Thursday, October 08, 2020

Is Anger A Form Of Cancer?

Last night I started to watch the ballgame when it started, a little after 6 PM.  I was already cooking because of what happened the game before.  Boonie was trying to pull a fast one, starting a rookie right-hander to fix the Rays lineup.  Then he brought in Happ to start the second inning.  Happ is a lanky left-hander.  I only learned after the game that Happ didn't know in advance that he was going to be used in this role. I'm sure he was warmed up when he entered the game, but he likely wasn't mentally prepared.  He didn't pitch well and the Yankees lost the game as a consequence.  

There is an entire literature in economics about punting versus going for it on 4th down in football.  The analytics show that coaches don't go for it enough.  But, there is also the issue of what one communicates when taking a risk like this.   Some years ago I had done a theoretical analysis of risk preference comparing favorites and underdogs. (Part of this was to demonstrate using a Tablet PC for doing the type of math that certain professors favor.) The analysis showed that favorites are risk averse while underdogs are risk seeking. (Or, at least, they should behave that way.) By taking a risk like this early in the ballgame, Boonie was implicitly telling his guys that they were the underdogs.  Yet, the announcers kept saying that now that the Yankees had all their guys healthy, they were a formidable team.  Which was it?

Surprise in sports, cooked up by the manager or the head coach, might be applauded.  Thoughts turn to Sean Payton's decision in the Super Bowl to have an on-side kick to start the second half.  In that case the Saints recovered the ball and ultimately won the game. But the players need to execute.  I was angry at Boonie for doing this is in such a half-assed way.  I started watching the game last night already angry.  Then, after Tanaka was pulled, after the Yankees had fallen behind, they put in Chad Green for middle relief.  That's normal, part of the Yankees pattern.  Green had a batter 0-2, but instead of making a waste pitch, which is also normal, he throws a pitch that catches too much of the plate. The batter hits a home run.  I know that sometimes pitchers don't hit their spot. Tanaka was missing a lot earlier.  But this mistake was too much for me.  I got very pissed off and turned off the TV after that.  

My wife and son were watching the debate downstairs.  I didn't join them.  I didn't need anything else to raise my blood pressure even more. So I went to sleep early. Now I'm wondering if I'll watch the game tonight and if I can do so and enjoy it, regardless of the outcome.

Baseball is our national pastime.  Being a fan is supposed to be a fun thing.  Yet like all team sports, it is inherently a zero-sum game.  One team wins, the other loses.  Can there be joy in watching your team lose? I think there can be, if they compete and give a good performance.  But that wasn't my mindset yesterday.  I've been so angry as of late, about the mishandling of the pandemic and our national politics, I felt I needed not just a diversion from that.  I needed a real pick-me-up.   I didn't get that.  Instead, my recreation became another source for my anger to manifest.

* * * * * 

In my previous post entitled, Honor Among Thieves And Among Supreme Court Justices, I wrote the following paragraph.

I'm not a lawyer, so please don't take my word for it, but it seems to me that by Trump not releasing his tax returns during the 2016 campaign constitutes fraud and, if so, the election should be nullified for that reason.  I have previously argued that the election was stolen.  Mitch McConnell not having the Senate take up President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court was the main transgression, but Russian interference in the election surely counts as well, and the latter was, of course, tied to Trump trying to manipulate the outcome.  In retrospect, it is obscene to recall the chants of "crooked Hillary."  To borrow part of a line from Abraham Lincoln, you can fool some of the people some of the time.  Who will now be shouting "crooked Donald?" 

I've been cooking on the idea that the election has been stolen for the last four years.  That Trump committed fraud during the election also seems quite evident, the not releasing his tax returns but one example.  My previous post examined the question - suppose serious people agreed with this whether conservative or liberal.  What should then happen?  That the Republicans act as if there was no malfeasance here I find truly infuriating.  If that were understood and if those Justices appointed by Trump shared with Biden the desire to bring the country together, they would step down.  Evidently, however, that is wishful thinking. 

So, in my anger, I imagine myself as Biden, after he has become President.  He informs the Justices (Gorsuch and Cavanaugh and also Barrett if she gets through the process before the inauguration) that they will be detained indefinitely unless they resign.  This would be done to right a previous wrong.  It wouldn't be done to tilt the court to the left.  I can imagine, as President, that ignoring this would constitute a threat to our national security.  We are being destroyed from within.  This is what would justify detaining these Justices.

Of course, I don't expect this to happen.  It's a fantasy, nothing more.  But that it won't happen means I'll remain angry, even if the Democrats sweep into office.  The Democrats will have seemed to capitulate in that case.  There is so much discussion about the left versus the center among the Democrats.  I wonder if there should be less of that and more of the very angry supporters who want to get even with the Republicans versus the happy supporters, if and when the Democrats do sweep into office, who want to wipe the slate clean and begin anew.

* * * * *

I have been wondering about an imagined conversation with regular Fox News viewers who are strong Trump supporters, that they are being played by the Republican Party and the rich donors who are the beneficiaries of how Republicans go about things (think tax cuts).  Recently, Michelle Goldberg had an interesting column about denial and confirmation bias.  She pointed out just how easy it seems to be to avoid evidence that contradicts one's worldview.   So I started to wonder what might counter that avoidance and shake things up for typical Trump supporters. 

Alas, I came to a snag in my own thinking.  I thought a collective viewing of The Ox-Bow Incident might be helpful here. A quick synopsis of the story is that an angry mob, quite sure of themselves, end up hanging innocent men.  Later the facts come out.  One of the leaders of the mob can't deal with that and commits suicide.  If there were a way to make Trump supporters aware that they have been played by Fox News, would they then be in the same position as this angry mob leader?  One might hope that they'd manage it better, but should one expect that?

It then occurred to me that many veterans of the Iraq War came home with PTSD and committed suicide.  Let's also recall that the military is all-volunteer these days.  We got rid of the draft after the Vietnam War.  If you volunteer but then discover you've been sold a bill of goods, there must be a lot of anger.  I can't know why any one individual commits suicide, but I suspect it is ongoing anger that has no form of resolution, something that might make things better.  If that's right, who are we to say that Fox News viewers need to stop deluding themselves?   

I wish I had an answer to that, but I don't.

* * * * * 

In early 2018 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and subsequently received radiation treatment for it. The cancer is in remission now and is monitored every there months with a PSA test.  So far, so good.  

I learned a few things during that episode.  One is that prostate cancer is itself very slow growing and is eminently treatable.  Nonetheless, it does play with your mind.  The fear I had (and still have) is that the cancer would spread elsewhere, to a location where it is not so treatable.  

When I talk about anger as a form of cancer, I'm talking about the fear that the anger will spread and eventually totally engulf the person.  For me, I know that prolonged anger is the path to depression.  I experienced that in adolescence.  My current fear is is that I'm back on that path and may lose it entirely.  My rationality remains.  (I hope this piece seems well reasoned.)  But my rational self and my angry self share certain common features.  I concoct scenarios to work through what will happen.  This is how I come up with ideas to write about.  Unfortunately, it is also how I come up with visages where I can express my anger, for example, playing mailbox baseball with the heads of highly elected Republicans.  Up to this point for me, the anger exists only in this fantasy-like form of expression.  Yet more and more of my time is devoted to this. 

If I were an isolated case, this piece would be of hardly any interest, perhaps a curiosity, nothing more. We tend to think of anger of this sort only to be present in the fringes of society.  (For part of the time where I've been writing this, my wife has had MSNBC on and I heard in the background about the militia in Michigan who attempted to kidnap the governor.)  It may be now, however, that intense anger has become the norm for people in all walks of society.  

If so, it surely would be evidence that our society is broken.  It's not just Trump.  He leveraged what was already there. The way we get our news and opinions about politics is maddening, by design.  And that people will push the system further and further for their own advantage is to be expected.  This is a vicious downward-descending spiral.

I wish I could say I have an answer, at least at an individual level.  I do find writing posts like this somewhat soothing.  It's as if much of the bad karma has been expunged, at least temporarily.  Yet I fear that too many people don't have any constructive form of release.  Then the anger just piles up.  

Elsewhere I have written that we tend to solve problems before we understand them and diagnose them.  This diagnosis makes sense to me.  I wonder how many others would agree.  It is not really socially acceptable to admit your anger, at least among certain circles of people.  Among my friends in Facebook, for example, it is okay to be very angry with Trump.  But if the Democrats do sweep into office and yet my friends remain angry, what then?  We're going to need a way to talk about it.  And maybe we need to wallow in it for a while.  Only then, might there be a realistic solution to find.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Honor Among Thieves And Among Supreme Court Justices

For those Republicans who are college educated, which includes most of the plutocrats, officials in high political office, and suburban women, it must be evident now that Trump is simply a grifter, one in deep doodoo, because of the huge amount of debt he is carrying.  Even people at Fox News other than Chris Wallace must be aware of this. And, one wonders, whether regular viewers of Fox News who don't have a college degree are also aware of this.  

There is a tendency to want to deny unpleasant facts.  I don't know whether that tendency has a negative correlation with educational attainment or no correlation at all.  But if there are enough such people who are not in denial, they have to be asking themselves, how did we ever let this get so far?  Suppose what is known now about Trump's finances actually had become known in late 2015, before the Primary season kicked off.  Would Trump have been the candidate chosen?  Would any other Republican possibly have won the election?  It seems that because of the prior affinity via The Apprentice, Trump supporters had intense loyalty to him, where they had no such loyalty to any other candidate.  On the other hand, the Plutocrats probably wouldn't have gotten in line with Trump in this circumstance, nor would the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.   The chance of a major embarrassment that would permanently damage the Republicans would have been too great.

I'm not a lawyer, so please don't take my word for it, but it seems to me that by Trump not releasing his tax returns during the 2016 campaign constitutes fraud and, if so, the election should be nullified for that reason.  I have previously argued that the election was stolen.  Mitch McConnell not having the Senate take up President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court was the main transgression, but Russian interference in the election surely counts as well, and the latter was, of course, tied to Trump trying to manipulate the outcome.  In retrospect, it is obscene to recall the chants of "crooked Hillary."  To borrow part of a line from Abraham Lincoln, you can fool some of the people some of the time.  Who will now be shouting "crooked Donald?"  

We were taught in grade school - to the victor go the spoils.  Many treat that as literally true.  But when it becomes clear that the victor cheated, or others cheated on behalf of the victor, should we expect the spoils to be what economists call "sunk costs."  This term means the costs are not recoverable, since the investment can't be reversed.  Does that hold for all the judges and the two Supreme Court justices who have been appointed since Trump became President?  Mitch McConnell has developed a reputation of ramming the judicial nominations of President Trump through the Senate.  I believe there is no doubt that the unholy partnership between McConnell and Trump is based on the idea of McConnell's support of Trump as President, in spite of the transgressions, as long as Trump continues to nominate very conservative judges, whom McConnell then could steer through the Senate. This bargain would be considered unsavory, even if Trump's election was on the up and up.  

