Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unlikely Discovery

In the process of writing a rather long blog post that I'm still working on (I hope it is done later today) I did some background searching and stumbled upon this volume: The Social and Political Thought of American Progressivism.  Reading the introduction and reflecting on it in relation to the present, it is hard to believe that more than 100 years ago it was the Party of Lincoln that gave childbirth to the Progressive moment.  Even more stunning, however, are the biographies of the Progressive intellectuals whose ideas spawned the movement.  From the bottom of page xv: 

One wonders what happened in the interim to turn most evangelical Protestants into Conservatives. 

The biggest surprise for me, however, was learning who edited this volume, Eldon Eisenach.  I had him as a professor in a course on American Political Thought at Cornell.  I believe it was my junior year, 1974-75, but I can't recall if it was fall or spring.  A good chunk of that course I had a hard time penetrating.  We read a book by Heimert on Evangelical Origins of the American Revolution.  The general thesis made sense but that book was over my head.  I lacked the background necessary to read it.  I did better with Tocqueville's Democracy in America and especially liked Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life.  It's a thrill to find this connection to my undergraduate years and seeing the work of Professor Eisenach.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


In the old days when I used to play golf, where scoring bogey was a norm to aspire to, if I got a couple of pars on the first few holes and didn't have any double bogies, I'd start forecasting my round to my buddies.  Based on that, here's to Derek Jeter staying healthy and getting 250 hits this season.  One can only hope.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Measuring Attendance and Knowledge Transfer

My theory is that if you look confident you can pull off anything - even if you have no clue what you're doing.
Jessica Alba

By a quirk that I don't understand, I have only eight students in the course I'm teaching this semester, where in advance of the offering the expectation was that there would be about sixty students. So at the start of the semester I converted the class from a lecture to a seminar. I don't require attendance when I teach a lecture class and I frequently provide sufficient online materials that a diligent and confident student could learn the stuff without coming to class. Nonetheless, my experience from when I last taught a lecture class in this manner is that the better students do come to class and among the few students who ask questions, most of those are the good students.

In the course this semester I did require attendance as well as weekly writing via posting in a blog. The requirements notwithstanding, only one student has a perfect attendance record. A few others have missed only a couple of classes.  Some have missed quite a few, and likewise for the written work.  We've had only one session the entire semester where everyone has shown up.  In some cases the students bring me a note from the McKinley Health Center on campus.  In other cases I get an email explanation about a job interview or some personal matter that requires attention.  But quite often I get nothing.  I chalk it up to immaturity in those students who miss without keeping me in the loop, though it might be that alienation is the better explanation --- the class is soooooo borrrrriiing.

There is another meaning of attendance, however.  I associate it with my dad's pigeon French.

Attendez-vous à vos affaires.

Google Translate says it means, Expect your business, which doesn't make any sense.  My dad would say this, and get a smile on his face while doing it.  He meant it as an alternative to saying "watch out," or "pay attention."  I believe he thought it translated as, "attend to your business."  For students, schoolwork is their business.  They have assignments to do, presentations to prepare, studying for exams, etc.  An obvious question arises.  How long does it take for students to attend to their business?  The equally obvious answer, though some might find it unsettling, is that it takes as long as it takes.  One doesn't know in advance.  One can only know afterward.

Prudence, or "rational" decision making, or a love of the activity itself will encourage getting started early with the schoolwork.  In that way there is additional time, if needed, to do it in a way where the student herself feels she has learned something from the activity.   Getting started early is a way to let the schoolwork take as long as it takes.  But we know getting started early is the exception.   When there is a deadline, as there almost always is, most students initiate quite near the time when the work is due.

Last year I taught a class on Behavioral Economics.   One topic we covered was procrastination, a departure from economic rationality that all of us have experienced.  I had students read the James Surowiecki essay, Later.   Students blogged in that class too.  They surprised me with what they wrote.   Quite a few of them argued that leaving things to the last moment was efficient.  They could concentrate then.  Since they weren't distracted, they got things done.  Some gave responses in the vein I had expected - talking about writer's block and the like.  But many were entirely unrepentant about their approach.  It "worked" for them.

* * * * *

Sixteen years ago I wrote an essay about how online learning (we called it ALN back then) could help students do better in their courses.  Ever the economist, I cast the issue in the frame of the principal-agent model.  In my mental conception of the ideal, the professor would be a little Tinkerbell for the student as the student went about doing the outside-of-class schoolwork, directing the student to go about that work in the "right way."  Absent the Tinkerbell, the student might go astray or stop doing the work altogether.  Online learning wasn't quite as good as the professor qua Tinkerbell, but it provided a reasonable proxy.   

In the essay I cast the situation as if there were three distinct types of students, Eager Beavers, Drones, and Sluggos.  I think that classification is useful and will employ it here, though my focus is different.  I'll get to my focus in a bit.  First let me describe the types.  Eager Beavers are the ones who enjoy school for itself and are most inclined to take up purely optional suggestions the professor offers, simply to pursue the interest, even when doing so has no implication for the grade.  Eager Beavers might very well initiate work well before deadlines and then get a kick from figuring things out for themselves.  Drones put in substantial time on task, but frequently that time is not very productive in generating insight in what is supposed to be learned.  They may very well have taken a lot of notes on the subject, but they frequently will not get the implications of what they are studying, more often getting only a surface understanding of the subject.  They do anticipate getting good grades, however, as reward for their effort.  Sluggos get by on their wits alone.  They don't put in much time at all.  They too expect a decent grade, maybe not an A but certainly a B, though they can live with getting a C if the professor is a tough guy.

