Friday, May 31, 2019

Being Forthright Or Keeping Things To Oneself (An Out-Of-The-Box Teacher's Dilemma)

Stylistically, the way I've taught my Economics of Organizations class is quite different from the way other undergraduate economics classes are taught.  The students who end up taking the class become well aware of these differences.  By and large, they have expressed appreciation for the alternative approach.  Many students who register for the class are not aware of the style difference at the time they register.   My approach may end up being more work for them than in their other classes.  Consequently, some of them end up dropping the class, either during the first 10 days of the semester, when they can still add a different course, or somewhat later, when they begin to fall behind in the work and would prefer having fewer credit hours to focus on.

The Economics Department is somewhat aware of my alternative approach.  Each year they ask for a syllabus, which all instructors must provide.  I doubt, however, that anyone reads through it carefully.  And, while this is not surprising, nobody from the department has ever come to my classroom to see how a class session goes.   This is consistent with notions of academic freedom, where the instructor is sovereign in making these decisions about course content and how the course is taught.  When I was an administrator of campus Ed Tech, I did occasionally attend lectures of some faculty, which was mutually agreed upon ahead of time.  After the visit I would send an email where I would pass my observations onto the instructor.  It was intended as a friendly way for the instructor to get some critique of the teaching.  But it was entirely focused on method and issues that some students might confront as a result of that method.  I was not qualified to comment on appropriateness of the subject matter.  As a general matter I think there is interplay between method and subject matter, so such a critique would be better from someone in the same field.  But as I noted, that is not the common practice.

In The Economics of Organizations, my approach is substantially more labor intensive than the approach taken by other economics instructors.  I can afford to spend the extra time this labor intensive approach entails because I'm retired, so am comparatively time abundant.  I've embraced my alternative because it allowed me to learn about issues student have with the traditional way the courses are taught.  Further, I get to see if my alternative can address some of those issues, which is what has been the driver for my experimentation with the teaching.  The particular innovation that seems to have had the best result is getting students to write weekly blog posts (600 words at a minimum) in which they connect their own experiences to course themes.  I would then write extensive comments on each post and the students would write comments in response to what I wrote.  This very much makes instruction like conversation and has the instructor reacting to student formative thinking in a way that is specific to the particular student.  In other words, my comments were not canned and I didn't try to steer the students in some pre-determined direction.  My goal was to get them to see the implications of their own thinking and then push that thinking a little further.  While at the outset of the class students found this process awkward, after a month or so they would have settled down and then come to appreciate it.

Last year I was told I couldn't teach the class.  The campus was frowning on having retirees teach because of the double-dipping it entailed.  (Retired faculty get a pension from the State of Illinois.  Being paid to teach on top of that for teaching, while allowed under the rules, seemed like an extravagance that a campus struggling with its budget could ill afford.)  It wasn't impossible for departments to hire retirees, but procedures were put in place that made it more arduous to do so.  Also, the Economics Department had an abundance of other upper level course offerings, so didn't need my class as a way to increase the variety of what was being offered to juniors and seniors who majored in economics.

This year is different, not on the double-dipping but on the variety of other upper level courses in economics.  Owing to quite a bit of faculty turnover, these upper level courses for the fall have become scarce, with many of them closed now for further registration because they've reached the maximum enrollments allowed, yet with transfer students who will come to campus in August not having registered yet.  So the Economics Department offered me to teach the class again, but this time with maximum enrollments approximately double what they've been in the past.

While I had expressed interest in teaching the class again, this put me in a quandary, particularly about what to do regarding the blogging.  Because my comments were typically written over the weekend, and I had to proceed with reading the posts and writing my comments at a pace that was comfortable for me, I was already close to maxed out at the lower number of enrollments.  If I were to keep the blogging, I needed to alter my mechanism somewhat, either not comment on the posts of every student each week, or have some help from a TA who would write comments in lieu of mine. Having used undergraduate peer-mentors who had previously taken the class in the late 1990s, when I taught a large section of intermediate microeconomics, and with that pretty effective at the time, I glommed onto the idea of using a former student as a TA.

I had a particular student in mind, who was very diligent with her own blogging when she took the class and I was convinced would do a good job with the comments as my TA.   She took the class in fall 2017 and graduated immediately after the course concluded.  Indeed, as my course is an upper level course in the major, with the students juniors or seniors, any student who took my class in fall 2017 should have graduated by next fall.  So if any of them were to be my TA, they'd be alums of the university as well.  (The peer-mentors I had in the 1990s were all current students.)  There is no business model in place that I am aware of where a virtual TA is hired who is not currently enrolled at the university, though we do have the occasional virtual instructor who is a faculty member at some other university or who, perhaps, has a full time job outside of academia.

Because there is no business model for this at present, it is hard to know whether using former students who have already graduated as virtual TAs is just a silly idea (they already have a job so the TA work would be above and beyond that) or if it really might make sense for alums who had a good relationship with a professor and would be happy to have that connection continue and be extended via the virtual TA work, in spite of their other employment.  In the case of my former student, I did have some back and forth with her via email, but as she was possibly moving to a different job it wasn't clear which of these best describes her situation.

Now let me turn to the title of my post.  Being forthright in this case meant asking the Economics Department to pay me a bit more, so I could use the increment to pay the virtual TA, and letting them know that was why I was asking for more money.  Keeping things to myself, I could have simply made a side deal with my former student and never informed the department about doing that at all.

Now some things about the money, from my point of view.  The last few years in retirement, I have treated what I earn teaching as "mad money" so I can allocate it to expenditure as I see fit, unlike other household spending that my wife and I agree upon (at least in principle).  In fact, much of the earnings from teaching would go to the organization I support in my volunteer work, as a charitable contribution to the Foundation in the U.S. that supports this organization.  Last year when I didn't teach, I took an early distribution from my IRA for this purpose (plus I had substantial medical expenses that needed to be covered). This year, if I did pay my former student out of my pocket and yet earned what I had been paid for teaching the class in the past, there would be less left over for me to use as donation.

Considering money on the teaching side of things, there are two different models to consider.  In a large lecture class, where the homework is done via the online quiz tool in the LMS, exams are given on Scantron forms that are machine scored, and there is a head TA who does a good bit of the course administration, instructor time and effort are largely independent of enrollments in the class.  In this case, instructor pay and class size need not correlate very strongly, if at all.  In the opposite extreme is the seminar offering, where there is substantial interaction between the students and the instructor, and where the students will do substantial writing that is evaluated by the instructor - term papers rather than blogs in most cases. (I did have term papers in my class, but to make the evaluation of that manageable I put students into teams of three, with one term paper per team, and in weeks where drafts were due, there were no blog posts.)  In the seminar much of the instructor effort is proportional to the number of students.  Consequently, the appropriate thing to do in the case when you double the enrollments for a seminar that was previously at capacity is to offer it in two sections and pay the instructor for that. Because of the large number of students who major in economics and the size of the classrooms in DKH available for these course offerings, upper level economics classes are a bit too large to be taught as a pure seminar.  But I viewed them as closer to that extreme than to the large lecture alternative.  So I was a bit irked when the department said they'd pay the same as before in spite of the greater enrollments, implicitly sending a message to me that I should teach the class as if it is a large lecture.

Further, in the back of my head I have in mind the new budgeting rules on campus, which reward IUs taught at a much greater rate than previously.  (The IUs for a class are the number of students enrolled times the credit hours the course offers.)  While I've not been privy to campus discussions about the purpose of the new budget model, it's not rocket science to conclude that it should drive expenditure on instructors per student upwards and in that way it should improve teaching.  Yet it is not that simple.  First, instructor hours/IU spent in teaching are typically not measured and is highly idiosyncratic.  Instructors who spend more time on a class (and thus less time on something else) presumably improve the quality of instruction without it costing more (paying for the quality improvement by lowering the quality of that something else, whatever it is). Further, teaching decisions are made at the departmental level.  Budget allocations based on IUs generated are made at the college level.  Economics is but one of many departments in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.  It is unclear, at least to me, whether the budget that LAS sets for the Economics department is also IU based or not, nor whether there are substantial lags in how IUs translate into budget revenue, meaning additional IUs taught this year impact budget revenues only next year.   

