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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: 2017-12-13T08:07:51.317-06:00

 



Teaching Loads

2017-12-10T16:49:28.342-06:00

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 doing it from recall.)One wants to know whether the situation is stable, as is, or if there is too much tension and it will result in fracture of some sort.  I don't know.   But suppose that a group of people in the know forecast that[...]



The Last Aha

2017-12-09T12:17:04.688-06:00

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 be about, at least in part, even while the students are readying themselves for a life of work that they will enter after graduation.A good part of that personal inquiry happens by the student having intense discussions with people who are differ[...]



The acceleration of turning people into objects

2017-12-02T14:08:25.628-06:00

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, though indoctrination a la The Manchurian Candidate might be a more accurate term, about sex and about women as sex objects.  For me it probably first started with the movies - James Bond was the superhero at the time.  Goldfinger came out [...]



An Alternative to the Novelette - The Screenplay

2017-11-21T11:27:41.520-06:00

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 loney 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 chronic excess supply.  So many people want in, as that would offer validation for them (let alone fame and fortune).  This fact alone gives the producers enormous power.  The sex part is only hinted at in the story.  The shallownes[...]



Killing Student Idealism Especially Among Diligent Students

2017-11-12T16:34:18.224-06:00

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 volunteer work I do outside the university and after that segued to what Peter Drucker has argued.  People should have two careers - one the normal career we think of, the other in volunteer activities where the person satisfies the social consc[...]



Trying to Defuse the Power Relations in My Course

2017-10-21T09:21:59.494-05:00

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 enormous weight on them.  This, then, is coupled with that many don't know what they want to do after they graduate.  They don't know what they want, nor what they are capable of doing.I was just this way when I was an undergrad, stumblin[...]



That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes

2017-10-13T03:03:32.166-05:00

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 might be unpopular, especially at first.  As people come to see the truth in the message, the credibility of the person delivering the message will be established.  People trust that person because the person speaks the hard truths.Now I [...]



The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator

2017-10-06T11:03:11.128-05:00

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 Stevens and other reasonable conservative commentators.* * * * *Stevens 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, Stevens 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 Stevens 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.)Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause just[...]



How much copyright violation goes on inside the LMS?

2017-10-08T22:22:51.566-05:00

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 (for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education) making a pdf copy of it, and placing the copy where others can read it.  If, in addition, I place a link to the pdf in my blog, then it is an open violation of copyright.  In my way of t[...]



Helping Bernie Sanders to Improve His Argument

2017-09-14T06:02:33.696-05:00

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 necessary because it already was there in a veiled form in the public option.)What lessons were learned from those experiences?  I'd like to hear about that.  What will be done so as to not have a repeat of the history afterwards?  Ho[...]



Socialism Reconsidered Part 5 - Wage Subsidies and Confounding Expectations

2017-09-27T08:39:46.330-05:00

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 the military; now the need is for income transfers.  The debacle about repeal of the Affordable Care Act should make all of this abundantly clear.As near as I can tell, there has been a lot of talk about (1) and (2) recently, but hardly any [...]



Losing Oneself By Teaching

2017-09-06T19:51:29.411-05:00

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 practice should continue.   But for now, I think it is more important for the message it delivers than from the information garnered in the survey.  Preparing for class when the goal is to have discussion with a lot of class participa[...]



Ghostwriting for other than book length work

2017-11-23T06:07:09.626-06:00

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 mentoring.  Alternatively, ghostwriters might be paired up with business decision types in a team that offers a joint service of this sort. * * * * *I'm also aware that many individuals want help with their writing.  Again, I can see a [...]



The End of Subtlety

2017-08-23T18:45:52.731-05:00

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 mandatory.  If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first.  In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week i[...]



The Fear of Emasculation

2017-08-16T19:47:10.302-05:00

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 interesting read for the mindset it illustrates.  He writes about how the ritual of initiation transformed him and his fellow pledges from a boy into a man.  Many years earlier I had a student who joined the Marines after taking my course; I beli[...]



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

2017-08-07T16:04:34.320-05:00

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 preferences of the powers that be.  Let me assert here a reactive rather than visionary way to articulate these preferences.  (This is one of those assumptions that can be challenged.)  The powers that be will want what instructors [...]