In that earlier essay I treated the type of a student as fixed, a reasonable assumption for any given course, and asked whether through our Tinkerbell proxy we might get the students to behave as if they were one type better, Drones like Eager Beavers, Sluggos like Drones.  Here I want to ask a couple of different questions.  Does school overall, meaning the entire experience including K-12, impact what type the student is?  And if it does so, is school encouraging or discouraging the student in this respect? 

These questions have been rolling around in my head for quite a while, but the reason I'm writing this post has to do with some specific events that are quite recent.  On a listserv I follow regularly though post in only once in a great while, there was a discussion about whether a professor could opt out of faculty development programs with learning technology because "pedagogy is so personal."  The person posing the question was implicitly arguing that some faculty are shirking in their responsibility as teachers.  His solution was to impose a "standard" for high caliber instruction.  I reacted negatively to use of the word standard in this context.  I hope to make clear why later in this post.  The thread got participation from a variety of folks.  One mentioned the National Academy of Sciences volume, How People Learn, which is what got me to think about knowledge transfer and put it into the title of this post.   Another wrote about being fine with personal pedagogy, as long as there are appropriate and predetermined levels of student learning that can be demonstrated.  This too set me off.  Then on Friday David Brooks had a column about learning in college and value added assessment.  It's great to see Higher Ed being the focus of popular attention, but to me it is quite disturbing that people already think they have the solution even when they can't or don't analyze the underlying issues.  Yesterday, there was a piece in the Times about standardized testing using a nonsense story to measure reading comprehension, and getting the students upset about it.  The implication was that the testers didn't understand what it was they were measuring.

* * * * *

There are some topics students are exposed to that many have a tough time understanding and ultimately don't really learn.  A former colleague from Accountancy, Dave Ziebart, had a wonderfully descriptive expression to describe the phenomenon.  "The knowledge vanishes through the students' fingertips as they write the final exam."  Somehow, most of them pass the exam.  Yet the knowledge doesn't stick. 

Dave was talking specifically about present discounted value, a concept that Business students see in many courses, but one that can remain uncomfortable all the way through.  There are perhaps several reasons why students are unable to internalize this concept.  I'll focus on two of those reasons.  One is that doing so requires being comfortable with how to sum a geometric series.  Students should have learned this in high school math.  Clearly they were taught it, but many didn't learn it.  When the foundation is shaky, building upon the foundation doesn't work very well.  This is a frequent issue in teaching at the college level - what can the instructor rightly assume that the students already know?  Must the instructor teach the prerequisites too?   The other issue has to do with taking multiple perspectives.  For present discounted value, the student has to understand how the future looks like from the perspective of the present.  While getting the student to think this way the instructor also has the student think about how the present looks from the perspective of the future. That you can look at the same thing from multiple perspectives and as a result get different measurements of that same thing is an alien concept for many students, including some of those who can do the math.  How does one get students to internalize alien ways of thinking?  I'm not sure but certainly spending a significant amount to time getting familiar with the approach is necessary.  Students who do their schoolwork only as the deadlines approach often don't get sufficiently familiar with their subject.  They learn they can get by, test-wise, while remaining in an intellectual muddle.

The ability to transfer knowledge to a novel setting is the way to verify that the knowledge is real.  That's what the National Academy volume tells us.  One might suppose, therefore, that all of us learn new things by repeatedly trying to transfer knowledge, with self-assessment built into our learning process.  I believe that Eager Beavers do this, but Drones do not.  Here's a metaphor to illustrate.

Children learn via play.  The learning is an indirect consequence.  The play is the focus.  Play itself is absorbing so the children concentrate while doing it.  Is there an adult equivalent?  Consider having a new software application to which you need to acquire a functional use.  You can read the manual.  Or you can simply try this and that and see if you achieve the functions that you hope the software will let you do.  You don't throw the manual away.  If you get stuck it is there as a reference.  Otherwise you simply keep proceeding by trying new things to accomplish.  Over time, you become familiar with the software and proficient in its use.  When I do this sort of thing I like to say I'm futzing around with the software.  I try a lot of stuff that no training session with the software would have you do, just to amuse myself and make sure I can achieve with it what I want.  A couple of more formal names for this is Discovery Learning or the Inquiry Approach to learning.  If you follow an inquiry approach, you'll surely be able to transfer the knowledge.  But it will take time to get there.  Also, you as the learner need enough prior knowledge to know what things to try to allow you to make progress in your inquiry.  If you have that, the learning can be totally absorbing, like a child's game.  If you don't, it's dull as dishwater.  

Now take this metaphor and apply it to college courses.  It's pretty straightforward to treat the textbook like a software manual.  The question is whether the student has the wherewithal to futz with the content.  One possible approach is to rely on the end of chapter problems that many textbooks have.  The student can work those, even if they are not assigned, to see if they feel comfortable thinking them through.  Another possible approach is for the student to generate scenarios on her own to which she can apply the lessons from the chapter.  If she's not able to do this, she has a reason to ask about the problem at the appropriate juncture during the class session, or if not there then during office hours, or in the online forum for the class set up to handle such queries. 

