Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Confused and Paranoid

This is mainly a reaction to the Ross Douthat column, The Paranoid Center.  I understood the column to be speaking to readers like me.  So here I'm going to give my response.

First, growing up, the single name I most associated with paranoia is Joseph Heller, whose Catch-22 should perhaps find its way back into the lexicon.  I would have thought that Ross Douthat would use the famous line, simply as a way to break bread with readers like me.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

Second, I am not nearly as confused by the events that have transpired since Mueller submitted his report, but I am totally baffled by conservative pundits at the time seeming to assume I should feel apologetic, I believe David Brooks used the word humble, at the release of the Barr summary.  I don't get that at all, so will amplify on the issues below.

Third,  I've read some of Ross Douthat's previous columns on the Trump-Russia connection during the 2016 election, and I thought he presented a reasonable case.  In these columns, the Trump group for their part were characterized as completely amoral opportunists, who wanted to make big bucks quickly and easily.  I'm not a lawyer so can't say whether not disclosing a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow that was ongoing during and after the 2016 election is a crime.  But that as Trump's prime motivation in all of this seemed reasonable enough to me.  Lining his own pocketbook, while campaigning for the Presidency, and afterwards as well, is vile and contemptible.  Everyone should agree with that. Is it criminal and does it warrant impeachment?  I must admit, I don't know.  I'm guided by what I think it should be rather than what I know it to be.

Fourth, there was a news analysis piece in the Times today, Mueller’s Investigation Erases a Line Drawn After Watergate, that I thought made the distinction pretty clear.  On the one hand, the evidence against Trump on obstruction of justice might be fairly weak.  On the other hand, however, the evidence might be quite solid, but what is weak is the ability to act on it with a sitting President.  The Independent Counsel Law has lapsed, so Mueller was appointed as a Special Prosecutor, but that meant he wasn't fully independent.  He reported to the Attorney General.  The Attorney General reports to the President.

Fifth, it seems some conservative commentators are assuming the likelihood is that the evidence is weak based on the summary message from Attorney General Barr, and thus folks like me are paranoid for thinking otherwise.  While this does not preclude my own paranoia, I thought that message from the Attorney General had little information content in it.  We need to see the full report, to make a determination.  Why not wait for it?

Sixth, this is why I'm confused, because Ross Douthat doesn't seem to think there is a need for that.  The case is closed now.

Seventh, it may be that under the circumstances Mueller bowing out is the most aggressive thing he could do, and allow the various cases against Trump confidants filed in state and district courts to proceed apace.  The President can't grant a a pardon to somebody if the person was convicted of a crime committed at the state level.

Last, while I understand there are many other factors that might motivate wanting to call those paranoid who are on the other side politically, it seems to me that much of what is being considered here isn't liberal or conservative.  It's a matter of what counts for tolerable conduct and what counts for going over the line. You'd think we might get consensus on that.

I guess not.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Fairness and Naiveté

I had manifestations of a head cold last night.  My throat was sore.  I've done some things to alleviate that symptom this morning, but I'm still more crabby than usual. So I may be blunter in this piece than I otherwise would be.

People who have been decrying legacy admits in college admission should consider a few counterfactuals to test the consistency of their own beliefs.

1.  This a a world where there are no alumni contributions and indeed no gifts to the institution at all from outside sources.  Tuition is a "full price" value to cover both operating and capital costs of the institution.  If you did a ballpark estimate of that number, it might be a useful calculation to perform.  The number I suggest has no basis in reality, it is just easy to remember, $100,000 a year, or roughly double the current tuition at the ritzy schools.  (This does not include room and board, nor other costs, such as textbooks.)

Now imagine into this world you introduce a second category of student, one with very wealthy parents.  The school admits these other students at a price of $1,000,000 a year and does so  specifically so it can lower the tuition some for the other students.  Once admitted, the students are to be treated equally regardless of the category. 

Would the students in the first category (and their parents) favor this move or not?  Does it matter for answering that question how much their tuition goes down?  Does it matter whether the overall number of students goes up so the number of those admitted in the first category stays the same?

2.  This is a a different world where each student signs a lifetime contract and agrees to make an alumni gift each year, with the magnitude determined by income, family status, health and well being, and a variety of other factors.  In this other world, then with a sufficiently large alumni base the revenue from these gifts could be forecasted with good accuracy, so some of it could be used to cover operating costs of the institution, including reducing tuition or even grantig full scholarships to low income students.   But now consider alumni who themselves don't have children and have largely lost connection with their college classmates.  Would they breach this contract, because they don't see the benefit from sticking to it?

Now let's imagine modifying this world some by making it an implicit contract (that means it is self-enforcing) rather than a legally binding contract.  What is it that makes alumni willing to make their  contributions.  Does having a winning football or basketball team matter?  Does living within the vicinity of campus and making an annual trek to campus matter?

3.  In this third world let's consider that a "no frills" university is started which does both open enrollment and offers free tuition.  It is funded entirely out of tax dollars, a mixture of state and federal funding.  Do any of the families who had sent their kids to ritzy institutions in the past now send their younger offspring to this no frills university, so they can save on the tuition payment?  Or do they continue to shell out the bucks for tuition at their ritzy institutions, because they still consider it a good deal giving the chances for a high lifetime income?

Further, imagine this happens for a while and that largely the well off families opt out of the no frills university.  They start to be grumpy from having to pay taxes to support an institution from which they get no benefit.  Won't the no frills institution start to experience budget cuts as a consequence?

4.  In this world there are no private universities and colleges.  They are all public.  This is a world that applies the principle of Medicare for all to Higher Education.   What then governs curricula at particular institutions?  Likewise, what then governs admissions?  Do we end up with homogeneity of institutions or are they tiered, more or less according to selectivity, as they currently are.  If there is this tiering, do the more elite institutions claim more resources on a per student basis?