Applying this to my particular situation, as the Department of Economics contacted me fairly late with regard to teaching this class, it may be that they have few funds with which to pay me, yet a sizeable hole to fill in staffing courses so that transfer students can have at upper level classes.  So I kind of understand their situation without knowing the details.  They did offer me a doctoral student as a TA, who would be paid hourly (by the Department not by me).   This is safer for the Department, as there is a business model already in place to use graduate students in this capacity.  I've not yet learned who this student will be, so I remain hopeful that I can use the TA in a productive way.  However, in the past when the department did assign me a graduate student as a grader, invariably the student would be a foreign national whose spoken English was mediocre.  Those graduate students who had high TOEFL scores would become TAs in one of the large intro courses.  Only those who didn't get assigned to the intro courses would be available as graders for other courses.  So I'm wary that whomever I do get will be able to write good comments on student blogs, no matter how competent the person is with the economics.

Let me make one more point and close.  The situation that I've described actually is an example of the alignment problem we consider in The Economics of Organizations course.   If we can assume that courses taught in seminar mode are higher quality than courses taught in large lecture mode, and courses in mixed mode have quality somewhere in between, then the issue is what quality coupled with a suitable rate of expenditure per IU does the campus want for my course, what quality does the Economics Department want again paired with an expenditure per IU number, and what quality do I want.  (And should that depend on how much I get paid or not?)  Does the transfer pricing scheme put into place achieve alignment or not?  The campus budget model, as I suggested above, seems to indicate at least a mixture of modes.  The Economics Department apparently would prefer me to offer the class as a large lecture.  Personally, I would prefer to do otherwise, but I need this to be manageable for me and not to become overwhelming.  So I'm still trying to think through how I will conduct the class and what to do about the blogging feature.

I ended up being forthright on the matter with the Economics Department and was told that it was not possible to do as I intended by using my former student as a virtual TA.  I'm now feeling some regret and wonder if I played my cards right or not.  Even if it ultimately produced the same outcome, with my former student telling me she had too much other stuff on her plate to do this, had I kept this to myself instead I would have at least had a go at my preferred alternative, so likely would not feel the same sense of regret as I'm feeling now.  On the other hand, now I will have a few more bucks to donate to the organization I support.

What if I were mentoring somebody else who was in this situation.  What advice would I give to that person.  We learn the proverb, "Honesty is the best policy" early in life.  Is it true or not?  I'm wondering about that now.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Reading Fiction on the Computer with the Kindle App

I'm going to try an imperfectly controlled experiment.  Yesterday I finished reading the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.   I had started reading it on my Kindle Fire Tablet, but I've been having difficulties with that keeping its charge, and if I use it to play music while I read then it drains the electricity way too fast, plus the volume on the sound is too low even at the max setting. So for a while I used the Tablet as a reader, but then used my phone as the audio player.  It's a clunky solution, but do-able. (I may eventually get an iPad mini, but it is pricey so I'm going to hold off for a while.)  So I thought to try reading on my computer.  For a while I tried that on my laptop, setting it up in Tablet mode (so the keyboard is unavailable), which is a possible solution for me but I need a good chair and the screen at the right height for that to work.  My regular computer, an iMac, has that.  The laptop is in the basement, sitting on a table where the screen is too low,  and a cheapie chair is what I use when I access it (after doing the treadmill, to cool down for a few minutes).  The thought that getting both the technology and the physical environs to work in concert in support of my reading is why I'm experimenting with reading on the computer.  In the past, the Kindle app has itself been unstable, which made this impossible.  But the current version works reasonable well.

Over the past several years I've taken to listen to music, mainly Chopin, as I would do book reading.  I'm much less likely to do that if I'm reading pieces from the New York Times or some magazine, perhaps because doing the latter has a stopping point in the near future (when the article fully is read) as distinct from a book, especially one with rather long chapters. The music is there to block out audible distractions, particularly other people in the house talking (or if I'm out having a coffee other people having a conversation at an adjacent table).  For this purpose, I really like this "album" for which there is so much music that once you start it the music plays for as long as you will read, with only momentary pauses when one piece ends and another begins.   The music itself, however, sometimes is a source of distraction in that if a piece catches my attention then I want to know its form - waltz, nocturne, or ballade for example and I want to know the key that it is written in.  So I'm apt to depart the reading momentarily to find out this information.  This sort of distraction pervades reading with an electronic device connected to the Internet.  There is a compulsion to check email, Facebook, and for me also to check how much my most recent blog post has been accessed, and likewise for my most recent Tweet.  A different part of the experiment, which I will begin later today with some paper based reading, a short story and the latest issue of the New Yorker, is whether I can get into it sufficiently that this compulsion vanishes.   Part of the experiment is to determine, when my attention is more squarely on the reading than on these various distractions, is it the medium that matters or is it the nature of what I'm reading.  I know I find fewer things that I read absorbing these days.  But I'm much less sure why that is.

There is also distraction with the book itself.  I don't recall other fiction I've read that has extensive footnotes.  In the Kindle version, these appear as hyperlinks.  In the first chapter, if you click on a link it brings up a different screen with some explanation of the recent jargon/terminology used in the text.  I started by ignoring them, but after skipping perhaps a dozen then dutifully clicked and read each of them.  The background information was useful.  There is also the technique used in the writing of the story itself, which is told from the perspective of Marlow, the character who is sent to find Kurtz deep within Africa.  Marlow is the narrator.  But I found it difficult to understand, especially when transitioning from one scene to the next, what was going on, and was this actually happening or only something in Marlow's mind.  Indeed, at the start of the book, Marlow seems to be a passenger in a boat on the Thames, and the story is what he relates to the other passengers as their way to pass time together.  But once he gets into traveling up river to find Kurtz, he never returns to those passengers who were listening to the story.  It's as if now he is living the story in the present tense.  Further, while the expression "heart of darkness" is used multiple times in the story, it is still unclear to me whether it is only meant as describing a location, the part of the river and the immediate surrounding area where eventually they did find Kurtz, or if it is meant as a double entendre, to also describe Kurtz as an emotional being, one so wrapped up in the amassing of ivory that he disregarded his fellow human beings and was capable of doing atrocities to some of them.

I have not yet read any interpretations of the book, other than the chapters that proceed the novella written by somebody else, meant as an aid in understanding how Conrad came to write this book and his own trip to the Congo, traveling up river. There is Conrad's diary of that trip, which is included in the Kindle edition of the book after the novella, and I've not yet read it.  Perhaps it will illuminate further.

But I'm going to leave that for a while.  The next Kindle book I plan to read is Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, several years after it was the book that everyone else was talking about.  It may be that reading non-fiction, particularly economics, is sufficiently unlike reading fiction, because you need a pencil and paper in available to work through equations so they are understood.  That's definitely the way it was for me in graduate school.  But I will start out reading as if the experience is novel-like.  And we'll see where that goes.

The managing of the compulsion for updates of information may not have an ideal solution.  And maybe I can train myself away from it (though signs point to the opposite conclusion).  But I think we should experiment with possible solutions, imperfect as they may be.  That's what I intend to do. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Does Real Life Imitate TV? If So, When?

It seems that once in a while I really get hooked on a TV show.  For a long time that was The West Wing, which I watched repeatedly.  It was a show that derived from the movie The American President (both written by Aaron Sorkin) with several of the actors in the movie appearing in different roles on the show.  For the most part, I watched The West Wing as reruns (I believe on the AMC channel, but I'm less sure of that).  Later I got a boxed set of DVDs with the entire series.  I've learned that when doing the treadmill, watching something already familiar is better than watching something new.  For quite a while The West Wing was my exercise companion.

After that it was 24, which seemed to capture the attention of many, as I recalled reading about Jack Bauer in Maureen Dowd's Op-Ed columns. The show offered a way for viewers to fantasize about how we combated terrorism.  We needed some such relief in the aftermath of 9/11.  Evidently the show capitalized on ethos after that event, plus in the first season, which in some ways was remarkably low-tech, the show dramatized the possibilities of invasive surveillance via security cameras connected to the Internet.  It was eerie in this way, both for then and as a foreboding of things to come.  While I'm representing these shows as being viewed sequentially, I must have watched some of the West Wing in the same time period as I watched 24, as for the latter I eventually watched the shows live, though I also got DVDs of the series and watched them repeatedly as well. Not surprisingly, some of the actors in 24 had also appeared in the West Wing.  I suppose the talent pool from which one casts such shows is limited and viewers of both forgive such overlap, though I think actors we haven't seen before are more effective than those we are familiar with, because then we don't project what we think we know about the person from prior roles the person has played. For a short period of time I watched a few episodes of Designated Survivor, which featured Kiefer Sutherland in the lead role.  Apart from some other aspects of the show that I found unappealing, it was very difficult to consider Jack Bauer as a character expressing such reticence and ambivalence.  I can understand why Sutherland would want to play such a character, but as a fan I still wanted him to be Jack Bauer.