Now let me turn to the word honor, in the title of my post.  Suppose you are a person who believes in honor as important.  Then suppose further that you are part of the spoils, in the case where the victor won in a dishonorable way.  That is too easy, so let's complicate it more.  Suppose you have subsequently been assigned to a position that you've aspired for intensely and for quite some time. There is an evident conflict between doing the honorable thing and acceding to your own aspirations.  What do you then do? 

There is an idea in economics associated with Paul Samuelson called Revealed Preference.  The standard economic theory predicts choice from preferences and economic constraints.  Revealed Preference reverses that.  After observing choice and understanding the constraints, one can make some strong inferences about preference.  So, what of all those judges and justices who were appointed while Trump has been President, now understanding that his election is tainted? Where does the honorable path take them?

There is a further thought to work through, particularly on judicial cases where the preferred outcome divides strongly along political lines. And let's focus on when the case reaches the Supreme Court.  Now I don't know this, because I'm not a legal scholar, but I'd hope that many of the justices would have a meta preference that carries across the various cases.  That is, to have the American people maintain a respect for the rule of law.  And that requires that there is a process for making decisions in contentious cases that both sides can respect as the right way to arrive at a decision.  If that process is shortchanged, then the winning side in the heat of the moment might not care.  But the losing side will begin to question not just that decision, but many other decisions by the Supreme Court as well, and respect for the rule of law will suffer as a consequence. 

There has recently been an idea floating that Trump nominated a candidate for the Supreme Court to succeed Ruth Bader Ginsburg because he expected to contest the result of the election and, as with Bush vs. Gore, the determination would end up going to the Supreme Court. While Chief Justice Roberts is conservative, he is not reliable (from the Trump perspective) regarding how he would decide this case.  So Trump wanted 5 reliable justices: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorusch, Brett Cavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett (if she is confirmed) to constitute a clear majority who would decide in favor of Trump. That political calculus is straightforward enough.  But what of the ethics therein?

As a non-lawyer, I'm not sure of the full set of circumstances under which a Justice should recuse himself or herself from a case, but it seems to me that those Supreme Court Justices appointed under Trump would be obligated to do that if the Presidential election eventually went to the Supreme Court.  If that were true, however, there wouldn't be as strong a reason to immediately nominate a successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  There is another quite different reason for doing so.  If control of the Senate will change with this election, from majority Republican to majority Democrat, then getting that Republican favored nominee in now make sense according to a political calculation.  

Now let me introduce one more idea from economics/game theory.  This is called a credible commitment.  It means taking a costly action now to force a certain decision in the future.  In contrast, talk is cheap and therefore it is not credible.  A promise to recuse oneself in the event of x may not be credible.  For when x has happened the justice may have a change of heart and opt not to recuse himself or herself.   In contrast, resigning now would be credible.  Having resigned, there would be no way for the justice to render an opinion on the case in the future when it comes up

Would resigning now be the honorable thing to do, both for justices of the Supreme Court appointed under Trump and for judges in lower Federal courts appointed in the same interval?  I mean this to be a question to ponder, not one with a ready answer.  Also, from the point of view of predicting such outcomes, I would predict that no such resignations will happen.  

However, I know many people who feel now that America is going to hell in a hand basket. Trump has dramatically accelerated this decline.  Creating real surprise by going against the forecast in a way that is personally costly but also evidently aimed at respecting the rule of law, might be a way for America to get past this dreadful moment.  For that to happen, Trump needs to lose this election and the Supreme Court needs to certify that.  Sacrificing the national well being so as to get rid of the Roe v. Wade decision, also can't happen.  It's clear that has been motivating the recent rapid pace of Federal judicial appointments.  But it is equally clear that the myopic focus on this objective is bringing the country down.

I used to have conservative colleagues in the economics department who would help me to understand their point of view.  I don't have that now and have no sense how other conservatives think about this.  I just have this general sense.  If one side thinks it is winning, it's actually that all of us are losing, but those who feel they are winning are focusing on myopic ends, rather than the overall picture.  I should also add that the liberal versus conservative among the economists I'm referring to was about laissez-faire versus regulation, not about Roe v. Wade.  I could argue with conservatives then.  I can't argue with conservatives now.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Google As A Memory Crutch - Does this give some insight into how we should teach and assess learning?

When I was a teenager my memory was incredibly good.  Once exposed to some information I could recall it, in its totality, with ease.  As I age and see this ability erode, I am saddened.  For whatever reason, the decline is usually associated with not being able to come up with the name of a person.  There are shreds of memory that are still available, but I'm vexed by what the person's name is. I wish I then had an algorithm to follow in my head that would eventually produce retrieval of the name with a high success rate.  But I haven't found such an algorithm. Each time I experience this, I go through a novel search in my head for the name.  It is frustrating to do.  Yet, so far, I'm not willing to concede that I won't come up with the name at all.  More about this below.  

Some years ago, when my memory wasn't deteriorating quite so obviously, I had a similar issue regarding facial recognition, particularly with actors seen in a TV show.  The face looks familiar.  Have I seen the face in something else, so the recognition is real, not a false positive?  I learned about IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base).  IMDB also includes TV programming, which is good because there is a lot of cross pollination between the movies and TV.  I'd see somebody in a TV show years after I had seen the person in a movie (which I watched on TV).  Was it really the same person or not?  IMDB gives a "filmography" of each actor and you can scroll through the list of that to see whether there is movie that you've seen before.  If you find that movie, it is a relief.  Your instinct was on the mark.  If you don't, it's likely a false positive and you confounded the person with someone else.  

Recently I've been doing something similar with Google searches, where in this case it is somebody in the public eye who is not an actor, or it is a well-known historical figure, or possibly an event or social movement.  It seems odd to search for something that you feel you already know.  So, in some sense this isn't learning, it's remembering.  I do it because it is much quicker than my mental retrieval processes, where the gears can be turning for quite a while before a result is produced.  

* * * * *

Now I want to try this in reverse.  Consider the number below.  What event do you associate with it?  Please do not do a search to try to answer this question.  Simply use recall, if you can. 

1215.

My guess is that most people my age (I'm 65 and will be 66 next January) can make this identification without doing a search.  I'd likewise guess that most current college students can't do this, but that's only a guess. 

Now, here's the deal about teaching which this little example illustrates.  Students are prone to memorize.  I've railed about college students memorization for a long time. I've felt that instead students need to produce a narrative about what they learn and incorporate the ideas that way.  The narrative will help commit the ideas to memory and will simultaneously produce a degree of understanding that pure memorization will be unable to achieve.  Further, students typically lose these memories they made by rote if they don't use the ideas subsequently.  The narrative helps the student commit the ideas to long term memory.  Yet, my railing notwithstanding, students in large numbers appear wedded to memorization.  So, maybe we should try to make the students better at memorization.  

With this, I know it is very old fashioned to ask what happened on such and such a date, but maybe there was some virtue to it.  In the case of the example above, students my age when learning World (mostly European) history, learned about the Magna Carta, which was issued in 1215.  (I confess here that before I Googled it, I thought it was 1216, close but no cigar.)  

I don't recall how we were taught about the Magna Carta, but I'm guessing it was taught as a simple hierarchy.  At the pinnacle was the Magna Carta itself. Subordinate to that was the date, 1215, the King of England at the time, King John, and what the document did, guaranteed certain human rights and made the King subject to the law. What I'm suggesting as a change in the way we teach is to abandon the hierarchy in the representation and instead treat it as a vector. (Any component of that vector could be the search term in Google.)   

Then we might teach certain vectors that you'd think wouldn't be in normal courses.  For example, some years ago I read a book Einstein and Picasso.  The linkage is that both worked on understanding simultaneity and did so at approximately in the same historical moment, which suggests there were happenings in that moment that would make simultaneity a worthy object of investigation to the creative mind. Obviously, however, they did this from quite different perspectives.  If you believe physics is physics and art is art, you'll never see this connection.  In contrast, if you consider the larger idea, simultaneity, then the connection will be evident.  This does suggest something for hierarchical rendering, but I'd stick with teaching the vector form, even here.  If that's the method that students learn, then persist with the method.  

Let me close with a bit about assessment of that learning.  The key is to test on each component of the vector, not just one component.  In so doing, students will begin to learn things from multiple perspectives (that of each individual component).   And perhaps in the assessment students should be allowed to use a search engine to answer the questions.  The interesting cases then will be where the "right answer" is not at the top of what the search engine returns.  Can the students find that answer nonetheless?  This seems to me worth trying.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Quality of Interactions When Race Isn't A Factor

As anti-racism enters the lingua franca, and we now have events such as this Scholar Strike for Racial Justice, it occurred to me that we should take inventory about our interactions when race isn't a factor,  but then possibly also consider interactions where race is a factor but the interactions go reasonably well.  I will focus on the former in this post, but briefly consider the latter near the end of the post.

There is a sucker born every minute.
P.T. Barnum?

The question mark following the attribution comes from the story here about the Cardiff Giant. I chose it to lead off because it seems so apropos of now. In a simplified view of reality based on this quote, society is divided between the takers and the suckers.  Interactions between the two are based on flim-flam and have a predatory aspect.  When I teach this in class I refer to the taker as a snake oil salesman.  For now, I just want to treat it as a category.  When we have a sufficient number of categories, then we can ask how our interactions distribute over them.  The inventory I have in mind would do this over a wide variety of people but still be restricted to where race differences are not present.

A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.
Bernard Meltzer found here

An opposite extreme to the taker-sucker interactions is found in interactions between true friends.  These are what you live for.  They are enjoyable and give meaning to your life.   If as a student you have good friends at school, it is so much easier for you.  Ditto for when you have good friends at work.

Before I wave my hands about all the interactions that fall in between these two extremes, I want to do a tiny bit of theory.  We should separate out one-off transactions from repeat interactions.  At the time of the initial transaction the participants might not know whether there will be repetitions in the future or not.   Consequently, the quality of that first transaction matters a great deal for determining this outcome. I've written many times about valuing a collegial work environment.  In such an environment colleagues are treated as friends and interactions include both real work and playful non-work stuff. Further, collegiality requires that when there is a potential new colleague to treat the person as a true colleague right off the bat.

Most of the time that's how it plays out, in my experience.  However, there are some people I'd classify as jerks, rather than colleagues.  It may take a while for that to reveal, but once it does the interactions are to be avoided, if possible, or to be tolerated but not embraced, if avoidance is not possible.  Now, combining the two extremes, it is possible that a taker masquerades as a colleague until the moment is ripe.  It is also possible that someone who has been a good colleague turns into a taker, if circumstances force that.

For economic transactions, I think these categories and possible hybrids are sufficient. So, for example, whenever I poll my students about their prior experience with group work, invariably they will report some dissatisfaction with such work because one or more of the group members were free riders on the efforts of the other members of the group. The stories of this sort are commonplace for me. But I don't have a good sense about the relative numbers of those who do their share of the group work versus those who free ride.  I also am ignorant about whether the free riding is just an indicator of immaturity and that as the student matures the student accepts the need to do their share of the work, or if the free rider is a personality type that persists.   But it is more complex than this.  I've learned over the past few years that students with emotional problems will sometimes look like free riders in group work, yet they are totally unlike those who are simply being lazy. As students are often not forthcoming with their peers about their emotional issues, it may be hard to tell one situation from another.

