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Lanny on Learning

Musings from Lanny Arvan on learning - pedagogy, the economics of, technical issues, tie-ins with other stuff, the entire grab bag.

Updated: 2018-04-15T05:12:05.606-05:00


What's The Right Systematic Response?


As I watch my friends conjecture about ways to self-protect after the latest Facebook debacle - switch to a different platform, change one's identity, be online but don't have any friends - it occurs to me that none of this can work and that, indeed, acting individually a person can't solve this problem.  Some collective action is needed instead.  What sort of collective action do we require?  I, for one, don't like to provide answers until I understand the problem.  Providing problem definition is work, requiring real effort.  The point of this post is to begin in this direction.  I hope that others who read it might then kick the can a little further and make progress that way.The Myth of the Closed ContainerThe heyday for me as an individual contributor online was late 2005 through 2006.  I had discovered the world of blogging and in the .edu space was considered a serious contributor.  It was out in the open, seemingly anyone could participate, and the self-forming community of participants engaged vigorously, by commenting on the posts of others as well as by linking to those points in their own pieces.  At the time, at least within the .edu arena, there was some loathing for closed container solutions, particularly the learning management system.  An early exemplar is this post by Leigh Blackall.While blogging of this sort still exists today, it is now in eclipse.  If you consider the point of view of the platform providers, blogging overall didn't generate enough participants to be very profitable.  There needed to be a way to turn up the volume.  Here we should ask why the volume wasn't greater.My experience with online goes back a decade earlier, when we had online conversations in some client/server software that enabled threaded discussions and later by email via listserv.  Based on that experience I believe the following is safe to maintain.  Among the members of the group, a few will do the bulk of the posting, feeling comfortable expressing their opinions.  The vast majority will be lurkers.  It is much harder to know the behavior of lurkers, but I suspect some were careful readers of the threads yet never jumped into the fray, while others may have been more casual in their reading.  A critical question is this?  Why doesn't the lurker chime in?  Two possibilities are (1) fear of criticism by other members of the group and (2) self-censorship about the quality of one's own ideas.   In this sense, even though these threads were in a closed container application, they were still too open to elicit universal participation.People will open up more if they perceive the environment to be safe.  Having trusted partners in communication is part of that.  Having others who are not trusted unable to penetrate the conversation is another part. The issue here, and it is a big one, is that people often make a cognitive error with regard to the safety of the environment.  Email, for example, is treated as a purely private means of communication when there are far too many examples to illustrate that it is not.  (While readers might first think of email leaks as the main issue, people who work for public organizations should be aware that their email is subject to FOIA requests.)Faux privacy may be its own issue.  If true privacy can't be guaranteed broadly, it may make sense to have very limited means of true privacy that are safeguarded to the max, with the rest of the communication semi-public.With regard to Facebook in particular, there is a part of the software design that encourages the cognitive error.  This is about how somebody else becomes your friend in Facebook.  Is that somebody else to be trusted?  If they are a friend of a friend whom you do trust, is that sufficient for you to then trust this potential new friend?  If your set of friends is uneven in how they answer these questions, how should you deal with them?Out of sight is out of mind.  You ma[...]

More Thoughts On Campus Strategic Planning - Five Years Later


Not surprisingly, the campus is again engaged in a strategic planning exercise.  It's something universities do periodically.  I'm going to chime in, as I'm prone to do.  Like the last time, when I wrote Some Thoughts On The New Campus Strategic Plan, I'm going to restrict my attention to the teaching and learning part.  Unlike the last time, however, there are fewer documents to react to and thus I'm going to venture out some on my own more about how I see the issues.  (Perhaps we're a bit earlier in the process.  Of that I'm not sure.)  The overarching theme for teaching and learning has remained the same - Provide Transformative Learning Experiences.  So my post from five years ago might still be a relevant read now as it dissected the then documents about the discord between the goal (which I subscribe to) and the purported measures (which, in fact, were inappropriate for determining whether the goal had been achieved). There was additional analysis in that piece as well that is likely still relevant for the present.But I don't like to be (too) repetitive in making my posts, so I will aim differently here.  There was a PowerPoint presentation produced by Kevin Pitts, the new Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.  The first slide after the title slide does a recounting of initiatives in this category since the last strategic plan was implemented.  My attention was caught by the fact that the word major (used before the expression - educational initiatives) was in bold.  Were these initiatives indeed major or was casting this word in bold mere hype?  My instinct was to consider the initiatives from the perspective of the one undergraduate class I now teach each fall - The Economics of Organizations.  Do the initiatives listed on the slide matter for that class (which is taught in DKH where the Economics Department is located)?  My conclusion was that they do not.  Do they matter for students who are Econ majors?  My conclusion was that for current majors probably not, while for future majors perhaps a little, but not much.  With that bit of observation complete, I started to generalize.  We tend to innovate at the edges in instruction while leaving core business practices largely intact.  Maintaining that belief about where innovation occurs is my bias on these matters; that bias informs the rest of the piece.  The underlying question that I'd like to get at is this.  Might we innovate on core business practice in a way that actually improves matters?There are five sections in what follows: 1) Optics, 2) Benchmark Measures, 3) Ethical Issues, 4) Suggested Reforms That I've Developed In Prior Posts, and 5) Conclusion.  The first three of these follow immediately from what I've written in the previous paragraph.  The fourth comes from responding to the bottom of slide 6 and the last slide in Kevin Pitts' presentation.  He asks about redesigning college education from scratch.  What would that look like?  He encourages the reader to "think big."  In fact, I've done this (in concept though not in implementation outside my own teaching) with some frequency on my blog, so I will link to some instances of those exercises and provide some annotation along with the links.  The final section is meant as a way to connect the dots.1. OpticsAny SWOT analysis will have parts that are elevating, the strengths and opportunities, and parts that are discouraging, the weaknesses and threats.  For the analysis to be effective, all parts must be considered in full.  When I was in the campus IT organization, as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies (2002-06), we did such planning sessions off site and behind closed doors, with higher level management and senior staff in the organization. Presumably, this was to promote open and honest dialogue among the group in attendance.  The current strategic planning process is meant to be fully out in th[...]

