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.