Let us consider a different sort of interaction, within groups where the focus is to come to some group decision, but that decision is not necessarily about economics.   Group dynamics may feature factions with the group.  Those factions might engage in rather intense politics about group decisions.  The Economics department at Illinois was intensely political that way when I first joined it back in fall 1980.  Though I did get caught up in  the politics for quite a while, I found much of it ugly, mean, and dispiriting.

It is also possible for friction within smaller groups to occur because of what Argyris and Schon call Model 1.  A member of the group has a strongly felt need to win at all costs, thereby proving to himself that he was right all along, yet possibly creating harsh conflict with other members of the group as a consequence.  The other members get discouraged and either want to leave the group themselves or purge the group of the so-called leader.  I've had experiences of this sort both with campus committees and with volunteer groups outside the university that I've been part of.  But I've also experienced quite wonderful groups that have a strong sense of collegiality among all members.  As before, we'd like to know the relative frequency of the different type of interactions.   In my own experience, after I moved from economics to ed tech, the politics lessened in intensity a good deal, though was never entirely absent.

One last type of interaction to consider is negligence fueled by being oblivious to the situation.  As I'm writing this post, a friend in Facebook posted about teens blaring music from their car while she was trying to get some sleep, then not being able to do that so going outside, knocking on their car window, and complaining to them.  Mixing metaphors in a way I probably shouldn't, at issue is whether obliviousness of this sort remains in some people well after they've reached adulthood and/or for the particular type of interaction caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) should be the message that the recipient heeds.  Driving on the highway features this type of interaction with some frequency.  More recently, one might consider wearing a mask or not in public during the pandemic as an example in this category.

I'm not making a category for ordinary interactions that happen with no incident.  For me, going to the supermarket typifies this sort of transaction.  The person running the cash register and the other person bagging the groceries do their job.  After I make payment they invariably say, "Have a nice day."  There is something comforting in the sameness of these sort of transactions, but they will get no further attention here.

The task then, is for each of us to go through the categories and do a rough tabulation of the frequency of the good transactions and the bad.  This should be done twice, first as recipient, then as perpetrator.  As Argyris and Schon point out, we have espoused theories (in which we are never the perpetrator) and theories in action (where we sometimes are the perpetrator).  Or, if you prefer, there is the delightful song Kids from the musical Bye Bye Birdie.  (Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?)  This suggests there will be substantial under reporting of ourselves as perpetrator. But that's a start.  And it means that a more thorough form of data gathering would require going beyond self-reporting and require people to report about others in their group interactions as well as in their bilateral interactions.

Now I want to briefly try to line these categories up with racism.  This is purely guesswork, but I hope it is not entirely unreasonable. Takers are racists.  Suckers can be made into racists by propaganda.  I dare say much of our politics are about this.  People who are fundamentally collegial are prone to be anti-racist, as are Model 2 leaders.  Model 1 leaders, in contrast, are more apt to be racist.  Racism by negligence, as distinct from racism by intent, is possible for people in all the categories.  But if anti-racism training is targeted at the negligence form of racism, it will fail with those who are not collegial and who hold Model 1 as their theory in action

I want to close with a little bit of experience of mixed-race interaction which I observed by listening.  My wife, who worked in campus HR until she retired last week, had many many meetings conducted online after the stay-at-home-orders were put in place.  Her habit was to use the speaker from her computer rather than use headphones.  I could hear much of the conversation this way.  Often the subject matter was quite serious and difficult to navigate. Yet collegiality was preserved throughout these meetings, even though the days got long, with some calls ending well after 6 PM.  And a point I'd like to raise here is that there was a lot of laughter and humor.  Much of that was situational, though a bit was also deliberate.  Dealing with one stressful situation after another, humor seems to be the glue that keeps things together.  And the people evidently had high regard for each other.  Even when they disagreed, the fact that they knew each other so well and trusted each other was how they navigated these matters.  Further, there were also some errors made by one person making a false assumption, because the volume of information was huge and it was hard to process it all.  In this sense collegiality also provided error checking that individuals simply couldn't do.  Misunderstandings were cleared up before they had a chance to multiply and create real difficulties.  Though I'm very glad my wife is retired now, it was inspiring to hear these interactions on a regular basis.  It's how all of us should interact.

My own direct interaction in a mixed-race setting these days is mainly with my primary care doctor.  I don't see him that frequently, for which I'm grateful. When I do see him, race is completely a non-issue.  That's the way I'd prefer it to be.  I wonder if we'll ever get there for the society as a whole.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Other Biases We Have - Is Now The Time To Talk About Them?

I'm reacting to two things I've seen recently.  One is this opinion piece from yesterday by Michael J. Sandel, Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice. The other, is a cartoon a friend in Facebook shared a couple of days ago. The upshot is that for White liberals, who mean well but are guilt laden by their prior lack of sensitivity, they must actively eliminate prior prejudice in themselves that they can now identify.  An alternative view is that for the time being the focus should remain squarely on BlackLivesMatter and excessive use of force against young Black men.  Other biases should remain in the background for now. In this piece I'm going to argue for the alternative view, but first do so indirectly.

I will begin with some examples of bias/prejudice that the reader can use to reflect on the broader question.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it is illustrative.   

Is it true blondes have more fun?  This TV commercial aired frequently when I was a kid.  I'm guessing that most people my age will remember this line, even now.  If you watched a fair amount of TV, then it was drummed into you.  I thought the comments that follow the video were pretty amusing, so worth reading.  That an individual has a preference for one type of hair color over another is no big deal.  That there is a systematic such preference is quite another thing.  What would be the source of that?

The Marlboro Man, the image of masculinity. We who did watch a lot of TV learned that the cowboy was the good guy and a tough character.  I'm pretty sure that having a cowboy smoking a cigarette was not part of the picture for the kid shows we watched.  (I Googled - Roy Rogers smoking a cigarette - but didn't find any images which showed that).  Further, the linkage of the cigarette dangling out of the mouth of the actor to the actor being cool certainly goes beyond the cowboy image. (I also Googled - James Dean smoking a cigarette - there were many images readily available.)  But all of this eventually consolidated in the image of the Marlboro Man.

In case it's not obvious, these first two examples had the image manufactured by Madison Avenue types for selling some product.  Creating a stereotype is effective as a marketing device.  Many of the biases we do have is because somebody else created them and thus was advantaged by us holding these biases.

Tall people are paid more. Sometimes I mention this in the economics class I teach, with the caveat that we're not talking about NBA players here (where height might correlate well with productivity).  The point of the research in this area is that height and productivity at work should have zero correlation, so height shouldn't matter for what people are paid, but it does.  The book Moneyball illustrated a similar type of bias in how professional scouts evaluated talent (so the wrong players were considered shoo-ins, getting drafted highly, but then under performing).

Ageism.  There are many dimensions to this and in the economy that will exist after the pandemic is over, many of those other dimensions should be considered.  Here I just one to consider one of these.  Imagine you are trying to fill a position and most of the people who are applying for the job are in their 20s or 30s, but there is one candidate who is in their mid 50s.  Will age matter for who gets the job offer, regardless of the other credentials people bring to the work?   As I retired early and looked for some alternative things to do the first couple of years after retirement, I experienced this sort of thing.  I don't think it matters, at least in higher education, for people already working, though even there it might impact promotion decisions.  (Conceivably, in the promotion case, there is a seniority bias that works in reverse.)

Students who skip class frequently.  This one I'm including here because it brings front and center my own biases.  Through most of my teaching (all except fall 2017) I have not required students to attend, but my syllabus said that they were encouraged to attend.  I then used attendance as a proxy for those who were serious about the course versus those who were goofing off.  For many years I thought this was sensible.  But then I learned that student physical or mental health can be a reason for missing class, so it was wrong of me to attribute that to lack of effort.  I want to help students who are struggling in my class, but who are putting in some effort.  Once in a while, I was getting it wrong.

I now want to generalize from the examples but do this very briefly, relying on the approach taken in Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Our intuitive selves think fast, so reach conclusions quickly. Stereotyping is a product of our intuitive selves. In contrast, our thoughtful selves think slow, more carefully examine the evidence, and can identify situations where the stereotype produces the wrong answer.  You might then regard advice to look at our own biases as tantamount to urging us to be more thoughtful.  As a retired university professor, I must say I find that attractive.  But Kahneman's theory includes an additional wrinkle.  Our thoughtful selves get tired and can become overworked, at which point our intuitive selves take over.  If that's true, then one might wonder what the best use of our thoughtful selves is.  For those of us who are time abundant because we are retired, one answer might prevail.  For those who are working full time and are already extremely busy, adding to the cognitive load is a blunder.  Most people nowadays, especially those who are working from home, need to find ways to offload work.  Examining all your biases every day is piling on work and will almost certainly get a quick once over each day, nothing more. This will be a waste of time that simply creates more stress.

* * * * *

I now want to switch gears and make a different argument, along political lines.  The Democratic coalition now will hold through the election, because beating Trump is on everyone's radar.  There is total agreement in that objective.

What will happen after the election?  Will the Democratic coalition continue to hold then?  So many voters going into November have a grievance of one sort or another or a key issue that they want to see get addressed.  I wrote about this in my previous post.  The coalition will hold if these voters are patient and understand their pet issue will get addressed eventually, but perhaps not immediately.  The coalition will fall apart otherwise, with this caveat.  Perhaps there can be one designated subgroup that is allowed to be impatient and to expect its issue to be addressed immediately. In my opinion, that one subgroup is African-Americans who fully expect racial justice to be at the top of the agenda in a Biden administration. And, I fear, that implementing a real plan to manage the pandemic will still come first, and for a while might crowd out doing anything on the racial justice front. I hope the Democratic coalition can hold that long and not fracture then and there.

In this sense our politics is like ourselves in our thinking.  The sensible approach can proceed if it is focused, but it will become overwhelmed if it has to do everything at once.  White liberals should recognize this and not try to elevate their other pet issues now (e.g., the $15 minimum wage), but to make sure that those issues remain on the radar of the Democratic party.  Those issues will be addressed when there is sufficient bandwidth to deal with them.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Kamala Harris and John Hoynes

Imagine that today is February 1, 2021.  After a long and painful slog, the Democrats now control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, though in the Senate the majority is not great enough to defeat a Republican filibuster.  And a good number of the Democrats in the House are Centrists, whose districts went for Trump in 2016, but flipped this time around.  Legislation has already been passed and coupled with a set of Executive Orders to lay out a new plan for dealing with the pandemic.  But the expectation is for it to take 18 months or so, to get things back to normal.  There have been almost 10 million people infected by the coronavirus, and over 200,000 deaths.  Further, there has been a rising number of reinfections; people who test positive, showed some symptoms and then seemingly recovered, only to show symptoms again.  That these people make up some fraction of the infected population means the testing must be ongoing, even after an otherwise normal health environment has been attained. 

