Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Real Mission of Higher Education: Learning or Customer Satisfaction?

There's a lot of talk these days in higher education about a "revolution" or a "coming avalanche" of change. Many of these predictions are based around the allegedly radical transformative power of technology, with particularly emphasis on MOOCs.

Some institutions have begun to adopt the MOOC model not as a substitute for their classrooms, but as a supplement - a sort of internet-delivered textbook for a tech generation that would rather watch a video on a screen than read a traditional text. A part of the argument for doing so has a certain appeal: why not expose our students to the best lecturers from the best institutions (Harvard, MIT, etc.)?

While this logic makes a lot of faculty nervous, it's a natural extension of something we've been doing for decades: measuring "teaching performance" largely on the basis of student evaluations. Professors who are better lecturers - more dynamic, energetic, and engaging - always score well on these, and are therefore regarded in our annual and P&T evaluation systems as "better teachers". I suspect that what bothers may faculty about MOOCs is that they don't want to compete with faculty from Harvard and MIT who, we fear, are better lecturers than we are.

But it turns out that "best lecturer" may not be a particularly useful thing if what we're interested in is actual student learning. A fascinating study has come out suggesting that the dynamism and charisma of the lecturer may not in fact have any impact on whether students actually learn the material. As one Harvard professor (not directly involved in the study) put it:

"The hard work has to be done by the learner -- there's not much the instructor can do to make the neuroconnections necessary for learning."

What this suggests is that what we have valued for many years now - "dynamism" in the classroom - isn't really related to our stated mission (student learning). Instead, what we've been measuring is customer satisfaction - are the students happy? And since you tend to get what you measure, we have gotten pretty good at keeping our students happy with their experience in college. Hopefully they learn something on the way as well, but we're not really tracking that as much - especially across the "broad skills" like critical thinking that we talk a lot about.

I've written before (here and here) about how we don't do a good job of measuring what we really should be, and about how I am less and less convinced that what I do in the classroom is really the right approach. This latest study is another step down that road. I think we (or, at least, I) need to fundamentally rethink how students learn, and adopt classroom models that may be very different from what we've done in the past. This is almost certainly going to be hard work - but then, we didn't get into this business because we want to produce satisfied customers. We want to help people learn.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Reminder: Fighting & Violence Are Not a Joke

There's a standard joke that floats around the martial arts world. A martial arts blogger did a good riff on it recently:
How to Register Your Hands As Deadly Weapons
The humor here comes from the way in which non-martial artists view the martial arts as being somehow vastly more deadly and dangerous than other forms of fighting. One of my own young students the other day confidently proclaimed that, once you earn a black belt, "you become a ninja!" Then there's this:

This is all good fun, and amusing especially to folks on the "inside" who know that all martial arts really consists of is applied biomechanics and a lot of hard work and practice.

But the danger underneath the humor - indeed, the danger underlying our casual attitude towards violence at all levels and in nearly all forms - is that any violence is potentially deadly. Gun-rights advocates talk about carrying guns around as if they were keys or handkerchiefs - as if they weren't in fact extremely dangerous tools. And then there's this tragic story:
Homicide by assault charge for teen
Sports Illustrated ran a feature story on this incident in a recent issue. It's not a story that fits into standard narratives about out-of-control youth sports. The 17 year old kid involved was, by most accounts, a good kid, responsible at home, and a good student. In a brief interview obtained by SI, it's not even clear if he knows why he did it.

Regardless of the outcome of this particular case, or the ultimate measure of justice therein, there is an important lesson here: any violence carries the potential for catastrophe. There were no guns, no knives, no weapons involved here - just a 17 year old kid, a 46 year old man, and a single punch that the man didn't expect and didn't see coming. That was enough to end the man's life and alter the kid's forever.

I have argued before that the measure of violence is not in how much damage it causes but how it is used and under what circumstances. This case serves as a reminder that, all jokes aside, hands can kill.

The real value of martial arts is not in teaching people how to do more damage (hence my discomfort with the popularity of MMA as a sport), but in how to control the damage they can do. Proper training in the martial arts makes you less dangerous, not more, because you have more control over what you do with the tools you have.

As this sad story reminds us, anyone can kill with their bare hands. As Thomas Hobbes wrote centuries ago, "For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest".
I hope that, in the wake of the tragedy in Utah, more folks will remember this and treat violence of all kinds with the respect and care it deserves.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

This Is How You Earn a 15% Approval Rating

Congress, not to be deterred by facts or reason, continues to press ahead with its "investigative hearings" on the "IRS Scandal". The latest casualty of this process: an IRS official who exposed the situation and was trying to fix it now finds the need to plead the 5th and refuse to testify to Congress.

