Thursday, June 29, 2017

Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications

I don't write often about religion but I did in a post from 7.5 years ago called Theism - "Pan," "Mono," and "A", where judging from some comments I received it was among my better pieces.  It had two disparate sources of stimulation.  One was a column by Ross Douthat about the movie Avatar and the religious implications of the pantheism in the story. I thought he was making much ado about nothing, so I wanted to say something in response to that effect.  The other was from my own classroom teaching.  I was in my 30th year at Illinois and this was the first time that religion had found its way into the classroom.  I hadn't invited that, at least not directly, but it was there nevertheless.  I found it awkward, but I also thought my situation relevant to others, at least those of us who teach or who have taught a class.  So I wanted to write something about those experiences.

In this piece I'm reacting to another column by Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem.  In the Harry Potter stories, which have been celebrating a twentieth anniversary, Muggles are people who can't do magic, ordinary folks if you will.  In Rowling's telling of these stories Muggles are occasionally seen but hardly ever heard.  Douthat then makes the analogy - wizards are to liberal elites as Muggles are to Trump voters.  Armed with that off he goes.  I thought his argument was over baked.  I want to take that on in this piece.

I will eventually get to my refutation, but I have a different purpose as well.  I want to give my view of kid fiction, my ideal of what it should accomplish, and how it played out in my family with my kids, quite far from that ideal.  Indeed, I have some issues with the Harry Potter stories, but those issues are unlike anything that Douthat writes about.  In order to understand the role of these stories, it is useful to consider the full trajectory of stories the kids were exposed to when they were young.

When the  kids were too young for school they went to daycare during the school day. Then, in elementary school, the pattern when they got home was similar.  There would be play, perhaps outside on the structure in the backyard or inside with Legos.  While inside there surely would be some TV viewing.  Favorite programs included Barney, Thomas The Tank Engine, and Pokemon.  Then at night we would often watch an animated video on VHS tape.  Disney made a variety of these that we viewed repeatedly.  (I still like to watch Balto and Mulan on occasion.)  And there was also the Land Before Time series that the kids liked very much.  The kids developed two intense interests from this viewing.  One was trains.  There are train tracks that go north-south in Champaign (among the trains that ride those tracks is The City of New Orleans) and every time we'd drive near the train tracks and hear the train whistle, we'd have to pull over and watch as the train passed.  The other was dinosaurs.  (On a visit to Chicago we'd go to the museum to see the skeletons.)

After the evening movie the kids would get ready for bed and we'd read to them a story.  I can't remember whether I would read to one kid and my wife to the other (they boys had separate bedrooms) or if we got them together and one of us would do all the reading.  For quite a while Goodnight Moon was the book of choice.  In addition, I know I developed fondness for books by Sandra Boynton and some others.  Going to the bookstore to select new titles for the bedtime reading was among my favorite things to do.

A different form of media also found its way into the daily routine.  The kids got into playing video games, first Super Mario Bros., then a variety of other games.  I became the household champ at Diddy Kong Racing, after which I went cold turkey on the genre.  I was killing my thumb, pressing too hard on the joystick, and the images on the screen got implanted in my head in a way I didn't think was good for me.  Plus, I could see that before too long the kids would easily be my superior at game playing, given how much time I could devote to it, and my ego couldn't take the beating.  I don't believe they missed having me as a competitor after that.

This charming educational environment of childhood, idyllic as it seems in retrospect, must gradually be abandoned for the kids to develop further.  The stories must begin to be about people rather than about animals or inanimate objects that come to life.  Cartoons and anime must give way to more realistic video with human beings.  And the kids need to begin to read for themselves.  It is not obvious on how to get from here to there.  We did not get to Harry Potter straight away, as the way to make this leap. But other alternatives weren't the answer.

Before Harry Potter we tried adventure stories.  In the movies there was The Last of the Mohicans and a made for TV version of Kidnapped.  The boys and I watched those several times.  I also read aloud Treasure Island to them.  They enjoyed it all.  But there was a problem.  My wife was not interested in this stuff.  If you recall early fiction when we were kids, the girls had Nancy Drew while the boys had The Hardy Boys.  The separation of entertainment for girls and boys still happens, but it happened more then.  The upshot is that if we we were to find entertainment for the whole family, we'd need to do it with something other than adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper.

There was also a great deal of anxiety among parents at that time about getting their kids to read.  That wasn't a new thing.  The original copyright on Why Johnny Can't Read dates from 1955.  But given the rise of the personal computer, in addition to the other developments I sketched above, it was evident that my kids had a much more media rich environment than my wife and I had when we were kids.  Reading had to compete with that as a source of entertainment.  The issue then was whether reading could do that.

Into this setting steps J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter stories.  At first it seemed something of a godsend.  It offered the path from here to there.  My wife discovered the first book well before I became aware of it.  We'd read it aloud to the kids each night, ten to twenty pages at a time.  My first time at the reading we were already in the middle of the book.  After that, my wife and I took turns with the reading. So I never got the full story, nor did my wife.  But the kids did.

When I was a kid we had individualized reading.  Somebody might give me a book to read or a suggested title.  I'd read that.  Then I'd read several other books, either by the same author or by different authors but in the same genre.  But then that would get exhausted and I'd move onto a different author in a different genre.  For example I remember as a kid I got The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt as a present.  After that I read other books by Walter Farley about the Black Stallion.  Either when the supply of those or my interest in them diminished, I read other things.  Somewhat later I know I read a bunch of baseball fiction by Duane Decker.  Rebel in Right Field was perhaps the first of these that I read.

This pattern continued as long as I read books intended for kids.  Eventually I turned to fiction for adults.  I'm not sure when that happened, but I'm pretty sure I read The Grapes of Wrath during the summer after 7th grade.  The novels for adults were longer and more challenging to read.  It took a while to get through them.  Though I did go on a jag and read many books by Sinclair Lewis, often it would be only one book per author and then onto something else on a different subject.  Titles I remember reading either in junior high or high school that were not assigned to us in English class include, Of Human Bondage, Crime and Punishment, The Fixer, Catch-22, A Farewell to Arms, and The Chosen.  Also, I eventually became a regular reader of The New Republic, Scientific American, and The New York Times.  The point here is that there was substantial variety on topic and authorship, so the exposure was broad and I developed an interest to keep it that way.

Things were different when Harry Potter came onto the scene.  It seemed that all the kids were reading the same books.  The movie versions followed soon after the books appeared and the kids watched those too.  Indeed there seemed to be some feedback loop between the movie versions and the next book in the series.  And while I don't know this for a fact, it seems to me both the book publisher and the film studio wanted to get the kids really hooked on Harry Potter.  Publishing has become a blockbuster business as has film making.  Getting the kids hooked was a way to make not just one blockbuster, but an entire series of them.

The Harry Potter movies were soon followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This renewed an interest in reading Tolkein, something I confess I never did when I was a kid.  But my older son definitely got into it.  He followed that up with reading Artemis Fowl books, which occupied him for quite a while.  Eventually, he moved onto reading Michael Crichton fiction.  I believe that lasted through high school, at the least.  In other words, he remained in the world of fantasy fiction during those formative teen years.

I did strongly encourage/force him to read The Grapes of Wrath and eventually he did that, but it had no derivative consequence on his further reading that I could ascertain.  I believe he also read Holes, perhaps when he was in Middle School, and maybe after he had seen the movie.  But that too was a one off, with no apparent impact on other reading.

The younger one was less of a reader of fiction and less of a reader overall.  He became quite a history buff.  Part of that was playing Age of Empires on the computer.  Another part was watching certain shows on the The History Channel.  He became the master of arcane detail about certain historical events.  He could extract those from the computer and the TV in a way that he probably couldn't by reading.  And he could do that extraction relatively quickly.  Reading is slower, no doubt.  It takes patience.

My ideal for how a kid should grow up with reading is much closer to my experience as a teen than to the experience of my children.  In a recent post entitled Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide I wrote:

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

In other words, reading broadly is a way to combat the inevitable limits of our own experience, which are situated in a certain place and a certain time.  By reading broadly, we can overcome those limitations, at least to some degree.  The fixation on fantasy fiction, something that the Harry Potter books encouraged, has had the unintended consequence of narrowing the kids, because the fantasy is not steeped in the reality of anyone's experiences.  It is fantasy only.  It shares features with other fantasy stories.  But it doesn't open the reader's eyes to the situation real people experience who are unlike the reader.

Now let me turn to criticism of Douthat.  He takes on the Harry Potter books as an entity unto itself.   Apart from the other fantasy fiction works I mentioned above, he might have also considered Star Wars and its renaissance, now a property of Disney, nor does he consider The Game of Thrones (my older son did read the George R.R. Martin novels first), or the various Marvel comics brought to the big screen.  All of these works are mythology, perhaps updated to current times, but mythology nonetheless.  It matters not whether you call the main characters gods or superheroes.  They are more than normal human beings in their capacities.  And they play a featured role in all these stories.

