Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Putting My Brain In Mothballs

Friday December 16, more than a week ago now and then only after entering my final course grades into the student information system that morning, I began a program of R&R to try to restore my sense of humor and mild impishness.  For the previous month or two everything seemed so heavy and distressing.  I resolved that if the world wouldn't offer up opportunities for the common amusement, which it didn't seem to be doing, then I'd opt for seclusion and my own chosen forms of entertainment.  Knowing I would do this, a few days earlier I almost wrote a post called - I miss Hannibal Lecter.  He was the perfect fictitious monster, terrifying but totally unreal, a delightful form of pure escapism as a way to recharge one's own batteries.  It was just this type of page turner fiction that I needed.

As my chosen alternative I selected things le CarrĂ©, one or two steps up on the requirements the writer imposes on the reader and perhaps also a bit more of a male province in the way the story is told.  Both of those suit me now.  On my Kindle Fire I had the book The Night Manager.  Earlier in the fall I had seen the TV miniseries on Amazon Prime.  In recent years, I've found the movie/TV show sometimes for me serves as the gateway into the book.   The latter is usually much richer, with a substantial part of the story dropped in the video version to accommodate the shorter time in the telling.  (In this case, the story was also altered quite a bit.)  With le CarrĂ© in particular, there is also the joy from reading his prose - how he constructs sentences and paragraphs, and my increased appreciation of craft in the writing as its own object of attraction.  Nevertheless, I'm a lazy bum at heart so I often don't go for the book straight away.  This makes some sense during the fall when I'm teaching, as I'm kind of an all or nothing guy.  Reading a novel when there are other obligations that must be addressed in the present tense doesn't work well for me.  I need to have free time on my hands for that.

In addition, I found the original BBC miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guiness playing George Smiley freely available on YouTube.  And though it originally aired in 1979 (the review here is a very good read), it is quite viewable now in the sense that the image quality is sufficient to not distract from the story.  I aimed to get into a routine where I do my reading in the daytime and after happy hour would switch to video viewing. As I soon discovered, I don't retain much after happy hour so I had to diverge from that pattern.

The reclamation project has been a partial success.  Perhaps anything would be with not having to prepare classes or write exams or the like.  Here I don't want to argue for this particular program of personal restoration, quite the contrary.  I want to describe the various impediments that made it difficult for the program to succeed.  Perhaps this will be useful to others, who may be experiencing similar impediments.  Before you can find the cure,you need to know what ails you.

* * * * *

I enjoy much of the time by myself, a sure sign of an introvert.  During those occasions I act most in accord with my own nature when I get totally lost in something, whatever that activity happens to be.  I used to be able to do that quite readily.  Writing, in particular, was a very good source of absorption for me and one real reason why I've stuck with the blogging for so long.  But it has been getting harder to achieve and indeed getting lost in thought more generally has gotten harder.   Here are some reasons why.

The nature of the work stress is different for me this time.

As long as the job itself makes sense, whether that is actually true or you merely accept that it is true because you don't know otherwise, then the stress at work come from the process of doing it, with the demand of the job sometimes beyond your individual grasp.  Once the job itself stops making sense, or you begin to express doubts about that, then a different question emerges - why exert substantial effort in something that doesn't make sense?  For me, making sense means that you can see the consequence of your efforts and that matters in some way. I will try to take that rather abstract notion and make it more concrete here.

I link my stress to three things in my teaching.  The first is poor attendance, which I've experienced this year and last, but which was not evident before that.  Another is poor class participation of those in attendance.  This too has been an issue the past two years where before that the class had a level of energy that was noticeable to both the students and me - there was a lot of back and forth between me and the students.    This time around there was a lot of me posing questions and then silence.  Once in a while awkward silence is a good thing, serving as a spur to students to get them to chime in.  On a recurring basis, however, it is very demoralizing for me and them.  The last thing is about student prior preparation, more what they should have learned in high school and from their gen ed courses than from earlier econ classes (in the major).  I can remedy the econ deficiencies to some extent.  I can't make up for the limited broader background.  In written expression, reasoning skills, and in the willingness to amplify their own understanding  (looking up the concept in Google, for example, instead of assuming it was well understood already) many students came up short.  Some also seemed to have a fixed prior mindset about course concepts and were unable or unwilling to challenge their own prior held views, even as I presented alternatives.

I had resolved last year to give it another try.  Maybe it was simply an aberration and things would return to how they had been previously.  I've done that repetition now and it forces a decision on me.  Either I need to give up teaching altogether, and I've been carrying that thought through much of the semester, or I need to redesign the class in a way that both addresses what I've been observing and also is consistent with what I've been trying to achieve with the teaching - opening the students eyes some to possibilities and coming to a different sense of things both about the economics and about their own learning.  The first admits defeat.   I do feel defeated here.  The second appears much more than I can muster and might very well be infeasible even if my energy level was boundless, which at present it is isn't.

So this sort of stress is different.  It is hard to let go of it, though it is necessary for me to do that for a while.  Take a month or two off from thinking about it entirely and then come at it anew.   I know that is the right thing to do.  Knowing that and executing the plan are two different things.   I have a long history of second guessing myself, a form of self-indulgence as punishment.  It's hard to abandon that habit.

The work stress seems tied to the stress about our national politics.

I am not going to write directly about the stress our national politics is causing people as there has been much written about it already.  This piece from the LA Times does a reasonably good job of describing it, in my opinion.  Undoubtedly it is an important factor to consider in its own right.

However, what seems missing in it is any sense that we have ourselves to blame.  If, instead, one views the election as a consequence of trends that could be reasonably well understood for some time, then our own culpability becomes more readily apparent.   These trends include rising income inequality (and wealth inequality too), an elite that seems entirely self-possessed and devoid of concern for those who are far less well off, and predatory financial practices, particularly with regard to housing but elsewhere in the economy as well, that have shifted resources to those working in the financial sector and have left poor and working class people much worse off.  Taken together these factors have lead to our own ruin while preventing sensible counter measures that might have been put in place but weren't.

I have been writing for some time about the decline on institutions and the failure of individuals to take responsibility, some of it in general, but much of it specifically about higher education.  I certainly haven't been alone doing this.  (For example consider the books Declining by Degrees, Academically Adrift, and Excellent Sheep.)    I have viewed my teaching since retirement as one person's attempt to combat these tendencies and to get the students I teach to be aware of the issues and to get them to understand work and life choices through other than an I'll-get-mine vantage.  At a large public institution like Illinois, it is quite easy for students to come to the conclusion that nobody in authority cares about them so, in return, they are free to game the system rather than to honor the trust.  I wanted my teaching as a countering force.

Structurally, I understand this decline better within higher education specifically than I do for society at large.  At a public university like Illinois, the elite are the tenured and tenure track faculty.  Perhaps in some departments this is not the case, but in economics and many other departments these faculty are largely divorced from undergraduate education.  Instructors and clinical faculty (neither of whom are on the tenure track) do much of the undergraduate teaching.  Further, large lecture classes are the norm, given the high number of majors.  So there is a tendency in such classes to rely heavily on the textbook, take a teach to the test approach, and for the students to respond by taking a rote learning approach to course content.  I wrote a piece some years ago, before my recent experience with teaching and right around when I retired, called Excise The Textbook.  It is but one example that the trends were readily apparent then and that something sensible to reverse them was equally apparent.  Of course, the alternative didn't happen. At least, it hasn't happened yet.

The system suffers from hysteresis in that the research faculty not caring about undergraduate education was the norm when I started back in 1980, at which time it was part of a system that, in spite of this deficiency, did make sense then.  While that faculty attitude remains, the revenue sources are entirely different now.  Tuition wasn't a big deal back in 1980.  It is a big deal now.    If you look at the data, and although overall numbers of students enrolled in undergraduate degree programs for the entire nation has been drifting down the last few years, numbers at the U of I have gone up (mainly because of an increased number of transfer students).  The two big questions here are (1) is that sustainable overall if the students aren't in fact learning very much and (2) might specific majors witness decline in enrollments for these same reasons?  As I've said, these questions emerge out of issues that are evident.  Ignoring the problem till it is too late to do anything about it seems likely.  That is very disconcerting to me. 

Beginning the day by reading the news starts each day off with negativity.

I can't remember whether I read the newspaper regularly in high school, but I'm quite sure that by graduate school my routine was to buy the NY Times at Norris Center (the student union at Northwestern) and then go have breakfast, reading the front page stories, the op-ed, and the sports section before starting the school day.  I had the habit pretty much the same since, though in recent years I've subscribed to the Times online.

It's always been - no news is good news, hence all news is bad news.  Yet it is somewhat different now.  I want to describe some of that difference before getting to the Trump phenomenon.

First, nowadays the sources of information are quite varied and many bits I gather from Facebook friends posting something with a link and possibly their own annotation before I see it in the Times.  So there is a fair amount of repetition and I have the the sense quite frequently that when reading I'm not learning anything that I didn't already know.