I feel for this woman, but think the decision is entirely understandable. Expecting a fair and reasonable investigation from a Congressional committee these days is like expecting a happy ending to a Kafka novel - not only wrong, but foolish in the extreme. This has become a partisan witch-hunt as politicians pander to particular splinters of their base - those with the loudest voices and the loosest wallets. In that kind of environment, I too would probably rather the sharp but short shame of pleading the 5th than the lengthy torture of being raked over the coals so that someone else can score political points.

Belief among Americans that Congress is doing a good job has sunk into the 13 - 15% range, according to recent polls. Because of gerrymandering and the iron-clad lock of the two-party system, of course, the House is largely immune to the effects of this - most Americans hate Congress but aren't given much choice about who their own Congressman is. It is clear that Americans are convinced that ongoing bouts of partisan Kabuki theater are not in the country's best interests. We just haven't figured out what to do about it.

In the short term, my only suggestion is to ignore the idiots. The "IRS Scandal" is a tempest in a teapot. Even the most uncharitable reading of the facts suggests low-level malevolence with minor consequences at best - and that reading is unlikely to be the correct one. Like a tornado, this latest bout of manufactured Congressional outrage will blow through whatever we do; our best bet is to stay out of the way and hope it doesn't cause too much damage.

No-Confidence Votes: What's the Point?

I have blogged before about the popularity of no-confidence votes as symbols of opposition to university administrations or, more frequently, particular university presidents. A recent Chronicle story catalogs the latest in a rash of these this past year:
College’s Board Stands by President After 3 Groups Vote No Confidence in Him
The college in question, Cayuga Community College, is clearly in significant financial difficulty - a condition not unusual these days. Unlike in the private business world, community colleges are genuine non-profits - they don't have money squirreled away offshore or in shell companies and they can't play Enron-style hide-the-cash games. If they're broke, they're broke. Something, clearly, must be done, and whatever it is will likely be painful to somebody.

I understand that there are likely to be disagreements about what to do, and that the various constituencies represented by the three unions here may not like the president's proposals. They may even be right - for all I know, the proposals he's made may be horrible ideas. Nobody but people close to the case are in a position to judge.

But in this kind of a context, what is the point of a no-confidence vote? It is useless for signaling disagreement - the negotiations themselves have already done that. Sending a signal that says "I don't like you" is pointless - you just personalize and emotionalize the negotiation context, gaining nothing and making the other side more likely to resist even your most reasonable proposals. It's clear that the Board supports the president anyway, which is sufficient to keep him in his job in perpetuity - so you can't hope to oust him from power. I can't think of a single tactical goal or advantage served by a no-confidence vote in this case.

So why do groups do this? I think it's most likely a combination of emotional satisfaction (We stuck it to the man!) and grandstanding for the domestic constituents. The real audience here isn't the president or the Board - it's the union members, who can feel good that their leaders are "doing all they can" in their "fight" with the administration.

The analogy, of course, is misplaced. This isn't a fight - it's a disagreement over a budget. The more you think of a conflict like this as a "fight", the more existential it becomes and the less likely compromise is. And in the end, the only hope these groups have is compromise. Apparently, they would rather feel good among themselves than get the best outcome they can - which is a shame.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Media, the IRS "Scandal", and the Fact-Free Paranoia of our Day

The New York Times has an excellent investigative piece on the IRS/Tea Party Scandal currently making the rounds. Anybody with the slightest interest in this case - regardless of political stripe - should read this piece thoroughly.

The crux of the report, with a pretty thorough review of facts as they are knowable now, suggests two things:

1) The IRS office in question, located in Cincinnati, performed an almost impossible task badly, an occurrence entirely explainable by reference to bureaucratic and organizational incompetence rather than ideologically-motivated malfeasance. Evidence for the former is so overwhelming as to be conclusive. Evidence of the latter is so thin that, to borrow the British phrase, you wouldn't hang a dog with it.

2) It's not entirely clear, other than from one directive among a great many, that conservative groups (Tea Party or otherwise) were treated any worse than others. To know whether they were or not would require a grasp of basic statistics and a willingness to count and compare the appropriate things, which no reporting (including the above-referenced piece) has yet done. As usual, innumeracy continues to bedevil us.