The next show I'll mention is The Hour, perhaps more obscure to American viewers because it was a BBC production.  My friend Deanna recommended it - the closest thing to The West Wing, she claimed.  So I took her up on the suggestion.  It was an intriguing show, taking the issues out of the present by going back to the 1950s for its setting, and then looking at the perspective of the press and their adversarial relationship to the powers that be.  This time I started with the DVDs, as it wasn't yet being aired online and had already been shown, so no chance to view it on the air.  It readily can be viewed now via Amazon Prime, but I seem to recall a while back it being free while now there is a charge per episode.  Also, there were only two seasons and only six episodes per season.  Yet the story is quite compelling as there is a narrative that runs longitudinally throughout each season and that builds to a a dramatic climax.

The last show I'll mention and the one I've viewed most recently is Homeland.  During the first and second seasons the show seemed to have two leads - Brody, the former POW who returns home to a hero's welcome, while he actually has been turned into an agent of the terrorists who held him in captivity, and Carrie, the CIA officer whose skepticism at the outset lets her discover Brody's true colors yet also falls in love with him so the two have an affair. In the third season Brody is killed off and by then it was clear that Carrie was the sole star of the show.  She is something of a genius for doing spy work, her bipolar disease part and parcel of the intensity and instinct she demonstrates for the work.  In this respect she is like other genius characters, Vincent Van Gogh who clearly suffered many manic episodes, the cause of which have been widely speculated upon, and John Nash, who had schizophrenia, are probably the best known among them. As a consequence, Carrie is able to see things clearly that others in the CIA miss or gloss over.  Yet her mania and her intensity sometimes get her too far in front of the evidence, so she too makes errors by jumping to conclusions that can't be sustained.

Each of these shows share some common elements.  Carrie's intensity is paralleled in the Josh Lyman character in the West Wing, the Jack Bauer character in 24 who has already been mentioned, and the Freddie Lyon character in The Hour.  Apart from the intensity they share an ethical rightness about their work, yet are willing to take quite unorthodox means to achieve their ends.  You might describe the style as "all in," borrowing a term from Texas Hold'em poker.  Other people would be more measured and circumspect, but not these characters.  The shows also share that a happy ending doesn't always occur and that sometimes the main character does seem to win, but the personal costs are so high as to be disastrous.

In what follows I'm going to focus on Homeland Season 7 the last season that's been fully aired.  (Season 8, which will be the last season of the show is due to air this fall.) At this point Carrie is former CIA and doesn't have an obvious employer, but she suspects nefarious activity from within the White House and with good reason.  With the help of her usual teammates, she begins an illegal but important surveillance effort targeted at the President's Chief of Staff.  She then encounters a disaffected FBI agent, seemingly by chance, and after a rough start they begin a partnership.  In the previous season she also had a relationship with an FBI agent that started badly, but then proved productive.  So this seemed to be following the same script, though it wasn't, because this time around the FBI agent was a plant, working for a foreign government.

Indeed, the nefarious work inside the White House turns out to be an illusion, and what is really going on is information warfare provoked by the Russians.  This includes fake news of the most provocative kind, homicide that is made to look like a heart attack, and the planting of an agent as the Chief of Staff's girlfriend with the aim that she could ultimately betray him while under oath.  In the last episode, the National Security Director and former mentor to Carrie, Saul Berenson, arranges for a team to travel to Russia, to negotiate with their counterparts there about the recent course of events.  This is a cover for an attempted extraction plan of the female agent who had been pretending to be the Chief of Staff's girlfriend, who had been under sequester before giving testimony to a Senate committee, but was rescued by her Russian comrades, allowing her to escape back to the home country.  Unfortunately for the Americans, the Senator who had ordered the sequester leaked the information of the extraction plan to the Russians, so the plan failed.

The last episode of the season is a plan B, figured from scratch by Carrie on the fly, but something that seemed to come to her without too much effort.  They enlist a partner from among their Russian counterparts whom they had been negotiating with, an old time General who had an extraordinary amount of wealth, hundreds of millions of dollars, located in U.S. controlled financial institutions.  They are able to freeze these assets and tell the general he will only get them back if the help them get the female agent.  The General pursues this with a vigor by enlisting a seeming army of those who report to him to find this woman.  It looks like an inquisition and the American team is able to capture it live on camera and stream it on the Internet.  In effect, the American team was giving the Russians a big dose of their own medicine, even while this itself was a cover for a second extraction plan, which worked, though Carrie paid a huge price as a consequence as she was captured by the Russians.

* * * * *

Let's take a break from TV and look at some history that all of us know about, then try to connect the two, and ultimately bring that back to the present. It is a peculiar aspect of intelligence operations that the most successful ones mainly remain hidden from view.  It is the failures that get exposed and then become part of history.  For example, what do we know about CIA involvement (if any) in the Ukraine prior to it expressing interest in joining NATO and the European Union.  Consider this paragraph from a Tom Friedman column published in December 2014.  Writing about Putin, Friedman says:

He bet almost his whole economy on oil and gas that only can be exploited long-term at the risk of disruptive climate change; he underestimated the degree to which technological innovation has enabled America to produce more oil, gas, renewable energy and greater efficiency, all at the same time, helping to undermine crude prices; he talked himself into believing that Ukrainians toppled their corrupt leaders only because the C.I.A. told them to — not because of the enduring human quest to realize a better future for their kids; and he underestimated how integrated and interdependent Russia is with the global markets and how deeply sanctions, over time, would bite him.

Does Friedman actually have inside information about the CIA here as he is writing his piece, or is he shooting from the hip and speculating about it.  Who knows?  (I hope his editors know, but that doesn't help the rest of us.) There are, of course, Web sites that assert the CIA did actually produce the coup in Ukraine.  But I, for one, have no way to determine whether those sites are trustworthy or are Fake News. I can't find such information from among sources I already am aware of and might rely upon.

The one intelligence operation that we're all aware of and are confident in it happening is the Watergate break-in. Here is an early article by Bernstein and Woodward (perhaps their first on Watergate) that ties the break-in to a vast conspiracy aimed at sabotaging Democratic candidates.  The date of publication is October 10, 1972, not quite a month before the election.  It had minimal impact on that as Nixon "won" in a landslide.  But it did set the stage for the investigations that followed in the spring.  I want to make note of this particular paragraph

“Intelligence work” is normal during a campaign and is said to be carried out by both political parties. But federal investigators said what they uncovered being done by the Nixon forces is unprecedented in scope and intensity.

I wish they had elaborated on the normal intelligence work and what that is about.  Would any of this normal activity make ordinary voters queasy if they learned about it happening?  And would this work be done by typical campaign staff members?  Or would the campaigns hire former FBI, CIA, and NSA operatives to complete this work.  That would be useful to know.

Regarding the break-in itself, there was one former CIA operative involved among the 5 who were arrested, James W. McCord Jr.  (I found this site helpful simply to recall the names of those involved in Watergate.  Forty years ago, many of them were household names, but some of that familiarity fades with time.)  Two other, more familiar, names were soon connected to the burglars.  They were E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who later worked as a consultant for Charles Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and then Finance Counsel for the Committee to Re-elect the President.  So here is an example of former CIA and FBI agents working hand in hand on an illegal intelligence operation, making Homeland Season 7 seem like deja vu, which in some sense it is.

Viewed from now, I would like to know during the aftermath of the Watergate episode what it would have taken to rule the Presidential election in 1972 null and void.  Here's a piece by Robert Reich that argues this should happen for the election of 2016.   I don't believe the matter ever came up at the time of Watergate, so I will speculate here about why that was.   First there was the Agnew resignation, on matters unrelated to Watergate.  That lessened the legacy after Nixon's resignation. Then, the parties were less far apart then.  It is instructive to observe that Roe v. Wade was decided early in 2003 while Chief Justice Burger presided.  Burger was a Nixon appointment.  So, if remedies are taken in sequence and ruling the election null and void is the last step in the sequence, with impeachment an earlier step, then it seems that Nixon's resignation brought a halt to all of that.

Getting back to Reich's argument, if he is making more than a mere rhetorical case, one wonders how it would happen.  Would the Supreme Court decide the matter?   If so, would Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh weigh in on the matter, or would they be required to recuse themselves, as they were appointed after the 2016 election?  (Reich argues they would need to recuse themselves, but would they agree?)  Indeed, if such recusal were required and the other Justices found that the election should be annulled (likely by a 4-3 vote) what would that say about all the judicial appointments made?  Sensing the various dilemmas that arise here, one wonders what previous steps would have to be taken to bring the matter to the Supreme Court.  The Constitution doesn't speak to this directly.