Having Enough on the Ball


It's a fact about college admissions at selective universities that the process is a tournament.  When I teach about pay that varies with individual output, as a component to my course on the economics of organizations, we discuss different types of incentive contracts.  Pay for performance, as we usually consider it, is based on absolute performance.  Sales contracts, for example, are based on the dollar amount sold.  Likewise, fruit pickers are paid by the number of bushels picked.  Absolute performance is measured in the units of output, whatever those happen to be in the particular instance.  Tournaments, in contrast, are based on relative performance, how the person ranked compared to the others in the competition.  It is these rankings that determine the winners and the losers.In a world where the absolute performance distribution is stable among the population, tournaments will produce outliers only if they have a small number who enter and then an even smaller number of winners.  Small samples tend to produce outliers with some regularity.  If, however, the numbers of entrants and the number of winners are both large (although the number of winners obviously needs to be less than the number of entrants), then the law of averages can make you pretty confident about the performance level of the winners.  I believe that admissions at the U of I and other major public universities satisfy these large number conditions.  (There are exceptions to this, such as athletes in the revenue sports, but let's ignore those here.)There may be more systematic reasons from departures to predictable measures of output.  Geography within the state of Illinois can matter for admission.  A student who is from a comparatively poor rural district or is from an inner city school, in either case the school has fewer resources than a suburban school, may be measured more for future potential than for past performance.   Conversely, students from the affluent district nowadays game the system much more than they did 45-50 years ago (when I was in high school and applying for college).  For example, taking a private prep class to prepare for the standardized tests is quite common now.  It did happen then, but was rarer.  And now there is kind of an arms race about amassing AP credit.  It mattered then too, but not nearly as much as now.Let me offer two possible explanations for the gaming, both of which have some merit, in my view.  One is the idea of leapfrogging. A kid who probably shouldn't be admitted participates in this sort of gaming to increase the likelihood that the kid will get admitted.  But then, if kids like this game the system, the other kids who are likely candidates need to do it too, as a means of self-protection.  The upshot is that by the established criteria for admission there ends up being more above the bar than can be accepted, so the process becomes something of a lottery.   The other explanation is that the gaming serves as a substitute for the real type of academic preparation we'd like to see (mainly a lot of reading, done broadly and deeply).  Measuring the real academic preparation is difficult, highly subjective, and provides its own sort of moral hazard.  (If it is done primarily by the letters of recommendation that teachers write, and if the high schools are measured by the college placements of their grads, then the teachers will be under some substantial pressure to skew their evaluations upwards.)* * * * *The above is meant as background information.  Now I want to get at the heart of the matter.  Over the years I have had a variety of students whom I felt ill prepared for college.  Instructors are supposed to have high expectations for their students, for example see Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles.   If you think of a course like a pipe, students enter at one end and exit at the other, and i[...]

The Freshman Seminar - Taught By A Retired Faculty Member


A couple of weeks ago the Econ Department contacted me about whether I wanted to teach my course next fall.  This is much earlier than in past years.  I was told that it is harder to hire retirees now.  A justification for that would need to be written.  And the funds to pay me would have to come from the College of LAS, not the department.I took this as true but didn't quite understand why it was so.  As I teach an upper level class in the major, the rationale for offering my course, or indeed any special topics class, is to give majors an ample selection of such classes from which they must choose.  (I believe the requirement is 4 such courses.)  When I first started to teach the class, the department had recently experienced an outside review, which argued there wasn't sufficient variety of elective courses then.  Perhaps we've more than caught up since.  But I know the number of majors has been on the rise as well.  (I don't know whether that growth is faster than overall enrollment growth or not, which itself may be an issue.)The rehiring of retirees under contract, whether faculty or staff, has been an issue for some time, with one of the larger concerns that "double dipping" seems an abuse of the public trust.  There are regulations in place to curb the double dipping.  Earnings under contract can be no greater than 40% of earnings while a full time employee.  I come nowhere close to that teaching this one course.There has also been a lack of imagination by campus administration in considering how to deploy retirees effectively and whether to do so in an entirely voluntary capacity, if exclusively in a contract capacity, or possibly in some mixture of the two.  As it is now, when I supervise a student in an independent study for credit, or when I mentor a student, or when I engage a group of students in a discussion group that is not for credit, those activities are done on a voluntary basis.  If, however, I teach a course listed in the timetable for which students get course credit, then that is done as contract work, meaning that I get paid for it.   I want to note that there might be some connection between these different activities, and in what I say below I will amplify on that.I also want to note that in some respects there can be volunteer activity happening within paid work, though this conception requires a different way to conceive of work than we normally do.  A framework that helps in considering this is Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange, which I described in this post.  Here are the model's basic elements.There is a minimal performance standard below which the employee will get fired.  There is a performance norm, substantially above the minimal standard, that typifies what workers produce.  The difference between the minimal standard and the higher norm constitutes a gift that workers give to the firm.  Likewise, there is a minimal wage below which workers would quit and find work elsewhere and there is an actual wage above that minimum that the firm pays to workers.  The difference is a gift that the firm gives to its employees.  Gift giving demands reciprocation for it to be sustained.  When that happens all involved feel good about the place of work and productivity is high as a consequence.The gift part is then a voluntary contribution.  I want to focus on a particular type of gift giving by the employee, where the employee puts in more time at work than is required.  We might say such work is done in a labor intensive manner.  Then I want to consider instruction, in particular, from this perspective.  A course that is lecture based, has auto-graded homework, and multiple choice exams scored by scantron represents the minimal standard.  One obvious reason that this mode of teaching persists (perhaps with tweaks like clicker question[...]

The Animal Alarm Clock


I want to apologize to readers of this blog for being offline so long.  The explanation is first, that I was having some general malaise and needed to take a break for that reason and second, I have a stress fracture in my foot and I need to keep it upright, which makes writing more of a challenge.  As it is this will be a very brief post.

Over the years I often find myself being awakened from sleep to the sound of the dog barking.  She wants to be let outside. This occurs, sometimes more than once, in a the middle of the night.  It also happens during the daytime, when I'm taking a nap.  It is such a common happening that I've gotten used to it and I do get up each time.

In the last few weeks something new has happened.  I hear the barking while I'm sleeping, but the sound is in my head only.  The dog is not wanting to be let out and she is probably asleep herself, elsewhere in the house.  Why this is happening I can't say.  It doesn't happen while I am awake.  My hearing is normally quite good then.

There probably is some psychological term for when an implied obligation produces a faux stimulus.  In this case it is very easy to confirm that it is faux.  All I have to do is look at the place where the dog is let outside.  If she's not there, then she didn't bark.   I started to wonder what would happen if there weren't such ready confirmation.  Is this the path to "hearing voices" or believing in "conspiracy theories?"

In Praise of Anecdotal Information


Getting to know you, Getting to feel free and easyWhen I am with you, Getting to know what to say Getting to KnowYou from The King and I Sometimes I think computing and the Internet does a number on our common sense, to the point where we start to worship false idols, because doing so is trendy, rather than because there should be any reasonable expectation that they'll deliver the goods.  I want to push back on this some and in this post I will do that by making two points.  The first, I hope, is fairly obvious.  We should distinguish data form - quantitative versus narrative - the first is what Likert-style questions on a survey produce so that they can be aggregated across respondents while the second is what responses to paragraph questions produce, which often defy ready aggregation - from the quality of said information.  By information quality, I mean whether the information tells the observer anything of interest or if, instead, it is all largely useless.I believe there has been a confounding of data form, with a strong preference for the analytical type of information, and information quality, assuming that the information will be high quality because there is a lot of it. This bias finds expression in "data driven decision making" and "data analytics" and has produced what I view to be pernicious business practices, some of which I will illustrate in this piece.  That point, in itself, I believe is straightforward.The next point, however, is equally important, perhaps more so.  It is that poor usage of low quality analytic information that erodes trust in our institutions.  If we are ever to restore trust, we must make efforts to counter this push to analytical information, regardless of information quality, and move more to privileging anecdotal information, when it is high quality.Let's begin with a very well known decision, one which readers are apt to regard with strong feelings.  This is James Comey's decision to announce that the Clinton email probe would be re-opened near to the 2016 election.   Here is my post mortem on that decision.  First, based on events subsequent to that choice, I think it fair to say that Comey made this choice for internal-to-the-FBI reasons.  He was afraid of leaks that would prove embarrassing.  So he was trying to get ahead of that.  He was not trying to impact the election.  Second, indeed he must have been certain that Clinton would win, which is what the polls at the time showed.  The polls are just the sort of analytic information that we tend to privilege.  Third, it is probably impossible to do an interview with Comey now to get him to do his own post mortem on that decision, but I assume he would have a great deal of regret about about it.  He underestimated the consequence of that choice on the election.The upshot is is this.  You can have a straight shooter, with access to the data, and who is trying earnestly to make the right choice.  This in no way is a safeguard against making a bonehead play.  There still will be a a lot of residual uncertainty.  Using analytic data of this sort doesn't eliminate that.  In retrospect, a decision can look quite bad in these circumstances.The Comey decision, as bad as it was for the country, was a one-off.  I want to turn to ongoing decisions. A particular practice that I'd prefer to take on in this piece is the online survey, delivered to people in two possible circumstances: (a) there was a recent transaction that involved a user where some stakeholder wants to get information about the user's experience, or (b) there was no transaction but the stakeholder has access to the user's email address, so the stakeholder solicits information about user experiences more broadly construed.  This practice should largely be abandoned, because the quality of information it produces i[...]