It's true that in the original Superman stories the people who worked at the Daily Planet - Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White - were normal human beings but featured nevertheless.  But they were featured because they were in repeated contact with Superman, or with each other.  And likewise for Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars.  Otherwise, the Star Wars stories were about the Jedi and their battle with the dark side of the force. All mythology focuses on the gods.  Sometimes the gods are in contact with humans and then those characters become part of the story.  Other times the gods just do battle with themselves and their are no ordinary human beings in sight.

The Harry Potter stories are not exceptional this way.  Why Douthat thinks otherwise, I don't know.  But he is making too big a case of it.

Rowling was clever, casting the wizards in training as kids at a boarding school.  While most of the readers of the Harry Potter books lived at home with their parents, at least through high school, the boarding school concept was not so alien from their own experience that they could readily identify with the situation in the story.  Bringing fantasy into a familiar setting was a good way to generate a broad audience for the books. 

But in the process of doing this a kind of mass addiction developed.  Some mythology in our entertainment is probably fine.  However, the balance between such works and other dramatic works seems quite tipped in favor of the former.  Reading in general is on the downs.   The bias is therefore impacting movies and TV, and surely it also can be found in computer games and video games, though I am ignorant of current offerings in that space.

This I believe to be the harmful legacy in the Harry Potter stories, although it may have been inevitable even if Rowling never wrote those books.  Too many other factors were pushing us in this direction.

Let me close with a different observation, one about the benefits of reading a book as compared to watching a movie or a TV show.  The reader does more work to complete the story.  The movie or TV viewer is more passive this way.  More than a decade ago there was a piece Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  So there is a counterargument on this point.  But I wonder how many people actually buy the counterargument.  One of the damning criticisms of President Trump that has been offered up repeatedly is that he doesn't read and prefers to watch TV.  It is said this is evidence that he is not curious about things.   Reading encourages thoughtfulness in a way that viewing a TV or a movie does not, especially for a person who doesn't read much at all.

The Harry Potter craze is behind us now.  Maybe that offers an opportunity to make reading more important to today's kids and in a way where the kids read a much greater variety of written work.  I sure hope so.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?

David Brooks had a column on Friday, Mis-Educating the Young, that contributes to a growing collection of pieces by various authors which argue that something is rotten in the state of educating children.  Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is one of the better pieces in this group, as it helps to define the problem, explains why the problem has come about, and offers some tentative conclusions about how to make things better.  The hypothesis is that kids learn important life lessons from play and adult supervision, aimed at the seemingly justifiable goal of keeping the kids safe, ends up blocking the learning - the cure is worse than the disease.

I want to note some other dimensions of the same general issue.  Kids tend to be over programmed, with many of the activity choices outside of school initially set by a parent.  Kids today have much less discretionary time than we had when we were kids.  Kids then "learn" that discretionary time is for vegging out or providing some hedonistic reward.  For most kids, reading is not the form that guilty pleasure takes.  So they don't learn to direct their own interests and to use that direction to drive their own learning.  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  Another consideration is that the nature of play changes as kids grow older.  It is possible that kids can engage in intellectual play, which I think is a natural outgrowth of child play expanding after some lessons from inside and outside of school have been learned well.  Indeed, the benefit from college for residential students, research that I was exposed to at the Frye Leadership Institute back in 2003 (I don't have a reference now but I'm sure my friend Lisa could provide it) says that what students learn from other students is far more important that what they get from their classes.  But nowadays there may be much less of this if what students do with other students is purely hedonistic (mainly drinking).

Brooks also notes that the nature of work is changing, rather dramatically, and school should be preparation for this brave new world, but hardly seems to be now.   To this one should add two further limitations regarding teachers.  Many, like me, had very little work outside of higher education and even among those of us in higher ed who did have administrative careers, there is the question whether that experience generalizes much, if at all, to the experiences of executives in the business world.  The other regards the age of the professoriate and that an instructor's sense of how and what to teach depends largely on what can be recalled from the instructor's experience as a student.   This seems to paint us into a corner.  One of my goals in this piece is to attempt to reconcile this particular issue.

Further, there is the issue of the patterns of school as a self-enforcing equilibrium, where those patterns are sub-optimal but end up blocking movement to something better.  Brooks' experience is from his teaching at Yale.   I don't know how long he's been doing that nor how many students he has taught, but I suspect his experience is different from mine, teaching econ majors at Illinois.  I described the issue as I see it at some length in a post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?  Here I will give a brief synopsis of the argument.

Many students conceive of the process of school as: (a) take notes during lecture (or get the notes from a classmate), (b) memorize the notes, and (c) regurgitate the notes on the exam.  This conception is based on prior experience.  Students have had many classes in this style.  Students develop coping skills that become well honed for classes taught in this manner.  They come to prefer that other classes they take also be taught in this way, because they know they can meet the challenge of those classes.  Instructors who teach in some other manner run the risk that students will be dissatisfied with the instruction, especially when student feel under prepared for the exams in the alternative approach.  Students care a great deal about their grades and tend to measure class effectiveness by whether it allows them to meet their grade expectations. Adjuncts, instructors not on the tenure track, need to get decent teaching evaluations from students to maintain their jobs.  So these instructors, in particular, are under a lot of pressure to teach in a manner that affirms the student conception of school.

There is an inner logic by which the process makes sense to the participants.  But to an outsider one would have to ask, what's the point to all of this?  Over the years, I've written quite a bit on potential process reforms that make sense to me and are designed to fundamentally change the system in a way that would improve things.  The first year of this blog I wrote a bunch of posts (7 in total) on what I called Inward Looking Service Learning, where the thought was to make the study group the centerpiece of a class, formalize it so students are assigned to study groups, and then have these groups led by other students who had already taken the course and who concurrently get taught by the instructor in how to make the most out of the study group.  Continuing in this direction, I argued to do this with sufficient intensity that all students go through the experience as study group leaders.  More recently, I wrote a series of posts called Everybody Teaches, that reconsidered the inward looking service learning approach but also took up the faculty development question and how to do that seriously when in such a reform environment.

It is tempting to consider yet other possible process reforms.  Here, however, I will content myself with some big picture goals regarding "meta-skills" that the instruction should aim at developing.

Before that, however, let me put forward my view that much of undergraduate education for the traditional-aged student (18 - 22 years old), as it impacts how the student will do subsequently in the world of work, should focus on the mid-career professional ten to twenty years after graduation.  The students themselves tend to be very myopic, focusing instead on the entry-level job.  Their emphasis on grades reflects that myopic focus, as grades are an important qualification for the first job.  But grades cease to matter at all once the person has some real job experience. In certain fields, where the undergraduate degree is itself a professional degree, there is critical skill development that matters, of course.  I don't mean to preclude that skill development.  But my focus here will be on "general education," which in my view should occur not just before the student starts in on the major but be a significant part of the major as well, in ways that I will explain below.

Here are some reasons for taking this longer view about how education should benefit work.  First, it requires that the education be durable.  Second, it points to a set of skills for mid-career professionals that are needed regardless of the employer or the nature of the work. It thereby provides a way to get us out of being painted into the corner that I described above.  Third, it recognizes that even after having graduated the student is still immature and far from complete.  Further development is necessary and will happen while working.  Thus, the education must prepare the student to continue to develop and much of the undergraduate experience should be about teaching learning-to-learn skills.  Fourth, it makes the education task do-able, if challenging.  In contrast, Brooks made it seem impossible in his essay.  Last, at present much of school doesn't make sense to students.  It seems like a bunch of hurdles to get over, nothing more.  This is a way to get students to understand why general education matters and how it prepares them for their careers.

I want to reference two works that paint a picture of what I have in mind.  One is The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon.  Undergraduate education should be readying students for a work life that embraces reflective practice.  I read Schon's book twenty years ago.  I think much of what he argues survives intact, even now.  There may have to be some modification to what he says based on how the nature of work has changed since.  I will speculate on that some as well.

The other piece is The Seasoned Executive Decision-Making Style by Brousseau, Driver, Hourihan, and Larsson.  Among the points made in this essay is that many middle managers have a very difficult time when breaking into upper level management.  Their way of thinking as a middle manager no longer applies and they don't have an effective alternative to replace it.  I like to frame the issue as managing down versus managing out.  Managing down is primarily about supervision.  Managing out is about setting direction and ensuring the organization's goals and activities are in reasonably good alignment.  What I'm arguing here is that well before the person has the responsibility to manage out the person should put in considerable thinking about what is required to do just that.  Seeing the big picture requires practice.   If we expect people at mid career to have the right skills and perspective, they need a path the readies them for this.