As an administrator who runs an office that is frequently overwhelmed with paperwork, has been chronically understaffed, and is often expected to do too much by people who don't have much understanding of what we do or why, I am sympathetic to the bureaucratic argument here. This is how bureaucratic organizations, especially ones that are both maligned and neglected (as this branch of the IRS has been) work. Prior to this "scandal", anyone with a working knowledge of organizational function could easily have foreseen significant problems. The only difference now is that Congressmen and pundits with political interest have seen an opportunity to use these problems to partisan advantage, resulting in another round of paranoia-tinged, table-thumping Washington Kabuki theater.

What struck me as particularly ironic today is that, while it ran the piece linked above in today's news section (to be fair, headlined on the front page), it was running this piece in last week's Sunday Op-Ed section. Written by Ross Douthat as part of the NYT's effort to prove that it is willing to print both conservative and liberal opinions, the piece is a fact-free paranoid rant, dripping with sarcasm and filled with references that have nothing to do with the IRS or the case at hand. It is an excellent example of the "thoughts" of someone whose mind is already made up, so don't bother with the facts.

In other words, a week before its reporters could put together an in-depth investigative report (because investigative journalism takes time), the NYT was shooting itself in the foot by printing a blowhard who had already decided he knows what the "real truth" is.

Because it was published a week earlier, and because it is shorter and pithier than the rather lengthy investigative article, $50 says that more people will read Douthat's ramblings to the end than will read the news piece.

This pattern is not all that surprising these days. Opinion can be manufactured in seconds, and nobody (especially media organizations) wants to be seen as withholding sober judgement until the facts come in. So with every new event and "scandal", we get treated to a barrage of half-baked blowhard nonsense first and foremost. If we are patient and wait long enough, we might eventually go to enough information to start to understand the truth. But by then, the blowhards who command most of our attention have moved on to the next manufactured crisis.

I have a simple proposal - one which I doubt will gain much traction, but which I will at least try myself. Let's turn off the blowhards. Don't watch cable news (mostly blowhards these days), don't read the op-ed sections of newspapers, don't click the links your friends post on Facebook - regardless of their ideological slant. Opinion has become the junk food of our information stream - terrible for our minds, but addictive to our tastes. Let's cut back on the Doritos and eat more fruits and veggies - things that take time to grow and procure, but which are far, far better for us.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More Sloppy Thinking About Guns and Self Defense

I like to keep a wide range of opinions in my Facebook feed, because I think it's important to see what people with very different views from mine are thinking. Occasionally, that strategy serves up some unintentionally revealing tidbits:

Like all bumper-sticker (or, in this case, cardboard-sign) philosophizing, this meme is revealing - not for what is says, but for the things you would have to assume in order to buy this "argument".

The key here, of course, is the equation of self defense and gun (Glock). But as I've posted before, guns are very often not the right tool for self defense. Recent events have also demonstrated that they can cause all sorts of other problems, including the critical wounding of three young children and the death of another in the last month at the hands of other children. What if mommy's not there and this cute little girl gets ahold of mommy's Glock and accidentally shoots herself, or a friend, with it?

People who think that guns "ensure" their right to self defense are assuming something about the nature of the threats they will face in life. They assume that they will see the threat coming, with enough time to draw their weapon from wherever it is stashed (and, presumably, loaded) and bring it to bear.

People who are going to attack you, however, have no interest in giving you this much warning. Out in the public arena, attackers will want the maximum advantage of both isolation and surprise. Someone intent on doing you harm doesn't want to engage with you or fight you; they want to overwhelm you, because that minimizes the chances they will themselves get hurt. The defense against surprise attacks isn't a gun - which can't be brought to bear quickly enough - but awareness. The solution to the "what if I'm in a dark alley with a mugger?" problem is don't go down a dark alley alone, or at all. The mind is a far more effective self defense weapon than anything else you can carry, as every self defense workshop and instructor will tell you.

Guns-as-defense people also talk about firearms for home defense, on the assumption that someone is going to break into your home intending to do you harm. That can happen - although good locks, an alarm system, and a dog all go a long way to ameliorating that danger - but the vast majority of home break-ins are done on empty houses. People are there to steal, not to harm, and if loot is the goal they don't want to risk someone calling the cops or shooting them. If your intention is to hurt (assault/rape/murder) someone in general (as opposed to someone targeting you in particular, which is a different issue entirely), there are many, many easier ways to find and get access to a victim than breaking into a locked home.

As long as people write silly slogans backed by unrealistic assumptions on cardboard, our national conversation obviously isn't going to advance much. The woman in the picture above has every right under the First Amendment to say what she wants to say - she's just wasting her breath (or her paint) if she thinks her doing so will change any minds. What we need is thinking and dialogue, not sloganeering and chest-thumping.

