Saturday, October 31, 2015

Two for the price of one

Eschew Obfuscation

How many of you can make good meaning of the above without looking up either word?  This expression I learned in high school, a mantra of sorts, though I confess I can't remember whether it was in math or English or someplace else.  Perhaps one of my high school friends in Facebook will have better recall than I and let us know on this score.  But maybe they don't even recall the expression and can't make good meaning of it now.  In this case, is it my job as a writer to translate it for them, so they can understand it?  Or should I leave it to them to look it up if they care to do so?

What basis is there for answering those questions?  Over time I've come to learn that the writer needs to have some sense of the audience.  The voice in the writer's head speaks to them.  The writer does want to know whether he is getting through with his message.  So hearing something from a reader whether good, bad, or indifferent is quite a useful thing. And nowadays, via social media, a writer who says something that resonates with a reader might very well find his audience expand for that message.  Does the message also resonate with those secondary readers who learn of the message by referral?  If the reader has to bring something to the party to make it gay and merry, might these secondary readers not share in the fun because they come us moochers without bearing gifts?

Alas, this question doesn't emerge in this otherwise interesting piece from the Atlantic, The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.  The implicit argument offered up there is that if the reader can make good meaning of this article by Victoria Clayton, then the reader should be able to make good meaning of a lot of academic writing as well.  Authors construct unnecessary barriers for such readers because the authors don't have them in mind when writing their articles.  The authors write for the referees and the journal editors only.  Publish or perish does have a rather powerful influence on the preferred audience of an academic author.

So let's take assistant professors out of the equation and focus only on those academics with tenure.  Might they expand their audience by moving to a writing style that features plain English rather than disciplinary specific jargon?  And if they might, whose decision is it to make that they should do this, the authors themselves or somebody like Clayton?  Might it be that different conclusions would be reached on the matter stemming from the perception of whether this potential audience has the appropriate gifts to bring to the party?

I will not try to answer those questions here but instead change gears and look at some life events for me that had a big impact on how I write and who I care to include in my audience.  Getting married mattered.  Until then, I hung around other economists much of the time, though I had some interaction with other academics on campus.  That stemmed from their interest in economics and their need to find an economist who would explain things for them.  Once we were married, I began to have some interactions with people my wife worked with in the Personnel Services Office.

That was a change but still small potato stuff.  The biggie was having kids, sending them to daycare, and then becoming friends with other parents who also sent their kids to daycare.  The experience normalized me a great deal.  (If there were a word "denerdify" it would offer a perfect description.)  The importance of ordinary people elevated in my perception and I wanted to be able to communicate with comfort with such folks.

A further life change happened at work, where I became involved with learning technology and with that having discussions with people around campus about using online technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The skill set for me in those discussions was acquired prior to graduate school, via friendly arguing with my housemates at 509 Wykcoff Road in Ithaca.  None of us were studying the same subjects and some of us were grads while others were undergrads.  These discussions were by amateurs (in the sense of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind) and quite enjoyable for me.  It was they skill I needed as a learning technology administrator and seemed to mirror my needs as a parent with young children.

I stopped writing papers for economic journals around then and what I did write, academic or otherwise, was far more conversation-like in style.  That sort of writing suited my intellectual disposition.

Knowing my own trajectory here, I wonder if it was fairly typical of academics or not.  I can't imagine that Clayton's argument would have much traction if my experience were atypical.  So, assuming I was fairly ordinary in my experience and motivation, the issue to me is whether the academic can live in both worlds at the same time, authoring disciplinary specific pieces and generalist pieces on a steady basis.  If the academic does that, does the criticism about impenetrable discipline specific jargon still carry much weight?  Flipping the question on its head, would academics feel impelled to live in both worlds so as to keep their work from being ignored by only living in the inside world of the discipline?

I don't know.  Even with tenure, those who are playing the game of grant renewal are living in a world quite similar to the one where assistant professors reside.  Competition here is quite ruthless.  So one should be skeptical on that score.  And for the tenured faculty who don't get grants regularly, clearly more so in the humanities and the soft social sciences, they are getting pretty beat up now on other issues - placement of their doctoral students and whether their undergraduates can find gainful employment.  At a minimum, one should ask whether those forces matter in encouraging some degree of generalist writing.  It is the sort of question Clayton might get at in a follow up piece.

* * * * *


This is another word I learned in high school, definitely in a science class but whether in chemistry or physics or perhaps biology, who knows.  I do recall us looking down at a ruler where we were to indicate the position of some marker and then being made to notice that the position we recorded depended on where we were standing when we took the measurement.