* * * * *

Fairness is an aspiration.  In college admissions, naiveté is to assume that fairness can be fully maintained without any consideration for the revenue side of the institution.  Bringing in the revenue side, the issues become messier.  So be it, for the issues are messy.  Ignoring them may be satisfying near term.  But, invariably, they will come back to bite you when the fuller picture imposes itself.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Should School Be Hard Work For The Good Student?

I'm writing in reaction to this piece, Wait, How Did You Get Into College? (How first-generation students learn about the myth of meritocracy.)  It rubbed me the wrong way on two counts.  (1)  It understated how widespread this myth is, so made too much of an identification with the legacy admits (kids with very rich parents who are alums) because that is topical now and not enough with the much broader gaming of the system that the upper middle class kids and their parents go through, perhaps since these kids were in elementary school.  Surely Professor Capó Crucet is aware of this gaming now.  I doubt things are that different in this dimension between Nebraska and Illinois, though maybe it is more apparent if you teach Economics than if you teach English.  (2) It equated the meritorious student with the hard working student, without fleshing out the question - hard working at what?  I am more than a generation older than Professor Capó Crucet, but am also a Cornell alum.  When I was in high school I don't recall being very hard working at school at all.  Yet I was an excellent student.  So I had a visceral reaction to that line in the piece.  Was it really necessary to assert that?

I want to elaborate on both of these points, as I've written a lot about each of them.  But before I do I think this disclaimer is necessary.  I had several advantages that may have mattered for my learning during grade school.  I was from a middle class family and lived in a neighborhood where school was nurturing, as much by other kids who were my classmates as by the classes themselves.   I had very good teachers in elementary school.  (I finished 6th grade in 1966.)  We tend to ignore this factor, but the women's movement really hadn't started yet, so many talented women were teachers. Subsequent generations of students didn't get this benefit.   And my dad was a lawyer while my mom taught foreign languages, eventually becoming a French teacher in high school (not the one I attended).  Family games included chess and bridge.  So I grew up in a fairly literate household and that must have mattered too.

On the gaming the system regarding school, perhaps most people will associate that with Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.   I haven't read it so I want to go to more direct evidence that I have.  In spring 2015, I had a discussion group with three students who took my Econ class the prior fall.  They were all East Asian - two from China, one from South Korea.  I have a piece in Inside Higher Ed that describes this experience in some detail.  These students told some pretty graphic stories about their high school experiences and about being disciplined out of following their own curiosity in favor of focusing exclusively on the assigned materials and performing well on the upcoming tests.  Armed with what I learned in this discussion group, and some other conversations with Chinese-American students, I assume there is some moderation of this extreme form of "philosophy" regarding education, simply by associating with other students who don't have Asian ancestry, but honoring one's parents is a very strong trait, even among Asian-American students, so this disciplined approach to learning - elders do know best as to what is good for the kid -  has to be an important factor in the kid's development.

But I don't want to convey that culture is the entire explanation.  There is a different explanation entirely, as given by Richard Reeves in Stop Pretending You're Not Rich, where the nouveau riche get their kids into well regarded magnet schools or shell out big bucks for ritzy prep schools, to pass along their advantage to their children, all the while claiming the system is meritocratic, so they deserve what's coming to them.  These people tend to subscribe to the Just World Theory, even as they manipulate the system to their own advantage.

Perhaps there are still other explanations, such as arguing that some defensive response is needed merely to react to the gaming behavior by others.  If GPA and standardized test scores matter for admission to college, doesn't a responsible parent have to acknowledge that and then do something about it? I'm more than willing to admit the systemic explanations are many and complex.  Let me push on to the consequences.  This is the most graphic piece I've read on the matter, The Silicon Valley Suicides.  And this is the most thorough diagnosis of the problem, though I didn't completely buy into the proposed solution (which might appeal to English majors, but did not to this Economist), Excellent Sheep.  I did write a piece in response to that book, I was not a sheep.  Were you?  I think it is worthwhile for each person who has been through college to ask how they were in high school, and then in college.  Were they caught up in the paper chase?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

Then there is the kid's own personal philosophy about learning.  On this, Carol Dweck has done us a service with her Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  Those who have the growth mindset will put in what it takes to master the subject at hand.  In contrast, those with the fixed mindset will have a ready-built excuse at hand - I'm not good at that.  Such a predisposition ends up blocking putting in the necessary time for real learning.  But when such kids view school as a passport, they still want to get good grades, so they find a different way through.  They memorize the lecture notes, which they then regurgitate on the exams.  Unfortunately, they are largely unchanged by the process and most of what they memorized is forgotten as it is not put to immediate use. The increased reliance on adjuncts in undergraduate instruction exacerbates the problem, as they have incentive to teach to the test. That much of the explanation is straightforward enough. 

Does the growth mindset require hard work to enable it?  That's trickier.  There is a different psychological concept called Flow, though I prefer Maslow's term, self-actualization.  Either way, there is a notion of a peak experience, in which high performance manifests with no apparent effort.  So, it is conceptually possible to grow without it feeling like hard work, but other times it will be a slug. What is not possible is to expect growth without engaging in growth promoting activities.   (While I'm going for the gag line here, writing the first draft of this piece is self-actualization, proofreading it later is a slug.)

Now let me bring this back down to my own experience and my way of thinking about school as work or play.  My best explanation of this is in a piece called PLAs Please.  The essay is a plea for self-directed learning and when I was a kid in the 1960s, I discovered that in elementary school (or perhaps a teacher or two showed it to me), after which I never let go.  School forms a different relationship with a kid who is largely self-directed in his own learning, than it does in a different kid, who allows school to set the agenda, the so-called excellent sheep mentioned above.

My own strong bias is to not reward kids who are not setting their own direction with admission to elite universities, even if they have the apparent credentials.  What is called hard work, but is effort put in to advance somebody else's view of how the kid should go about learning, should not be rewarded.  Playing the credential game, just for the sake of perpetuating the meritocracy myth, is something we should try to prevent.

