Monday, December 30, 2013

An Unplanned Restbit

Whether tendon or burs I am fighting,
An itis keeps me from writing.
Trend of thought a wreck,
With one hand I peck.
Even word play is less inviting.


This is in my supposed good arm, the left.  I wish voice to text technology were a little further along. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The dinner that wasn't

There was a fine hostess named Nancy
Whose dinner parties were very fancy.
A friend brought her a moose.
She had asked for a goose.
Serving it she thought rather chancy. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Present Tense

The children have not stirred and now it is after 12:30 PM.  My wife, who got up before 6 AM, is now getting antsy about that fact.  Today was to be the day where they'd go shopping together so each of them could have something in their stockings on Christmas. 

I really don't understand the purpose of presents within the family, especially now that we have Amazon prime and when anyone needs something it is obtained withing a couple of days of the request. 

I did love it when the kids were young and drew those cards that all kids draw for birthday or other special occasion.  What sort of acts as adults deliver the same type of feeling? 

I stumbled onto one of those.  JibJab had been promoting its seasonal videos.  When they first started and gave their videos out for free, I made several of them.  But now it is for pay and it is not so much the money, but once you give a company like this your credit card information it is all over but the crying.  So what I did is take a photo of my siblings and I when we were young kids (it's in black and white) and put cutouts of the heads into a JibJab movie.  But instead of making the movie I simply took a screen shot of the result and emailed that picture to my brother and sister, along with a bit of word play by means of introduction.

They loved it! 

I don't know what other little acts of creativity might induce the same sort of reaction, but I'm pretty convinced that is much better than material gifts. 

My wife just woke up the kids.  Time for me to sign off. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Q: How come in France they eat only one egg for breakfast?
A: Because in France one egg is un oeuf. 

Taking delight in bad puns (the above found here) is one of life's simple pleasures, a joy to be reaped and then to be recycled for friends and family alike, their moans and grimaces music to the ears of the teller, for it means the message has found its target. 

This particular one has more meaning for me, since my mom was a French teacher and I have a tin ear when it comes to foreign languages, particularly in regard to correct pronunciation.  As tomorrow marks one year since her passing, this story behind the story seems an apt way to commemorate the occasion.

In Junior High School while my classmates and I took instruction in French from M. Bauer in 7th grade (he well known for each week giving us a quiz-i-poo, fortunately not orally) and from Mme. Glassman in 8th grade (she sat us in the second half of the school year by our grade in the first half to pair the best student with the worst student, the next best with the next worst, etc.) I also got tutoring from my mom in French, where on the positive side I did learn to conjugate verbs. Speaking the language was an entirely different matter. 

Somehow I got it in my head to pronounce the plural form, les oeufs, by taking the "oy" from oy vey, and the "oaf" from loaf and finding a non-word that I mistakenly thought was the true pronunciation, located somewhere in between.  This amused my mother to no end, much to my chagrin.  She would repeat my faux pas on many occasions, after having tried to get me to say it correctly, but to know avail.  You see, I was egged on by my parents from an early age.

Now, looking not at just the puns, but at the mediocre rhymes and word play too, it's as if I'm at a never closing breakfast bar, and the omelets just keep on coming.  Parents of adult children speak to them from beyond the grave.  Where as a teen I found listening painful so often didn't, now I am.  It is a major source of my self-expression.  One I find sustaining.

My title refers to a different spigot, one that I did want to shut off if I could --- the desire to watch TV shows written by Aaron Sorkin.  I've found a way.  But before I get to that approach, here is a little aside from economic theory.  It is meant to deter my less earnest readers.  I'm taking their welfare to heart.  Let me assure them; it's all downhill from here, so get out while you still can.  And it's meant to challenge the more earnest readers in the group as well.  Can they find the connection between the economics and the rest of the post?

* * * * *

Every first year doctoral student in economics learns the two fundamental welfare theorems.  The first, in abbreviated form, reads:

A C.E. is P.O. if LNS.

Let's unpack this a bit.  C.E. stands for competitive equilibrium, which is both a system of prices, and an allocation for each consumer and each firm such that for each firm the allocation maximizes profits given the price system, for each consumer the allocation maximizes the consumer's preferences given their budget constraint (determined by the their share of the profits in each firm and the value of their endowment at the given prices), and supply equals demand in every market.  P.O. stand for Pareto Optimal.  It is a concept of social efficiency. At a Pareto Optimal allocation no consumer can be made better off without making some other consumer worse off.  LNS is a technical assumption about preferences and stands for local nonsatiation.  It means that whatever allocation a consumer currently has, there is another allocation nearby that the consumer prefers.  The assumption rules out something called a "bliss point," which if it existed would mean the consumer is fully satisfied and then doesn't want more (or less) of any good. 

Outside of economics we are taught, on occasion that there can be too much of a thing.  So we have the expression, ignorance is bliss.  And there is the well known Dylan song, Too Much Of Nothing.  Economics does not concern itself with such practical wisdom.  The fundamental economics issue is scarcity.  In a land of plenty there is no economics.  The LNS assumption is there to rule that out.  Economists know which side of the bread is buttered.

Mostly there is no problem with thinking of LNS as a description of practical reality.  An issue arises, however, in thinking of potentially addictive behavior, where done in moderation the same behavior is perfectly fine.  One can only know the line has been crossed in retrospect.  Most of us lack the willpower at that point to go cold turkey.  A different approach is needed to restore balance.

* * * * *

Sometime after The Newsroom concluded I was feeling withdrawal symptoms, this in spite of the fact that there was much negativity in that show.  It often made you feel angry and only rarely was it uplifting.  These clues notwithstanding, I still wanted more Sorkin-written TV shows.  I liked the pacing and the smartness of the dialog.  For a while I fed the beast with my old standby.  Even though our West Wing DVDs had become non-functional from over use, I could watch individual episodes streamed online.  Some years ago there was a NY Times Magazine piece, Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  At the time I bought into that argument.  Eventually, I came to realize there are diminishing returns.  It occurred to me that I needed something else to get my fix.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I became aware not just that there were other Sorkin TV shows out there, but that one of them, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is available at zero marginal cost to Amazon Prime customers (non-economists would say it is free to Amazon Price customers).  Sports Night is also available this way.  If at sometime in the indefinite future I have a relapse, that's a good card to keep in my pocket.  At the moment, it provides no temptation. 

Studio 60 proved to be my Sorkin-phile cure.  I've got one and half episodes left to finish in the first (and only) season.  It's been a slog much of this semester getting through the earlier episodes.  Sometimes I'd only watch part of a show and that was enough for me that evening.  Watching this show has been a cure in the spirit of the aversion therapy seen in A Clockwork Orange.  I will watch that last bit to earn the merit badge, but then I'm done.

The first episode, which features Judd Hirsch, draws you in and is unlike the rest of the series.   Hirsch leaves the show after that.  His character is in some ways like the Howard Beale character in Network, mainly in being madder than hell.  But unlike the Howard Beale character, the person Judd Hirsch plays is perfectly sane.  He is quite aware that he will be fired as soon as he gets off the air.  This leaves the show without a producer and sets the stage for what comes next.  There is drama in that first episode.  But for the most part it is not sustained during the remaining episodes.

Studio 60 depicts a TV show a la Saturday Night Live, but filmed in LA rather than NYC.  It is from the perspective of the writers and producer, first and foremost, but also includes several of the actors as co-stars.  So while theme-wise it isn't all that different from the old Dick Van Dyke show, it has more characters to enable the show to have many parallel threads running concurrently, as it the manner in all Sorkin stories.

Many of the faces are familiar from The West Wing.  Bradley Whitford plays the co-producer Danny Tripp and is one of the co-leads of the show.  Timothy Busfield, sans whiskers, plays Cal Shanley, the main tech guy in the control room. Allison Janney makes a guest appearance, playing herself, as that week's host of the show.  There are many people one would recognize from the West Wing.  That is not a knock, but it's also not a plus.

What gets to you is to see plot ploys or story lines recycled from the West Wing and forced into this other container.  Sorkin starts to seem far less creative as a writer but rather is somebody with a bunch of tricks up his sleeve that he re-uses from time to time.  In the West Wing, for example, Josh Lyman, really the protagonist of the show, is Jewish, but it is a faux Judaism, especially when compared to the Toby Ziegler character.  In Studio 60, the protagonist is Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry.  Matt Albie is also Jewish, again in a low-keyed kind of way.  Why is that a part of the story at all?  There is another character, Harriet Hayes, one of the lead actors on the show, who is fundamentalist Christian.  Religion is important for her character as the question comes up for the presumably liberal audience who will view the show whether such a person can also show flexibility and have a sense of humor.  But hers is the only character where religion matters.  You get the impression that the Josh Lyman and Matt Albie characters are Sorkin's way of inserting an avatar of himself into the story and that he does it not because it makes sense for the storyline but rather because he's gotten away with it in the past.  (At least in the Newsroom, the Jeff Daniels character was not Jewish, but he was Republican.  Sorkin seems to need these labels as a way to set his stage.)

