Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks.....

.....What Would It Take to get the Start of the Semester Add-Drop Period Down from 10 Days to 5 Days?

In my next class session we'll spend some time on Paul David's famous paper on QWERTY.  The paper initially goes through the history of the typewriter.  In the nineteenth century the mechanism was slow and clunky.  Having one key depressed before the previous key returned to its original position would cause the keys to jam.  The inventor of the qwerty keyboard designed it as a way to slow the typist down, to reduce the number of key jams.  At the time of the invention, it was an efficiency enhancing development, which is why it took hold. But then the typewriter mechanism improved. This was followed by electric typewriters, some of which no longer had keys at all. Then there were word processors and personal computers.  Eventually there was no reason whatsoever to slow people down with typing.  Yet the qwerty keyboard has persisted, in spite of some efforts to unseat it by keyboards that are more sensible for encouraging rapid and accurate typing.

I think my own situation is typical and explains why we're locked into qwerty.  I learned touch typing in the summer after 10th grade (1970), attending a secretarial school in Flushing for that very purpose.  At the time I learned on a manual typewriter.  But those skills have survived to the present and are evident to me as I compose this blog post. I surely have a preference now for a qwerty keyboard.  I would hate any other system.  That would require me to practice hunt and peck and slow down the flow of the writing substantially.  This is why I don't like to text on my phone, even with a qwerty keyboard.  It's painful to input that way, at least for me.

The qwerty example is the best known example of lock-in to a practice that is no longer efficient, but it is certainly not the only example, not by a long shot.  The university offers several other examples. In class we will consider the lecture and ask whether it remains an efficient form of instruction or if it no longer is yet persists because of lock-in.  My views on this are somewhat eclectic.  I believe that lecture still makes sense as a mean of discourse when researchers are communicating with other researchers in the same field about their recent work.  I also believe lecture makes sense, in other settings that are closer to a general interest presentation when the audience is reasonably large, though then you might say the person is giving a talk. The first case, especially, means that much doctoral education will be in the form of lecture, so the students can prepare both to give talks about their own research, and to understand the obligation of members of the audience.  Reading a professional working paper requires diligence and keeping up with the literature.  It is effortful.  Having gone through this rigor as a doctoral student, is it any wonder that new assistant professors lecture?  It is what they were trained to do.

But for teaching undergraduates, especially when not in a large class setting, is lecture the best way for them to learn?  There are several different angles on this.  One is that making online micro-lectures is now a viable option and further, the videos can be made broadly available, so students elsewhere can view them if they so desire.  As an example, my profarvan channel on YouTube has recently gone over 250,000 views, the vast majority of which is from other than my own students.  Second, the online micro lectures can be coupled with online assessments that encourage the students to pay attention while watching the video.  Third, the research on learning shows "active learning methods" superior to lecture for most students.  Then there is my personal preference, Socratic dialog.  I like it because the sequence of question and response is the closest thing I know to thinking, and what I'm trying for in the classroom is to model thinking for the students. More than a dozen years ago, Barbara Ganley and I debated these issues on our respective blogs.  (Barbara's post that I was responding to can be found here, but it takes a while to load.)  At the time I had yet to experience the-post retirement teaching that I've now been doing for many years, where around then when I did teach it was students in the Campus Honors Program.  My sense of the student has changed as a result of this more recent teaching.  And I'm more in Barbara's camp now then I was then.

Another example of lock-in at the university that is usually given is the academic calendar, which treats the summer in an asymmetric fashion.  Once upon a time students needed to go home to tend to the harvest.   That need is no longer present, but the academic calendar persists as if it still were there. The first 10 days of the semester is the add-drop period.  While I don't know this for a fact, I do remember back to when students had to line up at the Armory to register and the process was all done on paper.  Instructors would eventually get a paper based copy of their course roster.  Adds and drops after that were printed on manila cards.  I'm guessing that the 10 days were needed then. But now course registration is done online, yet we still have these first 10 days.   Is that too an example of lock-in.  Or does it survive now simply out of institutional inertia?