In an Op-Ed in today's NY Times, Arthur C. Brooks has a column that is fundamentally about parallax in social science research, that he attributes to that old canard - liberal bias in academia.  Why this piece and why now?  After Gail Collins' take down piece on the recent Republican debate, is Brooks trying to pull a bait and switch?

There is, of course, conservative bias within certain academic units, business schools certainly and certain economics departments come to mind.  Should that be a concern for the rest of us as well?  A far greater concern, it seems to me, is that higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on large gifts from donors and it seems to me naive to assume all such donors give their money freely without any implied agenda attached to the gift.  The Chicago School developed the "Capture Theory" as a conservative critique of regulation, a criticism I respect even though my own orientation is far more liberal.  Might much academic research end up being captured by the donors?

The peer review process isn't perfect.  Papers with erroneous results do get published on occasion, not because of duplicity but rather because arguments seem plausible and reviewers don't do all the verification with the data that would be necessary to show the results aren't correct.  Consider the story of Reinhart and Rogoff's This Time Is Different.  Does Brooks worry about research done by conservative authors also having problems with parallax?  Why is this framed fundamentally as a problem of liberal bias rather than as an issue that any researcher comes at his subject with strong prior beliefs on the matter and those beliefs will influence the outcome of the research?

* * * * *

Perhaps Clayton and Brooks can sit in the same room and unpack each other's essay.  Simplicity in the writing often masks implicit maintained assumptions that go unchallenged.  If those assumptions were all brought out in the open would readers have the patience to slug through the longer piece?  And is the tonic for errors in research to avoid them being committed in the first place, by identifying all issues of parallax stemming from researcher prior bias?  Or is the method where subsequent researchers challenge the conclusions found in prior work the better way of eventually getting at the truth?

Authors do have agendas.  I have mine.  Part of it is to get people who write opinion pieces like these to try to take the other side of their own arguments.  A different reason why people don't read even generalist writing is that they don't like being sold a bill of goods and they can't differentiate sufficiently well propaganda from reasoned argument.  Authors who want a broad audience for their ideas need to recognize the problem and modify their own writing accordingly.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The good examples among college students

Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.
Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) 

Is it them or is it me?  That's the question that vexed me when I got started with learning technology more than 20 years ago.  The question has now returned with a vengeance.   But it is different now.  Then I was teaching intermediate microeconomics, a course that most Business students despised but was required of them.  (The situation was parallel to what happens in organic chemistry, the make it or break it course for pre-med students.)  Now I'm teaching an upper level course in the major, the economics of organizations, and the vast majority of students are in fact econ majors.

But if attendance is any measure of student engagement, then many of the students are not very engaged at all.  In yesterday's class we were at or below 50%.  That's been the norm the last several weeks.  Once in a while a student will alert me ahead of time about having to miss class to deal with an emergency or health problem.  But most who miss do not let me know in advance.  Among the seniors, they may have an interview for a job, which under the circumstances is a legit reason to miss class, even if the university doesn't recognize it as such.  I have no way to tell if that is what's going on.  My ignorant prior is that most of the ones who don't show are blowing it off.

I need to say here that I don't require attendance.  Back in spring 2012, the first time I taught this particular course, I only had 8 students, which was far below the expected enrollment.  So a week or so into the semester I negotiated a deal with the class that we'd run it as a seminar, part of which meant that attendance was required.  The students agreed to this.  But after the first several weeks attendance was abysmal; one student simply stopped coming during the last third of the class.  I vowed to never teach again in the spring.  The senioritis is just too great then.  And though I didn't make the analogous vow regarding taking attendance, doing so when it doesn't happen simply by my eyeballing the class (when there are fewer than 10 students) cuts against the grain of my core beliefs.  These kids are in that gray zone between being a teenager and being an adult.  My belief is that they should be treated as adults and then see if they can respond accordingly.  That is what I try to do. The good examples among the students show some responsibility in this circumstance.

Apart from attendance, the good examples also do the homework in a timely manner, show some diligence in completing that work, and on occasion speak up in class.  (Though, this semester there are not enough of the students responding to the questions I pose.)  Focusing just on such students, I'm mindful of something that Gardner Campbell tweeted yesterday.

