Sunday, December 31, 2017

The discord between how the U plays in the press and what is actually happening on the ground

While I understand the need to report about how poorly Higher Ed polled last year, I thought that otherwise there was a lot of stereotyping in this piece, so in the reading it felt obligatory (Bruni has written about Higher Ed - quite a lot actually) but not enlightening. Here are some points that might have been considered, but aren't in this piece.

(1) Political views of students vary by their majors. Econ (and Business) students tend to be conservative. And in my class, at least, such students also tend to be outspoken rather than feel they are being silenced. The presence of these students is hardly noted in pieces that talk about Higher Ed.

(1a) I recently posted a map of my student's hometowns as listed in Banner.  (I only did this with Facebook friends, not publicly.)  Most students are from Chicagoland, particularly the northern and western suburbs. I believe those areas are much more conservative than the city itself and the immediate towns that border the city.

(1b) More generally, if Big Public U draws in-state students the same way that my class does, the students are apt to be more conservative than their professors.

(2) The 2+2 model has been around for a while. (First two years at a Community College. Last two years at a public university.) I believe at the U of I it has been in place for more than a decade. The number of transfer students at the university is way up as compared to before that.

(2a) While I don't believe there are income qualifiers to get into a 2+2 program, one might reasonably guess that students in this program are disproportionately from low to moderate income families. If this is right then while there is diversity of students income-wise at the U, especially starting in the third year, outside of the classroom there may be clustering by income within the U that reduces the benefits of that diversity.

(2b) The first-year experience is its own thing. It's as much social as it is educational, or it is educational about life skills as much or more than classroom learning.  (It is the first time for many to be away from mom and dad for an extended period of time with no other adult to answer to.) The transfer students miss this.  They do get some formal skills education in courses targeted at them, but they don't get the experiential learning.  Likewise, my guess is that the fraternities and sororities disproportionately consist of students who started at the U as first year students.  The upshot is a separation of types that I associate with second-degree price discrimination, like first-class versus coach seating on airplanes.  Perhaps that is inevitable.  However, if much of college education is actually social capital (whom you know rather than what you know) this separation is regrettable.  To the extent it is inadvertent rather than planned, we may have to live with it.  But it needs some discussion.  We're not getting such a conversation now. 

(3)  Now we get to the slippery slope - consideration of gender and race and how that correlates with the previous two items.  In entirely separate pieces, the male-female distinction in college has gotten substantial attention.  But this looks at enrollment only, not at performance.  GPA is one measure of performance.  In my class, this past year I tracked attendance, which is a different measure of performance, though it does correlate with the course grade.  My class offers too small a sample of students to make sweeping conclusions, but I conjecture that being male and low income the student is much more likely to be at risk than being female and low income.  If you throw in race, in addition, a Latino male who is low income is quite at risk.  

(3a)  When we first started 2+2 at the U of I there was talk from other administrators about whether the Community College courses were adequate preparation, even when those courses "articulated" with the U of I, so the credits did transfer.  I want to think of this from an enculturation angle.  Suppose you have a reasonably bright student who is enrolled in classes that don't challenge the student.  What happens as a consequence?  If there are learned behaviors from that experience and then the student transfers to a University where the classes do challenge the student, what then is the response?  Again, I don't have enough data to claim this is true, but I conjecture that transfer students have lower class attendance on average, which would be one indicator of the issue.  

(3b)  The flip side on the race card is the large number of Chinese and Korean students we have.  There is a tendency for such students to be quite diligent (as measured by attendance, for example) but to be quiet in the classroom.  As an instructor, the goal is to teach the individual student, who has a distinctive personality and way of going about things.  Putting the student in a box defined by family income, educational background, gender, and race might block the instructor to see the student as an individual.  I'm afraid this is more true about East Asian student than students in other categories, simply because of their relative numbers on campus.  It would be nice to think that instructors aren't influenced this way, but I'm afraid they are.

