made reasonably good connection with the students.  The student blogging was reasonably effective in getting students to learn the story telling side of the economics, with my comments and their responses to those giving a coaching approach to instruction that makes sense to me, though it is labor intensive.  Getting students to comment on the posts of other students was less successful.  So building a community out of the class was a goal I didn't achieve, but one that still does seem reachable to me. 

After that it seemed as if the wheels fell off the vehicle.  One clear indicator was class attendance.  It was fine in 2012-14, indeed it was fine back in 1980 when on my course evaluations some students wrote I was the worst teacher on campus.  And it was fine in the 1990s, before I started to teach intermediate micro in large sections.  But it wasn't fine starting in fall 2015, in a class that was intended for Econ majors, with an instructor who was putting in a lot of effort into the teaching.  

To be fair to the students, my method was different from other classes.  Homework was meant as preparation for in class discussion, which is more like how things are in the world of work.  Staff members are supposed to come prepared to meetings.  But it differs from most other classes, especially those that are lecture based.  Then homework is meant as a test of understanding of the lecture material.  In that more traditional approach, there is some incentive to attend the lecture even when attendance is not taken, as attendance may be necessary to do the homework.  In contrast, in my class with the homework already completed and the class discussion meant to push the ideas beyond that, but where the class discussion itself was not graded, a purely instrumental student would see no reason to come to class.  My approach would appeal to those students who wanted a deeper understanding of the material.  And there is another category of students who matters here.  Some students feel obligated to their parents to attend class because their parents are paying tuition.  These students develop the habit of always going to class, regardless of what happens in the classroom.  As I said, through fall 2014 the latter two groups of students constituted the bulk of the class.  In fall 2015, the majority were those students who care only about the grade.

And it has remained that way since.  Indeed in my 2019 class, several students remarked in their ultimate blog post that unless there was some explicit incentive for coming to class they wouldn't attend. (Apparently many other classes do have such an incentive, perhaps via student use of clickers.  When evaluating the benefits of technology, we rarely, if ever, consider the impact in other classes than those where the technology is deployed.)  While I marked this change in the ethos of undergraduates, I never understood fully what caused it.  Yet I was able to conclude that there wasn't much I could do about it in my upper level class.  If I was to counteract it in a serious way, I needed to get to the students earlier in their college trajectory.  

Much of my tilting at windmills, as in the title of this post, is about purely hypothetical experiments that are aimed at addressing the issues with undergraduate education that I see in my own teaching and/or read about in popular outlets.  When I was a campus administrator I had additional sources of information to inform this penchant for theorizing about solutions - conversations with other faculty and with peers in educational technology.  Since I retired, those additional sources have largely dried up for me.  Perhaps it has made me more radical in my thinking as a consequence.  For example, soon after that fall 2015 semester course had concluded I wrote this post, The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution, and a few years later wrote about a different possible experiment, A Summer Camp for Teaching College Level Reading and Learning to Learn. These were meant as theoretical explorations only. Yet I had a hunger for actually trying experiments of this sort.  

So, on two separate occasions I volunteered to teach a first-year class and take no salary for doing so.  One of these was to be a freshman seminar in Economics.  The other was the freshman composition course, Rhet 105, which is taught in many individual sections.  I volunteered to teach one of these, as I thought my blogging approach might be a good way for students to learn to write.  In both cases I was turned down.  There were probably sensible reasons for that, sensible here meaning that there was a current way of going about things and this would upset the apple cart.   From the perspective of then, this makes sense.  However, from the perspective of now, in the midst of the pandemic where institutions we had previously trusted, notably nursing homes, have failed quite miserably, maybe our trust in the current way of doing things and not wanting to upset the apple cart should itself be questioned.  I will return to that later in this piece. 

Now I want to take a step backward chronologically, after the fall 2014 semester had concluded but before the fall 2015 semester had begun.  It's important to understand that sometime my tilting at windmills is not an outgrowth of my direct experience, but rather is driven by my reaction to things happening elsewhere on my campus or elsewhere in the profession.  In this case it seemed to me that my campus was going MOOC crazy and while I was quite okay with experimenting in that arena, I thought putting all our teaching innovation eggs in that basket was a mistake.  MOOCs are known for having thousands of student in one class.  So I focused on the opposite extreme, small classes at approximately the same size of the CHP classes I described earlier.  Then I gave a marketing name to this - high touch teaching.  It's the type of instruction where the students and instructor(s) get to know each other and learn about each other.  I wrote a series of blog posts under the label Everybody Teaches, that argued the campus should innovate in high touch teaching in a variety of different ways.  I had a particular audience in mind when I wrote these posts.  Deanna Raineri, my good friend and then Associate Provost for Innovation in Learning was leading the campus MOOC effort.  These posts were meant for her. 