In keeping with treating the students as adults, this is an issue that these students should confront themselves.  I will try to initiate that in my next class session and do so along the following lines.  About a month ago there was a piece in Inside Higher Ed called Are They Learning? which discussed an effort by a Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment.  That group produced a set of rubrics which is reproduced here.  (The font is larger so the document is readable.)  I will share those with my class on Monday, encourage them to scan through the document, and then survey them on whether their courses are helping them to develop these skills as well as on whether they themselves perceive the need to do that.

I do not want to anticipate in advance what that survey will show, but I do want to note that in prior inquiries of my class several of the students who are in this "good example" category have indicated dysfunction in the way we go about things on campus.  One example is students writing about group projects in other classes, where they ended up doing the lion's share of the work because other team members shirked.  (This is a very common complaint, one I've heard repeatedly over the years.)

Another example was provided yesterday.  I did a little experiment in class where for 5 minutes near the start of the session I asked the students to put away electronic devices.  Afterward I surveyed them about it.  I got a reasonable number of responses to that survey among those who were present in class.

Several of the good example students (they identified themselves via their aliases) indicated a preference for a policy where no devices in class would be tolerated, though they also indicated that such a policy was now the exception rather than the rule.  I gather that these good example students perceive disengagement among their classmates and they'd rather see their peers more fully engaged.

Engagement would seem to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for students to perform at a high level in accordance with the set of rubrics linked to above.  There is a tension between learning in a deep way (what those rubrics demand), which might take a lot of time and struggle in the process especially if the implied habits in learning are not already ingrained, and getting a high GPA, which the students perceive as necessary to land a good job.

My sense is that most of the good examples are playing a game of paper chase, which in itself may block deeper learning.  They really should confront this issue when they are first year students rather than right before they are to graduate.  If the institution were able to make such first year students aware, could that be done in a way where students rise to the challenge and where the courses they take support them in doing so?  I don't know if that is possible or not.  But it does seem to be something we should be asking.

We should also be asking whether we are short changing the good examples because they are a minority among the overall population of students and our approach to teaching must be for all students, not just the good examples.  I don't know what the answer is on this score, but a way to get at it would be to do a study about attendance in first year and second year courses and relate that to grade performance.  The scuttlebutt I hear is that attendance is down across the board.  We may not want to own up to that, even if we knew it was true.  It is not the type of information you want to publicize when you are seeking additional funds for the institution.

Yet if you want to address these matters that will have to be done openly.  My aim is to be a prod for us in doing so.  I hope I can get at least a few folks to listen. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Which Way Are We Going?

Progress or regress
Can we tell which?
Definitely less stress
Though a rather bad itch.

Then when applying
To all of society
Problems multiplying
And much impropriety

It seems we're now stuck
In a reverse gear
Out of good luck
And an abundance of fear.

Yet then a small act
Which brings about sheer delight
Suggests that in fact
We're on a path that is right.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On The Student Mindset

Hard work or taking it easy
One of the Dwarfs goes by Sneezy.

Can you name the other six
Perhaps via use of mnemonic tricks?

That's what you get when you go to college
The accumulation of way too much useless knowledge.

Friday, October 23, 2015

If my wife and I wanted to move to Canada, would they have us?

This question, meant more tongue in cheek than anything else at this point, was prompted by Paul Krugman's column from this morning, a snip of which is below.

I would like to live in a country that, in these times of economic doldrums, actively practices policy in accord with a Keynesian vision.  For the last several years I've written many posts on what it would take to get that to happen in the U.S.  It seems highly unlikely at this point and will remain impossible as long as Republicans control the House, even if the Democrats take back the Senate.  Impatient on that score, the thought of moving to Canada is a quite tempting alternative.  More on that below.

First though, here is a bit of nostalgia to show the above isn't entirely tongue in cheek.  I took a sabbatical at UBC in Vancouver during the spring and summer of 1989.  It was a glorious time.  I met my wife then.  I was visiting in the Econ department in the Business School and she was an assistant professor in another department that focused on Labor Relations.  She had a walk up apartment on the second floor in Kitsilano, right next to the beach.  Our first date was at a place called Fish on Yew.  On Saturdays we'd go to the open market on Granville Island.  At the time I became very partial toward Granville Island Lager. Vancouver was a wonderful location and we had a very romantic time.

I moved into her apartment on the third night and proposed after two weeks.  So most of the time I was there we knew we were going to get married and had to make some decisions revolving around that.  One biggie was where to live - Vancouver or back in Champaign.  I was ready to move permanently to Vancouver and went as far as having lunch with a bunch of economists at Simon Fraser in their Faculty Club. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten an offer from them had I pursued it.  But Leslie wanted to go back to the U.S. for two different reasons.  The first is that she was from Des Moines and wanted to be closer to her family. The second is that she really didn't like being an assistant professor and wanted to something else more in the real world regarding labor relations.