(4)  There is an issue of whether University Presidents actually have a sense of how things are on the ground on their own campuses or if they only have a highly filtered view of these matters.  So I found it troubling that Bruni writes a column based on conversations with Presidents, one of whom is Margaret Spellings.  She has no background whatsoever as an instructor in a college classroom.  Her trajectory is through a political career.  There are several other examples of that trajectory landing the person in the job of University President.  Can such people see the issues without framing them in a political way?  I doubt it.  

(4a)  As a matter of journalism, I'm not sure whom to interview on these matters, but let me note that many of our distinguished faculty primarily teach at the graduate level.  So if the question is how things are going with undergraduates, one has to go much further down the pecking order to get to people with enough real experience to be able to speak to the issues in an informed way. 

(4b)  The largest issue about school, both K-12 and college, and this evident to anyone who looks at it with some interest at getting at what is really going on, is that there is a massive "gaming of the system" to the detriment of actual learning.  This is manifest in a negative feedback loop between how students game the system, how instructors teach, and how academic departments select and retain instructors for teaching.  This issue gets no attention among those administrators who are politically inclined.  So we are not seeing any attempt to cut this loop and offer remedies that might improve things.  

Let me wrap up.  The freedom of speech issue, as it pertains to Higher Ed, usually seems to be about discussions of our national politics and whether those happen on our campuses with both the liberal and conservative view represented in the conversation.  While that may be interesting to readers of Bruni's column, it really is a tertiary issue on campus.  The fundamental issue is about what students are learning and whether they are learning in a deep manner.  We actually don't have freedom of speech on this front, but it is not because of censorship.  It's because of the current business model of universities, which are so reliant on donations and tuition.  For both, it is believed necessary to promote a nice shiny view about what college is about, at least that is the belief by those in charge of marketing the university.  So there is discord between those marketers and the people on the ground, students and instructors.  I wish Bruni would write about this.  That might actually help to improve matters.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Silly Day

This post is not my usual fare.

I proclaim today Silly Day, not that we need an excuse to go back to when we were kids, when every day was Silly Day.  The immediate cause for the proclamation is that a couple of nights ago, in my sleep, I did something to my foot, so I've been limping around yesterday and today.  On the theory that laughter is the best medicine, I thought

The cure for an owie
Is to watch the Hekawi.

So, taking that to heart, I did a Google search for watching F Troop online.  And, indeed, it is available from a variety of providers.  At it is $1.99 per episode.

How is that for silly?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nonrandom Acts of Absurdity

Up The Down Staircase has a 1964 copyright.  I read it a few years later, though I can't remember when.  I also saw the movie with Sandy Dennis, though I believe only on TV, not in a theater.  The title is a knock on the bureaucracy in the schools.  Though if truth be known, at Benjamin Cardozo H.S. in Bayside Queens, NYC, when I attended it back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school was over crowded, I believe about 4500 students then, and operated on a split session, so during the change between periods several thousand students would be taking the stairs.  Under that circumstance, it actually makes sense to have one staircase for up, the other for down, and to enforce that the foot traffic flows only in one direction on each staircase during the change over.  (In other words, this particular regulation actually encouraged efficiency.) Nevertheless, the book became something of a hit for telling a compelling story about how the bureaucracy sometimes impeded the sensible solution from taking hold, and then doing so with a touch of irony and a tad of humor.

The U of I bears a vestige of this earlier era in the Foreign Language Building, where the stairs between the basement and the first floor are labelled up and down.  Elsewhere on campus, however, there is one stairwell only and the rule of thumb is that traffic flows to the right, though I will note that there is often only one handrail, so for somebody like me who takes some assurance from holding the handrail, you can end up on the wrong side of the stairs for that reason.

It is now almost 50 years since I started high school.  One might think with all the online technology that's been introduced in the interim that would have dramatically reduced the consequences of bureaucracy.  In some cases that is true.  But in other cases, it seems to have made things worse.  Here I'll focus on just one example.