Second, in the James Reston, Tom Wicker, Abe Rosenthal, Anthony Lewis days there was a sense that these people were adults and I was still only aspiring to be one.  So I could respect their opinions and not concern myself about whether their arguments were weak.  Nowadays, I feel that many of the columnists I read could make a better argument than they are making and not infrequently are actually spewing pablum.  There is also the tone in which they make it, which sometimes gets very preachy.  Gail Collins is a counter example - she has wit.  But even she seems to have succumbed to the tenor of the times.  Thomas Edsall produces a better column much of the time, but he too seems to have been beaten down by current circumstances.

Third, and this I've written about recently in a post called Invasive Species and Tabloidism, the economics of journalism is undermining the integrity of journalism.  What is newsworthy is not the same as what will attract eyeballs.  Note that if eyeballs aren't finding the news the newspaper dies.

The upshot of this is that a politician being totally outrageous (The Trump effect) actually becomes a winning strategy, while being prim and proper behavior loses because it doesn't generate the eyeballs.  This is a kind of Gresham's Law at work.

I have guilt feelings from breaking my old habit of starting the day by reading the news.  So I read a piece or two and then get bent out of shape from it.  This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, for my own well being. Rationally, I know this to be true.  But I have yet to put into place an alternative that works for me.

I have become a hopeless multiprocessor, against my own better judgment.

There are a few different things going on here for me that may not be the same as with others, and then I'm quite sure there are other things that are exactly the same.  Thirty years ago when I would be doing economics research and "living in my model," which required a rather intense form of concentration, I learned the benefit of having fallow periods, either after a project was completed or when I was in the middle of something but temporarily stuck.  At the end of a project, this was to recharge my batteries before starting on something new, so when taking on that new thing I would be fresh and I could bring a lot of energy to it.  When I was stuck this was to let the subconscious have a crack at it and see whether the mountain was then turned into a molehill.  With some frequency, that seemed to work. That pattern of allowing for a fallow period has been with me for a long time.

With blogging I first became aware of a narcissism entailed with online writing that I never had with the economics research.  This was fueled by comments I'd get on blog posts, but even more so by tracking hits on the blog as a whole and on particular posts as well.  Those things can be potentially useful from a writing point of view to help understand the audience.  But the narcissism I'm talking about here goes well beyond understanding the audience.  Facebook, which is in the business of presenting eyeballs to advertisers, knows this fully.  The red Notifications icon alerting you to some activity on one of your posts, feeds the narcissism.

Then there is the issue of speed-up-of-cycles.  In the 1980s when I'd send in an economics paper for review, it would take several months before I'd get a referee's report.  Lags are much shorter now with pieces distributed online and with the shorter lags a sense of impatience is fueled.  That sense of impatience is at work not just when I post something, but when I'm reading something as well.  If I'm at all challenged by what I read, or a little bored with it, or it simply doesn't seem to be my cup of tea, I can move to a different tab in the browser and resume my game of Sudoku.  When the game itself gets challenging I can go to still a different tab or return to where I was.  Tabbed browsing, which really was a brilliant innovation when it first appeared, now appears to be a way toward instant gratification all the time.

I have found a partial cure for this, which is to get away from the computer and read on my Kindle Fire instead.  Further, mainly I read in the Kindle application itself rather than in the browser (so books rather than magazines). This is cure in the sense that if you can't resist ice cream when it is in the house, then don't have it in the house.  Sitting away from the computer and reading on a different device (one that is technologically inferior to my iMac) makes little sense if my behavior were rational rather than addictive. (If I were on the road, this would be a different story, but I'm at home in either case.) Whether I can ultimately cure the addiction itself, I don't know, probably not.  But if I can, staying away from Facebook and not monitoring email all the time would be a good way to start.

I can't fully do this because there are work things that come up, even after I got grades in I did interact with some students.  And I do some volunteer work that relies on Facebook and email as a communication tool.  So complete cold turkey is probably not in the cards.   But restricting access to certain times of the day rather than take an always on approach probably makes sense for me.  I wonder if I can follow my own good advice in this regard.

Procrastination now seems my norm rather than an aberration.

When I first started to blog, back in 2005, I had so many ideas in my head that needed expression in some form or other that writing a post was like opening a vein and letting it flow.  I could generate 1500 words of tolerable prose in somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes.  I would do that first thing in the morning before going to work, when I was quite fresh and up to the task.  It was a good way to start the day for me, as it gave a sense of accomplishment.  And at least when I was the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I could make some claim that the blogging was related to the work at the office, so I had some sense that I was making a contribution there.  Indeed, not infrequently Mike, who had the office next to mine, would want to discuss one of my recent posts.  Even my boss would do that now and then.

It is harder now to come up with a topic where I satisfy my own standards - not a complete rehash of something I've already said, articulating a well formed argument that I've worked through entirely, having a sense that it advances what other people have said elsewhere on the same issue.  This is not just with the blogging.  It is with the teaching too and with some other online interactions as well.  There is a kind of performance anxiety at root here.  I am not quite sure whether I can get over the bar I have set for myself.

I am aware that everybody procrastinates to some degree.  (If you haven't read this piece by James Surowiecki called Later, you definitely should.)  If I could keep procrastination to those tasks I've never taken a shining to, for example, cleaning up my office, I'd be quite okay with that.  I've always been kind of a sloppy guy with my physical environs.  That is not about to change.   However, when procrastination impinges on activities that used to bring me much joy, something else is going on.

For example, writing this post has taken nearly a week in its composition.  I've set it aside at least a few times, unsure what to say and unsure about whether I wanted to struggle through that or not.   Ultimately, I decided to do get it out, because I thought what I'm feeling might be like what many others are feeling as well.

Wrap Up

In case this isn't obvious from reading the above,  what I am describing is the onset of depression.  I've been through depression before.  The first time was in 10th grade.  I experienced it again in my second year of college at MIT before I transferred to Cornell.  The earlier experience was an aid to me in navigating the terrain the next time around.  After Robin Williams committed suicide, I wrote a post called Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves that gave some insights I had gleaned from my past, that I thought my help other comes to grips with the situation.

Here I want to point out the basic elements.  First, there are external causes that makes the environment unwelcoming, if not totally hostile.  Second, there is a lack of a sense of agency in addressing these external issues squarely.  Other people might say they are fighting it rather than say they are addressing it.  My dad, who was a brittle diabetic, would say "I'm fighting it" once in a while during an insulin reaction, a feeble response doomed for failure.   I mention that because I am not much of a fighter.  Never have been.  I will try to work through an argument to find a sensible solution if I can find one.  My lacking agency reflects uncertainty about whether such a sensible solution exists.   My struggle has always been internal with myself, not against some adversary.  Can I find the appropriate line of thought or not?

Those are the primary causes.  But then there are a bunch of secondary causes as well.  The multiprocessing and the procrastination are, on the one hand, consequences of the primary causes.  But, on the other hand, they serve to abet the primary causes by weakening my resolve and doubting my capacity to overcome them.   In other words, depression is not a linear path.  Rather, it is a vicious cycle.  If you can break some of the self-enforcing aspects of the cycle, you may be able to snap out of it.   People with a lot of self-confidence are not depressed.  Those with self-confidence some of the time will lose that well before depression fully sets in.  My own self-confidence is on the downs.

I am able to intellectualize that much because I've been here before.  Yet I am not a mental health professional and don't want to claim to be one.  For the reader, I don't know what's right for you, even if you are struggling in a similar way.   If this posts resonates with you, maybe it is an indicator that you should talk with a professional.

For me, I know I need more down time.   Reading fiction is therapy.  I need to do more of that.  Writing the nonsense rhymes I compose many mornings is also therapy.  Now is time to take care of myself.

"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around."
Neil Young

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Artifical Mindlessness

I maintain multiple online identities.  I'm sure that is a fairly common practice.  Several of these are quite public - the content produced is available on the public Internet without any login required.  Further, I don't try to conceal who I am via an alias.  Each of these identities shares my last name.  Two of them also use my first name.  The other uses professor or prof in lieu of a first name.

Google, which in other ways seems to be diabolically clever, has not put two and two together.  If you search on my name in Google you won't find my professor identity at all, ironic given that it is in a Google account.  You also won't find my stuff in Twitter.  If you search on my name and Twitter then you'll find that as the first hit, so Google definitely has the information, but without the Twitter keyword in the search Google doesn't deem the content important enough to appear in the search.

This morning I received one in an endless stream of solicitations to complete a survey - only 5 or 10 minutes max they claim - in exchange for a chance to win an Amazon gift card.  This one is about how I am using learning technologies.  My class Website for this past fall is out in the open for anyone to peruse.  Given that actions speak louder than words, what is communicated by such a survey request when the information wanted is already publicly available?

I have also written on the topic, quite a lot if you count stuff on my blog.  Those writings could be perused.  If a robot knew of my multiple online identities could it visit my various public writings in an attempt to answer the sort of questions that the survey wants to get at?  If that is possible, why isn't it happening?  Why do the gift card as possible prize approach, which is cheesy and really doesn't compensate for the time to complete the survey?