Before trying to answer that, I want to note the example of Google, which has taken the approach to kill applications it had been supporting, even if the applications are popular with current users.  Google does this when the application no longer fits into their overall business plan.  Examples include Google Reader, iGoogle, and most recently Google+.  Even though I was a pretty avid user of the first two of these services, I didn't jump off the Google bandwagon after those services were cancelled.  So the lockin, if it existed in this case, might not be to a particular service or way of doing business.  Alternatively, the company might take some near term hits when it does cancel such a service, users who relied on the service are indeed upset by the cancellation, but the company can endure that and those users eventually do adjust to the new circumstance, perhaps more quickly than they had anticipated.

Now I want to consider the first 10 days of the semester and the add-drop period, where students can add or drop a class without getting permission from an instructor or an advisor.  In theory, students are not  supposed to game the system by registering for more classes than they plan to take.  I informally polled my students on that issue in my class on Tuesday, where I asked, to be cute and so my students didn't feel they needed to lie about themselves, do they know of other students who hoard classes like this, where they plan to drop at least one of them during the semester?  I only eyeballed the results, but it seems that a vast majority present raised their hands, indicating they were aware of such gaming of the system.   Then I explained that the Econ Department also apparently gamed the system.  On August 15, 11 days before the start of the semester, I did a tally of all the 400-level classes in Economics based on the listings in the online Class Schedule. At that time there were no openings whatsoever for undergraduates, while there were 11 cross-listed graduate sections that had some openings.  (I think there was 27 offerings overall.)   A week or so later, there were many openings for undergraduates in 400-level classes.  Apparently the department had held back seats for late arriving students who had yet to register, perhaps sensible under the circumstances.   Then the free-for-all began.

Because I use a class Website that is not on a campus supported application, I email the students ahead of time with the url for the site and some other information specific to each student.  (Thank you, mail merge.)  As my class is Tues and Thurs, I always make this mailing on Sunday.  I downloaded the roster for my class the day before.  At the time I had 37 students registered for my class.  Since then, I've had 14 students drop and 18 students add the class, and in one case a student dropped but then added it again later. This amount of churn is unbelievable. Is it really necessary?

From my perspective, instructors are definitely not locked into the current 10-day arrangement.  I don't speak for other instructors but I imagine that most of them would echo the sentiments in this rhyme, written back in 2011. You don't want students adding your class who have missed the opening session(s).  Catch up is hard and it places an added burden on the instructor.

This point makes it necessary to distinguish switching discussion sections for the same large lecture class, either because the new section is at a preferred time or because the student wants a different TA, from what I was describing with the 400-level classes.  In the case of switching discussion sections in a large lecture class there isn't the catching up I mentioned in the previous paragraph and the section switching probably should be accommodated, even after the 10 days are over.  Indeed, at the U of I students can add a class after the 10 days with the permission of the instructor.  So there maybe be enough flex in the system as is to handle this case.

Missing the first two weeks of class in an entirely new course is a different matter. Such adds do happen and I'm fearful now that I will experience some of them this time around.  It is a downer to consider the possibility.

A real study of late student add-drop behavior would entail interviewing many of the students who make such course changes to understand their situation and their motives.  Did they find some other course they were registered for too difficult or the instructor too rigid?  Do they have a friend taking the course they add late who gives them the skinny on the new course, something they couldn't get from the available information to all students (course syllabi)?  Did they make some bad mistake in their previous class and would prefer not to be accountable for that so want to switch classes to start with a new slate?  Or was it just sloth and they couldn't figure out the right courses to register for the previous semester under the normal scheme where students register for classes?  Who knows?  Some data gathering might shed some light on this.

