Sunday, November 26, 2006

Feeling tugged in too many directions

Sometimes we get trapped in the metaphors we live by. For the last several days the email message from the Campus spam filter, which lists all the messages that got blocked at the central mail relays and hence didn’t get through to my account, arrived in my Junk Mail folder. Unexplained but not a mystery that I will dwell on, today’s message arrived in my Inbox. That we are subject to censorship and suppression of information not of our own choosing and that in this country of the Bill of Rights it occurs in haphazard fashion with predictability only in hindsight makes one feel ill at ease, uncomfortable in the general smugness and the lack of rhyme or reason.

* * * * *

Right before the Holiday I watched Brian Williams on Charlie Rose. I must have been desperate for some type of stimulation because Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, is not the type of guy I would normally watch --- too plastic, too predictable. And much of what he said was in that category, platitudes about what a great job he has, too namby-pamby even when talking about Bush’s avoidance of reality in Iraq. But Williams said something that I hadn’t heard before and maybe it’s part of my generation’s current state of mind (Williams is 4 years my junior). He cheerily reported that the first things he looks at in the newspaper are the obituaries. It is odd to be fascinated with the accomplishments of those who have died recently, and how those people affected us, isn’t it? Perhaps not.

The various news outlets certainly have been playing to this angle as of late. For example, the handling of Robert Altman’s passing has been played as a center stage news event, even if the movies we know him for, mainly Mash but also Nashville and a few others, appeared more than 30 years ago. To be fair, Altman kept creating movies to the last. And his influence is likely greater than I indicate here. One of things I really liked about his approach, something I subscribe to as it is applied to my own domain, is keeping his actors in a relaxed and festive environment, allowing them to improvise at their own discretion, as the best way to produce a really creative result. But surely there is more than a bit of nostalgia at work in playing up his passing this way.

The effect on me, not just from Altman’s death but also the passing of Milton Friedman, R W. Apple, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Styron, and others is a sense of loss of deep intelligence; these were really smart people whose absence creates a void that will be hard to fill, a void seemingly all the larger because of the sheer idiocy of the Bush administration, a void that makes it hard to feel idealistic about the future. Idealism is a feeling of youth, one that folks my age associate with the Kennedy presidency, even if we were too young to be justified in that belief (I was only in the 4th grade when Kennedy was shot and hence have no direct adult memories of the time). Galbraith served in the Kennedy administration, as did Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who for reasons that I can’t recall provided me with the mental image of an intellectual, at least till I went to graduate school and started to read the writings of some of the great economists. Kennedy, whatever else his failings, chose to have great minds work for him.

Bill Gates on Charlie Rose, while talking about how Microsoft is waging a multi-front war – with Google over search, with Apple over iTunes, and with Sony over Playstation, not a strategy that would seem to commend itself it the appropriate analogy is military history, but an approach that does make more sense if instead the right comparison is with financial investment where the adage of every financial advisor is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” recounted some of the naiveté early on at Microsoft where the management idea was to bring in really smart people and then give them free rein to make things happen, without concern for whether the individual’s comparative advantage was in doing the task to which he was assigned. So, surely intelligence is not sufficient, and on this my personal experience jibes with Gates’ observation. But equally surely, it is necessary, isn’t it? Armed with this realization, how can one be idealistic today?

* * * * *

Barbara Ganley, in her initial post after visiting here the week of Halloween, wrote many complimentary things about colleagues here with whom she visited and about me she wrote that it was as if we’ve been having these type of conversations/arguments for a very long time, a feeling that I share and so I think it was a good way to capture the essence of that visit. But at least for me, that type of feeling is not something new. It goes back to the time when Altman was in his heyday and I was an undergrad at Cornell. At least in terms of tone and just wanting to keep talking it really is the same thing.