Then there are things that I've written about before.  First, there are political solicitations done by email, looking for a cash contribution, sent in the name of some famous politician with whom I'm apparently on a first name basis even though I've never actually met the person.  The inherent insincerity of the approach should defeat it.  Yet the stream of messages doesn't stop, even with the election now in the rear-view mirror.

And there is the rather absurd way that Facebook becomes aware of my Web searches at Amazon.com and then repeats them as ads in the sidebar.  Since I didn't buy the item the first time around, it must be that something else distracted me from that task, so I need a reminder to make the purchase.  What other logic is there to explain this ridiculous practice?

As people contemplate self-driving automobiles they should also consider all the ill informed ways that technology is now used to make our lives feel more cluttered and burdened.   Much of that consequence is unintended.  Yet it abounds. Will we ever get past this phase of technology use?  Or are we doomed to drown in it, with the only way out to get off the computer or portable device? 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Looking at Undergraduate Education through the Wrong End of the Binoculars

This piece considers several process reforms that make sense (at least to me) when looking at all of undergraduate education, which I try to do from time to time, though invariably from the perspective I've had from teaching my one class on the economics of organizations.  I have been doing that now for 5+ years.  While the total number of students isn't that large, well under 200, the patterns I've seen seem fairly well established.   That's what provides the motivations for these proposals.  Each of the suggestions are meant as an improvement on the status quo as I perceive it.

What follows are the suggestions, coupled with some rationale for each of them. 

1)  Move to a tripartite grading scheme to replace the single letter grade that is now awarded.

Discussion:  Education is antiquated in sticking with a single indicator of performance.  Going for a health checkup, the first thing they do is to take the vitals - blood pressure, temperature, oxygen in the blood.  Reporting the weather there similarly are multiple indicators given: temperature, humidity, wind speed.  It is true that aggregate indices are created so people can look at a single number (wind-chill factor, temperature-humidity index) but it is not so hard to look at the components without aggregation and for different people to make different judgements about how the components should be aggregated.

One component of the tripartite grading should be subject matter expertise, what the letter grade currently is supposed to report now.    The two other components would be first, something about the demonstrated ability for critical thinking/creativity/learning-to-learn and second something about the demonstrated ability to communicate well.

Students are more grade conscious than they've ever been.  Ask them about that.  They'll readily admit to the high importance of their grades.  The instructor trying to appeal to their intrinsic motivation for the subject matter is, frankly, getting clobbered by students being instrumental about their GPA.   Even if we don't like the behavior that produces, and as much as the let's-get-rid-of-grades-altogether mantra appeals to many instructors, getting rid of grades is not in the cards.  So we need some alternative that is more realistic.  The proposal here is to give other dimensions for students to game, dimensions we'd like them to improve in.  The hope is that in the process of trying to figure out how to perform well in these other dimensions, the bulk of the students actually learn something substantial.

The other aspects of this set of suggestions is meant to deliver on this in a way that is feasible and not overly burdensome to the instructor, though it might be possible to implement just this single suggestion without implementing the others.

2)  Move to shorter terms where students take fewer courses at any one time. 

Discussion:  Students are not very good at time management, no matter how well they are coached on this, but further, courses tend to have their high stakes obligations at around the same time.  So students cut class in one course because they have an exam in another.  Some of this may be that students don't allocate sufficient time to all their courses overall (we were the #1 party school in Princeton Review last year and partying takes a lot of time both in the doing and in the recovering from that).  A potential response to student partying is to up the average obligation per course, where much of this obligation is of the low stakes variety.  But because courses do compete with one another in this way, an individual course that raised its obligations would be perceived as unpopular by the students.   If students take just a couple of courses at a time (or only one at a time) then the courses can be more intensive, just for this reason and, of course, the wasteful competition between courses is eliminated.

3)  Move to a co-teaching model where each course has two instructors, one an expert in the discipline, the other a humanist who is expert in WAC (writing across the curriculum) methods. 

Discussion:  This and the next recommendation are apt to be the most controversial.  Surely there will be pushback against it.  Before addressing the pushback, let me make some arguments in favor of the suggestion.  In my class I teach in a WAC style, but the course doesn't satisfy an advanced composition general education requirement.  I do this simply because I think it is the right way to teach.  It is, admittedly, very labor intensive.  As a retiree, I can put in that time without it competing with other obligations.  For full time instructors,  to have such a labor intensive mode of instruction requires having more course staff. At a minimum, the suggestion should be thought of in that way.

The recommendation is in the spirit of Muhammad going to the mountain.  We know that student demand for humanities classes is in decline, yet faculty such as me, not humanists ourselves, retain the belief that the a liberal arts education is very important.  The suggestion then amounts to bundling what we hope are the essential elements of a liberal arts education within existing courses that students do demand.  In so doing, it is a way to credibly communicate that the university is serious about the other components in the tripartite grading scheme, beyond mere subject matter expertise.

I should note here that when I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business, I learned that in Accountancy courses there were two TAs - one for subject matter, the other for communication.  The Accounting department could afford this because they had the revenue flows to support the activity from their lucrative Masters Programs.  So, to a certain extent, the idea is to make that practice the norm elsewhere, but  do this with a full time instructor rather than a TA, so the course can be rethought  fully to integrate WAC methods into the approach.

One last consideration in favor, if the practice actually took off and became a commonplace, it would go some distance to address the excess supply issue with new PhDs in the humanities.  Now it may be that such work would not seem attractive, as these people wouldn't be driving their own bus.  They'd be playing a support role in teaching something else.  This is a glass half full or half empty proposition.  Nevertheless, it is work within a university setting.  That is nothing to sneeze at.

Now let me take on the pushback that is apt to arise.  First, the idea is unproven. So some experimentation must be done up front about trying to convert an ordinary approach to WAC format which is co-taught.   Such experiments won't simply spring up.  The would need to be incentivized.  The participants would have to understand that they will be held up under a microscope and that there work may very well be showcased afterward.   This is the same sort of thing that was done with teaching with technology in the mid 1990s.  There was grant funding (venture capital) for that then.  There needs to be some venture capital for it now.

Second, early adopters often do wonderful things.  Majority adopters produce much less interesting implementations, as a rule.  A significant reason for this is that the changes made by the majority adopters are minor, while drastic change is what is actually needed.  This can only happen if majority adopters are asked to perform well outside their comfort zones.    In other words, there has to be some substantial top down push for this to be a go.  Absent that, it will not work well.  So people at the top need to embrace this.  And they need to push, very hard.

Last, some significant assessment of the situation at present needs to precede this effort.  I'm writing this having done that sort of assessment in my own class and extrapolating enormously beyond that.  The changes are warranted, in my view, because the current situation is pretty grim and untenable long term.  (See my post on The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.)  This then amounts to recommending sensible and significant reform from within before the situation fractures even more than it already has.  But that has to be a view held by many among the faculty and the campus administration.  We are not there yet.  To get there, a real assessment effort is necessary first and foremost.

A starting point might be a study of attendance in classes around week 5 and then again around week 10.  If my class is any indicator of what such a study would show, the results would be quite grim.  Beyond that, a substantial interview project with instructors about what they perceive their students to be actually learning (or not) should be undertaken.  I've offered up my thoughts about this in a post called When Students Don't Get It

I want to note here that such an assessment might be painful to conduct in that it could readily make overt some truths that have heretofore not gotten much of a public airing.  Thus, because the campus wants to publicly brag about its real and significant accomplishments to cast the campus in a good light publicly, there will be reasons not to undertake such an effort.  That inertia needs to be overcome.

Last year on campus there was a lecture series on Prioritizing Undergraduate Education.  These talks were all about visioning the experience.  This sort of thing seems to be fairly common nowadays.  For example, in the Chronicle last week there was a piece by Nicholas Lemann called The Case for  a New Kind of Core, which was also about what should be taught and yet not at all about how it should be taught.

The process issues are clearly not as engaging to faculty members when considering this sort of visioning exercise.  However, the process issues are likely quite important in implementation and determining whether an implementation will be successful.  Understanding that is why we should take them seriously.

4.  Increase the credit hours for those courses that continue to be offered.  Reduce the total number of courses required for graduation.  In particular, eliminate the 3 credit-hour course.  That type of course should be converted to between 4 and 6 credit hours and be taught in a suitably intensive matter to justify this reallocation.  

Discussion:  In light of recommendation #2, one might ask whether this recommendation is needed in addition.  Can one get the requisite intensity in instruction merely by scheduling only one or at most two courses at a time so that they meet more hours per week?

This recommendation is not just about making courses more intensive, though that is an important piece of it.  It is also about making the overall proposal self-financing.  (That is a long-term goal.  Near term, in the experimental phase, there will be additional costs to try out the approach.)   The reader will note that each of 1 - 3 comes with some incremental cost.  Savings must be produced elsewhere to pay for that.  Those savings will come from reducing the total number of course offerings.  The equation to keep in mind is total expenditure equals expenditure per course times the number of courses offered.  We will be increasing expenditure per course.  To get balance there needs to be fewer courses offered.

