Saturday, November 16, 2019


We take the local newspaper in Champaign-Urbana, The News Gazette. I look at it more for doing the Daily Jumble than for reading the news.  Way back when, I read it for the sports section because it was good about U of I sports.  But that interest has dissipated over the years.  More recently I might read the lead article on the front page, which more often than not is about some campus issue.  I'm not well connected to what's going on about campus any more, so this is a way to get a little information and figure out which way the wind is blowing.

This past week The News Gazette changed its layout.  Previously the Daily Jumble was located with other puzzles - notably the Sudoku, which I would also sometimes do, and then both were on the same page as Dear Abby.  In the new scheme of things, the Daily Jumble is located next to the bridge column by Phillip Adler.  Odd as this may seem, I hadn't read that column for years.  I simply didn't bother to find it in the paper.  But this week after doing the jumble, I would read the bridge column, and found I enjoyed it.  What's more, it really is a sort of puzzle.  The bidding is given and the reader is asked to figure out how to play the cards as the declarer to make the contract, if that's possible.  So far, I've not gotten the right answer this week, but I can say that thinking about this is interesting.

Which makes me wonder, if the bridge column is really a puzzle but Dear Abby is not, why cluster some of these but not the rest?  And how did the News-Gazette figure out to change the arrangement?  While I don't have real answers to these questions, I do have my guesses.  I'm going to say that this is a vintage thing.  The bridge column and the Daily Jumble have been around for a long time, at least since I was in high school.  (I graduated 47 years ago.)  The Sudoku, in contrast, is comparatively new, at least for American readers.  So maybe the News-Gazette is doing some implicit sorting of the readership, based on their age.

The thing is, current adolescents would benefit from learning how to play bridge.  It teaches a kind of situated logic that is valuable in many other contexts.  And it teaches communication skills and how to work together in a partnership.  This piece, now from a while back, argues just these things. Yet I'm guessing that very few teens learn to play bridge anymore.  When I was a teen (maybe even before that) my parents taught me and my brother the rudiments - fourth from the longest, strongest suit, etc. It was a family thing.

* * * * *

I'm going to do something unusual here and publish one of my rhymes within a longer blog post.  I wrote this a few days ago, but then was reluctant to post it to my usual outlets (first Twitter, then Facebook).   I'm doing so here because I want to use it to make a couple of other observations.
Power and sex
Concave or convex?
The U will have new rules
Let’s hope everyone’s temperature cools.

While I never dated a student once at the U of I, I was only 25 when I started.  I wasn't much older than the undergraduates I taught in intermediate microeconomics.  More than once I heard the dreaded question - are you the TA?  (If I heard that now, it would make me delighted for a week.)  So there was a need to establish one's authority in the eyes of the students.  A fellow assistant professor did that by wearing Brooks Brothers suits to class.  Getting dressed up was not my thing.  I established my authority inadvertently, by making the course way over the heads of the students.  Many years later I learned this is a common mistake made by brand new assistant professors.

A few years after I started I learned that the U of I had a somewhat difficult time recruiting assistant professors who were single.  The issue of social life (is an assistant professor entitled to that?) seemingly the driver causally, though in discussion it would often manifest by talking about the quality of the restaurants in town.  I'm totally out of the loop now regarding this situation.  But if the situation is more of less the same as when I started, I can imagine that recruiting single assistant professors will become even more of a challenge, and unintended consequence of the new policy.

A different issue that seems to me at root here, is that even when the age of the person indicates the person is an adult, if there were some sophistication metric that could be applied, would many of the students we have, whether over 18 or even over 21,  nonetheless score high on a naiveté metric? If so, does the university have an in loco parentis responsibility, even for students above the age of consent?  Back in 2015 I had a brief exchange with Laura Kipnis of Northwestern, after her piece in the Chronicle made quite a splash, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.   I'm going to put words in her mouth here.  In my interpretation of what she wrote the kids are naive because they are overprotected.  So stop protecting them.