Put this way, the question about Drones is whether they don't proceed in this manner because they don't know how or is it because they lack confidence in taking an inquiry approach to their learning.  I don't know the answer to this.  What does seem clear is that given how much time most students put into their studies, these students don't expect to learn in an inquiry manner most of the time.   One would like to know whether an inquiry approach is necessary for the ability to transfer the knowledge.  I believe it is.  But it may be vast overkill for students if their goal is only to pass the tests in a course.  They often don't need the inquiry approach to do that.

* * * * *

There is some advantage in thinking about teaching and learning by looking at psychological research on cognitive function, research which is entirely outside the course setting.  One can then learn about cognitive limitations of people, on the one hand, as well as about the large failure rates of individuals who should know better, to apply what they have been taught in certain situations.  They go with instead what seems intuitively plausible, though it is logically untrue.  Daniel Kahneman offers up repeated examples of this sort in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.   In Chapter 15, Linda: Less Is More, Kahneman provides some very disturbing yet highly revealing results.  First, participants in the experiment are provided with a description of a fictitious character, Linda, whose attributes are chosen to set off certain stereotypical thoughts in the the participants' minds.

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

Then the participants are asked to respond to the following question

Which alternative is more probable? 
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Regardless of the character description, the first alternative has to be more probable than the second since in the Venn Diagram sense the second is a proper subset of the first (note the conjunction "and").  That's the logical answer.  If participants transferred knowledge after having some basics in probability, all the participants had those basics, they would opt for the first alternative.  Yet Kahneman reports the following.

This stark version of the problem made Linda famous in some circles, and it earned us years of controversy. About 85% to 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option, contrary to logic. Remarkably, the sinners seemed to have no shame. When I asked my large undergraduate class in some indignation, “Do you realize that you have violated an elementary logical rule?” someone in the back row shouted, “So what?” and a graduate student who made the same error explained herself by saying, “I thought you just asked for my opinion.”

Kahneman is writing about something called the Availability Heuristic.   The description of Linda conjures up an intuition that she is a feminist.  The second alternative makes explicit mention of her feminism, so participants deem it more likely.  In some sense Kahneman has tricked them with the description to focus on their intuition and not consult their logic.  In that way the description acts like the misdirection a magician uses in pulling off a trick.

When using in class exams to test students ability to transfer knowledge I don't believe the instructor is trying to trick the students.  But the instructor does need to create a scenario that is sufficiently novel that applying the knowledge supposedly learned has to be a mindful activity, not something immediate.  When I've done that in the past teaching intermediate microeconomics, I'd get low scores on the exams (not as low as what Kahneman gets but far lower than what our Lake Woebegone culture demands).  Then I'd get low course evaluations in return and comments to the effect:

Test us on what we know, not on what we don't know.  

In this circumstance, there is enormous pressure on the instructor to cave in on how to test the students.  Get the average test scores up to a tolerable level.  This is done by making the exam questions only minor tweaks from what the students have seen before, either in homework problems or in practice exams.  Transfer isn't measured that way.  But the Drones get what they're after, a decent grade in the class.  If I'm at all typical, the instructor doesn't like to teach this way.  But the course evaluations are in the tolerable range so the instructor grins and bears it.

* * * * *

I can only conjecture about the impact on students from taking class after class in a mode where there is surface learning only.  Were I one of them, I'd become a Sluggo, no doubt.  I'd also be entirely disillusioned about my own education, a paper chase farce.  I could maintain my sanity as an Eager Beaver, because then I'd be going about things for myself in my own way.   I would go crazy as a Drone.

In this closing section of the post,  I want to briefly argue that we in Higher Ed contribute to this vicious cycle.  It has been an issue for quite a while, at least since I started teaching 30+ years ago.  NCLB exacerbated the problem by narrowing the K-12 curriculum.  Less commented on, but I think just as damning, is the movement away of tenured and tenure track faculty from teaching the core subjects and instead relying on adjuncts and advanced graduate students for this purpose.

Let me note two separate but related issues that matter.  First, inexperienced instructors are apt to emphasize technique over intuition in their teaching, as a way to establish their bona fides with the students.  This is especially true for newly minted PhDs or ABDs.    Then, when the results from doing so appear less than promising, the instructor is apt to adjust by moving to a cookbook approach, spoon feeding the course material to the students.  Second, the adjuncts need decent course evaluation scores to secure their employment.  So they can't grade too harshly or push the students too hard for fear that the students will rebel from that and then they'd lose their jobs.

In other words, in the core courses the setup encourages the students to be Drones.  Even if they were Eager Beavers in high school, the adjustment to college encourages Drone like behavior thereafter.  The students may feel they are adjusting because they had been a big fish in a small pond when in high school or because the pace of the new material is more rapid than what they've been used to.  But it's also because GPA matters in its own right and if students get slammed by the very first midterms they take they look to find a way past the shell shock in a hurry.  Getting good grades may then trump their personal learning needs.  In developing habits that produce a tolerable GPA they may then lock themselves into an approach to learning that doesn't serve themselves well in the long term.