And yet nowadays we might think such conversations emerging as an outgrowth of blogging, a place where connections are made. In the early to mid ‘70s we would have said the same thing about smoking pot. Both the sense of openness and synch were a big part of then, at least they were for me. Nowadays I can’t imagine folks my age using pot as a way to break down barriers and create an emotional bond, but I think those who look to the genesis of blogging only from the perspective of networked computers are missing a part of our history that we should tie into. Conversations about pot smoking are probably rightly censored, especially in household like mine with young adolescent kids. They are entitled to learn about my own experiences in this regard, calling them either “finding self” or “indiscretions” as they see fit, but it should be their curiosity that drives such discovery and until they express such on their own I’m quite willing to help preserve their sense of innocence. So I for one will not be further drawing ties of this sort. Nevertheless, it seems to me an obvious connection to bring out and I encourage others whose children have already left the nest to explore it in depth.

True to her promise, Barbara gave a full explication of how she teaches the first two weeks of the semester in her second post after her visit here. There was a lot of interest here in the scaffolding of that, given how much of a point she made that the students are not ready to blog as a well functioning community at the outset of the courses. So I found her Cracking Open the Course page quite interesting and from there I read Charles’ Knowledge Tree, the one other students were to read for inspiration.

But I’m afraid from there I lost track of teaching the first two weeks and instead found myself in my own past, the first two years of graduate school at Northwestern, and where Charles’ recollections are of romance and nostalgia mine are of intense cold, austerity, and a lack of humanity. I lived four blocks from the Howard Street El stop, along Sheridan Road right before the bend around the cemetery that serves to separate Chicago from Evanston. My first winter there we had a day where it was minus 26 degrees (minus 72 with the wind chill factor). I had never experienced anything like that. The second year we had the big snow, the storm (and the lack of getting the plows out on a Sunday morning) that got Jane Byrne elected mayor. My car was buried under the snow for 6 weeks, which was just as well because there was no place else to park it. During that time I had to take the El to school. And most of my meals were canned soup and sandwiches, because I couldn’t do real grocery shopping and had to buy stuff from the convenience store on the corner.

The brutality of the weather matched what I was experiencing in the econ graduate program. Two of the students dropped out in the second quarter – many of the students weren’t prepared for the intellectual rigor of the program – and while that was evident I was miffed that the program seemingly expressed no concern for the well being of these people. That second quarter we had Macro from Bob Gordon, someone who has done interesting empirical research on productivity growth or the lack thereof, but who as a teacher offered very little when it came to people skills, he looked at the floor rather than at us when he was lecturing, and who because he was the director of financial aid at the time and could use performance in his class as a metric for who was meritorious in that regard and because aid was comparatively scarce at the time created a terrorizing effect hurt the self-esteem of many, including some who did ultimately get their doctorates from NU. Whether my classmates and I would have been more into arguing about the economics in our free time outside of class had our instruction been less like The Paper Chase, I can’t say.

I must add here that with the Math Center faculty and students I fell into by the third quarter of the first year there wasn’t this type of tone, but the rest of the students in my cohort weren’t really involved with the Math Center and so I had the same sense of isolation about my studies as I had as an undergraduate, but in the undergraduate setting it made sense. In grad school I hung around with Econ classmates socially and that social life was not intellectual about the economics.

So I lost an opportunity to learn about vigorous intellectual argument and that truth might emerge from that even if the conversation gets heated at time. This is clearly the approach of Milton Friedman. Seminars at Chicago were well known to produce smoke as well as light and if there were a flaw in the paper, the presenter might not be able to get through the session. During the late ’80s and early ‘90s we had a Chicago economist here, Pablo Spiller, who was the senior Industrial Organization guy and who ran his workshop in the Chicago style. I became one of those people who gave harsh critique to the presenter and it was a role I liked because my technical training encouraged me to find the flaw in the argument/model.