Muckracking Journalism Where We Really Need It

2017-08-01T07:42:00.789-05:00

While the Trump soap opera and the melodrama about health care absorbs all our emotional bandwidth, we are far less than fully informed about other matters that should be brought to our attention. Remember that the next agenda item for Congress is supposed to be tax reform.  What, then, do we know about the corporate profit tax and the expatriation of corporate profits to avoid taxation?  A proposal has been floated, one I personally find infuriating, to create a tax holiday for corporations so that they will repatriate those monies that are now overseas.  Is there any alternative to this that might still bring those funds back home and, better still, actually get the funds spent on investment, public or private, rather than simply have the money amplify the war chest of the large corporations?  We need far more reporting and commentary on this matter....now.Below are some obvious questions that occur to me.  Before getting at the issue about what should be done, we need a much better picture of what is going on.What is the annual outflow of corporate profit abroad?  What is the time pattern of this outflow?  over the last 5 years?  over the last 10 years? over the last 20 years?  How far back does it go where the volume of outflow was significant?  Can we identify a time when the practice started?How much corporate profit is retained domestically?  Can we likewise do a time pattern of that?  How does that ratio of retained profit to expatriated profit vary over time? Can we break this down on a company by company basis?  Are there some large corporations which don't expatriate profits or do all of them do it?  Are there some that do it to a greater extent than others?Can we estimate that amount of tax avoided by this expatriation of profits?  As above, a time pattern would be useful, as would the aggregate amount of avoidance.This one might be harder to get at.  Does the expatriation of profit matter for the stock price of shares in the company?  (If expatriation produces a capital gain on the order of magnitude of the tax avoided divided by the number of shares, then since there is a capital gains tax on individuals, some of this tax avoidance might be recaptured that way.  Can that amount be estimated?)What do small business owners, who don't have this pipeline to expatriate profits, feel about this practice by large corporations?  Do they think it is just the way the system works or, on the contrary, do they view it as fundamentally unfair creating a bias in the system in favor of the large corporations? And, likewise, what do ordinary taxpayers feel about the practice?  Does the practice contribute to the view that the system is rigged?There are surely other questions that might be asked as well to get a picture of what is going on.  But this seems to me a good enough list to get us started.  I want to make a few other points and then close. The first is about the potential anti-competitive effects from large amounts of retained earnings held by major corporations.  One could write a book on this subject.  Instead, here I will content myself with recounting a bit of history, as my campus played a formative role in it.   Netscape was the startup offering a new product, a graphical Web browser.   Microsoft was the big, and by Internet measures, lumbering corporation with pockets so deep they might as well have been limitless.  In 1995 Netscape Navigator was clearly the best browser on the market.  By 1998 Internet Explorer had the larger mark[...]



Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes

2017-07-20T06:17:09.019-05:00

My object not sublime
I shall achieve a rhyme
And punish the reader much of the time
The reader much of the time.

And done without consent
Unwittingly I do vent
A rather unbalanced temperament
An unbalanced temperament.



Gentle Conversations

2017-08-01T08:04:01.414-05:00

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that w[...]



The Derby Smash - Lyrics

2017-09-28T17:24:21.335-05:00

The Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett Vocals
The Monster Mash - Lyrics


The Derby Smash (Sung to the tune of The Monster Mash)

I was watching the TV on Monday night
An All-Star reverie that was quite a sight
When an Aaron Judge home run began to rise
And suddenly before my eyes

He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash
He hit the smash
It was a baseball bash
He hit the smash
Left the field in a flash
He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash

MLB ballplayers from the West and East
ESPN announcers claimed the ball had yeast
All of them reaching circuit overloads
Watching his bat how the ball explodes

They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash
They watched the smash
It was a baseball bash
They watched the smash
Left the field in a flash
They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash

The fandom were having fun
Cheering another home run
Measure distance in the plan
Speed with the radar gun.

The scene was rocking, all were digging the sounds
Many of the shots would have left the grounds
The glass wall past the outfield blocked each drive
Their staggering length caused giving high fives.