This is not a pretty picture.  But it does demonstrate systematically what's at issue.  If we want different outcomes, let's agree it is the system that must change.    Let's not make the mistake that we can apply a quick and dirty fix and then wash our hands of the matter.  Doing that we'll only get more of the same.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Predatory Pricing?

I don't really get this analysis.  If I'm at all typical, then the reason amazon can lower its prices on eBooks is not to sell more Kindle devices.  I've got Kindle software on my PC and my iPad.  That's where I do my reading of the eBooks.  Amazon is not making money on me from its new devices.  (I did buy an original Kindle way back when.)  Indeed, I think Amazon will lose the device war.

But it will win elsewhere.  I believe the right metaphor is to think of Amazon doing to online shopping what Walmart has done for retail.  Amazon can lower its eBook prices for me because I buy other stuff from Amazon too.  Being a frequent shopper with them has value.  Using book buying as the initial hook is smart business.

The irony in all this is that nobody has gone back to basics and ask what the costs in paper book selling were like.  Amazon using $9.99 as an anchor for its pricing comes from where?   I seem to recall something like that for paperbacks when I'd occasionally buy them.  Shouldn't the eBook price be lower than that?

I do believe that publishing, like movie making, has been a blockbuster business.  So I can understand that when a publisher has a best seller the publisher wants to milk it.  In the old days, that is why the hard cover version was released before the paperback.  Maybe that approach to the business has to change.  With less earned from the big hits, they have to trim their costs in promotion and do more modest projects.  That clearly will be a minus for very well known authors, but for the person doing their first book this should be a plus.

As I wrote a while back in a post entitled Do we still need commercial publishers? there is a need in the presence of disruptive technology to experiment with new forms of organization.  One should not presume that the old form must survive.  I believe the publishers, like the big movie studios, make that presumption.  If we had such experimentation and it was rigorous, and if at the end it was concluded that no alternative form of organization will work, then the publishers would have firm ground to stand on.  But the experiments clearly haven't been done yet.  Given that, the argument to preserve the old forms looks self-serving.  What is really wanted seems to be to preserve the monopoly rents, not for Amazon but for the publishers and the well known authors they have under contract. 

It would be refreshing to hear just one well known author say s/he is okay with getting fewer royalties on the next book and would be happy if because the price was lower more people will have read it.  But I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Only half a brain left

Anybody who watches three games of football in a row should be declared brain dead. 
Erma Bombeck

Over the weekend, I watched a large part of the Masters.  The player I thought would win, Louis Oosthuisen, hit an albatross (double eagle) yesterday.  He did it on the second hole, with an iron from about 265 yards out.  Watching that shot on TV (which they replayed frequently) it looked like it was ordained.  The greens slope so that if the ball lands in the right way the ball will take the slope and roll toward the cup.  In this case the ball rolled about 90 feet, orthogonal to its flight, and went in.  It was so unusual to witness.  Oosthuisen was two shots off the lead at the time.  Since the leader bogeyed, he took a two-shot lead.  Immediately after that it appeared the tournament was his was for the taking.

Almost to confirm that, Phil Mickelson, the media darling and the only one among the leaders who had already won a Green Jacket (Phil has three to his credit) had a bizarre experience on the par 3 fourth hole, where he got a triple-bogey six.  He had hit the grandstand on his shot from the tee and it bounced backward into some scrub.  It was an incredibly unlucky break for him, one that would ultimately cost him the tournament.  The announcers, I think, called it wrong from there.  He had no good choice at that point.  You could hear him think it through.  He could take an unplayable lie (I believe lose a stroke for that), but where he would drop he wouldn't have a swing at the ball.  He could go back to the tee, hitting his third shot from there.  That may have been the better alternative.  But it was a tough par three and doing that he might still end up with the triple bogey.  What he opted to do was hack it out.  He could only get his club on the ball swinging right handed (Mickelson is a lefty).  So with his club "upside down" he took a right handed shot at the ball.  The ball moved a little but not that much.  He then did it again, knocking the ball into the sand trap.  It was very weird to watch this.  As I said, the announcers were saying that Phil had unraveled at this point.  It felt that way but in review I'm not sure that's true.  Once you're in a bad circumstance, your performance is apt to look poor thereafter.

The tournament winner, Bubba Watson, was Oosthuisen's playing partner.  I now have a theory of golf tournaments seemingly born out by the events this weekend, that if the tournament is close a player wants his playing partner to do well, though they are competing against each other.  The partner's good karma will somehow elevate his own performance.  Further, it may be that staying close but coming from behind is easier mentally, since the expectations are not as high as if you have the lead.  Watson started the round in fourth place, three shots out of the lead.  He played the final round in four under par, which is an extremely high level performance given the pressure of the situation.  Oosthuisen, apart from the albatross, played his round in par.  It is psychologically tough to be the leader, when the lead is not large, and remain patient and level headed with that.  Oosthuisen seemed to have the right temperament.  The commentators talked about that all weekend.   But actually you could see it get to him a little bit.  Watson could grind without having to deal with being the leader.  He tied for the lead on the 17th hole in the final round.  Only then did the closeups of his face reveal just how intense he was feeling.  He won the tournament on the second hole of the playoff, with a shot only he could pull off.