One other big piece of legislation that was passed and received the President's signature was a stimulus package in the form of a check for each citizen over 18 in the amount of $2,000 per month, to be paid out in the remaining months of 2021.  The funds would be made available to all those who earned less than $40,000 in 2020, regardless of their income in 2021.  The actual unemployment rate at the time of the Inauguration was 17%.  The hope was that this stimulus would allow those without jobs to survive economically until they could find meaningful work and that the spending of these people would boost the economy and encourage job creation. Still one other big piece of legislation was an emergency package to bail out the states, who had already begun on large budget cuts at the tail end of 2020, because they had no money to pay for their current spending. The bail out was designed to get the states back to normal operation, if at all possible.

The President then announced that all additional fiscal policy initiatives, such as the Green New Deal, would need to be offered in a balanced manner, with tax revenue collected to match the additional spending in the program. The President encouraged Congress to do just that, but many Progressives among the Democrats bridled at this suggestion, as the stimulus and bailout of the states didn't face this constraint.  The President further irked the Progressives by announcing that he would not sign a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 until the unemployment rate got below 8%.  The President indicated that with the fragility of the economy at present, a significant increase in the minimum wage would hinder job creation.  Let the jobs come first and then increase in wages come after the economy returns to near full health.

* * * * *

It is now mid May 2022.  After an initial gangbusters start by the new administration, further progress slowed substantially.  The economy improved a great deal in the first half of 2021, then growth continued but at a much slower rate.  Fissures in the Democratic coalition started to emerge because the various segments of the coalition felt that their agendas were being put on hold.  Talk began that the Republicans would take back control of the House in the midterm elections.

About a month earlier, President Biden had become quite ill.  It wasn't Covid but rather some new variant of flu.  Even after he recovered he looked tired and old, much older than he appeared at the inauguration.  The President made a brief broadcast from the Oval Office announcing that he would step down as President in a couple of weeks, as he was no longer physically up to doing the job.  Vice President Kamala Harris would assume the Presidency.  She has been well briefed on all relevant matters on the President's agenda.  There is jockeying in the media about the choice of a new Vice President, who would have to be approved by the Senate.  Some of that speculation was about whether that choice might help to hold the Democratic coalition together.  The Republicans have been in a passive mode since the Inauguration.  They would like to see further fracture in the Democratic coalition, as that would help them return to power.

* * * * *

The above is not meant as a prediction, but I think is sufficient for what I want to write below.

In game theory, multi-stage games are analyzed by finding (Nash) equilibrium in each possible subgame and then rolling that back to the first stage of the game, so an equilibrium can be found there.  The result is called a subgame perfect equilibrium and serves to predict what will happen overall.  It assumes all players are rational and they each make rational forecasts of how the game will unfold.

Here, let's take the first stage as the time up to the election in November and then the period thereafter where the election results are contested, until those results are ultimately resolved.  In that first stage, there are very strong incentives to hold the Democratic coalition together, to get Trump out of office, and then to institute a rational plan to manage the pandemic and to jump start the economy.  On this much there is broad agreement.  On much else, however, there is no consensus within the coalition.

It is well understood the Mario Cuomo's famous lines offer the rule, not the exception.

You campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose.

This is the way that politicians play the game.  But what about voters?  What do voters expect will happen after the election, in the event that the Democrats do win?  Are voters rational a la game theory?  Or will they bounce in their beliefs about the future - optimistic about the new administration at first, then pessimistic when it appears their group within the coalition is getting short changed or, more likely, that the group is being told their agenda will be accomplished sometime in the future, but not immediately.

If voters are prone to have such bounce in their beliefs, because they aren't trained in game theory and tend to vote with their hearts rather than with their heads, one might expect a responsible leader to get voter expectations more in line with what is likely to happen.  The campaign in poetry line is an indication that most leaders don't do this.  And under the present circumstances, I too would campaign in poetry, were I running for office.  But soon after taking office I would then belabor the point about how this is likely to play out thereafter.  Yet the coalition needs to hold to continue the work it has started.  How then can voter disillusionment be prevented so that voter participation in subsequent elections remains high?

Let us recall that the Democrats lost the House in the 2010 midterm elections, where the Tea Party emerged as a strong voice on the Right.  This followed the passage of the Affordable Care Act, but without a Public Option.  Plus, we were still enduring the Great Recession, where it seemed the big banks were getting bailed out, but the little guy was getting screwed.   That disillusioned many voters.  The governing in prose part was sufficiently distasteful that Democratic voter participation rates dropped substantially, especially among younger and highly idealistic voters.  That history should be well within reach of us now.  It needs to be reviewed early and often, so it is not repeated.

* * * * *

Now I'd like to get to my title.  From the time that Kamala Harris was selected to be the candidate for Vice President till the Democratic Convention, there was piece after piece that extolled the virtue of that choice and the virtues of the candidate.  It seemed she could walk on water.  Making for that type of vision is consistent with campaigning in poetry.  I thought we needed a governing in prose view of the job of Vice President which, except for the option value of becoming President someday, is really not an attractive position.

If you are a fan of the TV show The West Wing, you'll immediately recognize the name of John Hoynes.  He is the first Vice President under President Josiah Bartlett.  (Eventually, Hoynes resigns because of an extra-marital affair he was having while in office.)  Hoynes laments being Bartlet's whipping boy, having to make speeches about policies he doesn't support.  And he is unenthusiastic about being excluded from the main decision making apparatus - he does not attend senior staff meetings, where the arguing through what should be done next happens.  And he does a lot of fluff ceremonial stuff that the President is unable to do himself.  Plus, Bartlet could be a real s.o.b. and take Hoynes for granted, which happened on more than one occasion.  The only reason for Hoynes to endure all of this is to position himself for a run at the Presidency after Bartlet steps down from office, or to assume the Presidency in case Bartlet can't fulfill the duties of office.

Bartlet never served as Vice President.  Of course, Biden did, and he may be sensitive to these issues as a consequence.  On the other hand, there will be so much on his plate if he does become President that he may simply not have the time and energy to redesign the role of the Vice President to make it more appealing to Kamala Harris. If so, after the initial honeymoon period, friction between the two may develop, especially if something like the scenario described in the first section comes to pass.  It is not inconceivable that some of the friction will get a public airing which, if it happens, might further undermine the Democratic Coalition.

* * * * *

Now I want to make one more point and then close.  This is about the macroeconomics of Keynesian stimulus versus the macroeconomics of Federal budget balance.  In other words, when should you worry about the national debt and when should you ignore it?  I'm an amateur on these matters and I don't want to claim otherwise.  Yet I'm a PhD economist so even my amateur view might help non-economist readers think this through this question.  The answer matters in considering the scenario I scripted in the first section.

Consider an economy in two possible extreme states - operating at full capacity or operating at well below full capacity.  In the first state, the unemployment rate is low.  In the second, it is very high.  It's also possible to consider intermediary states, but to keep the story simple I will only consider those two extremes.

The rule of thumb is for fiscal policy to entail budget balance when the economy is at full capacity.  Deficit financing then will entail rising interest rates that crowd out otherwise profitable private-sector investment and, if sustained, may increase the rate of inflation substantially.  In contrast, deficit financing when the economy is operating substantially under capacity is necessary.  The private sector itself is not generating enough economic activity.  The economy needs a jump start.  Deficit spending, preferably in the form of direct investment or in grants to those people who will definitely spend the money and not save it (so not for tax cuts for the wealthy) is what is needed.

The issue is this.  While the qualitative argument will produce general agreement, determining whether the actual quantitative response is right sized or is too much or too little is more art than science.  I'm afraid, however, that Center-Left Democrats are apt to go for too little response.  So Bill Clinton, who presided during a period of enormous growth (even if some of it was due to a bubble economy) championed that he was able to produce a budget surplus in his last year in office.  While Barack Obama had his eyes set on a Grand Bargain, which ultimately failed because the Republicans couldn't accept the need for tax increases as part of the deal. And then in Hillary Clinton's book, What Happened, gives her views on the 2016 election.  The economic policies that she advocated for are all of the budget-balance variety, which reflects a view of the time where the economy was operating at full capacity.

There is a general folklore that the New Deal cured the Great Depression.  But some have questioned that on the grounds that even the New Deal was insufficient (in part because the states pulled back on their spending and that countered some of what the New Deal aimed to do).  Indeed, in a post from a few years ago I wrote the following which begins with a quote:

The New Deal didn't cure The Great Depression.  Shicklgruber cured The Great Depression.  

It's from Axel Leijonhufvud's book, On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes.   (This may not be an exact quote.  I don't have that book in front of me and am writing this from memory.  But it is pretty close even if it is off a bit.)  In other words, the U.S. economy ratcheted up substantially during WW II over its level during the Great Depression.  That ability to ratchet up the economy, even as many Americans were overseas fighting the war, was indicative that the economy was actually well below capacity before that.

I write this because I fear the bias of moving to a full capacity approach as sensible will actually be too timid as a Biden administration takes office.  So it is my hope that he doesn't steer to the Center too soon.  Yet if I were to guess what will happen, that would be my guess, which is why I wrote the scenario in the first section as I did.

A President must make the tough choices, even if they are unpopular.  But that the choice is unpopular doesn't make it right.  It's on this economics that the Democratic coalition might possibly find a way to find some glue to keep things together.  Yet it definitely won't be easy to do that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Let's Put the Kibosh on the Post-Service-Delivery Survey

The mantra "data driven decision making" gets every service provider into a frenzy.  They think they can improve quality of service if only they had more data on which to base their internal decisions.  They might very well hire external consultants who encourage them in this direction.  Yet it is a bad practice and it should be stopped.

I've had this issue on my mind for some time, but it was a recent visit to my healthcare provider which then precipitated a follow up survey that drove me to write this piece.  In that case I got a robocall where the caller ID said it was the healthcare provider calling.  In the past, I had gotten solicitations to do these post-visit surveys, but by email, which I find less intrusive.  (My Inbox is full of solicitations, mainly from sales reps of companies wanting to sell IT services to the university, seemingly unaware that I've been retired for 10 years. Over time, I've learned to ignore such messages.)  Indeed, we get a lot of robocalls by phone and mostly I don't pick up.  I do answer the phone for the healthcare provider.

I also want to note that given my ed tech administrator experience and my background as an economist who is well aware of the social science issues in administering such surveys, I'm not just blowing smoke here.  Indeed, the course evaluation questionnaires (CEQs) that we use in higher education to determine course and instructor quality serve as a model for me in considering the issues in this post.   The CEQs are a holdover from an earlier time, but are held in low regard by students and instructors alike.  The reader should keep that in mind with what follows.

Let's work through the reasons for why the post-service-delivery survey is a bad idea.

It disrespects the person who received the service.