Is there a way to reconcile the Milton Friedman view that truth come out of a Darwinian struggle waged as argument with the Robert Altman position that actors have to feel festive to give their best performances? I’m struggling with this. I’d like the answer to be yes but at first and even second blush it seems otherwise. When a bond has been formed among us, can we indeed air all ideas or do we risk losing credibility by doing so and hence have to self-filter to preserve the bond? What in Barbara’s teaching approach survives when teaching economics rather than writing and at a place like Illinois rather than at Middlebury?

* * * * *

In my new job I started in with the naïve belief that my main goal was to transform the culture and that blogging would be a key element to that. I’m finding the on-ground issues that folks are dealing with more urgent and it has caused me to take a step back and reflect. Until now all things technology have been done with a bottom up approach creating a diversity of solutions that from the students perspective creates bewilderment and costs them time. The expressed concern of the students regards better management of course logistics.

Most instructors lecture. And the ones I’ve talked with are either tenure track faculty who are quite concerned about putting in any time into activities outside of their direct research, while those I’ve chatted with humor me when I talk about how blogging may help them, even in their research where it might create a bigger audience for their work and it might help to expose some of the process ideas that lead to the creation of a publishable paper, they clearly have other fish to fry; or they not on the tenure track but then are teaching huge classes and have other burdens like advising and supporting co-curricula activity. The status quo fits into their approach, though there definitely are stresses, these folks are not in a position to take on risks so better to deal with the known stresses than to try something else that might prove to be a disaster when there only seems to be a vague upside to it. And, of course, for the very same reason these instructors don’t hold the students to a high account. Viewing time as money, doing so would break the bank.

The College runs a large variety of high tuition professional programs, some face to face at distance, and technology in the classroom has become a significant concern, at present as an indicator of the quality of the environs – adult learners who are paying substantial tuition have certain expectations about the facilities that may or may not tie directly into the quality of the learning experience itself. The last week or two I’ve put in a significant amount of time on learning, for example, why teaching with a pen sensitive monitor, like the Smart Sympodium is unlike teaching with a Tablet PC (PowerPoint in Slideshow mode functions differently in XP, no eraser or marker pen, than in the Tablet PC version, which has these functions) as well as the intricacies of VGA capture and in particular whether that can be done well when the instructor hand writes out presentation on his Tablet PC or alternatively does a demo in Excel that involves some manipulation of data. These are logistical matters of a different sort. We’d like to do this right, especially given the clientele, but exactly what does that mean? And do we have a way to train the faculty who teach in these programs to use the technology effectively?

I’m still in my honeymoon period in the new job and will be there at least till the break between the fall and spring semesters. The current question running through the back of my head is whether making logistics the initial emphasis of my work is correct tactically --- satisfy the current expressed needs in an effort to build goodwill or burn up that goodwill before getting to the heart of the matter.

But behind all of that is a more fundamental question. I want to create the preconditions so I can openly learn from the students, the faculty, and the administration what they really want and I’d like those conversations to happen in a setting where each of these participants has some depth of knowledge regarding the possibilities. So I’d like to do the metaphorical equivalent of Barbara’s first two weeks of the semester, building a bond so we have a common language for conversation. But I don’t have the luxury of enrolling these folks in my eLearning/CIO class and the question is how to make the bond without that or whether it is even possible.

Maybe I need to tell them what they want to hear and filter the rest.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What If?

I had a somewhat unusual day Saturday. Lazing around the house, catching up with sleep, that was the normal part. But then I saw a really offbeat movie called The Waterdance, about guys in a hospital ward, all wheelchair bound, because they had spinal injuries. I was drawn to the film (the Dish Network guide gave it three and a half stars) in part so I wouldn’t watch football and in part because of my own leg injury – there but for the grace of god… It is an interesting study, apparently based on a true story, about how the guys in the ward, filled with anger about their condition and ultimately hostile toward the ones they love the most just because they are other than themselves – they are healthy, discover each other as human beings, their paralysis below the waist a common bond. I didn’t think it was a great picture, but it was interesting to view. It made me wonder if I’m repressing anger about my accident, though I believe my condition to be temporary. I nonetheless share some aspects with the characters in the movie. Certainly I would not yet characterize my circumstance as normal.