There was an economics basis for what I argued in these posts.  Economists distinguish between the extensive margin and the intensive margin.  For instruction, the extensive margin is measured by enrollments and credit hours.  (At Illinois, we refer to the product of the two as measured in IUs, which stands for Instructional Units.)  It is very easy to count on the extensive margin and, given tuition rates and the number of courses taken by students on average, to translate IUs into tuition revenue generated. In contrast, the intensive margin is about the quality of the offering.  Within a particular class, the students and the instructor may have a reasonable sense of course quality and the quality of performance of the various actors. But communicating that outside the class to others on campus, to potential employers or graduate programs, or to parents and other interested stakeholders outside the university is quite challenging.  There isn't good data we can all agree upon that measures the intensive margin on a course by course basis.  Course evaluations may be the best information we have, but they definitely don't cut it. So there may be bias in the decision making toward favoring the extensive margin, simply because of these measurement issues.

There is the additional issue that tenure track faculty tend to teach at the graduate level, while adjuncts are more likely to teach undergraduates.  (At Illinois we refer to faculty whose sole job is to teach as specialized faculty.)  Further, at least at Illinois, if you look at the institutional data on this, the share of undergraduate teaching by specialized faculty has been going up (at least that was true before the pandemic).  Some of this was replacement of graduate teaching assistants.  The rest was replacement of tenure track faculty. From this perspective, Everybody Teaches was aimed to reverse this trend, so more tenure track faculty would have recent undergraduate teaching experience.  Given my comments in the previous paragraph about the difficulty of measuring on the intensive margin, I think it a reasonable metaphor to envision undergraduate instruction as an elephant, and each of us who teach undergraduates is blind and touching our little part of the elephant.  Without such experience, we tend to be guided by our confirmation bias and then trust in our (good) press clippings.  In that sense, Everybody Teaches is arguing that we need a greater share of tenure track faculty, and high level administrators too, to have such a touch. That would make discussions about the quality of undergraduate instruction more grounded.  

There is always the instinctive response - how can we afford to do that? (This question is posed as a first step in an argument that we won't be doing that, as it is outside our model of the public research university. What follows is something of a counterargument to that.)  A more subtle response might be that if we did do that, but much of it was by coercion - increasing teaching loads, for example - then it might very well not produce the desired results, as many instructors would go through the motions only.  So, a still more subtle response includes two parts.  Part one is that this would be done in phases and the first phase would include only early adopters who willingly would let their high touch classes be open to examination of the benefits that might ensue, so others could learn from that experience.  We know about Hawthorne effects and that early good results don't guarantee subsequent broad success.  But they are a needed start.  Part two of the response is about relying on the students themselves as peer mentors, where some of the compensation for being a peer mentor would be in the form of course credit, including credit for certain Gen. Ed. requirements and possibly credit for requirements in the major.  This would reduce the demand for instruction and make the approach affordable.   Some of part two is argued in the last of the Everybody Teaches posts.  Nonetheless, it may seem to be coming out of left field.  I hope to bring it more down to earth in what follows. 

I did not teach in fall 2018.  The Economics Department had enough upper level courses to offer a good variety to students.  So they didn't need my Economics of Organizations class.  Under other circumstances I might have been disappointed by this, but I was experiencing some health issues then so it really was for the best.  I did teach in fall 2019.  There had been faculty turnover in the Economics Department, so they asked me to teach, and my health issues were behind me by then.

The experience was unsettling for me.  Where the fall 2015 offering had issues that the fall 2014 did not, in the fall 2019 offering those issues were further exacerbated and a new issue arose that I want to discuss below.  The linked piece here is explicit about (lack of) academic competency as a broader issue than the literacy issue I described above. In particular, many students were not competent in high school math.  You can't do economic modeling without such competence.  It's always been an issue for me in teaching, but my sense is that it is much worse now than it was years ago.   Let me move on.

The new issue was about student mental health.  Many students in the class openly (in writing) discussed with me that they were having problems of depression and anxiety.  I don't know whether my approach to student blogging encouraged this openness or if they would have done likewise with their other instructors.  Simultaneously to this happening, apparently there were discussions within the campus administration about student mental health, and there was a wealth of articles about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, mainly focused on the excess demand for mental health professionals on campus.  Students need counseling, no doubt.  But I think of counseling as being in the cure category.  What would sensible prevention look like?  I don't recall reading anything on that score. It seems to me it should be the main question that we're asking, yet I haven't seen it discussed.