Now I'd like to talk about one other event that was near contemporaneous with Watergate.  This is the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.  While the U.S. clearly preferred Pinochet to Allende, the role of the CIA in deposing Allende is unclear, though I will say that I believe the CIA was the driver of the coup, basing that belief more on what I heard about at that time, when I was in college, and a few years later, when I was in graduate school, than on any look at more direct evidence. My sense of things is that then the CIA was quite good at exercising political upheaval, where it suited U.S. foreign policy.  The Watergate break-in, then, was a consequence of that expertise taken too far and applied to domestic politics.  Unfortunately, the lesson we exported to the rest of the world is that exercising political upheaval is an effective way to undermine one's adversaries.  The Russian interference in our domestic politics is our chickens coming home to roost.  Homeland Season 7 makes that case very well.

* * * * *

Now I want to take a different angle and imagine that I'm a Democratic Party strategist.  Looking at the pace at which things are going, regarding impeachment, regarding the various Southern states passing their repressive anti-abortion laws, even assuming a big Democratic victory in 2020, what should be made of all those judicial appointments that have occurred since Trump became President?  Should they be viewed as collateral damage - it's a shame they happened but there's nothing that can be done about them now?  Or should they be viewed as intolerable, because Reich is correct and the 2016 election should be annulled?  If the latter, but if it is recognized that going through proper channels is very unlikely to deliver the desired results in a reasonable timeframe, would more unorthodox approaches then be entertained?  Would any of those unorthodox approaches look like something that came out of Homeland Season 7?

As I've watched this TV series, these questions have been in the back of my head. Sometimes, they move to the front of my head as I think about matters while away from the TV.  I can't be the only one thinking this way.  But resorting to such a solution, if it exists, requires a hardball mentality that I associate with the Republicans, not with the Democrats.  Democrats really want to trust the system and believe that things will work themselves out for the best if that trust is there.  Yet it's getting harder and harder to maintain that belief.   I'd rather believe there are some hardball types among Democratic Party strategists who are working on this.  If so, I hope evidence of this work becomes visible to the rest of us, and soon.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Value of College Then and Now - A Personal Perspective

With a focus on the high rate of tuition, there is a renewed interest in asking about the value of college from a financial perspective - is it still a worthwhile investment?  In a perfect capital markets world, college being worthwhile would mean the expected return in increased earnings exceeds the expected costs.  In the liquidity constrained alternative, meaning there are limits to how much debt the student can acquire as well how much of the future earnings risk can be well diversified, we tend to look at the debt burden after graduation and how it impairs the working life of a young graduate.  This is an additional burden not captured in the perfect capital markets analysis. How much additional burden depends, in large part, on how tight the liquidity constraint actually is.   In any event, in the rest of this piece I'm not going to concern myself with the financial issues regarding college education.  I am after a different sort of question, which goes as follows.

Self-education by reading, attending public performances, watching movies, having conversations with interesting people, and many other activities as well, stands as an alternative to formal schooling. Formal schooling comes with certification (the diploma) that self-education can't provide.  Does self-education have other shortcomings that formal schooling avoids?  For example, if self-education comes from the person following his own interests, might the person be too narrow minded to broadly educate that way or too myopic to struggle through something difficult but which would produce good results if mastered?  Conversely, does formal education have its own shortcomings, particularly that it relies too much on extrinsic motivation (getting good grades) so blocks curiosity the student would otherwise develop?

Now a little disclaimer about me, before I produce my views on these matters.  I went on to graduate school immediately after college and after that became a professor.  In retrospect, this path was obvious for me, though in prospect it actually was far from certain.  One aspect of that for me is having a strong desire for self-education from pretty early on.  I attributed this to a variety of factors where the environment encouraged me in this direction. Individualized reading, which started in elementary school coupled with regular trips to the public library was a big part of it.  Then there were piano lessons, more for fun than to produce expertise, but also playing sports with my neighborhood friends.  This was when producing a renaissance man was still in vogue.  I wrote about this some time ago in a post called PLAs Please.  A kid with this type of orientation will find formal education a complement to self-education, mainly because there will be other kids at school who are similarly situated and friendships can develop this way, which is the source of many of those interesting conversations.  Such kids typically like school, even if not all of the classes make a strong impression on the kid.

Then there is the additional factor for me, I don't know how common it was among my cohort, it seems more frequent now, where I went through a rather serious depression in tenth grade, with the upshot that I could ignore the extrinsic motivation after that (or delude myself that I was ignoring it) whereas other students were more taken up with the grades they were getting.  For me, the issue was getting ego rewards from academic high performance.  I came to understand that was a path for the depression to return.  And I really didn't need grades as a motivator.   I could learn and perform well in school simply as a matter of self-expression.

I did have a cohort of friends who were similarly inclined to me in an intellectual way, both in high school and in college, so I'm sure I was not unique this way.  But I've not got a sense of how widespread this strong sense of self-education was among among others whom I didn't know as well.  I do recall there was a certain stereotype about students who were pre-med and who were not otherwise extremely gifted as students.  They tended to be much more mercenary about school, caring quite a bit about grades, and in that sense may have been a portent of the more general trends that would manifest a generation or two later.  For such students school was a passport, nothing more, which represents a different extreme from me and my cohort.  Now a bit of hand waving, which I'm prone to do when I don't have the data.  I imagine that student orientation back when I was in high school, at least among the students in Arista (National Honor Society), all of whom would be college bound, lies somewhere along the continuum between these two extremes.  This seems a pretty safe assumption.  But, in addition, since I'm now well aware of the availability heuristic, I can compensate some for it and say that the group of students for whom self-education served as the driver for their learning was a smaller fraction of the overall population than I would otherwise have surmised.  Nonetheless, when I refer to the value of college then, in the title of my post, I'm referring to students for whom self-education was a big deal.

My sense of things now is that among those who become academics, the vast majority had this inclination, so their college experience reflected that.  Some years back, when I thought I might lead a campus project about student peer mentoring, I interviewed a couple of faculty members who had interesting relevant experience.  One of those was Ann Abbott,  who teaches Spanish and does so in a service-learning course designed where students assist members of the community.  The following is from the linked piece:

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.

Now I want to posit something that only an economist would do.  In economics, we think that producers have "production capabilities" and that formal education is largely an investment in human capital creation, that enhances the student's subsequent production capabilities after graduation (which is how it increases earnings). But we also teach that consumers have preferences.  In the typical approach, where consumers purchase goods and services, we treat preferences as exogenous and say - there is no accounting for taste.  But might it be that education also serves to develop tastes in the student, as to what is interesting and important to know and think about?  Indeed, might much of education be developing a sense of what is important to the student and then in helping the student work through how the student's time and energy can be focused on pursuit of these important ends? And, then, might it be that the informal education is important precisely because it is better at educating the preferences of students in this way?  If so, are we apt to mis-measure the value of education, by focusing only on the human capital side of the equation?  And, might students who haven't done much in the way of self-education through college, themselves regard their education only for the passport function?

 Now a different focus, which is on adult learning on the job.  We call it learning by doing and many people today will acknowledge that it is both critical for the work and necessary for the individual.  A person who is fully engaged this way grows in the job, whether there is a promotion accompanied with that growth or not. A person who plateaus and doesn't see further personal growth in the offing is well on the way to becoming "dead wood."  So we should ask, what in college education helps prepare the person for learning by doing in the world of work?  My contention, and I don't think this is much of a stretch, is that the learning by doing is easier for the person who did a lot of self-education while a student. Then it is just a continuation of what the person had already been doing, albeit applied to new and different circumstances.  For the students who was more instrumental about school, however, real learning to learn will be a novel experience, perhaps frightening and difficult to master. This person may hit the ceiling too quickly, finding the challenge overwhelming.

Of course, I never experienced the counterfactual, where I worked in a non-academic job on a full time basis, to find out if my background in school would be a help or a hindrance in that setting.  In the previous paragraph I'm speculating only.  I don't have the experience to match the speculation.  The closest that I've got to this is a change in careers, still within a university setting, from economist to learning technology administrator, where the prior career was a useful credential for the second one.  There was definitely a lot of learning by doing in that second career and in that setting what I argued in the previous paragraph was correct.  Outside that context, however, what I said is merely an educated guess.