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


While I understand the need to report about how poorly Higher Ed polled last year, I thought that otherwise there was a lot of stereotyping in this piece, so in the reading it felt obligatory (Bruni has written about Higher Ed - quite a lot actually) but not enlightening. Here are some points that might have been considered, but aren't in this piece.(1) Political views of students vary by their majors. Econ (and Business) students tend to be conservative. And in my class, at least, such students also tend to be outspoken rather than feel they are being silenced. The presence of these students is hardly noted in pieces that talk about Higher Ed. (1a) I recently posted a map of my student's hometowns as listed in Banner.  (I only did this with Facebook friends, not publicly.)  Most students are from Chicagoland, particularly the northern and western suburbs. I believe those areas are much more conservative than the city itself and the immediate towns that border the city. (1b) More generally, if Big Public U draws in-state students the same way that my class does, the students are apt to be more conservative than their professors.(2) The 2+2 model has been around for a while. (First two years at a Community College. Last two years at a public university.) I believe at the U of I it has been in place for more than a decade. The number of transfer students at the university is way up as compared to before that. (2a) While I don't believe there are income qualifiers to get into a 2+2 program, one might reasonably guess that students in this program are disproportionately from low to moderate income families. If this is right then while there is diversity of students income-wise at the U, especially starting in the third year, outside of the classroom there may be clustering by income within the U that reduces the benefits of that diversity. (2b) The first-year experience is its own thing. It's as much social as it is educational, or it is educational about life skills as much or more than classroom learning.  (It is the first time for many to be away from mom and dad for an extended period of time with no other adult to answer to.) The transfer students miss this.  They do get some formal skills education in courses targeted at them, but they don't get the experiential learning.  Likewise, my guess is that the fraternities and sororities disproportionately consist of students who started at the U as first year students.  The upshot is a separation of types that I associate with second-degree price discrimination, like first-class versus coach seating on airplanes.  Perhaps that is inevitable.  However, if much of college education is actually social capital (whom you know rather than what you know) this separation is regrettable.  To the extent it is inadvertent rather than planned, we may have to live with it.  But it needs some discussion.  We're not getting such a conversation now. (3)  Now we get to the slippery slope - consideration of gender and race and how that correlates with the previous two items.  In entirely separate pieces, the male-female distinction in college has gotten substantial attention.  But this looks at enrollment only, not at performance.  GPA is one measure of performance.  In my class, this past year I tracked attendance, which is a different measure of performance, though it does correlate with the course grade.  My class offers too small a sample of students to make sweeping conclusions, but I conjecture that being male and low income the student is much more likely to be at risk than being female and low income.  If you throw in race, in addition, a Latino male who is low income is quite at risk.  (3a)  When we first started 2+2 at the U of I there was talk from other administrators about whether the Community [...]

Silly Day


This post is not my usual fare.

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

The cure for an owie
Is to watch the Hekawi.

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

How is that for silly?

Nonrandom Acts of Absurdity


Up The Down Staircase has a 1964 copyright.  I read it a few years later, though I can't remember when.  I also saw the movie with Sandy Dennis, though I believe only on TV, not in a theater.  The title is a knock on the bureaucracy in the schools.  Though if truth be known, at Benjamin Cardozo H.S. in Bayside Queens, NYC, when I attended it back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school was over crowded, I believe about 4500 students then, and operated on a split session, so during the change between periods several thousand students would be taking the stairs.  Under that circumstance, it actually makes sense to have one staircase for up, the other for down, and to enforce that the foot traffic flows only in one direction on each staircase during the change over.  (In other words, this particular regulation actually encouraged efficiency.) Nevertheless, the book became something of a hit for telling a compelling story about how the bureaucracy sometimes impeded the sensible solution from taking hold, and then doing so with a touch of irony and a tad of humor.The U of I bears a vestige of this earlier era in the Foreign Language Building, where the stairs between the basement and the first floor are labelled up and down.  Elsewhere on campus, however, there is one stairwell only and the rule of thumb is that traffic flows to the right, though I will note that there is often only one handrail, so for somebody like me who takes some assurance from holding the handrail, you can end up on the wrong side of the stairs for that reason.It is now almost 50 years since I started high school.  One might think with all the online technology that's been introduced in the interim that would have dramatically reduced the consequences of bureaucracy.  In some cases that is true.  But in other cases, it seems to have made things worse.  Here I'll focus on just one example.But first, let me note that technology is not the only source of absurdity.  Some of it stems from human decision making.  This semester, we started a week later than we have done in the recent past, not a bad idea given how hot it has been in late August.  (I don't know that was the reason for the change, but I want to note starting later was okay with me.)  The sensible accommodation to that change would have been to end the semester when it typically ended, meaning the semester would have been shortened by a week.  Everyone I know would have responded, Hallelujah, to such a sensible change - the semester is simply too long.  Of course, if you've been teaching the same course for several years, you'd have to figure out what to cut from your class.  That might take some consideration and effort.  Overall, however, the shorter semester would win out in the cost-benefit calculation.  Unfortunately, it seems the length of the semester is set in stone and it would take an act of God to change it.  So if we start a week later, we also end a week later.  That is a human decision, not due to the technology.  This decision then conditions the absurdity to which the technology contributes. The university has an incredibly expensive Student Information System, but in many ways that system doesn't do what we want it to do, so we now have two different ways to upload course grades.  The one I used this time around is called Enhanced Grade Entry.  It offers a modest feedback to the person uploading grades, relying on a traffic light type of analogy as to whether the task has been completed or not.  A big deal issue with this is who else gets the feedback, aside from the person who uploaded the grades.  For example, does the Econ Department get to see if I uploaded my grades.  I am not sure of this, but signs point to no and[...]