The other thing I did was read a good chunk of the Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education. This report got some discussion at our CIC Learning Technology Conference last week, some of my peers were excited about it – perhaps our LT Group should spend some time discussing it at our next meeting and contemplating a reaction, particularly on the measurement front, where some of my colleagues have done interesting work. And the report got a mention from Tom Reeves in his keynote address, as something we should pay attention to and consider as we plan our own activities – he was talking primarily to our staff, who made up the bulk of the attendees at the conference.

I probably read this sort of document in a different way than my peers do, my economics background and general cantankerousness gets in the way. I do recognize that many of the commissioners are luminaries in Higher Education for whom I have a good deal of respect – James Duderstadt, former President of the University of Michigan and a true visionary; Charles Vest, former President of MIT and instigator of the Open Courseware Initiative, and Robert Zemsky, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author with Bill Massy of a variety of NLII White Papers that I cut my teeth on about ten years ago prior to engaging in the SCALE Efficiency Projects, on using technology for reducing cost of instruction while enhancing quality. But there are also a variety of politicos among the commissioners and any report such as this, the product of committee decision making, may reflect compromise in such a way as to lose the sense that it represents a coherent point of view. Further, none of the commissioners appear to be economists, so their recommendations are unlikely to be disciplined by some consistency arguments that any right thinking economist would insist upon.

Let me illustrate, as I think my metaphors/analysis might be a bit alien to others who think about these issues. This is the same type of analysis I would teach in Economic Principles. Divide the potential student population into three segments: extramarginal, those not currently enrolled because “they can’t afford college;” inframarginal, those who are currently matriculating and who would continue to do so even if tuition or other factors that influence the enrollment decision were modestly tweaked; and marginal, those who are on the boundary between the other two groups. For those in the marginal category, the benefits from attending college, which are mostly in the form of higher future wages and direct consumption benefits (the latter may be hard to monetize in a simple way, but conceptually there is no problem in doing so), must equal the opportunity costs, mostly the direct tuition costs and the foregone wages from spending time in school rather than at work. It’s useful to keep this result in mind (the Commission seems to ignore it) so one can see what’s at issue with some of the recommendations. I should note that the result does have to be adjusted for risk – the current foregone wages and tuition are known items while the higher future wages are uncertain and in the present arrangement it is the student who bears that risk, something I’ll come back to in a bit.

If we applied a uniform approach to all students enrolled in college, with a common tuition and quality of instruction (this is far from the truth but it does help simplify the argument), then it might be as the Report argues that lowering tuition and thereby increasing access would be good for our economy, since some of those extramarginal potential students would now have the benefits of a college education and their contributions to society would be enhanced as a consequence. But it also might be that raising tuition and hence raising expenditure on those students who are enrolled is better for the economy, the inframarginal students will gain in productivity in such a way that more than offsets the enrollment decline that will result. A priori, it can go either way. The Commission presumes the former is the right answer, though the fact that ritzy private schools are in huge excess demand, in spite of their very high tuitions, suggests perhaps it should be the other way. I’ll return to that point as well.

Actually, the Commission wants to have it both ways and argues that by pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat --- technology, that little rascal that can improve quality and lower cost, if only we in Higher Ed wouldn’t block innovation in practice, innovation that would effectively leverage the technology towards these ends. And with that they cite Carol Twigg’s work with the National Center for Academic Transformation. Now I really like this work – I was directly involved with the first year of the projects when this was funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and I plan to do this sort of thing in the high enrollment courses in the College of Business here, as we move to a Blended Learning approach. But it is a far cry from achieving these type of gains in a few high enrollment courses to reducing costs across the board at the institution level for an entire university.