Now let me return to the situation relevant for when Professor Capó Crucet was in high school and getting ready to apply for college.  I know that at the U of Illinois (there are campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield) there is an issue about getting low income students from the Chicago area to consider attending the Urbana-Champaign campus.  Many with reasonable academic credentials don't even apply. Recent efforts have been made to counteract this tendency.  I don't know whether those efforts have been effective or not.  I do know, from mentoring some African-American students, that it is hard to be on my campus while being racially isolated, the only black kid in the class. I don't have the same experience as a mentor, but I suspect it is similar for the Latino/a student.  In any event, credentials may matter more in this setting for Professor Capó Crucet, when she was a college student, than I would otherwise acknowledge.  The question - do you belong here? - is nontrivial to answer in a compelling way.

I hope that in itself doesn't refute everything else I argued above.  But maybe it does.  Let me close on a different note.

I tend to come to my conclusions based on my own experience, and then to generalize from there.  But I was a very large kid, so my experiences may not have been typical.  Indeed, I was an outlier in many different ways.  After the first marking period in junior high school, I found out I had the highest GPA in the 7th grade.  It wasn't something I aspired to; it just happened.  From then on, I had the reputation of being a top student.  In many different ways, I would have preferred to be closer to the average and blend in better as a result. Yet I couldn't stop being me.  Learning was a way I found for self-expression.  My hope is that students today would make a similar discovery, even if they have to kowtow to the system more now than I had to 50+ years ago.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Long Division Tutorial - Making Screen Movies with Voice-Over using Quicktime

Since I have a new iMac and the old one was running slow at the end, I decided to do fresh installs of all the applications.  On the old machine I had Snagit, for screen image and screen video capture.  It's a nice application but it is not free.  Cheapskate that I am, I thought to try the apps built into the Mac OS to see how functional I could be with them.  For still images there is a utility called Screenshot that works reasonably well.  It makes captures as .png files.  And it is quite easy to do an area capture of the right size.  For this functionality, I would rate it on a par with Snagit.  Snagit does have tools to mark up the image after capture.  So I don't want to say Screenshot and Snagit are the same for this.  It's just that the marking up part I rarely use.  (Preview, another utility on Mac which I use to view the captures from Snapshot, does have some marking up functionality, but I've not used it for that.)

In this post I want to focus on video capture.  For that one can use Quicktime, which does talking head capture with the built in camera, audio only capture, or screen video with voice over.  I have experimented with the talking head video and the screen capture video.  In the examples I will show, I will only do the latter, but some of the tricks I will mention were learned from the talking head capture, so I will included those tricks here.  I also want to talk about about the objects that are captured.  The first is an Excel workbook with a tutorial for doing long division.  I would classify it as a dialogic learning object, and it appeals to me at that level, so some of the discussion will revolve around the making and the design of such objects.  I'm guessing that in broad deployment mainly there are old style paper and pencil methods, with textbooks that are not that much different from what I had 50+ years ago.  So one might want to ask whether the learning object is effective and, if so, how it and other objects like it might be created and broadly shared.   I do want to note here that this object requires a real computer, desktop or laptop.  It can be Windows or Mac, but must have a current version of MS Office installed.  It definitely won't work on a phone, regardless of OS, and I think it likely won't work on a Tablet or a Chromebook, even those that claim to run Office.  I haven't tested this to be sure, but I did want to give these caveats before proceeding.

The second example is based on a PowerPoint presentation that is stylized in a particular way.  The default slide size in PowerPoint is in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is now the desired aspect ratio for recording movies to be posted to YouTube.  So for recording PowerPoint, it's easy to get the rectangular region to be captured in the right proportions.  The capture of Excel that I did was much wider than 16:9.  The reality is that the region where the interesting stuff was going on in the Excel was a thin and wide strip.  By contrasting the two videos one gets a sense of the strength and weaknesses of each approach.

The styling in the PowerPoint is aimed to get the viewer to focus on one line at a time.  Subject matter experts who haven't thought through the issues for the viewer in watching a presentation are sometimes prone to jam a lot of content onto a single slide.  In some cases, it is literally a copy of part of a page in the paper being presented.  This doesn't work for the audience AT ALL!  The actual presentation for my example is extremely simple, with only three slides, text only, no graphics. Though it is often the case that images convey ideas more readily than words, so that in many presentations I've made for the class I teach I try to have little text on the screen (and then give a fuller text explanation in the notes panel) there are some cases where a text only presentation is appropriate.  For example, in this video I work through the math behind the model in a well-known paper by Shapiro and Stiglitz.  As that video seems to have been largely well received by those who viewed it, I would say there is some merit in the style of exposition, though it probably is better when viewed on one's own computer than in a live presentation in a classroom.  I apply the same style to the example here, but there is little complexity to unfold in this case, so I'm only doing it for the sake of illustrating the approach.  It surely would be as good to simply write out the instructions and not use PowerPoint at all.

One can get a pretty good sense about how the Excel Tutorial works, by watching the video below, where a long division example is worked through fully.  Solving a long division problem, one applies a certain algorithm and then does so recursively.  The tutorial is meant to highlight the various steps in the algorithm, as well as to keep track of work done at prior stages.  The feedback that the student gets is real, but still minimal.  If the student has made a mistake, the feedback should help in correcting the error.  One might use brute force methods (try all possibilities till the right one appears) but as this is not for credit, only to aid with the student's understanding, the student should be encouraged to do the arithmetic thinking that is needed to complete the step.  I do want to note that in recording the video, I did all that in my head.  Some students might be more comfortable with pencil and paper on the side. Or they might use Excel elsewhere to do the arithmetic for them.

I originally made the tutorial after watching my younger son do his math homework.  His handwriting was atrocious (just as mine was).  In addition, he treated the paper he was writing on as scarce. so as he was running out of space on a page he would start to jam stuff together in a way that was even harder to read. Relative to that experience, the tutorial gives a clean look as does the record keeping needed in a tidy fashion.  That's probably not enough for people to like the tutorial, but it is not an insignificant benefit.

