Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Student Newspaper as an Exemplar of Student Writing

School started here last Wednesday. Although it comes out each weekday and is free, today is the first day I picked up a copy of our student newspaper, the Daily Illini, which I read over my lunch break. This past weekend I had read a book review on Francine Prose’s new book, Reading Like a Writer and I thought the review was an interesting piece, especially from the vantage of what we instructors want students to do with their writing. That piece helped to crystallize what I’ve been coming to realize for some time about how my blogging is helping me to appreciate the creative work of others.

My sense is that most faculty, especially those who don’t teach writing (in other words the vast majority of us) don’t sample much student writing outside of the courses they teach. Mostly they read professional writing, either from within their discipline or from more general interest outlets and so probably have a tendency to compare student writing to that as opposed to comparing student writing to other student writing. One place where student writing is on showcase is the student newspaper. And though for years I’ve been on again and off again reading the DI, today was my first day of looking at it from the perspective of displaying student writing rather than from the vantage of learning the news or seeing student opinion on some issues.

We in the campus IT organization, occasionally the object of stories in the DI, are generally concerned about the accuracy of these stories and whether the reporters have done sufficient homework ahead of time before writing the stories. Reading the paper with that thought in mind makes for a less than satisfying experience. The pieces seemingly fall short of the ideal on a regular basis. So I was surprised today when reading from this other perspective how much I enjoyed what I read and how I felt about these students/fledgling columnists in their personal trajectory toward getting to being mature writers with their own distinct voices.

This is the Opinion Page if you’d like to take a look. There is one unsigned editorial and there columns. I believe all the columnists are undergrads, though this Web reproduction of the paper doesn’t include that information. I don’t know any of these students personally and as far as I know I’ve not read any of their work before.

The column by Brian Pierce is extraordinarily well written, compelling to read from both a personal and an educational perspective. It’s the type of piece that I think could be reprinted in other student newspapers nationally, possibly in other types of publications as well. I did wonder as I read it, since it is so personal, whether columns of this sort belong on the opinion page. I suppose this is a more general issue with student newspapers – the better writing is likely to be personal because then the students will be writing about what they know – but for it to be newsworthy there must be some generality about it. In this particular case, I’m glad they included the piece in the paper because it is such a good read, and I’m not aware of an obvious alternative outlet. In any event, I will be looking for Brian’s future columns to see if he can keep up with the high level he has set with this piece.

The column by Tyler Friederich is also well argued and has a certain personal aspect to it, both good things, though the article title betrays something in the piece itself - a perspective of right or wrong only, and does not admit the possibility of other ways in which to consider the question. So if Tyler were my student I might ask him to respond to the following question: Obviously, attending the U of I is an “economic good” in the sense that there are more people who apply than are admitted and since Tyler was initially one of those he’d have to agree with that part. This economic good is partially financed by tax dollars paid by taxpayers in the state of Illinois. So the question is, what type of admissions policy makes this type of funding an acceptable part of the social contract, where overall the taxpayers who might have children who could attend the U of I think it is a fair deal? What would Tyler come up with if he took a reasonable stab at answering that question? And then, how would the writing change as a consequence?

I liked the column by George Ploss because he argued strongly for students taking social responsibility, in this case African American students helping out each other, this especially in light of the low graduation rates of such students. This seems like a good argument to me and one that sounds as if it should be made on an ongoing basis. But I thought the piece itself had some awkward places where George seemed to want to use fancy language that didn’t quite fit in with what else he was saying. (Incidentally, so I don’t seem like I’m picking on George, I thought the editorial suffered from the same issue.) If George were my student, I’d encourage him to talk through the article aloud without referring to the written text. Then I’d encourage him to rewrite the way he talked about it. And finally I’d ask him to read both versions and see which one he likes better.

I do hope all these students continue to write more. Reading this stuff you can see the potential. Writing for the student newspaper under deadline is probably not the best way to go through many drafts on a single piece of work, but if one has a regular column one can collect the work and see how it changes over time. That is a fascinating possibility.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Life Lessons

Through the magic of TiVo on Monday night I watched the second part of Martin Scorcese’s documentary, No Direction Home, about the early years of Bob Dylan as a songwriter and performer. I had caught the tail end of the first part the week before on one of the PBS stations we get on the Dish Network. There the American Masters series airs on Sunday night, but I saw something else last night on American Masters about Elia Kazan (less compelling to me) so since I don’t regularly watch this am a bit confused about their scheduling.

Dylan had not been a hero figure for me till I watched this film. As an undergrad I had a few of his albums on audio cassette – Highway 61 Revisited, Blond on Blond, maybe a couple of more that I copied from a housemate, and I know I bought Blood on the Tracks on vinyl, because I still have the record. A few years later while in graduate school I got to see him perform at Chicago Stadium and my vague recollection of the experience was that it was extremely loud and kind of grating on the nerves. As an undergrad I had seen Jerry Garcia perform with Merle Saunders somewhere in Rochester and I remember feeling that we had experienced “total volume” so that the loud part was not new per se, but the grating on the nerves part was new. And it was not really welcome. I suppose the reaction of some of the fans at the Newport Festival in 1965 captured in the film was similar, but this was more than 10 years later so I don’t believe there was any sense of betrayal, just a feeling that it wasn’t very good --- around that time I had also seen the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field and that was awesome. It was Dylan’s performance that was at issue, not Rock and Roll.