Teaching Loads


There was a dinner party last night for a distinguished economist who had retired last summer. Now he and his wife, a distinguished academic in her own right, are leaving the community.  (Their house will be on the market in the spring, if you are looking for a stately place in Urbana.)  I haven't hung around people in the department for quite a while.  So I got caught up on some pretty basic stuff that's been this way for a quite a while.  In other words, what I'm reporting below is not new.  It's just new to me.When I started in 1980, the standard teaching load was 2 and 2, meaning 2 courses in the fall and 2 in the spring.  There was some expectation that one course would be at the graduate level and the other at the undergraduate level.  As part of my starting package (my 9-month salary was $19,500), I had a a one-course buyout the first year.  This was to help me get my research program underway, pretty standard for new assistant professors.  I also received a guaranteed 2/9ths for summer money the following summer.Now let's fast forward to the present.  The standard teaching load for tenured faculty is 3 courses.  As there is a professional Masters program in the department now, for many faculty all 3 courses are at the graduate level.  And for assistant professors, the standard load is 2 courses, the full time they are in that rank.  (I believe the starting salary of a new assistant professor in Economics is around $125,000, though I may be off a little in that assessment.)It was explained to me, and I'm sure this is true, that these changes in teaching load were necessitated to keep up with universities elsewhere.    I want to note that way back when, Northwestern also had a 4-course teaching load, but those were 4 quarter courses.  So faculty taught two out of the three quarters but had no teaching obligation in one quarter and could devote that time fully to research.  My understanding of why NU had quarters was precisely to support the research function in this way.  Fast forward to now and you see the consequences of schools with ample revenues and endowments having competed down the teaching obligation creating a spillover effect on public universities, which want to vie for the same faculty but do so with a much weaker revenue base.  Here are two related factors to consider in looking at these numbers.  First is the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty in Economics.  Back in 1980, that was around 55 FTE.  (Many faculty had joint appointments with other units so were counted as fractions in Economics.)  Now there are about 25 FTE.  The department has many non-tenure track faculty for teaching and utilizes retirees (like me) in undergraduate teaching, but also core courses (particularly intermediate microeconomics) are taught in much larger sections.The other factor is the source of revenues.  Way back when, tuition at the U of I was quite modest and U.S. News and World Report would rank us as a "best buy" among universities.  The bulk of the revenue then was coming from state tax dollars.  Now tuition, particularly undergraduate tuition, is a major source of revenue.  This is partly from increased tuition rates (and increased fees).  It is also partly from increased enrollments, which are up at least 25%.  The final factor is the composition of those enrollments.  There are many more out-of-state/international students, who pay a tuition at a much higher rate.  We were upwards of 92% in-state when I started.  Now, I believe we're under 80%.  (These facts can all be ascertained at the Division of Management Information Web site.  But this being a Sunday afternoon, I'm being sloppy and doi[...]

The Last Aha


I mean my title to be a double entendre.Tuesday will be the last class session of the semester in my course The Economics of Organizations, Econ 490.  Most of the students are upper level undergraduate students, all Econ majors this time around.  I have one student in a professional masters program in economics.  They do weekly blogging on course themes, where one purpose of this writing is to connect their own experiences to the topics the class is studying.  Apparently, students don't do this as a matter of practice in their other Econ classes, though it is unclear whether that is because they simply don't try to make such connections or if the don't have any relevant experience for the subject matter.  One student wrote in her final post that this was novel for her, and she was appreciative for having had the experience.  An epiphany!During the semester, I provide prompts for that week's posts.  The rules posted in the syllabus are that students are to write to the prompt or to choose a different topic, one of their own selection, but then connect that to course themes.  This second option was available but not exercised.  One wonders why.  Is it a lack of confidence?  Or perhaps a sense that writing to the prompt is easier; more background work would need to be done if the student chose to write on a different topic?  Or might it be simply that it doesn't occur to the students to follow their own curiosity rather than follow the professor?  If the blogging activity itself is to have a derivative benefit after the course is over, it needs to occur to them then.  Will it?  If not, while the course may have provided an interesting interlude for the students, it surely couldn't be called transformative in that case.  (Back in 2013, I wrote a post called Some Thoughts on the New Campus Strategic Plan, where transformative learning experiences were featured.  Apparently they are still to be featured in the upcoming strategic plan, though no details are yet provided.  In the previous plan, it seemed that such experiences were expected to happen outside of courses, not in them.  I never understood why that should be, especially if the course is not a large lecture.)Now let me speculate about what will happen to these students based on mentoring one student this semester who took the course a year ago.  He cares a great deal about getting good grades in the courses he takes.  He has a unique career interest for an econ major, in law enforcement, that perhaps shapes his outside of class activities very strongly.  I won't comment on them further, other than to note that while he is incredibly earnest he seems far less rounded in his general education than I would hope for.To illustrate what I have in mind, consider the two paragraph below, taken from a blog post a couple of years ago after an interview with Ann Abbott.  The full post is here.  The other part, this specific to Ann, is the immediate sense I had of finding a kindred spirit. Her personal philosophy about the purpose of undergraduate education, something we covered in the preliminary part of the discussion, is essentially identical to mine. She started right in talking about how over programmed the students are, something I agree with 100%. She also said that when she was an undergrad she went to the movies on campus a lot, mainly for foreign films. She also went to a lot of lectures. I did the same when I was an undergrad. In other words, much of the education was informal and happened outside of regular courses. By being so over programmed, the students block this informal sort of learning. They also miss out on the inquiry into themselves, which is what college should [...]

The acceleration of turning people into objects


I teach my students a bit about second degree price discrimination, which is where buyers are of different types based on their willingness to pay for a product, and where the seller uses "menu pricing," in which the choice the buyer makes from the menu reveals the buyer type. Seating on airplanes provides a ready example.  There are two types of passengers - first class and coach.  First class seating is efficient, meaning it satisfies the usual (in an economics class) condition of marginal benefit equaling marginal cost.   Coach seating quality is less than efficient.  Quality deterioration occurs to facilitate sorting of the buyers.  If coach quality were decent, some of the first class buyers would opt to fly coach instead, saving money on their tickets in the process.  Everyone understands this, at least intuitively.If first class is really good and coach is not too bad, nobody gets too worked up about the arrangement.  But what happens if coach quality starts to decline or if a third category of passenger emerges (sub-coach), with members in the third category getting even worse treatment, either because the demographics of who flies has changed (impacting the marginal benefit side of the equation) or because there have been changes in marginal cost (it's a long time ago where you recall what OPEC was doing impacting airline ticket prices, but it's that sort of thing I have in mind here)? One might then ask, how low will the airlines go quality-wise?  Are there any limits to this?The hypothesis I want to advance in this piece is that as long as you regard others as people you have an obligation to treat them decently.  The ethics of the situation in this case limits the extent of second degree price discrimination.  But, if you start to regard others as objects, in this case the word "you" refers to sellers, then you've peeled away the ethical restraints and there is no limit to how low you will go.  This is one angle to keep in mind in considering the topic of this post.Here is a different angle.  I started out trying to write a different post.  I hadn't yet settled on a title for it, but it would have been something like - the limits to gender equality.  (In March, I had written a post called Learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  So I thought a piece in that vein might be doable.)    There have been a large volume of pieces written about sexual harassment as of late, and for the most part none of those moved me to write something on the subject.  An Op-Ed in the New York Times recently changed my mind on the matter.  It is called The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.  I had a strong negative reaction to that piece.  It was presenting ideas about violence and sex as if they were universal truths, which I thought was quite wrong.  So I wanted to write something that was more plausible (at least to me) and better explained the issues.  I got stuck however on two points.  The first is to address the question - why do I claim any expertise on the subject matter?  (If I don't, how can I write such a piece.)  The second is - how do I keep this from getting very personal?  (Sometimes I write pieces based on my own experience, relate that, and pose the question of whether any of it generalizes.)  I didn't really want to be very personal in writing on this subject.So my solution, not perfect for sure but perhaps somewhat useful, was to make only a very quick sketch on the matter, take it is an example, and then tie it into the broader notion about turning people into objects.When I was a kid, pre-adolescent, I began my education, thou[...]