So in the fall when my sabbatical was over I went back to Champaign and she stayed in Vancouver for that semester.  We did a long distance commute and racked up quite a phone bill.  Then she moved to Champaign.  The wedding itself happened the following June.  Leslie still has a pension from her time as an assistant professor, but otherwise the connection with friends at UBC was severed and until this morning I really hadn't given any thought about returning there or moving elsewhere in Canada.

* * * * *

The argument that the system around Congressional elections is so rigged that the current Republican majority in the House is essentially locked in is well articulated here:

Given this, there is a mounting frustration with the status quo that is clearly showing up in the Presidential races, but will surely persist on both the right and the left as long as a Democrat wins the White House but Republicans maintain control of he House.  If you are an individual voter, one who from past experience outside of the world of politics knows that ongoing frustration is not a healthy state of mind, you start to consider alternatives.

Let me first do so in a fantasy.  Imagine that the Pacific Northwest and New England were realigned to become part of Canada, along with perhaps some or all of the Upper Midwest.  Further imagine that people in other states of the U.S., who are liberal in their politics, are encouraged to migrate to one of these states or to Canada proper, while those who are conservative and currently in residence in those states are encouraged to migrate south.  In other words, given that a house divided cannot stand, let's depart from Lincoln's solution and make two houses, the northern one called Greater Canada, the southern one then called the Remaining United States.  Could this happen?

Now let me consider a much more realistic scenario.  When my wife is ready to retire (probably not for at least a few years yet), we then leave Champaign for some other destination as our permanent residence.  Might the new location be somewhere in Canada?  Does the politics of the place matter a lot in the quality of life determination?  Or can one simply ignore politics if one makes an effort to do so?

There is also an implicit assumption that the new Trudeau government will prevail for a long time to come.  Is that a reasonable assumption to be making?  After the election in the U.S. in 2008, one might have made a similar prediction about an Obama-led Democratic government.  Yet two years later there was the great shellacking and the Democrats became the minority party in the House.  So I may be confounding a moment for a movement.  The Canadians were fed up with Harper in the same way that Americans were fed up with Bush.

I have time to weigh the alternatives.  If Canada seems to fare well relative to the U.S. over the next few years, that will surely matter.  In the meantime, I wonder if my liberal friends in the U.S. are thinking similar thoughts. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Quick survey on math literacy

As a means to promote some discussion on the issue, but not to do any hypothesis testing since while I'd like people to respond those who do so surely wouldn't constitute a random sample, below is a screen shot and link to a very brief survey on people's sense of comfort with algebra and analytic geometry.  If you have a couple of minutes, please give it a try.  I'm really more interested in the comments than the forced response items.  I will publish the results once it seems that the responses have come to a halt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Could the Dems take back the House?

The fascination the nation seems to have with the Presidential election masks other issues that are equally fascinating, maybe even more so. In particular, how much could a new Democratic President accomplish if the Republicans retain control of the House? That such a President can jawbone on what the country needs to do goes without saying. But jawboning is quite different from getting major legislation passed and signed into law. Looking at the recent past, how much of President Obama’s legacy will point to things done in his first two years, when the Democrats were in control of Congress? If divided government largely means gridlock, why do we care about who is President so much? As voters are we content with jawboning on the issues? If we are not and instead want to see fixes to the many and varied problems we now face, shouldn’t we be as concerned with what the next Congress will look like?

The conventional wisdom on the matter seems to be that while the Democrats have an opportunity to take back the Senate, the House will remain in the hands of the Republicans, a consequence of gerrymandering and Citizens United making Republican incumbents especially hard to beat. Further, such a Republican House will simply refuse to negotiate with a Democratic President and Democratic controlled Senate. (Plus, the Filibuster might mute what the Democrats can accomplish in the Senate.) In light of recent events following Speaker Boehner’s surprise announcement that he would be stepping down, the conventional wisdom should be questioned, on whether Republican control of the House remains a near certainty.

There is a different way to question matters as they are currently reported, which relies too much on the polls, in my view. Within the last six months both Gallup and Nielsen have called our house (as indicated by caller ID). I have now gotten into the habit of not picking up unless I know the caller already. The volume of solicitations is simply too great. Following that habit, I didn’t pick up to answer these pollsters. In other areas of polling, such as, I believe the sense is that people with extreme views - for or against - tend to participate. People with more moderate views tend to sit it out. But that is sitting out the polling only. It doesn’t speak to whether the person will sit out or participate in the election. What are the views of likely voters who don’t respond to the such polling? How many such voters are there? Does anyone know the answer to these questions?