There were other occasional reminders of Dylan and his music after I came to Illinois; he was in the film of the Concert for Bangladesh and has a segment in The Last Waltz. I would occasionally find refuge in listening to my old tapes when alone in my apartment, something of an antidote to Devo, Blondie, The Talking Heads, etc. And then once in a while Dylan would come up in other contexts. When I first started to date my wife, she regularly did her impression of Dylan --- not bad.

This Scorcese movie kindled something in me. I know I had a rather intense dream Monday night about being with Dylan and talking to him. The last couple of days I’ve been scratching my head about writing a short story with that theme. I don’t write short stories; I write blog posts, so this would be a stretch and it probably wouldn’t be very good. But maybe I’ll try it anyway and in the meantime try to bring out some of those things that make Dylan such a compelling character to me.

He wrote his songs and he performed them, separate activities to be sure but each fed off the other. At the beginning he performed the works of others and every time you see or read about Dylan you’ll get a tie to Woody Guthrie. Indeed as the film makes clear he was influenced by much of the American folk music tradition and it had a big impact on his Art. His discussion about Pete Seeger and Seeger’s reaction to the performance at the Montrose festival is telling on this point. In browsing the Columbia Records Web site on Dylan, they have an alphabetical listing of his songs with links to lyrics and audio clips, I was surprised to discover that he had recorded Blue Moon, a standard written in the 1930’s by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. I believe Dylan feels a genuine connection to a great array of different types of music and much of that has had a profound influence on him.

Of course, Dylan grew in his own style of delivering the music and then his writing of songs that helped accentuate his style – raspy and rhythmic yet with seemingly odd phrasing that helped to convey his meaning in a way quite differently from how others had expressed such ideas. The footage of interviews with Allen Ginsberg make it clear just how new Dylan’s writing was and how he had leapfrogged ahead of the poets and songwriters that were his own inspiration, but then as he succeeded more and more of what he wrote came from inside himself.

In letting his inner voice speak he ended up speaking for millions of others. The talent of great artists, as I’m increasingly learning to appreciate, is that giving air to the inner voice and the idiosyncrasies within creates such broad appeal because the message is universal and the idiosyncrasies show the message is being delivered with a genuine passion. So in speaking for himself Dylan ended up speaking for his generation, but as shown quite clearly in some rather awkward interviews with the press, Dylan strongly resisted being classified as a spokesman, a prophet, a leader, or a politician. He was quite convinced he was doing something at a higher level and part of the resistance was evidently so he would not be brought down to a more pedestrian place just to make others comfortable about his motives.

With this and with Dylan’s expressed need to keep trying new things and not to stay pat – the move from acoustic to electronic music is but one example of this – and his insistence on staying the course and not caving in on his principles are the essence of his heroism. And since his principles seem so much in line with what many edu bloggers are arguing for these days, I would think this film would resonate with them and show indeed that their own ideas are not at all transient but rather more enduring and that their aim is in some sense to see the spirit emblemized by Dylan take root in all of us.

* * * * *

My older son, who started High School this week will turn 14 at the end of the month. There has been banter between him and his younger brother about taking Driver’s Ed, which in Illinois can be done once a kid is 15. (The drinking age has been raised to 21, why not the driving age?) So it is beginning to dawn on me that although the old man has not been directly involved with his schoolwork and other activities, he may begin to ask serious questions about when to respect authority and when to ignore it, when to find his own truth and when to accept the wisdom of others, when to stick to one’s principles like Dylan and when to avoid fighting battles that there is no chance of winning. If he does ask, I’d like to engage him and not blow him off.

The driving thing raises these questions immediately, because just about everyone speeds and he can’t fail to notice that. We have three Interstates that go by Champaign-Urbana and in traveling almost anywhere outside of town it is likely to take one of those. So it’s an unmistakable lesson that breaking the law is a normal adult thing to do. Every teenager at this point must get the lesson that ethical behavior and obeying the law are not one and the same but rather two separate things. That there is overlap is easy to communicate. Defining where that overlap occurs is much harder.

I want my son to find a strong ethical sense in himself. All the adults I know whom I respect have that. I think it’s really important to develop, but I’m unsure how it is learned. My son is a well behaved kid now but I suspect he’ll hit a wall in a couple of years, as I did, about figuring out the underlying motives for his behavior, especially when getting good grades starts losing its primacy as a motivation and the need for learning appears more fundamental. In expecting that realization to occur, I don’t want him to think of me as the voice of the other side, for arbitrary authority, rules because there are rules rather than because the rules make sense to address some more basic need. I’d like him to think of me as thoughtful on these issues and in turn I hope he too becomes thoughtful about them.

And because these questions are beginning to emerge in me, I’m asking myself whether what I profess at work is consistent with this view of being a parent to a young adult child and in particular as a campus administrator whether the rules and regulations that we pass onto our students at the University of Illinois and which I’m obliged to embrace are those that I would want my own kid to obey if he were a student here.

Of course too much of this sort of thing can make you neurotic, but I think some of this is healthy to examine one’s own beliefs. Here is one example for me. Music and video file sharing are a hot issue now and one that I find vexing, without simple answers, and I’m somewhat dismayed by others who are proffering them. Part of the reason for including the first part of this post on Dylan with this second part was to show that while I was no bootlegger of illegal music, neither was I a purist on making copies when I was a student. Rather I lived in that gray zone that so many others occupied, drivers on the metaphorical highway who go faster than the speed limit but not so fast as to get a ticket.

