Childhood and Stray Tires

Reading this Atlantic piece brought to mind a memory of the El Paso, TX streets when I was a kid in the late 60s and then 70s. My friends and I would find stray tires. We’d roll them to the top of a steep street and let them go and watch. They’d bounce against parked cars, the occasional fence, walls. Most everyone understood that there were kids stalking the neighborhood.

It wasn’t all rosy. Most everyone understood that too, least of all us. Guess what we did with the discarded but not-so-empty box of Benson and Hedges. We’d be called for dinner, enter and eat, then leave again. We rarely saw parents, and when we did it was like encountering exotic wildlife.

Childhood culture. Here’s an added feature: since we were out so much, we knew who to avoid; we knew where the strange people were, who’s dog would bite, what house or region was off limits. We knew the gang signs.

That doesn’t mean everyone survived.

My Changing Attitudes about Failure in the Classroom

Over the years my attitudes about managing classroom activity has changed. It’s a long story. It begins with my own college experience being read to by the professor or even further back being told that thinking on my own would get me into trouble in grade school. I hated school. But I loved graduate school. I thought (which was probably a mistake): why not take the things I liked and make them work at the undergraduate level.

The thing I liked about undergraduate and graduate learning was that, for the most part, I could make my own decisions: I could drink beer instead of going to class; I could go to class and drink beer; it was up to me. To me compulsory is a dirty word and my fingers still smell of the iron bars of grade school. Yes college: I could do it or not do it and take the consequences. I remember a conversation with a professor. I said, “I have to do this reading.” He stabbed me with his reading-shrunken eyeballs and said, “You don’t have to do shit.” In addition, the lively use of technology by many of my professors was an inspiring mix of theory, application, and invention. The good professors would think a lot about why something might work and then try it, even if it failed. Then they would try something else. They asked questions like: how can we make big classes feel smaller? How can we take the advantages of residential colleges and mimic these with tech?

Recently (by recent I mean the last ten years or so), I’ve altered my strategies to include more emphasis on competency-based evaluation and instruction, generic assessments, and to placing more of the burden of learning on the people in my courses. By competency-based I mean telling students that they’re not after a grade on a paper but aiming to improve thinking and skills through written revision and hard work. By generic assessment I mean going from something like this:

Read this specific article and evaluate the author’s use of evidence

to this

Evaluate an author’s use of evidence in support of an argument. Find the author on your own.

Much of the above has to do with the fact that I like to change readings a lot and I don’t want to have to rewrite every assessment I provide to students.

By placing more of the burden on students, I mean to remove what I see as artificial or un-unassessable quantities in the regular movements of the semester: what’s the proper punishment for missing a deadline, I ask myself: grade diminishment or loss of opportunity to learn something? Recall the above conversation with my professor: he meant, “It’s up to you, Bub.”

I still have deadlines, but I tell people that if they miss a paper, what they miss is the opportunity for assessment. This presents a lot of risk, risk I’ve been willing to live with. For example, years ago I stopped reading student drafts because I found it difficult to avoid what might be called robotic or automated revision. That story goes like this: Cut this, this, and this comma and here’s a little about why, and develop the idea in this paragraph with more evidence. The commas would go, simply to reappear elsewhere and in the same context, and people would simply not do the development, responding with the common, “I didn’t know what you meant.” The whole business started to feel oddly enabling. I asked: does teacher editing lead to deep learning?

The typical semester now goes like this: students revise their own copy based on discussion and concepts worked on in class. I expect students in the research course to find copious amounts of information on topics and to study it against some fairly formulaic questions (what I call the argument framework): what’s the problem; what’s the position; what are the arguments; what’s the evidence; what are the appeals; and is it all done effectively or ineffectively by the author or authors and why? What’s your take? Students hand in their respective papers, I evaluate them and provide general ideas about improvement and expect students to revise, applying what they’ve learned. The results are still pretty raw, but those results reflect writing only the student has touched. They own them.

The general competencies are: identification, description, and evaluation/analysis.