This is most obvious when the service is one and done.  In the case of the CEQs, the students complete the survey at the end of the semester and won't be taking the course again.  How do they benefit from taking the survey?  Asking somebody to do something from which the person won't benefit is showing a lack of respect for that person.  For the CEQs, if they are administered earlier in the semester and only used within class to make modifications on how the course is taught, then that would be a legitimate use by this criterion.  The students could then see how their responses to the questionnaire directly impact instruction, at least if done in a small class.  But in a large class, individual responses won't count for much at all, even if the CEQs are administered early in the semester.

For the health care provider, the patient gets no information about the pool of other patients who will be given the survey for the same healthcare provider, nor about prior response rates to such surveys, nor about how survey responses have been used in the past to adjust the healthcare provided.

I want to note an argument that can cut the other way, which happens in an overlapping generations model, and provides the logic behind social security. (See Samuelson's An Exact Consumption-Loan Model.)   Completing the survey is like paying a tax.  You pay the tax in expectation of a future benefit, when you need the benefit, after you've retired.  Likewise, you complete the survey from the healthcare provider under the assumption that your healthcare quality will be improved in the future if all patients complete the survey.  Perhaps this is true.  However, the analogy breaks down when noting that paying FICA is legally required of all working people.  Completing the survey, in contrast, is voluntary.  There is a free rider problem involved with completing the survey.  One should expect low completion rates as a result.  It is conceivable that a sense of social obligation can counter the free rider problem.  But let's face it, everyone and their brother are doing surveys of this sort nowadays.  There are just too many of them to feel a sense of social obligation regarding completing any particular survey.  Given that, asking patients to complete the surveys is an act of disrespect.

The quality of the data collected will be poor. 

For most surveys, the response rate is nowhere near  to 100%.  As long as there is random sampling and who participates and who opts out is also random, the survey statistics have validity (provided the sample is large enough).  But there can be systematic reasons why some people participate and others opt out, leading to selection bias.  Survey results are far less reliable in this case.

There are two obvious factors to focus on in considering possible selection bias.  People with high time value and limited leisure time are more likely to opt out.  So surveys of this sort end up over sampling the unemployed, the retired, and they under sample those who are working full time, but also those who don't have an internet connection where they live, who are unwilling to go to a place where bandwidth is ample just to complete the survey.

The other factor is about reasons to want to complete the survey and conversely reasons not too.  As a general rule, those with intense preferences, either for or against, are more likely to complete a survey.  Those with mild preferences are more apt to sit it out.  One therefore should look at reasons for why a person might have an intense preference after the service has been delivered.

From this perspective, routine service provision is apt to generate only a mild preference, although I will give some caveats with that below.  Emergency service provision or service provision under dire circumstances is more apt to generate a strong preference from the service recipient.

Even for people who have excellent health insurance, and I count myself as one of those, the business side of healthcare is clunky, at best, and painful, at least some of the time, especially once you've become a senior citizen.  I will illustrate with a few different examples.

I turned 65 last January and had a regularly scheduled visit with my primary care doctor, in general, a good guy. I was due for a variety of vaccines/immunizations.  Alas, I was also at the cusp where my primary insurance until then was to become my secondary insurance thereafter and Medicare Part B would become my primary insurance.  I ended up having one immunization during that visit, but was told to get others at the pharmacy I frequent, Walgreens.  Why this makes sense, I don't know.  But it is definitely harder to manage having different providers for immunizations.  Further, there was no leeway about my birthday, with respect to Medicare covering the payment.  If I was 64 and 364 days, I wouldn't be eligible to get coverage for the vaccines that would be covered the next day.  When I went to Walgreens I got both the pneumonia vaccine and the first Shingles vaccine.  That was on my birthday.  I had pneumonia the previous spring, so was a candidate for that.  The Shingles vaccine was for anyone near my age.  I might have been a year or two behind on that one.   In any event, why I had to make two visits to get this done is because that's how the system works.  Might I get irate at my primary care physician as a consequence.  I might, though I didn't that time.  The bureaucracy with insurance and prescriptions is a pain, especially regarding trying to renew one prescription because it is time to renew another.  The insurance company will block the renewal of the first prescription.  If it were narcotics, I would understand.  But I've recently experienced this with eye drops.  Give me a break.

It's actually worse with non-routine healthcare.  Two years ago, I had three different issues.  One ended up being a stress fracture in my foot/bad arthritis there.  Another was that a compressed disk in my neck was causing pain and muscle spasms in my left arm.  The third, and the scariest, is that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  As a result, I saw a variety of specialists and reached the following conclusions.  Diagnosis is an art, not a science, in the sense that the evidence from the diagnosis may entail some ambiguity.  How that ambiguity resolves is of some consequence to the patient.  For cost effective diagnosis, it makes sense to begin with less expensive tests and then move to more expensive/intrusive tests.  Blood tests and x-rays are comparatively low cost procedures.  They are the first step in a potential chain of other steps.  Scans, such as MRI, are steps further down the chain.  Scans are good at identifying "hot spots" but there may still be ambiguity as to the cause of the hot spot.  Scans are more expensive than the first steps and typically require approval of the insurance company before they are conducted.  I will talk about that more in the next paragraph.  Biopsy, when it is not of something on the skin, is more intrusive than a scan, also more localized, and in my experience more precise.  But you can't biopsy every ambiguous hot spot that shows up in a scan.  When a biopsy yields a positive result, treatment is called for.  That much is understood.  When a scan gives an ambiguous result, the next step is negotiated between doctor and patient, but it won't involve treatment.  It will either be simply to wait or it will entail some other diagnostic.

The doctors who had to deal with insurance company approval for diagnostic procedures they wanted to recommend all seemed angry and intimidated by the prospect that their judgment would be questioned and their recommendation might be overturned by the insurance company.  This is an issue with healthcare that is not getting enough attention.  I also want to note that specifically for a cancer diagnosis, a patient new to that will have something done to their head, regarding worrying about the worst case possibility.  In my case, the worry was about whether the cancer had spread outside the prostate.  I became distraught and quite angry when this couldn't be resolved in short order.

The patient doesn't rate the insurance company.  Those post-service surveys are only about the visit with the doctor.  One might imagine that they type of distress I felt would encourage an extremely negative evaluation of the doctor visit, even when the doctor actually did everything right within his sphere of control.  So the survey response would be inaccurate in this case.

Perhaps more importantly, the healthcare provider must be aware of the underlying issue.  The survey doesn't inform on that issue.

I want to close this section with the following about me specifically.  I much prefer my healthcare to emerge from ongoing conversations with my providers.  It is the relationship that matters. Each visit either bolsters the relationship, maintains the relationship, or tarnishes it some.  I try not to have the business side of healthcare matter to me in how I view these relationships. But, if I opt for a different doctor when the prior doctor is not leaving the healthcare provider, that would be a strong signal that I was dissatisfied with the relationship.  I've actually never done that.   But I want to observe that senior management of the healthcare provider could be monitoring patient turnover.  That would be far more informative than the surveys.

The surveys may potentially impact negatively how care is given.

Let's return briefly to consider instructor evaluation via CEQs.  George Kuh developed the expression Disengagement Compact, to describe the following scenario.  For instructors where CEQ results matter, to keep their jobs and to get salary increases, there is incentive to manipulate those results.  For students who care a lot about grades but not so much what they might learn in the course, there is incentive to encourage the instructor to give them high grades.  The resulting equilibrium has the instructor teaching to the test, the students performing reasonably well on the tests, and the overall grade distribution quite high.  On the CEQs  the students indicate they were satisfied with the course.  But there has been only surface learning.  If the instructor, in contrast, were to seriously challenge the students, there might be deeper learning, but the grades would be poor and the instructor CEQ ratings would be low.

Might something similar happen with healthcare provision and after visit surveys?  My sense of this is yes, but it might be a bit more nuanced than as described in the previous paragraph.  The issue is how the doctor delivers "bad news" to a patient who might not have been expecting it.  In the old days we talked about "bedside manner" and treated it purely as a function of the doctor's style.  But the doctor may also make an assessment of how much the patient can absorb, in which case the doctor will be more forthcoming with a highly educated patient.  Such a patient might appreciate getting the information in a straightforward manner, even if the news isn't good.  Less sophisticated patients might respond better near term if the message is sugar coated.  It is the patient's behavior after the doctor visit that's at issue.  To the extent that this behavior will govern how the condition proceeds thereafter, the doctor's sugar coating of the message might be pernicious.  Yet even if the doctor is well aware of this, to the extent that the patient's survey response matters there can be incentive to sugar coat the message.  In other words, the same underlying social dynamics exists here as it does in the case of college instruction.

Wrap Up

Data is not always the answer.  And sometimes when there is an attempt to survey people, clearly articulating how the information is meant to help and whether it will help them might very well determine whether they are willing to complete the survey.  It is conceivable, now, that individual doctors send their patients surveys after a visit, with the aim that the survey informs their ongoing care.  This is called formative assessment and is a sensible thing to do.  But it doesn't help third parties evaluate the doctor.  Why we need that, I'm not sure.  That itself is an indicator that it's not necessary.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Developing a Sense of Humor - Lessons Learned Outside of School

I'm 65.  I wonder how many people who are approximately my age can recall the full commercials from the little bits reproduced here.

  • I can't believe I ate the whole thing.  You ate it, Ralph.
  • The next time you tell me the good news, call me up on the phone.
  • No dice Nevada.  (This one is for folks who grew up in NYC.) 

It's 50 years or so after these commercials aired on TV.   If you can recall the full commercials, it might be interesting to ask why that is.  Was it purely that you saw them frequently?  Or was it something about the message itself?

My contention is that it was the latter.  The messages have comedic elements.  That's what makes them memorable, sometimes as memorable as the shows we watched, many of which also had comedic elements.  The popular culture seemed to embrace comedy.

Here's a different type of example.  Name the comedian and come up with the punchline.
  • Doctor, doctor.  It hurts when I go like that.
  • It was cold in New York, Ed.  How cold was it, Johnny?
  • Show me a mule who dropped out of school....

If we remembered these lines soon after we heard them, did we take to repeating them to our friends?  Or did our friends repeat them to us?  I'm asking because I'm trying to understand how my own sense of humor developed, whether that was inevitable or if it required intentionality, mainly by my dad, to cultivate it.

As an adult, my sense of humor manifests mainly in a different way than by telling canned jokes, though I do that with some frequency as well.  Instead, it is mostly situational humor that comes from the context of the conversation, a pun or some other silliness that is a reaction to what the speaker has said.  It requires a kind of listening coupled with some bit of improvisation.   I also do this a fair amount in writing, quick hitter items that are aimed at getting a chuckle from the reader.  There is some compulsion on my part to produce those things.  And that is coupled with some minimal skill needed to evoke the right sort of reaction.  When done in Facebook, if it produces the HaHa response in a few friends, then it's an indicator the post hit the mark.