But first, let me note that technology is not the only source of absurdity.  Some of it stems from human decision making.  This semester, we started a week later than we have done in the recent past, not a bad idea given how hot it has been in late August.  (I don't know that was the reason for the change, but I want to note starting later was okay with me.)  The sensible accommodation to that change would have been to end the semester when it typically ended, meaning the semester would have been shortened by a week.  Everyone I know would have responded, Hallelujah, to such a sensible change - the semester is simply too long.  Of course, if you've been teaching the same course for several years, you'd have to figure out what to cut from your class.  That might take some consideration and effort.  Overall, however, the shorter semester would win out in the cost-benefit calculation.  Unfortunately, it seems the length of the semester is set in stone and it would take an act of God to change it.  So if we start a week later, we also end a week later.  That is a human decision, not due to the technology.  This decision then conditions the absurdity to which the technology contributes.

The university has an incredibly expensive Student Information System, but in many ways that system doesn't do what we want it to do, so we now have two different ways to upload course grades.  The one I used this time around is called Enhanced Grade Entry.  It offers a modest feedback to the person uploading grades, relying on a traffic light type of analogy as to whether the task has been completed or not.  A big deal issue with this is who else gets the feedback, aside from the person who uploaded the grades.  For example, does the Econ Department get to see if I uploaded my grades.  I am not sure of this, but signs point to no and/or there was a glitch at the Registrar level and that impacted what the Econ Department could see.

So this morning, a bit after 10, I received an email from the Econ Department about uploading final grades.  For those reading this well after I've written it, today is December 27.  It is after Christmas and I'm on holiday, though I check my campus email pretty regularly.  On December 19, I did upload my grades and got the Green Light.  Was that the final word on the matter or not?  The email from the department didn't included the recipients, who were Bcc'd.  So I can't tell if it went to only a few instructors or all of them. 

A little more than an hour later I got this email from the Registrar, which indicated that at least for some students, I still needed to upload their grades.  Twenty minutes after that I received this Emily Litella-like message - NEVER MIND!  The second sentence of this message is entirely mind blowing - their phone line wasn't working.  We're using phone lines for transmitting grade data?  I didn't think we had phone lines for any data at this point.  We went to Voice Over IP at around the time I retired.  But when there is a glitch, as there sometimes will be with technology, then there is a need to communicate about said glitch.  And in the heat of the moment, that communication might not be carefully crafted.

I really don't want to pick on the Registrar or on that part of the administrative process.  Given the size of the U of I they have their work cut out for them.

So let me close with a lesson I learned long ago.  Murphy's Law tends to favor large technology implementations with a lot of moving parts.  So one absurdity is we don't have have safeguards in place when Murphy's Law does its thing. But the real absurdity here is that somebody in authority approved having the last day to submit grades be after Christmas.  That makes no sense whatsoever and yet that's what we have now.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Teaching Loads

There was a dinner party last night for a distinguished economist who had retired last summer. Now he and his wife, a distinguished academic in her own right, are leaving the community.  (Their house will be on the market in the spring, if you are looking for a stately place in Urbana.)  I haven't hung around people in the department for quite a while.  So I got caught up on some pretty basic stuff that's been this way for a quite a while.  In other words, what I'm reporting below is not new.  It's just new to me.

When I started in 1980, the standard teaching load was 2 and 2, meaning 2 courses in the fall and 2 in the spring.  There was some expectation that one course would be at the graduate level and the other at the undergraduate level.  As part of my starting package (my 9-month salary was $19,500), I had a a one-course buyout the first year.  This was to help me get my research program underway, pretty standard for new assistant professors.  I also received a guaranteed 2/9ths for summer money the following summer.

Now let's fast forward to the present.  The standard teaching load for tenured faculty is 3 courses.  As there is a professional Masters program in the department now, for many faculty all 3 courses are at the graduate level.  And for assistant professors, the standard load is 2 courses, the full time they are in that rank.  (I believe the starting salary of a new assistant professor in Economics is around $125,000, though I may be off a little in that assessment.)

It was explained to me, and I'm sure this is true, that these changes in teaching load were necessitated to keep up with universities elsewhere.    I want to note that way back when, Northwestern also had a 4-course teaching load, but those were 4 quarter courses.  So faculty taught two out of the three quarters but had no teaching obligation in one quarter and could devote that time fully to research.  My understanding of why NU had quarters was precisely to support the research function in this way.  Fast forward to now and you see the consequences of schools with ample revenues and endowments having competed down the teaching obligation creating a spillover effect on public universities, which want to vie for the same faculty but do so with a much weaker revenue base. 