I am deliberately making this simplistic here, because I don't want to dwell on how the savings are obtained in this post.  While readers may think I'm trying to pull a fast one with that, surely they will agree the 1 - 3 in themselves would make for cost adds.  (Among the proposals, 2 is potentially cost neutral long term, but would clearly require substantial adjustment costs near term.)  So rather than dwell on this I will simply pose this question to reader, what would you do to make such a proposal self-financing?

Here I want to make some other observations.  In spring 2007 I visited the Smeal School of Business at Penn State for a meeting of Technologists for Business Schools.  The meeting was of intense interest to me as BIF was yet to deploy and Smeal had solved many issues that we would have to solve as well, particularly how to schedule as many classes in the College of Business as we could to be held in BIF.   One thing I learned is that they procured scheduling software for this purpose.  So I went about initiating something similar for us.

One part of that exercise, not something you would normally do but it appealed to my sensibilities at the time, I took all the College classes listed in the Timetable and put them into an Excel spreadsheet on a classroom by classroom basis, so I could eyeball room utilization.  Manual data entry of this sort can be quite tedious, but sometimes it reveals interesting information.   For a little while I became the college expert on how we scheduled classes, which served me well at the meetings of department heads and associate deans.  Beyond that something else emerged that I wasn't expecting at all.

Courses in Accounting were always scheduled in 2-hour blocks that could be put into a grid quite nicely, always starting on the hour, and mainly starting at 8, 10, 12, etc.  Courses in BA and in Finance, in contrast, were mainly scheduled in 90 minute chunks that could start on the hour or on the half hour and once in a while the scheduling was in 3 hour chunks, meaning the class met only once a week.  Now, in case this isn't obvious, the upshot is that the undergraduate Accounting courses were all 4 credit hours while the undergraduate BA and Finance classes were all 3 credit hours.  Ask yourself why that would be.  (Incidentally, while the College of Business is accredited, Accounting has its own accrediting in addition.)   This was an interesting take away from the data entry exercise.

We know the seat-time model has been under attack for quite a while.   MIT, which I attended as a freshman and first-semester sophomore (1972-73) before transferring to Cornell, had an interesting approach that rated out of class time as well as in class time, where the total hours rating divided by 3 would give the credit hours.  I had a couple of courses that were 5-0-7, a few that were 4-0-8, and some hard math classes that were 3-0-9.  The first number is the in class time; the second number is the lab time; and the third number is the expected out of class time.  The required humanities/social science class was 3-0-6.  That communicated volumes!

The MIT schema does signify an expectation about outside-of-class coursework in a way that the simple credit-hours model does not.  I am no longer current on this sort of thing, but when the National Survey of Student Engagement first became well known I became familiar with George Kuh's well chosen phrase The Disengagement Compact (found here, which for a U of I person at home requires VPN to access the full piece).  Much of what I'm arguing is that the Disengagement Compact is alive and well on campus and it is time to address it squarely and see if we can put it to bed.

Credit-hour ratings for courses may have had a good rationale near when they were originally determined, but that gets lost along the way and what remains is simply lock-in because that's how things were done in the past.   When things are going well a rule of thumb is to not upset the apple cart.  Changing the credit-hours rating for a course is a rather drastic thing to do.  Making drastic change would be an admission that the current way of doing things is not working well at all.

It would also be quite difficult to implement.  The various campus committees, both from the Faculty Senate and from the Provost's Office, would need to buy in.  So would the accrediting agencies.  All of this would take a good deal of time.  Let's not be under any illusion that one can snap one's fingers and make changes like this. 

But difficult is not the same as impossible.  And what I'm try to do with this piece is only to sketch those process changes that would make sense if you wanted to take on the Disengagement Compact squarely and embrace a liberal education while doing so.  I encourage others to try the same sort of exercise with their own design and see what they come up with.  We can then compare notes.  Only then can the suggestions being offered here be evaluated.  If there are more appealing alternatives, I would be for those.  At present, I don't see those.

5.  Carve out some resources to up the advising function so some non-course personnel tracks student engagement in the courses the student is taking and such monitoring is tied to some incentive that the student will pay attention to.  

Discussion:  First I want to note that the DIA does this for varsity athletes and Minority Student Affairs also does this for some students.  Also, I don't teach freshman but I believe we do something of this sort for them as well (reporting mid semester grades) but I don't know if that is attached to advising services that will go into action when poor performance is reported.   However, I can say that the advising function and the teaching function are not integrated well at all and many students I see who could use the external monitoring are not getting it.  So the proposal is to make it universal and sufficiently functional that it might have an impact on student behavior.

One of the issues that needs to be worked through is that instructors see how students do in low stakes settings - coming to class, doing the homework, etc., but as a fraction of the overall grade that doesn't amount to much.  It would be good to be pro-active about these things to see if students who start to slough off can return to good work habits soon thereafter and to get other students who start off on the wrong foot to do a better job.

An individual instructor has limited tools for managing these issues and a student intent on slacking off can often meet the letter of the instructor's requirements without addressing the spirit of them at all.  While many students may slack off to some degree, the outliers are the ones who should get the attention of the advisers, who would know better whether this is part of a larger pattern with the student or not.

Second, while the campus may not want to explicitly articulate a policy position regarding the school's reputation as a party school, it may very well want an implicit understanding that instructors have in that regard.  Just to illustrate, my class started at 11 AM this semester and that is the time it has been meeting the last several years.  Students have told me that their classmates skip class (I don't require attendance as part of the grade) perhaps because they are sleeping in.  I have two sons, both recent grads of the U of I, so I am well aware of the nocturnal patterns of students who are around 21 years of age. But I associate the sleeping in phenomenon with the weekend, where kids catch up on their lost sleep from Monday through Friday.  What we seem to have, judged by the attendance patterns in my class this semester, is encroachment of the weekend onto the work week.  (I didn't have attendance issues in the class in 2012-14 but have had them the last couple of years.  The course is offered in the fall.  In spring 2012, I taught the course for the first time and did have attendance issues, but I attributed that to senioritis for spring offerings.)  An individual instructor has a hard time to draw the line on this issue.  But the campus might have an idea about what it wants to see.  The people doing the advising could communicate that to the students.

Regarding incentive, this is clearly tricky because students will game the system.  So I don't have a good answer here, but I do think think that instructors identifying the outliers and then passing the baton is better than what we have now, which is that many of those outliers fall through the cracks, possibly failing the course, where that outcome is not desired by them nor by the institution.   Others might get through but receive poor grades and then get labeled as under achievers.  That is also not desired.

Last, causality for poor performance, procrastination, lack of engagement, etc. may have psychological roots and/or may be tied to inadequate prior preparation.  In other words, the student needs confidence building and/or academic remediation of some sort.  I believe that both DIA and Minority Student Affairs have tutoring services to address these issues, but I am not aware of any general sort of tutoring service for students that isn't tied into a specific class.  Implementing something of that sort at scale might be a challenge.  But it is the sort of process recommendation one arrives at when trying to explain why observed disengagement is so great and then asking about possible remedies to the problem.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  I am quite sure that I am not overstating the issues as I see them, but it very well may be that what I see is not what is going on in STEM disciplines nor even in the College of Business.  (Many if not most Econ students are Business student wannabes.)  Do note, however, there are other causal factors that matter apart from area of study.  Sherry Turkle, for example, talks about the evils of multiprocessing.  This other piece on The University of China at Illinois makes clear that international students from East Asia are culturally quite different from students who grew up in Illinois.  Culture matters too.  My recommendations were offered up as a one-size-fits-all solution.  I can see that one criticism is that such a solution is inappropriate.  Good.  Ask yourself, can you fit appropriate solutions for the right audience only?  That seems like the right sort of question on which to conclude this piece. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Why does the signature persist as part of our personal ID?

I don't do a lot of handwriting anymore.  Mostly I use it for a bit of algebra to verify the equations in Excel are right and then sometimes to write down a name and a phone number that's on our answering machine.  I was never one to make lists - such as for going grocery shopping - and nowadays I'd email myself that sort of thing rather than use a piece of paper, if I thought it were necessary to do that. 

Ten plus years ago I was fairly big into Tablet PCs, around the time when they first came out, and thought this might really be something.  I assumed people who do math in their teaching like I did when teaching intermediate microeconomics would view this technology as a great boon.  So I made some real documents with math derivations, such as this one, and some videos of screen captures with voice over, like this one

But I have since moved on and don't try to use digital ink in teaching any more.  Now if I will do math on the screen I will used Excel for a geometry demonstration, such as here, where I have figured out how to present the graphical information slowly and sequentially, just like writing it out, but where it is more accurately displayed than anything I can draw by hand.  Similarly, for an algebraic derivation, I've learned how to render that in a slow and sequential way while using the equation editor for generating the symbols, so it is quite view-able and easy to follow visually, in the sense that the viewer of the presentation knows which line of the derivation the voice over is making reference to.  Here is an example, this one seemingly only getting views from students in my own class, as the topic is quite specialized.  Some of the other videos I've made of this sort get wider viewing.