Chatting with a friend yesterday, she indicated that she had a good sense of humor, and attributed to the cause to her dad who was pretty funny.  I can't really say for sure, but I'm under the impression that some people didn't have funny dads when they grew up.  Could their sense of humor develop nonetheless?  And, if so, why did it happen?  Having lived in Champaign, Illinois now for 40 years, I associate my sense of humor with Reform Judaism, at least as how that played out in New York City when I was a kid. When I do Zoom calls now with my siblings, it is evident in all of us, spouses and offspring too.  I do wonder how widespread it is outside the family and how one might determine that.

When I was still working, I developed some reputation for making wisecracks and for being creative.  Within the CIC Learning Technology Group, while all the members were highly competent and quite talented, in these areas I dare say that those who were also faculty members tended toward making the jokes more and, within that small sample, each of us were male.  I do think the world looks different for an educational technologist who used to be a full time faculty member versus one who is a career educational technologist, but the NYC versus Midwest thing might have prevailed as well.   I was the only one in that cell among all the group members.  It's probably not good social science to develop a hypothesis from a sample where n = 1.  Yet fairly frequently I generalize from my own experience, which begs the question, are situational humor and creativity in other things related?

Situational humor is itself a reaction to what others have said and, if in a video call, how they appear when they said it.  It requires taking some risk in the telling, because the line might fall flat.  (My siblings have recently taken to rating the spontaneous line, most of which get a low rating.  Batting average matters here.)  Beyond that, it requires some intuition about how the others will react.  In my opinion, that intuition is similar if not identical to the intuition one needs to demonstrate empathy to others.  I would guess that a sense of humor and empathy are two sides of the same coin.

Not having lived through it, I don't have a real understanding for why some people don't develop a good sense of humor, but that it happens I have no doubt.  As a professor, I have to say it's hard to detect this in students, who may be quite circumspect in the classroom but otherwise joke around with their friends a lot.  It would be be easier to determine this if the kids already let their guard down (with the professor absent) and then see how things play out.  Yet even then, some who are initially shy may take a longer time to warm up.  That doesn't mean their sense of humor is entirely absent.  But it likely means that they don't get into a playful mode as frequently as others do.

At issue is whether the kid feels implicitly that the sense of humor is something to cultivate.  I am ignorant of contemporary culture and if it provides sufficient cues on this score.  Ten to fifteen years ago, when I became aware that many students got their news from watching the Daily Show, apart from the lack of literacy that implied, I wondered if students were becoming too sarcastic in their views.  To me, sarcasm may be part of a sense of humor but it is far from a complete arsenal.

While I'm writing this post, I also have open in my browser this opinion piece on the mental health crisis engendered by the pandemic (and not just among college students).  Sarcasm is too easy a tone to embrace nowadays and under the circumstances I fear it contributes to a decline in mental health.  Other sorts of humor, however, might serve as a good tonic for lifting the mood and helping the person to become more upbeat.  If that's true, one would want to know whether those other types of humor are readily available to all and, if not, how they might be made available.

I haven't gotten too far in trying to answer that question, but I have a feeling that there is a developmental curve one must go through to have a mature sense of humor.  Telling canned jokes comes earlier.  Situational humor doesn't happen until the canned jokes part gets mastered.  If that's right, how about a non-credit online course available to one and all about canned jokes.  That might be a start.

Q: How many ears does Captain Kirk have?
A: Three, the left ear, the right ear, and the final front ear.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Librarian as Teacher, the Teacher as Learning Coach, and the Student Driving the Bus

There has been a great volume being written as of late about how instruction will happen in the fall - remote and totally online, face to face with safe social distancing, or some hybrid.  I wonder, however, whether the right question has yet to be asked.  The pieces about modality of instruction take for granted the subject matter of what will be taught.  In other words, these pieces are as conservative as they could possibly be in regard to replicating how instruction was done before the pandemic.  But a sober assessment of how things were going in that pre-pandemic state would conclude that they weren't going very well at all. Within higher ed, there has been a well-documented mental health crisis among students, which the pandemic has exacerbated.  Why not, then, opt for more radical change in an attempt to address some of the underlying issues with instruction and do that for K-12 as well as for higher ed.  This piece doesn't offer a full plan along these lines, but I hope it suggests enough that others would feel it useful to flesh out the details more.

Let's begin with a mental picture for what is being argued here.  The young Abe Lincoln who read by the light of the fire serves as an iconic representation of the solitary learner, who learns primarily through reading.  While we have no image of this, we might imagine Lincoln lying on his bed afterwards, reflecting on what he read, processing what he has been learning by asking whether it confirms his prior beliefs, challenges those beliefs, or is unrelated to his earlier thinking. Maybe some of that reflection happened while still reading the book, pausing after a particularly interesting or challenging passage to make better sense of what he had read.  And perhaps he would reread this portion or something earlier in the book, to verify he was understanding the book well and drawing interesting conclusions from it.  Lincoln would do this entirely at his own pace and he'd be the one selecting what to read from what was available.  This is what I mean in my title by the student driving the bus.  Readers might prefer saying that the student engages in self-teaching.

Now let's consider how typical instruction occurred before the pandemic. The instructor selects the material to be read and makes the lesson plan for how that material will be covered in class.  The student's understanding of the material is subsequently assessed in a test, which is high stakes in that it matters a lot for the course grade, and the date of which is pre-specified.   There may be homework given after the material is presented in class that provides assessment in a lower stakes manner and serves as preparation for the test.  I've discussed the underlying dynamics of the situation in a post called, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?  The upshot is that while students may get reasonable grades under this approach, they are mostly playing an artificial game that produces only surface learning.  Indeed, school becomes a charade, regarding learning, yet still seems essential, for getting a good job after graduation.  The approach doesn't encourage nurture of the student intellectually, which is what school really should be about.  In my view, the vast mental health issues that college students currently face is mainly a consequence of this underlying dynamic.

It is important to ask (and then understand) why students don't opt for self-teaching instead, taking each class as a second path to the subject matter, while they've already or simultaneously are following their own path through the material.  Of course, some students do this.  Indeed, they self-teach outside of their coursework as well.  But such students are comparatively rare.   For the rest, consider the following:

1) There is huge pressure on students now to have a good GPA to get a good return on investment.  As tuition has been hyper inflationary for much of the past 40 years or so, (at least till the pandemic changed things) this pressure is much higher on students today than it was on me and my cohort when we went to college (in the mid 1970s).

2) Online technologies, particularly mobile devices, have had a negative impact on student reading, especially reading for pleasure.  (I'm not counting reading text messages.  I'm talking about long form reading - books magazine articles, etc.)  Students "learn" to skim rather than to read carefully and digest what they are reading.  Indeed, because they don't get enough practice at this, many students can't make good meaning of long form pieces, even if they were to put in the time to read them slowly.

3) Self-teaching seems slower and is apparently more time consuming than the alternative - to memorize the lecture notes.  This is almost certainly true at first, but someone who has a firmer understanding of foundational material can make better sense of new ideas that are built on that foundation.  Someone who memorizes only can't do this.

4) As the memorization habit hardens over the years, the student loses self-confidence as a learner.  This lack of self-confidence contributes to the student's stress.

The above is evident to me from the college teaching I've done at the University of Illinois.  Now I want to make an additional claim, for which I have far less evidence in support, but which I believe nonetheless based on my own experience.  An adult skill, part of what is referred to as "chin up leadership" is to make sense of complexity, which as I argued in this piece, Q: Did you read the book?  A: No, but I saw the movie, is to produce a narrative, one that tries to fit the facts, including those that seem to contradict the prior held worldview.  (Those who have confirmation bias tend to ignore those unpleasant facts.) We also produce a narrative when we try to make sense of what we read.  The information comes in a different way with reading (when I was a campus administrator most of the information I got came by having conversations with a variety of people on campus or with my peers at other campuses around the country) but the sense making is essentially the same.   Thus, self-teaching via reading and reflection is excellent preparation for assuming a leadership position later in life.  (It is not sufficient, as one needs good schmooze skills to be a leader. I won't otherwise talk about schmooze skills in this post, but one should keep it in mind.  College isn't producing that either but, to be fair, it's my view that those skills should develop outside of courses, not in them, and students need to want to have conversations with others unlike themselves that would develop those skills.)

Points (1) - (4) above provide the basis for a kind of Prisoner's Dilemma that many students operate under.  I will add one further point, that students over program themselves with extracurricular activities, mainly for resume building rather than for intrinsic interest in the activity.  If other students didn't do this, the student wouldn't feel obligated to be over programmed.  But since everyone else is doing it, the student can't afford not to.  This is the logic of the Prisoner's Dilemma that each student faces.  One wonders, is there anything that can cut through all of this to get the student to take a different approach, one where the student drives the bus?  I have been vexed by this question for quite some time.

I've written several posts over the years with each trying to answer this question, the answers being partial, speculative, and quite idealistic. The current post adds one more to the sequence.  Before putting some flesh on the items in the title, let me give a quick run through of those earlier posts and in so doing get to one other critical point. Learning requires some articulation of the thinking.  This can happen by producing some object that is a consequence of the learning. For the introvert, it might be the expected modality.  For the extrovert, instead, this will happen via conversation with a friend or colleague who is receptive to talking about the ideas.  Still a third alternative is to write about it.  This sort of writing is externalized conversation and what you might do if you have no object to produce and no friend to have a chat with.  This is why I turned to writing blog posts, now more than 15 years ago.  It didn't just occur to me to do that.  I had some prior frustration, writing what I thought were interesting comments on a listserv I participated in.  Those comments failed to generate the type of response I was hoping for.  So I tried, instead, to write out in the open where anyone could access what I said. Writing of this sort, the author has a conversation with an imagined reader and then hopes that real readers find the discussion interesting and useful. Sometimes the real readers indicate that with their comments, which are greatly appreciated when they show the writing has hit the mark.  Comments are also helpful even when the writing is a near miss.  The author always benefits from hearing the views of real readers to learn how their reactions differ from the those of the imagined reader whom the author was writing to.

Some years later I first tried to teach a class where the students did weekly blogging.   The class was for students in the Campus Honors Program and a subtext of the course was leadership.  By then I had come to believe there was substantial overlap between learning and leadership.  So, given my own blogging and the example of others who did use blogging for instruction, this seemed like a natural thing to do. Nonetheless this experiment produced several surprises for me.  The biggest of these was that many of the students were quiet in the classroom, preferring to listen to the flow of discussion rather than participate in it as contributors.  This was a small seminar class with high caliber students and I had not experienced this before when I taught CHP classes, though it turned out to be a portent to my later teaching. Further, most of the quiet students found their voices in writing their blog posts, while several of the very vocal students in class had a much harder time doing this online writing.  I took the lessons I learned from that experience and applied them to my subsequent teaching after I retired in the Economics of Organizations, a class for upper level students in the major, which I tried to teach in discussion mode though there were many more students than in the CHP classes, and many of the Econ students demonstrated the issues with reading for understanding that I described above.