Here are two related factors to consider in looking at these numbers.  First is the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty in Economics.  Back in 1980, that was around 55 FTE.  (Many faculty had joint appointments with other units so were counted as fractions in Economics.)  Now there are about 25 FTE.  The department has many non-tenure track faculty for teaching and utilizes retirees (like me) in undergraduate teaching, but also core courses (particularly intermediate microeconomics) are taught in much larger sections.

The other factor is the source of revenues.  Way back when, tuition at the U of I was quite modest and U.S. News and World Report would rank us as a "best buy" among universities.  The bulk of the revenue then was coming from state tax dollars.  Now tuition, particularly undergraduate tuition, is a major source of revenue.  This is partly from increased tuition rates (and increased fees).  It is also partly from increased enrollments, which are up at least 25%.  The final factor is the composition of those enrollments.  There are many more out-of-state/international students, who pay a tuition at a much higher rate.  We were upwards of 92% in-state when I started.  Now, I believe we're under 80%.  (These facts can all be ascertained at the Division of Management Information Web site.  But this being a Sunday afternoon, I'm being sloppy and doing it from recall.)

One wants to know whether the situation is stable, as is, or if there is too much tension and it will result in fracture of some sort.  I don't know.   But suppose that a group of people in the know forecast that fracture was likely.  Can Higher Ed at the research university level reform itself in a sensible way to prevent that outcome?  And, if so, what would such reforms look like?  Who is asking questions like this?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Last Aha

I mean my title to be a double entendre.

Tuesday will be the last class session of the semester in my course The Economics of Organizations, Econ 490.  Most of the students are upper level undergraduate students, all Econ majors this time around.  I have one student in a professional masters program in economics.  They do weekly blogging on course themes, where one purpose of this writing is to connect their own experiences to the topics the class is studying.  Apparently, students don't do this as a matter of practice in their other Econ classes, though it is unclear whether that is because they simply don't try to make such connections or if the don't have any relevant experience for the subject matter.  One student wrote in her final post that this was novel for her, and she was appreciative for having had the experience.  An epiphany!

During the semester, I provide prompts for that week's posts.  The rules posted in the syllabus are that students are to write to the prompt or to choose a different topic, one of their own selection, but then connect that to course themes.  This second option was available but not exercised.  One wonders why.  Is it a lack of confidence?  Or perhaps a sense that writing to the prompt is easier; more background work would need to be done if the student chose to write on a different topic?  Or might it be simply that it doesn't occur to the students to follow their own curiosity rather than follow the professor?  If the blogging activity itself is to have a derivative benefit after the course is over, it needs to occur to them then.  Will it?  If not, while the course may have provided an interesting interlude for the students, it surely couldn't be called transformative in that case.  (Back in 2013, I wrote a post called Some Thoughts on the New Campus Strategic Plan, where transformative learning experiences were featured.  Apparently they are still to be featured in the upcoming strategic plan, though no details are yet provided.  In the previous plan, it seemed that such experiences were expected to happen outside of courses, not in them.  I never understood why that should be, especially if the course is not a large lecture.)

Now let me speculate about what will happen to these students based on mentoring one student this semester who took the course a year ago.  He cares a great deal about getting good grades in the courses he takes.  He has a unique career interest for an econ major, in law enforcement, that perhaps shapes his outside of class activities very strongly.  I won't comment on them further, other than to note that while he is incredibly earnest he seems far less rounded in his general education than I would hope for.

To illustrate what I have in mind, consider the two paragraph below, taken from a blog post a couple of years ago after an interview with Ann Abbott.  The full post is here

The other part, this specific to Ann, is the immediate sense I had of finding a kindred spirit. Her personal philosophy about the purpose of undergraduate education, something we covered in the preliminary part of the discussion, is essentially identical to mine. She started right in talking about how over programmed the students are, something I agree with 100%. She also said that when she was an undergrad she went to the movies on campus a lot, mainly for foreign films. She also went to a lot of lectures. I did the same when I was an undergrad. In other words, much of the education was informal and happened outside of regular courses. By being so over programmed, the students block this informal sort of learning. They also miss out on the inquiry into themselves, which is what college should be about, at least in part, even while the students are readying themselves for a life of work that they will enter after graduation.