Let's note that the pure financial issues are obviously important and have gotten quite a bit of attention. Carrying a large burden of student loan debt with uncertain prospects about finding a good job after graduation is no doubt quite stressful.  Yet it is my opinion that other issues are equally or more important.  Those issues might be divided between student life issues, on the one hand, and academic issues, on the other.  Recently in the New Yorker there was a very depressing piece to read about a suicide cluster at Truman State University.  It detailed on the student life side of things how events might go terribly wrong. I can report that one of my students from the fall 2019 class who was struggling with her mental health reported that she had a bad friend group from which she needed to separate, so moving back home during the pandemic had that as a positive aspect.  I am out my element on student life issues to make recommendations there.  I will content myself to note that I experienced depression both in high school and in college and ended up transferring from MIT to Cornell, because I recognized what I was feeling at MIT was like what I had felt in high school and I needed to be in a different environment that wouldn't trigger those feelings.  

But beyond that I couldn't identify in advance what environment would provide good mental health for students in a way that they'd both enjoy it and find it nurtured their own development.  From a different perspective, it is not that long ago that Illinois was named the #1 Party School by Princeton Review and that many students, certainly once they've turned 21 but perhaps even when they are younger, view college as their last hurrah before entering the world of work.  Their mindset is to have as much fun as possible while they still can.  I don't begrudge anyone having a good time once in a while.  But as the main avocation it is apt to produce a very hedonistic and possibly nihilistic outlook, which I don't think is healthy.  In other words, some balance is called for.  How to achieve that balance, however, I will leave for others to determine. 

Let's now turn to the academic issues, regarding which I have more expertise.  The instrumental approach to classes coupled with only surface learning in every class can be a source of alienation, which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression.  I will add here that many students at big public universities get the sense that nobody cares about them.  That too can foster these negative feelings.  

My most recent "project" is the Non-Course, based on the idea that students must take control over their own learning.  They would do this to please themselves, not to please others.  And they would do this by developing the reading habit and learning to think critically about what they have read.  They would do this on their own or, if they prefer, with the coaching of instructors like me, who will react to their formative ideas with suggestions about how to think more deeply about what they are reading.   The Non-Course especially makes sense to me now, when so much formal instruction is online and good jobs post graduation are still quite uncertain.  Taking time off from school makes sense to me for those reasons.  But even if a student doesn't take a gap year or gap semester, they may have much idle time if they are conforming to all the social distancing guidelines.  The Non-Course would make sense for those students as well. 

Yet so far the Non-Course is a concept only.  I've gotten no students to try it.  I did try to recruit students from that fall 2019 class, but they weren't responsive to my query on this.  It occurred to me that I need assistance from friends and colleagues to make this a reality.  I've initiated conversations of this sort but it has been very awkward.  And there is a basic factor that may make it impossible to elicit such help.  I've conceived of the Non-Course as happening outside the auspices of any university, particularly because I felt it essential that students shouldn't pay tuition nor get course credit for the work they do in the Non-Course.  Without the usual trappings, there is no reason to be instrumental about the learning. But any colleague who might offer help to me will be at a university and will need somehow to internalize the ideas here, to make them a realistic possibility.   Perhaps other retirees would be able to provide assistance.  But why should they?  As my former student asked, wouldn't they just be enjoying life?

As long as the pandemic is impacting how undergraduate education occurs, it will be the driver, with other factors playing at most a secondary role.  My powers at prognostication are weak, at best.  But my guess now is that fall 2022 will mark a return to normal, with fall 2021 a hybrid between full pandemic mode and normal mode of instruction. Assuming that's right for the sake of argument, the question is how prominent will student mental health be as an issue on campus?  Let's say it is even more prominent than it was in fall 2019.   Now there is a reason for other faculty on campus to explore both high touch teaching and Non-Course ideas, the former to get some insight into the academic causes of the student anxiety and depression, while the latter as a possible way to address those issues.  

I feel like a runner in a long relay race.  I'm ready to pass the baton now.  My mind will always want to theorize about some social issue.  That's the way I'm designed.  But translating the theory into practice is much harder and I'm afraid it is beyond me now.  So I hope I can find someone to take up the baton.  And if not that, then I hope my theorizing serves as a catalyst for others in their own theorizing and implementation to address these issues.