So, I've come to believe that handwriting is not necessary for teaching math stuff, and indeed that doing it the other way, with Excel for geometry and PowerPoint for algebra, is actually better, though admittedly these objects need to be prepared ahead of time.  (Countering that, the objects are re-usable.)

While the above represents my personal evolution of views on the matter, I suspect that others have reached a similar conclusion.  Indeed nowadays to the extent that students actually take notes in a class, they seem to do that by typing into their laptops.  I can't recall the last time I saw a student actually handwriting out something in the classroom other than filling in a scantron for a test or completing the ICES form.

Yet the signature remains a key component of the authorization process.  I wonder if that is still true on campus.  When I worked in CITES (2002-06) it seemed just about every day that Mary would have a few forms for me to sign, where she had dutifully put the sign-here sticky onto the form so I wouldn't screw up doing that.  From my point of view this entire process was worthless, as I had given a prior verbal approval of the expenditure to both Mary and my direct report.   Indeed in most cases the direct report wasn't asking for discretionary funds from me but was actually spending out of their own budgeted funds, which I nonetheless had to approve again even after having given them the okay when they did their budget proposal.  Supposedly the university needed the form with my signature for record keeping purposes.  Verbal authorizations didn't cut it for that purpose, then or now.

Nowadays on campus, where I no longer have budget authority and the scope of my activity is limited to teaching the one class in the fall, there are only two times where my signature is requested.  One is when doing a request for ICES forms.  This is a pretty low stakes request and indeed why this process still exists (rather than the department obtaining the  ICES forms on behalf of the instructor) kind of baffles me.  The other time is when the department extends an offer letter to me to teach that class.  They email me the letter.  I'm supposed to sign it and return the signed letter to them so they have a record that I accepted the offer.

In fact, I don't actually sign the letter.  Back in the Table PC days, I did sign some letters with digital ink in Word.  I've since made a screen shot of the signature, brought that into Acrobat, and use that image for the signature in electronic documents.  I believe this to be a fairly common practice.  But it should be clear, this makes the signature remarkably easy to fake.  The department, for example, could take a screen shot of the signature in my acceptance letter from last year and then paste that into this year's letter.  Purely from a technology viewpoint, this would be remarkably easy to do.   Given that, why the signature is still important in such campus transactions is beyond me, though the very first time it is offered it clearly does matter.

The other place where the signature is used, relentlessly so, is in making a purchase with plastic, perhaps where the amount is over some threshold, though not went buying gas, though given current prices is probably below the threshold anyway.  Most places seem to have pads for signature in digital ink, though a few places still rely on paper (and then they do what with that)?  I really don't like those pads, since they are quite clunky as an input medium, and I find that over time my signature is getting more and more horizontal.  Nevertheless, the process seems to give comfort to the vendors and the credit card companies.  Here I want to ask why that is the case.

Before getting to my thoughts on that question, people who have read up to this point should be aware of Paul David's famous paper Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.   The paper illustrates the power of lock-in (sometimes called the economics of increasing returns).  It also illustrates an analogy between the economics of lock-in and evolutionary biology.  (Why do we still have an appendix, since the only thing is seems to produce is appendicits?)   Some things we're stuck with hereafter whether we like it or not.  So the question is whether signatures are in this category or if we are in some transitory period where something else will replace them sometime in the future.

What that something else might be I really am not sure, but the obvious candidates are: (a) some biometric information such as a thumbprint or a retinal scan, (b) some key that is texted to the purchaser at the time of purchase to be entered into a keypad or given to the vendor wirelessly, or (c) the threshold on transactions gets bumped up and more or them become like purchasing gas, where zip code may be requested but that is it as identifier.   People who are more knowledgeable in the security area may have still other possibilities, but this is enough for me as I want to argue that we're likely locked into signatures.

Here's why.  First and most obviously, financial institutions have the signature on file and have had that for quite a long time.  So there is no issue about the individual allowing the credit card company to have this information.  That horse has already left the barn.  But for any biometric information that might be used instead it would have to be given to the financial institutions and people might be reluctant to do so.  Why should the financial institutions be trusted to safeguard such information when hacking of databases seems such a common experience nowadays?  People feel vulnerable when their credit card information has been hacked.  But the credit card number can be readily changed.  You can't do that with a thumbprint.  For just that reason, they may be much more reluctant to have others store that sort of information, which is truly unique to them.

Second, while the two-part authentication method works reasonably well for purchases from a home computer or laptop, it is rather clunky for face to face transactions.  When I go to the grocery story during normal work hours and see all the senior citizens who are shopping, I'm reminded that whatever approach is utilized needs to work for everyone.  Signatures do.  It is not clear that other methods satisfy this requirement.

Third, there is a cost issue in implementing a solution.  Those pads that are used to input the digital signature, coupled with the same device that takes the credit card input (swipe or chip), have to be reasonably inexpensive to implement.  I often wonder whether they actually do verify signature by comparison with what is in some digital file or if that part is actually faked, at least some of the time.  Random verification may suffice and would surely be cheaper.  I also wonder, assuming there is some software that does the comparison, how reliable that actually is.   In other words, if the person's file has been hacked and the hacker has access to the signature, how hard would it be to fake the signature in a way the software finds acceptable?  If the latter is possible but actually is difficult for the hacker to do, then the solution may be "good enough" for the credit card companies.

The last factor is much simpler, habit.  Signature authorization is a habit.  Habits are hard to break.  They have a strong tendency to persist.

If we didn't currently have signature authorization would we invent it now?  Probably not.  But that is not the right question to ask.  Are we stuck with signatures as the authorization method indefinitely into the future?  My guess as to the answer is yes, we are.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Are the Adults?

The gray hair in my eyebrows, beard, and elsewhere on my face and body notwithstanding I still think of myself as a kid.  I suppose I always will.  Of course, I'm a kid of certain type, the one who was good in school so could go off on his own rather than having to follow what the rest of the class was doing.  My first memory of this was actually not in school at all.  It was in day camp and I was seven, summer 1962.  Somehow I got proficient in swimming and was able to pass a test for the deep water pool.  Maybe there was one other kid in the group who swam with me in that pool or maybe it was just me.  I don't recall.  The rest of the kids in the group were in the other pool, the one with shallow water.  Their safety was assured because of that.  I may have been the better swimmer at the time, but my safety was also assured by the lifeguards.  There were adults around to take care of things if something went awry.

This pattern of being a kid off on my own repeated in many different contexts.  In some sense the public library is like a deep water swimming pool.  I frequently went to the Windsor Park branch of the Queens borough library, but I also went to the library in Fresh Meadows and the one on Northern Boulevard.   I have no recollection now as to why we'd go to one library or the the other but I do have some vague notion that at the Windsor Park library once in a while a librarian would recommend a book for me to read. 

The math team, which I joined in eighth grade, was like this too.  At this point I was twelve or thirteen, and obviously there were some others on the team, with a few who were ahead of me with the math.  But it was mainly still a solitary effort in the sense that I didn't learn math from them.   More importantly, the teacher who supervised the math team provided a level of comfort for me to try it out.   She had come to our house years earlier to tutor my sister and remembered me from that.  If I recall correctly, she asked me to be on the math team.  I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Econ graduate school was definitely like this as I had only one undergraduate course in economics, essentially no foundation whatsoever.  I did hang around with my classmates for socializing.  But I ventured into my own little world to learn the economics.  And because I was able to get a desk in the Math Center, I was always close to some faculty whom I could talk to about the economics.

Getting involved with learning technology was another example of the familiar pattern, though by then it had modified some.   I was in mid career and at that age it would be friends rather than teachers who would hold my hand.  It was Larry DeBrock who provided the path of entry.  Somehow the very first time I taught with technology, which was with PacerForum in spring 1995, I was able to get on the CHP server, even though I hadn't been involved with CHP yet and wouldn't get involved until 9 years later.  Less than a year later Burks invited me to join SCALE in an administrative capacity and that too was a whole new world, one where I felt as if I was in over my head, though somehow I was able to stay afloat. And I still sought out adults for counsel and edification.  There was much knowledge on campus about teaching with technology from experience prior to SCALE.  I tried to take a pulse of that where I could.  Once in a while I'd write about it, for example see this piece entitled Homage to Jerry Uhl

Sometimes kids try on adult hats and I've done that a few times in my life, both professionally and personally.  But in just about every instance of this what to do was not at issue or it was quite straightforward to work out.  The hard thing and really all that mattered was whether I'd have enough follow through to do what had to be done.  I've learned enough about myself to know that on occasion I can do that, especially when it is necessary and if I think it is important.