The real test of whether the tutorial is useful or not is if students used it to teach themselves how to do long division.  I'm a big believer in intrinsic motivation, but perhaps students would need to be assigned some long division problems to work for credit.  Then, if they had the tutorial at their disposal, would they use it or do it by hand?  I want to note a bit of my own reluctance to encourage that use as it might encourage the brute force methods I would hope the students would not try. So here all I can say is that this is a tool for teachers.  Let each teacher figure out how best to deploy it.

Regarding how the tutorial is designed, note that the Excel Workbook actually has two worksheets.  The video is of the Student Version, which is locked.  That is not to hide how things work under the hood.  That is so students don't mistakenly type in a cell with formulas in it and muck up the tutorial in the process.  There is no password on that worksheet so it can be unlocked, if desired.   There is another worksheet with the same content, but there is no fill in the cells (the Student Version has each cell with a white background) and since it is unlocked  one can click in each cell to see the formula that is applied.  To understand what the various buttons do you need to install the Developer Toolbar in the Ribbon (see Excel Help for doing that) and then right click on each button.    Some idea for how the tutorial works might be had by seeing that there is a separate column for each digit in the divisor (six columns in all).  The initial action happens in those columns.  The controls to the right take their information from the divisor columns.

There is some art, then, in visualizing how such a tutorial might be constructed.  I believe it is a teachable skill, so that others might make tutorials for still different algorithmic content.  But, I haven't tried to teach anyone else how to do this.  I can say that it took me a full day (and maybe part of a second day) to do this.  In other words, there is both some imagination required to see how the tutorial might lay out, and then there is a fair amount of time on task to get that done.

Let's now consider the video produced from the Excel tutorial.  It renders quite clearly on my computer but I would say it is rather ugly because of the black bars at the bottom and the top, a consequence of the actual capture being very wide and not very tall. Here are two things to observe about that.  First, if you mouse over on YouTube at the bottom right, it should say Watch on  Click on that and then make sure you are viewing in default view.  If you are, there is no black bar.  YouTube in default view renders the video in the dimension of the capture, not in a fixed sized capture window.  So, if you make irregular sized captures, you can link to them rather than embed them.  (This must be a comparatively new feature.  It used to render the video in a fixed sized window.)  Second, if you click on the cc button you will see caption text in the black area.  In this case, those captions were auto generated by YouTube, rather than manually generated by me, so I won't vouch for them.  Plus, there is still too much black area for the captioned text.  But, if captions were important for your video, for accessibility and for technical content where viewers should see the spelling of the words, then you want captions and some black area below the video to render them, rather than have the captions overlay the video real estate itself.

Let's move onto the PowerPoint video.  It is much closer to the idealized 16:9 ratio, but it is not perfect, because I did it by eyeball techniques only, so there is still a small black line/bar at the top and the bottom of the video.  From my point of view, that's a plus.  It's me producing these things, not some videographer.  I think that instructor created videos should have a home movie element and not look very slick and have high production value.   I hope the video does convey that giving focus to one line of text at a time is helpful to the viewer and makes it easier to follow the presentation.  That was the idea I was trying to communicate.

Let me wrap up.  I will do so by again making comparisons with Snagit.  It has a built in way to force a 16:9 capture area, which would seem desirable based on the previous discussion.  It also has a way to record "system audio" such as music you might add in the background.  That is a powerful feature.  I might still buy Snagit for the new computer in the not too distant future so I can have those capabilities.  But I think the built in tools on the Mac are pretty terrific and one can go pretty far just with them.  So, for now, this cheapskate will opt for that.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Some Counterarguments for Arthur. C. Brooks to Consider

I'm writing about his piece in the New York Times, Our Culture of Contempt.  The piece appeared on Saturday for the Sunday Review and I read it on Monday (yesterday).   This makes me behind the times (these days my usual state of affairs) and the Comments are closed at the article's Website. Plus, the multitude of comments (there were 837 on this article) makes me strongly suspect that the author doesn't read the vast majority of them and maybe reads none at all, so comment authors are really writing for other readers of the Times, using the article as a launch point only.  Instead, I would like to maintain the fiction that I'm arguing directly with Brooks, as rhetorical device to focus my counterargument, although the likelihood that he'll read this piece is nil.

I also want to note that I've written quite a few blog posts where some bits of what I have to say here are articulated at length.  I will make reference to those pieces and deliberately give an abbreviated version here so the piece doesn't get too long, though the reader should know up front that I'm a slow blogger and inclined to write long and ponderous pieces.  Not having to answer to an editor who imposes a word limit on the essay, I sometime indulge my worst tendencies and ramble in an incoherent way, as perceived by the reader, though from my author's perspective there is a reason to include the additional prose.   That is my warning.  Now let's get on with it.

The contempt that Brooks refers to is about our national politics - voters of one party have contempt for voters for the other party.  He describes the situation as symmetric for Democratic voters and Republican voters and assembles the usual suspects to ascribe the causes for this behavior.  Then he moves on to considering possible ways to resolve the problem.

Issue 1:  Is the situation really symmetric or not?

In this piece Brooks doesn't contemplate whether the behavior of our politicians ever merits voter contempt and if, in the case that sometimes it does, whether that sort of politician behavior is evenly distributed between Democrats and Republicans or not.  Brooks' colleague at AEI, Norman Ornstein, is one of the authors of It's Even Worse Than It Looks.  (Disclaimer, I haven't read it, but I've seen Ornstein on TV talk about it.)  There it is argued for asymmetry, where far right Republicans are much more to blame than far left Democrats.   Further, when such Republicans would go onto TV news programs that were trying for balance rather than aiming to be inflammatory, I'm thinking particularly of the PBS NewsHour, which I used to watch regularly but no longer do, these Republicans would give pablum answers to questions as if read off a script and not engage the interviewer and the audience in thoughtful response.  It was very unsatisfying to watch.  This may be one reason why the Daily Show and the Colbert Report had become so popular a decade ago.  It may also explain the emergence of the prosecutorial style of interview and commentary shows, particularly on MSNBC, as a reaction to this sort of politician stonewalling.