Nowadays, I make copies of all sorts of content online (though mostly images and documents) and redistribute primarily via email, where I believe I can make a quite credible case for Fair Use since I literally do live my job – promoting learning technology – and my purpose is almost certainly educational (as well as the other factors for a fair use case such as the impact on the market being negligible). So I found it disturbing yesterday when I learned that Educause was promoting this site, in support of an RIAA sponsored video about illegal file sharing. The video doesn’t mention Fair Use. Nor does it mention content produced by instructors that is intended to be free for their students to download, nor other content produced by students themselves aimed at their fellow students, nor content that is freely available by podcast, etc.

And that the video itself has Graham Spanier, President of Penn State, featured in it is also disappointing, because that gives credibility to what is an overly simplistic message. The message doesn’t encourage students to think about the issues and modify their behavior because of the thinking. It encourages them to conform to the message out of fear that they might get sued for copyright violation. It is an argument about avoiding punishment, not about the sensibility of obeying the law.

Perhaps with this post I’ll end up at odds with the higher ups in administration from my own campus on this one. But to be clear I’m not denying that illegal file sharing is a problem. Instead, I’m trying to affirm that our students must be educated as adults with messages that appeal to their own sensibility, skepticism, and general distrust of authority. And in doing my little bit, I’m giving modest effort to follow Dylan in sticking to our own principles as we define them.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Out of Step

I suppose this is true of most fields or enterprises, but certainly with learning technology there seems to be an imperative to keep up with the profession and stay in tune with current developments. This need is somewhat at odds with my own persona --- I have a preference to tread on paths that were familiar in the past but have long since lost their interest for the masses. They have moved on to other things. I would rather be away from the crowd than part of it and this way I can view things in my own way, without having to conform with popular opinion.

It is much harder to maintain one’s one view and hold it strongly when in negotiation with others who hold their own views with spirit, especially when there is some discord between the two positions. Near the end of the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended in June 2003, they provided us with a list of recommended readings for afterwards. One of them was The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample and from that I learned an important principle of leadership --- don’t make decisions before you have to; gather information and listen to the opinions of others until a decision is necessary. This truly is contrarian for me, because until reading this book I would have said that I’m a good “Bayesian” and hold some subjective probability on the truth of a proposition, updating that as new information arrives. The main difference between the two, especially from the point of view of leadership, is that by vocalizing my own view I may inadvertently cause those people whom I am supposedly leading to shut up or to conform. Then I lose the ability to learn from them. I know that in situations where I’m in the position of subordinate, I feel a strong need to conform. The Sample book has encouraged me to change my approach.

For much of my adult life I’ve been neither leader nor follower and especially when it has come to reading about things outside of economics I’ve come to these things late and therefore may very well hold unorthodox thoughts about the books I describe below. They are in some sense quite different books, but they share in common helping me to come to grips with “outer” issues. And by this I mean issues that one reads about or hears about and that may not have an obvious tie to one’s own “inner” issues. These books helped to create such a tie or gave me a different perspective on which to think about these issues.

Let me begin with The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. I read this either later in my graduate school career or early on as an assistant professor. The issue at the time for me, and I know this may seem strange 25 years later, was how to think about people who were German. If they were connected to their past and I was connected to mine, was it really right to adopt the “I’m OK and you’re OK” point of view I had with pretty much everyone else? My grandparents on my mother’s side were killed at Auschwitz and while that obviously had a huge influence on my mother’s life, I had no direct connection with them. Likewise the German young people who were approximately my age had no direct connection with the Nazis, although their own ties to their parents must have been heavily influenced by their parents’ experience during Nazi Germany.

I know that at the urging of a classmate at Northwestern I watched several “German angst” movies, such as Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. These movies were depressing to view and conveyed a sense of alienation, I suppose a necessary penance on the way toward normalcy. But they didn’t really help me in resolving my own dilemma about how to think of German people.

The Tin Drum did. Grass reflected directly on the horror of the Nazi experience without being literal but with a clear sense to having borne witness to it all. Yet he was equally clearly a wonderful author and story teller. I don’t know that I explicitly thought this after reading the book, but I’m sure it helped me feel that these people deserve a chance, especially since my sense was that I was not his primary audience – that was other Germans who had lived through the same history.

Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)

Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be a part of one’s liberal education seems a sensible thing to me. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure of the path to this, but possibly it was that I was a Book of the Month Club member, soon after reading Bloom I read a different book, one much less well known but I think worth reading called The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine, which while billed as a rebuttal to Bloom’s book (and the title was obviously chosen for this purpose) though it served a quite different purpose for me.

Nowadays “diversity” is a core value on campus and I suspect on most campuses around the country. Levine’s book gives the key arguments for why that should be the case, how we can’t understand each other unless we know the stories of ordinary men and women from all walks and stations and that a history that focuses only on the heroes, the so-called makers of history, will inevitably be incomplete and inadequate as a consequence. I encourage the reading of Levine’s book. And I suspect it will have more impact on the reader if Bloom’s book is read first.

Up till now in this post I’ve talked mostly about what I would call “heavy reading” --- the issues are somber and the treatment of those is high minded. Now let me turn to lighter fare and talk about a book I read after seeing the movie first. This was Contact by Carl Sagan, realistic (in the sense of conforming with the known laws of physics) science fiction about extraterrestrial intelligence and intergalactic travel . I loved that movie and it spurred me to read not just Sagan’s book but also several books about “string theory” intended for a lay audience.