Another smash
Another derby smash
Another smash
It was a baseball bash
Another smash
Left the field in a flash
Another smash
Another derby smash

Out of the booth Buster's voice did sing
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
Asking the slugger he couldn't resist
He said, "You must defend your title cause the fans will insist"

It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash
It's now the smash
It was a baseball bash
It's now the smash
Left the field in a flash
It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash

Now everything's cool, though beyond what was planned
And the derby smash made the All-Star break grand
For you, the fandom, the smash was meant too
When you get to the ballpark, tell them Betances sent you

Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash
Then you can smash
It was a baseball bash
Then you can smash
Left the field in a flash
Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash




High Standards and Low Expectations

2017-08-01T08:33:14.225-05:00

I have some core underlying beliefs that drive much of my thinking and writing.  One of those is on the necessity of producing a coherent narrative that explains both how things currently are and where we'd like to see things go BEFORE recommending potential solutions that might be implemented.  My strength is in doing an analysis so having this particular bias is playing to my strength.  I will note that others looking at the same situation may very well come up with a different analysis, one that contradicts mine in some fundamental ways.  Very good.  Then we can argue about those.  Such an argument should bring out hidden assumptions, which ultimately must be what explains the difference in the analyses, assuming that logical error has been ruled out as an explanation.I want to illustrate with two examples.  One is about our national politics.  The other is about undergraduate education.  These are two of my passions at present.  I will note that my economics training makes me produce a narrative in a certain way.   Others might not frame things in the same manner.  On the one hand, this give some novelty to my perspective and may make it interesting for others to consider.  On the other hand, if that perspective is too alien others won't readily embrace it.  It is far easier to stick with the familiar.* * * * *  Let's consider national politics.  It is said that many voters have lost faith in the system, which doesn't work for them, and which is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  You read about this over and over again. Taking that as a starting point, one might proceed by making a list of requirements for a system that did work.  Getting that far others might do as well, but usually this is done piecemeal rather than taking all the requirements together as a whole.  The next step would occur to economists but likely not others.  We need to ask, are the requirements as a whole feasible, meaning they can all be satisfied by a functional system, or are they infeasible, meaning taken together it is not possible to satisfy them all?As I said, we often don't ask this question.  If we did and we found that the answer is that the system is infeasible, the next step in the process entails going back to the requirements and looking for candidates that can be deleted from the list, while still maintaining that the remainder are sufficient for making the system work.  With fewer requirements, it is easier to get feasibility.  One can then envision an iterative process that looks for the best possible feasible solution.  Let me illustrate with what I hope is a simple example.Whether Democrat or Republican, people would agree that one important goal is for anyone willing and able to work to be able to find a decent paying job.  The Democrats argue for raising the minimum wage as part of the solution.  A substantial minimum wage ensures that the pay is adequate for the work done.  If the person can find work at the minimum wage, then clearly it will be effective in providing a decent job.  But what if the person can't find work?  One possible retort, one I have never heard anyone argue for but on one level makes sense, is to have the minimum wage indexed to the unemployment rate - a low unemployment rate means a high minimum wage and vice versa.   Another possible retort, and again I have never heard anyone argue for this, is tha[...]



Unintentionally Making Others Feel Stupid

2017-07-06T18:06:23.121-05:00

This is an odd subject to write about, so I want to begin by taking a couple of steps backward to explain why it has captured my attention.  At a personal level, I've had a few different threads in Facebook recently with some of my friends from high school.  I was a math nerd then and still have some of that in me now.  In order to show my bona fides, I posted a scan of some scribbling I had done a while back to provide a geometric derivation for the formula that gives the sine of the sum of two angles. After that, there were several witty comments by my friends that ensued.  Then one posted - "I have no idea what you are talking about."  This was from a very bright woman, who also is quite direct in what she posts.  I didn't think a mea culpa was the right response from me there, though it might have been, so instead I posted a link to an animated version of Tom Lehrer's New Math.  It has the tag line - "it's so easy, so very simple, that only a child can do it."  I have also been devoting considerable thought to the question, how can we repair things nationally, after we get past the current moment?  Until the last few weeks I thought the answer was for everyone to embrace a sense of social responsibility, as the way to make the system work again.  This had two parts for me.  One was to treat people unlike ourselves with respect and to refrain from the recrimination and vitriol that seems to have invaded our discourse.  The other, particularly directed at upscale voters, was to pay substantially more in taxes, in other words, to embrace the need for government programs directed at working-class people and for the upscale voters to have the willingness to forego the myopic benefit from having higher after-tax incomes in order to enable this broader social justice as outcome. I have written several posts that argue these things.  Yet while I still feel they are necessary, I've come to realize they are insufficient.  We need something else as well.That something else is to repair ourselves emotionally.  People feel hurt, angry, and frustrated.  They act based on these feelings rather than based on a cool and collected rationality.  There have been many pieces written in the last several weeks that explain these things.  In a nutshell, Liberals are smug or perceived of as such.  Trump voters are bothered by the smugness, so much so that they are willing to support Trump, even if that means voting against their narrow economic interest.  Supporting Trump is a way to metaphorically give the finger to the smug Liberals.  The visceral satisfaction from giving the finger trumps (pun intended) a more rational calculus. If we are to repair ourselves nationally, we need to find a way to get past this.In the above paragraph, I deliberately tried to distinguish actuality from a different possibility, this in reference to Liberal smugness.  The other possibility emerges as some of the media repeatedly depict Liberals in this light, regardless of the true situation, so the perception takes hold for this reason.  Having taken hold, it will then be very hard to change the perception.  I want to recognize that here but otherwise not address it in this post.  At the very end I will write a few sentences about my wishful thinking with regard to the media.  If only wishing would make it so.   My mental model in this post is to envision dire[...]



Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications

2017-07-01T07:09:53.942-05:00

I don't write often about religion but I did in a post from 7.5 years ago called Theism - "Pan," "Mono," and "A", where judging from some comments I received it was among my better pieces.  It had two disparate sources of stimulation.  One was a column by Ross Douthat about the movie Avatar and the religious implications of the pantheism in the story. I thought he was making much ado about nothing, so I wanted to say something in response to that effect.  The other was from my own classroom teaching.  I was in my 30th year at Illinois and this was the first time that religion had found its way into the classroom.  I hadn't invited that, at least not directly, but it was there nevertheless.  I found it awkward, but I also thought my situation relevant to others, at least those of us who teach or who have taught a class.  So I wanted to write something about those experiences.In this piece I'm reacting to another column by Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem.  In the Harry Potter stories, which have been celebrating a twentieth anniversary, Muggles are people who can't do magic, ordinary folks if you will.  In Rowling's telling of these stories Muggles are occasionally seen but hardly ever heard.  Douthat then makes the analogy - wizards are to liberal elites as Muggles are to Trump voters.  Armed with that off he goes.  I thought his argument was over baked.  I want to take that on in this piece.I will eventually get to my refutation, but I have a different purpose as well.  I want to give my view of kid fiction, my ideal of what it should accomplish, and how it played out in my family with my kids, quite far from that ideal.  Indeed, I have some issues with the Harry Potter stories, but those issues are unlike anything that Douthat writes about.  In order to understand the role of these stories, it is useful to consider the full trajectory of stories the kids were exposed to when they were young.When the  kids were too young for school they went to daycare during the school day. Then, in elementary school, the pattern when they got home was similar.  There would be play, perhaps outside on the structure in the backyard or inside with Legos.  While inside there surely would be some TV viewing.  Favorite programs included Barney, Thomas The Tank Engine, and Pokemon.  Then at night we would often watch an animated video on VHS tape.  Disney made a variety of these that we viewed repeatedly.  (I still like to watch Balto and Mulan on occasion.)  And there was also the Land Before Time series that the kids liked very much.  The kids developed two intense interests from this viewing.  One was trains.  There are train tracks that go north-south in Champaign (among the trains that ride those tracks is The City of New Orleans) and every time we'd drive near the train tracks and hear the train whistle, we'd have to pull over and watch as the train passed.  The other was dinosaurs.  (On a visit to Chicago we'd go to the museum to see the skeletons.)After the evening movie the kids would get ready for bed and we'd read to them a story.  I can't remember whether I would read to one kid and my wife to the other (they boys had separate bedrooms) or if we got them together and one of us would do all the reading.  For quite a while Goodnight Moon was the book of choice.  In addition, I know I d[...]



What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?