Late last year, before any of the Presidential contenders had formally announced, but concerned as I am now with the makeup of Congress and getting sensible legislation passed, I wrote an essay called How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal, which made sense to me at the time because taking back the House seemed like such a long shot. The idea was to develop an economic plan for the country that would be heavily marketed, but in a non traditional way. The effort would involve educating voters as to how to think of the economy and about policy that might improve things. This would take time and much deliberation. As a consequence of that effort, the electorate would embrace the plan. This would then let candidates who might otherwise have little name recognition with voters quickly overcome that problem by endorsing the plan. In effect, voters would be voting for the policy more than for the candidate.

Now, about 10 months later, there is far less time left for such an education effort and since then Republicans seem to have branded themselves as the party of crazy, at both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Conceivably, simply running on “I am not a Republican” might be a winning ticket. In other words, it may be that independent voters instead of splitting their votes go heavily Democratic this time around. But one wonders why such voters wouldn’t simply sit this one out instead. As a voter, I would like to have positive feelings about the candidate I do vote for. I suspect that most voters are similarly situated. What can be done to encourage that?

If it is the Presidential race that motivates the voter to go to the polling place and if those independent voters do embrace the Democratic candidate for President, does it follow that they will also vote Democratic for their House candidate? After the fact we talk about whether the Presidential candidate generated large coattails. Can that be meaningfully orchestrated before the fact?

It seems to me that a comparatively short list of issues claim the lion’s share of attention in the national press (and in our discussions via social media) and other very important issues are ignored. Here I’ll focus on just one, as it is a mirror of of the gridlock at the Federal level that I’ve already mentioned. This is that at the state level most of the governors and state legislatures are now controlled by the Republicans and this is unlikely to change dramatically with the elections in 2016. Can these states then undo to some extent whatever is done at the Federal level? If so, that would likely discourage participation of independents. What might be done at the Federal level so the impact of such state action in minimized?

I believe each of the Democratic Presidential candidates needs to develop an agenda that is explicit enough that the voters can take it as an action plan to follow for the first eighteen months they are in office and so Democratic Congressional candidates can endorse not just the particular Presidential candidate but the candidate’s agenda as well. Preferably, the agenda is produced well in advance of the Democratic Convention and the one proposed by the winning candidate becomes the de facto party plank. The agenda should, of course, have a lot of meat for traditional Democratic voters. But it must also have enough meat for independents in currently Republican controlled Congressional districts to encourage their participation and willingness to vote for their local Democratic candidate for the House.

Let me make one more point and close. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was an extremely arduous and time consuming process. We should expect any meaningful legislation that will come out of the next Congress to be equally arduous and time consuming. But perhaps the making sausage part in producing such legislation can be affected by the agenda that the new President produced while a candidate. This would require some specifics to the agenda items. So the agenda needs to be more than broad brush goals. We are a republic, not a direct democracy. But our campaigning in poetry and governing in prose way of doing things needs to change to make the campaign more real and the governing more idealistic. The writing of the agenda would be a good step in that direction.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Ghost of Joe McCarthy

Pols often cry wolf
As Paul Krugman doth write
A tried and true form of smear
One that gives us fright.

But the real scary part
I hesitate to mention
Is that the true problems of the day
Are getting scant attention.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The incentive effects in exam preparation

I'm giving my first midterm today.  A little indication of how that impacts student behavior can be seen in the screen shot below.  The number in the middle column is the number of hits for that post.  The number in the left column is the number of comments.  The class now has 28 students.

The post with the high numbers is one which linked to last year's midterm and where I responded to student questions on it. In contrast, the other posts indicate little interest.  Further, most of the hits on the post with last year's midterm happened either yesterday or earlier today.  Yesterday morning, that post only had 16 hits.

Some of this behavior we (the University and especially the instructors) induce by having exams in all classes clustered around the same time period.  This is the simple consequence of dividing up the semester into chunks, which you must do if you are giving two midterms and a final.  Viewed this way, it would better for students to take fewer classes at any one time, which would happen under a quarters system or if classes were only for a half-semester.

But I think much of this is because the students don't "turn it on" till near when an exam is approaching.  Until then the vast majority of students are in passive mode.  I do try to counter this by having weekly writing of blog posts and in most weeks other homework in Excel.  I am underwhelmed by the effort I see from the students in doing this work. 