Personally, I'm still all worked up about Mitch McConnell not taking up the Merrick Garland nomination.  I view this act as particularly heinous, a clear violation of the Constitution, certainly a significant factor in the 2016 election and maybe the determining factor, and something that should be punished, even now.  Yet I try to make a distinction between the contemptible political acts, and the voters who elected these politicians. as I did in this post,  What of Trump Supporters Now and in the Future?  I am guessing that many other Democratic voters don't make this distinction.  This gets me to consider the symmetry or asymmetry question from a different angle.

The end of the Fairness Doctrine happened while Reagan was President and the rise of Rush Limbaugh as a radio personality.   This is about a decade before the launch of both Fox News and MSNBC on cable TV.  During this period, to my knowledge there was no liberal counterpart to Rush Limbaugh.  And thus began the news/commentary business as entertainment in a way that might also be considered proselytizing if not overt propaganda.   While CNN, which started in 1980, offered Crossfire and Larry King Live, so there was an entertainment aspect to news programming, those shows aimed for some balance in perspective.   Further, Fox News took off pretty much from the outset, while MSNBC stumbled out of the box and it wasn't until perhaps 2004 or 2005 where MSNBC began to make inroads with viewers.

In the U.S., the 1980s also began the decline in manufacturing, the weakening of private sector labor unions, and the end of blue collar workers sharing in the gains from economic productivity growth.  It's because I have a pretty good sense about the history of income inequality in the U.S. since then that I can be empathetic for Trump supporters while being outraged by Republican politicians.  But for my own beliefs to be consistent this way, I have to also believe that the Trump supporters have been played by the politicians they vote for and the media that supports those politicians.  These voters end up not voting their pocketbooks, but instead vote based on racial resentment and immigration fears.  (This is Paul Krguman's hypothesis in The Conscience of a Liberal.)  The right-wing media machine that feeds this resentment is always on which, in turn, leads these voters to be in a perpetual visceral state of mind, so they never go through the thoughtful process of asking what economic policies should they want and which candidates support those policies.  

So, while everyone does end up angry, Democrat and Republican, things are actually quite asymmetric under the hood, at least in my view.

Now let me set up the second issue.  In the second half of the piece Brooks asks what might be done to reduce or end all this contempt.  In the paragraph that starts this section of the piece are these two sentences.

Disagreement is good because competition is good. Competition lies behind democracy in politics and markets in the economy, which — bounded by the rule of law and morality — bring about excellence.

On the one hand, there is no surprise here with Brooks extolling competition.  After all, he is President of the American Enterprise Institute, which is known for having an abiding faith in the free market.  Given that, however, the point is offered in an uncritical manner.  So, on the other hand, might there actually be a kind of market failure that produces some of the preconditions that Brooks laments about?

Issue 2:  What about Market Failure?  Is that relevant here?

I'd like to first take this issue entirely outside the realm of politics.  Not too long ago I wrote a post, What If We Banned Marketing? that gives a fuller analysis.  Here I will focus on just one example.  My university email inbox has been largely take over by messages from vendors I have never met. Most of those messages are about starting a conversation for them to give me a spiel about their product.  The thing is, I've been retired since August 2010.  It's really not that hard to learn that.  The info is in the sidebar of this blog and in my LinkedIn profile.  But for some reason, these vendors think I'm still a campus administrator with purchasing power on behalf of the university.  And in some cases, they send to my address.  The university went to well over a decade ago.  Then, to top it off,  I now frequently get vendor email intended for my wife.  We are both L. Arvan.  Of course, since the university has an electronic directory, you could look it up at a source that is reliable.  These vendors who make this mistake must be getting the information elsewhere.  I would characterize all of this as vendors who don't do their homework.

My view is that what such vendors do is socially pernicious.  We would all be better off if these type of transactions were regulated in a way to reduce their volume greatly.  Suggestions as to how are in my post.   This gets me to the next related point, which applies more to the phone version of these things than to the email version.  This is a belief that people can be sold things, even if up front the people express no interest in the product whatsoever.  In this view, sales people want to exert a kind of social pressure.  The unwitting buyer might cave into that pressure and make a purchase, just to relieve the tension.  That type of transaction belies the idea the economics exchange happens because there are gains from trade, as we teach in intermediate microeconomics via the Edgeworth Box.  (Sales people can deliver value when they provide information that the buyer doesn't have that helps make the purchase decision.  So I'm not saying there should be any sales people.  What I am saying is that there are too many who don't provide any social benefit.)

Then, the third type of market failure is where the vendor is selling snake oil.  There might not be that much of a hard sell, but there will be a great deal of hype in extolling the benefits of the product.  You'd like to think only rubes get fooled this way.  But its not true.  Think of the list of Bernie Madoff's clients or those who purchased shares of Enron.

I would love it if somebody developed national income accounts that actually measured in aggregate this sort of pernicious activity, so we could consider it as a share of overall economics activity and see if it has been on the rise.  It feels that way to me, but I'd like to see the numbers.

Now let's bring this back to discussion of politics.  In that quaint old time before cable TV, the national network news on each of the TV channels was aired at the same time.  So Walter Cronkite was on while Huntley-Brinkley were on, etc.   The programs competed with one another, but the competition was mild.  The programming was comparatively staid.  Now we have 24 hour news channels and they compete with regular programming, as well as with Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.  This is much tougher competition and that the news/commentary shows end up as a kind of entertainment in this situation is not surprising at all.  The competition requires that.  Perhaps it is surprising that the only way so far discovered to make the audience keep coming back is to raise their hackles.  Given that, I don't see how Brooks can laud competition.  It is one of the sources of the problem.

Issue 3:  What is required to get people with differing views to argue over those views in a way where the discussion is respectful, there are no ad hominem attacks, and where the participants might actually change their own point of view based on the discussion, after they see the merits in the other side of the argument?