An Alternative to the Novelette - The Screenplay


Yesterday I finished the third of three screenplays by Paddy Chayevsky found here.  I've been reading the Kindle version.  I especially enjoyed the last one, so downloaded the next volume for reading over the rest of the holiday.  Apart from reading Shakespeare and Marat/Sade back in high school, I don't recall reading many plays thereafter - maybe some Tennessee Williams and perhaps one or two others that I can't recall now - but those were stage plays.  I don't believe I've ever read a screenplay before.  It is an interesting alternative to the novel because it really wants you to visualize certain dramatic aspects.  Otherwise, it differs from the novel or short story because dialogue is the main vehicle for communication.  There is no narrator to explain things and no voice in the head of a character that we hear to explain things.  Of course, the physical behavior of the characters matter too, so their posture and their actions are part of what gets communicated.  That may be the case with novels too, but here it seems more integral to the story telling.I want to consider my reaction to these screenplays.  But first, here's a bit of how I came to read this, stumbling into it by looking at something else first.  I had recorded Altered States on the DVR.  I tried watching it while doing the treadmill, but it doesn't work well that way.  It sat there for quite a while after that, until I could I watch it, giving my full attention to the viewing.  Then I got into it, a very strange movie.   It is William Hurt's first screen role and his manner of speaking and acting are odd.  He is deliberate in the extreme and that deliberation conveys an intensity that is unusual yet entirely fitting for the story.  As it turns out Paddy Chayevsky wrote both the novel and the screenplay.  So I go in search of things written by Paddy Chayevsky at Amazon and found the screenplays that I linked to above.  I can't recall whether I thought Altered States was in Volume 1 (it isn't, it is in Volume 2) or if I simply assumed you should start on Volume 1 and move on from there.  Looking back at this now, it appears the screenplays are ordered chronologically.  Marty is the first of the three screenplays in Volume 1 and the only one of them where I had seen the movie version.  It won several Academy Awards.  Fundamentally, it is a story about loneliness and human decency.  Chayevsky seems to have unusual insight here into the indignities experienced by a lonely person, who is otherwise very warm and giving.  And he also has insight into the life of adults living at home with their immigrant parents.  For those of us who moved out of the house, first during college, we may have forgotten what it was like to be in the company of our parents on an everyday basis.  All of that is there in Marty.The Goddess, which is the second screenplay in Volume 1, is loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.  It is also about loneliness, the type that comes from a dysfunctional family, where there is no love between the mother and the daughter.  The child wants some attention but gets none of it.  Growing up, the child learns how to use others but not how to love others.  To substitute for this, the adult (though still a child emotionally) seeks out fame and glamour by being in the movies.  The story has insight into the life of starlets and others in the film business in the late 1940s.  It takes on an added poignance in light of the events surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign.  My economist take on this is that the film industry is characterized by chron[...]

Killing Student Idealism Especially Among Diligent Students


It's hard for me to understand how much of what students report as their world view is shaped by experience with peers and how much of of it comes from experiencing the media, either directly or filtered through interactions in some social network.  Either way, however, in the recent blog posts by some of my students - the ones who come to class all the time and get the work in well before the deadline - there is evident a sense of betrayal by their peers, who don't live to the same standards of diligence as they do.  I have been trying to negotiate with these students in my comments on their posts.  Perhaps there is a different way to consider the behavior and maybe the peers will be more responsive to a random act of kindness than to something else that tries to hold them accountable.  In doing this I've got the feeling of paddling upstream - it is tough work and I'm not getting very far.I'm now caught up with the current batch of posts (more will come in later today and tomorrow) so I started to read the Times Op-Eds.   Frank Bruni's latest on Sarah Huckabee Sanders now has me scratching my head about things.  It is not just that this seems some Orewllian nightmare we are trapped in.  It's that my students, who may have voted for the first time in a Presidential election last year, might very well have only the Trump administration as a reference point for an adult consideration of national politics.  What will they make of that?In response to one student's post I brought up the movie Breaking Away.  If you've seen it, you'll recall that the protagonist goes through disillusionment after the bike race with the Italians.Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn't know.Dad: Well, now you know. This is a low point for Dave, but he rebounds from it to perform something noble and achieve a better balance within himself.  That, of course, was in the movies.  And Breaking Away came out while Jimmy Carter was still President.  What about now?I so wish that I could give students a more optimistic view - partly idealistic but also partly based on actual experience.  These students seem to have a much grimmer perspective.  And the dissonance they repeatedly see between their own performance and that of the classmates only serves to reinforce the grimness.In years past I have sometimes worried that Econ students (and Business students too) were far too mercenary in their outlook.  That doesn't seem to be the issue now, for reasons that I don't understand, though perhaps this reflects some adjustment to the current state of the economy.  In any event, the diligent students aren't money grubbers the way some of my students in the past were.  However, they are lacking trust in their peers and they are resentful of the sloth they see in their classmates.   The feelings are very strong on this point.  It is hard to counter this view and I am struggling to do so.We often ignore college as a way to shape the moral outlook of students.  Having such a pessimistic view regarding the nature of people surely will shape their own behavior, I fear for the worse.Yesterday in class we had a little party.  I brought in cider and apple doughnuts from Curtis Apple Orchard and for 15 minutes or so we were in party mode.  (The semester is way too long and this is one way to acknowledge that fact.)  We played a game of Econ 490 Jeopardy - I gave a bunch of wrong answers but that had as their questions terminology from our class.   They guessed as to the right questions They had fun with that.  That only took a few minutes so afterward I spent some time talking about volun[...]

Trying to Defuse the Power Relations in My Course


My title is a bit odd so I want to note up front that this is not about trigger warnings or sexual harassment,  though my thought to defuse power in the classroom coincided with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent Me Too campaign.  The revelations so disturbed me that I became more sensitized to power relations in other contexts, my teaching in particular.   There the power issue manifests in students as sheep and instructor as shepherd.  We have reached the midpoint of the semester.  In their weekly blogging, students were asked to write a review post, to read the posts they had written previously, identify themes that connected one post to another, and give some distillation based on that.  For each post I provide a prompt.  Students also have the freedom to write about something else of there own choosing, as long as they can tie that to course themes.  In the past few students have exercised this option.  This semester, nobody has done it so far.  As part of the review post, I asked students what they wanted to see in future prompts.  Many had interesting suggestions that way.  Nevertheless, they also explained why they wanted to write to the prompt rather than to venture onto a subject on their own.  It seemed to me they were well past the point where the training wheels should come off the bicycle, yet they still wanted the extra security that provided. So I did something I've never done before in my teaching.  Last Tuesday in class, when we were discussing those review posts, I explicitly told them that I didn't want to have power over them and that they needed to exercise more control over their own learning.  This followed a return to our very first class session in August, where we examined our class as an organization.  (The course is on the Economics of Organizations and during the first two weeks we spent some time on examples of organizations that should be familiar to every student.)  During that session we asked some fundamental questions.  What is the purpose of the course?  The obvious answer - to produce learning.  We categorized learning the way economists would - production of human capital, also possibly providing a consumption benefit for students, and then making them better citizens, the public good benefit. We then asked, who owns the human capital?  The obvious answer to that one is that each student owns his or her own human capital.As I said, we had already covered this on the very first day.  But some of the students in the class now hadn't yet added the course then and, more importantly, the message probably didn't get absorbed by those who were there.  In particular, the students didn't understand what ownership entailed, that owners aggressively maintain upkeep of their assets.  They don't wait around passively for good things to happen.  On Tuesday, we then spent some time discussing various things the students might do with their blog posts in the second half of the course to express their ownership and thus to get more out of the blogging.We are now onto the next post after the review post and I've read through some of those.  It is evident that the students are under a great deal of stress and that contributes to them being sheep-like about their schooling.  One big stress, which probably exists for students even if their parents paid for college, is the high tuition.  For those who have had to take out loans the stress is obvious.  For the other students who are debt-free, there is an implied obligation to their parents, which is actually an en[...]