Let me make one more observation and then close.  In the small sample of people I know who are recent college grads who did not go on to graduate school but instead entered the world of work, there is a fair amount of job churn.  After a year or two, they find something else.  It may be that in this situation the college degree remains an important credential, not just for getting the initial job, but for getting the subsequent one as well.  I'm not trying say there is no passport value to the degree.  But I would conjecture that the person's track record thereafter begins to matter more as a credential and the degree itself fades in importance.  Learning to learn skills therefore are critical and really should be cultivated in college.  Those students who focus on the passport value of the degree, however, don't seem to see it this way. They are the vast majority of the students I see when I teach my course on the economics of organizations.

I do believe school has the ability to encourage students to be more active regarding their own self-education.  But school as it is currently constituted is not structured for that to be an important goal.  My recent post A Summer Camp for Teaching College-Level Reading and Learning to Learn was meant as a think aloud about how we might go about things differently to make students more aware of their own self-education capabilities.  As you might guess from the title of that piece, I think reading intensively is a key part of the puzzle.  It won't be an easy sell on this generation of students.  But, in my view, it is the right area for us to be focused on now.  I would like to see more discussion on this topic from a variety of educators and others concerned as well - students, parents, and employers.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Being Reasonable In The Presence Of Bullies

This piece is mainly a reaction to Maureen Dowd's most recent column, Fair Play Is No Match for Foul.  It bothered me, a lot.  One the one hand, her indictments seemed right.  In key instances, mainly Democrats, but Comey too, seemed to capitulate, with that apparently precipitating disaster.

On the examples, I think Biden won't get past the Clarence Thomas hearings and as a result it will doom his campaign.  Viewed from the current lens of recent judicial appointments, and that the Democrats were the majority party in the Senate then, it looks like the old boys network and inside baseball simply blocked the truth from coming out then.   There is a different angle that isn't getting reported now, that Poppy Bush was playing the race card with the Clarence Thomas nomination, as his campaign had done with the Willie Horton ads, and since Thomas would succeed Thurgood Marshall, there was some pressure (I really don't know how much) to keep an African-American seat on the court, and at the time no way to know that Poppy would not be reelected the following year.  This is not to excuse Biden for how he played his cards, but simply to note that had he played them differently, the way the critics now would have wanted, then he surely would have had other critics that potentially could have doomed him now as well.  From this perspective, it was a no-win situation for him. Wins, it seems, only happen when the Democrats control both the White House and the Senate.  Divided government used to produce compromise, which is very messy, and now seems to produce only gridlock.

President Obama also gets his comeuppance from Dowd, and on this one we all know the history so there isn't another narrative playing in the background.  The American public needed to know about Russian interference in the election in 2016, in the summer leading up to the vote.  It was a big deal then as it is now.  The knowledge would have influenced the election, no doubt.  So it would have made the Obama administration seem partisan in the incoming election.  My reaction, so what?  I understand wanting to be above the fray after the 2008 election and that Obama campaigned on that theme. But there was quite a lot of experience since to suggest that the President was incapable of getting them to play nice in the Senate, most recently that the Merrick Garland nomination wasn't even considered by the Republicans.  Under those circumstances - stick 'em!  There would have been backlash, no doubt.  But viewed in its entirety, the situation would have been much better.  For one, Hillary Clinton would have been President.

I confess that the feelings of frustration about the events sometimes lead me to think dark thoughts, which usually come in one of two forms.  Either the top Democrats have a "Luca Brasi unit" comprised of former Secret Service agents and Special Ops soldiers, whose job it is to go after leading Republican Senators and all those Judges who have been appointed since Trump took office, and make each of them an offer they can't refuse. Or, in this alternative, such a "Justice League" emerges on its own, unaffiliated with the Democratic leadership, but with much the same agenda as before.

I understand tit-for-tat, from a game theory perspective, and that famous Dr. Martin Luther King quote:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

But what then to do about the bullying behavior?  I do not have an answer to that question.

Instead, I start to self-critique my time as an ed tech administrator.  For the most part I tried to be reasonable and I believe I was perceived as such by people on campus and elsewhere in the profession.  And in a few cases I was able to clean up messes that were caused by bullies and make the situation whole again.  But in my four years as Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, after the little Center for Educational Technologies that I ran merged with the big IT organization, a merger that I opposed but did so ineffectually, I felt that bullying was part of the organization culture.  The network people were particularly known for that style and soon the information security folks also embraced the style.  There was rivalry between the divisions of the old IT organization, and that persisted.  My direct reports got beaten up by the structure that was imposed on them, and I didn't have a means to protect them.

No too long ago I read this piece about the current state of Academic Technology.  It seems that what I experienced was not unique and is still common today. Is being reasonable the answer there?

I still have some idealism left in me, as reflected by my previous very long post. When I get on an idealistic jag and write about it, I feel compelled to explain how I came to the idea, then give a fairly detailed statement about problem definition, and only then talk about programmatic reform aimed to address the problem. In this sense, being reasonable admits being zealous for an ideal, one that is not yet embraced broadly.  Yet translating the idealistic thinking into an action plan that does get implemented, is something I struggled with in my administrator career.   I've written elsewhere that I was better as a pinch hitter, so expressing a limited amount of creativity towards advancing somebody else's vision.

I do feel our campuses mimic our national politics, particularly at big R1s like Illinois, in ignoring the little guy and in focusing on innovation quite narrowly.  Is this the inevitable consequence of well meaning and reasonable people letting it happen?   We really need to think this through.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

A Summer Camp for Teaching College-Level Reading and Learning to Learn

My interest in how students learn, as well as how they go through the motions but don't really learn much at all, dates back to the early 1990s when I was teaching a section of intermediate microeconomics, probably one per year, perhaps one per semester.  Memory fails on which it was.  But I do recall that my approach was to teach the subject matter, as opposed to teach the student (and adjust the course content by the nature of who the student was).  While a handful of students would really like my course, the vast majority would not and by my performance measures they didn't get very much out of the course as well.

At that time, intermediate microeconomics was a required course for all business majors, and many of them bristled at this requirement.  Some years later, I became aware that there are certain "hurdle courses" for some majors, for pre-meds it is organic chemistry, and the students typically dislike the course and are extremely instrumental in their approach to getting through the course, meaning they care about their grade in the course quite a bit, but they care about the content in the course not a whit.  I also learned that regarding the "rate the instructor" item on the course evaluations administered at the end of the semester, in intermediate microeconomics scores were uniformly lower than they were for other economics courses, regardless of who was teaching the class.

Had I known these things in the early 1990s, perhaps I wouldn't have been so bothered about the mediocre outcomes I was seeing.  As it was, however, it did bother me.  And the question I framed for myself as a result was this - is it me or is it them?  If it was me, that meant there was some other way to teach the class that would produce better results.  If it was them, then my teaching was fine but the way they went about being students was lacking.    One way to interpret my question is how the course should be targeted.  Should it target the better students?  Or should it target the median student?  Implicitly, I was doing the former, as that is what teaching the subject matter seemed to require.

Now let me jump ahead 20 years.  Since retiring I've largely taught one upper level course in the major, The Economics of Organizations, and done one section per year in the fall.  And I've customized the teaching method in the course to better match what I've learned since getting involved with educational technology.  This includes finding ways for the students to express their formative thinking, giving them feedback in a judgmental/non-judgemental way, limiting the extent of letter grades and instead relying on credit/no credit grades on the work students produce, and devoting more of my course time to response rather than to presentation.  During the first few years of doing this, I thought it was going quite well and I had discovered a way to make student learning better.  More recently, however, the results have produced similar mediocrity to twenty years ago, though there are some differences.  The most notable of these is reaching some of the students who are extremely quiet in class.  The weekly blogging I have students do, where I respond to their posts, eventually gives them a space to open up and be forthcoming, which allows them to make connections between the subject matter and their personal experiences.  I wish this sort of thing happened with the bulk of the class, but really only a handful of students show the benefit of the approach.  For the majority of the students, it's as if they are Teflon.  Nothing I try sticks with them.

The question is why.  There are multiple possible explanations that may overlap some.  One is that the economics major is full of students who are business major wannabes, but lack the test scores and other credentials to get into the college of business.  Such students are not unlike the ones I confronted in intermediate microeconomics 20 years earlier, even though they are nominally economics majors.  In this sense it may be an extreme form of what Arthur Levine points out in his chapter of the volume Declining by Degrees. There are disconnects between students and their colleges, particularly in that the courses we offer tend to be highly theoretical while the students are looking for practical information.  When courses show a lack of that, the students tune out.  The irony is that my Economics of Organizations class does have some practical information, but it may be too little too late to matter.  Another explanation is that senioritis has set in.  Fearing that they will enter the daily grind, once they have a full-time job after graduation, the students opt for partying while they still can, hitting the bars, even on weekday nights, or finding other means of late night entertainment that precludes taking school too seriously.  I have some empathy for students in this situation, with the following exception.  I stopped teaching in the spring semester, because the senioritis was palpable then.  It seems, however, that the last few times I taught in the fall, the senioritis had manifest there - for students who would graduate the following spring, or perhaps even later.  This type of stoppage in running the race, before the finish line is really evident, I find disturbing.  I wonder if it is possible to document how widespread it is.