Maybe an efficiency argument can be made for enabling adds through day 10.  (The last day students can drop a class is much later than that.) But I doubt it.  Further,  there clearly are a lot of bad things that result from the churn.  Number one of these is that instructors have to adjust their teaching during the first two weeks of the semester so that late adding students can catch up.  Students who are in the class on day one are done a disservice by this practice.

Once the appropriate study has been done, the issue of shortening the duration of the add-drop period becomes a matter of campus politics.  I wouldn't want to speculate on whether it's possible to do something in this dimension or not.  But I suspect that if another peer institution were to do this, that would make it much easier for us to do it here.  The arguments I've been making are not specific to my campus.  Somebody should have a crack at this, please.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lack of Usability in Campus/University Supported Applications That Undergird Instruction

I'm on a Maslow kick as of late.  In this post I'm going to talk mainly about applications that learning technologists on campus tend to ignore, because they are outside the scope of their direct responsibility.  But instructors get waylaid by these applications, for pretty obvious reasons.  If you believe in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, this means that instructors get stuck on lower rungs of the hierarchy and as a result don't self-actualize, which in this context means they don't use the instructional technology in a creative way that might enhance learning.  They are too busy coping with other accommodations with the technology to do that.

Here I will take on the Student Information System, University email for students, and if I've got any energy left over then I'll consider the hosting of files so they are publicly available as well.  My complaints are not new.  And that's a big part of the point.  Why hasn't there been innovation so what was perceived as a problem 10 years ago isn't a problem now?

Let's get at it.  My university uses Banner as their SIS.  It has the unfortunate feature of treating the section as the unit of measurement rather than the course as unit of measurement.  If you teach a class where there is only one section, this is no biggie.  But if you teach a class that has multiple sections which are cross listed, as I do, then there are several problems.  The biggest one right now for me is the way quotas are set.  The room I teach in has 50 seats for students.  That is an obvious quota.  The software should not have more than 50 students registered for the class.  But I have one undergrad section and one grad section cross listed, as do several other upper level undergraduate classes offered in Economics.  Though the classes are primarily intended for undergraduates, Masters students are welcome to take the classes as a way to round out their degrees.  Banner forces one quota for the undergrad section and another quota for the grad section.  The two add up to 50.  If the undergrad fills while the grad section has openings, then more undergraduate students can't register for the class, unless the quota is manually reset. In fact, this is happening for many of the upper level courses being offered.  I did a tally of this last Thursday for 400-level courses in Economics using data from the Course Explorer. At the time there were no empty seats for undergrads, while there were 11 grad sections with openings across the various offerings.

This situation created an ethical conundrum for me.  I'd rather teach a smaller class and, in fact, my course has never had more than about 30 students in the past.  But there are more students now taking such classes and possibly fewer offerings overall (of that I'm less sure).  Do I have some responsibility to those undergraduate students who want to add a 400-level class in Economics by increasing the quota on my undergraduate section?  If there were a quota on the room only, not on the individual sections which are cross listed, that decision would be taken out of my hands.  As it is now, it looks like the Economics Department is giving preferential treatment to the grad students, as empty seats are being held for them while the undergrads don't have any options.   Even if in fact there is some preference for the grad students, is this the sort of message that the department wants to broadcast?  The software forces this.   It would be much better if the software allowed students to add as long as the room wasn't full, regardless of which section the students joined.  It's amazing that this simple function is not supported.

Coupled with this, alas, I can't view both sections pooled in one view, nor can I readily download data from Banner for import into Excel.  These are obvious deficiencies of the software.  The campus provides work arounds for these limitations.   The LMS can be viewed as an alternative roster service.  And DMI also offers such a service.  But the services are imperfect substitutes.  For example, while DMI does list a second major for the students, it doesn't list a minor.  Also, the home address isn't provided.  This is particularly useful to identify international students and out-of-state domestic students.  So, while it would be nice to go to just once source for the roster information, I end up using all three sources.  Before the semester starts I rely mainly on Banner, as the information is most current there.  DMI does color code recent adds and drops, which is useful for the first 10 days of the semester.  After that I use the LMS for it's electronic grade book function. I've been doing this for so long that I'm used to it.  But that doesn't make it right.  A newbie instructor is likely to be frustrated by this environment.