Somewhat later, I wrote a piece that was intended partly as a refutation to this argument.  It's called Shyness and Kindness.  The upshot is that some fraction of our students are shy.  They are entitled to be that way as students and we must offer them protection, let them mature on their own timetable, not one we specify.  I also related some rather horrifying experiences from my first year in graduate school about the torment some of my classmates went through - this was academic torment, not sexual at all.  But it had telling consequences on these people.  Even if these are not the star performers in the classroom, the university should care about their welfare, as human beings.  More recently (about a year ago) I wrote this piece called, Why are we so screwed up about sex and authority?  It was an awkward piece to write, as I discussed my own naiveté in the romance department during adolescence.   Near the end of the piece it asks about what type of interventions might help in this area.   Fundamentally, the question is whether there is a type of education that can help the person overcome their own shyness.  Experience is a good teacher, if the stumbles are mild, but not otherwise.  So maybe some prohibitions are necessary as means of protection, but my sense is that it can't be the entire story.

* * * * *

This semester in my class I've had a couple of very clear examples of students being intellectually naive, in a way that I can't recall happening before.  Back in September students were given this prompt, to focus what they would blog about that week.  It turns out that many students didn't realize that opportunism has an ethical dimension to it.  So they wrote an inappropriate post (meaning it didn't address the topic at hand) thinking that opportunism simply meant taking advantage of opportunities.  Further, as we discussed this in a subsequent class session, they didn't question their own thinking on the matter, say by looking up the word in the dictionary.  (Given that they were already online to write the blog post, this is remarkably easy to do, yet they didn't do it.)  And some of the students didn't think it was their job to discover the true meaning of the word.  Instead, they felt the obligation was on me, to make my prompts clearer so this sort of error wouldn't happen.

The second example happened quite recently.  On Tuesday we will be discussing Bolman and Deal's Chapter 8, on conflict in organizations.  The prompt for their blog posts asked students to relate some real or fictitious experience they've been involved with where there was conflict, and then to Monday morning quarterback the situation.  One conscientious student had read through the PowerPoint for that session, and made note of what I have on slide 12, Newton's Third Law of Human Interaction.  But she took it literally, which was not what I intended it.  I was being a little cutesy, thinking that most students would already know Newton's Third Law from their science classes, and then using the label as a metaphor, which would get the students to ask the question - what is an equal and opposite reaction when one person acts aggressively?   But this student didn't take it metaphorically.  She took it literally.

* * * * *

In the case of the first error above, about the meaning of opportunism, you might imagine it was made only by mediocre students.  In the second example, however, the mistake was made by quite a diligent student who prides herself on getting good grades.  Yet, I learned recently, that in her pleasure time she enjoys watching TV, but doesn't ever read a novel for fun.

One should not generalize from a sample of one.  Yet over the years, this has been the same conclusion and I dare say the sample in this time period, stretching back to 1990 or so, is in the thousands.  Many students can't make good meaning of what they read, my example 20 years ago was an article from the NY Times, because they don't read enough.  So they don't see it as their job to supply the needed context in understanding what the author is trying to say.  Instead, it's the authors job to send a simple message.

The current culture values performance on standardized tests and I'm afraid that test prep has replaced doing a lot of outside reading as the means for how students prepare themselves.  The inadequacy of test prep as an educational approach is quite evident, if you care to look.  But who is doing that?

So we're producing graduates with high GPAs who are opportunistic in their focus of learning to the test but not learning otherwise.   And we too at the university are opportunistic, because these students pay the tuition that is our meal ticket.  So let's not make a fuss about this, please.

If anyone has read my prior post, where I expressed a lot of frustration, let me observe that the frustration is still there.  I wish I could see a way through this based on my own efforts.  But at present, I don't.  So I probably won't teach again, at least not at the undergraduate level.   I need to get some satisfaction from the teaching, which is lacking now.

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