I bring Contact up here because a critical strand of the story is about the interplay between scientific thinking and religion and I think Sagan’s tone and the outcome of the story play it just right. The book and the movie both make a point of emphasizing “Occam’s Razor,” the principle that other things equal the simpler explanation is preferred. Applying that, scientists should be atheists, since natural phenomena can be explained without appealing to intervention by God. But miracles defy such explanations and when the miracle has only a few witnesses (in the book there were a few who traveled through the chain of wormholes to a distant star and back again, in the movie there was only one, the character played by Jodie Foster) and those witnesses are scientists how will anyone else come to believe them unless those believers have faith? And if those scientists want to be believed, don’t they have to put their trust in faith as well? The irony is delicious and it makes for a very good story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


When I applied to college in fall of 1971, we were only allowed to apply to 3 places (plus a school in CUNY such as Queens College and I believe also one school in SUNY, though I opted out of both of those options). We were a big public high school in Queens, NY (my graduating class had almost 1200 students) and so perhaps that restriction was a consequence of school size. Maybe it was an across the board restriction in NYC public schools; I'm not sure. In any event, my choices were Amherst College, Harvard, and MIT. All of these are excellent schools, and on the sole criterion of excellence alone, the choice may make sense. But in other respects they are quite different places and one might ask why not choose places that are more alike. For example, if MIT made sense as a choice, then why not alternatives like CalTech (I thought of that but too far from home) or Carnegie Mellon or RPI, which might be viewed as more in the same genre as MIT. There are two answers to that, one based on academics, the other the real answer. At that time I was thinking of becoming a physicist and I had spent the previous summer at Hampshire College (in the same town as Amherst College) where there was an NSF program in Math for high ability high school students. So academically I knew (or at least I thought I knew) that I wanted to do theory things in that area. I did not want to be an engineer, which I viewed as a very different type of animal. Also I had a strong social science interest and wanted to be able to pursue that as a sidebar to the physics/math if I didn't get completely wrapped up in that. MIT certainly had a lot of engineering, but it had the other stuff too. At the time, I believe I thought RPI was just for engineering and I put no effort whatsoever into learning otherwise and similarly for Carnegie. There was also the prestige thing where in terms of those College Guides, which had an undo influence on my thinking at the time, the choices I made were all very near the top. The real reason is quite different. I've always been schizophrenic about earnestly wanting to trying new things, on the one hand, but about being deathly afraid of being alone, on the other. When I tried something new, I wanted to do that with someone I knew already, so I didn't have to deal with that awkward feeling of being alone. It's kind of an odd crutch, because once I would gather my personal sense of balance I'd feel constrained by needing to conform with the preferences of these others, not always seeing their wants as mine, and more than once having the experience of changing my choice because of that conflict. But in that sense I was a slow learner, because I repeated the "same mistake" several times. (When I ultimately transferred away from MIT, I chose Cornell in large part because my younger brother was there and I knew other people there too.) It wasn't till I went to graduate school at Northwestern where I really totally flew away from the nest and started with my classmates there on a clean slate. When you apply to college you can't really know who else from your high school would end up there, but I did know that many kids from my high school wanted to go to college in the Boston area (and many did). So the choice to apply to Harvard and MIT was, in some sense, one of straight conforming with the crowd. And as it turned out, my roommates at MIT were people I knew ahead of time, one a friend from the Hampshire College program, the other a student from the high school where my mother taught. So that was the big driver. Amherst might not seem to fit in terms of this explanation, but it turns out we had family friends who lived there, a buddy of my dad from his college days and a professor at UMass, and I had known people who went to Amherst who had been counselors at the summer camp I attended. My academic profile from high school fit MIT --- math nerd. The match with Harvard was a little harder to rationalize. My verbal SAT scores weren't quite high enough (it is amazing to me know how much we put ourselves into little boxes as a consequence of that test, there is more harm than good that results, but I for one certainly did put myself into a box) and while I could shine in a classroom setting I didn't have effective stage presence for other settings. So I believe I was somewhat intimidated by the process. Harvard required having a face to face interview and I did that at the Harvard Club in Manhattan --- very posh. Applying for college is a strange activity in terms of giving oneself personal definition --- be true to yourself or say what you think others want to hear and at the time it seems like a very important choice to make so there seems to be a lot hanging in the balance on how you play those cards.

I believed then (and only have modified my views a little on this score since) that since it was necessary to talk about one’s own accomplishments, taking a modest stance was the appropriate tone to adopt; in the main boasting rubbed people the wrong way. But at the time, I occasionally would be modest at the cost of being accurate and that would happen most often when I felt in an uncomfortable situation where I didn't have a sense of trust with whom I was talking. I still recall describing myself as a plodder at this Harvard interview. Certainly, that's not a very flattering description. But, worse, it's completely wrong; it's not me. Harvard also required in its application (I wonder if they still do this) for me to provide a list of 10 books I had read and I believe also to provide brief annotations on each as to why I thought they were important in my intellectual development. I believe that many kids applying to college feel implicitly that they are prostituting themselves writing "the essay(s)" and otherwise misrepresenting themselves as students or at a minimum not personally connecting with the application process. This particular exercise on listing the books felt exactly that way to me, perhaps because I had never done it before, perhaps because apart from the required book reports at school I don't believe I talked about my reading with anyone. I had a couple of friends in high school where we had intellectual discussions and to some extent that must have relied on what we were reading, but I don't believe we talked about the books directly. So my reading was part of my personal experience but it didn't become part of my repertoire in the way that I could perform things I learned from my Math Team experience, which were much easier to recall.