Hypothetically, it all sounds pretty well and good. But in the last few years, students have taken the option of not turning things in for evaluation and waiting until the end of the semester to make their case, as the majority end-of-semester grade comes from final portfolios, which is meant to show the results of assessment and revision. Most of the time this makes for strange papers that show almost no improvement because very little option for improvement was made available. They’re supposed to own it all.

Consider this scenario. Student A stumbles to class most days but forgets to wake up in time for the first Chemistry exam. The teacher notes that the student failed to take the exam, hence marking a zero in the grade book. Let’s say this happens throughout the semester, grossing the student a zero in Chemistry. The teacher’s puzzled because attendance was perfect, with the exception of exam days. What’s the accurate conclusion: the student failed to demonstrate any knowledge of the subject even though they attended every session and appeared to take notes? I could give this story the most positive of outcomes: the student weeps about the goose egg but invents a new cure for disease in their basement.

Writing courses are similar. A student may participate in the day to day and then fail to turn in a paper, or not participate in the day to day and turn in nothing, or play the truant, turn in all their stuff at the end, and win the golden apple. In the first two scenarios, what they’ve failed to do is demonstrate what they’ve learned (maybe they didn’t show and neglected  their papers because they were working on a novel). In a writing course the main method for providing proof of learning is the much-loved academic, MLA-styled paper, the revised paper, and then a final proof. In a competency push, I want to be able to compare the first to the final, where evidence of learning shines through. Problem is: students are not providing me the drafts.

Time to rethink my approach.

Why I Worry About Students

Well, I worry about a lot of things. I’m a personality that worries.

It would appear that nationally the causes of higher education, one of which is to produce independent, thoughtful citizens (real rabble-rousers, you might call them), are being crushed by political interests. Most people have read about student debt and the costs of “choosing” to invest in an institution after high school. But the investment is lopsided with national and state government transferring costs to “the people.” We know that one person’s debt is another person’s profit.

I’m encouraged by organizations like Young Invincibles. I wonder if they’ll have as much impact as our  civil engineering graders.

There are a number of big sectors in Higher Ed. Public colleges and universities, privates, and for-profits, and somewhere beneath these trade schools stick their nose out from under the bed. What an interesting story this has been since financial turmoils in the 70s, late 90s, and 2008. It’s a complicated story. Sufficit it to say, most public institutions and families are increasingly going it alone, wielding their pea shooters in the woods. (I’m still waiting for the verdict on the Bayh-Dole Act.)

I live on metaphors. They help to boil things to their approximate essence. So, I imagine I’m a local politician in Connecticut driving the winter streets. What I see are humps, cracks, and holes in the gritty pitch from this long cold season and its mysterious substances meant to melt the ice and corrode brake lines. Someone’s going to have to pay for the repair, and I’ll be waiting for the complaints. It’s a life phenomenon: in your 40s, 50s, and mores, you’ll complain about paying for stuff you couldn’t imagine paying for in your 20s. Maybe our new robot kitchens in the future will bust holes in the wall board by opening the cabinet doors with too much force. Could happen. Or the metallurgical requirements of my coming bionic fingers will hammer the final coffin nail into some rare frog “somewhere south of not here.”

But I speculate this: we need all-out return to publically-funded higher ed and the material that holds us all up. And that means solving the inequality equations. Maybe my students will start marching on their own behalf.

Then there are a hundred other things to worry about.

Reading Ecologies and Information Architecture

I caught Andy Fitzgerald’s last post titled Architecting the Connected World this morning. He writes:

Here (the model of down-scrolling) we can see different modes at play. The trackpad isn’t strictly symbolic, nor is it iconic. Its relationship to the action it accomplishes is inferred by our embodied understanding of the physical world. This is signification in the indexical mode.

“Embodied understanding” is the language I’ve been looking for in the context of thinking across or against digital and analogue objects. Translation: reading a NYT article in a database vs the paper NYT vs the digital NYT. Fitzgerald’s analysis has to have something to do with how teachers approach research and reading with their students. Objects can be out of their original context. Sure, a rattle snake in a boot is still dangerous. But the serpent is “out of context.”