Let me turn to email/student identity.  While I've not done a careful sampling, my general impression is that about 50% of my students use non-university email as their primary form of communication.  There are two obvious reasons why.  One is continuity from before being a students on campus and after they graduate.  If they've already been using their email for external to the university functions (and I will note that a quick check of my current roster has students with other external sites - LinkedIn mainly, some other sites too) then it makes sense from their perspective to continue with that.  The other use is so they can change their screen name to a preferred name that is different from what is on their university record. This is particularly important for international students who want to use an Americanized name will studying in the U.S.  Our business practice at the university, however, doesn't accommodate either of these uses.  Instead it is up to each instructor to adjust or not.

I will note that ATLAS has a photo roster service that is potentially quite nice.  I gather that it is pulling data from Banner and the I-Card (student ID) databases.  So in addition to name and photo it also offers the student's UIN (University ID Number).  If students were allowed to enter a preferred name into one of of these databases, then that information could be pulled as well.  In my class UIN has no function.  Addressing students by their preferred names would have real value.

Now let me briefly talk about my use of for my course files, rather than use the LMS.  This allows the files to be made publicly available, so my course site becomes a mini OER.  When these files are associated with a YouTube video, they do get external access.  I would like to better identify external access from access by students in my class, but at present I can only tell that by when access occurs.  I do wish the Campus would consider the OER function more seriously, rather than only be concerned about Coursera, but I suppose I'm a voice in the wilderness on this.  C'est la vie.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Wearing Out

Dualism in all things is the rule, not the exception.  Why I need a frequent reminder of that, I don't know.  But it seems surprising every time I tell myself that.  In this case my recent fascination with early childhood development as a template for how the college student goes about school, including much reminiscing about my own time in nursery school and elementary school, a foreshadowing of The Professor Mind, has its own dual in my current self-perceived decline, of which I will detail a few separate incidents.  Then I will wave my hands and make some not so sweeping conclusions about whether the cause is mainly fear of the inevitable or if it is the inevitable itself.

First let me tell a personal joke that I first used on my then optometrist (he too has retired now) but subsequently have used on several other doctors I visit.  It's clear that some parts of me are slowly wearing out.  For my eyes, in particular, I'm managing that by taking eye vitamins twice daily and by putting drops in during the evening. What I told the optometrist is that my goal would be for all my parts to wear down, more or less, at the same time.  He chuckled at that one.  Be careful what you wish for.

Then, yesterday, I had a little episode with the dishwasher.  I thought I had started it, but four hours later it was still not done, so I opened it up.  The control panel was flashing.  Apparently, I had never pushed the start button.  This very simple thing bothered me because not all that long ago I was a campus administrator with learning technology my domain.  Such a person is supposed to like technology and be comfortable with it.  But more recently I'm vexed by such things, especially our hand control for the big TV in the family room.  There are many different pieces of hardware connected to it and a variety of packages play on it.  So manipulating the hand control is a challenge.  But the real biggie is when a message comes on the screen that says the firmware needs updating and wants to know whether that should happen now or not.  I push the button but there is no response.  Evidently I'm not on the right screen.  I haven't a clue what the right screen is or how to navigate to it.  There's some irony here, given my prior job.

Perhaps my bigger issue with technology is a perception that I'm making more typos than I used to.  Some of these flip letters in a word.  Others put in wrong letters altogether.  I teach in my class on the economics of organizations that there is an issue of alignment between management and the staff.  Apparently my mind and my fingers are having a similar issue.  Proofreading, of course, would negate this problem, or so one would think.  (Homophones survive even a serious proofreading, but the reader may be more tolerant of that sort of error.)  The reality is that the energy to proofread is less than what it used to be, because the generating prose is itself getting harder.  To paraphrase a well-known maxim, all dissipative play and no engaging work makes Lanny a dull boy.  Also, in the type of online chat I do, using Facebook Messenger a fair amount and texting some, the environment itself is not that conducive for proofreading.  (Composing a post in Blogger is better.  The editing window is ample and the normal sentence-paragraph structure is evident.)