I didn’t get into Harvard, nor did I get into Amherst. This was probably for the best; I needed to push through on the nerd thing to see how far it would take me, yet I’ve been scratching my head about some of this for the last month or so. After I got to Cornell it took a while and I stumbled into it rather than sought it out, but then I did find what I was looking for in terms intellectual/social community that was free flowing and fun and completely unrelated to my courses. However, the interaction was all via talking, long conversations often over food or drink and at places where there was music. The talking was great and I’m very thankful for that experience. But there was essentially no interaction via writing. My sense of need to write as a way to express myself is comparatively recent. And what I’m scratching myself in the head about now is whether that need was there way back when --- with no form to nurture it so it didn’t take root.

I don’t know. I am conscious of my move to learning technology changing my perspective on a lot of things and it is quite possible that I simply didn’t have the perspective when I was in college to take writing seriously. I don’t recall feeling impelled to write and write and write, though I believe I did have the pangs every once in a while. This is one I don’t think I’ll ever really know and certainly its easy enough to create revisionist history in your own head to fit the current mood, so I need to be careful about overdoing on this point.

Regardless, I’m fairly clear on the consequence. Things I’ve read that were outside my professional domain as an economist, while on occasion quite engrossing, might very well have had only an ephemeral effect on me or if a more profound perhaps only in a subliminal way where the reading contributed to my general sense of knowledge but not where I could later readily map that back to the source.

I find now with my blogging that I’m better able to tie what I read (and the movies I watch too) into something that I believe can stick with me. Of course it helps that learning has now become an object of study and so I have a heuristic to fit things I learn about into in such a way that the sticking with me is more likely.

This is all a shaggy dog story to respond to Barbara Ganley in her latest post about books (see the link above in the subject line). I will try to write about reading and things I’ve read in the next several posts, but I can’t do it with the list and the categories that she borrowed from the book meme on Chris Sessums blogs. They are both obviously quite fluid in talking about the books they’ve read and so I suspect this book meme offers them a simple way to organize their ideas. But I’m afraid that doesn’t work for me. So when I do write about my own book reading, I’ll take a different approach, though at the moment I’m still not sure what that will be.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bonehead Plays

When I was a brand new assistant professor, 1980-81, a bunch of my colleagues played bridge together at lunch. While this was mostly a social thing, it was also moderately competitive. One of the folks was an expert tournament player and he had made up some sheets that encapsulated the essentials of the “Standard American” bidding system. I haven’t played in almost 20 years so much of that is a dim memory to me now. But a couple of items stand out. This expert critiqued us while we played, mostly about how we should infer from the bidding and the play of the cards what was in everyone’s hand. He was able to do this without looking at our hands, which was all the more impressive. When we were about to play the wrong card he would say, “the error light is lit,” an expression I had not heard before but one that was to become our mantra. And if a particular egregious play was made, that person would immediately win “the bonehead play of the day award.”

This was all in good fun, though one colleague who is now at Rutgers used to get a little bit worked up about it. It was also a regular reminder that in bridge, as in other games of skill, mostly outcomes are determined by errors when the players themselves are definitely not experts, especially when measured from an expert level. Errors of this sort are common. In contrast, coming up with the novel good play happens only rarely. And I must say that while this was only contract bridge, since some of the others did play duplicate bridge on occasion this notion of competing with outside determined norms of performance in mind had a certain logic for the group.

I wouldn’t have thought about this at all except for reading James Fallows article, Declaring Victory, in the most recent Atlantic Monthly. In essence he argues that Osama Bin Laden’s strategy all these years has been to be a visible irritant to the U.S. interests, goading the U.S. wherever possible, and hoping that the real damage will be done by the U.S. to itself, as it makes big bonehead plays that perhaps give visceral appeal in light of a terrorist threat but don’t otherwise stand the scrutiny of a careful analysis. Without even mentioning the word “Iraq” ask the simpler question --- what fraction of national income should be spent on security? Does the Al Qaeda threat suggest a big or little change in your answer to that question? Let’s remember that “they win” if their efforts can fundamentally slow down the U.S. economic engine. Fallows’ analysis, and I have to say he argues just as I would on this point, is that we’re way over doing it on Homeland security mostly to give the appearance that we’re doing something, when in fact the best response we could give is to pay little heed to the threat, given that we can’t take them out entirely. If they can’t get our goat, they have to really escalate the terrorism to make their point, and then they’ll alienate their own people in the process.

But that is not how we’re arguing it at home. Again, forget Iraq (it only makes this argument stronger). Instead focus on cost-benefit in thinking through the security issues. How much should we spend? The thing is, nobody is talking about the spending issue. Certainly not this way. At best it comes up in a discussion of the federal deficit. It’s perhaps triply ironic that this particular White House came into power on rhetoric to reduce federal spending (tax cuts were going to be the path to that) but now we’ve essentially go no discipline on the spending side at all when it comes to security. Does that make sense?

It’s almost too easy nowadays to make the case that government frequently makes bonehead plays. What about the private sector? And specifically, what about the Blackboard Patent and the D2L suit. Here’s a post by Albert Essa asking the question of whether Blackboard’s action is rational, and then citing a paper by Julio Robledo that I have yet to read on how patents can act as a strategic entry deterrent.