As if to set up the magical ending, earlier the former champion and now commentator, Nick Faldo, talked about Watson on the practice tee, hitting weird shots, slices and duck hooks with his wedge, as long as 170 yards.  Nobody else does this.  So Faldo had us wondering why Watson would practice these sort of shots.  Watson is known as a player with enormous talent, the longest hitter on the tour, also with a great imagination for shot making, but unorthodox in his approach.  His footwork is not good and he seems off balance at times.  He's never had a formal golf lesson.  He developed his own idiosyncratic style without tutoring.  So Faldo, whose own game was in the classic style, was critical of Watson earlier in the tournament, but Faldo had to temper that criticism because of Watson's performance in the final round. On that second playoff hole, Watson was deep into the pine straw with a seemingly impossible shot.  Yet as the announcer Jim Nantz observed, Watson had an "opening".  He hit a duck hook wedge about 150 yards, through the opening and curving onto the green.  Afterward he said it curved about 40 yards.   Seeing the ball roll on the green you could believe that; it was still curving then.    Watson had taken the advantage with that shot and put the pressure on Oosthuisen, who had not gotten on the green with this second shot.  He ended up with a bogey, and that was the tournament. 

I know a lot of people feel golf on TV is dull as dishwater and sometimes that is right.  This, however, was high drama and compelling to view.  It did last a long time.  While on Saturday the broadcast came on at 2:30 PM, on Sunday they started at 1 PM.  With the playoff and presentation of the Green Jacket afterward, it was almost 7 by the time it was all over.

It's a good thing golf is not football.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Reverse Not Invented Here Syndrome

I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.
Groucho Marx
We're going through something of a sea change at Illinois. After more than a decade of hiring our top-level leaders from outside the university, we appear to be on a promote-from-within binge.  First, Robert Easter is now President Elect of the entire University of Illinois System.  Easter had been Head of the Department of Animal Sciences, then Dean of the College of ACES, then Interim Provost, after which Interim Chancellor, a brief stint as Interim Vice Chancellor for Research, and now this. I can't say about the first two positions on the list, but I really believe he did not aspire to any of the subsequent positions.  Duty called.  Bob did his duty.  This makes for the ideal in the new Illinois leadership.

Second, we appear at the last stages of filling the Provost position.  Two of the three candidates are internal, something I find extraordinary given our recent history.  I believe it marks recognition that Illinois has a culture that demands consultative leadership and makes life miserable, for the faculty and the leader too, when the leader opts for an imperial approach.   It appears more natural in producing consultative leadership to select leaders who are already long timers at Illinois and who have risen from the ranks of the faculty.  They understand what it means to lead in this manner, in large part because they know how it feels to be treated as a colleague.

Given the truth of the above, it makes sense to remark that we should be thinking now not just about the next Provost but also the one after that and maybe the one after that too.  From where will these people emerge?

In a College there are many Department Heads but only one Dean.   On Campus there are many Deans but only one Provost.  In this straightforward hierarchical structure there are the seeds of competition to achieve advancement, sometimes competition of the cutthroat variety.  What can encourage a more collaborative approach, motivated more by a sense of obligation than a desire for personal advancement?  

When I attended the Frye Leadership Institute in 2003, which was aimed at grooming the next generation of Campus CIOs and Librarians, we learned that to move up you had to move out.  The proposition was clearly true then.  I'm less sure it's true now, at least at a place like Illinois.  I asked myself recently, which of the Deans whom I knew in the late 1990s have moved out to become leaders on other campuses?  Having done so, does that make them more attractive as candidate leaders here, when such a leadership position next opens?  This otherwise excellent piece from Inside Higher Ed about the Hogan Presidency notes that one of the other candidates for the job had been David Daniel, President at the University of Texas - Dallas.  The piece failed to observe, however, that Daniel had previously been Dean of the College of Engineering.

It may be that we need to groom some faculty who are rather far along in their academic careers, distinguished in what they do, with no personal need to become administrators to culminate their life work, and encourage the move to administration as a matter of personal responsibility.  Among such faculty many will find little aptitude or inclination for administrative work.  The few who are better disposed can view the administrative work as a capstone to their other successes.  These people would seem to be the likely future Provost candidates.  They will require a few stepping stones along the way in order to get there.

* * * * *

Yesterday I attended the Presentation and Q and A session with Ruth Watkins, current Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Provost Candidate.  I thought her session went very well.  Her tone in discussion, human warmth in providing a few personal anecdotes, and responsiveness  to the questions were all excellent.  She's been conversant with the issues for a long time and as a consequence of that and her native talent she exudes competence on the issues that will concern the next Provost.  I give her high marks for all of that.

On one significant point, however, I don't believe she was sufficiently forward thinking and gave what I view to be a conceptually flawed answer.  In the spirit of collegiality I will try to describe the underlying economics and then suggest the necessary solution, which is opposite to what Ruth said yesterday.  

For the economics, the best thing is to read a little about what Robert Frank has been arguing or listen to him describe the difference between competition a la Adam Smith, where advocates invoke the invisible hand, and competition a la Charles Darwin, where Smithian competition remains possible, but where a different type of competition may end up instead, harming the species, making extinction more likely. Frank argues that the latter occurs when a mutation increases the likelihood of winning intra-species competition (the mutation improves relative performance) but where the same mutation makes the possessor of the trait more vulnerable to inter-species competition (the mutation lowers absolute performance vis-a-vis predators).