A good part of that personal inquiry happens by the student having intense discussions with people who are different from her. Ann talked about spending a lot of time in college with international students who had quite different backgrounds from her. She is from a small town in Illinois I did not go through quite the same thing. Being from NYC I probably had a greater diversity of cultural experiences growing up. But in college I did spend a lot of time interacting with graduate students where I lived and we would argue (in a friendly way) over anything and everything. The diversity in point of view really helped my development. 

It seems to me that if students are to produce Ahas on their own, after their college days are over, they need to have had the sort of education described in the previous two paragraphs.  My guess is that most of the undergraduates I teach are not having such experiences and they don't see it as satisfying a personal need.  Why that is, I can't say.  But if the assessment is correct, we should be asking what might change matters for the better.

This is about mindset regarding college education.  I would say that most of the students I see subscribe to the degree-as-passport-to-a-good-job theory of undergraduate education.  Personal inquiry is absent in that.  Somehow a different balance needs to be established where the passport-to-a-good-job and the personal inquiry approaches can co-exist. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The acceleration of turning people into objects

I teach my students a bit about second degree price discrimination, which is where buyers are of different types based on their willingness to pay for a product, and where the seller uses "menu pricing," in which the choice the buyer makes from the menu reveals the buyer type. Seating on airplanes provides a ready example.  There are two types of passengers - first class and coach.  First class seating is efficient, meaning it satisfies the usual (in an economics class) condition of marginal benefit equaling marginal cost.   Coach seating quality is less than efficient.  Quality deterioration occurs to facilitate sorting of the buyers.  If coach quality were decent, some of the first class buyers would opt to fly coach instead, saving money on their tickets in the process.  Everyone understands this, at least intuitively.

If first class is really good and coach is not too bad, nobody gets too worked up about the arrangement.  But what happens if coach quality starts to decline or if a third category of passenger emerges (sub-coach), with members in the third category getting even worse treatment, either because the demographics of who flies has changed (impacting the marginal benefit side of the equation) or because there have been changes in marginal cost (it's a long time ago where you recall what OPEC was doing impacting airline ticket prices, but it's that sort of thing I have in mind here)? One might then ask, how low will the airlines go quality-wise?  Are there any limits to this?

The hypothesis I want to advance in this piece is that as long as you regard others as people you have an obligation to treat them decently.  The ethics of the situation in this case limits the extent of second degree price discrimination.  But, if you start to regard others as objects, in this case the word "you" refers to sellers, then you've peeled away the ethical restraints and there is no limit to how low you will go.  This is one angle to keep in mind in considering the topic of this post.

Here is a different angle.  I started out trying to write a different post.  I hadn't yet settled on a title for it, but it would have been something like - the limits to gender equality.  (In March, I had written a post called Learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  So I thought a piece in that vein might be doable.)    There have been a large volume of pieces written about sexual harassment as of late, and for the most part none of those moved me to write something on the subject.  An Op-Ed in the New York Times recently changed my mind on the matter.  It is called The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.  I had a strong negative reaction to that piece.  It was presenting ideas about violence and sex as if they were universal truths, which I thought was quite wrong.  So I wanted to write something that was more plausible (at least to me) and better explained the issues.  I got stuck however on two points.  The first is to address the question - why do I claim any expertise on the subject matter?  (If I don't, how can I write such a piece.)  The second is - how do I keep this from getting very personal?  (Sometimes I write pieces based on my own experience, relate that, and pose the question of whether any of it generalizes.)  I didn't really want to be very personal in writing on this subject.

So my solution, not perfect for sure but perhaps somewhat useful, was to make only a very quick sketch on the matter, take it is an example, and then tie it into the broader notion about turning people into objects.