The versions of my class in fall 2012, 2013, and 2014 went reasonably well, even with the issues of student reading that I mentioned.  But in 2015 there was a noticeable drop off in the class and I became discouraged about teaching as a result. I'm not sure why this drop off happened, but for the first time I started to wonder whether my own particular interventions in student learning were doomed to fail because those interventions amounted to too little and too late.  So I wrote this post,  The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution.  It envisioned extending the type of interventions I had been doing in my upper level class and instead doing them in a seminar for first-year students that would be so intensive it would be the only course students would take.  Regarding intensity of intervention, it had a chance to significantly impact how students go about their learning.  But it was non-solution for several reasons.  The biggest were: (a) what students would want to opt into this alternative instead of taking the regular curriculum being offered? (b) teaching the class represented way too much work for an individual instructor so even if it were tried once with me that instructor that probably couldn't be replicated, and (c) the campus wants to think its current way of doing things in the classroom is reasonably effective, so an experiment that demonstrated otherwise would be unwelcome. In spite of those limitations, I found the overall idea intriguing, so I didn't abandon the notion altogether.

A few years later I wrote another post in this vein, A Summer Camp for Teaching College-Level Reading and Learning to Learn.  It addressed some of the deficiencies in the prior post.  The intervention would be even earlier in the student's career, the summer after 11th grade.  The selection problem was addressed as well.  Academic summer programs for high school students typically attract elite students.  The students chosen for this summer camp would be different, closer to average students.  It also explicitly got at teaching how to read better and in so doing incorporated both individualized reading (where the student does drive the bus) with common group reading, along with appropriate feedback for both types of reading.   The downside in the proposal is that it would be quite expensive.  To get the students to be willing to participate they would need to be paid at approximately the same rate as if they were working a summer job.  This was assumed necessary to get them willing to participate and to keep them engaged in the camp rather than goof off. The staff would need to be compensated as well.  So this idea would require some foundation to buy in and support it as an experiment for several years.  I wouldn't know how to pitch this to a foundation, but if we ever get past the pandemic, maybe somebody else would take up the mantle and make the summer camp for college reading a reality.  If that were to happen and if in tracking the students who did attend it turned out they performed better in college than their observationally equivalent peers, then maybe subsequent camps could charge the families of the attendees and make the idea sustainable.  Alternatively, maybe some of the ideas could filter down into the high schools (and junior high schools) to encourage students to read better and be more self-directed in their learning.

This more recent post, Is Now an Apt Time for College Students to Embrace The Creative Attitude? was written after the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued.  It makes note of a rather grim economic fact that might defeat the Prisoner's Dilemma logic students had been dealing with prior to the pandemic.  The labor market, previously strong for college grads and college students seeking internships, has become very soft. Further there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how long it will stay that way.  The academic credentials students have already amassed have depreciated accordingly.  The incentive to acquire yet additional academic credentials has diminished as a result.  Further, the quality of instruction during the pandemic may reasonably be expected to diminish to accommodate the safety needs.  That too may diminish the value of the academic credentials.  So, a good case can be made for a student to take a gap year while staying at home.  Then, instead of merely idling or doing waste of time activities, the student could engage in reading and learning to self-teach that way.  The opportunity is there to do that and it might be the best alternative that is available to the student.

Would the student stick with it?  If the student is living with mom and dad and if they can't tell whether the student is engaged in serious reading and self-teaching, then this might require more discipline than the student can muster.  Further, if we now bring in the student's mental health into the picture, with the student apt to be feeling anxious and depressed, won't that make it even less likely that the student would stick with it?  So, one wonders if academic resources were brought to bear to help the student, could that improve the likelihood that the student will persevere and develop self-teaching skills that will last a lifetime. This post will noodle on that possibility.

* * * * *

Pretty early in the semester when I teach Economics of Organizations, I tell the students they must learn the line, assume a can opener, as part of their general education in economics.  A little while later I gesticulate wildly while telling them that if I'm waving my hands, that means I'm giving a bs explanation and they shouldn't take it seriously.   I don't have an answer here as to how to address the business processes that would need to be aligned to make the proposal here make sense.  So, I'm waving my hands here.  Let me illustrate those business process issues.

If a student does take a gap year, how can the university devote resources to that student as there will be no tuition paid in this instance?  Alternatively, if the student opts to take independent study credits and thus pays tuition, will that bring forth the requisite university resources?  I want to note that during the time I've taught since retirement I got paid under contract each time I taught my class.  I've also served as the adviser for independent study projects that students would do.  I only did that for students I had taught previously.  And I did that as a volunteer activity.  Traditionally, such work was simply part of the service that faculty do.  It wouldn't warrant an overload payment.   Then, too, there are limits in place for how many credits can be taken as independent study.  So, if the student was paying tuition, then it would be rational to take other courses that in total would add up to a full load.  But that would end up completely defeating the purpose in taking time out to learn about self-teaching via reading.

On the other hand (remember that Harry Truman wanted a one-arm economist because he hated the phrase, on the other hand) those who follow the news in higher ed are aware that many faculty are losing their jobs at universities that are experiencing declining enrollments and don't have the revenues coming in to keep paying these faculty.  What will these people who are laid off do?  Would they want to give a try at being a learning coach for a college student, provided that they could make a few shekels from doing so?  There is also that the experience from this past spring is that instruction can be delivered online, even if the quality in doing so is a a step or two down from face-to-face instruction.  Might online instruction coupled with individual learning coaches end up as the new form by which learning takes place at the college level, especially if students en masse succeed in developing their own self-teaching skills under that approach?   I have no answer to that question.  I bring it up here now, simply to suggest that the new normal after the pandemic is over may be quite unlike what teaching and learning was like before we ever heard of the coronavirus.  And if that is possible, then experiments now to demonstrate the viability of an alternative approach may make sense.

The connection between student reading and student performance, particularly in college, is understood but it remains in the background.  Implicitly, the teaching and learning centers on our campuses around the country have whitewashed the issue by advocating that if the instructor applies the right pedagogical approach then real learning will occur, independent of the student's reading.  I think we need to back away from that idea.  Instead, it should be paramount that students learn to direct their own learning through their reading.  For elementary school children, this is a natural goal, one that I believe was achieved by the better students of my day.  For students who have graduated from high school, this is much more of a challenge.  Brain plasticity will tend to be far less for such students.  Nevertheless, given that the pandemic has made school anything but business as usual, this is an opportunity to try and make headway with those students who want to give it a go.

To show with what I have in mind, I'm going to begin with my own elementary school experience and use it as metaphor for how things might work now.  We had two different types of reading instruction.  One was individualized reading, where the kid chose the book to read for that week.  On making that choice I had different pathways.  My dad would take me to the Windsor Park Public Library on Saturday.  I would return the book from the week before and then go to look for this week's book.  Early on, the librarian showed me where to look for books that might interest me.  Later, as I began to understand the library layout, I would do that myself.  Something similar happened with the library at P.S. 203.  And my parents also bought us a fair number of books that were on the bookshelf at home. So I had ample materials from which to choose.  Each student kept a notebook where the student entered the date when reading the book was completed, the book title, and a sentence about the book.  Once in a while there was a student-teacher conference to discuss the readings.  The teacher would use the notebook entries to make the conference more valuable.  Also, there were book reports done in class by a few students who had read the same book.  This provided another way to see what the students were getting out of the reading plus it was marketing of the book to other students in the class.  Some of the individualized reading happened from magazines (Weekly Reader, Junior Scholastic) rather than from books.  I don't recall how that was incorporated into the process, but with that I do want to note the variety of readings available to students.

The other method of reading instruction was SRA, which aimed at developing the student's reading comprehension and reading speed.  For elementary school kids, perhaps the two are both important.  For college kids, I care a great deal about reading comprehension but not much at all about reading speed. Much more important is whether the student can become absorbed in the reading and make that the student's total universe.  As the students these days are so into multiprocessing, this itself is an enormous challenge.

There is a question about whether the individualized reading informed the SRA and vice versa.  To the extent that this is about working vocabulary, students probably can't make good sense of the reading when many of the words are unknown to them and they don't have the patience to stop and look up those words.  The SRA approach was to use the color of the materials as an indicator of reading difficulty.   I don't recall any attempt to line up the individualized reading with what color I was currently on in SRA.  Maybe that happened unbeknownst to me.  But perhaps the librarian's guidance about books I might choose wasn't informed that way.  Likewise, my parents may not have gotten outside advice regarding the books they purchased for me. It is an issue we'll return to below.

I developed a pattern with my booking reading.  I would start with one book in a new genre.  For example, I received a birthday present (perhaps when I was 9, maybe when I was 10) of The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt. I liked it.  Then I would get other books by Walter Farley in the Black Stallion series from the library.  Eventually I would stop with this line of reading, either because my interest waned or because I had read all the books that were available.  At this point, I was ready to start on a new genre. This is where I might solicit a recommendation from a librarian or from my teacher.  (In sixth grade the school librarian was my teacher.) The new genre could be quite different from the previous one. I was open then to different possibilities and not nearly as locked into what I like to read as I am as an adult.  But it may be that the librarians and teachers could offer up their recommendations for me based on their experience with other kids, so I was likely to be happy with their suggestions.  That too is an issue we'll consider below.

For the truth in advertising part of this piece, there are pleasure reading books I've started as an adult that I never finished.  (Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses are the two obvious ones.  They are both still on my to-do list, but there is no sense of urgency in getting back to them.)  And there are academic readings that either I did read through but didn't understand much of it (Keynes' General Theory) or could only get through part of it, without understanding the bit I did read (Kant's Critique of Pure Reason).  But I chose the titles here specifically because they are tough readings, which even good readers might not get through or make good meaning of.  My focus in the below is on readings meant for adults but are intended for a broad audience.  My contention is that college students at the University of Illinois should be able to make good meaning of such pieces.

Here is an example from that CHP class I taught where I first used blogging in my teaching.  Let me remind the reader that CHP students are among the elite students on campus.  We had a class session early in the semester on Atul Gawande's essay The Bell Curve, one of my favorite pieces and a good read even now. Subject-matter-wise, I thought students would have intrinsic interest in this particular piece, as it is about what it takes to really achieve excellence in a situation where performance can actually be measured objectively.  During the prior sessions (this was the fourth class session) I had led the discussion.  After the third one, the students expressed a desire to have more control, and I acceded to their request.  This was the first session under these new group dynamics and it may have mattered for the outcome.  Also, I had instituted post-class surveys so students would comment about how the discussion went that included Likert-style questions and a paragraph question where the students could comment.

The session itself was interesting for me in that I bit my lip on several occasions rather than chime in, though I had the urge to do that. But the session was a failure in terms of making good meaning of Gawande's essay.  As is my wont, I wrote a review and critique of that session and posted it to the class site.  We changed our in-class method after that to be a hybrid where the students led some of the time and I led at other times.  And we didn't have a replication of this instance where the students didn't make good meaning of the reading, but I'm not sure if that's because they worked harder to understand things or if I gave the answer as to what the reading was about earlier in the discussion. To the extent that it was the latter and the students were still not making good meaning of what they read, I'm quite sure the explanation was lack of practice in doing so.  As I mentioned above, the quiet students actually produced more interesting writing in their blog posts, some evidence that they were getting the readings but didn't feel compelled to show that in class.