The latter requires addressing a host of issues that are not on the radar of the commission, for example: Should adjuncts or “clinical professors” become the primary teaching faculty to hold down the cost of instruction and should such instructors not have tenure? Should we continue the common practice where course offerings are idiosyncratic to the particular instructor, with syllabus and teaching approach determined at that level rather than from above? Should we continue to be comprehensive in our offerings or narrow down to the more popular disciplines with only a few specialties?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. My point is that to answer them one has to make tradeoffs and I explicitly presented my analysis as one of tradeoffs – lower price to increase access or raise price to spend more on those who are enrolled. But the commission has no use for tradeoffs. It gives us a free lunch in the guise of technical innovation unleashed by a widespread innovative culture. Do these folks really believe the stuff they are pushing?

And that gets me to the next point. This report ignores incentives, a big mistake in my view. For example, the report deplores the building of expensive sports recreation facilities that we are seeing on so many campuses. And it may very well be that this is a form of rent seeking, a dissipative activity that is socially wasteful, in spite of the fact that students do need physical fitness and that some aspect of college, particularly in the residential setting, is consumption benefit. But the report doesn’t ask at all why colleges engage in this type of rent seeking. The documentary Declining by Degrees does. It observes this is a necessary consequence as colleges engage in a non-price competition to recruit students, especially high ability students, and facilities clearly matter in this type of competition.

If one did focus on incentives, however, and if one was prompted with the observation that some forms of competition are inclined to produce social waste, then one might be led to ask a different type of question. Can we change the rules of the game so that the type of competition that emerges produces more of the type of results that we’d like to see? This is the type of question I wish the Commission had put on the table, because it would have been interesting to see what they come up with. Instead, they seemingly presume the answer, a Higher Education version of No Child Left Behind. (I am dismayed but not surprised that No Child Left Behind got nary a mention in the recent run up to the election. Between Iraq, Katrina, and the various scandals we have the three main points that I was taught recently are the essence of getting an effective message out when dealing with the press (particularly our student reporters at the Daily Illini) and No Child Left Behind somehow doesn’t even vault ahead of immigration reform as the fourth bullet on the list in the public consciousness, at least according to CNN. Yet the recent work by Jonathon Kozol makes it clear that No Child Left Behind has been a disaster for those it has been intended to benefit, so much for increasing access, and it has also resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in enrichment programs at schools with a primarily middle class student body, so much for raising the quality of instruction for those students who are already getting a “good education.” Perhaps we can procrastinate on implementing the recommendations of the Spellings Commission until the Bush Administration is out of office and its successor can try some other approach.)

What if we had a draft?

Of course, I don’t mean a military draft. I hope that our country never again imposes conscription, though I would not oppose an analogous requirement for public service. By draft, I’m thinking of the sports kind, the type the NBA holds (along with the lottery for choosing the draft order) or the type the NFL holds, where there has developed a cottage industry of experts such a Mel Kiper Jr. and Paul Zimmerman to handicap the draft itself. Indeed, keeping with the sports metaphor, and I know this analogy will bother some people but bear with me for a bit so we can work through the entire thought experiment, what if we viewed undergraduate education as the Minor Leagues for Corporate America, a place for “player development,” a place where the parent clubs had already invested in their talent and want to see good return on that investment, a place where not everyone makes it to the big club but where those with potential can get more effective attention than if they go to the Bigs straight away.

So envision a huge national draft held during the summer where students who have completed their junior years in high school could declare themselves for the draft (but they could opt out and go through the college application process and the paying of tuition in the more traditional way) and older students, those who have finished high school or those have some college credit but are as of yet undrafted could declare their eligibility as well. They would be registering for a system where if they were drafted and if they then signed with the company that drafted them, that company would pay for the student’s college education and perhaps pay a stipend during college as well in exchange for the student providing years of job market service after graduation (say 5 years) at a wage that was pre-specified by the draft (a la the NBA minimum salary for rookies.) There would also be a “free agent” market of this sort so that students who either went undrafted or who didn’t sign with the company that drafted them would have other alternatives to sign this sort of deal, but to prevent opportunism by students in high demand because they are obviously of high ability, there would be some restrictions on when such students could declare for free agency, say two years after they’ve completed their junior year in high school.