When I was a kid, pre-adolescent, I began my education, though indoctrination a la The Manchurian Candidate might be a more accurate term, about sex and about women as sex objects.  For me it probably first started with the movies - James Bond was the superhero at the time.  Goldfinger came out in 1964 (I was 9 at the time) and was the first James Bond movie I saw.  Machismo and sex were overt themes in that movie.  A little later, the relationship between machismo and sex was complemented by near constant use of sex on TV, if not in the programming itself, then in the commercials.  To illustrate, in doing a little background checking for the post that I ended up not writing, I found on YouTube an old Farah Fawcett and Joe Namath commercial for Noxzema Shaving Cream where the tagline was, "Watch Joe Namath Get Creamed."  It was impossible not to get the message that sex sells.  And it was impossible not to get the reason that sex sells.  Boys have sex on their minds, quite frequently.   That message became amplified, more and more.   In high school, a friend subscribed to Playboy (or his older brother did but he had access to it).  In college, where Playboy was readily available in the dorm, it became something of a badge of a honor to say - I read the articles too.

The lesson, I will leave entirely the ethics of the matter as to whether it was the right one, and instead assert it was the invariable lesson learned, is that sex is about urges and about satisfying the urge.  For athletes, musicians, and very good looking guys, they may have figured how to reconcile this out in a reasonable time frame.  For the rest of us, we had what Bob Seger called "the awkward teenage blues."  If this was just one step in a long sequence of progress in the person's development, that would be one thing.  If, however, it is a giant chasm that many never successfully cross, it is quite another.  I really don't know how it is for most males, but one makes inferences from reading pieces, for example Frank Bruni's recent column on fraternities.  The excessive drinking is an indicator that I interpret as not getting across the chasm.  Whether these students mature later, who can say?  But the possibility that they do not and thus objectify women for the rest of their lives seems, at the least, plausible.  As in the previous example, once a person is regarded as an object, the ethical restraints are gone and bad things can happen.

Let's give still a couple of more angles.  A friend was complaining a few days ago about receiving a cold call from somebody selling a TV service that he didn't want, and when my friend informed the caller to that effect the caller became rude.  We get tons of such calls on our home phone and use caller ID to screen them.  We won't pick up if we don't already know the number.  Once in a while it is actually a call that we want and they leave a message.  In most cases, the caller hangs up first.  Likewise, my university email inbox is inundated with messages from vendors whom I've never met and who don't seem to be aware that I've been retired for quite some time.  There is a humorous side to this, as I get a few such messages meant for my wife.  (She has the same first initial.)  The vendor isn't aware that they don't have the right email address.  I forward emails to my wife when they look to be about work.  I don't forward the ones from vendors.  And then there are those messages about completing a short survey after having some transaction - with the doctor, with Amazon, with somebody doing a research project, where in each case they seem to think it is their right to make such a request.

None of this communication is welcome.  But the volume of it surely seems to be on the rise.  It was making this observation that suggested to me writing the current post.  Something is amiss that explains this.  I will speculate on what that something is a bit further on in the piece.

A different angle I want to mention concerns the very well to do who back Republicans in Congress, and the demand by these very rich for large tax cuts.  I have been trying to wrap my head around this demand for a while.  (For example, see my post from the summer called Mattering Bias.)  The question is - how can a very rich person justify a tax cut for himself or herself if that means that ordinary folks will receive a tax increase and/or there will be a cut in government programs that benefit ordinary folks?  Doesn't this view demand that the very rich consider ordinary folks to be objects?  And, if this is the sentiment, doesn't it explain why Compassionate conservatism doesn't work?  Or is it that some rich folks don't disdain ordinary folks, but these rich folks are being drowned out by others who cling to Libertarian views?  I don't know.   But much of this makes no sense to me, even though I teach economics and when talking about consumer preferences we assert that more is preferred to less.  That more is preferred to less makes sense for most of us, but for the uber rich doesn't satiation eventually set in?