Taking that as a first principle, let's in addition note that as income inequality in the society as a whole has increased, the incomes of the "professional class" have increased as well.   Much of what the professional class produce is either directly consumed by the rich or indirectly financed by the rich.  (In economics jargon, the products of the professional class are "superior goods.")   The upshot is that there is now much greater separation in income between professionals and the median than there was 30 years ago.   This is perhaps the primary reason for the hyperinflation in cost in in Higher Education, particularly at R1 Universities.  For the genus, R1 and the species, Higher Ed, self-preservation will be found in slowing down or even reversing the hyperinflation.  However, for improving in the relative competition across peer institutions, the generation of more revenue for the particular institution obviously has value.   So, it is my opinion, that Higher Ed is in exactly the circumstance that Frank discusses with regard to the pernicious consequences of competition that improves relative performance only.   In describing his type of competition, Frank then argues that we need regulation of some sort to lessen the impact of head to head competition.

In the answer to some questions yesterday about relative priorities across disciplines on Campus, Ruth said that instead of worrying about how to split the pie we should aim to grow the pie by looking at some non-traditional sources of revenue.  In my opinion, this is a win-the-relative-competition approach and it is a correct response in that context.  However, to the extent that this requires revenue growth in excess of the income growth for the economy as a whole, it is problematic because the outcome will not be stable.  Each R1 will have to play the same game.  From where will all that revenue arise?  Further, to the extent we become dependent on the revenue growth, when that revenue growth dries up there will be fracture.  We should understand that as the probable consequence since we've been through it already, quite recently in fact.

I wrote about this a while back in a post, Lessons for Higher Ed from the NBA, where I discussed the need for a salary cap or some other like mechanism for creating a ceiling on personnel spending in Higher Ed.  This would need to be applied system-wide, viewing Higher Ed as a whole as the system.  If only one institution does this while the rest do not, the institution is committing suicide.  It's better faculty will leave.  Only if all like institutions do this can there be less relative competition across institutions, and then more emphasis can be put in place into cost control.

This is not a message that many faculty will want to hear.  Revenue growth sounds nice (threats to academic independence were raised yesterday when the source is corporate funding, but nobody talked about the revenue growth itself as an issue).  A related issue is how to discuss the need for controls in the interim before the right sort of regulations get put into place.  I don't know the answer to either of these.   The only thing that seems obvious to me is that it would certainly help if other Campus leaders took up the question.  I should add that we need similar sort of regulation regarding new capital spending.  It is not just personnel spending that needs to be kept under control.

I don't recall from yesterday that there was a single question or comment about the Provost's job as it relates to the functioning at peer institutions.  Moving forward, I believe that has to be a much bigger part of the Provost's portfolio than it currently is.   Reaching a system of effective controls seems to me like a hugely pressing issue.  As I noted in my prior post, the CIC seems like an excellent place to start the conversation.

* * * * *

I want to change gears in this section and talk about what Campus priorities should be for undergraduate education.  To do so, I will take ideas from Maslow's Toward a Psychology of Being.  Here is a a very abbreviated review of the approach.

Students should be encouraged toward self-actualization via peak experiences, defined as episodes of effortless concentration.  The environment College provides should be designed to encourage students in that direction.  Preferably, some of that comes through the courses the students take and in this way the students learn about themselves intellectually, their inclinations and their aptitudes.  Subsequently, that might lead to a research opportunity with a faculty member that also provides elements of peak experience.

Maslow argues, however, that satisfying safety needs trumps the realization of growth needs (self-actualization).  So if a student feels insecure the response will be to seek safety in some way and doing that can block growth. 

The Campus provides a great variety of opportunities for student growth.  The hypothesis advanced here is that while some significant number of students do take advantage of these opportunities, many other students do not.  An incomplete list of reasons is given below.   At issue then is whether the Campus needs to devote more effort in the direction of making for a safe intellectual environment for students, perhaps at the cost of reducing some of the opportunities for growth.

The primary questions we should be asking about satisfying the safety needs of students are these:  If students learn, in good part, by giving voice to their own thinking, do they have a safe place where they can communicate their ideas to others?  Given that environment, do students indeed give voice to their own thinking?  If they do speak their mind on a regular basis, do they connect doing so with their own learning?

Some Reasons Why Students Choose Safety Over Growth

  • Shyness/introversion - students don't ask questions in class for fear of looking the fool.  They don't attend office hours for the same reason.
  • Acculturation - this is similar to the previous one but here the causal emphasis is on the impact of the first year experience, where students are mainly in large lecture courses and develop habits of passivity.
  • Fear of failure - students are diligent but somewhat dull in their in their studies.  They take insufficient intellectual risks and don't receive proper encouragement to try things they may not be good at or to investigate views contrary to their own beliefs.
  • Inadequate preparation - the students went to a high school that had fewer resources so they are at a disadvantage relative to peers who are from wealthy suburban communities.  Alternatively, those resources were available but the student was in under-achiever mode at the time and now has to play catch up.
  • Minority students - the students simply feel uncomfortable in the Campus setting but are perfectly relaxed with their friends and with instructors and graduate students of their own ethnicity/culture.  