That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes


Let me start with this paragraph from a review of Hillary Clinton's new book by Lawrence Lessig.This is the core mistake — not just of Clinton, but of too many in the Democratic Party. America is with Reagan—“Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”—not because they believe, like Reagan, that the private market can solve every public problem, but because they believe their government is fundamentally corrupt. They see taxes as a waste — not because the poor don’t deserve help, but because they believe the government is not helping anyone except itself. Most don’t support the idea of supporting government because most believe government doesn’t support them. Government serves the “special interests,” so wonky papers declaring “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” are just the lead balloons of modern American politics.This gets at the essence of the problem.   It is not sufficient for Democratic candidates to articulate policy positions, even as those are the natural currency in which candidates speak.  The candidates must find a way to make their message credible, which requires that they really believe what they are saying, that the voters perceive this, and that they can deliver on what they are saying as well.  This is a very high bar to get over.   One might hazard a guess that the Republicans make it easier for the Democrats, especially they who speak with a forked tongue and in such a blatant way.  But disaffected voters are apt to treat all the lying as an occupational disease - politicians, in general, go for expedience rather than speak hard truths.  In this way the Republicans contaminate the Democrats, at least in the eyes of these voters.  Something needs to be done to counter that.About a month ago I wrote a post about doing that by walking the walk.   In a nutshell, prior to the election of 2018 Democrats should engage in demonstration projects that entailed real income redistribution, with the recipients working people earning modest wages, and with the transfers financed by more up-scale voters who were willing to contribute in this way.  I want to observe here that Lessig's review came out only last week.  So I was thinking these thoughts about making the message credible well before reading that piece. And I certainly still believe that walking the walk is the best way to deliver a credible message.But there is a case to be made for talking the talk as well.  Indeed, as a preliminary activity to generate the subsequent demonstration projects it is probably necessary to do because the idea of income transfer demonstration projects is probably not obvious to many voters now.  Yet in my earlier post I noted that talk is cheap.  As a general matter, that makes talk not credible.  Is there some talk that isn't cheap and that as a result people will tend to believe?  If so, what is the nature of such talk?The first point in this post is that when you tell people something that they don't want to hear and it is common knowledge that they don't want to hear it, then your message will be credible.  The second point, just as important as the first, is that while initially the recipients of the message will deny its truth, its importance, or its application to themselves, if the speaker persists in delivering the same message and does so in an even handed way, then eventually the message will get through and be accepted as the truth.Leadership, in this setting, means delivering the unpleasant message early and then doggedly continuing to deliver it, though it mi[...]

The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator


Some years back I wrote a piece called Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful?  The problem, detailed in that essay, is that a good chunk of the time when I did this I felt I was getting a hatchet job, rather than a well thought through piece with a different perspective than mine.  After a while, I lost my patience with this.  I wasn't learning but I was getting angry, not a good combination.  I am a regular reader of the NY Times opinions and editorials.  I have returned to reading David Brooks - most of the time, but not always - and Ross Douthat - some of the time.  But I no longer try to read conservative columnists who write elsewhere.  My energy level is not high enough for that.The Times has a comparatively new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens.  He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  He is also 19 years my junior. I am reacting to his most recent column, The Dying Art of Disagreement.  This is the text of an invited speech he gave in Australia.  My reading of it was the same reaction I described in the paragraph above.  I thought it was a hatchet job.I thought it might be useful for me to illustrate why I came to that conclusion.  In a fantasy that almost surely won't happen, somehow Stevens himself gets to read my piece and see the arguments I put forward.  This would be part of the disagreement he seemingly wants.  I have no idea what reaction that would produce, but just maybe the conservative columnists at the Times, as a group, might learn to consider their readers, who are mainly not conservative, in a somewhat different light as a consequence.  As this is pure fantasy, nothing more, perhaps a more useful function my essay can serve is for the few readers I have to adjust how they read Stephens and other reasonable conservative commentators.* * * * *Stephens begins discussing his time before becoming a student at the University of Chicago.  He became enamored with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.   At UChicago, Stephens found the liberal education that he had clamored for as a teen.As it turns out I had read Bloom's book a while back and more than a decade ago wrote about it in a post called Out of Step.  Here are the relevant paragraphs, that in my humble opinion give some necessary context that Stephens entirely omits.Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)Perha[...]

How much copyright violation goes on inside the LMS?


This morning members of the campus community received a massmail with subject line - Annual Announcement of Copyright Polices.  I searched my Inbox for previous messages with the same subject line.  Sure enough, this is the fourth year in a row where we received such a message, although this is the first time I can recall noticing it.  While it is not a bad message, in that it did include mention of Fair Use as a possible exception to Copyright, the bulk of the message is about misuse of copyrighted material where the copyright holder is external to the university and hasn't authorized the use.  I'd like to discuss that issue in regard to instruction and, in particular, content that can be found inside the learning management system (LMS).Before I do, let me note that the campus is in the business of creating new knowledge.  Part and parcel of that is the production of copyrighted material.  The campus policy that is given in the massmail doesn't say anything about how campus copyright holders - faculty, staff, and students - are to be protected from the abuse of copyright by an external audience.  This is not really a concern of mine.  I mention it here more to illustrate the asymmetry in the policy document.  Much more of a concern for me is that the campus doesn't vigorously encourage copyright holders to give broad public dissemination of their work, either by releasing it into the public domain or via a Creative Commons license, followed by making the the work available on a publicly accessible Web site.  I have been singing this tune at least for a decade, such as in this post Ly Berry 2.0. This idea could be in the campus policy on copyrights, but it is not.In itself, that makes it seem that the policy is about limiting liability rather than about doing the right thing.  No doubt, limiting liability is something the campus needs to be concerned with.  However, in addition to research mission the campus has a very important education mission and part of that is providing an ethically sound environment in which students can learn to respect the rules that are in place.  In contrast, consider traffic law and how most people respond to speed limits.  They don't view how fast they drive as an ethical matter at all.  Mild transgression of the speed limit is the norm.  The goal is to drive as fast as possible subject to not getting a ticket.   Does the campus care if the same sort of behavior emerges in its response to copyright?  One other point should be made before turning to the LMS.  Twenty years ago, campuses were a hotbed for piracy of digitized music (think Napster).  The reason for this is that bandwidth was much better in the dorms than it was at home, where people were using dial up.  The college students at the time were very much like kids in a candy shop.  So there is that legacy.  However, now broadband is ubiquitous.  Being at college affords no technological advantage that way in illegal file sharing.  So if copyright policy at campuses like mine emerges from push by RIAA, MPAA, and other groups that want to limit illegal file sharing, maybe the campuses need to collectively push back at that.  Universities should not be the unwitting agents of copyright enforcement for such organizations.Let us move away from consideration of sharing commercial music or video files and turn to academic content. As a matter of fact, I will openly admit that I occasionally violate copyright, taking a piece from a subscription journal[...]