2017-07-01T10:51:43.603-05:00

David Brooks had a column on Friday, Mis-Educating the Young, that contributes to a growing collection of pieces by various authors which argue that something is rotten in the state of educating children.  Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is one of the better pieces in this group, as it helps to define the problem, explains why the problem has come about, and offers some tentative conclusions about how to make things better.  The hypothesis is that kids learn important life lessons from play and adult supervision, aimed at the seemingly justifiable goal of keeping the kids safe, ends up blocking the learning - the cure is worse than the disease.I want to note some other dimensions of the same general issue.  Kids tend to be over programmed, with many of the activity choices outside of school initially set by a parent.  Kids today have much less discretionary time than we had when we were kids.  Kids then "learn" that discretionary time is for vegging out or providing some hedonistic reward.  For most kids, reading is not the form that guilty pleasure takes.  So they don't learn to direct their own interests and to use that direction to drive their own learning.  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  Another consideration is that the nature of play changes as kids grow older.  It is possible that kids can engage in intellectual play, which I think is a natural outgrowth of child play expanding after some lessons from inside and outside of school have been learned well.  Indeed, the benefit from college for residential students, research that I was exposed to at the Frye Leadership Institute back in 2003 (I don't have a reference now but I'm sure my friend Lisa could provide it) says that what students learn from other students is far more important that what they get from their classes.  But nowadays there may be much less of this if what students do with other students is purely hedonistic (mainly drinking).Brooks also notes that the nature of work is changing, rather dramatically, and school should be preparation for this brave new world, but hardly seems to be now.   To this one should add two further limitations regarding teachers.  Many, like me, had very little work outside of higher education and even among those of us in higher ed who did have administrative careers, there is the question whether that experience generalizes much, if at all, to the experiences of executives in the business world.  The other regards the age of the professoriate and that an instructor's sense of how and what to teach depends largely on what can be recalled from the instructor's experience as a student.   This seems to paint us into a corner.  One of my goals in this piece is to attempt to reconcile this particular issue.Further, there is the issue of the patterns of school as a self-enforcing equilibrium, where those patterns are sub-optimal but end up blocking movement to something better.  Brooks' experience is from his teaching at Yale.   I don't know how long he's been doing that nor how many students he has taught, but I suspect his experience is different from mine, teaching econ majors at Illinois.  I described the issue as I see it at some length in a post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?  Here I will give a brief syno[...]



Wisecracking

2017-09-28T17:31:01.047-05:00

Zollo and I are sitting behind Lenny and Carl.  It's the first day of tenth grade and this is Chemistry with Mr. Kramer.  Class hasn't started yet.  Each desk accommodates two people.  Zollo and I shared one.  Lenny and Carl shared another.  The classroom is tiered so Zollo and I sit a step above Lenny and Carl. This is the way the science classrooms were laid out.  I knew Zollo from before, though I can't remember how.  The important thing is that because we went to 74, we did our ninth grade at Cardozo.  We were veterans.  Lenny and Carl went to 67.  They started Cardozo in tenth grade.  They were rookies.I am giving a ton of grief to Zollo and Zollo is giving a ton of grief right back to me.  Lenny and Carl are laughing hysterically.  It's as if we were doing some vaudeville act on their behalf.  Then the class actually starts and we settle down, though that part I just assume.  All I can remember is those first few minutes before class.  I believe the pattern repeated for the next several days, perhaps even for the rest of the semester.  Eventually Lenny and Carl joined into the banter.  Soon after that first day, Lenny and I became friends.  One of the reasons is that he so readily laughed at my schtick. (The spell checker doesn't like the first "c" in schtick, but I'm going to leave it in because, after all, it is my schtick.)And now a little aside to demonstrate that this sort of thing is itself learned behavior.  A few years ago I had a discussion group with three former students.   They were international students, two from China, one from South Korea.  They were very good students who always did the assigned work and were eager to learn.  They liked it very much when I would joke with them, which happened mainly at the beginning of our meeting.  They smiled easily and genuinely enjoyed that part of our interaction.  My purpose in starting the group was to see if I could get them to be more creative in their own learning.  So, in accord with my inclination, we read oddball stuff to get at creativity from many different angles.  Our method was for one of them to write a blog post about the topic beforehand and for the others to comment on it.  This was to get everyone ready for our discussion.  One week we covered humor and schtick.  Nicole's post on this showed her usual thoroughness, but it lacked any insight into the topic.  She could have tried to be funny in her post.  But she didn't.  Either it didn't occur to her to do so or she didn't know how.  I had hoped she'd try to imitate me in some way, but that didn't happen.  In my comment on her post I wrote one of my rhymes, trying to be both humorous and descriptive of the dilemma. You can't teach schtick one-two-three-zing, where the people learn to do it in one 90-minute session.  It takes lots of practice.  (Regarding the need for practice, think about the work of Anders Ericsson.)  I hadn't realized it ahead of time.  There are some things I do with essentially no effort.  Making humor in context is one of those things.  But I've been doing it for such a long time that I've forgotten all the learning that went into becoming proficient in this way. Back to that time at Cardozo.  One of those things in s[...]