You don't learn nearly as much by occasional bursts of energy followed by longer fallow periods.  You learn a lot with a sustained intensity. The system doesn't seem to encourage that and I believe students are so habituated into their routines that the efforts of an individual instructor to counter this behavior will produce modest results, at best.

There is a by now an old argument on extrinsic reward versus intrinsic motivation in work and in learning.  In that argument, intrinsic motivation wins, but only when it is likely to be present.  The little evidence that I'm presenting here suggests that extrinsic reward is winning, in practice, and intrinsic motivation for students is rare.  I don't know how we'd measure that more broadly, but if we did try to do this and if the conclusions from such looking more or less concurred with what I am saying here, then at least we'd have a problem statement.

We need that.  Everything is not hunky-dory. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

We Or Me?

I've been stewing on this post for a while, perhaps a week, maybe longer.  In the class I teach we were doing a bit on what makes for effective teams (Bolman and Deal Chapter 5).  But in the blog posts the students wrote on the matter, I didn't think they were getting at the core issue.  The puzzle, it seems to me, is to explain selfless acts that cause the team to perform better yet which generate no personal recognition for the actor.  None of what the students wrote came remotely close to addressing this issue.

The seniors in the class are on the job market now.  It is natural in that setting for them to focus on themselves.  And as college increasingly comes to be seen as preparation for the world of work it encourages focus on oneself throughout the time spent as a student.  Do selfless acts fit at all into that mindset?  What I'm thinking about here is having a sense of responsibility in the community or the workplace.  How does that sense of responsibility develop?  Indeed, does it develop at all?

In class about 1/3 of the students don't show up.  It's not always the same ones who miss but there are a handful of students whose attendance has been very spotty.  Among those is one student who wanted a face-to-face meeting with me early in the semester, which he subsequently blew off.  Then he had a variety of excuses for why his course work would be turned in late.  He is not alone among his classmates on being late in completing the homework and some other students have missed submitting work entirely.

Even among those who attend regularly most will not raise their hands.  And for those who were there from day one this poses a different problem.  As our class is on the economics of organizations I treated the first class session as an extended example using the class itself as an organization.  One key economics issue is whether the organization itself acts in an economically efficient manner.  I then explained that questions students pose in class are public goods - the other students benefit from those questions being asked.  With public goods there is a reason to expect inefficiency - the free rider problem.  In the class setting, the student posing the question might be embarrassed for asking a stupid question.  Being responsible in this context means overcoming that personal discomfort for the benefit of all.  On the first day I thought that message was well understood by the class and we actually achieved a fair amount of class participation by the end of the session.  Unfortunately, it didn't carry over to subsequent sessions.

I am quite prepared to believe that I'm making things seem more grim than they really are.  One thought is that responsibility correlates highly with maturity and these 20-something students are for the most part still quite immature.  They'll get there; it will just take a while.  Another thought is that people act responsibly in those domains where they care deeply but less so elsewhere.  By the time students become seniors the classroom may be one of those domains that students don't care about so much.  Then it is also possible that some of this is peculiar to Econ majors, who are known to be more selfish than the rest of the student population.

Yet I'm wondering whether: (a) we should overtly be teaching responsibility and (b) we are implicitly teaching irresponsibility, the consequence of being at a large public university where individual students can readily vanish into the crowd.  To a certain extent the various University 101 courses that are offered in each college address (a).  I think we've been doing those for about ten years now.  To my knowledge there has been no formal assessment done, though my sense is that these courses are not sufficiently intensive and/or there are other factors that tend to counter the lessons from University 101.  Those other factors are what I meant by (b).

In the rest of this post I'm going to muse about what responsibility means and where it seems to have emerged in others and in me. 

* * * * *

A few days ago the Ayn Rand phrase, The Virtue of Selfishness, manifest in my head.  So I Googled it and then, finding the book in pdf form, I started to read it. Almost immediately, I became challenged by what she says, which seems like a bunch of half truths or out and out distortions to me.

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil.

I read this sentence several times.  My first thought was to ask, what do I believe on these matters?  In my worldview, actions that benefit oneself might be quite okay, even to someone who considers himself an altruist.  One doesn't have to be Mother Theresa to be a good person.  Then I read a little further and again returned to this sentence.  It is artfully constructed, written from the perspective of the person taking the action.  Does this person have good reason to believe that the action so taken will achieve its intended purpose?  Might the person aver a benefit to others while really only intending a benefit to himself?  If a person has a mistaken belief that the action will benefit others or if the person is being duplicitous when taking the action, is taking that action properly called altruism?