It doesn't occur to Brooks to ask what benefit contempt confers to the person who holds it for another, but it might be a useful question to ask, because the benefit might be necessary even if the contempt is not.  I will make a quick sketch about this here.   I wrote about this in a post called Learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't?    Go back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  Safety is next after the physiological needs.  If safety isn't assured the person can't climb to a higher rung.  Might contempt for another be a way for a person to assure his own safety?   My posing the question should suggest my answer to it.   If you want to reduce contempt, you first must find another way to satisfy the safety needs.   If you don't do that, no progress can be made.

There is then the question of how people learn when there is evidence that contradicts their own world view.  Often, the initial reaction is to deny the evidence.  And if immediately after that the experiment is put out of mind, then there will be nothing learned at all and the prior world view will remain intact.  Instead, if immediately after there is either a repeat of the experiment that confirms what was observed or there is an extended discussion of the experimental results so that the person remains aware of them, then the person will feel a tension within.  The tension needs to be resolved.  The resolution ends the discomfort and is how learning happens.  But the period where the tension is present is of indefinite duration and its not possible to predict in advance with any accuracy when the end might come.

Now let's apply this to arguing with people where we disagree.  It's quite different with a friend than with a stranger.  If people start out as strangers and want to have such an argument, they really need to have a "bonding experience" first as a way to build trust between them.  Highly experienced academics, who argue as a way of professional life, may be able to argue with other academics without that bonding experience, but they do have knowledge that the other is an academic and thus possesses the mores of academia.  It is a mistake, akin to Daniel Kahneman's WYSIATI, for an academic to assume that non-academics can do the same thing. They really can't.  Thought this way, contempt is like the fight instinct and clamming up is like the flight instinct. Each is a response to a perceived threat, that person we disagree with.

If you find my analysis plausible, then in asking whether people who disagree should argue, you need to ask whether they have the time and the wherewithal to produce the prior bonding experience.  Possibly the answer is no, in which case avoiding the discussion would be best.  When the answer is yes, you then need to ask do they also have the time and the wherewithal to deal with that period of discomfort when evidence and prior belief seem to be mutually contradictory.  Again, if the answer is no, avoiding the argument may be the best course of action.  The best case for such an argument, then, is an ongoing conversation, say for an hour each day over coffee, over the course of several weeks or even months.  Under these conditions we definitely should disagree.  But how often do those conditions present themselves?

Let me wrap up.  Brooks ends his piece by suggesting we don't respond to provocation with anger, but try to be lighthearted and use a sense of humor.  I think this is good advice even for when there aren't evident disagreements, simply to make your interactions with others more enjoyable. But it doesn't mean that a fundamental disagreement will be resolved just by embracing a better demeanor.  For that, it would be better to have a fuller understanding of what might work and when that's possible.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Being A Good Pinch Hitter

As a kid Mickey Mantle was everybody's hero.  We knew who Phil Linz was, but he wasn't on the top of anybody's list.  Everybody imagined themselves hitting the home run.  Nobody thought of being a pinch hitter who lays down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner or a utility fielder who substitutes for an injured starter or simply to give the starter a day off. We all imagined ourselves as stars.

The same is true as we become adults and thus have our attention focused on the world of work.  The entrepreneur who starts a new company in a soon to be emerging field becomes our champion.  We esteem the ability to put a vision into practice and having the drive and willingness to put it all on the line in pursuit of this goal.  We don't glorify more established companies where there is progress, but it comes much slower, and where the jobs have more stability.  Nor do we esteem the person who takes over from somebody else who established the company or the job.  We highly value the person who created the work.  The successor who keeps the trains running on time, doesn't get nearly as much credit.

Yet we should value the successor, a lot.  And keeping the trains running on time is an incorrect characterization of what the replacement actually does.  There is creativity in being a good successor.  It's the type of creativity we should teach, if only we knew how.  Let me get back to that and first give some personal observations from having played the successor role and still playing it now.

I came to the realization later in life that I actually was better at being the successor than I would have been as the originator, this in respect to my career as an administrator.  I'm going to try to explain that observation with a few examples.

Creativity in groups is quite different than creativity in a solo effort, such as writing a blog post like this one.  Let's keep that in mind as we work through these examples.

The first experience was when I was brought into SCALE.  I've told the story before, many times.  So I'll be comparatively brief here.   SCALE was the creation of Burks Oakley.  He got the big grant from the Sloan Foundation and with the help of people in the U of I Foundation (the fundraising arm of the university) he got the campus to put in a big match from the Swanlund Gift Fund, which sealed the deal.  Burks had ideas about how to structure SCALE staff-wise, he was ahead of the curve regarding what software to support (FirstClass, not PacerForum, because the former used the then new protocol TCP/IP and was available on both Macs and PCs, while PacerForum relied on Appletalk and was Mac only).  He was also quite connected with the interesting ed tech work being done on campus already and enlisted many of these people as SCALE grantees.  Indeed, he set up the grant program and process, which I thought quite well done and something I emulated when I took over from Burks.

But, of course, there were problems.  There always are.  Some years later, when I learned administrator-speak, I became aware of the politically correct term - issues rather than the incorrect term, problems.  (I think there is a real reason for this language.  Issues can be argued, as in, I take issue with you on that point.  Problems, in contrast, are typically somebody's fault, so involve assigning blame.  Assigning blame is normally counterproductive, especially if the person is still part of the process afterwards.)  In spite of this, I'm going to use problems to discuss matters here, because to address problems one engages in problem solving.  The expression issue solving doesn't exist and I don't see a reason to invent it now.

The immediate problem I confronted as I began to work at SCALE as a faculty fellow (though my official title was Assistant Director) was that the evaluation of SCALE faculty wasn't working and the relationship between Burks and the evaluation team was not good; there was a lack of trust on both sides.  Problem solving in this case involved me and Cheryl Bullock (of the evaluation team) together interviewing SCALE faculty and then having me edit the evaluation document that the team produced.  This produced a workable solution that did improve things.