I'm also finding that my ability to deal with even minor stress has declined a great deal.  It used to be that minor sources of annoyance would just bounce off and become part of the background noise.  If necessary, they would be dealt with as they came up.  But now I seem to fixate on them and am unable to let go, which I almost certainly should do.  Here's a case in point.  Earlier in the week, I got an email from the Econ Department's HR person about the course I'm supposed to teach this fall.  Apparently, since I didn't teach last year, they have to file an I-9 form for me.  (Though I only had been teaching in the fall and not in the spring, so I don't understand why they have to do that now but didn't each time they did rehired me in the past.)  The email said this had to be done no later than the date my appointment starts, August 16, which is a week from tomorrow.  I will be out of town the first part of next week, so wanted to get this done before I left and responded with that information. Then nada from the person who sent the email.  I also noted, though just to myself, that the offer letter was contingent on doing a background check (which was a non-issue in my case) but didn't mention an I-9 form.  I submitted a signed offer letter, so in my mind, though I'm not a lawyer, that should be a binding contract as the background check was completed in under an hour. Yet it now seems possible that the I-9 will not get done in time.  What then?

My bigger stress with regard to this class is what the ultimate enrollment will be.  When the Department Head asked me to teach the class, where the year before he did not, he told me the class would "border on 60 students" because the department didn't have enough upper level offerings for majors.  So I started to plan for that.  I asked for a classroom in Wohlers Hall, rather than in DKH where the Econ Department is located, because Wohlers has amphitheater classrooms, which are better when the class size is 60.  And I looked to hire a former student as a TA, because I have students do weekly blogging, where I do try to write interesting comments in response on each student post, but 60 is just too many for that. So I was hoping to divide up the commenting work with the TA.  This former student graduated right after my class in 2017, lives elsewhere, and has a full time job. I envisioned the commenting as taking 5-10 hours a week for her and getting her some additional spending money for the effort.  But the department didn't go for it.  They promised me a grad student hourly instead.

So far, I haven't been assigned anyone, and it is unclear to me whether they will follow through on that.  The actual classroom I am in has a capacity of 50 students, which is in Wohlers Hall, and is flat.  (The class is from 9:30 to 10:50 a fairly popular time on campus and I'm guessing the amphitheater classrooms had been previously scheduled at that time.)   Further, the class is cross listed - one section for undergrads, a different section for grads in Econ.  (The department has a big bucks professional masters program and uses the upper level undergraduate offerings to amplify the variety of courses available to those masters students).  In Banner they set the capacities of the undergrad section at 30 and the grad section at 20.  Yesterday, the undergrad section reached capacity.  The grad section has no students registered.  Managing this is the department's issue, not mine, but for planning how to conduct the class I would like to know how many students I will ultimately have.  I would really prefer not to have more than 35 students and in my mind an upper level class should be taught like a seminar, so no more than the mid 20s in enrollment.  But I also try to be a good citizen and accommodate the Department's wishes.  If they need the classroom to be full, I'll figure out some way to conduct the class.  Yet while knowing that, I'm still stressing out about it.  I need to chill out, till the students are back on campus.  I wish I could do that, but it seems outside my control.

Then there is the matter that my mental quickness seems to be on the downs.  This is a simple test of that proposition.  I do the Daily Jumble, which appears in the local paper.  I used to be able to unscramble the words in a snap and then most of the time I could get the theme pretty quickly as well.  I don't know where that skill comes from, it's just one of those things that came easily to me.  But this past week it's been a struggle.  I sit there and ask myself, why am I not getting this?  Eventually I do, but it takes an inordinate amount of time.  Is this a foreboding of all sorts of thinking that requires some insight?    Last week I had a terrible senior moment (that went on for about a half hour) seeing somebody while grocery shopping whose voice was familiar, but I couldn't place him.  It was very disturbing.  (It turned out to be my old optometrist.)  And for quite a while I have been having the issue that I know the famous person, but can't come up with the name.   My memory was once truly great (witness those report cards from nursery school).  It now is beginning to betray me.