Helping Bernie Sanders to Improve His Argument


Yesterday Bernie had an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Medicare for all.  While I am sympathetic with the goal, I found the piece weak in many ways.  I assume I'm not the only reader in that category.  So I thought it might be useful to consider the various objections I had with the piece as well as some possible counters to those.Even if hyperbole works with a live audience, to pump up the crowd, there needs to be an adult version of the argument that is based on rational analysis, not emotional appeal.Here is the first paragraph from the piece:This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers? In fact, it is not a pivotal moment at all, in the sense that no decision on this matter will be made now. And everyone understands this.  The Congress is controlled by the Republicans now, and they clearly won't go for this proposal.  Likewise, President Trump would veto this proposal if it ever reached his desk.There may be good and sensible reasons to introduce the proposal now, rather than to wait until the Democrats have the upper hand.  I would have liked to read some of those reasons in this piece.  Part of this is not just the reasons themselves.  It is to understand that Bernie knows those reasons quite well.  It is hard to understand what the politician actually believes when the rhetoric is so hyperbolic.The piece talked about the benefits of Medicare for All.  There was no mention of how to pay for it.  There was no mention of alternative uses of tax dollars - infrastructure, free college education (both of which Bernie has advocated for elsewhere), or debt relief, hence no sense of how those would be prioritized.  I will have more to say about the tax issue below.  The point to note here is that it is easy to pander to the beneficiaries.  It is much harder to make the adult argument that this is the right thing to do, even if there will be those decent people who, narrowly considered, bear the burden without getting a reciprocal benefit.  If the harder argument isn't made now, will it be possible to make it later when it absolutely has to be made?  Or will the failure of making it now end up blocking the proposal later?The focus in the piece is on the end goal.  There is no discussion at all on the path needed to reach that goal. There needs to be consideration of the path.  One might begin by a look at some recent history.  The last election where young people were really excited by the Democratic candidate was 2008, when many felt that then candidate Obama offered a fresh alternative.  Two years later, that energy was all but gone.  The Tea Party delivered The Great Shellacking.In the interim ACA was passed.  It took about a year to get done.  At the outset, there was enthusiasm for a public option. At the end, there was no public option.  That may have been necessary to get the bill through Congress, but members of the public were not ready for that conclusion.  (Were there a public option, the Hobby Lobby case would never have happened as the public option would have offered a way out.  Indeed it is conceivable that Medicare for all wouldn't be nec[...]

Socialism Reconsidered Part 5 - Wage Subsidies and Confounding Expectations


This is part 5 in an occasional series.  In this piece we grapple with the economics of income inequality as it applies to our national politics and make a case for doing something real and substantial about it that is highly visible, well before the coming election in November 2018.* * * * * We live in a time where in the public consciousness an emotional appeal can win over a rational argument.  Maybe that has always been true.  I don't know.  It is clearly evident now, particularly on why the base doesn't abandon Trump and instead ignores the matter of Russian involvement in influencing the election and the Trump campaign's role in that, all the while staying loyal to their guy.  Among the two parties, it seems the Republicans in general, and this White House in particular, are far better at making the emotional appeal.  The social science suggests that those who are disposed to an authoritarian view are especially welcoming of such an appeal.  Further, it seems the Democrats have pulled the short straw on which party is to be trusted.  And, of course, the Democrats are the minority party now.  Even if they make an excellent rational argument, for the time being the argument is talk only.  We all know that talk is cheap.  Under these conditions does the message get through?  Does it get a full hearing?  Is it then believed?On the flip side, money talks in a way that people listen.  The core idea in this essay is to use money, preferably quite a lot of it, in a way to deliver the message that the Democrats want to deliver, but not through the normal political channels, such as spending the money on TV ads.  Instead, spend the money on the people whom the Democrats claim they want to benefit, ordinary working people.  This would make the message credible.  It would also make the message quite different, a game changer if you will.  Nobody has done this before in a political campaign.One other point to make here is that while individual candidates need to make themselves known to the voters, this time around there is no reason to run attack ads against the President or against the Republican Party.  The track record speaks for itself.  Rubbing it in won't help.  And we really don't need any more negative messages.  We need something constructive, illumination on a way to move forward.  That's what the campaign should be about.The money that is raised would be generated by donations, mainly from upscale voters.  In appealing to them for donations two distinct points need to be made.  First, their donations signify that they are willing to have their taxes raised, after the election in 2020 if not the election in 2018, for the good of the order.  Conventional politics says that talk of raising taxes is a loser.  So politicians tend to talk about the beneficiaries of government spending, but then mumble about how to pay for it.   This won't work now.  An aggressive case needs to be made to the effect: (1) the current system doesn't work because it screws the little guy, (2) for the system to work there needs to be substantial income redistribution toward the little guy, (3) well off people must bear their fair share of the burden; expecting the uber rich to pay for it all is unrealistic, and (4) the previous point must be cast in ethical terms as a matter of social responsibility; people need to provide service to their country in ways that matter, not just by serving in t[...]

Losing Oneself By Teaching


I need to start of with an explanation of the title.  Over the years I've learned that I'm happiest when I've entirely lost my sense of self because I'm so into whatever the activity is that my attention is fully focused on it.  Depth of focus is a source of joy, but one I'm only aware of after the fact.  Were I back in college, I'd be talking about coming down from a high, which is when self-awareness returns.I only teach the one class.  That probably matters in what I say.  Also, I've been having issues with insomnia the last month or two.  When it's a few nights in a row with inadequate sleep, you feel you're a wreck and not up to doing much at all.  That's the way I was going into class yesterday.  Yet somehow after the session started the feeling of exhaustion disappeared.  Then I really got into it.The first day of class I had the students rearrange the furniture and sit in a horseshoe, with the backs of their tablet armchairs near the perimeter of the room.  We had a few too many students to do this well, and enrollments have increased some since the first day, so I have not returned to that arrangement since, yet I believe there was a derivative benefit from doing it.   Because the course is on The Economics of Organizations, I told them we were doing a re-org of the class.  We then went through a bit of deconstruction on the the benefits and limitations of each seating arrangement.  I made a point of noting that in the horseshoe each student could see the faces of all the other students, although that is literally not true.  The students with their backs to the same wall can't see the faces of each other.  A round table would be better than the horseshoe, for this very reason.  But the horseshoe is better able to accommodate the number of students we had, because it takes advantage of the full perimeter of the room, and to enable all of them to see me. I should add that I've been sitting on top of the desk at the front of the room adjacent to the technology cabinet, because there is no chair behind that desk.  When I tested technology in the room a few weeks ago there was such a chair.  Under the circumstances, you do what you can do, though not what you don't like to do.  I am very uncomfortable sitting in one of those tablet armchairs, so don't opt for that alternative.A sense that discussion was important was further reinforced by surveying the students after class about how the session went.  The students get a few bonus points for completing the survey.  Those who do (about half of those in attendance) should get the message that a good and effective discussion is an ideal that the class as a whole should aspire to.  I had done this sort of thing back in 2009 when I taught a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  I have never previously tried it for a regular class.  I was driven to try it again not to promote discussion in the class, but rather to encourage attendance.  In last year's class attendance was abysmal and class discussion among those who did show up was also not that strong.  This time around I have been getting students to sign in before each class session, the old fashioned way via putting their initials next to their name on a class roster, rather than with technology.  I've kept up with the sign in and the after class surveys in our subsequent sessions.  I'm taking a wait and see attitude as to whether that pra[...]