It turns out that in my former life as an applied theory economist I wrote papers on, among other topics, strategic entry deterrence. Here is one example of my bona fides on that. So on the econ modeling part, I know what I’m saying and while there are some differences in flavor from one model to the next, the general conclusion for this entire class of models is that there are some parameter values governing demand and cost under which entry deterrence is the rational strategy for the incumbent, but there are other parameter values under which entry accommodation makes sense. Rationality means that one recognizes in reality which is the appropriate regime and plays the correct strategy accordingly. A bonehead play results when the regime is incorrectly identified and so the strategy is incorrect for the actual circumstance and moreover identifying the correct regime could have happened with the right forethought, but that forethought didn’t happen because the player was looking elsewhere.

I don’t read the blogs as much some others, so I may have missed something, but to date I have not seen a single post from outside the Blackboard company but inside higher ed that argues the D2L law suit is a sensible business action; while on the other hand I have read numerous posts from many different authors about the potential harm for the industry because of the indirect effect via stifling innovation, and I have now talked with several people on campus (for example, people running Moodle servers, though this is not the full group) who have expressed concern because they are now uncertain of their own future running this type of software. That there is substantial concern would be an understatement.

That said, I’m not nearly as skilled in this circumstance as my colleague who tutored us in bridge was, so I’m not confident either way whether what we’re seeing now is rational or a bonehead play by Blackboard. But I do know enough about economics to understand that goodwill is a non-tangible asset with real market value and it is not hard for me to see that under certain assumptions that Blackboard could take a hit in the goodwill department beyond what it ever might recover in royalties and deterrence benefits. I really do hope somebody is working through those cost-benefit calculations.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Learning to Become an Expert and Blogging

I found this piece from Scientific American, The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross, a really excellent read. There are several ideas in it that challenge our beliefs – principally on the innate smarts versus learned behavior dimension – this piece argues pretty convincingly that much if not all of this is learned behavior. A fascinating part of this is that experts can come to conclusions so quickly and the piece has a quote from the famous chess grandmaster Capablanca on this point to the effect that he doesn’t think harder than other players, but he things “righter” than other players – his intuitions were the correct ones and helped him to identify the superior play.

So experts don’t process information more than others in the sense of a computer doing numbers of calculations per second. They do about the same number of calculations as everyone else. But they do different calculations. They hold the information differently. They have structures of the mind – apparently there is some disagreement on how this works – that allows them to aggregate up the information very quickly and disaggregate down equally quickly in order to make a decision. And the thing is, the building of those structures of the mind is a learned thing – requiring rather intensive training, years and years of effort.

The piece spends much of the time on the work of a psychologist, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, and his notion of learning called “effortful study.” It is an interesting notion and meant to distinguish between an idea we bat around all the time, “time on task.” They obviously must correlate but Ericsson’s point is that not all time put in improves learning and performance (witness the weekend golfer or tennis player who has put in perhaps years at the game but whose level of play doesn’t rise above mediocrity). Ross describes effortful study as the continuous tackling of challenges just beyond one’s reach.

If that is the key for learning then the issue of whether learning should be done in a social setting or more on an individualistic basis needs to be recast along the dual dimension of (1) motivation – what pushes people to take those next challenges rather than staying pat with what they have already accomplished? and (2) situated-ness – identifying those challenges that are just beyond one’s reach. My sense is that (1) will typically favor the argument for social learning but in children, particularly precocious ones or those who otherwise can’t readily go with the flow, it will favor the individual. On the other hand, (2) must favor individualistic learning. Who else can determine what is just beyond one’s reach? It may be that the individual can benefit from a tutor, or personal trainer, or the same idea by some other name, who become intimately acquainted with the individual’s performance and can make highly situated recommendations of what is to come next. But it is hard to see how there can be situated challenges that come from others less familiar with the individual.

It may be that what we call “learning to learn” is really learning to engage in effortful study. And, recalling Howard Gardner’s book on Exceptional Minds and specifically his chapter on Freud, this clearly involves a certain amount of personal risk taking and exposure to failure, which explains why so many of us stop short of the expert level and remain in our mediocre state.

I want to switch gears now and take a personal view of this by talking about my blogging. I don’t know if this was true right from the start, but for the last six months or so I’ve been conscious of a desire to push the writing and go beyond what I’ve done before. So one of the reasons the Ross piece resonated with me is that I find myself trying to do that with blogging and it seems to me a natural to use blogs for this purpose. As they asynchronous analog to thinking aloud, the blog is an obvious place to express what that next challenge is. But beyond that, the craft with which the ideas are expressed, the tying together different strands that interrelate, the making connections with the work of others that encouraged this line of thinking, all of that is something that blogs do well. (Incidentally, I’ve been reflecting on the difference between blogs and discussion boards and this seems to be an important way that the two differ and why regular blogging may lead to greater personal growth but conversely why discussion boards might better get the students to “learn the subject matter.”)

Let me illustrate by making such a connection here. A few posts back (Jen Dah) I led fof with a recommendation from Daniel Pink’s book to “celebrate our amateur-ness” as defined by Marcel Wanders. Read that passage by Wanders. It sure seems as if this notion of the amateur is quite like Ericsson’s idea of effortful study. A year ago, I’m not sure I would have seen the connection. The ideas are coming from different domains. Now that tie seems obvious and natural to me.