You also start to see the tension in Studio 60 episodes as trying to raise social consciousness (particularly in animosity to a predatory press but also with regard to lampooning the behavior of the corporate types who run the show and the take-the-money-and-run attitude of many of the other characters) where it would seem an awkward setting for putting forth political satire.  Colbert and the Daily Show didn't yet exist when Studio 60 was aired.  There had been the David Frost vehicle, That Was The Week That Was.    If Studio 60 was more like that, that political satire part might have worked better.  As it is, however, much of the political satire seems out of place.

And there is too little of what one would expect in this setting - writers improving sketches that are too risque to put on the air and having writer's block for making stuff that is socially bland but nonetheless comical.  The Sorkin characters tend to one of two types - white knights or Darth Vaders.  If you think of Mel Brooks or Neil Simon, neither of those images come to mind.  With Brooks, silliness is what comes to mind.  But on Studio 60, all these comedy writers who should be silly look absolutely solemn.  What gives?

So I'm just about done.  The Illini game is later this afternoon.  I need to get pumped for that.  (One, two, screw Mizzou.)  I expect to watch the last episode of Studio 60 tomorrow.  Then it's goodbye Sorkin. 

Maybe it should be goodbye TV shows for a while and onto other things.  I've yet to read a full book on the Kindle app for my ultrabook.  It's time to give that a try. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I miss the people, but not the profession

In my title I'm talking about Learning Technology.  I really would like to see former colleagues.  Schmoozing with them would be wonderful.  I have a deep fondness for many of them.

But I find myself moving further and further away from the profession by what seems to be the now mainstream topics.  For example, I really don't care about mobile computing.  Many of my students have their laptops out in class.  They are note taking vigorously, or so I assume.  Yesterday I had a student come to office hours and as we talked she was note taking vigorously, on paper.  Indeed, once in a while I'd ask her to give me her pen and notebook so I could draw a diagram to illustrate for her.  Laptop versus paper notebook is a difference that doesn't matter to me.

Should either of them be note taking to such a degree, or should they be doing something different to process what is going on in our discussion?  That's a more interesting question, one where I don't know the answer but where I can say I was never a very good note taker.  So on the theory of encouraging the students to be like me, I'd say they should take notes at best sparingly.  That's a cutesy answer.  It would be better to have a real answer, one which I don't have.  I will say it seems that the international students, overwhelmingly Asian, are more prone to take notes with their laptops.  Learning technology and international students seems again like an interesting issue - one that appears to be getting little traction so far.

By the time the next ELI national conference rolls around, it will have been seven years since I published these twin posts on the conference: Thoughts from ELI and Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing".  While the software I use now is quite different from what I was involved with then, I consider that a surface change only.  My real thinking on interesting use of learning technology has not altered much at all in the interim.  I can't say in any objective way whether the profession has changed substantively since.  But my distinct impression is that it wrong headed then and the fundamental error persists to this day.

So that first post was somewhat critical of the profession, though the conference, held in Atlanta, was clearly better than the one the year before, held in San Diego.  At the time of the San Diego conference I was the chair of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  We discussed the conference at some length at our next LTG meeting, and I was tasked by the group to contact Diana Oblinger, then running ELI, to express the group's concerns and see if we could get some changes that would improve matters.  To Diana's credit, she took my call seriously and willingly participated in a conference call with the entire group thereafter.  Substantive change in the form of the conference did happen as a result.

Those twin posts linked above documented the improvements seen in the Atlanta conference and offered up my critique of where the profession seemed to be.  By that time I was no longer chair of LTG, but in its governance structure the group had the past chair, current chair, and chair-elect have calls on occasion to provide some continuity for group function.  So I still had a finger or two in running the LTG and felt some responsibility to the profession in writing those twin posts.  Especially in considering the second post, my criticism of the profession is no different now than it was then.  ELI seems to have technology in the lead role vis-à-vis learning.  I thought that technology should, at most, be in a supporting role, or even just a bit part.  In the lead I cast something I called Humanism across the Curriculum and the second post was meant to give HAC some flesh.  My current teaching attempts to be in that spirit.   I wish that other instructors would do likewise.

Now I will switch modes as a means to shine some light on the above.  In his column today, Joe Nocera asks, What is Good Teaching?  The piece is about K-12 education as it occurs at inner city schools.  It relies heavily on the documentary The New Public.   It makes the argument that effective teaching needs to be situated in where the students are.  The various students themselves might very well be at quite different places.  The piece makes that point that good teaching embraces this diversity and manages it well.  But it also points out that such management is not part and parcel of the training students get at most Colleges of Education around the country.  So newly minted grads of such colleges are not good teachers out of the box.  If they ultimately become good teachers it is because, via reflective practice a la Donald Schon, they discover how to be good teachers over time. 

My class on Economics of Organizations at the University of Illinois is undoubtedly quite different from the classes depicted in The New Public documentary.  But it does share with those classes that the students are diverse in their backgrounds and where they are in their learning.  Some are from well to do families where the parents are working professionals.  Others are from families where the students are the first to go to college and the parents are working class or poor.  Some are transfers, mainly from community colleges, and may be alienated by size of the place and how impersonal it can be for the students.  Though they are mainly Econ majors, some are Business student wannabes, with no intrinsic interest in the economics.  And, as mentioned above, some are international students.   How should I manage that diversity?  In asking this, I'm casting the Learning Technology Profession in the same way that Nocera casts the Colleges of Education around the country.  There is a disconnect between the precepts of the profession and the issues on the ground.

Now a different sort of criticism, one that is more cynical.  In higher education we've had various exposés and documentaries on the learning issues over the last decade or so.   Examples include: What We're Learning About Student Engagement From NSSE, Declining by Degrees, and Academically Adrift.  These make some splash soon after they appear, but otherwise do not seem to alter the agenda for Learning Technology.  That agenda is defined more by developments in the technology arena than by anything else.

Many of the folks I know in the profession, like me, attended the Frye Leadership Institute.  This institute has a new name and is now called the Leading Change Institute.  There is an unintended irony with this name choice, particularly if I'm not far off the mark with my diagnosis above.  The profession appears unable to change its ways in a manner to address the disconnect. 

I have just started to read What the Best College Students Do.   The operating hypothesis there is that these students embrace their own creativity, feed it in their experiences, and enable personal growth through its expression.  But at the outset the book argues only a sliver of the total student population will ever do so.  This parallels the preaching of Maslow, who argued that only a small fraction of the population will become self-actualizers, though do note that the at the end of the linked piece a distinction is drawn between the creativity of artists, such as Van Gogh, and self-actualization.  In my own thinking I often merge the two, perhaps making an error in doing so.

Nevertheless, in considering both creativity and self-actualization there is then an obvious question about how to motivate them.  Is the ultimate purpose of education, particularly education that is not itself vocational, to encourage students to be part of this vanguard of creative people and self-actualizers?  or, at the least, to move the students in that direction?  The operating hypothesis that drives my own teaching is to answer each these questions with a very loud "yes."  In my view, that defines the mission.  Learning technology should act in service of this mission.

The profession appears to think otherwise.  It embraces the view that the technology itself should define the mission.  That is a view I can't subscribe to and it is why I feel myself drifting away from a profession that I was once an integral part of.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lacking a place to stand, the world remains unlifted.

My last class was this past Tuesday.  My final is next Wednesday.  That is a long time in between.  I have one clerical task to do before the exam.  I will complete that today.  There is too much snow outside now to go anywhere and the basketball game isn't till this evening.  Might as well do something marginally productive for some part of the day.

But there has also been a lot of time to think about various what ifs and here I will record some of those that occurred to me.

As in past offerings of the course, for their final blog post I asked my students to do a self-critique of their performance and a critique of the class.  This time around I also asked specifically about how much time they spend - on the blogging (the story telling part of the class) and on the Excel homework (the math part of the class).  One of the findings that surprised me was that several of the better students reported they liked that part the best because it didn't take them much time to do it.  This cuts so against my grain of what it means to like to do something that I generated several what ifs based on just this reaction.

A factoid is required first.  Essentially all undergraduate economics classes are three credit hours.  Why?  I'll tell you.  I don't know.  As in Fiddler on the Roof, it is a tradition.  My first what if is this. What if we looked at such traditions and asked whether they serve what we're really after?   In the meantime, I ask the reader to do the simple math.  A full load for a student is somewhere between fifteen and eighteen credit hours.  Figure out how many courses the student takes at one time.  Then ask whether the courses compete with one another for the student's time.  Then, assuming it is agreed that the courses do compete with one another, ask whether that is good or bad.