The third possibility is that what I'm seeing is part of a larger phenomenon with students that is other than senioritis.  Rather it is that too many students are non-readers and they find their way through college and a decent GPA by methods that don't tax their lacking in reading.  The Chronicle had a very interesting article about this last week.  (If you don't subscribe to the Chronicle, you can download and then unzip the article here.)  Non-readers can't possibly find the academic side of college nurturing.  So they become alienated and then tune out, quite apart from the subject matter they are supposedly studying.  I want to note a certain parallel in this explanation between being a non-reader, what Carol Dweck refers to as having a fixed mindset, and what Ken Bain calls surface learning.   Likewise, a student with the reading habit is apt to have the growth mindset and engage in deep learning.  I don't know if anyone has tried to make an exact identification between these different concepts, but the parallel is unmistakable.

* * * * *

The fantasy from an instructional design perspective is that with appropriate interventions one might be able to transform the student in a way that promotes the student's further learning.  In looking through some old files, I was delighted to find this essay of mine from spring 1996, the first piece I wrote about how online learning might achieve this mean feat. In that piece I classified the students I saw in intermediate microeconomics into three categories, which I named colorfully: eager beavers, drones, and sluggos.  I don't use these labels today for a few reasons.  Back then I didn't really have attendance problems with my class.  The bulk of the students showed up, with no incentive required for that.  It's the no-shows whom I was referring to as sluggos.  More recently I've had serious attendance problems (under 50% of the students showing up, with the issue getting more severe as the semester wore on).  Sluggo as a label may make sense for outliers, but it doesn't if the median student is in that category.  Second, those in the middle category might not like to hear about themselves referred to as drones, even though that's what they appear like to me.  They put in effort in their studies and likely take pride in having a decent GPA.  Yet the effort is not well placed to produce real understanding of the subject matter.   There is an open question whether these students are self-aware enough that they are not learning deeply, or if they are fooled in this respect by the grades they are receiving.  In any event, it is these students who are the focus of the fantasy.  Through the proper coaching, can they change the ways they go about things and become deep learners, thereby moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?

Back when I wrote that first essay, the thought was that good results could be had on a course by course basis from suitable interventions, aided by online learning. To a large extent, that view still prevails today, witness this recent piece in the Chronicle, How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging.  But if the way that students go about their studies is largely habit, determined by their approach in many prior courses as well as in concurrent courses, then intervention in one course only, though it may produce some accommodations by the students, will likely keep their underlying study habits largely intact, and thus not produce the transformation in the students as learners that is called for.  Further (as an economist I would say, on the supply side) the adjunctification of college instruction, particularly in the large lecture courses, has acted as a force in the opposite direction, where students become aware of a teach to the test mindset in such classes, and thus respond accordingly.  So, one would like an intervention that either predates the taking of these large lecture classes, so a change in habits occurs beforehand, or a systematic approach across many classes, so there is a countering force to these high enrollment cookbook lecture classes.

It is with that thought in mind that I wrote this post a few years ago, The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution. I envisioned myself teaching a freshman seminar that would be the only course the students would take that semester, where it was meant to be a full course load, perhaps 16 credit hours, and where I thought the intensity and the coordination in the approach might be sufficient to bring about the change in the student learning habits that are desired.  But the approach failed on a number of dimensions.  Here let me note just one of those.  Who would opt into such a course as an alternative to taking regular course offerings?  Would that bit of self-selection mean the students were actually eager beavers in the first place?  I didn't have a mechanism to address that dilemma.  The summer camp described in the next section would do that.

Before getting to that I'd like to describe the reading issue as I understand it.  Students can make meaning out of individual sentences just fine, even if there are occasionally words they don't know and they choose to not look them up in a dictionary and thus remain ignorant of the meaning.  (When reading online, one can highlight the word, then right-click on it, and one of the suggested alternatives is for Google to do a search on the word, which will bring up a dictionary definition.  All of that is pretty convenient on a computer, perhaps a bit less so on a smartphone.)   The issue is larger than making meaning of an individual sentence, or even making meaning of individual paragraphs.

Closer to the mark is whether the reader can supply the contextual clues to interpret the piece as the author intended, even when those clues are not directly evident in the piece.  I wrote about this and related issues in a post called, Are We Ketman?  In that piece I made specific reference to E.D. Hirsch's Book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  In Hirsch's view, if there is a common cultural literacy and if authors in writing their general interest pieces restrict their contexts to what is already within the scope of that cultural literacy, then the meaning of what they write will be well taken by readers.  Conversely, if students are non-readers, one big explanation for why is that they lack this cultural literacy, so are unable to make good meaning of the full piece even while they can make good meaning of each sentence within the piece. In other words, this is not about teaching phonics.  We're passed that.  This is quite a different issue.

I'm sympathetic to Hirsch's argument, up to a point.  But it needs some refinements and then some entirely different ways to consider the issue.  For one thing, our common culture is not static.  Thirty years ago or so, Hirsch got himself into trouble in part for arguing to the contrary and in part because too much of this common culture was associated with dead white males, but also, perhaps, for disallowing much of the popular culture as a necessary part of the core.  The implication is that there is a need to keep up as the common culture morphs and grows.  Regular readers can do this and part of their reading is done to achieve this purpose.  Can non-readers do something similar?  Say by watching The Daily Show?  I doubt it.

There is a different issue that Hirsch's argument doesn't confront, which is understanding context when the intended audience for the written piece is more specialized; they are more like insiders who speak in a special code.  The need for the reader to provide context to understand the piece is the same, but in this setting it is unrealistic to expect being literate in a common culture to help in deciphering the meaning of the piece.

I first learned about this issue of context for reading from conversations I had with Robert Alun Jones, back in the mid 1990s when I took over from Burks to run SCALE.  Bob had been an insider on the project for a while but then there was a big breakup and Bob was on the outs.  That made him a fascinating character for me and while it took a while, we ultimately had several extremely interesting conversations, both about the SCALE history and about his views on how technology might help in learning.

I recall one conversation where Bob talked about his own reading of texts, where a pile of other references where immediately at hand for him, so the context he supplied was extremely rich, while his students were aware of none of this.  Bob made reference to an article he wrote with Rand Spiro,  this was written back in 1994, so the technology solution they envisioned matched the times in which the piece was written.  Authors of these pieces could provide hyperlinks to sources.  Readers could not only read the piece the author had written, but also backtrack and follow the hyperlinks (or interrupt the reading of the original piece to follow the link).  This makes reading a kind of research, in which the reader's job is to build not just an understanding of the piece but also an understanding of the context in which the piece was written.

Web search hardly existed back in 1994.  And authors still should link to sources, where they can, for readers to follow if they are so inclined.  But now search is much more sophisticated and authors can't be expected to link to all possible relevant pieces that might provide context.  Some of that burden should be switched to the readers.  Yet for that to happen, readers need to develop a variety of concomitant skills that make this do-able.  In other words, we need to consider the set of applied skills for readers to build their own context for reading a piece, one that might not perfectly overlap the context that the author intended, but that is sufficiently similar so that good meaning is made in the reading.

Much of this I think of as developing a sense of taste in the reader to be able to answer these questions.  Am I understanding what I'm reading or are there puzzles where the answers elude me now?  (This question can be posed reading only a fragment of the piece and doesn't require a full reading before posing the question.) If there are puzzles, can I the ask other questions and do Web searches to find other pieces I should read to resolve these puzzles?  There is then a motivational question that needs to be asked (or perhaps this question is asked earlier).  Do I care enough to follow down the leads I discover via search and read those pieces to produce an understanding?  There is also then a lesson in self-understanding.  When will I so care, and when will I punt and move onto something else?  Do I have that tradeoff reasonably well honed for my own learning or do I punt too often for my own good?  (Or perhaps do I get too wrapped up in a search on something where I should have punted?  Truthfully, I think this is not an issue for most students but it might be an issue for some absent-minded professors I know, myself included.)