I could go on and talk about aches and pains as well as various ailments.  But I think that's enough.  The real issue here is whether this is normal aging combined with perhaps too much time where I'm at home at the computer rather than interacting in some social context or if this is marking an acceleration in my personal decline. The jury is still out on this.   I'm sure I'm not the only person who has been in this situation.  I wonder how others manage it.

Let me close with this point.  The past few years I've noticed an ageism that discriminates against retired people, where if I were still working full time I wouldn't experience this nearly as much.  My ideas are ignored now much more readily than they otherwise would be.  (The low number of hits on this blog is one indicator of that.)  Yet if I am experiencing an acceleration in my own decline, my desire to accomplish something of substance while I still can is all the greater.  The question is how to do that.  My dad read us an abbreviated form of Don Quixote when we were young kids.  Maybe it's time now to read the real thing.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Maslow and the Creative Attitude

Last week I started to read The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, a book of Maslow's essays which I believe were written later in his career.  Some years ago I read Toward a Psychology of Being.  Actually, I read it twice.  The first time was in the 1990s as I was trying to catch up on theory about learning, while doing my campus job as an ed tech administrator, where I thought that background was necessary.  Educational technology was about learning as much as it was about the technology, maybe even more so.  The next time I read it was perhaps a dozen years later, when I was near retirement, where it was more pleasure reading and to gain some further self-understanding. In both instances I found that much of what I read in Maslow spoke to me directly, as if he was explaining my behavior, especially when I was writing or concentrating while making some Excel learning object.

I am somewhat reluctant to call myself a self-actualizer, because Maslow thought that those who are in this category represent only a small fraction of the population, and I am loathe to self-diagnose in a way that makes me part of an elite group.  Doing so seems egotistical.  But some realizations as of late make me more willing.  For one, periods of complete absorption into some task happen less frequently for me now.  Indeed, I'm finding that much more often I can't read straight through to the end an Op-Ed in the New York Times.   In the last few years, where I've spent quite a lot of time sitting in front of my computer, I've acquired a kind of ADHD.  I will speculate on why that is and what I should be doing to reduce its incidence, though much of this will come as no surprise, for it seems that everyone who is in front of a screen may be experiencing something similar. The other part is that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs should be reconsidered to allow being on several different rungs of the hierarchy, more or less simultaneously.  Most people these days are exposed to stress, from a variety of different sources.  Coping with those, sometimes by caving in, other times by an inelegant approach so definitely not self-actualization in that domain, does not preclude that periods of intense concentration may accompany a writing activity or some other project I happen to be engaged in at the time.  In Maslow's terms, health and sickness co-exist in me.  It is not all of one and none of the other.

I suspect this is true of most people, but in varying proportions.  And what I want to know, which is why I'm writing this piece, is for college students, such as the ones who will take my class this fall, having made their deal with the devil where they've opted for a non-creative path through school, is it worthwhile to encourage them to reconsider that choice, as a way to make them more effective at lifelong learning, or will there be a pernicious effect as a consequence from having pointed out their inadequacies without giving them sufficient training on how to remedy those?  At present I'm opting for making the point rather forcefully, but then not belaboring it.  I do believe the choice is ultimately for the students to make.  My job then is only to make them aware of the decision, not to foist it upon them.  But I will criticize that the "good students" in the crowd over program themselves and are constantly juggling the various activities that they've committed to.  This juggling is inconsistent with deep concentration on one activity only.  It may be that they've become addicted to keeping all those balls in the air and consider it something of an accomplishment just to be able to do that.  Yet they are shortchanging themselves on depth of experience that way.