I’ll close with one other point. Most of my posts don’t push this way to something I couldn’t accomplish before. They have a point to be made and (I hope) a reasonable analysis, but I could have written those posts quite a while ago, based on the abilities I needed to bring to bear to do the writing. It is maybe 10% of the posts that have this aspect of going beyond what I’ve tried previously. I’m not sure why this is the case, but certainly I can’t just sit down at the keyboard and write the thing. I’ve got to work the ideas through and that can take a while.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Skinning a cat

I’ve been feeling a bit odd the last couple of days, since the news of the Blackboard Patent and the lawsuit against D2L has come out. On the one hand, since I view it necessary when dealing with a vendor for an application as big and important as a Learning Management System to treat it as a partnership and an ongoing relationship, I’ve tried earnestly to show Blackboard that we are an important and valuable customer so they will reciprocate in kind. On the other hand, I have good friends and colleagues, particularly within the CIC, at campuses that use Desire2Learn and at campuses that use Angel. Particularly the folks at the D2L campuses are feeling stress right now. I can see some bad resulting for that and I don’t see any offsetting upside.

Then, on the third hand, and I realize that’s one too many but I’m not done yet, I’m really struggling on the idea of patenting software. If you recall your Internet history, the first graphical Web browser, Mosaic, was invented here at Illinois. The university claimed ownership of the software and licensed it to a company called SpyGlass. However, the University did not patent Mosaic. (Imagine how the world would have evolved since if there had been such a patent.) So Jim Clark, the Netscape Founder, hired away many of the folks who worked on Mosaic, and they wrote new code from scratch, which became the Netscape browser. This didn’t violate copyright at all, because they didn’t copy any of the Mosaic code, but it clearly borrowed ideas from the Mosaic development. Although my campus likely would have gotten wealthier with a Mosaic patent, I can’t imagine that such a patent would have been anything but socially deleterious. So I’ll be scratching my head for a while on this one.

And finally, on the fourth hand, as a teacher I used online learning tools that temporally pre-date the CourseInfo product and that collectively had equivalent or more functionality in my estimation and as an administrator I was involved with encouraging the development of two systems, CyberProf and Mallard, that also each predate CourseInfo. I am certainly not an expert on patent law (I found this wikipedia page on patentability helpful as an entry point into patent basics). So I leave it to others to determine whether Blackboard really has a patentable invention that in particular satisfies the requirement of being “novel,” but at least from an end user/instructor’s point of view, I came to believe early on that with a sound knowledge of the functionality of the software, it can be adapted for the instructor’s purpose and indeed effective teaching with technology requires exactly that.

This is a brief chronology of my own teaching in this vein.

Spring 1995 – used a now defunct Mac based tool called Pacer Forum to coach students as they worked on homework problems. This was purely optional and only a couple of students really bought into this. But one clearly benefited from the coaching and on that basis I got hooked that there was something too this stuff.

Summer 1995 – used FirstClass in a similar way but now encouraged students more. Lecture notes were put up in FirstClass for the students to download. This was not done for pedagogy but rather as a lure to get them online. The lecture notes were put up in different file formats – Word for Mac, Word for PC, Wordperfect, etc. It was a pain. Pedagogically, used undergraduates as online TAs to help the students.

Fall 1995 – Didn’t teach undergrad course. Was preparing for the Spring.

Spring 1996 – Used FirstClass as in Summer 1995 but now had lecture notes as Web pages, so as not to mess with the various file formats. Learned the hard way that Web pages with white font and dark background print out as blank, so when to black font to handle the printing problem.

Summer 1996 – Amplified the offering in two ways that really made it look like how we want to use an LMS today. First, I used Mallard for quizzing to get students to self-teach on the basics. Second, I used FirstClass for teams of students to submit homework problems that after they were graded and returned online could be resubmitted by another member of the team so they could get a higher grade.

Fall 1996 – taught grad courses only.

Spring 1997 (this is around the time CourseInfo appeared) – Mallard now had random numbers that could be used in graphical questions --- nice. It had a grade book that I didn’t use but it allowed display of a CSV file used as a grade book where each student could see his row of scores only as well as the average scores of the class as a whole. It allowed questions within a question so that if a student got something wrong they got a hint in the form of an additional question that was for their own learning but not for the grade. Also, this semester I taught at scale (150 students plus) with this method. We continued to use FirstClass as before but now started to take advantage of the chat function there so some students got help in chat instead of via the discussion area.

I’ll stop there with my teaching history, but let me note the following. FirstClass at the time had a dedicated client. I believe the Web client came later. The organization I ran called SCALE understood the importance of the Web and in the 1996-97 academic year experimented with a Web conferencing system called WebNotes from, you guessed it, SpyGlass. It was a clunky environment and soon thereafter went under. At the time the ALN.org site was experimenting with a different tool called Allaire Forums. We opted to replace WebNotes with yet a different environment called WebBoard, then from OReilly. If you follow the link, it appears WebBoard 1.0 came out in 1996. We started with WebBoard 2.0 in late spring 1997. I taught with it in Spring 1998. I liked the folder structure of FirstClass better, as did many of our instructors who relied on Macs, but it was definitely easier to support WebBoard and more or less it had the same functionality.

Also, our campus had a couple of tools that I didn’t use but each predated CourseInfo. One was the Campus Gradebook, an outgrowth of the Plato system. The other was a tool called the Virtual Classroom Interface, which was for sharing documents and hotlinks with students.