Now to the list of goals.  Each goal is coupled with a brief explanation to justify why it is there.

Learning to build a credible narrative, one that matches the situation under consideration to the available technique that the person brings to analysis of the situation.  Reflective practice is situated story telling.  What makes for a good story?  The received wisdom of the situation must be incorporated as well as the particulars of the circumstance.  If the theory is perfect, all the particulars can be explained by it and the story demonstrates how that happens.  No theory is perfect in this way, however, so the story must consider what can be explained by the theory as well as to discuss the variation that must be due to factors outside the model.  There may be multiple possible theories for what is going on.  In some cases it will be right to borrow a little from each of those explanations, to get a better fit of the situation.  In other cases one explanation prevails and the other candidate explanations have to be discarded.  The story telling justifies which of these is chosen.  Further, the story must be able to be told to others who are skeptical but willing to listen.  A good story addresses the criticism that such a skeptic brings.  It also welcomes such criticism, because in addressing the critique the story will be made more robust.

I want to note here that memorization doesn't help with development of this story telling skill.  For the right type of skill development the learner must translate what has been taught in the classroom to novel situations where it is not obvious whether the classroom lesson is applicable or not.  In the book How People Learn, this skill is referred to as transfer. Much of our undergraduate education should be about getting students to practice transfer. It is not easy for the novice to do this and students might not want to try something when they are not good at it immediately.  There is no doubt, however, that this is what a good chunk of undergraduate education should be doing.

Learning that a story is built up over time from an iterative process.  It does not emerge from one big gestalt on the situation.  So learners must come to understand that they need to get past their first impression of a situation and do a full exploration of what is going on. There is a mysterious belief among students that experts "get it" immediately and that getting it means getting all of it right from the start.  In contrast, non-experts are thought not to get it at all.  Under these beliefs, there is no room for anything in the middle nor any sense of a process by which a fuzzy picture might be brought into sharper contrast.  A more realistic view is that experts also learn in any particular situation.  The expert brings a mature process to facilitate this learning, while the non-expert doesn't have the tools to make progress in understanding the situation.  My friend Chip introduced me to the notion of an Inquiry Cycle, which follows from the work of John Dewey. Getting a good picture of what is going on requires several cycles.  There is no set number of these.  As long as there is a fundamental question that remains unanswered in order to understand the situation, the process must continue.  The inquiry cycle approach helps the person develop basic humility, by recognizing there will be things unknown, for the time being and perhaps beyond that.  One might make tentative conjectures about what is not known, but then subsequently those might be shown to be wrong by further inquiry. 

Learning that failure is part of the process.  Failure is often intermediate product.  This brings to mind the Edison quote:  "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Thus, patience and persistence become a virtue and that must be learned.  One way that undergraduate education itself fails now is by allowing cramming to be a strategy many students embrace because it produces good results grade-wise.  Cramming almost certainly happens near a deadline.  So it precludes failure as a possibility.  Learning to fail means understanding that success takes as long as it takes and can't be shoehorned into a narrow time slot.  Yet practical reality does impose some deadlines on us and we have to learn to live with the deadlines.  A practical accommodation requires learning to initiate earlier rather than to procrastinate.

Learning to be cooperative without being subservient.  There is a duality between understanding what is good for the work group, on the one hand, and maintaining one's own world view, on the other.  The former often requires skills of reading between the lines to understand group needs or to be able to reframe questions in a way where group goals can be addressed in a meaningful way.  Sometimes this is done by the individual then acting on the answers in a way that benefits the group.  Other times this is done by discussing those answers with others in the group to empower them into action.  In other words, being cooperative is more than merely doing as assigned, though that is certainly necessary on occasion.  If one is actively trying to understand what is good for the group without having the ultimate authority to set group direction, then one must admit the possibility that there will be instances where the articulated direction set by somebody else is perceived as problematic by the individual.  Bringing those issues out into the open doesn't have to be a painful process, especially if the leader (the one with the responsibility for setting the group direction) is known to welcome criticism from group members.  But it can cause conflict when the leader is defensive and wants the articulated prior view to prevail, at all costs.  Of course, one should aim for tact when expressing a contrary view.  But one should not repress opinions on important matters for the sake of group cohesion, as this will ultimately cause the group to perform poorly.  This is a very hard to learn.  How important must the issue be to bring the contrary view out into the open?   Conversely, how does one find the line where discretion demands not making a fuss about something because the issue isn't that important?

This last one I don't believe is in Schon's book The Reflective Practitioner, but it is implicit in Argyris and Schon's work on single loop (Model 1) and double loop (Model 2) learning.  How should the employee act when the employee has a Model 1 boss, who wants to win arguments and never wants to be shown up by his staff?  This question does not have an easy answer.  The integrity of the employee requires struggling through to an answer on a case by case basis rather than apply a ready made formula.  For this last goal I've described above, it is clear the employee will prefer to have a Model 2 boss, but the employee needs to learn to cope when that is not the case.

* * * * *

The goals I've listed are meant to address the first question in my title.  What of the second question?  I don't want to give a full analysis of that here.  I want to make a simple point and then close.  This regards the relationship between student learning in school and student learning outside of school.  It should be clear that the more of the latter there is, the more effective the former will be and the more targeted the former can be. In contrast, if students are not getting the right sort of life lessons outside of school, then school must provide a substitute for those otherwise unlearned life lessons.  But, of necessity, if school is doing this it will dilute the school mission and make it less effective in delivering on that mission.

There is now quite a lot of pressure on institutions of higher learning to produce success as measured by throughput - how many students graduate.  The degree itself is the prize, regardless of what the degree signifies.  Yet we should acknowledge that the degree has been depreciating for a while now, ergo the documentary Declining by Degrees, the book Academically Adrift, and a host of other exposés of this sort.

The path to something better for undergraduate education will be long and difficult to follow.  But it should begin with some understanding of the current situation and what we should want via terms of improvement.  I've written this piece not as an answer but I do hope it sheds some light on the situation and what our goals should be.

Friday, June 23, 2017


Zollo and I are sitting behind Lenny and Carl.  It's the first day of tenth grade and this is Chemistry with Mr. Kramer.  Class hasn't started yet.  Each desk accommodates two people.  Zollo and I shared one.  Lenny and Carl shared another.  The classroom is tiered so Zollo and I sit a step above Lenny and Carl. This is the way the science classrooms were laid out.  I knew Zollo from before, though I can't remember how.  The important thing is that because we went to 74, we did our ninth grade at Cardozo.  We were veterans.  Lenny and Carl went to 67.  They started Cardozo in tenth grade.  They were rookies.

I am giving a ton of grief to Zollo and Zollo is giving a ton of grief right back to me.  Lenny and Carl are laughing hysterically.  It's as if we were doing some vaudeville act on their behalf.  Then the class actually starts and we settle down, though that part I just assume.  All I can remember is those first few minutes before class.  I believe the pattern repeated for the next several days, perhaps even for the rest of the semester.  Eventually Lenny and Carl joined into the banter.  Soon after that first day, Lenny and I became friends.  One of the reasons is that he so readily laughed at my schtick. (The spell checker doesn't like the first "c" in schtick, but I'm going to leave it in because, after all, it is my schtick.)

And now a little aside to demonstrate that this sort of thing is itself learned behavior.  A few years ago I had a discussion group with three former students.   They were international students, two from China, one from South Korea.  They were very good students who always did the assigned work and were eager to learn.  They liked it very much when I would joke with them, which happened mainly at the beginning of our meeting.  They smiled easily and genuinely enjoyed that part of our interaction.  My purpose in starting the group was to see if I could get them to be more creative in their own learning.  So, in accord with my inclination, we read oddball stuff to get at creativity from many different angles.  Our method was for one of them to write a blog post about the topic beforehand and for the others to comment on it.  This was to get everyone ready for our discussion.  One week we covered humor and schtick.  Nicole's post on this showed her usual thoroughness, but it lacked any insight into the topic.  She could have tried to be funny in her post.  But she didn't.  Either it didn't occur to her to do so or she didn't know how.  I had hoped she'd try to imitate me in some way, but that didn't happen.  In my comment on her post I wrote one of my rhymes, trying to be both humorous and descriptive of the dilemma. You can't teach schtick one-two-three-zing, where the people learn to do it in one 90-minute session.  It takes lots of practice.  (Regarding the need for practice, think about the work of Anders Ericsson.)  I hadn't realized it ahead of time.  There are some things I do with essentially no effort.  Making humor in context is one of those things.  But I've been doing it for such a long time that I've forgotten all the learning that went into becoming proficient in this way.