The other factoid, for which there were so many little observations to confirm it during the semester that I didn't need to ask about it in that final blog post, is that the students are entirely wrapped up in a game of paper chase, with a high GPA the elusive goal.  In this universe only surface learning, but enough of that to produce a good grade in a course, is perfectly satisfactory to the student.  My second what if is this.  What if we leveraged this game that students play, instead of having it block the path to deeper learning?

Now a little bit about me.  Somewhere during my time as an economist, particularly in writing referee reports, and my time as a learning technologist, participating in group writing of a white paper of some sort, I learned how to give reasonably good and interesting comments on the writing initiated by others.  These comments were not about the grammar.  Rather, they were about the ideas.  If I liked something the author said I could give a substantive reason why.  If I didn't like something, I could likewise explain why not and then offer up something I'd prefer.  Further,  I could do this relatively quickly, which in some sense is a parallel with what my students said above.  Ironic, isn't it?  The difference is on the depth of understanding gleaned from the activity.  The students I mentioned were only skimming the surface.  As the old joke goes, the students were aiming for beauty.  I was after ugly.  What if this skill for providing ugly feedback were widely held by instructors?

Armed with these three what ifs, I started to construct my ideal of what undergraduate education for Econ majors (and really for students majoring in other social sciences) should look like.  Then I could fancy my course as a way to illuminate the path to that ideal.

What if I didn't know that damn New England joke?  You can't get there from here.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Mnemonic Devices

Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.......

My dad taught me a different one for the months, which entailed counting your knuckles and the space in between, starting with the knuckle or your index finger.  The knuckles were for months with 31 days.  The spaces for February and the months with thirty days.  When you finished with one hand you started with the other.   In doing this you end with a knuckle for July and then begin with another knuckle for August.  It works!

My mother had one for all the French verbs that are conjugated with être.

Mrs RV Vandertramp.

Even knowing that, however, I'm afraid I can only come up with a few of those verbs.  Maybe somebody with better French than I have can get them all. 

As I understand it there are several different ones for remembering the planets, ordered by their distance from the sun.  The one we were taught was for when Pluto counted.

My very educated mother just served us nine pickles.

And for students who take trig, of course, there is the famous Indian Chief


(sine is opposite over hypotenuse, cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse, and tangent is opposite over adjacent). 

The one I liked the best relied on the shape of your mouth when saying the words.  Abscissa has to be for the x (horizontal) axis because your mouth is horizontal saying the word.  Ordinate has to be for the y (vertical) axis because your mouth is vertical saying it.  Though I must confess that as much as I like the memory device, the knowledge is pretty useless.  Apart from that course on analytic geometry, I don't recall ever using these words.

I am usually down on rote, but I was able to recall each of these without looking them up.  (The spell checker got me on abscissa, where when I initially tried it I omitted the first "s".)  One reason to be down on rote is that "the knowledge vanishes through the students' fingers as they write the final exam."  This is a line from a former colleague in the Accounting Department, Dave Ziebart, specifically in reference to students (not) understanding discounted present value.   Business students are exposed to the concept in several different courses, yet most don't really get it.  Contrast that with the mnemonic devices I was taught. Once learned they stay learned.  That's the part I'm scratching my head about.  Is there something special about the mnemonic devices?

One thing I did have to look up in writing this piece was the spelling of mnemonic.  I began with a word that looked something like pneumonia.  Thankfully, some Google searches have a phonetic basis.  Just because you start out wrong, it doesn't mean you have to stay that way. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Penetrating Guards

Growing up in NYC, the acme of viewing pro basketball happened for me during 10th grade, 1969-70, when the Knicks won the championship.  That team was special because of its style.  Every one of the starters could really shoot.  Willis Reed was under sized at center, but an incredibly good player.  The forwards, Dave Debusschere and Bill Bradley, could bomb them in from way out, this well before the three pointer had been implemented.  Debusschere was also a fierce rebounder while Bradley was a man in motion on offense.   The guards each had their unique style.  Dick Barnett, the shooting guard, kicked his legs back on his jump shot in a way different from any other player.  It seemed awkward but he was remarkably accurate with his shot.  Walt "Clyde" Frazier was the point guard extraordinaire.  When you think of him you think poise, particularly in how still he could be sitting on the court after a foul or other break in the action.  Frazier could do it all - pass the ball, shoot it, and dribble drive.

Because every position was a threat to score "hit the open man" became the obvious mantra.  The players were all unselfish.  The ball moved around a lot and bad shots were rarely taken.  Frazier's drives to basket happened out of taking advantage of the defense, which had spread out to guard all these good shooters.  This left openings for driving the ball.  With both the threat to drive and the threat to shoot the jump shot, the defense seemed on its heels.  For me, this vintage of the Knicks will always stand as the definition of team.

The Knicks defense too was team oriented.  They were under sized and not particularly good at rebounding.  So they needed better floor play on defense and to generate a lot of turnovers.  Walt Frazier had very good hands and could get a lot of steals on his own.  The other players were excellent at setting traps and got turnovers that way.  The Knicks were hard to score against.

The second team may have had more personality, if less of a team orientation.  Cazzie Russell was my favorite.  He liked to shoot it and had a deserved reputation for instant offense.  Nate Bowman was built more like a center than Willis was, so the Knicks could have a real man in the middle if needed.  Then there was a young gangly player nicknamed "Action Jackson" who would stir things up, though in advance you didn't know how.

Basketball is no longer played this way, though the European teams perhaps come closer to the Knicks ideal than American teams do.  Some of the changes in the game stem from changes in sports generally, particularly the increased importance of weight training.  Another explanation, one where I don't really understand the cause, appears to be the decline in outside shooting, even as the three pointer has elevated in importance.

* * * * *

Since coming to Illinois in 1980, I've watched much more college basketball than the pros, and mostly Illini basketball.  I did like the Knicks when Bernard King was in his heyday, although the hated Celtics had their number.  And I did root for some of the Patrick Ewing teams, with John Starks at shooting guard, though that was at the time when the Bulls reigned supreme.  Since then, it's pretty much either been college hoops or no hoops at all.

My favorite Illini team was the 1983-84 club, the one that made it to the Elite Eight in a game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.  This game is infamous for a call made with less than 20 seconds left, where it appears that the Kentucky player, Dickie Beals, had traveled but the Illini player, Bruce Douglas, was called for a foul.  That was a ballgame.

The Illini team that year was the closest to the Knicks ideal team I've sketched above.  It had very good outside shooting, from Doug Altenberger and Quinn Richardson.  Bruce Douglas, though not a good shooter was like Walt Frazier in other respects - passing the ball and on defense.  Efrem Winters was the inside scoring threat and and extremely exciting player to watch on the alley-oop.  And George Montgomery, who had seemed a bit of a clown earlier in his career, became a very good defender and excellent rebounder.  This team was another where it was better than the sum of its parts.  Both Douglas and Winters were invited to the Olympic trials (Bobby Knight was the coach that year) but neither made it.  And both kind of plateaued as players after that.

Many other people of my vintage will favor the Final Four teams - I went to Seattle in 1989 to see the Flying Illini lose to Michigan in the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament - or the 2004-05 vintage that was number 1 for much of the season - I was at the Assembly Hall when we completely outplayed Wake Forest to take over the number 1 slot.  That team which Bill Self recruited but Bruce Weber coached had a lot of talent, particularly at the guard spot.  But I still like the 1983-84 club best because while that team won a lot it never seemed that one player on the team could do it alone and because that team seemed to over achieve.

* * * * *

I want to turn to the current vintage Illini team which barely got by IPFW last night.  It was actually an exciting game - the opponent a worthy adversary, in spite of being a school I never heard of before.  But the playing style was much different from what I sketched above and much different from how last year's team played.

First let me make some general observations about college basketball these days.  Whether this is due to the recent rule changes, with hand checking disallowed and block/charge calls meant to now favor the offensive player, most defenses seem to do the following.  The player with the ball is closely guarded.  If there is one shooter on the other team who is proficient from the outside, that player may be trailed fairly tightly.  Each of the remaining three defenders play well off their man and clog the lane.  This seems to be the norm to me.  It means that zone and man-to-man are much less distinct than they used to be.  It also means that if either a guard does penetrate the lane or a big man receives a pass into the post, that player will be hacked at by several defenders.

This leaves the game in the hands of the refs - no call if the hack was all ball or ruled incidental contact, and a foul otherwise.  It may have always been such, but fouls used to go mainly against the on ball defender.  Now they frequently are against another player who has taken a swipe at the player with the ball.  I'm convinced that most of time time the players can't tell a foul or not when in the act.  This is because there is plenty of contact even during the no-call situation.