Yet for all that found maturity I prefer kid mode.  Blogging definitely fits the mold.  Boy blunder, hoping to find the path to discovery, gets lost in the woods and then proceeds to make it up as he goes along, just to find his way home.  In this case I interrupted the writing before starting in on this paragraph, wondering if I was too somber in what was produced above, apparently left with another partial essay headed for the virtual dustbin.  After a while I went to do the treadmill and searched the DVR for something to keep me occupied while doing that.  I found Inherit the Wind, which had aired on TCM.

An introduction to the movie is given by Ben Mankiewicz.  From that I learned that Spencer Tracy was younger when making that film than I am now and before that Tracy had entered into a quasi retirement.   (His previous film from a couple of years earlier, The Old Man and the Sea, is also a tour de force.)  He was lured out of that retirement by Stanley Kramer, who both directed and produced the movie.  Stanley Kramer promised that Fredric March and Gene Kelly would co-star, at the time an idle boast but one that Kramer was ultimately able to deliver on, after having signed Tracy.

In this story Kramer is the adult.  He had a lot of talent to work with, no doubt, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the great acting.   Yet he was the one to put it all together.  Do note that Kramer was Tracy's junior by 13 years.  (Coincidentally, Kramer has the same birth year as my dad and they both went to NYU, graduating in the same year.  Maybe they knew each other.)  Being the adult has nothing to do with being the oldest, as every child whose parents are getting on in age understands fully.

We need more Stanley Kramers now.  Where are they to be found?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Electoral Tactics - Down and Dirty as well as More Idealistic

Reading this piece about the Voting Rights Act and it likely becoming weaker to the point where it lacks meaning, since the Republicans will have control and will surely nominate a Supreme Court Justice who will give them control of the Court, I started to wonder if some other approach needs to be tried to counter this.  I'm going to suggest two different possibilities below.  The first is based on the notion that Republicans are better "game players" than the Democrats.  From a purely game playing perspective, what should the Democrats do to improve their chances in subsequent elections?

The second is based on the rather glum statistics about voter turnout historically, even when the Voting Rights Act was in full force.  Very little is written about those people who don't vote when it is not an issue of voter suppression.  I found this essay by Atul Gawande interesting on this point.  He grew up in a poor community in Ohio and still has friends there.  There is an anecdote given about one family who has opted out.  The economy served them poorly.  They lost faith in the system.  What can be done to restore their faith?  If the Democrats are seen as responsible for doing that, will they bring many heretofore discouraged voters back into the fold?

Then I will try to combine the two.  Might that provide a winning strategy to convert the popular electoral advantage that the Democrats already have into one where they have a majority in Congress (and where they recapture the White House.) 

The Down and Dirty Answer - Moving Votes to Where They Matter

When I was a third-year graduate student at Northwestern I began a collaboration with Leon Moses that lasted about a decade.  Leon was a Professor at Northwestern.  If my memory serves correctly, Leon and his family lived in Wilmette, the next town north of Evanston, where Northwestern is located.  Evanston itself is the first town north of Chicago that also borders Lake Michigan.  Leon and his family maintained a summer home in Door County, Wisconsin.  Knowing about this experience provided the seed for my idea.

Wisconsin used to be a reliably Blue state but, of course, Scott Walker, a Republican, is the Governor there now and in the recent election for President Wisconsin went for Trump.  So one thought is, what would it take for people in Leon's situation to switch their permanent residence from a Chicago suburb to Wisconsin?  Then repeat the question for other voters in reliably Blue states, California the most obvious one, and have their permanent residence change to some battleground state.  Then have this done in an organized and coordinated way.  Ask what numbers it would take to have such a move matter in this past election.  Could those numbers be approximated by this effort?  Note that Apple, which is located in Cupertino California, is incorporated in Nevada.  In a bit of irony, if corporations can do this sort of thing, why can't people do it as well?

There is at present a tilting at windmills approach that would be much cheaper to deliver the same sort of result and is getting a lot of attention.  That is doing away with the Electoral College.  Ask yourself, however, whether it is possible.  Why would the Republicans want that, given how much they are benefiting from the current system?  If Republicans don't want it and given that they control both Houses of Congress, how would it be possible?  If it were done as a Constitutional Amendment, then three fourths of the States would have to approve.  But State government is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans now.  Given that, is getting rid of the Electoral College a realistic possibility?

Being a good game player recognizes what is possible and what isn't.  I don't know that getting voters to change their state residence by having a vacation/retirement property in the other state is do-able.  Surely there would be real costs on a per family change of residence of this sort.  But before ruling it out as a pipe dream, somebody should do the math.  The Democrats have lots of rich donors.  Suppose those donors heavily subsidized the second property, so the costs were largely borne by others than the voters themselves.  And suppose the party decided that this was a worthwhile strategy to pursue while TV ads, which are quite expensive, are basically throwing money away because they end up mainly preaching to the choir.  So one might reallocate campaign contributions or SuperPac contributions from a low productivity use to this alternative.  At the very least, there'd be a real strategy in place about how to make votes count.  Can this work?

The More Idealistic Approach

I get email from my Congressman, a Republican named Rodney Davis.  Champaign County surely votes Democratic but the rest of the Congressional District is far more conservative, which explains why Davis was reelected.   Mainly I ignore these emails, but in this case I started to read their planning document, A Better Way, particularly the section on Poverty.   I found it hard to read, more bromides than plan.  But my inescapable conclusion is that the Republicans will cut poverty programs, in the name of benefit for the poor, to get them out of being victims of their own lethargy.

This offers an opportunity to the Democrats, if only they might seize it.  Namely, the Democrats might substitute their own largess to replace/amplify/initiate support for programs that the Republicans will be cutting.  And here I mean this idealism to have a bit of Machiavelli.  To be eligible for this support the recipient must promise one thing.  The recipient must agree to vote.

The recipient should be free to vote for whomever the recipient wants.  This exchange is not vote buying.  But it is premised on the idea, why would one vote against the hand that feeds you?  In other words, the largess here is meant to be both socially responsible and politically fruitful.  The Democrats need more voters on their side.  This is one way to get them.  And it is an approach consistent with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, something that the document A Better Way denigrates, but something that Democrats should honor.

Combining the Two Approaches

Suppose new housing was constructed in locations where Democrats want to relocate their minions, according to the down and dirty answer, but suppose this housing was not individual residences and  instead was apartment complexes.  (It could be bungalows in a housing complex.  I am agnostic on the particular structure here, which should be chosen to match the locale.  What is important is to focus on multiple residences at a time, rather than on an individual residence.)  Then some of the housing could be allocated to others under the more idealistic approach, who have been living in poverty but are getting subsidized housing via this effort.

Indeed, an additional agenda item emerges here.  The issue is whether the two types of recipients can co-locate.   The goal would be to show that is possible and to determine those conditions that would make it likely.  There is much press recently about us moving apart from one another.  In that well off voters live elsewhere from those voters who are battling poverty.  What would it take for those people to live together in the same community?  Maybe asking that question, the effort will fail - a case of too much democracy.  So I am surely not arguing that this is a safety play.  But it should be clear, Democrats now don't have a safety play.

The right question to me is this.  What play, with attendant risks, offers the possibility of an upside?   It seems to me, what I have sketched here delivers on that.

I wonder if anyone else would agree.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Left and Right, Up and Down, In and Out, and Other Dimensions

I first learned the following from the book Coopetition by Brandenburger and Nalebuff.  Indeed, I attended a workshop on the book held at the University of Iowa, which is kind of odd because I was pretty heavily into learning technology by then so was no longer going to Econ workshops on campus.  But if I recall correctly Leslie dropped me off in Iowa City and then proceeded to visit her parents in Des Moines for the weekend.  So the two of those probably were tied and might be the reason I went to this.  It is also the reason why it has stuck with me all this time.  Here's the point.

Bargaining in low dimensions is quite difficult.  In one dimension only, the bargaining has to be zero sum - raise or lower the price that is the extent of it and either that or walk away from the deal.  For many people, that's what they think bargaining is about.  Some bargaining is that way, to be sure.  But other bargaining is a more interesting animal.  As you increase the dimensionality there becomes more possibility for gains from trade to emerge, where both sides are made better off than in the absence of the deal.  Economists call this a Pareto improvement.  Business types use the phrase Win-Win.  Knowing that such a possibility is likely to exist ahead of time bargaining then becomes more of a creative endeavor, trying to shape what aspects of the deal will be included.

With this as backdrop, I am writing here as a reaction to this Nicholas Kristof column A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, which though written this past May somehow appeared in my Facebook News feed yesterday, so I read it anew then and after that I wanted to provide some response.

In that piece and elsewhere it has been widely reported that there is liberal bias in academe, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences.  In this way (though perhaps not in many other ways) Economics at research universities has more diversity.  There are quite a few conservative economists and quite a few liberal economists as well.  Indeed, as I cut my teeth as a professional economist during the Reagan era, I had several colleagues who were much more conservative than I was, including a few who became very good friends.  At the same time, the Econ department itself was suffering from departmental politics, but the two factions were divided along sub-disciplinary lines that as near as I could tell did not correlate with left-right divisions regarding national politics.  (In the 1950s, Illinois also had a divided Economics department and then left-right divisions did matter.  Several really top economists, such as Franco Modigliani and Robert Eisner left because of that.) 