Back to that time at Cardozo.  One of those things in school I never quite figured out is why you call some people by their first name but with others you use their last name.  And to make it weirder, this is not uniform.  Some people use the first name.  Others the last name.  For example, in the TV show Homeland, Carrie Mathison is always called Carrie but Nicholas Brody is often called Brody, even by his wife and by Carrie too, yet Abu Nazir studiously refers to him as Nicholas.  In my little story above, Zollo is the last name. I've always thought of him that way, not by his first name.  Many people called me Arv or Arvan and sometimes a short form of my first name, Lan.  Which name is chosen reflects a personal preference.  When I would talk with Lenny I would always address him using his first name (Lenny itself is a bit of a nickname on Leonard while Lanny is my full name and is not short for anything else) but when I would make reference to him when talking with somebody else I'd often use my little nickname for his last name.

I think the nature of the humor is tied to the name that is used.  After tenth grade I kind of lost track of Zollo.  He was into biology and I was not.  But I developed quite a similar relationship with Schulman; indeed it was even more intense this way.  The banter we had is what nerds do, the analog to trash talk between athletes.  Schulman used to call me a patzer, a definite put down.  It means a poor chess player, surely a correct description now, perhaps not such an accurate description then (meaning I was okay as a chess player in high school).  Schulman and I gave each other a lot of grief.  But it was all friendly.  With others who weren't math guys, there still was joking around but the humor had a different tone and was directed at other things, not ourselves.

One advantage that high school affords is that you have a different cohort of kids in each class, so you can get friendly with a variety of other kids.  If I were a stand-up comic, which I'm not, you'd say I was playing to a variety of audiences.  It's not exactly the same thing but I thought it similar enough to make the comparison.  In the process you develop a sense of taste about what stuff will work with pretty much everyone as well as where to modulate what you do for that specific context.  I wasn't always a jokester.  Sometimes I'd just engage in polite conversation.  But frequently I was going after a laugh even if much of the time that was done on autopilot rather than via extra exertion.

In history class in tenth grade I sat in the back of the room with Lenny and Lauren.  I think it was the only class I had with Lauren, though I'm not sure of that.  What I do recall is that we had these rather irreverent conversations that got a bit wilder as the term wore on.  At first she was more observer.  After a while, she participated fully. I want to say that some of this happened during the actual class session, though maybe that is my mind playing tricks on me.  In several classes where I got to sit in the back of the room, I have the sense that some of these sort of conversations took place during the actual class session.

It didn't happen in tenth grade geometry with Miss. Chinn.  She sat us by alphabetical order and I had the front right seat in the classroom.  I really don't like to sit in the front row.  I'd rather take it all in from the back.  Plus, because I'm rather tall, if I sit upright I can block the view of the person behind me.  Then too, if you are goofing off its easier for the teacher to spot you when you're sitting in the front.   There was a bit of all class banter in that class, but nothing like what I did with Lenny and Lauren in history.  Something similar to that did happen in the first semester of English with Mr. Marcus.  He was a younger teacher and gave the kids a bit more freedom.  I sat in back of the room with Elihu and a few others whom I can't recall now.  Elihu was intensely political at the time and he ultimately became the vice president of the student organization, with Larry as president.  Larry was another who was quite political at the time, though he wasn't in this English class.  Elihu steered a lot of our conversations and much of his humor centered around Lenny Bruce.  Ultimately, I read How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, so I could keep up in these discussions.  It was a bit too risque to be a part of the assigned curriculum, but it's good for kids to read some edgy stuff and then to talk about it with others.  So I enjoyed being in the back of the room with Elihu and the others, even if that all ended by the second semester when Mr. Stark took over from Mr. Marcus.

I want to now fast forward to senior year, second semester.  School for graduating seniors is always a bit iffy.  In my teaching now I refuse to teach in the spring because I get too disillusioned by the senioritis that infects many of the students.  Something like that happened when I was a student.  I was probably more serious about the academic content than many of my classmates, but I was far from immune from senioritis.  For example, there is the story about how one day Billy and I skipped Calculus so we could drive to Flushing to buy Falafel.  There were other shenanigans of that sort as well.  It is two other classes that I want to make note of here, each where most of the students were still paying attention and doing the work.

One was Jewish History with Mr. Seretan.  It always seemed weird to me that such a course would be offered in a public school, but it was a popular class, with a classroom full of students. I'm guessing that everyone in that class was Jewish; I know that many of the students in school were Jewish.  But here I'm not really interested in the subject matter.  This is the class I remember where the banter came from many people and where the casual discussion and class discussion most seemed to merge, an ideal I'd like to replicate in my own teaching but have never been been able to do so.  Perhaps that class will remain unique in my consciousness.   It had a more interesting social dynamic than most because in the fall Seretan was the coach of the It's Academic Team, which I was on, and we were quite successful, appearing on TV 3 times.   This was NBC in New York City, so something of a big deal. The upshot is that experience created a you-can-get-away-with-murder like environment.  While we didn't do that we did take our liberties.

The other class was English with Mrs. Nissenfeld.  I sat in the back of room and found a group of people there to banter with.  So in that sense the experience was like in tenth grade with Mr. Marcus.  But Mrs. Nissenfeld was a very experienced teacher.  The freedom she gave us, I believe, was her compromise between keeping us engaged and managing the senioritis.  (On the work front, I recall a group project where we had to do a book report and in-class presentation on Kafka's The Trial and our group had at least one meeting at the main public library in Jamaica to do the research for that.)   The group I was part of in the back of the room, which overlapped but was distinct from the group that did that project, had Billy in it.  Since he was already my friend and was quite a playful guy that fact made it easier for me to know the others, who were new to me.  I want to make special mention of Cliff, a very sweet guy and a big fan of then contemporary rock and roll.  I think his favorite was Loggins and Messina, but he also liked Elton John and Seals and Crofts.   In retrospect, getting to know Cliff was useful because I was quite ignorant about rock music and you really had to know something about it for college or, if not that, then you had to know how to go with the flow and let others set the agenda about what we listened to.  Cliff was extremely forthcoming in talking about his passion, while I went with the flow.   I don't remember too much of what else we talked about, but I remember it being fun and enjoying the interaction.  I wish I had gotten to know him earlier in my time at Cardozo.

* * * * *

I've spent this post talking about the banter I had with other kids while in high school, not considering at all what happened outside of school.  There was a lot of banter then too, much with still other kids.  So I could go on describing that, but I won't, at least not in this post.

We have a tendency to think of school as work and after school as play.  For me, those distinctions are false.  The two are jumbled together.  Further, it is important to note that I was not a class clown.  I really was quite a good student.  So the type of play with other students that I've considered above is not something that competes with the formal learning.  It facilitates that learning.  If there is one message that I want to get across in this piece, it is that play and work need to integrate.  The work part will be better that way.  In my experience it is much easier to do that in horizontal relationships, student to student, than it is in vertical relationships, student to teacher.   Let's observe, however, that such student to student interaction does support a goal that the teacher should want too.  The student needs to drive his own learning.  That is reinforced by the student engaging in banter with his classmates, which happens without (much) adult supervision.

The other point I want to make, and I really can't emphasize this enough, is that these are valuable life skills learned by this type of play with schoolmates.  It provided a solid foundation for me throughout much of my academic career.  I see kids now, the ones I teach, and a lot of them don't get this.  They are too wrapped up in the game of gaining credentials.  There is nothing on the resume that says you are good at banter, no authority figure to certify that.  But it is so valuable.  We say in college that we teach communication skills.  I mentioned Ericsson earlier so I want to repeat this here.  Being good at communication is a matter of practice, a lot of practice of the right sort.  We might intrude on occasion with the student to redirect that practice.  But our intrusions are no substitute for their practice.   This is learning by doing.  There has to be quite a lot of that.

One last issue is whether communication of this sort really requires humor or if you can learn to communicate with warmth and empathy without learning how to be funny.  I am the son of Sidney, so am not neutral on this point.  Even without that bias, however, part of the idea is to learn how to make the interaction enjoyable for the participants, so they want to come back for more.  One obvious way to do that is to make it fun.  For me going from fun to funny is not a stretch at all.  I am the son of Sidney, true, but I think his views should be universal. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What if Mr. Conrad taught English instead of Math?

I have been playing over in my head bits about high school.  For example, I've been wondering how long the school day was.  I'm pretty sure that we had 5 minutes between classes to get to the next class.  But I can't remember whether each class was 40 minutes or 45 minutes.  We started with homeroom, which was perhaps 15 minutes, though again I'm not really sure.  In ninth grade, if the school day started at 8:00 AM, which I seem to recall, then we either got out at 2:15 PM or 2:55 PM.  I don't remember which, though I do recall that a bell would ring at the end of each period and again at the start of the next period.