The Illini are led by two guards - Rayvonte Rice, who is listed at 6'4" but I'd guess is an inch or two shorter, and Tracy Abrams, the point guard.  Both are incredibly strong.  Both get most of their points on drives to the basket.  Abrams will occasionally dish off to a teammate during a fast break.  But in the half court, he almost always calls his own number on these drives.  Since one or the other of these players have the ball most of the time, there is a lot of one-on-one basketball.  Teamwork comes in via screens before the shot and offensives rebounds for put backs after the shot.

Abrams is particularly proficient at the following.  If he gets the defender leaning one way he will drive the other way, though he clearly prefers to drive to his right.  He doesn't try to get by the defender most of the time.  Rather what he wants is for the defender to be at his side, out of position to take a charge.  Then when close enough to the basket Abrams will initiate contact by leaning in with his shoulder.  The result will either be a potential three-point play or Abrams going to the line to shoot two.  The contact seems pretty violent on the replay.  Abrams goes in very hard.  He has remarkable body control after the contact and gets the shot off in a manner unlike how I was taught to shoot a layup when I was in high school, where contact wasn't part of the equation. 

The last two Illini games, both of which I've watched, have been compelling because they were tight contests with the outcome in doubt till the very end.  But there is little to no sense of the whole as bigger than the sum of the parts.  Perhaps Coach Groce could educate fans like me on the virtues of screening and offensive rebounding and that the team concept can be seen more in the off-the-ball play than elsewhere.  In the meantime, it sure looks like one-on-one play to me.

I don't yet comfortably know the Freshman players.  There is some talent there and one or two guards who may be more assist-oriented than Abrams.  By mid season it may be that Abrams is moved to shooting guard and Rice to small forward, in effect a three-guard lineup, to help bring the big men more into the offense as scoring threats.  But right now the team is not all that proficient when one of Freshmen takes over at the point.  Rice and Abrams are more reliable scorers.

The team is undefeated, but the quality of the opponents will increase from here on out and many of the Illini's games in December will be on the road.  One wonders whether an offense built around Rice and Abrams, where each calls his own number, can work against better teams.  One also wonders, even if the two guards can remain effective in December, what happens to the team play if one or both of these guards gets into foul trouble.

One-on-one play is much less compelling to me as a viewer if the team doesn't seem all that competitive that way.  In the AP poll there are currently 5 Big Ten teams in the top 25.  In the Coaches Poll there are 6 (Indiana sneaks in at number 25).  Four out of the remaining six pre-season games for the Illini are against big-name schools.  I will watch those games, out of curiosity and fan loyalty.  How we do in those games will impact whether I continue to watch the team regularly during the Big Ten season. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The hard to come up with one

Here's a little game you can play at home.  Ask the participants to come up with words where the b is silent.  I did this earlier today over the first cup of coffee with my wife and her niece, as I tried to determine whether a second pot was needed (it was).  Can you guess the first one they came up with?  It's probably the one that popped into your head too.


Then, immediately after they produced the following


But they failed to come up with


The question is why.  One obvious reason is that here the b doesn't come at the end of the word.  But perhaps a more important reason is that subtlety is not prized as something we should all be after.  It remains elusive for most people, even those who are very well educated.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Subtlety does remain an important value for me.  And I suppose one of my bigger frustrations as a teacher is that I rarely see it in my students, nor do I see them striving for it.  This observation leads to a larger question.

Can a preference for subtlety be taught?

I don't know the answer to that one.  The magic pedagogy that might produce this result remains elusive to me.  Truthfully, I think such a preference is years in the making and requires continual practice in the development.  Expecting it to manifest in a single college course over fifteen weeks when it hasn't yet appeared in the student is folly.  Though I can reason through the point, I can't seem to refrain from making the same mistake over again and hope to see the miracle occur. 

In lieu of such a pedagogy, let me describe how my own preference for subtlety manifests and guess at its origins.

I think of this preference as three distinct things that are interrelated.  The first is a kind of "mental skating to the where the puck will be."  You are exposed to ideas that are new to you.  There is a compunction to ask and answer - what are some of the implications of those ideas?  In other words, the mind activity is solving for y where x is given in an expression of the form: if x then y.  I wrote this sentence deliberately in the style of something you do in a math proof, the kind everyone should learn when they study Euclidean geometry (I did that in tenth grade).  Having a feel for the math is one big way that subtlety gets enhanced.  In my own development I think I had this much earlier than that geometry class and I wonder if the game is actually over for others before it really has begun if they don't have have it earlier as well.

Outside the math setting the universe of possible y's is quite large, so there is something of an art in intuiting what sort of y's might solve the conditional.  A pure trial and error approach won't work and will frustrate the person, who will end up with no solution, having given up on this quixotic quest well short of the goal.  A quicker way to identify plausible y's is needed.  So the development of intuition of this sort seems to me a big part of the deal.  It requires a lot of practice.

The second is not being satisfied with tentative answers, particularly the first thing that pops into your head.  Even if your intuition is well honed, further reflection can often give a better result, this in spite of Gladwell's Blink.  The search for other ideas is more than persistence, though persistence is a necessary part.  It requires developing a practice of testing the answer for whether it fits and also whether it is complete.

For me, there is an emotional aspect to it as well.  The quest must produce a kind of enjoyment.  It is something I want to do, not something I have to do.  This is the part that scares me about teaching a preference for subtlety, because it may depend fundamentally on personality type.  Teachers should not want to remake the personalities of their students, even if the egoist in us wants to see junior clones of ourselves spring up whenever we hold a class. 

The third is developing a sense that a tolerably good understanding has been produced so closure can be achieved.  When I was playing with learning technology with my staff in the College of Business, the method required trying the technology out, often doing this by producing objects that others might view.  A significant part of the production process was seeing whether I found those objects so produced pleasing or clunkers.  So there is a sense of taste that needs to develop about what is pleasing.  Just as the doctor shouldn't have himself as a patient, the author shouldn't be the primary judge of whether the work produced is pleasing.  But if a work is put aside for a while, say a day or two, and then revisited as a viewer would engage in the work, one can get a sense of whether it clears the bar.

This is an example to illustrate.  I made quite a few of these sort of things.   On the technical side, it is a screen capture video of a PowerPoint slideshow, with musical accompaniment and text narration in the captions to accompany the images on the slides.  I used Camtasia for the capture.  On the storytelling side, the approach blends a short narrative with each images to illustrate the idea.  The music then acts as a wrapper so the parts can be placed within a larger whole.  Ignoring the technology and focusing on the authoring activity, there is intelligence exercised in the selection of images and again in the music that fits the narrative.   I had students make these in one honors course I taught (just those students who were taking the course to fill the advanced composition requirement).  We used slidecasting in rather than screen capture and posting to YouTube, because it was technically easier for them to produce. The completed projects are still available to view.  I don't know if making these advanced the students in the direction of appreciating subtlety, but they did seem to enjoy the production activity and also enjoyed viewing the completed projects their classmates made.

This is the skeleton.  The body gets added by exposure to the ideas of others and the willingness to plagiarize these, as Jonathan Lethem says we must.  My idea of the screen capture movies with narration didn't emerge by spontaneous generation.  Many years earlier I was part of a project led by Joe Squier, Nan Goggin, and Gail Hawisher called Words and Images.  It was an exploration into a new form of communication where the graphic and the textual created an interplay that was large than the sum of the parts.  In searching for reference to that project, I found this essay by Paul Prior, Gail's protege, and another participant in the project.  Paul's paper is too formal for my tastes, but I'm neither an expert in rhetoric nor in communication more broadly.  I'm a user.  If I'm to use these sort of ideas in teaching, I need to bring them down to my level, so I can appropriate them for my own purpose.

This is how I put flesh on the bone.  Doing that means being on the lookout for interesting ideas even when one doesn't see an immediate use for the idea.  There must be some ability to create a mental rolodex of such ideas that can be tapped into when the time is right.  This provides the source for the candidate y's. 

There's one more piece to the process and with it one more word with a silent b.  This last bit is to maintain a balance between optimism and skepticism.  Most of us can handle one of these at a time, but we really need to do both simultaneously.  What's required is a deep belief that we'll get to an interesting place eventually, but a doubt that we're there yet.

Can that be taught? 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Front Page Story

Why offer mention
Of fixing the pension?
No details released.
Resistance increased.

On this day of thanks
No April fools pranks.
So define the deal.
Show that it is real.

Readily admit
Pensioners get hit.
The question, how much?
It is not, don't touch.

I would be grateful
Without a plate full
To see the full fix.
I'll adjust my mix

Of spending and work.
And not be a jerk.
Complaining on end
No message to send.

Progressive be cuts
No ifs, ands, or buts.
To get through this mess
And lessen distress.

Until this is done
The press has its fun.
Yet let's not forget
We are not there yet.