The last angle I want to mention is school (think about the Pink Floyd song Another Brick in the Wall.) The very good students might be nurtured by the environment.  The rest, however, become objects and then casualties in some way.  Alienation results.  One recent bit of evidence on this is about polling information that says Republican voters don't endorse college education.  Some of this is explainable as antagonism to liberal bias and identity politics, which theses voters associate with universities.  But, as the article points out, much of it is resentment from voters who don't have a college education.   However, I think this sort of divide (college versus non-college) too simplistic.  I see the consequences of student objectification in my own class, where the vast majority of students will earn a college degree, and where attendance is encouraged but not required, but where I've been tracking it much of the semester.  Some students have stopped coming altogether.  This has been the pattern the last few years, where it wasn't happening much before that. After a while I lose any personal connection with such students.  They become objects to me.

There are surely other angles of turning people into objects that readers might come up with.  In some cases, I am quite aware of the situation but they were nonetheless omitted simply because I find them hard to discuss.  Please don't confound my inability to discuss these angles intelligently with their importance.  However, not all angles that I've omitted are in this category. For example, one might also want to consider overtly predatory behavior, such as phishing.  I am not taking on predatory behavior here only because it may be that the hackers are state actors, or state sponsored actors, in which case the motivation for the behavior might be quite different - war by other means.  Perhaps somebody else can link those to what I am considering here in a plausible way.  I am not arguing that there is no linkage, only that the connection is unclear, so I will not consider it here.

* * * * *

Now let me consider drivers for why turning others into objects might be accelerating.  But first, let's note that acceleration might not be happening at all.  Instead, what might be happening is that we are becoming more aware of objectification, which in reality is an ongoing phenomenon.  Social scientists perhaps can find ways of measurement that would distinguish one from the other.  Here, I will simply assert my perception that it is accelerating, and that acceleration is to the detriment of everyone.

The core idea is that interacting with people in a face to face setting, it is more likely to treat them as human beings and not objectify them.  Of course, objectification happens even then, but not as much.  So we should consider factors that keep us more apart.

One of these is the decline of social structures that brought us together as argued by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.  On a personal note I will observe that having kids in school meant you interacted with other parents. whose kids were in the same school.  Once the kids graduate, that sort of interaction is lost.  More broadly, those type of interactions are down and people become more isolated as a result.  Isolation, in turn, leads to the objectification of others.

A particular social structure that is noteworthy is the labor union.  As is well understood, labor unions in the private sector were much stronger in the 1970s then they are today.  The focus, when making that observation, has been on the consequences of wage income.  It has declined relative to capital income as a share of GDP.  Less noted but perhaps equally important is that unions played a role similar to schools in terms of bringing people together and in championing the education function.  An exception is this book Only One Thing Can Save Us, which considers unions in this light.  A particularly interesting question, which I haven't seen discussed much at all, is whether a union which has diversity in its membership can create tolerance that the members have for one another.  It is not the reason why members would join a union, for sure.  But it might be a very important consequence of a functioning union, if indeed the unions produces this sort of outcome.

A second reason for fewer face to face interactions is that more of our interactions are online.  I want to give a slight spin to how to interpret the consequence, trying to distinguish this for my own interactions from those of the students I teach.  The best class session I had this semester was on the Thursday before Thanksgiving break.  Attendance was light, so we got into discussion mode.  The focus was on how you learn to be a leader (we had discussed leadership in the previous session and considered that from the point of view of Argyris and Schon Models 1 and 2.  Model 2 is the template for being a leader.)   The question was how to do relevant education while in college so that the person is ready for leadership when in their mid 30s or early 40s, after they have risen to middle management positions (or higher).

I surprised the students and simultaneously created a relaxed and humorous atmosphere, by saying the key was to learn how to schmooze.  Evidently, students don't consider schmoozing as the essence of leadership (and I might add that most people are biased toward an older notion of the leader as the person who commands the troops).  But I was able to convince the students that schmooze skills were key, because they lead into Model 2 so well.  Then we asked how one learns schmooze skills in college.  The obvious answer is to have lots of face to face conversation - with people who are different from you and whom you don't already know quite well.  Face to face conversation is key.  I dare say when I was in college it was the most important thing I got out of the experience, much more important than the classes.  I had some innate desire to have such conversations, for themselves, not for any benefit that might be produced down the road.  I believe the need is still there for the current crop of students, but many of them might not perceive it, thinking that texting and other online interactions sufficient alternatives.  So I would argue that online is quite different for those who have schmooze skills from those who don't.  It is the latter where online tends to make others seem like objects.