Let me note two different factors that provided for a workable solution.  The first is an idea called leverage by Peter Senge or, if you prefer, it is about killing two birds with one stone.  I was brought into SCALE to promote ALN (now it is called online learning) and my immediate goal was to build my own people network among the SCALE faculty, most of whom I didn't yet know.  As I was one of those SCALE faculty, this would be a conversation among peers.  So having a chat with them is something I wanted to do anyway, quite apart from the evaluation.  The second is to take those talents you do have that are applicable to the situation and then use them.  In this case, I had learned over the years what being a good anonymous referee does when reviewing a paper.  I applied those skills to the editing of the evaluation report.  This seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn't that immediate in prospect.  The papers I had refereed were all intended to be published in economics journals and one wrote the reports for that audience.  I had no background in reading or writing education documents.  But I did have a sensibility from being a SCALE faculty member the previous year to have a pretty good grasp on the set of issues other faculty members were confronting.  I may not have been confident about it at the time, but it was that knowledge that made the solution work.

The next problem, and it was a bigger one, happened perhaps four months later. Burks has promised the Sloan Foundation that ALN would reduce the cost of instruction by economizing on faculty time - rather than deal with students one-on-one in office hours, the instructor could answer the questions of one student in an online forum, and the other students could go work through that and not need to pose their own questions.  In our evaluation interviews with the faculty, however, mostly what we were finding is that faculty time devoted to instruction was increasing.  These instructors were trying to address the issue that students didn't speak up sufficiently in class.  They hoped students would be more open in an online forum and were willing to devote substantial energy to encouraging that.  Quality of instruction improved as a consequence, but cost did not go down.   If anything, it went up.

I ultimately resolved this dilemma with the SCALE Efficiency Projects.   It turns out that while many people at the time were talking about how learning technology might lower the costs of instruction, there were really very few efforts that actually accomplished this goal.  (At peer institutions there was the LON-CAPA project at Michigan State and the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech.  At RPI, a much smaller institution, there was the Studio Model for teaching physics.)  And because money was flowing pretty freely in the late 1990s, there really wasn't much impetus on campus to pursue cost efficiencies across the board though in certain disciplines, language learning was a notable example, it was viewed as a necessity as a way to address demand growth.   In other words, I was driven by the need to fulfill an obligation made to the grant providers, not by satisfying a well articulated need on campus, nor about an objective I had generated myself.  And I had little to no practical experience that would have helped me come up with and implement the idea, though I did have my formal economics training and my prior experience teaching, which gave me the rudiments of how to think about the cost of instruction.

Indeed, I often felt under prepared for the job of leading SCALE, although nobody else seemed to feel that way about me.  My self doubt arose because I came to my ideas about teaching and learning by seat of the pants methods rather than by formal instruction, as with the economics.  But there was one countervailing factor that made me much more effective, quite evident in retrospect, though not obvious to me at the time and that might often be overlooked by others in considering competence as a pinch hitter.  I was a dad with two young boys at home and that humanized me in a way nothing else could.  Essentially all non-work time was devoted to family activities and I found it easy and comfortable to interact with other parents whose kids were the same age.  (Previously I interacted mainly with economists, in and out of work.)  In addition, parenting involves all sorts of on the spot problem solving where the standard is - good enough so the problem is over for now. I'm pretty sure parenting impacted my attitudes about work and in ways that I yet don't fully comprehend.

Let's jump to the next example, about a decade later.  By this point I was a pretty experienced administrator and had a reasonably well established reputation in the higher education ed tech community. And with that I found a great deal of pleasure interacting with colleagues from other campuses.  I enjoyed the give and take and the camaraderie.  In this case I was asked to substitute for somebody who had gotten ill and couldn't continue working as part of the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute.  The person making the request was Kathy Christoph, my friend and then colleague on the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.)  There were supposed to be 7 Institute faculty who would lead sessions and organize the activities.  Kathy was the host, as the Institute was to be held in Madison Wisconsin on her campus.  The person who dropped out was a member of the faculty on his home campus.  Many of the other Institute Faculty were academic technologists on their campuses and in one instance the person was both the CIO and the director of the library at his university.  They needed someone who had real faculty credentials.

The Institute was to be held the following June.  As this is now an ongoing affair, the ordinary pattern is for two or three of the Institute faculty to rotate off and then bring on new Institute Faculty to replace them, with each person serving for three years.   I don't remember this exactly, but I believe the new faculty are brought on in late August or early September and then there might be one group call before there is a face to face meeting of the group at the Educause national conference, which is usually held during the last week in October or the first week in November.   In this case it was already December before Kathy contacted me.  She was in a bit of a bind to find a replacement on short notice, so I said yes, not knowing what I was getting myself into.   Friends help friends when asked.  Had somebody else asked me whom I didn't know already, I might have said no.

There is a lot of planning that goes on behind the scenes for LTLI (behind the scenes from the perspective of those who attend).  As it turns out, I enjoyed the planning quite a bit and I greatly enjoyed my interactions with my fellow Institute faculty members.  The design of the Institute has each plenary session being led by two Institute faculty and each does this for two plenary sessions.  By design each session pairing of faculty members is unique to that session, meaning I had different partners for the two sessions I planned for, Larry Ragan then of Penn State and Heather Stewart then of NYU.  At the other plenary sessions the Institute Faculty would observe from the back of the room as distinguished elders, kibitz among themselves, and otherwise not try to disrupt the session, unless that was deliberate as part of the plan.  Then at meals and during the small group sessions the Institute faculty were there as a resource for the attendees, serving as mentors for the five days when the Institute was held.