There is a related issue regarding alienation in the student population, perhaps reflected best through the excessive drinking of some students.   The argument is that if school is not sufficiently nurturing, providing an appropriate mix of growth opportunities and safe environments for that, there is a tendency to reject the authority that school represents because that authority appears irresponsible.  Students then either tune out entirely or become angry about their circumstance.  Tied to the this is the view of College as a passport to a good job.  The passport function can co-exist with the growth and safety functions, but if students tend to regard College via the passport function only (increasing tuition all else equal encourages that view) then alienation is a probable consequence.

The above can be recast along the lines of whether the Campus should be taking a democratic approach to undergraduate education (e.g., target the 50th percentile of student, however that is measured) or take a meritocratic approach (e.g., target the 90th percentile).   Cast this way, there is an ethical question about how to define the campus mission.   Is it sufficient to simply provide the opportunity?  Or does the responsibility extend to making success the likely outcome?  In this sense, programs like Discovery classes are in the former category, while programs like CHP or James Scholars are in the latter. 

As a business case rather than cast ethically, it is easier to make the meritocratic argument in a low tuition setting - more responsibility on the student to seek out the available opportunities is then a necessary piece of keeping the cost of their education modest.  Likewise, it is easier to make the democratic argument for students paying full freight out-of-state tuition, if they don't otherwise qualify for special attention for meritocratic reasons.  The institution holds a larger burden to help the student learn when the student pays big bucks in tuition.   

Both the ethics and the business case that buttress the mission for undergraduate education need to be discussed and debated. 

* * * * *

Let me close by trying to connect the dots.   There is change going on at Illinois in how it regards excellence in its leadership.  There is change going on in all of Higher Ed, due to changes in the global economy, the financial crisis of the last few years, and a changing role of State Governments in financing that education.  Those first two changes necessitate a third, in reconsidering the undergraduate mission.

Our sense of value and excellence is usually tied to norms we have regarded as true in the past.  We must look again at those norms, either reaffirm them, or assert new alternatives.  A major part of the job of the Provost is to lead that examination.

My own opinion on this matter, I suspect this too will be unpopular with faculty, is that we need to move toward the democratic approach, primarily for ethical reasons.  In turn, that will create significant changes in the role of instructors.  The faculty too must see their work as teachers from the vantage of obligation.  Duty is calling.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The "K" States

I got both games wrong in the Final Four semifinals, earlier in the week picking winners with my heart instead of my head.  Joe Nocera's Op-Ed notwithstanding, as a fan I prefer the myth of the student-athlete to the reality that in significant part Men's College Basketball is prep school for the NBA.  Note that I don't say minor leagues.  Men's College Basketball is big time sports, with the Final Four the coup de grâce.  Because John Calipari puts the lie to the myth in his approach with recruiting players, I have a distaste for him.  So I picked Louisville over Kentucky.  I don't have a distaste for Bill Self, though he left Illinois for Kansas.  He didn't leave the cupboard bare at that time and he was pursuing a lifelong dream.  It's hard to blame him now, though many Illini fans were disappointed at the time.  No, I picked Ohio State simply to show loyalty to the Big Ten.  That game really was a you pick 'em and that's the way it turned out.

Given the truth in the observation about big time sports, one might expect the actual performance to exhibit substantial proficiency and inspired play.   The little I watched yesterday, I found it otherwise, particularly on the offensive end.  Players dribbled right into the defense and then got the ball stolen, they put up shots that had no chance whatsoever, and there were mainly dribble drives rather than trying to hit the open man.  On this last one, one can only surmise that's how the game is played now, with passing and moving without the ball a lost art.  Athleticism has replaced a sense of team play.  I am attracted to excellence in performance and can watch that even without really rooting for one team or the other.  When it's lacking, the ball game is painful to watch.  I did turn off a lot of Illini games this season, for that very reason.

So I move onto other things, mainly futzing at the computer, hoping to come up with a better story to start my class session on Tuesday, which is on employment policy and human resource management, as well as wanting a title for my next post to come to me.  These days I seem to need the title first and then use it as a seed for the ideas to crystallize around.  I did keep track of the scores via the ESPN Web site.  Had Louisville actually retaken the lead, I would have turned the TV back on.  I probably fell asleep before the end of the first half in the Kansas-Ohio State game.  I woke up briefly to see that Kansas had one.  The title occurred to me almost immediately after that.

I asked myself some questions I wouldn't usually pose:  Are Kansas and Kentucky the only states that start with the letter K?  Can I answer that question intuitively? (The answered seemed like yes.)  Or must I enumerate all the states to check because I might have missed one?  (I started to do this in my head, but it seemed more trouble than it was worth.)  As I'm trying to go back to sleep, this occupies me, an alternative to counting sheep.  It's the sort of question that Daniel Kahneman poses quite frequently in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  This morning I did find a Web site to verify my intuition.

I find I'm fighting this book.  My prior post was about finding what I believe to be a logical inconsistency in the presentation, one that should bother Kahneman if I'm correct in my conclusion.  But I don't read this sort of of book to find whatever errors there are.  I'm looking for personal illumination.  On reflection, there is some.  But really, there is not too much.   Most of my thinking I view as a type of search.  You might consider it metaphorically as fishing for ideas.  Sometimes I throw the fish back in.  It's either too small or doesn't look good enough to eat.  Kahneman seems to say, with his emphasis on our intuitive thinking making errors in a systematic way, that most of us never throw the fish back in.  (What never?  Well hardly ever.)