If doing this sort of thing is not already a habit in the (non)reader, it may seem like a lot of work.  And for somebody trying it for the first time, it most certainly is.  But as the reader gets more proficient at it, much of this questioning happens autonomously and the answers then come rather quickly, especially in domains where the reader already has some familiarity.  However, there is a different issue to consider with the reading that may make additional effort necessary.  Expressing this from the viewpoint of the reader, is what I'm reading sufficiently important to me that I want to commit it to my working memory so it is available in the future?  Or is it merely transitory knowledge that I need in the here and now but I'm quite okay forgetting about it entirely after that?  If the former, then there is effort required to connect what is currently being read to what the reader already knows via experience or prior reading.  Making active connections of this sort can be enjoyable, but it is definitely time consuming to do so.  The reader who wants to grow from the reading must expect to put in the requisite time to produce such connections.

Let me introduce one other idea and then close this section.  I've written the above as if I'm advocating reading online as distinct from reading on paper, with electronic devices of any sort out of bounds. Nowadays, I find I read mainly online, so I have some bias in me that way.  (Adjusting the font size is one big reason I prefer online.)  But there are obvious distractions in doing that.  If one advocates for reading on paper, as a way to enhance concentration and avoid the distractions, which makes good sense to me, then how does the reader become self-sufficient with regard to providing context?  I wish I knew the answer to that question.   It may be that reading on paper needs to be limited to those cases where the piece is self-contained or that there is an iterative approach, where references are tracked down online but are then read offline, though I don't have experience with whether that is really do-able or not.

In any event, the thought that providing context is the reader's job, and that part of the job that might not be self-evident at first, means that reading pieces can be a larger commitment than might seemingly be given by statistics that the piece itself provides - number of words, reading difficulty level, and overt description of the subject matter. Further, it is not so evident how much additional commitment providing context requires.  So this can work only if the reader is willing to do whatever it takes.  To achieve that end may require its own resolution.  The reader must implicitly believe that understanding the work is something important and is therefore willing to devote the necessary time and energy to produce that result, or that developing such a capability in oneself to produce such understanding is likewise sufficiently important.  This, itself, requires a change in the mindset of most student readers.  Until now, depth of understanding seems a luxury to which most students feel they can't afford.  They need to change their orientation to this.  If they are not learning deeply, then why bother?  And if they can learn something deeply, why feel bad that the time it takes blocks doing other things?

* * * * *

The article in the Chronicle about reading, mentioned above, gives some interesting though depressing statistics about student reading in grade school.  Performance is reasonably good in elementary school, but declines thereafter, and is not good at all for high school seniors who should be getting ready for college.

Reading in the classroom changed, too: The typical 17-year-old now reads fewer pages for school than the typical 9-year-old, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Meanwhile, students’ preparedness for the kind of reading they would do in college buckled as they grew older. “Only 51 percent of 2005 ACT-tested high school graduates are ready for college-level reading,” the ACT wrote in a 2006 report. “And, what’s worse, more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and 10th grade” — about 62 percent — “than are actually ready by the time they reach 12th grade.”

The cause for this decline is unclear.  But I think it should be noted that 9-year olds are in elementary school, where reading is among the main objectives and where they have one teacher who monitors their learning.  (This is the holistic environment in the piece I linked to above.). By middle school there are different teachers for different subject matter and most of these instructors might not feel it necessary to assign reading outside the textbook, with English the exception that proves the rule.  Indeed, as interest in the humanities has declined in higher education, it's explanation might be found in this decline in reading in the other subjects by typical high school students.  It is also not clear how much pleasure reading students are doing, but one might hypothesize not much at all.  Further, when I was in high school there was some sense of social obligation imparted on kids by both school and parents to read the newspaper (which apart from the Sports section I would not call pleasure reading).  I think that this sense of obligation is gone even if it were other sources that provided the obligatory reading.

If the causes for this decline were well understood, it might be argued that they should be addressed directly.  The summer camp model doesn't do that.  It is aimed at students who have finished their junior year in high school, so have been well into this decline already.  The thought in favor of the summer camp approach is that students at this age, 16 or 17 most likely, are old enough to be critical about their own education and not blind adherents to their schooling, if they are given the opportunity to open up about it and feel they have a willing listener to talk with about it.  Their parents, however, might be more blind about their child's learning and if the kid's grades are reasonably good not wanting to upset the apple cart, as good grades seem like the path to decent future income.  That can be anticipated and that too must be accounted for.

I attended a summer program for math in 1971 held at Hampshire College after my junior year in high school.  It lasted six weeks.  For the first four weeks I was in a class on number theory and group theory.  In the last two weeks, and I believe this was an improvisation done at the time because some of us felt we were in over our heads, I was in a different class with a different instructor where we did elements of probability.  None of this used textbooks.  It was all extremely conceptual in approach.  I don't recall what my parents paid for me to attend this program, but maybe it was room and board, with tuition covered by an NSF grant the program had received.  The target for those who attended that program were those students very interested in math and who were high performers in the subject.   This program offered me the first opportunity to be with kids who were much smarter than I was or, at the least, much further along in their understanding of math.

My younger son also attended a summer program after his junior year in high school.  This one was at Rose-Hulman and was for engineering education.  I believe we paid for everything, tuition included, so they may not have been quite as selective on who got to attend.  On that I'm less sure.   What does seem evident to me is that such programs now typically appeal to very bright kids or to parents who want to give their kids every educational opportunity possible and are willing to pay for that.  One difference between my son's experience and what I did at Hampshire, as Terre Haute isn't that far from Champaign, my wife and I went over there on several weekends, to visit with my son and take him to lunch.  When I attended Hampshire back in 1971, I don't recall any parents visiting kids during the program.  There was a cookout the first night when the parents dropped us off.  And there was a retrieval at the end.  That was it. 

The target audience for the summer camp in reading would be different. Based on standardized test scores that the students had taken that spring, a pool of students would be selected who had a reasonable chance to get into the U of I (my reference point for students) but who would be below median in their standardized test performance.  Among this population, teacher recommendations would have to identify students who are hard workers, though not necessarily insightful in their work. And, if it were possible to administer reading tests like what the NAEP assessment does, without the students sandbagging on the test, then we'd want to restrict the pool to those students who read at grade level or below.

To elicit participation of such students, the summer camp would have to cover not just room and board and tuition, but it must pay a stipend to the student as well, so from the student's earnings perspective it would be like having a summer job.  However, there would be some obvious differences.  On the plus side for many students, it would be a preview about what residential college life would be like, as the camp would be held on some college campus.  However, it would be much more intensive in that the bulk of their day would have programmed activity and time programmed for reading and reflective thought needed to be used that way and not blown off.  This is not to say their wouldn't be time for fun - sports activities and other forms of socializing, and with field trips on weekends.  But a full 8 hours each weekday would be devoted to learning activities and that makes it like a full-time job.  Further, students will be selected from a wide geographic area, so the students will not be able to hang out with their high school friends during the time they are at the summer camp. 

Under these circumstances, some students in the targeted group might find the prospectus for the camp intimidating, while other students in the targeted group and their families should be interested in participation.   Then, one might imagine, a la supply and demand, that the stipend adjusts so that  those in the second group are large enough to fill the expected cohort size at the camp.  Here is the logic for not doing that but rather for the paying the student a stipend determined by other factors.  While the summer camp is meant as an educational program, it is also an experiment with human subjects.  The payment is meant to elicit participation in that experiment.  This will entail some monitoring of the student during the camp, certainly. And it will also entail longitudinal monitoring of the student thereafter, both in the senior year in high school and through college. The core question to be addressed by that monitoring is whether the summer camp has a sustained impact on how the student goes about academic life and about reading outside of academic life.  The students need to understand the experiment being performed at the outset and to consent to participate in the study throughout their remaining time in school.  If the experiment proves successful, then being a part of it will serve as a credential of sorts.  This is a further reason why the students should participate, even after the summer camp is over.  In any event, the stipend will likely be higher than it otherwise would be were this just an education program without an experimental component.

Clearly to pull off such a summer camp while in pilot mode will require substantial funding, so to be implemented the idea needs to appeal to a foundation that is capable of making a grant to support such a program and/or to a wealthy donor who does likewise.  If the pilot is successful and the summer camp is then seen as giving a leg up to those who attend, one would expect the funding model to change, with the students and their families bearing more of the cost.  Further, high school teachers might then also attend the camp, as co-instructors, and to learn the methodology there, which might then impact their teaching back in high school.  The point is that if the program seems to succeed, then the notion of intensive interventions to get serious students to read more and more effectively should flourish in a variety of ways.  Summer camp would simply serve as the starting point to a more widespread approach.