A deal that can pass
And end this morass
Let's get there with speed.
It is what we need.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Generation Gap

This photo is from college or grad school, not sure which.  David Sterman was not nearly as scruffy as I was.

My mom wrote the following while I was in my late 20's, an assistant professor and much more proper in appearance.  I guess she was looking at this picture and recalling when.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Socratic Dialog in Face to Face Instruction

I like to teach with a Socratic approach and try to make class more like a conversation.  There are some challenges when doing this with undergraduate students.  Sometimes I'm unable to frame a question in a way where the students see what I'm driving at.  If in a second framing there are still blank stares, then I'm prone to answer my own question to break the logjam.  Also, in my approach students volunteer their answers by raising their hands.  I don't call on a person if the person doesn't have a hand raised.  Participation is not universal this way.  In particular, Asian students seem more reluctant to participate, though I'm unsure whether the explanation is language or difference in cultural norms.

These limitations notwithstanding, I think the approach continues to have merit, and I will elaborate on why below.  But first note that our current rhetoric about instruction - active learning, flipped classrooms, online micro-lectures, etc., doesn't seem to embrace Socratic dialog in the process.  Let me conjecture why and then use that conjecture to discuss flaws in our current approach, particularly with regard to General Education.

There are size limits for the class if a Socratic approach is to be employed.  I've got 23 students now and not all come.  It certainly works in that setting.  In a flat classroom perhaps the upper limit is 30 or 35 students.  In an amphitheater style classroom with tiered seating perhaps as many as sixty could be in the class, though the issue of broad participation would be exacerbated in that case. 

It certainly can't happen in a large lecture setting.  But it probably also can't happen in a TA-led discussion section.  The approach requires the instructor to be confident enough to temporarily cede the agenda to a student, which happens when the student responds to an instructor-posed question.  The student response itself demands a response.   Further, all students who have their hands raised must be given turns to chime in.  This gives some unpredictability to how the class discussion will unfold.  The instructor has to contribute responses aimed at illuminating how the subject matters speaks to the points the students have raised.  If the instructor either doesn't sufficiently react to what the students say or doesn't create ties to the subject matter while reacting, the approach will be ineffective and the students might very well be frustrated by it.  So it is cognitively more demanding on the instructor because the Socratic dialog requires a certain type of thinking-on-your-feet.   A straight lecture can proceed more according to script, even when there is Question and Answer time allocated in the lecture.   That lecture is more scripted contributes a lot to why it remains a common approach even in smaller classes.

In contrasting the two, straight lecture is typically full of conclusions.  Socratic dialog is peppered with, "why?"  Young kids have no problem posing the why question, but they typically don't have the wherewithal to answer those questions.  As students get further along, many students stop asking the why question and content themselves with absorbing what the instructor and textbook says. To a certain extent, Socratic dialog is putting the shoe on the other foot.  It has the further benefit of students seeing a bit of a struggle in coming to a satisfactory response to a question.  My class is definitely better at doing this now than they were earlier in the semester.  But still there are many times where they meander around a satisfactory response rather than get to it straight away.  And then they get to see how one question with a satisfactory response leads to another question.  Ideas unfold in stages and students get a sense of that.  There is also that students who have given responses have contributed to the discussion in a way that gets them to have ownership in what the class is doing.  All of this is for the good.

It takes some time for things to gel - perhaps a month or two.  Part of this is my learning who they are - matching names with faces - and being able to connect on occasion what they respond in class to what they've written in their blog posts.  The posts are sometimes taken as the basis for the discussion.  It is also necessary for the students to get a sense of how I will respond to them.  I don't believe in giving praise when I find a response off base.  Early on, some of the students expect to be congratulated merely for their participation.  On the other hand, I value the making of certain mistakes, especially those that help to illustrate the issues we are studying.  So once in a while I will actually give a very enthusiastic response to an error.  It takes a while for the students to understand all of this, that it is not personal, and that what we're really after is a coherent narrative about the economics we are studying, one that has been constructed from the basics on up.  

I don't want to oversell what I've been able to accomplish in class.  Indeed, I'm somewhat frustrated that I don't see more of the dialog approach to thinking in the blog posts that students write.  Those tend to address the prompt I pose, but to not otherwise be based on a line of inquiry.  The students offer up responses there, but don't look for additional questions or puzzles that stem from the response they've provided. In my comments on their posts I will try to bring in some of those questions.  But the students haven't figured out yet that it is really their responsibility to do that.

I'm now going to guess at why and in the process offer my critique that I mentioned above.  There is so much socialization that students have had in their prior courses that cuts the other way.  Last year I wrote a long tome about the evils of memorization, which I view as THE LEARNING PROBLEM, particularly for students in the social sciences.  I don't want to repeat the argument here.  I simply want to reiterate that large lecture classes tend to encourage the students to memorize and produce a teach-to-the-test mindset in the instructors.   I also want to note that these large lecture courses are the mainstay of General Education at big public universities like Illinois and are what the students mainly confront in their courses during the first year or two.  Habits about how students go about their studies are formed during this time.  Those habits are very hard to break. 

So there is a question of whether we can do better, not just in my class but for the students over their entire trajectory at the university.  My friends and colleagues in the learning technology arena may be surprised at me saying this - I don't think technology is the answer.  I'm not sure what is the answer.

Instead I'll offer up a fantasy.  Make clones of me who like teaching with Socratic dialog and are comfortable with it and have those clones teach modestly sized sections that freshmen take.  Do it in great enough numbers that is serves as a realistic counter force to the large lecture approach.  Then do it again for the sophomores.  Perhaps after that, by the time I see them in my class, the students will have figured out how they should go about their learning.

I know that fantasy doesn't help in coming up with a solution.  But we in learning technology have a tendency of coming up with solutions without discussing what problem it is that we're solving.  The fantasy does help with that.

Monday, November 18, 2013

SpongeBob versus Soupy Sales

There is a lot said and written about how schools are today compared to when we were kids, much less about how the TV shows that kids watch have changed in the same period and what impact that may have had on their development.  Here is a little bit on my sense of this.

I'm sure all my contemporaries who grew up in the NYC area know who Soupy Sales was.  But for the rest, he hosted a local kids program on TV that I watched when I was in elementary school.  There were other such local shows hosted by Sandy Becker in a show named after him, Wonderama with Sonny Fox, and Let's Have Fun with Chuck McCann.  Among these, my recollection is that Soupy Sales was the most subversive in his presentation, kind of like Mad Magazine but targeted at younger kids.  Further, Soupy Sales seemed to value improvisation over a pre-formulated script.

“Our shows were not actually written, but they were precisely thought out,” he explained in his memoir. “But the greatest thing about the show, and I think the reason for its success, was that it seemed undisciplined. The more you can make a performance seem spontaneous, the better an entertainer you are.”

I don't know whether any of the above shows had a national syndication.  In New York they were either on Channel 5, WNEW, or Channel 11, WPIX, or Channel 9, WOR, and not on the local affiliate of the Big Three networks.  It may be that what I'm going to say here applies only to kids who grew up in the NYC viewing area.

Soupy Sales did schtick, so we learned to appreciate that, but it was schtick mildly disrespectful of authority.  It's worth noting that the style emerged pre-Vietnam and in some sense paralleled comics who spoke to adult audiences, notably Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.  Counter culture was an idea that had its place at the time and it was something we all grew up with and became part of us.  It planted the seed for us to be more aware and much less accepting of authority. 

In originally considering my title I had Barney as the latter day contrast to Soupy Sales, probably an unfair comparison in retrospect.  Barney is so goody goody and the show is entirely anesthetized.  It is also targeted at pre-school kids.   SpongeBob has a bit of an edge and its audience, at least as applied to my family, was kids after they started first grade.

SpongeBob's edge notwithstanding, his character is viewed as an embrace of the American Dream:

Contained in this nine-minute skit is the complete DNA of SpongeBob’s rise to power. His industrial ardor, his outrageous spatula skills, the terrible, idiotic brightness of his eyes. The atmosphere at the Krusty Krab has the monochrome tint of a Gen X workplace satire, a Clerks or an Office Space; Mr. Krabs cackles over his money, while Squidward, the tentacled sourpuss at the register, droops with ennui. But SpongeBob’s professional life is rainbow-colored. More than an adventure, it is a romance. “What is taking you so long?!” complains Squidward, head through the hatch, in an episode called “The Original Fry Cook.” “I’m adding the love!” says SpongeBob happily, squirting a little valentine of ketchup onto his latest Krabby Patty. Take that, Karl Marx!  

Yet this is a peculiar form of the American Dream.  When we were kids the American Dream found its emblem in the expression, a Horatio Alger story, meaning that the protagonist went from rags to riches.  SpongeBob is on no such trajectory.  He is a short order cook and content with his lot in life, finding creativity and satisfaction in that work, which is not a stepping stone but an endpoint.