This morning I cheated.  I'm only on chapter 12, The Science of Availability, but I fast forwarded to chapter 37, Experienced Well Being.  There flow comes up (again) as one real possibility to answer the question, what should you do with your time so that you are engaged in what you are doing and prefer that to stopping and doing something else?  So one might wonder why earlier in the book Kahneman doesn't talk about activities or habits of mind that might make flow more likely.  This seems like an obvious question to ask.

Kahneman does indirectly answer it in chapter 3, The Lazy Controller, where he talks about flow the first time.  He relates an anecdote about strolling leisurely in the Berkeley Hills and engaging in thoughtful conversation while walking or in reflective thought.  But then when encountering a harder problem to solve, one that requires all his intellectual energy, he has to stop altogether.  He can't walk and solve that problem simultaneously.  There is a normative argument in these observations, about working things through at a pace the ideas suggest themselves and not forcing onto that pace a harder problem that needs to be solved quickly.

Last Friday I had lunch with a few of my former colleagues, CIOs in their respective colleges at Illinois.  I like these folks and enjoy their company.   But now, no longer wrapped up in the day to day IT issues that the campus confronts, I see that an obvious source of their stress isn't that they have these issues, but rather that the work requires a quick resolution of possibly vexing problems and that they need to be on top of all current developments, though that is inherently tactical, not strategic.   The system as a whole doesn't allow the harder problems to be worked through at their proper pace.  I suspect much stress in the workplace exists for this very reason.  In retirement, I spend more of my time thinking slowly about issues.  I will admit to occasional boredom.  Some stress is probably good to feel alive.  But I know from my writing blog posts and preparing my class that I likely also spend much more time than my colleagues do on slow reflection, and much of that I enjoy.  I suspect an investigation would find that my colleagues would be more productive overall if they could reallocate a good chunk of their time to reflective thinking.  If that's true, one wonders why they can't reconstruct their work time to achieve that end.

I also have this feeling, reading Kahneman's book, that a big deal issue for society as a whole is that many "bright" people don't develop the habits of mind to desire slow, reflective thinking.  I wonder if Kahneman would agree with the following assertions.  First, a self-actualizer, Maslow's term for someone who has regular peak experiences, has learned to have System One come to the service of System Two, at least on occasion, while the rest of the population lives with System One the dominant player much if not all the time.  Second, the true purpose of school, at least the part of school that is general education and not vocational training, is to encourage the students to become self-actualizers. In other words, school should educate System Two and help it to understand its relationship to System One.  Third, unfortunately, much of school creates the opposite consequence.  It stresses the students in the same way that my CIO colleagues are stressed by their work.   These are things I wished the book would say, but it's not there in what I've read so far.  That's why I'm fighting with it.

Now let me say where it's provided me with some insight, though the example is in some sense trivial.  The last few months or so, I've developed a reputation in the family for being the master at the Jumble, which appears daily in the local paper.  It's something my wife likes to do and then sometimes tries it with one of the kids.  With some frequency, there is a word or two they can't get.  My wife then might try brute force techniques.   If that fails they'll give it to me for a try.  I enjoy such challenges.   I much prefer to do them in my head, without pencil or paper, though sometimes I need to reread the clue to be sure I've got the letters right.  Finding the answer to the jumble is a kind of fishing, but in this case one where "there is a trick" of sorts to get the answer.  The trick is first to eyeball the number of consonants and vowels and to see if the word likely starts with one or the other.  Then, based on that, one tries to make a string using a few of the letters that might plausibly go together.  With that string in place, one tries to fit the remaining letters around it.  Often the word appears that way, with the entire process more or less immediate.

This morning, it occurred to me to look for the Jumble online.  I found a sight and started to play it.  There was just one problem.  A timer was prominently displayed.  The timer is annoying, a distraction to doing the puzzle.  The first three words I get so quickly it's as if the distraction is of no importance.  The fourth word is harder and I don't get it immediately.  The timer starts to really bother me, eventually so much so that I leave the site without getting the fourth word.  I should note here that I do a lot of sudoku online, and they have a similar design, but usually done in such a way that you can have the timer where it isn't immediately visible.  You have to scroll to see it.  So you can put it out of your mind when working the puzzle.  The Jumble site, didn't allow this.  To see the scrambled words you saw the timer too.  Kahneman's book made me hyper aware of just how annoying that is.

Let me conclude with some obscure facts and questions.  Deleting the "University of" in the school name, if it comes before the real name or "University" if it comes after the real name, Kansas versus Kentucky is the first time since at least 2000 where both finalists have their name start with the same letter.  (In 2010, both teams had nicknames that start with the same letter, the Butler Bulldogs versus the Duke Blue Devils. Wikipedia has a Web page for each tournament year, such as this one for 2011.)   Based on this years' bracket, what possible pairings for the Championship Game would have resulted in both teams have their names start with the same letter?  Can you determine  the likelihood of seeing the names of the finalists start with the same letter?  Inquiring minds want to know.