Friday, November 11, 2016

Something you can do

Here is something anyone can do to make the world a teensy bit better. It's simple, really: positive reinforcement.

Friday, August 12, 2016

"Can't you make it fun for them?"

Educators at all levels have heard this question. It is difficult not to take it as an insult. It's like saying to the parent of a crying infant, "Can't you keep that baby quiet?" To the extent that it is possible to make the educational experience enjoyable for students, while still fulfilling educational objectives, of course educators try to do that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Nonspecific thoughts on Proposition 1

On May 7, Austin voters rejected Proposition 1, regarding what kind of background checks are mandated for ridesharing drivers. One very brief summary of the implications of yes and no votes is here. I never dug into the details myself, mainly because I’ve been feeling unenthusiastic about voting in general (but that’s another story). But I thought the hubbub around the vote was interesting, not least because no one seemed to know what the proposition actually said. Also, I saw two common fallacies underlying much of what was said against the proposition, both of which appear in lots of contexts:
  • If a corporation wants something (e.g., Uber and Lyft want a specific standard of background checks for their drivers), that something must be bad.
  • If government does not make something happen (e.g., ensuring that ridesharing services are reasonably safe), that something will not happen.
As categorical statements, both are wrong (which I do not mean as a comment on Proposition 1 specifically). One could view the first as arising from the intention heuristic and the second from a lack of understanding of how markets function.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Illegal immigration, de facto and de jure

Here is something about illegal immigration that struck me as curious. This was a while back--during one of the previous episodes when it was an especially hot topic politically. When a politician claims that it would be a good idea to take stronger measures against illegal immigration (like, say, building a wall along the US/Mexico border), but some object to such a measure, I have to ask: if we're serious about this law, then why would one object to whatever measures are taken to enforce it? There's actually a whole subset of the law and economics literature dealing with the question of why it is not generally optimal to use the maximum penalties available; e.g. why not punish speeding with ten-year prison sentences. There are a few issues that arise in that literature. In the case of immigration, I think the answer is that not everyone is on board with the law itself: many would argue that the standard for legal immigration should be different. Someone who opposes the law will naturally oppose any measures taken to enforce the law (plus something like a border wall is just so unseemly). So we end up with a de facto standard for immigration: getting into the country without going through official channels, and staying indefinitely, is feasible. Not assured, and not easy, but if you're willing to expend some effort and take some risks, you can do it.

That would be okay--to have an unofficial immigration standard that results from the push and pull between opposing views about the enforcement of the official standard--if not for the fact that illegal immigrants are shut out from so much of American society. Severely limited employment opportunity is the worst part, I imagine, but there is so much more than that. Fear of deportation excludes illegal immigrants from all sorts of rights and privileges to which the rest of us have access. For example, if I have cause to sue someone, I wouldn't generally fear any repercussions from filing a lawsuit. But I would not want to enter into any kind of legal proceeding if I faced a risk of my immigration status being discovered. Even if we disregard explicit threats ("If you don't do ____, I'll call the INS"), there are countless situations in which an illegal immigrant would have to accept something that would be unacceptable to a citizen.

Amnesty is not just about letting them stay. It's also about letting them exist like everyone else.

BTW, what image springs to mind when you hear the phrase "illegal immigrant"? For me it's someone working hard to eke out a decent existence for himself and his family. Not someone we should turn away or turn into a second-class citizen.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Meeting students where they are

This sums up much of what I have posted recently (hereherehere, and here).

It is often said that educators should "meet students where they are." I take that to mean understanding students' perspectives and patterns of thought, which understanding becomes the starting point for the educational process. But there is not much benefit in achieving such an understanding without also acknowledging what students want and what they are willing to do to get it. Recognizing where students are should inform what we try to do for them, not just how we do it. As I have discussed in previous posts, many students do not want the liberal-arts-oriented undergraduate education that we try so hard to press upon them. This is not an insult, or even a criticism. I think that we would do well to respect what students actually want from their education and to work with that, not with an ideal that educators have in mind.

Educators are not just content-delivery systems: there is much we can do to encourage and guide students, as long as they are at some level receptive to our goals. It is, however, a mistake to try to develop innovative approaches to teaching in order to reach all of our students when some students are fundamentally opposed to what we're trying to do.

It doesn't much matter where I meet my friend Archibald, if Archibald is a vegetarian and my purpose in meeting him is to get him to accept a sackful of cheeseburgers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An alternative to undergraduate business education

In a recent post, I described how a college education can act as a signal (not an idea that I came up with, BTW): that a student's completion of an undergraduate degree demonstrates that the student is above some standard of intelligence and responsibility. Obviously higher education serves other functions as well, not the least of which is the actual education, we hope. However, I claim that the signaling function is sufficiently important for some students that they would not attend college otherwise, i.e. that there is a significant fraction of college students that would not obtain an undergraduate degree if there were some other way to communicate their intelligence and responsibility to potential employers. I suggest apprenticeships as an alternate means of communicating this information as well as a vehicle for some of our educational goals.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's the point of a college education?

In previous posts, I pointed out that many undergraduates don't want and aren't getting the education that we are trying to provide, and I suggested that everyone would be better off if viable alternatives to a traditional education were available. Before getting into possible alternatives, it is useful to consider the reasons why one might go to college. This article lists five reasons, which I would condense into three:
  1. To obtain the education itself, with all of the concomitant joys and sorrows.
  2. To be able to get a better job, or more generally, to get whatever external benefits the degree provides (which may or may not be correlated with number 1).
  3. To socialize, or more generally, to get any of the things from the college experience that are desirable to students but are not part of number 1 or number 2.
Probably most undergraduates would cite the ability to get a good job as one of the reasons they are in college. For most business students, in my experience, that is the primary or even the sole consideration. Whereas liberal arts students are likely to have some genuine interest in the field they are studying, business students are likely to view the degree as a means to an end. They may be amenable to the education itself to varying degrees, or they may embrace the education itself as the thing that is going to help them get a job or be successful in that job; but I have never encountered a student that was studying business because he or she enjoyed studying business for its own sake or perceived any value of this study that was not entirely career-related. (There may be such students out there, but I feel confident in claiming that they are not the norm.) It is common for business undergraduates to want to get through the degree with the minimum amount of fuss.