Some of what I want to say in response to Kristof is based on that experience.  Another chunk is based on more recent interactions I've had.  There are a variety of friends and family who are much more conservative than I am and yet we still get along.  I should also say that some of my friends are more liberal than I am or are more idealistic than I am.  I get along with those folks too, for the most part.  And then the last bit I want to say is about human nature as exemplified by the Linda the Bank Teller experiments that are discussed in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks and are further amplified in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow.  We all think fast some of the time and one way we do that is to categorize people (some might say we stereotype them).  At issue then is how one can show decency and respect for people in spite of this tendency, while acknowledging that the tendency is in all of us.   The answer isn't to deny the tendency and pretend we can be what we are not.

I will try to keep this simple.  My conservative economic friends were certainly that way about the economics - low taxes, limited government, less regulation, etc.  But on social issues (one that was important to me at the time - whether it was okay to smoke pot - is a non-issue for me now) particularly on interacting with faculty of color they were actually quite progressive.  So I would argue to debundle these general classifications both because people are more complex than that and because in certain dimensions there is apt to be more commonality than in others.

If one buys that then the next proposition shouldn't be that hard.  Try to avoid the areas where strong disagreement that can lead to hard feelings will emerge and focus on those areas where commonality is to be found.  Now this may sound like a cop out especially as our campuses are supposed to be places for the free exchange of ideas.  How do you navigate that?

My answer to that is to use a technology metaphor.  Don't use Twitter or other micro blogging applications to argue complex social issues.  That produces more heat than light, and in Kahneman's metaphor relies almost entirely on thinking fast.  Instead, and academics should know how to do this, make the case slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully, perhaps in a blog post like this one.  This doesn't mean there won't be disagreement.  But, in particular, if you argue slowly and if you are thoughtful you can do a Thinking Gray exercise (read the first chapter available at the link) and try to work through the counter arguments ahead of time without turning them into straw men.  The writing then becomes more about education and less about winning the argument.  It also invites thoughtful response.

If you stick to written exchanges for the complex interactions where disagreements might occur and in face to face interactions are more limited in the dimensions you do discuss, where there is more common ground, you might find a workable if not perfect solution to the navigation issue.

Then one more thing needs to be noted.  Some people are jerks and are hard to interact with.  In my experience in academe I can't count the number of people like that on one hand (maybe two hands if I include some truly obnoxious students in the mix).  I have no answer on how to make interactions with such people tolerable.  I know that in my own case I try to avoid interacting with such people whenever possible.  I don't enjoy such encounters that will likely produce conflict . 

Let's wrap up with the obviously hard part of all of this.  Misogyny, racial prejudice, and intolerance based on sexual orientation are quite real on campus.  Further, since some years ago I wrote a post about unintended religious intolerance in the classroom, throw that sort of thing into mix as well, whether it happens in the classroom or elsewhere around campus.  In the context of writing that post I could see a difference between certain Christian students being clueless but otherwise not mean spirited to their Islamic classmates (and to me as a Jew) from students being jerks.  (In that class none of the students were jerks.)  Often, however, our interactions with people on campus are quite different from teacher-student interactions and in our thinking fast way we may pre-judge people whom we expect will be prone to behave like jerks.  An ideal that I doubt any of us can meet would be to always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, irrespective of their previously professed views on matters.

Perhaps the trick is to invite a bunch of economists to every social gathering on campus.  That way there are sure to be some conservatives in the group.  And, after all, we're such social butterflies!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making Our Society Less Vertical - Without Making It Dumber

As Facebook is wont to do, earlier this morning a status update from 3 years ago popped up in my news feed (only my friends can access the link).  In turn, my piece was about about a Frank Bruni Op-Ed entitled The Extra Legroom Society.   It is what prompts this post. The first class versus coach distinction serves for an apt metaphor for changes in the way we do things quite apart from the airlines setting, though the airlines setting is a good place to begin because flying coach these days is a pretty miserable experience, at least for a big guy like me.  It is good to keep that in mind.

The question I want to get at here is whether the people who live in a riding-first-class world understand that about flying coach.  Or is out of sight out of mind?  The recent election has to be a wake up call for everyone.   So I am going to assert that the elites do have some awareness of the rest of the population now.  What might be done to maintain that awareness for the indefinite future rather than to have folks revert to business as usual?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it is a good one to pose.  My sense is that awareness needs to be coupled with something actionable and if that happens then it is more likely to sustain.  What that actionable thing or set of things should be I also don't know, but I would like to articulate a principle based on a joke we all learned when we were kids.  (It can be found near the bottom of the page.)

Q: What do you know when you see three elephants walking down the street wearing pink sweatshirts?
A: They're all on the same team. 

If somebody else came at me with this joke my initial reaction might be - I'm not crazy about pink; I'd prefer a different color.   Everybody is a critic.  I'm no exception.   So I really don't want to try to design those actionable items here because we need to negotiate through to what might work and get past the stumbling blocks.  Those need to be identified first.  All I want to maintain here is that the punchline should be our aspiration - being on the same team.

A week ago I had an odd experience.  Leslie was in Texas and we were out of treats for the dog, so I went to Walmart, which stocks the brand Leslie prefers.  As I was returning to my car somebody made eye contact with me in the parking lot and then came over.  He said something like that they had been stranded there for two days and wondered if I had any work for him so he could earn some money.  He put it in such an odd way and I'm instinctively wary of strangers.  So I didn't unpack what he was asking and simply responded, truthfully, that I didn't have any such work.  If he had asked directly for some cash, I might have given him a few bucks.  I'm really not sure how I would have reacted.  It's not the sort of situation that you plan in advance.  But after the fact I thought about it some and I concluded that I flubbed it, badly.

This doesn't work if it is only isolated individuals who think this through.  Schindler's List is a hard movie to watch.  It's been airing repeatedly on the movie channels we get, but I haven't tried to watch it as of late.  Maybe I should make the effort as an emotional reminder of what can happen when things get out of hand.  I do recall from having seen it many years ago that near the end Schindler breaks down with feelings of guilt and remorse.  He could have saved so many more Jews or so he thought.  Yet he remains a historical figure because of the ones he did save, a microscopic number if compared to the numbers who died, yet a real achievement when considered from the perspective of what one individual might do to make a difference.

In thinking about this in aggregate, I will point out two previous posts I've written that consider possible ways at getting the issue.  This one called Ask What You Can Do For Your Country looks at Federal income tax rates in a historical context, from the end of the Carter Administration to the present.  It notes that since the start of 2011, the Bush Tax Cuts have become permanent for all brackets except at the very top.  This was done during the lame duck session after the November 2010 elections.  There might have been a case to extend the Bush cuts for some years because the economy was still struggling then, though the recovery had started.  But there is little reason why they should still exist, particularly for people with income like my household - not in the top 1% but in the top 10%.

These tax cuts amount to a windfall.  In normal times, people tend to vote their pocketbook.  So I should be happy with that.  But I'm not.  We live in abnormal times.  So people in my income situation should be taking one for the team by paying more in taxes.  The awareness I talked about above would amount to accepting such a conclusion, should our politics enable this sort of change in the tax rates.  I'm sure it won't happen right now.  The Republicans are in control and their sentiments are anti-tax.  But the midterm elections are less than two years off.  The mood of the electorate can change.  We've experienced that repeatedly in the recent past.

The other post is called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.  It presents some numbers that don't get talked about all that much even after Piketty instructed us that it is what we should look at.  These are numbers about the wealth distribution.  Mean household wealth is around $650K, which is astoundingly high or so it seems to me.  Median household wealth, in contrast, is around $81K, dramatically lower.  There is substantial capacity to redistribute wealth downwards and still leave the rich with many riches.  The issue is whether there is the will and the desire to do so.

Let me close with this observation.  The lead article in the Times today is entitled, Can Trump Save Their Jobs?  They're Counting on It.   The premise is that tariffs can do the trick and that protectionism is the way to attain wealth redistribution.  Maybe tariffs can work, at least near term.  Longer term there is apt to be retaliation, which lessens trade overall and then the tariffs may be self-defeating.  If that's right, maybe tariffs aren't the right way to go.  But that doesn't obviate the need for good jobs available to ordinary working people.  What alternative to tariffs might provide a better approach?  Who is asking that question?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Ghost of Allen Ludden

Tradition has it that resolutions are made with the coming new year and then are forgotten soon thereafter.  It occurred to me that it would be better to make a resolution as the need becomes apparent.  It remains to be seen whether that will create more stick-to-itiveness.  I hope so.

Wanting to do something on a personal level to combat all the apparent negativity, I have resolved that when some potential source of irritation emerges to temporarily vex me, I will try to respond with wit and humor.  This won't be to ignore the provocation, far from it.  My goal will be to illuminate the situation sans the negativity.  Maybe nobody other than me will be amused by the approach.  If so, I will have succeeded in building my own cocoon, which under the circumstances wouldn't be a bad thing to do.  And if perchance others are entertained, then maybe some of them will endeavor to create their own yarn for popular consumption that does likewise, which would be so much the better.