Prior to SpongeBob becoming the premiere show for my younger son, that position was held by Pokemon.  I viewed that show a conspiracy because of its tagline, "gotta catch em all."  I considered this as a not so subtle reference to encourage kids (really their parents) to buy the trading cards of the characters on the show and for a while we got caught up in that. But compared to SpongeBob, this is all small potatoes.  If you take SpongeBob as propaganda aimed at kids, you see it as the American Dream being rewritten and kids becoming acculturated to a new norm - accept your lot in life and be happy with it. 

The kids could use a healthy dose of subversion.  Where will they get that? 

Friday, November 15, 2013


A couple of nights ago TCM was doing a Burt Lancaster retrospective.  I saw they were airing Seven Days in May.  It was one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid.  I can't recall whether I read the book first or not, but it was good too. For fiction it was part of a genre, Fail-Safe was another book and movie combo of this sort and then, of course, there was the marvelous parody Dr. Strangelove. Each played off the audience fear that the unthinkable might happen.  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), an incredibly effective deterrent, would somehow go awry and the Cold War would become hot, leading to massive devastation.

I wondered whether the film would still hold power for me and keep my interest or if it was too dated for that.  So I recorded it when it aired.  Then I watched it yesterday.  It is in black and white, some of the sets appear unnatural and staged, and Kirk Douglas, the hero of the piece, is a little too old-style masculine for my tastes.  But the story holds up and Fredric March, who plays the President, and Ava Gardner, who plays the jilted lover of the Burt Lancaster character, do a remarkable job of making the film credible.  There is a mixture of rationality and humanity in both of these characters that made me want to root for them.

The setting in the film is the aftermath of a treaty signed with the Russians for mutual disarmament.  The military brass, led by the four-star general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott (this is the Burt Lancaster character), think the President is weak and has put the country into great danger, because the Russians are not to be trusted to hold up their end of the treaty.  A coup d'etat is planned with General Scott the leader, a leader the public is behind, whereas the Gallop Poll has the President with a popularity rating under 30%.  The story then is about how Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), who is the principal aide to General Scott but is not as rabid about the military getting its way on Treaty, comes to discover the plot, brings it to the attention of the White House, who then ultimately thwarts it. ECOMCON, the title of my piece, is a secret military base near El Paso, where troops have been training for the coup, though all but their commander are unaware of the true mission.  Jiggs comes to understand what that mission is and the need for the White House to verify the mission exists becomes a significant part of the plot.

Seen from today the story seems oddly relevant.  Tehran is not Moscow, but the current negotiation with Iran invokes all the same fears about not trusting the other side, with Netanyahu in the General Scott role insofar as sounding the alarm.  There is another part that is even more right on.  There is the left-right divide that is with us now.  The difference between then and now is not that we were all reasonable once but have turned into kooks since.  It is that the Cold War absorbed so much mental bandwidth.  It was the focus.  Domestic politics was subsidiary, of necessity.

America did many terrible things during the Cold War.  Worst of all, by far, is that we won it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Windows 8 ReInstall on Ultrabook - Lessons Learned

If I had the technology problem on a Friday, a non-teaching day for me with the weekend after that, the whole thing would not have been such a big deal.  But it happened Thursday morning, around 7:30, with my class at 11.  So I panicked a bit.  To be sure, every step I took thereafter was rational, with perhaps the exception of repeatedly trying to get the ultrabook to start, hoping the next time around the problem would have resolved itself.  It never did.  But the other things I did made sense.  I had a 45 minute chat session with tech support, where we tried a few things to fix the problem.  They didn't work, which contributed to my feeling on edge, but I learned how to restore to the ultrabook to its original state, which was the critical thing to ultimately remedy the situation.  I also contacted the Econ department, got a loaner laptop from them, and in the process also got some excellent help from Tera, who staffs the front desk. 

I had issues teaching with that loaner, the third of three laptops Tera and I tried.  So lesson one is to appreciate having your own equipment and knowing how it works.  It makes life a lot easier. 

When I got home after class, I started in with the ultrabook restore.  There is an option to first back up all the files on the computer.  I did that.  It took quite a long time, maybe 5 hours.  The actual restore of the system only took a few minutes.  After that I tried to restore the files.  The utility that does this said it couldn't find the restore files.  I was tired by then, so I told myself let's have a drink and figure this out in the morning. 

In the morning (yesterday) the file restore still wouldn't wouldn't work.  So I sent a query email to tech support about what to do about it.  In auto-response, they said I could expect an answer within 24 hours.  I didn't want to wait that long so I proceeded to rebuilt what I had on the ultrabook - mostly applications more than files and mostly free applications or applications where I had purchased a subscription that I can re-use.  (This proved a good decision as I still haven't heard back from tech support.)  I create my files for teaching on my desktop computer, which runs Windows 7.  I only use the ultrabook to display some of those in class.  I backed up my desktop computer on Thursday, before heading to class.  And I backed up the ultrabook yesterday after I had restored it with all the applications I wanted to put on it and the few files (music) that I wanted. 

So the second lesson is this.  The cloud may be good for backing up files, but really you want to back up applications too, especially because it took me quite a while to reconfigure the ultrabook.  It would have been much easier to simply the restore everything in one fell swoop from a system image.  So having reasonably current system image backups is something I must do and pay more attention to.  Then I've got a bunch of files that I don't want in the cloud.  I suspect many people are in the same situation.  Partly for that reason and partly because it is simply easier for me to compose on the desktop computer, I personally will resist some of the call for mobile computing.  My ultrabook will never become my primary computer.  It my become my iPad replacement.  I'm still trying to decide that.  But as a primary computer, no.  There are too many risks with it. 

The third lesson is that I learned a fair amount about ultrabook function (really system 8 function) by going through this experience.  I'm much better at navigation on the ultrabook than I was, and I learned a variety of the shortcuts.  Also, I understand better all that is on the computer.  There is a lot of stuff pre-loaded.  Now I can see what's there.  Way back when I bought my first car I got a standard transmission without knowing how to use a clutch.  I had a friend give me a few lessons on his car, but I was far from comfortable with the clutch then.  I told myself I'd learn through use.  It was my choice.  This time around, the learning was imposed.  I wanted an 11" ultrabook.  Lightweight and small form factor is right for me.  System 8 was part of the package. 

One of the things I still don't have a good feel for is whether I want to  use the mouse and click or if I want to use the touch screen and let my finger do the work.  I've tried both.  System 8 seems more for the latter, and hence for true tablets or phones.  But it doesn't seem to generate an on screen keyboard most of the time, or if it can do that it is one thing I haven't figured out how to enable.  (That may be a project for later this morning.)  And here is the thing, using it as a touch screen but with a keyboard is not really a good combination, not because of the technology but because of me. 

I suffer from dry skin but my forehead, in particular, is quite oily and I must inadvertently have my fingers touch my forehead repeatedly, so they get oily too.  This means the that a screen used via touch will get oiled up, as will the keyboard, and after a while that will become uncomfortable.  On my desktop computer, the issue with keyboard remains, but the issue with the screen does not.  I can keep it fairly pristine.  While it has a touch capability, there I'm much less likely to use it and instead rely on the mouse.  So, that would be my inclination for the ultrabook as well, but as I said Windows 8 seems geared to touch screen use. 

When I had yet to restore the ultrabook, I started to have thoughts about whether I should switch to a Mac.  My main reason for not having done that earlier is Excel.  The way I use Excel, I'm quite sure Google Spreadsheets are not a good substitute.  I also suspect I'd find Excel for Mac limiting. Also for campus email I use Outlook and have gotten quite used to it. 

It appears that my use is being challenged by current "developments."  I don't know what caused the problem I was having Thursday morning (upon restart I'd get a blue screen that said there was a problem and that the machine would have to restart) but I decided that this time I would stay with Windows 8 and not upgrade to Windows 8.1 as I had done previously.  My thinking is that the older OS is likely to be more stable.  I've also experienced instability recently with Blogger, and enduring the end of life of iGoogle and earlier Google Reader.  I'm not enamored with the idea that things I've become accustomed to might simply go away.  I'm also kind of miffed at iTunes that they don't seems to allow ready movement of files between two PCs.  (You can access files when on the same same network, but the files remain on the original computer.) 

So I'm becoming less of a fan of Microsoft, Google, and Apple.  Facebook, too, has some practices that drive me bananas, particularly the placement of "suggested posts" in my News Feed.  We either need some upstarts in this sector who will give the big guys a run for their money or I've got to figure out how to spend more meaningful time away for the technology, to not be so dependent on them. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

It sure is great - raise the retention rate

The post from which the snip below is taken caused me to think back to 1996, when I did a study about retention rates at Illinois. I had 5 years of data on all courses offered with both the ten-day enrollment (after the add-drop period has ended) and the final course enrollment.  I looked at the ratio of those two numbers, focusing on only undergraduate course that had 10 or more students in the ten-day number.  Students who add with the permission of the instructor after day ten would make that ratio look a little higher.  I simply assumed there weren't too many in that category.