Let me try to give a brief sketch of what such a camp would be like.  Before I do, however, I want to note that in any such design there are things you can't know till you try it and see what happens.  So there needs to be a process where the second summer the camp has some different features than the first.  Likewise, the third summer will have some still new features.  One hopes that sort of redesign will settle down, though as circumstances change accommodations must be made to adjust to them.  It would be good for there to be several different camps in different regions of the country, with something of a common methodology so that comparisons across them could be made.  Ultimately it would be the approach we'd want to see triumph rather than the superlative teaching of a small number of instructors, or that a handful of students became truly inspired readers as a consequence of the camp.

Each camp would have about 50 students.  The camp would last 6 weeks.  Students would be assigned to one of three different classes with between 15 and 20 students per class.  Those classes would would last 2 weeks and then students would rotate into a different class.  After another 2 weeks there would again be a rotation.  Each class would be led by a professor who has a track record for interest and innovation in undergraduate instruction.  Preferably the professors are from different fields, so that some of the readings in their class are general interest pieces from within their discipline and it would be good if they were members of the faculty at other than the host campus (except for the director of the camp). Yet they should also be comfortable discussing general interest pieces that are entirely outside their area, as well as works of fiction.  In other words, while they are experts in their fields, they also have to be fierce and engaged readers, who can discuss what they read as intelligent amateurs.  That perspective is as needed as the expert perspective, perhaps even more so. Each professor will have two grad assistants, who need not know the professor they work with ahead of time nor need they be in the same discipline in their graduate studies.  There will also be a three person evaluation team.  A member of that team will be present while the class is in session.

Classes might meet from 8:30 - 11:00 AM, with students then given some down time for reading before lunch.  In the afternoon each student will meet with the student's mentor, either the professor or one of the grad assistants, for between 15 minutes and a half hour.  This would be to discuss progress in the reading, issues the student is having, letting the mentor give some friendly suggestions, and simply allowing the student to air what's going on inside the student's head.  I envision these sessions to be somewhat awkward the first couple of days, but then to become more relaxed, as everyone gets comfortable with the arrangement.  For this reason, I don't know if the mentorship should change after the class rotation happens or if it should remain as at the outset.  That is one of the things to work out.

The rest of the afternoon would be for reading/reflection or doing some social activity.  When I was at Hampshire, there was a regular soccer game in the afternoon.  (I tried it once and then went back to playing tennis.)  I don't want to predict which sort of activity would take hold at the camp.   The soccer was an all guy thing.  After dinner there was a volleyball game that was co-ed.  On this dimension let the locals work through the details.   One afternoon a week the student will have a meeting with the evaluator, which will be different than the meeting with the mentor in that the evaluator will drive, asking certain questions first for the students to explain what the student does outside of class,  then to find if that behavior changes over the course of the camp, and some attitudinal information about the student - does the student do these things willingly or is it done only because of obligation from receiving the stipend?

If some of the readings  are common to each of the classes (I'll discuss that a bit below) then possibly during the evening their might be the showing of a movie based on the readings.  So there will be some attempt to make this fun, but also some attempt for the program to keep the students engaged and not be idle, though distinguishing idle time from time spent on reflection is not trivial and it may be that some idle time is necessary to make the reflective time effective.

The courses taught in the first third of the camp will differ from those in the middle third, which are again different from those in the final third, in accordance with the idea that the students will grow in the capabilities during the camp and the courses need to make appropriate demands on the students based on where they are in their learning.  In the first third the focus will be on self-contained pieces where the context should be readily apparent.   Do students make good meaning of those pieces from the outset, or do they miss things in the story that are important?  The coaching during the class, and perhaps also during the mentoring session will be aimed at getting the students to fully digest the piece they are reading.  In the middle third, the issue of building context will begin, by reading pieces which have references and/or hyperlinked pieces that might also be read.  What other pieces might be read and then in what order?  There are strategies for that.  Can those be taught to the student?  In the final third, the students will begin to take on the question of building context by finding their own sources for supplementary reading.

The entire camp will be aimed, in this respect, to get the student to drive the learning.  The choice of supplementary reading done in the final third of the camp is one aspect of this.  But even in the first third there will be elements of this as students will be asked to also do individualized reading and this, more than the common reading, might be the object of discussion with the mentor.  A significant part of this program of individualized reading is to encourage the students to try new things to read, some of which the student might fancy even if not everything works that way, and in this way for the student to learn a bit about what is pleasing and perhaps about why this is so.

The hardest part of this for me to conceptualize here, is to get any sense of how much time it will take for students to read the pieces they are assigned when they are getting the full meaning of these pieces.  The pace of the classes needs to adjust to this.  So I would refrain from having a full schedule for the full two weeks and instead have a sequence of readings in mind, then get as far as one can get in the sequence with the students reading for meaning.  Of course, each individual student will read at the student's own pace.  The instructor will have to figure a strategy to cope with that variation.  I don't want to impose that here.  It is easier on the individualized reading to adjust the pace as you can simply put a bookmark at the stopping point and resume reading at the same place tomorrow.  So the individualized reading might serve as the right sort of buffer to keep all the students in lock step about the common readings.

In terms of particular works that everyone in the camp might read, I have a few ideas.  Of course, the faculty who are leading the camp would have to agree on these or suggest their own alternatives.  So I mean this only to be suggestive and get the ball rolling.  The first piece is the short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe.   I may have read it when I was in high school, but I didn't remember doing that, so I just read it now.  It took me about 50 minutes (and I did a bit of multiprocessing while reading it, including learning that it is the seminal detective story, setting the stage for an entire genre of fiction).   There are several reasons for choosing the piece.  It is a compelling and interesting story, so the reading should be enjoyable in its own right.  We want to start with pieces that have that feature and only later work through pieces that may be more of a slug.  Second, metaphorically speaking, the students can consider themselves as sleuths in making meaning of future readings they confront.  It's good for them to have that metaphor in mind throughout the camp.  Then, it might be that if they liked the story enough and if they otherwise haven't read much if any detective fiction, that they look to read more as part of their individualized reading.   My older son, who grew up during the Harry Potter craze, did become something of a reader, but it was all fantasy fiction for quite a while.  One thing this camp might achieve is to give students exposure to other genres of work that they'd find engrossing.  My hope is that students would become somewhat eclectic in the reading choices eventually, plateau in one so then opt for something quite different.  But you have to start somewhere and detective fiction, which is not so au courant, seems to me a good place to start.

The next piece I'd suggest is this one from Scientific American, The Expert Mind, by Philip Ross.  It made quite a splash when it came out and I believe students now will find it a good read, because it touches all the buttons about learning and performance - talent, motivation, and practice (of the right sort) and in that way gives the students some insight into their own learning and performance.   It might also get the students to ask this question - do we put in a lot of time practicing incorrectly and yet not put in much time at all at a more productive form of practice?  If so, why?  Can this camp help in getting students to practice in a better way?

Rather than make a long list of other pieces to read, let me just suggest one more here.  It is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.  The students should hold off reading this till each has been interviewed at least once by the evaluation team and done a focus group with the class as well.  So the students will understand that they are human subjects in an ongoing experiment.  That will help them with the right frame of mind in reading the story and empathizing with the main character, Charlie. It might also be a pathway for the students to reflect on the experiment in which they are like Algernon, the mouse, and then perhaps themselves get engaged in experimental modification to improve how things are going.

Please note that in these suggestions that I've refrained from anything too current and certainly nothing about national politics or pressing social issues.  It's not that I don't think students should read about these things, but I suspect they would come at those topics with strong prior beliefs, some of which may be conflicting.  Opening up to such conflicts, particularly early on in the camp, is likely to be counterproductive, as it will encourage many students to shut down and not want to participate.  So I'm suggesting a safer approach, particularly at the beginning, where everyone in attendance can become comfortable with each other and interact in a relaxed manner.  I believe that tone is necessary for the camp to make progress on its main task.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up this very long post.  The fantasy that this post flirts with is that it is possible to make ordinary but committed students into deep learners.  Given that as the belief, it then sketches a way forward for making it happen.  I would expect that if such summer camps ever got off the ground, they would fail in a variety of ways I haven't anticipated here.  But they also might produce some modest successes that would be sufficient to try again the following year with a modified approach.

I do think deep reading is the key to keeping college as a meaningful experience for most students and we in higher education have not addressed the matter squarely.  So, if not the suggestions in this piece what else might be done?  That's the question that thoughtful readers of this essay should be asking.