I want to begin here with what might seem an odd thought - focusing on the good consequence in my intellectual development from all that early TV viewing.  The reality is that I watched an awful lot of TV as a kid.  When I was young there were shows in black and white such as My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.  Yet it is hard to know what ultimate consequence there was from watching all of that and it is equally hard to remember how much time per day I devoted to TV.

So I want to focus on a different sort of show that might have had a more telling impact on me - the game show.   And here I want to narrow further to game shows that had a quiz or puzzle aspect to them.  Some of the show titles that I recall are To Tell The Truth with Bud Collyer, Play Your Hunch with Merv Griffin, I've Got a Secret with Gary Moore, Concentration with Hugh Downs, The Match Game with Gene Rayburn, and of course Password with Allen Ludden.  That there are still other such shows which my contemporaries might come up with is a testament to how prevalent the genre was when we were growing up.

I played along at home while watching.  Concentration, in particular, was a memory game.  There was an element of luck, to be sure.  But it rewarded good recall.  (We may have had a board game version of the show at home, to practice further this way.)  The Match Game, in contrast, was more about social capital and communication, because the goal was not so much to have the right answer as it was to have the same answer that your teammates had.  I recall, in particular, when the great Red Sox outfielder "Yaz" was on the show that one of the questions was to spell his last name.  (The correct spelling is Yastrzemski.)   As his nickname was so popular at the time, he himself misspelled his name and matched at least one of his teammates in doing so.  It was a lesson, both in humility and in trying to understand the way others process information.  It is possible to do that, at least within some limited domains of knowledge.

Looking back, Password is the most intriguing of these shows to me as it seems so much akin to what the book Made to Stick talks about, the creation of connections between ideas.  A team member who was given the answer would offer up a one word clue to the uninformed partner.   The partner would then respond with a guess at the answer.  The two teams would rotate in their clues and responses until a correct response was given.  So each team would benefit from the sequence that went before, and the current clue and response would be conditioned on that sequence.  There was a friendly competition as to which team would get the answer first.  To win that competition, then, you had to come up with a clue word that really communicated the idea.  The skills the show helped to develop were both in the guessing part from the perspective of the uninformed player and in the clue offering part from the perspective of the informed player.  The board game Taboo is similar in this respect, though Taboo allows teams with many uninformed players.  Undoubtedly, Taboo drew some of its inspiration from Password.

One way Password was distinct from Taboo, and indeed all the TV game shows then were distinct from our playing of these games at home, is that TV game shows were peppered with witty repartee between the host and the guests in between rounds of play of the game.  Since oftentimes the guests were regulars, this back and forth illustrated a kind of intelligence in action that the audience at home was encouraged to emulate.  On Password, Betty White, Allen Ludden's better half, was a frequent guest.  Their interaction on the show was that much more special, informed as it was by personal knowledge as well as by how TV stars were supposed to interact on the little screen.  Ludden was an especially talented host and got the most out of his guests, making the watching both very entertaining and quite educational.

* * * * *

It is time to return to my resolution, which is about the term "password."  Indeed, the entire stream of thought in this stroll down memory lane was triggered by an email reminder that I have to change my University of Illinois password.  As of yesterday, I had 14 days in which to do this.  There are a few things about this I found bothersome about this communication and about the prior communication I received that said I must do this.

First, it remains unclear whether now the same password will apply to Banner (a university-wide service where the login is referred to as Enterprise Authentication) and to those campus services where the NetID password had previously been used or if those will remain distinct processes.  At the moment, when I go to Banner, I get this screen for logging in.

In contrast, when I log into a campus (or LAS) supported application, I get a different screen for logging in. 

While I use larvan for the first line in logging in at both of these places, the passwords themselves are different, at least for the time being.  I have recently changed the Enterprise password.  (I checked my InBox and I have a receipt from 8/16 of this year indicating a password change.)   So, on the one hand, if these passwords are becoming the same in the near future, why do I have to make another change so soon?  But, on the other hand, if the passwords are to remain distinct, with the Enterprise password for the University and the NetID password for the Campus, why did the email message about updating the latter come from the University technology services organization, with a ullinois.edu email address instead of an illinois.edu email address?  This is all very confusing to me.  

Second, I no longer understand the necessity of regular password changes as an enhancement to security.  The reality is that non-university providers don't ask for that.  They do other things - registering your computer, asking security questions in addition to the password, giving a two-part authentication with the second part coming in email or text messaging, and letting me know by email when I (or possibly somebody else) authenticate to an account via an unregistered device.  But they otherwise don't require regular password changes.  Operating on the assumption that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, how can this be?  So I would appreciate gaming out what the password change actually buys in terms of increased security.  

As near as I can tell, the big issue is what happens if the password has been hacked and neither the technology organization nor the individual user are aware that this has occurred.  The hackers then may sit on the information for some time before trying to exploit it.  If a password change happens in the interim and if the vulnerability that allowed the initial hacking has since been patched, then the password change does clearly enhance security in that circumstance.  But those are some rather big ifs.  

Third, and this perhaps isn't really fair of me to react this way, but each bit of the university that operates in a heavy handed way contributes to a general malaise, one that the individual office sending out the communication may be unaware of because that office only focuses on its own bit.  As I recently made this mocumentary about getting rid of the ethics training, my visceral reaction to the announcement about the required password change is to get rid of that too.  (And in a recent email to learning technologists on campus, I cautioned them not to use FERPA in a similar manner to get faculty compliance, for just these reasons.)  The possible difference is that with the ethics training I see no benefit whatsoever.  It is a complete sham.  With the password change perhaps there is a benefit, though I remain skeptical.  The communication did nothing to allay that skepticism.  

The above constitutes the initial irritation, which I have not tried to conceal.  In the last section, below, I will attempt some humor in casting how this situation manifests for me.  Alas, the humor stems from an all too real personal decline.

* * * * *

There are certain emblems of aging and the mental deterioration that accompanies it.  For me, the most obvious of these is going to the pharmacy or to the doctor's office.  They want to make sure they know it really is you they are dealing with.  So in addition to your name they ask for other identity information as part of the transaction.  At Walgreens, they ask for home address.  Perhaps sometimes they ask for date of birth, though maybe this is only when I pick up a prescription for one of my kids.  (Do I remember their birthdays?)  At Carle, they ask for these too, also sometimes for home phone, and they verify your health insurance provider.  

In the course of a session where I have to produce this sort of information repeatedly, I feel I'm shrinking mentally.  I can anticipate the day, not too long into the future, where I will fail here, a temporary lapse where the recall just doesn't work.  Outside of the health care interactions, the senior moments are more frequent now, possibly because insomnia is a more frequent companion.  I am still capable of depth of thought now and then.  Blog posts are evidence of this.  But I am writing blog posts less frequently now and more of those that I start writing never get done.  If there were Viagra for the mind, I would definitely take it.  

Instead, I look for diversions that can provide some personal joy and are still do-able.  I find that composing rhymes fits these needs and I can do that much more frequently.  I started writing rhymes for real near when I retired and then had more ambition than talent, writing longish verse to make a point.  Some of these were commentary on our national politics.  (For example, Filly Buster, Lame Ducks Are Quaking, and The (Dis) Charge the Tea Party Made.)  Others take on different sources of befuddlement such as this one on The First Ten Days Blues or this one on The Blue Screen of Death.   

Over time I've found my ambition has diminished and a technology I once abhorred, Twitter, has become something of a salvation for my rhymes.  Staying within the 140 character limit keeps it short and sweet and helps my faulty sense of meter from going too far astray.  Nevertheless, there is substantial time beforehand trying out possible lines that might fit.  The generation of the verse is no snap.  Yet during that time there is a kind of reverie for me, a feeling I enjoy very much. 

James Thurber gave us that charming character, Walter Mitty, and the original short story is still a good read.  What happens when we daydream is the root of what I've called The Professor Mind.  Sir Ken Robinson, in this delightful Ted Talk, Do schools kill creativity?, says that professors live in their heads, while everyone else lives in the real world.  The university, of course, is a place where many of the inhabitants are professors.  The campus is populated by this weird but largely benign life form whose greatest enjoyment is to be entirely lost - in thought.

Let us keep the university as a place for such intellectual enjoyment.  Allow the professors to maintain their mental bubbles for as long as they can.  The younger ones can do this while juggling many balls in the virtual air.  Many of the older ones, like me, may have a more difficult time keeping just a few of these afloat.  

I want to close this discussion on passwords with the following metaphysical question.  How is it that we learn to focus on this year's password and discard the one from last year into our mind's dustbin?  I have changed some of the passwords for my commercial accounts not that long ago after there was a general hacking scare and I've since experienced the occasional getting it wrong because I'm entering the old one.  Is this the road to dementia for me?  

Those with the authority to set password policy, please be merciful for people with the likes of me.  It's all I ask.