The finding was that in non-engineering courses that ratio was so high (typically 95% or higher) that it could hardly be improved upon by an outside intervention, such as introducing an online learning component to the class.  Even in engineering, the average was something like 91% or 92%.  There is a lot of churn in those first ten days, but not a lot afterward, at least at Illinois from fall 1991 through spring 1996.

This study was done in the dark ages before there were ERP systems.  Now we have those.  I wonder why data like this isn't made publicly available, if not at the course level than aggregated a bit higher (say all 100-level courses offered in a department aggregated in one lump so as not to cast aspersions at a particular instructor with a lower ratio).  If some facts about retention rates at particular institutions were more widely known, it would make the discussion about whether they should be targets of improvement a more informed discussion.

Maybe someday we might even ask, if the students survived the course and got a decent grade in it, did he or she actually learn something that will be retained in their mind.  That's the retention rate we should care about.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Can we do this better?

Today in my class I had the lowest attendance of the semester and subject-matter-wise this might have been the most interesting stuff.  I asked the students who did show up what's up.  One student offered up the weather as explanation.  I stared at him in disbelief.  It was raining lightly early in the day but temperatures were in the mid 50s.  Weather couldn't be the reason.

Other possible explanations include illness, my previous lecture was a bomb, and the schedule - this is the season for the second midterm of the semester.  Mine is a week from Thursday.  I'm going to assume that the last possibility is the most likely one.

In Econ, most if not all undergraduate courses are 3 credit hours.  So a full load is 5 courses and some overachiever types might take six.  I should also note that many students seem either to have double majors or are minoring in an area outside of Econ.

While midterms are typically not as long as finals (my midterm is 80 minutes while the final is 3 hours) and in many cases midterms are not comprehensive while the final is, there is nonetheless sever stress placed on the students during midterm season.   To the extent that students skip their other classes while getting ready for a midterm in a particular class, this seems like there is more stress than is good for them.

What can be done to reduce this stress level?  The obvious answer is that students should take fewer courses at any one time.  Here are two different ways that might be achieved.

Way one is to change courses from three credit hours to four, so four courses would be a full load.  The fourth hour could be for small group work and/or office hours held in the actual classroom. Students earlier in the semester have told me that scheduling group work outside of class time is difficult.  This would partially address that issue as well.  I have no idea how how accrediting agencies would react to a suggestion like this, but I've got a vague recollection that when I was an undergraduate at Cornell a four-course load was the standard.  It's the public universities that are chintzy on the credit hours awarded.   Why?

Way two would be to divide the semester either in half or into thirds and have courses run only for those shorter periods - more intense bursts rather than long hauls.   I know that the academic calendar is a kind of sacred cow, but by keeping a sense of the full semester there should be a way to do this that is not otherwise too disruptive.  I do know that now there are some eight week courses, particularly in the second half of the semester, made available in part for students who have dropped a course or two, so they can get closer to carrying a full load.  But it is not a standard practice.  I'm suggesting it might be.

If college is supposed to be preparation for the world of work and one hidden lesson that students learn is to drop some balls so they can keep others in the air, it seems like a bad lesson to deliver.  Better would be to assign them only as many balls that they can keep all of them going at once.   

Monday, November 04, 2013

Encouraging the mind to putter

If Maleska were still alive I might buy the printed version of the New York Times.  When I used to buy the paper version it was my habit to do the crossword puzzle.  There was a certain thrill from working it and a satisfaction from completing it, even if the main reason was to take a break from doing real work.

Having written that first sentence I found myself curious about whether I now have access to the Times crossword online, since I have a paid subscription to the online newspaper.  Checking it out, it appears that there are a couple of Classic Crossword Puzzles that are freely available, but the daily one requires an additional subscription.

My habit in gathering information of this sort is to continue on the sojourn, even if means losing the trend of thought in the writing, until I have reached a kind of conclusion.  So I do one of the classic puzzles and I find that after a fashion I can complete it, though the puzzle was created by Will Shortz, not Maleska.  At the beginning while doing it, I'm negatively disposed to its design.  Too many of the clues seemed to simply require knowledge of trivia.  They don't ask you to be clever.  Then a funny thing started to happen.  There were many clues that I couldn't make heads or tails of.  But after a couple letters of a word got filled in that started to change.  The clue made sense and I could fill in the rest of the letters.  I got the first theme expression that way.  Then much of the rest of the puzzle became an iterative process where for a few clues I'd know the answer right off the bat but for the rest the answer became apparent only as some letters got filled in first.  Then it occurred to me that this was the same sort of feeling I had when doing a Maleska puzzle.  I suppose that is why it's a classic.

I then asked myself whether learning to do the Times crossword produced some larger life lesson, in addition to the obvious entertainment while doing.  I'm not going to answer that question just yet.  But I will observe here that the Times Crossword is a kind of mental puttering.  You get better at doing it with practice.  There may be an addictive aspect that is not altogether healthful.  On the positive side, there is a figuring it out as a you go rather than knowing it all ahead of time.

* * * * *

For the last three years or so as I've done some teaching part time, the big meta question that I have yet to be able to answer is about habits of mind in the students I teach.  My mental habits are reasonably productive.  I produce a fairly large volume of tolerable quality writing, mainly for the hell of it.  Can I get my students to develop similar habits in their own thinking, even if their thinking doesn't manifest in writing?   Much of what I do in the pre-write phase is to putter around with ideas I'm exposed to.  And with technology as it is now, more  pre-writing can happen in the midst of composing a piece at the keyboard.  Can I get my students to likewise engage themselves in thoughtful puttering around?

The jury is still out on this one.  But I want to note first that students tend to procrastinate on assigned course work.  Procrastination and puttering are like oil and water.  My simple model of procrastination is that we all do it, mainly when we have obligations that we don't like to do.  I procrastinate plenty.  But I also putter plenty.  Puttering with ideas is fun for me.

So the real question is: could students find puttering with ideas a pleasurable thing to do, if they gave it half a chance?

Some years ago I wrote a post: How do students play at their schoolwork?  The operative segment in that piece is quoted below.  

To get a better feel why, consider the following problem.

A father and his young son are at a beach that abuts the ocean. They are staring out at the water and see several large vessels, some near to shore, others further out. After a fashion the son asks the dad, “Looking straight out there on the horizon in any direction, how far is it to the point where the ocean touches the sky?” The father responds, “You know, I’m taller than you, just about twice your height. So I see a different point on the horizon than you do where the ocean and sky touch, even if we follow the exact same line. In fact I probably see out twice as far as you.”

Is the father right? And in either case just how far is it to that particular point on the horizon?

I’m not going to answer that one. Instead, let me say there are those type of people (I’m one of them) who find the challenge of this sort of problem fun, as is using the appropriate math to solve the problem. And there are other people who would find spending time on something like this more painful than going to the dentist. Among the engineering students, there are many of the first type of person. Among the business students, there are mostly the second type. The problem itself has absolutely nothing to do with economics, but identifying types this way would go very far in predicting whether the individual valued and felt they learned anything from my intermediate microeconomics course.

My conjecture is that if one sorted types this way then lecture on a “math oriented” course such as intermediate microeconomics would be a fine way to teach, presuming there are only the engineering types in the class. This is pretty much for the reasons Barbara identified. They are self-directed in the learning. They do play with the material and make it for their own in that fashion. And the lecture for them serves as new stimuli, a source of yet other problems that they haven’t yet considered but are eager to solve.

In that piece I referred to the mental activity as play with the material.  Others might call it creativity.  Still others might call it taking an inquiry-based approach.  In this piece I've abandoned the word play in favor of the word putter.  Here's why. 

As part of our common cultural heritage, everybody needs to know the pony joke.  Most of the students I see are pessimists about their own learning.  The don't feel competent to self-direct their learning in areas where they first get exposure from their professors.  They memorize instead.  This puts school outside of what these students consider fun.  School is work, not play.  These students are frightened about the possibility of abandoning their tried and true approach and would not enjoy it if they were forced into doing so.

Puttering is a less threatening concept.  It doesn't have to be fun.  Nor does it have to ultimately be productive.  For the lucky ones who give it a try, it will turn out to be a both.

* * * * *

One reason I have students blog is that it gives them a place where they can putter if they so choose.  Some do.  Others are much more perfunctory in making their posts.  Still others are diligent but very straightforward.  They tend not to try things that are out of the box.