In ninth grade I had 5 academic classes - English, Social Studies, Earth Science, French, and Math.  Math was with Mr. Conrad.  More about him in a bit.  The other three periods were Band, Gym, and Lunch.  It's funny, I have little visualizations of each of these classes in my head except for lunch.  Part of that must be remembering the teachers.  But there is also a sense of the classroom - what floor it was on, what direction the room faced.  With the lunchroom, I have no visualization of it in my head.

In tenth and eleventh grades the pattern of classes was different for me.  I took 6 academic classes, two science classes each year, both Biology and Chemistry in tenth grade, Physics and AP Chem in eleventh grade, and then I also took two math classes in eleventh grade, both the required analytic geometry and trigonometry class as well as an elective class called math team workshop.  To accommodate this into the day something else had to be dropped.  I stopped doing band after ninth grade, even though I liked it.  After tenth grade I stopped with French, which was kind of a relief at the time, though perhaps short sighted of me then. I would have preferred to drop gym.  A lot of kids probably felt the same way.  In the fall semester of twelfth grade, I wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper, The Verdict, (the school was Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, named after the former Supreme Court Justice) that argued gym should be optional.  I remember that my English teacher at the time had read it and found it interesting.   My mother saved a copy of the paper and I found it while cleaning out the house before my parents sold it, roughly 20 years later.  So I read the piece again then.  I thought it mediocre, both the argument and the writing.

Twelfth grade was different schedule-wise and unlike how things are done now.  I started with two AP classes, math and biology, but after the fall I dropped the bio course.  I don't think the school had AP physics or AP English at the time, though maybe it had the latter and I simply wasn't interested in it.  For social studies, in the fall I had economics, which until then was the only academic class I took that wasn't an honors class and it wasn't particularly good.  At least it didn't scar me for taking economics later.  I took no science class that spring.  I did take a number theory class, but it only went that one semester.  The upshot is that in the spring I only went to school for 5 periods and was done before noon.  For many students, senior year was kind of a blow off time.

* * * * *

I had Mr. Conrad for four classes - the ninth grade required algebra class, the eleventh grade analytic geometry and trig class, the first term of the math team workshop (Mr. Rosenthal, the former chair of the Math Department, taught the second term), and the number theory class.  Plus, Mr. Conrad was the coach of the math team.  And he ran an activity called The Problem of the Week, which was for interested students to challenge their math problem solving skills.  So I had contact with Mr. Conrad throughout my time in high school, maybe more so than most other students, even those on the math team.  (Jimmy K and Michael S may have also had this much interaction with Mr. Conrad.  The kids who went to 67 for Junior High School, somewhere between one third and one half of my cohort - the kids who were in Arista - only started at Cardozo in tenth grade.)

The math department did more tracking in its classes than the other departments.  There weren't just honors classes.  There was also extra honors classes.  (Maybe the science classes were also tracked this way, with extra honors classes, but the English and Social Studies classes were not.  They had honors but not extra honors.)  I'd be hard pressed to explain why this was, other than a view that students should find their own ceiling to their learning and shouldn't be constrained by the pace being too slow for them and not compelling enough, then tuning out as a consequence.  But it also requires flexibility in the teachers to match what they teach with  where the students are.  Mr Conrad had that.  Even still, Mr. Conrad got Michael S and me to do an independent study for a while during the 11th grade required course, (we met in his space within the Program Office) so we could get a more sophisticated view of what we were studying.  We were too immature to follow through on that, however, so after bombing the exam on interpolation and extrapolation, we ended that little experiment.  But I still have the textbook we were given, Elementary Functions, by Hallberg and Devlin.

Mr. Conrad had particular aptitude teaching bright kids and engaging them so the learning was fun.  Perhaps the Problem of the Week is the best illustration of this.  The problem would be posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office.  It posed a challenge as the answer to any of these problems was not immediate, far from it.  Yet they required insight far more than advanced technique. There was no course credit for solving one of these, nor even some note of it as an extracurricular activity.  You worked on the problem of the week because of the challenge it posed and the joy in discovery if you could meet the challenge. I wrote about this some years ago in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity.

The idea that the same teacher stays in contact with a student throughout high school and provides nurture for the student's intellectual growth by challenging the kid in a way that suits where the kid currently is in his thinking is what I'm asking about in the title to this post.  Where would I be now if I had such a teacher for English?

* * * * *

Math, of course, is intensely logical and systematic.  In that, it is much easier than real life, which is complex and confounding, and where sometimes the logic of the situation entirely eludes most people's sensibilities.  English, reading how others have looked at their own situations that are perhaps comparable to our own, also writing in a way to develop our own perspective on things, seems to me the subject closest to understand real life at a personal level. 

I have written elsewhere, many times actually, that college is where you ask the meaning of life questions.  But the truth is that those questions emerge earlier, during adolescence.  Tying English to those meaning of life questions would have been helpful for me and probably would have gotten me to write a lot earlier than I actually did.

Those questions begin, I believe, with the onset of puberty, especially as how the time of that compares with the times for others in the kid's cohort.  For me, it started quite early, when I was nine.  I was kicked out of choir in fourth grade because my voice broke then, much like the kid in Almost Angels.   There was one other kid, Jay S, who was in the same boat.  We were separated from the rest of the class, when it was in choir practice.  I understood this separation wasn't punitive.  But it reinforced a feeling of being different from others.  (Being one of the biggest was what generated that sense of being different.  So I already had some of this feeling since nursery school.)  The first meaning of life question, then, was how to regard this difference and not feel shame about it, which I surely did feel at the time.  I have since confronted this feeling of being different in several other areas.  I probably wasn't ready in fourth grade to consider it a theme that might focus reading and writing.  But by high school I was.  However, I had nobody like Mr. Conrad to intrude on my thinking and direct it in this area.

The next meaning of life question was more intellectual in nature.  Kids maintain certain myths that make sense in childhood but that cease to be true thereafter.  The biggest of these is that adults always have the right answer and that parents and teachers both always have the kid's best interest at heart.  When this myth shatters it is very disillusioning.  The question thereafter is: what should replace it?  How should the kid act in the presence of authority?  In this regard, the time I was in high school may have been a healthier period than now.  I wrote about this in a post called, I was not a sheep. Were you?  This was in response to the book Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.   

When one belief system has to be discarded, it probably is useful to try out alternatives on an experimental basis before fully embracing any one of them.  At the time I was in high school, authority in general was being challenged, primarily because of the War in Vietnam, and the expression generation gap took on a good deal of currency.  The issues hit very hard for me in tenth grade.  I went from being a near ideal child, before that, to my mother and being in almost constant battle, during the remaining years of high school.  I know we read Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, and Demian around then.  Perhaps if I had more coaching on this score, I would have been better able to tie these works to my own situation.  Alternatively, somebody might have suggested to me to read other things that would have been more transparent to me this way and develop a better understanding of how to relate to adults.

The last life question I'll consider here is fear and nervousness and what to do about those feelings when in novel situations that are not readily navigated, for lack of practice.  A few weeks ago I watched a video of Dustin Hoffman talking about his experience filming The Graduate.  He spoke at length about how he and Katherine Ross were extremely nervous while doing the screen test, as was the director, Mike Nichols.  I would have benefited enormously in high school if I was told this story then.  I was quite aware of my own extreme nervousness at times, which often rendered me incompetent.  But it seemed most other people were competent.  So I inferred, incorrectly, that they weren't nervous.  I therefore became ashamed of my fears and tried to hide them.  This, I take it, is the big issue growing up.  Had I been able to read and write directly on this subject, I'm sure I would have come to a more mature view on the matter and much earlier than I did.

* * * * *

I do math explicitly now only on occasion, mostly in conjunction to the homework I design for my class in Excel.  Otherwise, it perhaps indirectly informs the writing of pieces like this one.  The structure of the piece and the pace at which ideas are presented may be influenced by my math orientation.  I want to make a convincing argument. The math taught the need for that.

But I wonder whether my intuitions about writing are missing some key elements, because I am almost entirely self-taught that way.  I don't mean grammar.  I mean rhetorical style.  When I first started this blog, the writing was influenced by watching The West Wing.  Those stories had multiple threads which had some interplay.  I tried for something similar in the writing.  I've moved away from that approach since.  It takes me a while to compose these posts now and making that gestation period longer is not attractive to me.  Yet I haven't abandoned writing longish meandering posts.   It reflects how I think on the matters I write about.  I am aware, however that it misses entirely any sense of the reader as different from me in inclination.

As a practical matter, my posts are getting very few readers now.  So there is question whether the writing should change to attract more of an audience.  I don't know how to answer that on my own.

In science fiction we can replay our lives in an alternate universe, where there are many parallels to our actual experience but a few key differences.  Having an English teacher in high school who touched me as Mr. Conrad did with math is one of those I'd like to explore.  Oh, to be thirteen again and starting the ninth grade.  Where might that end up? 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Technology Ruining Professional Golf?