There is, of course, more to it than that.  Who the others are matters.  Use of the word altruism brings to mind the words from the Emma Lazarus poem - your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...  Altruism in this sense means giving to people who can't fend for themselves.  Certainly other sorts of giving is possible and indeed happens frequently.  In the class I teach I discuss Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.   In plain English you would call this either collegiality or good citizenship.  Both of those have elements of giving as part of the notion, but don't require the recipients to be needy, just appreciative. There is also the type of giving with a quid pro quo, an indirect way to scratch one's own back in a place that is hard to reach by oneself. Surely that is not altruism, yet use of the phrase any action connotes others independent of their standing. 

A couple of paragraphs later, it says:

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.

I found the first two of these binary juxtapositions offensive, even while knowing ahead of time that Ayn Rand championed the entrepreneur who follows his own inclinations as the path to produce success.  (I never read Atlas Shrugged and never will. I did see the movie starring Gary Cooper.  I liked it as a story, which I could watch without getting into the morality play that Rand intends for the audience.)

Doesn't it matter how the industrialist made his fortune?  I wonder what Rand would think of the recent Volkswagen debacle, or of the practice of buying out a pharmaceutical company for the purpose of jacking up prescription drug prices, or of the Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street.  Rand seems inclined to focus on the Steve Jobs type, the creative inventor, and then to ignore any unsavory business practices that might be part and parcel of the wealth accumulation strategy, for example Apple's well known approach to tax avoidance.  Or to take another such hero, Bill Gates, consider how Microsoft competed against Netscape.

Then there is the matter of the rags to riches story in the second example.  Rand seems not to care about distinguishing between the first phase where the transition has occurred, which most people would find admirable as long as that didn't happen in an unsavory manner, from the second phase where great additional wealth is accumulated after substantial wealth has already been acquired, which might seem quite offensive especially if some of that wealth was generated as a taking from others who can ill afford to part with it.

I confess to not fully understand the context within which the sentence about the dictator is intended.  Were there some Liberal sympathizers of Castro who were vocal about this at the time Rand wrote The Virtue of Selfishness?  I only did a quick search on the question as it is far afield from what I want to write about here.  I found nothing from the 1960s but did find a piece from this May that makes the argument.  Perhaps Rand meant the sentence as a veiled form of McCarthyism.  Certainly her rejection of altruism seems to be coincident with a fervent anti-communism, so what she may be really rejecting is the State as an instrument of altruism and not so much individual acts of charity, which is what I take to be the position of many Republicans today.  Even in this, however, the choice is not one or the other.  Rather it is the degree of acceptable subsidy/transfer as well as the acceptable set of recipients.  You don't hear too many Republicans decrying tax advantages for big business that amount to welfare for the rich.  So it would seem they really aren't against using the State as an instrument of giving.  What they are against is using the State for giving to poor people.

Let me turn to my own views of when selfishness is appropriate and defensible from a moral perspective. Many years ago I attended a retreat meant for new administrators on campus.  (I had been an administrator for a while, but had gotten a promotion.)  One session was led by a department head who told the rest of us in no uncertain terms - take care of yourself.  He said he had put on about 50 pounds while being department head.  This is not just a matter of administrative work being too sedentary.  It is mainly about work stress coming from overwork and that people on campus can be very pushy.  The stress never relents and in the search for a palliative a vicious cycle can develop.  The person doesn't sleep well, thinks about work and nothing else, gets insufficient exercise, and then is prone to over eat possibly to drink too much and take other stimulants in excess.  One needs to be selfish enough to avoid this sort of vicious cycle.  It is very hard to do and I'm not saying I mastered it.  I definitely did not.  But the principle, take care of yourself, is one that makes sense to me.

Here is a different sort of example.  I tell my students in their blogging to please themselves.  This is a strange piece of advice for them to hear as I'm the one reading their posts and for years and years they've been indoctrinated to act in a way that pleases the teacher.  But the reality is they haven't written much up to till this point and so they can't possibly know what will please me as a reader.  They have a much better chance of learning what will please themselves.  As they do this, they will end up writing better.

In both of these there is a dialectic at root between the me and the we.  (See definition 9.)   With the blogging, over time they need to develop a sense of taste as to what is pleasing.  If that sense of taste is formed from they're reading the writing of others, a social act, then they should find that when they do please themselves with their writing others will like the writing too.  Likewise when the administrator takes care of himself he is in a much better position to the address the needs of others in his charge.