I’ve always thought scrolling was a bad idea. Such a text is fundamentally different than a page turn or swipe text. As the scrolling habit has evolved, I’ve begun to rethink how reading on the screen and scrolling through hidden abundance just adds to more hidden abundance. The prior paragraphs slide out of field. There’s only so much one can see in the traversal, and then there’s the swipe. In Tinderbox, the writer can side-by-side the draft. He or she can write against the scroll.

It’s a different leverage to craft.

Part-Time Teaching and Mentorship

I’m doing certain work at the college which has brought back certain issues about part-time teaching. There are many numbers. 70% part-time to the other full-time, tenure track. I don’t know what to think about the veracity of the ratio, but I’d venture it’s pretty close. When we have courses to run to meet enrollment or offerings, we have a limited number of full-time faculty to fill all the sections. When a full-time person retires in our system, the slot will not typically be filled by a sparkling new tenure-track hire. The slot will be plugged by a couple of adjunct faculty.

Adjunct, a corrosive term, means a non-essential add-on. The above scenario, however, doesn’t really mean “non-essential.” It points to a trend toward cost saving, which some people would claim is “essential.” In this case another term might be used: “contingent.”

We could get a whole bunch of smart people together and reengineer the college or university to run only on contracted faculty. No tenure track, no full-time teaching, just a lot of people running into the office with their signed contracts and hoping to land the same slot next semester or next year. One extreme result of this type of “college” might be “fun with sabotage,” where in order to complicated a competitor’s end-of-semester review, I simply make their computer difficult to use, the equivalent of removing a wire to just one spark plug.

I doubt this would be such a standout place.

The solution to our present mess is to go on a hiring spree. One argument against this is that money is insufficient in local, state and national budgets for education. This is diversionary non-sense. The money may be going to the wrong place. Then there’s the throw money at the problem argument, but then we have to rush to identify the problem. That rush will drive us into the murky dungeons of politics and economics. Is there light in those tunnels? For example, do tax incentives to draw investment in a state really work? Throwing money may be easier than a football.

Once the spree is over, elevating colleges and universities to sustainable ratios of teaching and learning, we can get down to the real business of reframing part-time teaching into what it should be: providing experience to people who will be seeking either full-time work at colleges or research institutions or other areas of the living sector. Mentorship, in other words. There’s a lot more to say about that approach than I have time for at the moment.

Teachers need places to park and think about what they’re doing. Places to sit with students and colleagues. Part-time faculty have great difficulty vesting in the institutions where they’re often lucky to find a course or two. Part-time faculty worry too much about staying healthy because they typically don’t possess the benefits that come with tenured positions.

Our current neglect is unsustainable and unethical.

There are a couple of notable benefits: growing full-time staffs will enlarge the pool of good-paying jobs (Samsung will sell more TVs), thereby encouraging investment in institutions and curriculum (TVs or no TVs). Enlarging staffs will improve the development of skill in both faculty and students and will encourage innovation. Full-time faculty are on campus most of the day. They’re parked and can listen and take part in what needs doing. Finally, institutional ethics has been seriously harmed. We’ve treat people poorly. Enlarging staffs is just the right thing to do and that includes supportive, professional staff.

So, my call is this: go on a hiring spree.

The Year of the Neglected Subordination in Politics

It’s probably going to be the year of “if you like your current insurance you can keep your current insurance. Period. End of story.” The story line is already broadcasting.

This is why I can’t go into politics because what I would say is: “Yes, I said it, now go fuck yourself.”

In one instance, in Green Bay, the president said this: “No matter how we reform health care, I intend to keep this promise:  If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.” Here’s a link to other instances.

The president made a blunder because this is an incomplete thought. The subordinating conjunction problem in politics  should be a famous war between the devil and its details. In other words, President Obama should have said, “You can keep your insurance unless it doesn’t meet the new specs because there are new specs which I’ve listed ad nauseum.” The conjunction problem comes with the existence of Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, who represents “foresight.”  Sometimes it’s impossible to know the political consequences when many people are aware of unarticulated but obvious facts. For example, many people after 2011 knew that certain insurance products would not meet the “new specs” and would therefore be illegal. But agents, like insurance companies, and members of Congress, and the President, neglected to provide a photo of the devil to their customers.