This post is part of a determined effort to write about other than the current news and politics.  I don't know how long I'll keep that up, but I will try for a while to see if that engages me.

I watched much of the U.S. Open that concluded yesterday, played on a new course at Erin Hills, a golf course north of Milwaukee, the first time this tournament has been played in the state of Wisconsin.  There was drama in it as the outcome was in doubt till near the end of the final round.  The winner, Brooks Koepka, played very well, tying the record for shots under par (16) in a U.S. Open.  Many of the others near the top also played well.  Hideki Matsuyama, the highest rated player who made the cut, mounted an impressive charge on the final day, only to come up a little short. Yet I found the tournament strangely disconnected from past U.S. Opens and thus less interesting to view than it might otherwise have been.  What I have to say about it echoes comments by Steve Stricker, but this is strictly from the perspective of one fan of golf who watches on TV. 

To keep matters simple, I will divide pro players into two types, grinders and boomers.  As long as I've been aware of pro golf, there have been players in each category.  Grinders are known for consistency and accuracy.  Boomers are known for hitting their drives very long and, in particular, taking advantage of par fives.  When I became aware of pro golf, the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.  It did this by having narrow fairways with very punishing rough adjacent to the fairway.  I have some distinct memories of watching David Graham win in 1981.  His advantage was that he hit his drives in the fairway, while many other players did not.  He often used an iron on the tee, to assure this outcome.  Graham only won the U.S. Open that one time.  Other grinders who won it twice include Hale Irwin (he won it 3 times), Curtis Strange, and Andy North.  Interestingly, among the major championships these players only won U.S. Opens.  That cemented the idea for me that the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.   (Stricker is also a grinder, but he has not yet won a major championship.)

In contrast, The Masters is a tournament that favors boomers.  Players from the earlier vintage in this mold include Craig Stadler, Fred Couples (whose nickname was Boom Boom), and more recently Bubba Watson.   They could out-drive the field and at Augusta National that is a great advantage.

One should observe that truly great players can succeed in both settings, which shows that golf is more than just how you hit it off the tee.  Recovering from a mistake matters.  Putting well matters; it matters a lot. Understanding how to take advantage of course layout also matters, as does its converse, knowing what pitfalls to avoid so as to stay away from getting a high score on a hole and thereby playing yourself out of contention. 

Yet the last two winners at the U.S. Open were boomers.  Koepka really hammered his drives all day yesterday.  Dustin Johnson did likewise the year before.  Has the U.S. Open become a boomer tournament?  Are there any tournaments left for grinders?  Those are the questions I want to think through - from a fan's perspective.

First, consider a trend that has influenced all pro sports over the last 30-40 years.  This is the importance of weight lifting and strength training as part of the preparation of the athletes.  I'm under the impression that Tiger Woods brought this to golf.  His spectacular success demanded a reaction by the other players, so they could keep up.  I learned by watching this weekend that Koepka and Dustin Johnson often work out together.  Just looking at them, they are incredibly strong.  Koepka, in particular, is barrel chested and looked much thicker than some of his competitors, who may have been equally athletic but were much more slender.  (Matsuyama is another player who is muscular in the way Koepka is.)

The thinking used to be that muscle bound players in all sports would lack touch.  The question in golf is whether that was true 35 years ago or just an old wives tale.  The nature of the golf swing has changed since then, though why it has changed I am not sure.  When I first became aware of pro golf, the player held up to have the ideal swing was Julius Boros.  His swing was smooth and effortless.  (Ernie Els swings in this mode now, but he is just about to end his career at majors.)  Nowadays many of the players seem to swing exceptionally hard.  Sergio Garcia does this with his wedge as much as with his driver.  The very hard swing has become the new ideal.

Now I'm going to switch into guess mode, because I don't understand the physics of hitting a golf ball and what the new technology - the clubs and the balls themselves -  have done to affect the flight of the ball.  There is much talk about how the change from wood to metal in drivers and fairway woods has increased length of the shot.  Indeed there were ads for a new Calloway driver throughout the tournament that kept pushing the fact of it being revolutionary as far as length.  But my sense is that more important than average distance is decreased variance, both in how offline the shot might go, and in how long the shot goes in the air.  Indeed, one of the really noticeable things when they showed the drive via tracer (which is a technology that improves viewing the golf) is just how straight most of the shots were.  The boomers were hitting it just as straight as the grinders.  It's just that they were hitting it a lot further.

I don't think this was always true.  My impression is that with a wooden driver (I still have my persimmon woods which I keep in a golf bag in the garage) the slice or hook spin is harder to control, so those shots had a tendency to go more off line.  Further, with a wooden driver, fading the ball might have given somewhat more control than hooking it, but it would sacrifice distance.  Now there is such a thing as a power fade.  The big hitters seem to prefer that to the hook.  The metal drivers enable that.  If you can hit the ball as straight with the driver as you can with a long iron, then the latter has no utility at all and you won't keep it in your bag.

So the rough was largely not in play during the tournament.  Once in a while there'd be an errant shot.  But in the old days,  even a halfway decent shot that landed in the fairway might end up in the rough, owing to undulations in the fairway that were hard to control for.  That sort of thing hardly seemed to impact the player's decisions on the tee in this year's tournament.  What did matter was where the traps were.  Some players would choose three-wood over driver, so they'd end up short of the trap.  In other words, the roll after the ball hits the fairway is still something that has variance to it.  So players do make adjustments for that.  I recall even Koepka doing that once.  But most of his drives were so long that the fairway traps were not in play for him.

I think it is similar for the irons, both the stiffness of the shafts and the weighing around the head of the club.  The players hit the sweet spot a lot more frequently now, which is one reason why the scores were so low over the weekend.

While taking the next suggestion seriously might screw up the players swings, so the experiment wouldn't be tried for that reason, I'd like to see a few tournaments played where all the pros used equipment from 1980.  (Wikipedia says that Calloway, a company that makes golf clubs, was founded in 1982.)   After the players had adjusted to the older clubs and balls, what would their shots be like?  I'd like to see this, to get some insight on how much of performance is the skill of the current player and how much is the equipment.

Major league baseball, in contrast to pro golf, has ruled out the use of aluminum bats and still relies on the wooden ones.  But in little league through college, metal bats are preferred, for both durability and performance.  Likewise, the duffer who plays mainly once or twice a week as an escape from the day job should be allowed to use all the modern equipment, especially if it makes the experience more fun.

As a viewer of pro golf, however, it is less interesting to watch them play when booming the drive becomes the decisive factor for who wins the golf tournament.  To a certain extent, that made Jordan Speith a breath of fresh air, as it was his superior short game that elevated him to championships.  Another player in contention yesterday, Brian Harman, who was in the last group, also has an excellent short game.  It was fun to see him on top of the leader board for so long.

But he was at a severe disadvantage, not being nearly as long a Koepka.  He could not reach in two on the par fives.  And on many of the par fours, he had to hit a much longer iron into the green, making it more difficult to get close to the hole.  Golf at this level is not just shot making, however.  It's also about controlling your nerves.  All the players in contention operate under a great deal of pressure.  A boomer who can trust that his shot will end up in the fairway faces less pressure than other players.

It wasn't a guarantee that Koepka would win the tournament.  Indeed, he wasn't in the last group and was a shot off the lead at the start of the day.  Yet going into Saturday, when many players were tied at seven under par, Koepka included, ESPN had a piece that said Koepka was the man to beat. 

This was at the U.S. Open, a tournament that in my mind should still favor grinders.  I wonder if we'll ever return to that.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Taking Umbrage or Rolling with the Punches

As I write this it is early Saturday morning.  Everyone else in the house is asleep and it is very quiet, a stillness that seems unusual.  Part of that is the weather.  There will be storms later today.  This is the calm before that.  The tranquility is intoxicating.  I wonder if it can be bottled, not for personal profit, but rather to offer as a balm for those in distress.  It seems that so many are.  They could use some peace, with themselves and with the world that envelopes them.

There is injustice in the world, a lot of it.  There is also a lot of mindless behavior that ends up antagonizing others where there literally is no intent to do so.  My prior belief is that we should take umbrage with the former and roll with the punches for the latter.  But because I had the requisite statistics class in grad school, I know there are type 1 and types 2 errors.  What do those do to my prior beliefs?

Part of this is how aware we all are of others and are sensitive to their needs.  A question I have is whether such sensitivity is learned or not and then, if it is not learned early in life, can it be learned later?  The patterns that we get used to and comfort us harden over time.  Getting out of our cocoon gets harder and harder to do.

As I have only questions here, I wonder how others seem sure they have answers.  There do seem to be people with quite different answers, and where one answer precludes the other.   Is there some synthesis possible that demonstrates progress can be made?  Gridlock itself is distressing.