This sense of dialectic is elemental in my view of things, where it seems to be absent entirely in how Rand presents the issues.  The issue as I see it is to find a reasonable balance between we and me, which in turn might depend on circumstance, social norms, and perhaps personal preference as well.

When I was an undergrad at  Cornell students dressed down, even the rich ones.  When I was a grad student at Northwestern, quite a few of the undergrads I taught dressed up.  That didn't feel right to me then.  To this day I disdain Veblenesque displays of conspicuous consumption, for example seeing BMWs in the parking lot on campus.  On the other hand, one of my direct reports when I had the campus job used to make fun of me for drinking "foo foo coffee." That way I'm spoiled, no doubt, especially if comparing myself to my parents but not if comparing myself to those who buy more exotic coffee drinks.  My point here is that my views don't specify where the line should be drawn but only that some balance is the goal and quite unfortunately there are some obvious situations today, for example in our Presidential politics, where such balance is not present.

* * * * *

Our formative development on where responsibility comes from (or not) is a matter that should fascinate all of us.  After reading those student blog posts I made a post for the class on the matter.  Let me highlight two of the references linked there (and with brief annotations provided).  One is Hanna Rosin's piece The Overprotected Kid.   The veiled hypothesis in that piece is that kids benefit enormously from play at sport or other group activities requiring skill, where they are heterogeneous in age and proficiency.  Getting such situations to be fun for everyone is a challenge.  The challenge can be met by the older and more proficient kids taking care of the younger and less proficient among them.  This is the social context in which a sense of responsibility is born.  In contrast, organized sports teams, little league for example, tend to cluster kids by their proficiency and have adult supervision.  It's the parents who then end up managing the disputes, not the kids themselves.

The other is Sherry Turkle's piece Stop Googling.  Let's talk.  Here the argument is that kids become more impatient by having their heads always looking at their devices.  If they are bored with something they simply click over to something else.  Multiprocessing is the path to narcissism.  All of us are getting to be more about me and less about we this way.  It seems to me that the polarization of our politics is tied to this.  Nuanced argument with some depth is too boring.  Sound bites win the day instead.  As a society, putting away our devices is the way to take care of ourselves.

Let me give one more example and then close.  This one is far less clear as to what is actually going on.  It might be an example that we is becoming more important in our social existence.  Alternatively, it might be that we is being appropriated for private gain and is there purely for marketing purposes.  On this one I'm not sure, but I think it bears paying some attention.

The example is provided by the latest professional golf phenom Jordan Spieth.  His play has been outstanding.  But it is his demeanor that I want to comment on.  He has shown an effervescent sportsmanship that you don't see in the other players.  When he has done interviews after winning a tournament he repeatedly makes reference to we and never once refers only to himself.  In this case we means his caddie, his coach, his personal trainer, his business manager and his family and friends who travel to the tournaments and are there to give him a hug at the end.  If it is all genuine, it seems to show a deep appreciation of the teamwork that was necessary for his golf success.

Alas, it may all be marketing.  As a fan it is too hard to tell.  We don't know enough, but take a look at this site, where the company Under Armour markets Jordan Spieth apparel.  If you look at the incomes of true superstars in sports, Michael Jordan providing the quintessential example, much more of it comes from endorsements than directly from the athletic competitions.  In other words, Jordan made a lot more from Nike than he did from the Chicago Bulls.  Spieth must be well aware of this.  While high skill of the athlete is no doubt necessary to get such an endorsement contract, image matters for the price tag on that contract.  The companies want to market a wholesome image.  Being for we may be part of that.

From this marketing point of view Tiger Woods became Michael Jordan's successor and remained that till he had his fall from grace.  Speith is the heir apparent.  Jordan let his NBA Championships (as distinct from his leading the league in scoring) speak to his being a team player.   Woods, playing a game that few would call a team sport, may have made reference to his caddy or his swing coach from time to time and when he first won the Masters he made quite an emotional speech about the Black pro golfers who preceded him and who made it possible for him to succeed.  Yet he didn't go overboard about the contribution of others to his own performance the way Spieth seems to be doing now.

If Spieth is genuine in his descriptions this would be a welcome development that I expect other players will emulate.  But if it is all marketing, nothing more, it is a shame.  We really need to be tilting the balance more toward the we end of the spectrum.  There are too many other things at work pushing it the other way.