Corporate America, for their part, would participate in such a draft so they could ensure a high caliber pool of new talent down the road and so they could more actively engage early on with the education this talent is receiving and, frankly, so they are not out-recruited by their competitors. Indeed, as long as the starting salaries the drafted students would receive upon graduation are not too high, the corporations would view this entire enterprise as one of paying of the student loans in advance in exchange for getting these talented individuals to work for the company over at least a 5 year period and in so doing achieving an efficient shifting of risk, since these big companies are in a far better position to absorb the productivity risk of the students than are the students themselves.

I really don’t know if such a thing could work, but imagine if it did exist. Then regarding admission Universities would deal not only with individual students and their families, but also with corporate buyers who might be in a much better position to tie what they pay in tuition (and in other forms of grants as well) to the performance of the students upon graduation (just what the Spellings Commission would like to see). But in evaluating the job colleges do, they would be evaluating their role as coaches and as producers of mature talent, not by the performance of that talent per se. That too would have to be evaluated, but it would be a separate deal.

Further in this type of market with several big “buyers” one might envision that the buyers themselves recognize they have many common interests and so form intermediaries that advise both the Corporations and the Colleges on how best to structure higher education offerings and how to make effective deals between the Corporations and the Colleges. Such intermediaries might be much more effective than current accrediting bodies, because they’d have a dual accountability and their own viability would depend on the performance they deliver.

And consider the impact both on student seriousness and on faculty seriousness as well, particularly regarding the issues around grade inflation. Contracts between the companies and students might specify that if effort by the students is lacking then the deals become null and void, perhaps after a probationary period where all parties are on alert. That would put the universities in the position of monitoring student effort and providing convincing evidence of it to the companies. And, of course, the companies would be interested in student performance too as it might affect bringing the students up early or affecting the job to which they ultimately might be assigned. So the companies would want accurate information about performance and they, unlike the students themselves, would prefer to see an accurate grade instead of an inflated one.

There are a host of other issues that would naturally arise and should be considered before embracing such a system, quite apart from the obvious about whether anyone would play the game even if it were so designed. A short list of such questions is:

(1) What would be the role of government? (To help make a market by facilitating information flow and by assuring that abuses get unearthed and then punished.)

(2) What would the impact be further down in K-12? (I would hope to create aspirations that students would be drafted and therefore to create the analog intellectual experience to that of practicing jump shots at the backboard nailed to the garage at home.)

(3) What would be the impact on how college is taught? (I have no idea, but I do know that if such a system were in place the pressure would be much higher to deliver results and necessity is the mother of invention, so this would be a source of innovation.)

And then there is the other obvious question:

Lanny, do you really believe this sort of thing can work? (My answer to that is it depends on whether there are crucial attributes of students, identifiable early on, that make them likely to be high performance in the corporate setting. If SAT scores were such an identifier, it would be a cinch, but now we’re being told by many that SAT scores don’t even predict performance in college. (I’m guessing that outlier scores actually do predict quite well but that small changes in scores near the mean don’t have much impact.) I’m somewhat aware of the (highly criticized) work of Lewis Terman, but I’m not knowledgeable at all about whether big corporate personnel departments collect data about employee characteristics that get them onto the fast track. If there are such data and if the crucial characteristics are observable early on in people, then this market can flourish. Otherwise the solution can’t work at all as everyone would play the Billy Beane strategy of trying to pick up cheap but productive talent, by staying out of the draft entirely and dealing only with more mature free agents.)