I so like the calm of the early morning.  But now it is time to clean up the kitchen so the day can start.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter

Though behavior-wise I don't fit the mold of an upscale voter, for example most of the clothes I'm wearing now were bought at Walmart, in other words I'm something of a cheapskate, income-wise I match the profile.  As I've written many times before, my household is part of the professional class, by which I mean that our household income lies somewhere between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile in the distribution.  The expression professional class is also meant to convey many related aspects of the household profile.  In our case both my wife and I have PhDs, quite a common situation in a college town, and there are concomitant behaviors and attitudes about work, family, and friends that are part and parcel of being a member of the professional class.  Indeed, most of my social interactions are with others in higher education, which clearly shapes how I think about things and why I feel so at home expressing myself in writing.  This narrows me somewhat as does living in a college town as opposed to living in a major metropolitan area.  Nonetheless, when I make reference to the upscale voter in this piece, I include myself as one of them.

Today, Bernie Sanders has an Op-Ed in the NY Times, How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections.  I largely agreed with what was said there.  Democrats need to get to potential voters who are currently not participating.  The obvious candidates are working class people and young people.  The policies of the Democrats must clearly favor these people, to give them a reason to vote and then to vote for Democrats.  This seems good and sensible to me.  Yet I was troubled by this piece.

The enemy in the Sanders story is the top 1 percent, who claim a much too large share of GDP, leaving not enough left for ordinary people.  I agree that they need to pay more in taxes, as a progressive tax system demands.   I asked myself, however, where am I and voters like me in this story?  It seems we're not part of the narrative at all.  For Sanders narrative to make sense, voters like me would have to continue to participate and fully buy into the progressive agenda.  My guess is that won't happen if the approach is to ignore us.  But, no doubt, including us complicates matters some, perhaps quite a lot.  Here I want to take on some of those complications.  But I want to do it in as straightforward a way as possible.

The core issue is that voters have been acculturated to "vote their pocketbook."  There is quite a long tradition of doing just that.   But if all voters do that then upscale Democrats likely wouldn't fully endorse a progressive agenda.  They will then perhaps try to block it or possibly become disillusioned and not participate or maybe vote for anti-tax Republicans.  In none of these scenarios is the path that Sanders sketches easy to follow. Thomas Edsall describes the issue well in a piece called, The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.

How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.

The issue is described quite well in a piece by Richard Reeves, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Upscale voters engage in a variety of undemocratic practices that favor themselves and their offspring.  Voting one's pocketbook is only a part of the picture.  There are other private behaviors that are equally damning.  When push comes to shove, an upscale voter will justify this behavior with the excuse - everybody else is doing it. If the behavior is to stop, this excuse needs to be taken away.

Now here's a bit of game theory to explain why this might be possible.  Below is a simple bi-matrix game.  There are two players.  The Row Player chooses Top or Bottom.  The Column Player chooses Left or Right.  They make their choices independently.  The joint choice determines a cell in the matrix.  The first number in the cell is the payoff for the Row Player, the second the payoff for the Column Player.  As Top is a best response to Left and Left is a best response to Top, Top-Left is an equilibrium.  Bottom-Right is also an equilibrium. Top-Left is better than Bottom-Right.   This type of structure is a "coordination game," a game that has two equilibria and one of those is better than the other.

You might ask whether the players will figure out themselves to play the better equilibrium.  This game is cooked so answer to that question is no.  Top is a far riskier strategy than Bottom for the Row Player.  If both players make a safety play, then you get Bottom-Right as the outcome.  In order to get the better equilibrium, there must be external coordination to achieve it.  This is why orchestras need conductors and why organizations need managers.

The situation that Reeves describes suggests a coordination game, so on that score I liked his analysis very much.  But his tone is scolding.  Most people don't respond to scolding well.  Some other approach is needed, one that treats all voters as responsible adults.  This requires explaining the nature of the coordination problem and the need for social responsibility in voter behavior.

I have no idea how much education of this sort is needed, but I suspect quite a lot.  And my guess is that Bernie Sanders is not the right messenger for this, because he is already so strongly associated with the progressive agenda that the message would seem self-serving rather than entirely genuine.  Jerry Brown might be the right messenger, as he has had to address these sort of issues in California and he no longer has any pretensions at national office.

Alternatively, he might be enlisted to identify credible Hollywood types, well known names who are not overtly political (I am thinking of the Director Ron Howard, Opie on Andy of Mayberry, but I have no idea of his politics or whether he'd be willing, and others from Saturday Night Live, before it got caught up too much in politics) for a campaign on the need for social responsibility.  I don't want to get hung up on the logistics of such a campaign, as that is outside my expertise.  But what seems  clear to me is a need for a concerted effort of this sort and that the entire Democratic leadership - Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer along with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - all embrace such an educational effort to give direction to the party.

Let me close with the following observation.  Right now the story is being dictated by Trump rather than by a progressive agenda.  In the immediate future, running against Trump might suffice.  Surely that will be true for 2018.  Perhaps it will also be true for 2020.  The requisite educational program will take time to implement and additional time to have good effect.  My view is that we need to think past not-Trump to something much more affirming.  But we're not ready for that now.  That is good.  It gives us a window in which to get ready. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Mattering Bias

The campus has a program to support low income students.  It is called Illinois Promise.  The program offers a variety of activities for such students, who are at higher risk of dropping out than the typical student.  One of those activities is a mentoring program.  I-Promise students opt into this program as mentees, meaning mentoring is optional for them.  The mentors are volunteers from the faculty and staff, retirees like me, others  from the community who have an interest in these students, and upper level students in I-Promise who now know the ropes and can pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

There is new leadership for the program.  To facilitate matching between mentees and mentors, potential mentors were asked to complete a Web form that gathered pertinent information.  I recently completed one of these and can report that one of the questions was a good and relevant one - Why do you want to be a mentor?  I puzzled about this for a while.  There is a highly idealistic conception of mentoring and then there is a very low to ground alternative, either of which might matter regarding the student's performance.  It's also possible that the mentoring is all surface-level, nothing more, and actually doesn't matter.  Let's describe each of these a bit.

For me, college was a wonderful time of life, especially after I transferred to Cornell and got comfortable there.  It was a time to ask the meaning-of-life questions and find some answers that made sense.  In current jargon, the answers that made sense to me were about finding Flow.  What in the college experience can help the student to produce flow with some regularity?  The mentor helping the student with that provides the idealistic conception of mentoring.

The vast majority of students, not just those in I-Promise but throughout the undergraduate population, are insufficiently pro-active about their studies, particularly when they are struggling in a class or in some of their classes.  Going to office hours, which is the responsible thing to do, is psychologically painful, because it is tantamount to admitting that the material is too hard and thus requires looking stupid in front of the instructor or the TA.  Nobody wants to look stupid.  Procrastination is often the product.  Mentoring, then, can be a mild form of nagging the student to act responsibly.  In the language of behavioral economics, mentoring serves as a Nudge.  As the be-all and end-all for mentoring, nagging the student doesn't cut it for me.  I hate being nagged; why would I want to nag anyone else?   Indeed, when I teach my class I tell them - I don't want to be your mother.  Nonetheless, some nagging may be necessary as an intermediate step toward the more ideal form of mentoring.  If there are too many obstacles of the mundane kind, flow can't be achieved.  The nagging is meant to get the student to address the obstacles and then get over them so higher level function is possible.

The difference between surface-level mentoring and effective mentoring is hard to describe.  Indeed, having attended several different training sessions for mentors over the years, I know that the evaluation results from mentee surveys and mentor surveys demonstrate a substantial asymmetry in perceived effectiveness, with the mentees reporting that the mentoring is quite valuable to them while the mentors report that the mentoring doesn't seem to matter very much.   So mentors tend not to be satisfied with the mentoring.  They are thus prone to steer the mentoring in such a way as to increase their own satisfaction, apparently mattering more.  This is the mattering bias in my title.

I developed this bit on mentoring, where I do have some experience to back up what I say, as a way  to introduce the notion of mattering bias.  In the next section I want to apply these ideas where I don't have the equivalent experience, but where I conjecture that the situation is parallel.

* * * * *

I want to take up the issue of charitable giving to not-for-profit organizations versus paying taxes for government provision of services.  As an economist, I'm prone to ask questions about this that might not occur to others.  What is the efficient division between activities that should be charity funded versus activities that should be funded out of tax revenues?  Are we close to that efficient division now or far from it?

A critical difference between charitable giving and paying taxes is that for the former the donor gets to choose the amount of the donation, the recipient, and the time when the donation is made.   In contrast, for the latter the amount is determined by rules set externally, the taxpayer has very little influence on how the funds will be spent, and the time taxes are paid is also specified by rules.