Then too, there is the related issue of us leading more sedentary lives (I am definitely guilty of this), which produces either too much multiprocessing from juggling so many balls at one time or becoming bored, when the activity level drops.  In either case, interactions with subject matter (not just with people) tend to be shallow.  Deep interactions are just too consuming to match the pace of current life.  Shallow interactions, however, make one prone toward generalization and objectification.  Deeper interactions, do the opposite.  If we had deep interactions with content, that would produce a sense of nuance, which in turn, I believe, encourages interactions with people to require a sense of human decency.

Add to this the factors coming from our national politics and how the media treats this politics.  I'm afraid that turning the other side into objects is a way to command viewer attention, hence a way to bring profitability to the news organization.  The nuanced argument considered in the previous paragraph would likely be found boring and too slow by much of the audience.  So the exposure is to something that reinforces objectification, particularly of those people who disagree with us.  Essentially the same argument applies to politicians, who give red meat to their base by demonizing the other side.  It may be a successful electoral strategy, but it is ultimately damaging to all of us.

Let me now segue to economic causes.  There are many of these.  I will focus on two.  One is the increasing inequality in the society as a whole.  Many authors have pointed out that members of the meritocracy subscribe to The Just World Theory, even as they game the system to their own personal advantage.  Richard Reeves had a scathing Op-Ed on this in June, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Less commented on, but surely it accompanies the ideas in this piece, is the fear of the meritocracy of falling in the income distribution, which is accompanied by disdain for those in the lower quintiles.  That disdain leads to treating the people in those lower quintiles as objects.  And to the extent that there is income segregation in our society, as to where we live and where we work, the objectification is enhanced by WYSIATI.  For example, if those in the meritocracy don't see the homeless much, if at all, it is much easier to consider homeless people as object, perhaps deserving pity, but not worthy of human decency.

The other economics cause I want to mention is the vast distortion of relative prices, health care and higher education are most notable here, housing also fits in certain urban areas, that distorts the motivation of the participants, both providers and consumers of these services.  My students now, for example, are far more instrumental about their education than students 20 years ago.  Tuition is much higher now, while the job market for new grads is more challenging.  This double whammy gets into the heads of the students, and they start seeing everything they do as an instrument for what will come next.  Being so instrumental in approach, one naturally objectifies things along the path.

I want to wrap up this section by putting the various factors together in a vicious cycle, a negative feedback loop if you will.  (If such a dynamic is present, it would explain the acceleration of turning people into objects.)  So the economics factors, in particular, exacerbate the other factors.  The objectification of women, in particular, is said to be an expression of power.   But the power itself is a byproduct of a meritocratic competition steeped in the Just World Theory.  Power is part of the spoils that goes to the victor. If we saw ourselves as all part of a sprawling middle class, we wouldn't be victors.  We'd be ordinary, good people.  It makes you wonder how that should become the aspiration.  I am convinced we'd all be better off if it was.

* * * * *

How do we reverse the acceleration of turning people into objects?  I wish I new.  Clearly the first step is recognizing that it is happening.  A second step that I have been trying myself is to, in a small way, treat people like human beings where beforehand I would have been much more arm's length with them.  Some of this is a belated recognition that I need help in doing those things I want to do, even while I cling to the notion that I can do it all on my own. (I'm an exemplar of the men-don't-ask-for-directions bit.)  These interactions where I ask for help feel more human and give a certain glow after they've concluded.  The feeling encourages doing something similar again in the future.  If others experienced something similar, it would be a way toward greater recognition of the issue.

How to get beyond that is the open question.  If coercion tends to backfire, then the underlying question is how to get people to want to schmooze, with other than the "usual suspects." I leave it to those reading this piece to kick the can a little further on this one.  And I would welcome a real solution, or even some suggested experiments we might try to help get us there.