As I wrote about LTLI soon after arriving back home in a post called Facsimiles, here I will talk just a bit about the planning.  For the session with Larry, which was on Making Relationships, there already was a quite detailed PowerPoint presentation from the year before.  I couldn't make sense of all of it, so I wanted to make some changes that would be more intelligible to me.  Although I was the rookie and Larry was the veteran, he was quite willing for me to do that.  Apart from that content, I gather that the style of session that we did was quite different from the year before.  (It is described in that post.)  So there was innovation yet within a given structure that was fixed.  For the session with Heather, the session the year before hadn't gone well.  So while there may have also been a PowerPoint for that one (I can't remember if there was or wasn't) we were much closer to starting from scratch.

It turns out that prior failure can be liberating (especially if you weren't the cause of the prior failure).  So while we did come up with a set of points we wanted to emphasize for the session, more importantly we came up with a novel way to present them.  We would make a video of a learning technologist (played by Heather) making a presentation to the Provost (played by Perry Hanson) and the Provost's budget officer (played by Kathy).  I played the CIO, the learning technologist's boss.  The video was deliberately meant to be campy, where mistake after mistake were made.  Then after watching the video the attendees were to deconstruct it and identify the errors.  We filmed the thing after the opening banquet of the Institute. Heather and I had to alert Kathy about this ahead of time because we needed to arrange a space for where the video could be captured, we needed a camera, and we needed a server to host the video for subsequent use.  But we didn't alert Perry about it till right before the banquet.  He was a champ and did a great job.   Heather was the star.  She emoted beautifully so the those in attendance could truly identify themselves in her playing the role.  Kathy also made quite a good performance.  I think mine was just so-so, but in that role I did throw Heather's character under the bus to advance my own agenda, so could be thought of as the movie's villain.  They actually re-used the video for several institutes thereafter, including one where I had already rotated off.

I also want to talk about planning for the group activity which was ongoing through the institute, and which culminated in each group making a presentation in the penultimate plenary session.  The underlying activity was largely the same as the previous year, but some of the groups under performed then, so much of our planning when during our ensemble calls was about how to avoid a repeat of that.  What we ultimately came up with is that the each Institute faculty member would observe a group during its process (part of the time, the rest of the time they were on their own).  We could answer questions for them, but weren't supposed to coach them.  I probably broke the rules some on that.  (Some of what I did is explained in that post about the Institute.)  I don't think it was coaching, but it was teaching in a way - by asking some tough questions.  My fellow Institute faculty members weren't pleased that I did this teaching, but we moved past that very quickly.  The group presentations were better this time around.  As a social scientist, I can assert that it is difficult to impute causality here.  An alternative explanation is that we had a better crop of attendees.  Probably both factors mattered, but about their relative importance it's impossible to say.  In sum, on the group activity I went with the flow, but then in the group I monitored, I partly followed the plan and partly did my own thing.  I did serve on LTLI for two more years after that, so whatever mistakes I made weren't fatal that way.

Let me turn to the third and last example, which I'm in the midst of now and which motivated writing this piece.  An organization that I do volunteer work for recently changed its name so it needed a new Website.  This organization is in Uganda.  There is a parallel organization in the U.S. that does fundraising on behalf of the Ugandan organization.  It too needs a Website.  Indeed, we need a Web strategy that anticipates the evolution of these sites as the organization in Uganda performs its function and news of that develops.  Early in the fall last year we brought in somebody from outside our U.S. Board to do Website development.  We've recently severed with that person, for a variety of reasons.  Now we're picking up the pieces.  People on the Board of our U.S. organization are individually suggesting how to move forward, each developing candidate sites for that purpose.  I'm doing likewise.

Ahead of time I had in mind starting from scratch and building a simple site to deliver the message I thought needed to be delivered.  The partial site that had been developed was quite complex, in both layout and the amount of content on it. Yet one of my fellow Board members had expressed a desire to finish the work in that partial site and in that way honor the effort that had been put in.  So I told myself in advance, maybe you'll do this twice.  First try to build out the partial site.  Then build an alternative from scratch.

As Web development is not my thing, this seemed somewhat daunting, but I do a lot of other work for the Ugandan organization so am the one in the U.S. most familiar with its work and aspirations.  For that reason I felt an obligation to do this.    I developed kind of a simple plan.  Use the text areas of the partially built site and rewrite them to my own tastes.  Try as much as possible not to muck around with the site layout, since that might get me into deep water quickly in an area where I couldn't swim.  As it turns out, for the most part I did stick with this, but in one instance in particular, I wrote a bit more than the fixed width and vertical space would allow and then had to confront getting the layout to accommodate that.

Writing for a layout already given I would characterize as a "judo approach."  Indeed, I believe a pinch hitter needs to practice judo, metaphorically speaking.  Once that is recognized, and many people who have not done much pinch hitting might not recognize the need for judo so instead will spend a good deal of time reinventing the wheel, then some decision about what to keep and what to change needs to be made.  The art in the decision making is to make the task manageable and allow the change areas to be those where the person has some strength in doing the work.  In this case, since I'm far more comfortable in writing than I am in Web design,  that was going to be my focus.

I can't say it all went smoothly and without frustration.  Where I did need to muck around with the layout I got stuck and remained stuck for quite a while.  But I didn't want that to wreck what I was doing, which I otherwise thought was a sensible approach to things. So I went into "stubborn mode" in trying to fix the layout. (I've written about getting unstuck before and that it does take sitzfleisch in coming to a solution.)  Eventually I found a work around.  It may not be an elegant solution.  But it did what I needed it to do.  And the effort produced a bit more confidence in me with the site development tools.  As a result I was able to make a few other changes in choice of images to display and the color of some border areas of the page.  Whether the others will like this result remains to be seen.  But I can say I achieved what I set out to do.

Let me wrap up.  In speaking about creativity sometimes we don't distinguish between the possible universes where one might operate, one that offers very broad discretion, the other that is much more limited in the choices which can be made.   An artist or a writer might prefer the broad universe alternative, as it gives maximal freedom of expression.  But within an organization, where others have their views of what should be done, and where the prior work of the organization matters for its present activities, creativity in the more limited universe is often what's required.  That's the skill of the good pinch hitter.  I don't know whether school can teach it.  But if it can, it should.