For the ordinary Joe, these differences are probably more molehill than mountain.  When I was a full time employee of the University of Illinois, the bulk of my charitable giving came via payroll deduction.  The campus would have a charitable fund drive sometime during the fall.  In response, faculty and staff would select which charities to support from an approved list along with the amounts for each.  If my experience is typical, you might think about this for 5 minutes or so.  Then it was out-of-sight-out-of-mind, as there were other items withheld from the paycheck (parking, optional life insurance, income tax, etc.) and at most you were cognizant of the take home pay, sometimes not even that.  Monitoring the various items being withheld was just too much bother.   Other charitable giving outside of payroll deduction would occur, but mainly in response to a solicitation, either a kid ringing the doorbell for some school thing or a friend or relative making a solicitation for a worthy cause.  Many people do respond to solicitations, which I suppose is why there are so many of those.  But then the charitable giving is less free choice, as described in the previous paragraph, and more caving into mild social pressure.

The situation is different for high rollers, who might make a very large donation.  I know this indirectly from my time on campus as an administrator.   The campus has a fund raising apparatus called the Foundation.  Each college also has its own fund raising apparatus, with full time staff dedicated to the effort.  Yet the closer on deals has to be the head honcho, the dean.  Deans spend a good chunk of their time on the road, schmoozing with the high rollers.  Arguably, this is an efficient use of time.  The donors want access to the dean, so they can get the straight scoop of what is going on, not filtered by some intermediary.  (I don't want to rule out that the donor might want to influence college function for his or her own purpose, but for now let's ignore that, as considering it here is a distraction.  Every college puts out its own high-gloss newsletter meant for alumni and friends of the college.  To understand what is really going on beyond that, you want to hear it from an insider in the know.  The dean is credible in this way where nobody else would be.)   Then they can negotiate the nature of the gift, which is typically targeted - an endowed chair, naming a room in a large building or, if the gift is big enough, a new building entirely, or perhaps a scholarship fund for students in a certain category where the fund bears the donor's name.

In other words, the donor gets personalized treatment from the college and that is an expected part of the donation process.  Deans are evaluated, to some degree, on their ability to raise funds for their colleges.  This is a game being played by many and it has developed its own mechanisms.  I suspect these are quite similar to the mechanisms entailed in other areas of giving, say where the high roller contributes to a candidate's political campaign or to some super PAC, and likewise to where the high roller sits on the board of directors of a big company, even if in that case it is contribution of time and name that matters and indeed money might flow in the opposite direction - pay for work done on the board.

If this is right then paying taxes really is quite different for the high roller.  It is obligation only, with no personalization and no attempt to give the high roller insider status.

I was drawn into thinking about this by a David Brooks column from last week, Giving Away Your Billion.  The piece makes reference to The Giving Pledge, which is the brainchild of Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates.  There are 169 letters from well to do individuals (or with their partners in life) which you can read off the homepage of the site (clicking on the picture of the person(s) making the pledge brings up the letter).   I scanned through the homepage and read a few of the letters.  There are a few names I recognized, many more that I didn't.

A couple of the names I did know surprised me for being there, Michael Milken and T. Boone Pickens.  I had made mention of Milken in a recent post, The Next Deal.  Pickens, as I remembered, was one of the people who financed the Swift Boat Campaign during the 2004 Presidential election which aimed at discrediting John Kerry's war record in Vietnam.  While I don't know this, I presume they are both lifelong Republicans and very much in favor of their party's anti-tax agenda.  So my initial reaction was surprise at seeing them on this list.  What I wrote above demonstrates going beyond that initial reaction to a plausible explanation (at least to me) of how these same individuals can, on the one hand, be deeply devoted to philanthropy while, on the other hand, be just as deeply anti-tax.    I suspect that many of the very rich can be characterized similarly.

The pledge itself is rather mild.  It specifies neither the recipients of the giving nor the purpose of the gifts.  Implicitly, then, it embraces the notion that all such gifts are equally valuable, so the donor is free to choose from among the possibilities.  But that might be quite wrong.  Suppose, instead, that by coordinating donations and acting in concert the givers can achieve much greater than is the sum of the benefits achieved when they make donations individually in an uncoordinated manner.  I will illustrate with a few examples below.  But before I do I want to note this issue.  If they do act in concert might it be that each individual gift matters less in that case?  In other words, if 168 out of the 169 listed on the pledge site acted in concert, could they then achieve the anointed purpose?  If so, it doesn't seem that the giving of the 169th donor matters much if at all.

There is thus a kind of free rider problem with getting the group to act in concert, though it is a different sort of free rider problem then is usually described in the public finance literature.  Here it is not tax avoidance per se which is the issue.  The person is willing to give, as long as the donor can see that the gift matters in an overt way.  The person only wants to avoid those gifts where it is not possible to determine that the individual gift matters or where, even if possible, it appears that the individual gift doesn't matter, although the aggregate gift does.

As to examples, I thought it most useful to consider existential threats, for all of mankind or perhaps just for us in America.  One candidate is global warming.  Suppose the group concluded that the pace with which we're addressing the problem is much too slow, so they agree to entirely underwrite the installation of solar panels in the roofs of houses and industrial buildings, much like I wrote about in a post from last year called Hard Hats That Are Green.  (In other words, there would be no out of pocket cost for the owner of the structure where the installation occurs.  There would just be the inconvenience from the installation itself.)  I note that Elon Musk is one of those who have made the pledge.  Suppose further, to cement the deal, he says that 100% of the profits that would accrue to his company from this arrangement will be funneled back into offering free solar panel roofs around the country and then around the globe.  Does such a going-all-in approach to combating global warming fit the bill for the group addressing a true existential threat?

Or consider the National Debt.  Some people fear that the Debt to GDP ratio has crossed a threshold (100%) from which our economy can't recover.  The group who have taken the pledge could use their collective gift to pay down the debt, perhaps raising $1 trillion or $2 trillion for this purpose, thereby moving all of us into safer territory.   As examples go, this one is potentially most interesting because the same consequence clearly could be achieved by raising taxes and using the tax revenues for the purpose of reducing the debt.  If this is the existential threat to combat, why not let the political system solve it?

Before I get to my third example, I want to observe that it wasn't just Brooks' column that stimulated my thinking on this piece.  Last Thursday, Thomas Edsall's column resonated with me while demoralizing me at the same time.  It's called The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.  The focus was on voters who supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012, but who then voted for Trump in 2016.  The explanation for this shift was given as follows:

Geoff Garin is a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group which, together with the Global Strategy Group, conducted the surveys and focus groups for Priorities USA. Garin wrote in an email:
The biggest common denominator among Obama-Trump voters is a view that the political system is corrupt and doesn’t work for people like them.
Garin added that
Obama-Trump voters were more likely to think more Democrats look out for the wealthy than look out for poor people.

Then, to amplify on this, in the Sunday Review Richard Reeves had a column Stop Pretending You're Not Rich, addressed to members of the meritocracy, whom I like to refer to as the professional class, where he explains how the game is rigged to favor them and their offspring.  For example, deductions in the income tax, such as the mortgage deduction, actually serve as a kind of welfare for the well-to-do.  Such voters are loathe to sacrifice that benefit for the greater good.

For a while now I have maintained the belief that the professional class, which prides itself on being responsible, should embrace paying higher taxes themselves, in part because that is the socially responsible thing to do, also in part because without them paying higher taxes there would be no way to rein in the uber rich to do likewise.  But it occurs to me now that this might also cut the other way.  Reeves talks about a variety of anti-democratic behaviors that members of the professional class engage in, such as sending their children to private high schools with tuition as much as $30,000 per year, putting the children in an advantageous position to get into an elite college.  This sort of behavior is explained as follows:

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in anti-meritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

If we are ever to get past this sort of thinking and make the system actually work for everyone, which is my third example, then we have to counter the everyone's-doing-it excuse, in reference to gaming the system. A visible demonstration to this effect by the those who have taken The Giving Pledge might be just the sort of catalyst to get members of the professional class to wake up to their own folly and make the system as a whole much more democratic, thereby restoring faith in it.

Is this actually possible or only mere pipe dream?  I don't know.  Yet I am convinced that we are not getting the division between charitable giving and paying taxes close to correct.  There is skew in favor of the former and away from the latter.  We are remarkably under taxed.  The mattering bias of the wealthy is the primary reason why. 

Sometimes I think we look for solutions too fast and don't worry enough as to whether we've described the problem correctly first.  So here let me close with the following.  What if somebody who has made the giving pledge reads my blog post?  Might that person agree with the argument, at least in principle?  Might the founders - Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates agree with the argument?  That would be a big first step.  Maybe we shouldn't worry much about further steps until that first one is taken.