I want to relay one more example.  This one does not involve an elite student and happened a few years later.  It was the only time I supervised an independent study from a student who didn't get an A from me in the prior class.  This student was kind of awkward in communicating but eventually did signal an interest in doing more economics under my supervision.  Since we had students blogging as a mechanism already from the prior course, I suggested he read a piece or two, then write a post about what he read, and I would comment on that and we'd go from there.  The first piece I recommended was The Streak of Streaks by Stephen Jay Gould. Although Gould was an evolutionary biologist, this is a foundational essay in Behavioral Economics, especially the part of the essay where he introduces Linda the Bank Teller.  The essay was a book review on the subject of Joe Dimaggio's famous streak, getting a hit in 56 straight games.  The underlying question - was Dimaggio on a hot streak?  Or was this something to expect normally from a hitter as excellent as he was?  Underlying this is whether we humans perceive a player to be hot even when that's not really happening.  The student disappointed me by writing about some other baseball player, which for reasons that elude me, he thought was appropriate.  He didn't address any of the issues in Gould's essay.  I expressed my irritation in comments on the post.  Soon thereafter he dropped the independent study and took his blog down. Our expectations about how the independent study would unfold never came close to being aligned.

I have had subsequent independent studies that went well and cases where students have shown they made good meaning from the assigned readings.  But there have also been incidents where the students clearly didn't get it and, I fear, the latter is far more frequent than we care to admit at the college level.  This provides one strong reason why the students want to memorize the lecture notes and spit back the results on the exams. But even if they get satisfactory grades this way, it should count as a failure of the system, not a success.

* * * * *

Let's now begin with the following question.  How would one go about assessing a student's current reading level, where the assessment itself was either neutral or actually encouraging the student to do additional reading post assessment?  My view is that it must be assessment via friendly conversation, not via written test, and that conversation itself must be seen as part of an ongoing conversation that will persist thereafter.   Imagine that it is the librarian doing the assessment but for the purpose of identifying interesting reading materials for the student, not to report the results externally. The student may have expressed interest in certain subject matter, so if possible, at least some of the readings on which the assessment will be based should pertain to that subject matter.  But other readings might be more generic, so to better make comparisons with other students, and then identify popular readings from that peer group which might be shared with the student.

If the reading program envisioned in this post is even modestly successful, the student should grow in reading ability and confidence, which one would hope contributes to the student wanting to embrace self-teaching. So, an assessment done once, up front, will have a limited shelf life.  Further the assessments themselves will be imprecise. This gives a reason to do them periodically and thus explains why there should be an ongoing conversation between the student and the librarian.  It may also be that at a time before the next assessment is scheduled the student requests recommendations for others reading, outside the genre of the current readings, or within the genre if all current readings have been read.  Perhaps this sort of request can be handled by an email exchange.  But my experience is that students are frequently quite imprecise in their formative thinking.  So, it may warrant a conversation as well to get at what the student really wants.

There then is the question, how does the student get access to the readings after receiving the recommendations from the librarian?  I'm not current on how that question might be answered, but I do want to note here that students from lower income households might well be at a disadvantage.  If they would otherwise benefit from this program, their access issues must be resolved in a way that they have as much access as every other student in the program.  Whether this is done by providing eReaders and having downloads of rentals that the program pays for or having paper reading materials circulate via the mail, I cannot say.  The program needs to find a solution that is reasonably effective.  I want to note, in addition, that effectiveness must balance access to the materials with combating the student tendency to multiprocess with their smartphones.  Reading long form material should demand full concentration by the student and print may be better able to facilitate that.  It should be the librarian who acts as the agent of the student in providing good access to reading material, as providing access to reading materials is a normal library function.  The program will flounder unless this function is done well.

Let us turn to the coaching of the student. For some it may seem strange to think of the teacher as the coach, but not the one who sets the readings.  The coaching part is fully consistent with Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) principles.  Teaching is response.  Teaching is answering a student question.  Teaching is commenting on a student paper.  Teaching is being empathetic when a student expresses a negative opinion about what is happening in the course and then offering supportive advice to help the student counter the negativity. We still conceive of teaching as lecture and thus the language - to deliver instruction - remains part of the vernacular.  (I really wish we could abandon that phrase, but it seems too embedded to do that.)

Now don't get me wrong.  I loved to lecture on the math models in my economics classes, filling the blackboard with equations written in chalk or with appropriate diagrams that are hand drawn, particularly when I was teaching graduate courses.  And lecture is surely the way the vast majority of presentations to professional audiences are conducted.  But those audiences possess strong self-teaching skills, and many will have read the paper before the professional presentation has begun.  That is not the situation with typical undergraduates, at least the ones I've seen in my classes.  We've already been through how they behave in points (1) - (4) above.  This effort is intended to make these students strong self-teachers.  They won't be that at the outset.  Lecture is not a good approach for such an audience.

Now let's turn to how the coaching will seem from the student perspective.  Because the student drives the bus, the coaching must be opt-in for the student.  In other words, if the student prefers the student can simply meet with the librarian on occasion and otherwise go it alone.  And if the student tries that for a while, begins to flounder, but doesn't want to give up, the student can opt into the coaching then.  This needs to be made plain to the student up front.  With that, the student should be encouraged to have a first meeting with the coach, just to see how it goes.  Thereafter, the student can control how frequently future meetings are scheduled and what the student would like to see get done at those meetings.

Critical, then, is for the coach to earn the student's trust and make good steps toward that in the first meeting.  On the specifics of that conversation, I would leave it to the participants.  But on the tone, the coach must be gentle and judgmental/non-judgmental, a term I'd like to explain further.  In a nutshell, the student needs feedback about how things might be done better.  To determine appropriate feedback of that sort, the coach needs to understand the situation as much as possible.  That's the judgmental part.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the student performance until now. In education circles that is called summative assessment.  The coaching should refrain from it.  Progress can be made and when that happens the progress needs to be noted.  Still more progress can be made after that.

I have some experience coaching students and wrote about it here. Some of the students in that CHP class wanted the coaching.  This is the sort of student I'd envision wanting to participate in the reading program.  Some of the particulars of the coaching are discussed in that Summer Camp post linked above.  One real reason that students don't make good meaning of what they read is that they don't understand that the reader needs to provide some context in order to get at what the writer is driving at.  Absent appropriate context, there can be substantial misinterpretation of what is read.  How to construct appropriate context is a skill that the student can develop.  That is part of what the coaching should be about.

I believe in formative writing as a way to learn, which is why I have my students blog.  I would encourage the student to write in a formative way for the coach to read and respond to.  (It could be in an email message, or a Google Doc, or some other form.  At issue is not so much the particular technology but whether others can see this writing, particularly the librarian.) An additional aspect of the coach that I've found over the years is that even when students are on the right track, they tend to be abrupt and stop after taking a first stab at the idea.  Part of the coaching, then, is for the student to be able to consider the implications of that first stab and learn to push the ideas further.

Under the circumstances, some of the coaching may be more of a "virtual pat on the shoulder" to calm the student in these stressful times.  Also, the student may have practical issues to deal with if working at home that impact the reading but are not directly about the reading. The coach may be able to help with that.  And some of the coaching may be on particular issues with reading - determining the meaning of a word from the sentence and paragraph where it is used versus looking the word up in a dictionary and possibly building a glossary of new words that the student confronts in the reading.  I'm not sure there is one right answer that fits all students regarding how to manage this.  The coach should make clear that they will try little experiments in process and see how it goes.  The student shouldn't quit on the process too early, but if after a while it doesn't seem to be working then something else should be tried.  Life lessons about persistence yet dealing with failure definitely need to be part of the process.

I want to expand here on the virtual pat on the shoulder comment.  The coach should not pry into the student's personal life.  But if my experience is any indicator, once a degree of trust is earned the student is apt to be quite forthcoming about matters outside the reading and the coaching.  At this point the coach needs to make a judgment call whether to engage in some of these matters or not.  Among the issues that we know have impacted many students - before the pandemic - is loneliness.  The coach may start to play the role of friend in that case.  And if the coach has relationships with other students, who seem to be approximately in the same place regarding the reading, perhaps the coach arranges a group call to create a different dynamic and allow the students to engage each other in a virtual environment.  Again, this would have to be opt in for the student.   If it did happen, it could be a mixture of conversation about the readings and purely social stuff.  If the students seemed to express a preference for the latter and I were the coach, I would encourage them to meet again in the near future without me being present.

One last point to consider about the coaching is whether the coach has private conversations with the librarian about the student.  If that is to happen, the student needs to be aware of the conversations and approve that they occur, but then not to expect to learn the substance of the conversation unless the coach or the librarian choose to reveal what was said.  One can imagine the information flow between librarian and coach could more finely tune each of the activities.  But it is possible from one of them to bias the other in an unproductive way.  So, there are judgments that need to be made about which is more likely if this is to occur.

Now let's consider the student as the driver of the bus, in regard both to the what the student wants to read and to how much time the student wants to devote to the reading.  A student who is otherwise on a gap year should have ample time and will look to fill the time in a good way.  But because of the general predilection for the student to over program, perhaps by taking online courses from another institution, the student may not have as much spare time as expected.  This will matter as to how successful the reading program might be.  In the post on the creative attitude linked above, the goal was to become so absorbed in the reading that the student would lose all sense of time and sense of self.  If the student could achieve that on a regular basis, it would be quite an accomplishment.  In contrast, if the student struggles to be able to do this, the student should try to understand the obstacle(s).  The coaching might then be directed to removing the obstacle(s) or getting around them in some manner.

Regarding the choice of what to read, let's consider various ways to partition reading material: (a) fiction versus non-fiction, (b) short stories or magazine articles versus full length books, (c) junk versus serious material, (d) easy to read versus difficult (this one might be relative to where the student is as a reader at present), and possibly other distinctions that matter to the student.  As the student gets to drive, the choice of these is ultimately up to the student.  But the coach might discuss with the student why to focus on one of these, for a time.  Ultimately, the student needs to be aware of the goal that the reading should be tied to a sense of being able to self-teach on matters.  So, the student should mark progress on achieving that goal and these choices then should, at least in part, be driven by wanting to achieve that goal.

* * * * *

It is my view that learning to teach oneself should be the main goal of K-16 education, even as having the ability to teach oneself is expressed by learning particular subject matter.  Our emphasis on grading and on GPA in school, unfortunately, ends up putting the emphasis elsewhere, on the grades themselves.  If students can learn to self-teach in the lower grades, they will sail through school thereafter.  Alas, many students don't learn this even after they are well into college.  We should not give up on these students, however.  We should give them a real chance to make up for their deficiencies.  The program sketched above is an attempt to do that.  Now would be a good time to try it.  If others agree, maybe together we can work to bring resources to bear to make it a reality.