As a side note - I seem to recall this same crowd of pro-gun-rights folks (including the poster of this particular meme picture above) decrying Obama and comparing him to Hitler some months back because he dared to "use children as political props" during a post-Newtown shooting news conference. I guess if the President does it, he's Hitler, but if you do it to your own kid, it's OK? Rank hypocrisy and tribal double-standards don't convince anyone, either - but I suppose they make people feel better about themselves.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Profound Ambivalence About May the 4th

We have just passed May the 4th, which in current parlance has become the closest thing that the geek subculture has to a national holiday. For those of us who spent our childhoods (and adulthoods!) learning every nuance of the Star Wars universe, reading tons of Bradbury/Heinlein/Asimov, and watching way too much Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5/Firefly/etc., this is a pretty cool thing. It's kind of an "in joke". The date itself doesn't signify anything - unlike July 4 or Cinco de Mayo, there's no historical event on May 4 that geeks are harking back to. It's just become cool to go around, within the geek crowd, wishing each other "May the Fourth be with you".

I'm definitely hip to that. Geekery is my native culture, as many of my friends can attest. I still play role-playing games (the real pencil-and-paper kind!), I've watched every episode of Babylon 5, Firefly (not that hard), and Star Trek: Next Generation, and I'm bringing my kids up in the same mold. My son chose to play a piece of video-game theme music at a violin recital. To paraphrase Spock, I am now and always have been a geek. So the idea of a secret, in-crowd-only holiday seems pretty neat.

In much of the rest of my life, however, I am a conflict scholar. In that world, dates and history have meaning as markers of events that took place in the past. Like July 4 or 9/11, they can become touchstones that anchor how we understand the world and the stories that we tell about ourselves and our values.

In that world, May 4 does have meaning. On May 4, 1970 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters and bystanders on the campus of Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a terrible tragedy, compounded by the fact that no one was ever held to account - not the guardsmen who pulled the triggers, nor their commanding officers (one of whom must have ordered them to carry loaded weapons that day), nor anyone else in the chain of command. The shooting and the events surrounding it remain in dispute to this day, but they form an anchor point in a dark and difficult period in our nation's history.

I was privileged a few years ago to take a tour of the campus led by a member of the faculty who was present that day, and who watched events unfold. The experience was a moving one, both for the sense of loss and because we have never come to grips with that time. This was not the only example of students injured or killed by American troops that year - two were killed at Jackson State, and several were bayonetted in Arizona, that same spring. To walk the same grounds, to see the bullet hole left in the modern steel sculpture (the artist apparently refused to repair it, preferring that it stand as a testimony), to see the memorials marking where the slain fell - there is a powerful meaning there, even if we can't quite agree on what that meaning is. That we should choose to largely forget those events - as everyone outside of the Kent State campus has - is a terrible loss.

In an ironic aside, those who could most benefit from this narrative have apparently forgotten it, too. The most ideological wing of the NRA, which claims the purpose of the Second Amendment to be first and foremost protection from a tyrannical government using force against its own people, never mentions this story, even though it is the closest we have ever come since the Civil War to the state using military force against American citizens. Because the protesters were on the left, however, and the NRA on the self-identified right, I would guess that tribal loyalty precludes them from using the one real case of what they apparently most fear they could point to.

We don't have a common understanding of what happened at Kent State that day, and given the current indifference we probably never will. But those events are too important to be forgotten. And yet, forget them we have. And so while I think it's really cool to have a holiday of sorts for the Geek Nation, I'm sorry for the history that we've paved over to make space for it. And so, I think, I'll never be quite as enthusiastic a supporter of May the Fourth as my fellow Geek countrymen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why Simple Slogans About Guns Don't Work

This story is too awful for much commentary:
KY Girl, 2, accidentally shot and killed
This level of tragedy is hard, and I'm sure the family is devastated. But a few questions come to mind:

• Is there an age below which it is criminally reckless to give a child a gun? What if they had given the gun to the 2 year old?

• Is it appropriate on a personal to criminally charge parents who have just lost one of their children? Is it societally appropriate not to?

• To borrow Wayne LaPierre's parlance, was the 5 year old shooter in this case a "bad guy with a gun"? And if so, would a "good guy with a gun" have been sufficient (or necessary) to stop him?

• If the price of security for a home is to be armed, does that price include exposure to this kind of risk? If so, how does that balance against a real-world assessment of threats?

Reality is much messier than our bumper stickers would have it - and sometimes, far more awful.