Our campus didn’t go to a CMS until 1999 and then did both CourseInfo and WebCT SE. These environments, in my estimation, had the benefit of combining the collective functionality of the above tools that I’ve mention into one place – that is certainly a benefit to the students so they only have to know one url, but otherwise in terms of functionality I don’t believe there was much added, and in terms of the replicated functionality many of our instructors would say the individual component tools did the function better. I’m still hearing that type of comment even today.

So the Blackboard patent seems weird to me. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Where does technology make things better (and where does it make things worse)?

With the intense heat the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending less time outside than I might otherwise do during the summer and in particular in the evenings and on the weekends I’ve been watching a fair number of movies. On our one set that does HD (and has the nice home theater bells and whistles) we have TiVo bundled in with our Dish Network Satellite box. I really like the combined functionality. I can scout out for things that I might like to view, schedule them to record with a simple click and voila. It might be a month or more before I’ll actually watch the thing. But having known I recorded it is sufficient for me to find it easily in the stored library of programs that we’ve recorded. In the old days when I recorded onto VHS (and before that onto Beta) building such a library was painful, even if I labeled the tapes themselves. This is essentially the same issue as filing paper documents, and I’ve got no aptitude in that realm.

Since mostly I want to view things that the rest of the family is not interested in and when the three of them want to watch something I’d consider junk, and since they win by majority rule if they can agree on something, this way we can better accommodate everyone. Also, once in a while I can impose my tastes on the others (last week I got my older son to watch Blackboard Jungle, a film he probably wouldn’t have selected on his own and this week I got my wife to watch an Inside the Actors Studio interview with Dustin Hoffman).

I’m noticing that I’m preferring older movies more and for the most part have a disdain for special effects and other high tech cutesiness in favor of thoughtful and well written dialog. And movies that say something about the human condition are that much more interesting to me, even if they are otherwise dated and so don’t directly echo current events. A few films in this category that I’ve seen recently are A Passage To India (David Lean films are generally well worth viewing), The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (this film gives a different type of Richard Burton where “the voice” is largely in check but the intelligence and weariness make for a provocative character portrayal), and Capote (the only comparatively recent film that I’d put in this same class of pictures).

In contrast, Good Night and Good Luck, Cinderella Man, and The Constant Gardener were engaging pictures but without the depth of character and interesting textures to elevate them into this category of truly uplifting films. So I wouldn’t say the absence of special effects (of the kind we associate with Star Wars and The Matrix) is a guarantee that a film will reach a more elevated status and I will even go so far as to say that I really liked the Matrix when I first saw it (but I didn’t go for the sequels so much). So I think the special effects can be used well when they complement the story well, but not when they substitute for the story.

A couple of nights ago, I saw The Glass Menagerie and I thought it was amazing; both the dialog and the acting were superb. It really is a play recorded on film. All the action occurs in a rather tiny apartment and the patio where Tom goes out for a smoke. There is not much in the way of cuts and scene changes, so from the perspective of movie making it may seem rather ordinary and I suppose for that reason the direction of Paul Newman might be criticized. But, really, it lets the actors perform as if on stage and they deliver stunning performances. Joanne Woodward plays the aging southern belle mother and while that genre itself gives me the willies, with the unctuousness, the pretense, and the conniving but even with that she hits it perfectly – voice tone and pace, physical mannerisms, …..everything. John Malkovich, in the role of the narrator and son Tom, who is Tennessee Williams’ alter ego in the play, also does an incredible job.

Although the film has a PG rating, there are sexual undertones in the dialog throughout and the style of talk as well as the background music (original work by Henry Mancini not part of the play itself) gives a sultry and sensual feel to the entire picture. But the fact that every metaphor is spot on and yet easy for me to understand and that while the play focuses on the unfilled wants and desires of the three main characters (the third is the daughter played by Karen Allen) each of whom have a somewhat unrealistic bent on life with aspirations that likely can’t be met, in so doing provides a wonderful social commentary on life that is broadly applicable. The play works extremely well at many different levels. It is a gem; there is no other way to put it.

(Coincidentally, in that Inside the Actors Studio interview Dustin Hoffman talked about his early training as an actor and one of the roles he played for that was the Gentleman Caller, the fourth character in the play and the only one depicted more realistically. So at least circa the early 1960s, the Glass Menagerie had become in grained as a classic for teaching actors how to act. I wonder if it still plays that role now or if it has been discarded for something else more current.)

Now let me return to the theme of this post. I believe that technology bears at least some responsibility for what I perceive to be a decline in American Cinema. It has contributed to the economics of going after big block buster films, where special effects seem to be a requirement for entry, and it thereby has crowded out the possibility of more films based on narrative and dialog, that would be inexpensive to make if they were produced but which can attract studio funding in the current climate. Further, because these types of films are rarer now, the tastes of younger people have been influenced by the technology block buster films in a way that discourages them from valuing well spoken dialog as something to seek out in their own recreation. This indirect effect on the demand side makes the technology approach self-fulfilling.

One is tempted to make a metaphor out of this argument but I think we have to be careful in doing so. Quite apart from the special effects, the movies themselves are technological marvels. And film as a medium is wonderful. There is so much that works in its favor for the viewer (though I believe most actors would prefer the live stage for the feedback from the audience). It is when technology drives out the human elements that we must be careful. And, further, we must in advance identify those important human elements that we do value.

I will confess, however, that as an economist I’m a bit troubled by the above because the market doesn’t seem to do a good job of identifying those human elements. The market mostly seems to like junk. That’s why Rupert Murdoch rules in that domain.