Ghostwriting for other than book length work


One Google search doesn't prove anything, but this one is at least suggestive.  (See the screen shot below.)Now, here is a harder proposition to demonstrate, but it resonates with me as correct.  There is a lot of mediocre to poor writing out there where there really should be good writing to make the transactions that depend on the writing work.  For the sake of argument, let's say it's true.  What might be done to rectify the situation?As an economist, I tend to couch issues in an economic paradigm, quite often in terms of supply and demand.  The above is meant to show that there is potential demand for ghostwriting in a business setting.  So, one wonders about supply.  In today's Inside Higher Ed there is yet another piece about something different, the excess supply of PhDs in the Humanities.  Now we make a wave of the hands, heroic assumption, but again it seems reasonable to me.  A good fraction of those PhDs who don't find faculty positions would be willing to work as a ghostwriter at some company, or to work for a ghostwriting agency that serviced multiple companies, as long as the pay was decent.Another core economic hypothesis is that once a double coincidence of wants has been identified, a market will emerge to satisfy those wants.  So, if there is some reader of this post out there with an entrepreneurial spirit, go for it.* * * * *I am going to switch gears here.  In much of the volunteer work that I do now, ghostwriting is the essence of what I contribute.  I'd like to describe that briefly, to give a better sense of what I mean by ghostwriting.First, there is an ongoing dialog with the principals.  Trust is built up gradually over time as the discussion pans out with some deliverables, and some improvement in the strategic thinking of the group.  In this sense, writing is codified conversation and the dialog itself is formative thinking that advances toward firmer positions that can be turned into action items.Second, any writing task can be subject to being ghost written.  It can be an email message, a training document, a grant proposal, really anything.  In some cases what the ghost writer will do is to produce a tolerable second draft after one of the principals has produced a first draft.  In other cases, based on a prior conversation, the ghost writer might be the one to produce the first draft.Third, the principals and the ghost writer together develop a sense of pace for work to get done.  So the process gets easier over time and expectations regarding what will be produced become more realistic.Last,  the better the ghostwriter knows and understands the principals, the better the rest of this works out.  So the ghostwriter becomes part of the team.  There is then the question whether the ghostwriter should ultimately get recognition.  There may be strategic reasons why the ghostwriter is not actually entirely invisible but nevertheless remains in the background.Whether my experience can generalize, I really don't know.  In other words, it may be not just writing skills that matter here but my prior administrative experience might also matter quite a bit.   In the setting where it is an agency that provides ghostwriting services, perhaps people with similar experience to me might mentor humanist ghostwriters who lack those sort of experiences, to see if they can acquire some of that type of thinking through the [...]

The End of Subtlety


A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest QuestionIf a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?* * * * * The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During AdulthoodA lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader.  Their meaning wasn't immediate.  The equations, in particular, needed to be derived.  The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them.  This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations.  And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it.  What I came to understand was two things.  First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession.  If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader.  Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying.  The implications needed to be drawn out.This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader.   In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took.  We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition.  So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation.  The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper.  Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature.  That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows.  The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all.  So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt.  But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time.  I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member.  If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case.  Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought.  Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then.   Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandato[...]

The Fear of Emasculation


For the last several months, I've been reading the newspaper less and less.  It seemed like the same story, over and over again.  And since the story was so depressing I asked myself, why bother?  Sunday was different.  I read quite a few pieces - mainly opinion as is my habit - on what seemed like a variety of topics.  I wondered if it was possible to connect the dots between them in some way.  To make that more concrete, I asked the following question.  Is the news about Google from last week somehow connected to what recently occurred in Charlottesville?As you might guess from reading my title, I believe there is a connection and that is it.  Here's a bit of disclaimer before going further.  I tend to see connection in disparate things.  Sometimes those are really there.  Other times, I'm probably forcing the issue beyond what the evidence suggests.  In those cases where I'm right, making note of the connection provides some insight into the underlying causality.  We really do need to understand the causality before we talk about remedies, both those currently in place and potential alternatives.  In this piece, I won't consider remedies at all and will focus only on the underlying issue.  I will do this by considering a variety of snippets that are neither current nor directly related to these matters.  They are meant to illuminate and bring out the parallels that seem evident to me.Let's begin with this one, a clip from SNL circa 1990, when I still watched the show - Hans and Franz Pumping You Up.   The bit is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the height of his film popularity then.  (Terminator 2 - Hasta la vista, baby - would come out the following year.)  Satirical comedy of this sort gives some insight into popular stereotypes, in this case what it means to be a man.  It is about being strong, but it is more than that.  It is being strong of a certain type.  This is not strong in the sense of speak softly but carry a big stick.  This is totally in your face.  It is talking trash, the way Larry Bird talked trash.  Talking trash includes putdowns of rivals.  The ultimate putdown for Hans and Franz is to call somebody a girly man.  (You can hear that usage around the 1:35 mark of the clip.  Dana Carvey as Hans is talking then.)So there are two take aways from this particular example.  One is the implied phobia in males from being identified with feminine characteristics - somehow this make you less manly and you should be ashamed if that is the case.  The other is that the notion of what it means to be strong may have changed from the time I was a kid to when this SNL skit was aired.  With the earlier notion a strong person was courageous but didn't show bluster.  That would have been unseemly. With the later version, it's part of the package.  It may be that both versions co-exist now, in which case we should ask when one will prevail and not the other as well as why that is the case.This next snip is from my class last fall, a blog post by a student who writes under an alias, the first real post of the course.  The class in on The Economics of Organizations and the prompt for this post asked for students to discuss some of their own experiences with organizations.  He wrote about his fraternity, a very interestin[...]

Thoughts from a Has Been: The Next, Next Digital Learning Environment - Team Production in Instruction


This post offers some reactions to the recent piece by Phillip D. Long and Jon Mott, The N^2GDLE Vision....  In many respects, I am not qualified to offer a meaningful critique, as I retired back in summer 2010 and have not kept up with developments in the field since.  But I haven't been able to get all that came before entirely out of my system, witness a couple of critiques I've done since retiring about earlier pieces written in this vein, such as this rhyme about work by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and a longish post entitled Feedback Rather than Assessment, about the previous NGDLE paper that appeared in Educause Review by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap.  Further, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Not an insignificant bit of Long and Mott's piece is about 'dissing' the learning management system, a cottage industry within educational technology for well over a decade, one that I've participated in even after retirement, for example in this piece, Some regrets about learning management systems.  Indeed, that post and its sequel, Where Are Plato's Children?, make me quite sympathetic to the 'smart online tutor' part of Long and Mott's vision for N^2GDLE.  But there are many other parts of this vision that I found idealistic in the extreme.  So one wonders whether their conclusions are robust to making more realistic assumptions, or if that would produce quite a different result.  As my strength is looking at the learning issues through a political economy lens, that's what I will do in this post.  I hope it produces some value add for readers beyond the value it produces for me by allowing me to purge these thoughts from my system, which is quite frequently my motivation for writing a piece.If there is such value add, much of that will be found in elucidating where I am wrong, so in making credible counter arguments.  I not only admit the possibility that I might be in error on these matters, I recognize that in some places that is especially likely. So I offer up my piece as a challenge, not just to find the errors, but to refute them.  Doing that should make Long and Mott's argument stronger.Let's get to the heart of the matter right off.  Developing this software environment will take incremental resources, while many of our campuses are in flat or shrinking revenue environments.  More importantly, developing the content that will utilize this new software environment will also take incremental resources.  In my reading of the paper, the content development piece will be much more expensive than the software development piece.  Further, while the software part might be expected to be funded within the IT budget on campus,  where IT leaders can manage revenue reallocation, the content part surely won't be.  So the powers that be who control the revenue allocation outside of IT must buy into the vision to make this a go.  Will they?  Why should they?  If they don't, then Long and Mott are merely preaching to the choir.  It might not occur to the choir to think this through from a political economy angle.  So it is conceivable that the Long and Mott piece appeals to learning technologists yet at the same time the ideas therein are doomed at the campus level.For a more realistic approach, it would seem, we need to understand the p[...]