Even if it can’t work, let’s note that I’m just one guy, not an entire commission, and I produced this blog post in a couple of days, not after months and months of study. Let’s also note that I certainly have not exhausted the possible solutions to the question – what if we changed the game in which Colleges compete to produce outcomes that are more in tune with what is socially desirable? So even if you reject my ideas out of hand, you might want to consider other institutional arrangements that you deem more likely to occur and more appropriate for obtaining good outcomes. Part of my aim here is simply to provoke thinking in that direction.

It might help you to get in the right mindset if you broke your leg first. And then get angry.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Akeelah and Adult Precocity

It’s hard for my family to find a movie we all can watch together. As I’m writing this the kids are watching Lord of the Rings II for the Nth time – my wife sat down with them at the start but she made a quick exit to make dinner. I didn’t even make a pretense. I’m satiated with that sort of thing to the point that I’d rather stick a finger down my throat.

I have watched some adventure movies with the boys that my wife didn’t care for, namely Kidnapped (the 1995 version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story) which is a boy’s delight and Last of the Mohicans, in which the Madeline Stowe character (Cora Munro) does go through a personal transformation akin to what we’d like to see instructors do when embracing technology in their teaching, but if you watch it for that you’re really stretching it, and occasionally am ok with that sort of picture on its own terms. But more often than not it’s more oil and vinegar when it comes to movies that the kids and I both like. And my wife’s taste for schmaltz (think Fried Green Tomatoes) also runs contrary to my own taste, where I’d like to be challenged more, intellectually or emotionally. So I tend to record films and then watch by myself, most recently Touch of Evil, a black and white classic with Orson Wells in the role of a police chief in a border town playing both sides of the law and Charlton Heston, tall and elegant and with dyed skin because his character is Mexican, as the more virtuous type of law enforcement officer whose jurisdiction is across the border, a reversal of our American stereotype.

So it is a delight to find a movie that appeals to each of us in the family and really captivates us and I can report that Akeelah and the Bee fit the bill nicely – a few weeks after the first viewing we watched it a second time together, very unusual and a testament to it being a film that really worked for us. It is an improbable but convincing story of a South LA African-American girl, Akeelah, enrolled in a majority Black middle school that has no reputation for academic achievement, who has a fondness and aptitude for words (and hence spelling) that enables her to compete with students from the best schools in the city, and ultimately at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The story works on many levels. It is about the need of African Americans (and, frankly, the rest of us too) for role models of achievement that can uplift us, give us pride, and bring us together. It is about how the dominant culture, in general but especially in the predominatly Black communities, anticipates mediocre performance and hence a precocious kid like Akeelah must overcome that, enduring the jeers and mockery of her schoolmates, something which at first is what holds her back. It is about how even the very talented, indeed perhaps because they are very talented, need intense coaching and commitment from dedicated and inspired teachers. And it is about overcoming racial stereotype, something which the vast majority of us want, if only we have good examples to point to so that we can show convincingly that there can be high achievement in all of us.

Watching the movie I felt challenged – could this be real? I considered several possible angles. It was my own view that spelling and memorization was not a good signpost of intellectual achievement. But the movie made a good case to the contrary. Akeelah had an old computer at home which had a scrabble game on it and that became her refuge, a way to express herself without the companionship of anyone else. I’ve experienced that sort of thing too (though not with computer scrabble) and so on that score the story was credible. And then later in the story when the Laurence Fishburne character (a Professor at UCLA, Dr. Larabee, former chair of the English Department there and currently on sabbatical) who ends up coaching Akeelah and takes over her program of development, it is much more about understanding the power of language than it is about memorizing particular words – though that definitely is a part. So on that score, I think the story did a good job of convincing us this was real and that Akeelah was not some idiot savant but rather an incredibly bright young woman with a penchant for language.

So I considered another dimension and for a while I thought I had found the lie to the story. It was my contention that serious intellectual engagement is accompanied with humor and laughter, the two go together like bread and butter, or so I thought. The movie, however, has none of that. The characters are earnest – always, but funny – never. I can’t envision learning like this happening if it is not play, and in play there is laughter. So I thought this must be it, a good try at a story but not the real McCoy.