Now, here’s why the statement is not a lie. Everyone knew that the ACA would prohibit price gouging. There were insurance plans priced higher for women than for men. Logically, if a person likes being gouged and the law prevents this gouging, then regardless of whether one likes being gouged, one cannot keep the plan that gouges them, and certainly a company can’t offer the gouging plan as legal. Here’s another way Obama could have said what he knew at the time: “If you like your compliant plan, you can keep it.” But that wouldn’t be accurate either because an insurance company, I’m sure, might have numerous compliant plans and simply not offer them for renewal.

The president’s statement is like defining pornography. Most people knew what he meant because they read between the thick strokes. But the quotes make for good fun, I suppose. His statement is a broad assurance for the majority yet inaccurate and a blunder.

It should be noted that there are many corollaries. Let’s say you like your car but you like your car precisely because it doesn’t have seat belts. You will hear many people say: “You can drive whatever car you want in this country.” You know what they mean.

So, if I were a politician I would not make stuff up to defend against the “keep it if you like it” generalization. I would say: “Yeah, I said it, but you can’t drive a car with seat belts made out of toilet paper.”

Inequality, Unemployment, and Making Things

I’m not an economist, but it’s unfortunate that Rand Ghayad posted a link  on his blog to his policy brief called “A Decomposition of Shifts of the Beveridge Curve.” It’s also unfortunate that the paper might have been read by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who wrote an article called “Taxpayers, jobless Hurt by Extended Aid” for the Kentucky website. The reason I say it’s unfortunate that Ghayad posted the link is because it lead to his having to write an article at The Atlantic called “… No Reason to Cut Unemployment Benefits.”

Paul writes:

In fact, it’s worse than that. According to a study by Rand Ghayad and William Dickens for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, employers will choose a less-skilled worker who has been unemployed for two months over a worker with more skills who has been unemployed for two years.

So yes, extending unemployment benefits to two years does a disservice to the unemployed. I want to be clear: No one is blaming the worker. Economists are simply looking at the facts that motivate employers.

Ghayad writes:

So why does he want to end unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for 6 months or longer? Well, Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does.

Now, we clearly have a long-term unemployment problem. The question is why. Paul says it’s all about incentives. He thinks extending unemployment benefits does a “disservice” to the unemployed by encouraging them to stay unemployed for too long. And as a “big-hearted” member of a party that cares about the jobless, he wants to protect them from making such mistakes—by cutting their benefits, of course.

In my view, cutting benefits when it’s pretty well known that people are getting tired of looking for work that isn’t there should be construed as cold blooded. In Paul’s piece there seems to be a striving imperative of getting the policy right. Maybe that’s true, but just because one policy might be good for people doesn’t mean that we should dash the ones that immediately assist.

Some economics scholars argue that leaner government is better. The austerity story. Others argue we need much much more stimulus to make up for the loss of demand in our current “free market.” Here’s a round-up of some the context of the debate on the issue. If the Obama administration is going to do something, I’ve argued in the past for making and fixing things, like rails, bridges, schools, and crashing the world with new energy sources and solutions. We need to do this Yesterday. If I own a pizza shop and more and more people are unemployed with no income at all, I’m eventually going to have to close up shop. If only 20% of people in the country can afford my product, I’m losing the potential other 80%.

Paul writes:

As a nation, though, there is more to be considered. The biggest consideration should be our $17.3 trillion debt. Should we continue to borrow from China to pay for unemployment benefits? Currently, unemployment benefits are paid for by employer taxes for 26 weeks — anything beyond that is borrowed money.

One reason that the above bugs me is that it implies several good reasons why unemployment benefits should be cut (I can’t actually think of any, though I could fabricate something). One: China; two: the debt; three: the research supports it. Ghayad strips the last one. And I don’t see how the first two are connected to the problem at all.