Tomorrow in class we are going to discuss Bolman and Deal Chapter 7 on how to encourage employees to be more productive, taking a human resources perspective, and Chapter 13 on essentially the same question, but from a symbolic perspective where the focus is to elevate the human spirit.  With the latter, the play-work distinction becomes blurred, if it doesn't disappear altogether.

My plan is to get at this indirectly by first asking the students what they enjoy doing outside of class.  (In earlier discussions one student said she enjoyed cooking, another said he enjoyed going to avant-garde movies.  So I will try to extend the list of examples.)  I will then ask them both about whether there is learning by doing in things they enjoy and if those things demand a lot of concentration on their part.   Then I will ask whether school could be designed so that it is enjoyable in this sense.  And I will ask whether that is how school is for them now.  This should get them ready to talk about Bolman and Deal.

* * * * *

Let me return to crossword puzzles, but also consider playing chess and playing bridge.  Then add to that pleasure reading.  These are all activities that can stretch the mind and as such are both work and play, even if at the level I did them it was more play than work. Each teaches the participant to make connections of a sort and to figure out what is going on.  There is something of a mystery.  Solve it!  That becomes the imperative.

I don't know if kids today have other games that perform an equivalent function.  I stopped playing video games so long ago that I can't say whether the current genre does much in this dimension or not.  My sense is that most students are not stimulated today in a similar way as I was when I learned to love Maleska.

Here is one final thought on puttering.  Students are taught that there are right answers to questions.  They might learn, instead, that there are tentative conclusions that can be sharpened by getting a deeper understanding of the issues.  But they can't reach that point unless they putter and thereby discover for themselves that the tentative conclusion is inadequate in some cases. 

In the meantime I suppose I'll continue to putter with my teaching approach and my students will continue to be mildly dismayed that the world of school in which they live and the world in which I'm asking them to enter barely overlap. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Decline of Integrity

Family legend has it that when as an undergraduate my brother was applying for MD-PhD programs he sought to get a letter of recommendation from his Organic Chemistry professor.  My brother had gotten an A+ in the class, so this seemed an obvious step.  Nonetheless, the professor refused him, saying something to the effect - you got the lowest A+ in the class.

The truth behind the story, as I understand it, is that natural science faculty have a negative disposition to writing letters in support of pre-med students.  These faculty would much prefer the students abandon pursuit of the MD entirely and solely pursue the PhD instead.  The former conveys a far too mercenary tendency in the individual, one that might ultimately subvert the science.  The latter is the purer path.

My brother somehow surmounted this particular obstacle.  He got into the program at Yale, got both degrees in the requisite six-year time frame, did his internship, then a stint as an Assistant Professor at Harvard, another stint at Albert Einstein, and he is now at Michigan where he is the Chair of the Endocrinology Department.  As I've written elsewhere, I'm the under achiever in the family.

But this story is not about my brother.  I began with that bit so I could focus on the role of the professor who wouldn't write the letter of recommendation.  In hindsight, it may be that he wasn't such a jerk but rather was simply showing some spine.  I'm now in a similar situation, except that in this case it is a letter for law school, and I agreed to write it.  The student did get an A in my class, but it was borderline.  In the grade inflation world in which I live, the letter grade doesn't convey much information.  For the last day or so I've been procrastinating about writing the letter, wondering how much gloss I should put into it. 

Part of this is that my inner core doesn't know what doing the right thing looks like.  How are such letters read?  Is a certain amount of gloss to be expected, in which case not giving it is disadvantaging the student?  What of my promise to write the letter?   What is the implicit commitment there?  The truth of the matter is that I didn't remember the student well at all. I agreed to write the letter because I always agree to write the letter, though there haven't been too many of these as of late.  I also agreed to meet with her to discuss the application.  Then it came back to me.  She was much more forthcoming in this meeting than she had been in the class last year, where she hardly said a word.  She showed enthusiasm at that one-on-one meeting and she was proud of the blogging she had done in the class.

I looked back at the posts she had written and the comments I gave on them.  I also looked at my grade book from last year.  My practice is to give grades on the posts once at mid semester and then again at the end of the semester.  Along with the grades I provide some comments.  My second half comments on her posts said, in effect, that she pulled her punches.  This is the basis on which to write the letter.  Who is kidding whom?

There should be a Dear Abby like column for professors - to give us some wisdom on how to negotiate such situations, though I probably wouldn't read it if there was.  Perhaps the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed actually has such a column.  I don't know.  See?

If this were the only ethically ambiguous situation I was involved with my teaching I could push through it with little fanfare.  But it seems now that many of my interactions with students have an ethical dimension and mostly none of us is getting over that bar.

I've got a student now who hasn't done any of the blogging, or if she has I haven't seen it. I've emailed her about it - no response.  I posted something about it in the grade book when I posted the first midterm scores.  I just verified that she hasn't been into Moodle in well over a month, so she hasn't seen that message.  Nor has she picked up her exam.  She missed the class session where I returned them.  I knew something was awry much earlier in the semester.  But I didn't initiate contact with her in class at the time.  That was my obligation but I didn't live up to it.  I finally got around to it last Thursday.  She reported problems in setting up the blog.  I told her I'd help her and asked if we could meet after class.  She said she was busy then but she'd contact me with some times when she could make it.  So far, I haven't heard anything.

Here I was very surprised that she hadn't dropped the class earlier and instead sat for the Midterm.  I asked myself: what can explain this behavior?  It seems as likely that this is a deer-in-the-headlights issue as anything else.  I really don't know how to determine that.  It gnaws at me that this is not resolved.  This student added the course at the end of the 10-day period where students can add without the instructor's permission.  She never seemed to get into sync afterward.  The other students who added late do catch up, or least give it a try. 

A different student missed some classes before the midterm, including our review session.  He said he had been sick and asked if we could meed one-on-one to discuss some things he was having trouble understanding.  We ended up meeting at 9:30 on the morning when the exam was given.  (The test started at 11:00 AM.)  We talked for about twenty minutes.  He seemed happy with that conversation.

He has again missed classes this past week.  He emailed me asking for a similar meeting to the last one, so he could get caught up.  He said he was sick again and in bed.  I asked him if he had been to McKinley (the student health center).  He told me that, no, he hadn't.  I suggested he get checked out to ensure what he has isn't contagious.  I didn't get a response to that. If he really was sick again, he's probably got mono, or something like that, in which case I don't want to get near him as I really can't afford to get sick now. If being sick is just an excuse for blowing off class - it is real chutzbah to miss class and then ask for one-on-one tutoring on the side.

In the class we have discussed at length the concept of reciprocation of favors as a way to raise organizational productivity (this is a class on the Economics of Organizations), and I explicitly discussed Akerlof's paper Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange, to get at that idea. We also discuss Coase and transactions costs, and the core issue with transactions costs, opportunism.  The students implicitly know about opportunism.  Many of them don't yet get reciprocation of favors, as it pertains to their own behavior.

In fact, a good number of students don't attend regularly.  Total enrollment is now 23, so this is a little hard to understand as it is an upper level course in the major, presumably the type of course for which students come to college. On the other hand, I may be boring them to tears and I may be assigning them content that is nearly impossible for them to penetrate.  There was a lot of yawning in class on Thursday and even the student who scored highest on the midterm showed he didn't understand what the assignment on bargaining was really about. 

There is something wrong with a teacher who has made a serious study of pedagogy over a number of years and nonetheless insists on covering the content instead of teaching the student, especially when there is ample evidence that the approach is not working well.  The grade inflation masks the failure here.  But that mask only works for outsiders to the class.  The teacher and the students know what is really going on.  It's an apple with a rotten core.

Even with the better students, the ones who come to class for every session and who do all the assignments well ahead of the deadlines, there is something not right.  They feel an obligation to do the assigned work.  They don't necessarily feel an obligation to produce a solid understanding in themselves of the subject matter being studied.  It may be that they don't know the difference.  Or it may be that they don't feel competent to produce such an understanding.  In this I think things are really quite different from when I was an undergraduate.  There was little point to surface learning then and there was no reason to feign a deeper learning.  There was only doing the work till you really understood the subject as best as you could or not doing the work at all if it was something your felt you couldn't penetrate or you didn't care about much.  Keeping up appearances matters more now.

Last year I had the impression that between the first midterm and the second, several of the better students took up the challenge that I implicitly had laid down by giving a tough first exam.  This time around the message I'm getting is different.  The students seem to be demanding that I make the course more intellectually accessible or I will lose them for the rest of the semester.

I may have had an arrow in my quiver last year that I don't have now.  My poor health was evident to the students in an obvious manner.  In spite of that I persevered in teaching the class.  That may have inspired them.  My health is better now.  Yet my ability to motivate the students is worse. 

The paper chase is a game of false idol worship.  I know that, yet I'm inclined to capitulate to it.  What other tact might one pursue?