Then, subconsciously at first and more deliberately after a while, I monitored the exchanges I was having with others while at work on campus, in a variety of different meetings. Humor wasn’t part of most of them either, but the sense of earnestness was omnipresent. I wonder why I had felt it was otherwise. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, perhaps I project too much about my own persona. In any event, based on that Akeelah passed the reality test.

There are two particular scenes in the movie I want you to consider. After Akeelah wins the spelling bee at her local school, figuratively without breaking a sweat, the Laurence Fisburne character interrupts the proceedings by giving Akeelah more challenging words to spell. She gets the first few and the rest of the audience are awed by her ability. But she eventually stumbles on a word and some of the other girls in the audience laugh derisively at her error. Akeelah runs out of the room in shame, her performance ruined by that last bit, as if nothing she had done before mattered. The Laurence Fishburne character catches up to her on the stairwell and explains to Akeelah, teary eyed, that they mock her because they are intimidated by her.

Later in the film, after Akeelah has survived the regional Bee, and gotten through the state qualifier, and she has appeared on TV news so that the entire community knows she is going to the nationals, we see the community come behind her fully with support, proud of her excellence, inspired by the performance, and willing to help her with the few last steps before she goes to Washington.

* * * * *

This past week we had a delightful visit by Barbara Ganley of Middlebury College. I met Barbara online through blogging and based on reading her blog had an intuition that she would give us a needed spark here in our efforts with a virtual component for the Learning Commons and to jump start our approach to blogging. She delivered on that and gave us much, much more.

Those who can, do. Yet precocity, particularly in adults, goes beyond the doing. Others have to witness the doing in action. And they have to feel that the doing they see transcends what they themselves are capable of, but with that they feel inspired to try it themselves – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

Barbara is very much about the human interaction and not about any particular technology, but given that she really is for blogs because it enables the telling of stories and because it keeps a sense of individual identity. She is ok with other technologies – notably wikis – but doesn’t make use of them as much because they are much more about constructing knowledge than they are about telling stories and because they obscure a sense of identity. She’s also not into virtual environments (e.g., Second Life) again for those same reasons.

Barbara’s visit made it clear to me that there is a potential symbiotic relationship between small Liberal Arts colleges, where intensive teaching is the expectation, and large research universities, such as the U of I, where many people do research on innovative approaches to learning. We don’t seem to be exploiting this potential very well at all at present. We should think more about how it might be possible to do so.

And yet there is a different dimension to this type of collaboration. I and others here talked openly with Barbara about how the incentives for good teaching are weak here and that the institution struggles to find the right balance between teaching and research. Yet based on who attended her talks, there clearly are several faculty here who are seriously looking for ways to better their teaching and who are willing to put in the effort if somebody would just point them in the right direction. That somebody might very well be at a small liberal arts college, somebody like Barbara, who has done it and has a lot of experience doing it. So effective practice might transfer this way, albeit there is a class size issue that Barbara is very cognizant about. She was extremely impressed with Christian Sandvig’s work here as he has done something similar with the blogging and in very large classes.

There is still another aspect of this type of collaboration, one I’ve felt before when working with Gail Hawisher and with Peggy Lant. That is the benefit from collaboration between humanists, English profs in particular, and scientist and other technical types, with regard to the teaching approach, at least when the technical type is ripe with suggestions for improving the teaching, such as is the case with Walt Hurley. This is such a rare thing at present, but it seems such a natural. I wonder how we can make it a more regular occurrence.

In all these respects, Barbara’s visit was a sheer delight. She has the power that Akeelah showed in the movie - to awe, inspire, and bring others to action. Barbara told me she is in big demand to make visits to other universities and deliver, I assume, a similar performance. I can understand why she’s such a hot item these days, though I wish I could keep her power our little secret, so I might have a chance to lure her back to CU in the not too distant future.