Let's turn to child development and what in it might encourage the creative attitude as the kid matures.  It occurred to me to go back to my "report cards" from nursery school, which gave written evaluations only, no letter grades.  There are two of these, one from January 1960, reporting on my progress from the previous fall, when I was 4, the other from June 1960, reporting on my progress that spring, when I was 5.  The first area of the report is on physical development, where I struggled because my fine motor skills were lagging behind the other kids and because being a larger kid I may have been grouped with kids who were a bit older, even then, so this limitation may have felt even more extreme to me.   The other two areas are on intellectual development and social development.  There it seems my performance was much better - eager to try new things, a strong sense of completed work, a good memory, a high level of concentration, and a pleasing sense of humor. Without seeing the reports on other children, so to learn how much of this was fluff and how much was an accurate representation of the kid, this does seem quite a good foreshadowing of my adult self - at least on my good days.

Taking that as a starting point, I want to consider further developments that in retrospect seemed to matter for the creative attitude.  When I grew up kids didn't get pacifiers and, as a result, thumb sucking was pretty common.  I'm quite sure I did it a lot, till about age 7.  I also had my favorite security blanket, so held that in my left hand while I was sucking the thumb on my right hand.  That's the way I went to sleep.  To give up such an ingrained habit it probably helps a good deal if whatever else comes along next satisfies the same needs in the kid.  Somewhere around that time I read my first real book, Charlotte's Web, and did so sitting in an overstuffed chair in the basement with nobody else around, which provided quite a comforting environment for me.  So I was able to associate this sense of security with the joy of reading.  This joy was accompanied by some sense of control as to what would be read, as my school had a program of Individualized Reading, and my dad made sure I had ample reading materials, either from books we had at home or by taking me to the local library.  I wrote about this in a post called Read The Book and Find Out, the invariable closing line to the book reports students did in class then.

I want to be clear here.  I certainly got recommendations of what to read from adults, teachers and librarians.  From that I developed a pattern.  If I liked the suggestion, as I usually did, I would then read several other books by the same author and of the same genre.  Eventually I'd want to move on.  When I was early in this pattern, at that time I would elicit another recommendation for a different author and perhaps on a different topic.  Eventually I made those choices for myself as well.  Random House had a series of books for kids, biographies of famous Americans and sometimes histories of famous events.   I believe these had various authors, but were written according to a style the publisher specified.  I stuck with that series for quite a while and became excellent in social studies as a consequence.

While most of this reading was done outside of school I also want to note that especially in sixth grade, but perhaps in fifth grade as well, I spent a significant chunk of time doing school stuff on my own.  One thing, and lets remember that in the 1960s there was no such thing as a personal computer, I had a book to teach grammar that was designed to be interactive like a learning system, such as the Plato system developed at Illinois.  A little lesson was in a text box that took up part of a page.   Below that was a question to test the understanding of the lesson.  The answer, with an explanation, was below that.  Of the two or three kids who got this sort of instruction, we were told to cover up the answer and then see if our selection was correct.  If so, we could proceed.  If not, we were to go back to the lesson and see if we could figure out what we didn't understand the first time.   Only a few kids in the class got this programmed instruction and now, as an adult, I would love to know why I was selected to participate in it.  What I want to note here is simply that at this early age, I was 10 or 11 then, the teacher encouraged me to teach myself, given the programmed learning book.  I believe it reinforced the reading I was doing as another source of self-teaching.