Syria: There Are No Good Options

Much is being made this week of Syria's possible use of chemical weapons, and the range of potential US responses. The Obama administration, having (perhaps foolishly) drawn rhetorical red lines around the use of chemicals in an attempt to deter, now faces the choice of what to do if/when deterrence fails. Evidence is leaking out slowly but it seems likely that sooner or later, the Assad regime will be found to have gassed people in its ongoing battle with opposition forces. The US will then have to do something, if for no other reason than the President said we would.

The problem is, what to do? Within the realm of domestic politics, Obama is in a quandary: if he does nothing, he will be attacked for having wasted US credibility on a failed effort to deter Assad. But anything he does decide to do will be criticized by somebody (Republicans almost certainly, but there's not much stomach for intervention even among Democrats). The voices within the US who really care about Syria and who have a really clear idea of what they want the US to do are few and far between. Domestically, this is a no-win scenario for the President - even if by some miracle he rescues Syria from disaster with few costs and no American casualties, not enough people will care. It's all jobs, all the time now, with the occasional break for fights over gay marriage, Gitmo, and whether we should try Dzokhar Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant". Syria is so far down the list of national priorities you need a helmet and a lantern to find it.

Things don't get any better on the international front. Assad, for whatever reason, seems committed to fighting to the last Syrian to maintain power. Of the range of possible US intervention options, none look good:

• We learned in Iraq that Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" rule is correct: you break it, you bought it. In part because of the Iraq experience and in part because Americans just don't care about Syria enough (see above), full-scale invasion to take out Assad, occupy the country, and sort out its politics to our own taste is untenable in about eight different ways. It's not even clear that the Syrian opposition forces would want such "help".

• A shorter-form invasion (go in, knock over Assad, leave) is equally problematic because it seems likely that civil war would immediately break out among the factions (possibly also including the Kurds, which creates a broader regional problem), and because some of those factions are virulently anti-American. If the rabid Islamists win, Assad may look like a good friend in comparison. So invasion without occupation doesn't help much either.

• An argument could be made for providing air cover - the ever-popular "no-fly zone". But it's not clear who would be helped most by this (see above), and the opposition is doing a pretty good job of thwarting Assad's air power by taking over airfields on the ground. At best, the impact of such a move on the war would be tactical, and the loss of even a single US pilot untenable for such a marginal (from the US perspective) gain.

• The most frequent call these days is "arm the rebels!" But here we run into the Afghanistan problem - not Afghanistan of the last decade, but anti-Soviet Mujahedeen Afghanistan in the 1980s. There the US provided as much support to rebel forces as we could pump into the country - and unwittingly helped the creation of al Qaeda and the Taliban. With increasing reports about the ascendancy of Islamist fighters among the Syrian opposition movement, sending these folks weapons sounds like a recipe for disaster both strategically and politically. Unfortunately that leaves the field open to those countries and networks who are backing the Islamists, but there's not enough of a non-Islamist alternative for the US to trust with weapons drops.

• Just about everything else that could be done - diplomatic pressure, targeted economic sanctions, humanitarian/non-lethal aid to opposition groups - is already being done. You'll notice how much credit Obama is getting for that effort...

Syria represents the kind of foreign policy nightmare that US Presidents dread. It's a humanitarian disaster (70,000 deaths and counting, millions displaced) with connections to two hot-button issues: chemical weapons (the infamous "WMDs" that got us so riled up about Iraq) and Islamic terrorism (could Syria become the next Afghanistan training-ground?) But it's also a situation that American power, no matter how vast, has almost no ability to significantly control. The collected power of US military and diplomatic might cannot get Syrians to stop fighting and agree amongst themselves how they ought to govern their society in peace and prosperity, any more than we have been able to do so in Lebanon (think back...), Egypt, Lybia, or Iraq.

The rational response, faced with such a no-win scenario, would seem to be to level with the American people: this is a terrible situation, we hope Syrians can work it out, but there's not much we can do. Henry Kissinger suggested something similar with respect to Bosnia in the 1990s, but was ignored. That strategy would require the President to admit that there are real limits to American power - a move tantamount to political suicide, as it attacks one of our most cherished myths (the Greatest Nation on Earth/"If we can put a man on the moon..." syndrome).

In this sense, the ultimate failure isn't the President's (however much Republicans will argue that it is, no matter what he does) - it's ours. We are the ones who either demand or put up with the screwball politics that drive this machine - what Daniel Ellsberg, in another war of another time, called "the Stalemate Machine". The sooner we learn to accept that bad things happen that we can't control, and stop blaming whoever sits in the White House for everything in the world, the more sensible our politics and our policies can become.