The next step up on the path to creativity happened in 8th grade, when my math teacher asked me to join the Math Team, something that wouldn't have occurred to me on my own then.  I am extremely grateful to her now for making that suggestion. As I've written about this some time ago in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity, let me only note that as a prelude to addressing open ended issues which have no known solution, working on a hard math problem while knowing in advance that there is a solution, though it's not obvious what that solution is, offers an excellent way for the mind to explore possibilities and not give up too early.  I found I had some aptitude for this, a definite plus.  And I found it engaged me, in the same way that many people become engaged by a puzzle that doesn't admit an immediate solution.  Somewhere along the way I also developed a sense of either - I should be able to get this or this is beyond my capability.  That intuition matters a good deal.  It can't be perfect ahead of time.  As an adult working on something much more complex than a math team problem, I still had this same intuition about whether I should be able to get a pleasing answer.  Even now, I become bothered when I have that feeling, but have yet to produce something that cuts the mustard.  In my class, where I do want to bring Maslow's essay to the attention of students, I will make some mention of Grit and associate it with this notion of being bothered.  I persist because I can't let go when in that state of mind.  Then I'm operating under a certain tension.  I want release of that, but release can only come if the issue is resolved.  I'm incapable of saying, let's move on and perhaps return to it later.  This type of persistence as response is learned, in the sense of a habit that has formed, one which I choose not to break.  While it is happening it is vexing.  After the fact, the stick-to-itiveness proves remarkably productive.

Now I want to take on what is something of a puzzle, why I didn't write more in those years, particularly in high school, beyond what was required in the classes I took.   I did write some, contributing an article here and there to a school publication.  But I didn't feel a need to produce piece after piece, as I seem to feel now.  Here are some of the reasons why.  Probably most importantly, I had friends with whom I could talk about my formative ideas and learn about theirs.  Having such conversations, the urge for writing was less for me.  Then there was the mechanical aspect.  My handwriting was atrocious.   I had to slow down a lot to write out something that eventually would be typed up for publication. That made the writing activity itself more of a chore.  I did learn to touch type  in the summer after 10th grade, but the electric typewriter we had was in the den, the same room where my mother did her foreign language tutoring and where my parents played bridge when they had friends over to the house.  So it was only available to me at certain times.  Then, I pigeon-holed myself some.  My older sister had friends who could quote Shakespeare, in the context of the current discussion.  I definitely could not do that.  Plus, in English class I often couldn't make headway with the symbolism in the poetry we read.  So I didn't consider myself artsy.  For that reason, I never followed through on the encouragement I got from my ninth grade English teacher to try writing for the school's literary magazine.  For me, that was the road not taken.

I want to fast forward some and talk about productive habits I developed when doing research as an assistant professor, which morphed into something far less so after I retired.  It would take two or three months of serious thinking to work through a model, fully digest its implications, and then write that up in a paper.  I learned that between papers there needed to be a time interval for the mind to be fallow, a period of rejuvenation.  Some of that would happen during the work day while I was doing my research.  Doing the Times crossword, usually in the morning, and playing bridge at lunchtime provided such relief.  And then I would jog or play golf, to get some exercise and have a different sort of diversion.  Beyond that, however, between projects I would veg out even more - junk TV a source of downtime then. The pressure put on by publish or perish then, and later when I was an administrator to the more or less constant demands on my time, would serve as a discipline device so that the fallow time was limited.  Unfortunately, many of the activities in it had their addictive aspects, so when the discipline device was eliminated, I began to indulge more than was really healthy for me.  This is the underlying reality for me on which the new addictions from Facebook, Twitter, etc. have worked their evil magic.

The obvious answer is that when I'm not writing or researching a new topic to write about, I should step away from the computer.   I would like to think I have the resolve when reading online to stick with that piece of reading.  But the reality is that too often I bounce from one thing to another when at the computer.  I may go back to reading books on paper for this reason.  

Yet even in retirement there is work to do - for the class I will teach in the fall, for the volunteer organization I help to support, and once in a while trying to touch base with the ed tech universe that was my stomping grounds a decade ago.  And some of this work entails its own creative activity.  So I continue to delude myself that the periods intense concentration will return on their own.

Maslow is right to glorify those episodes.  They are precious indeed.  One may not realize that when partaking in them.  After the fact, it's a different story.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.