Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Two Approaches to Intro Phil

By the time this is published, I will have finished my grading for the Winter semester, however as of drafting, I am procrastinating from finishing.  That means it’s time to let my mind wander and to blog about it.

The course I’ve been teaching since Fall 2016 is a light, multidisciplinary romp through philosophy that examines various topics in human experience through multiple lenses.  Often, this is one of the first general education courses the students encounter, and for many it is the first time they are getting into something approximating formalized philosophy.  It’s an online course, so the students work their way through the module material, post to discussion boards, and submit weekly asignments.  The modules are a mix of text, graphics, and embedded videos, and all things considered is a pretty marked departure from my first course in philosophy.

My introduction to philosophy was significantly more old school.  We all had copies of Cahn’s Classics in Western Philosophy (the sixth edition), and we started the semester on Plato.  It was my first class in university, and my first introduction to academic philosophy.  In a small way, that course has dictated how, in my mind, philosophy gets taught.  It is my default template for teaching – the professor stands at the front and pontificates in fifty minute blocks of time.  I never questioned it; I just tried to take notes, not really knowing how one takes notes about the lecture material.

Since then, I’ve seen a few different pedagogical approaches to teaching an intro phil course.  You can teach the material chronologically, topically, using ancient sources, using modern case studies, you can approach the different branches of philosophy thematically, or you could teach the material historically.

But there is another axiom I’ve been thinking about when teaching philosophy (or any topic for that matter):

Should I require the students to read the text before or after the lecture?

On first glance, this seems like a silly question.  Afterall, the lecture is about exploring ideas, clarifying thought, and demonstrating how to extend the ideas.  Students should grapple with the text and work to come to an understanding.  If there are problems with the text, they can bring their questions to class for rich discussions.  After reading the text, the students can teach the concepts to each other and have fruitful conversations about the ideas.  Why would you want to let the students not read the text?

On the other hand, it depends on what your goals are.  You see, the problem with requiring the students to read the text prior to the lecture, at least at an introductory level, is that the students often don’t possess the vocabulary or the historical schema’s to truly understand the work in front of them.  In an introductory philosophy course, I’m not looking for students to master the material.  Often times, I’m not even looking for them to be right in their arguments.  Instead, I’m looking for other skills, like close reading, comprehension, and (most importantly) the ability to read text charitably.  The hardest thing for students to grapple with in intro phil is that they are seeking to be right and rarely allow themselves to explore ideas.

Plato wrote more than 2000 years ago – what could he possibly have to say in his silly dialogues that helps me today?  Given the current political climate, I’d say his Republic has a lot to say (I’m looking at you, Thrasymachus).

If I give students a text, they don’t have the benefit of a historical view.  They don’t understand the context in which the author is writing.  They don’t understand the conventions of language and allusions.  They don’t see the historical dialogue that is unfolding on the page, where the author is addressing thinkers who came before them.  For instance, in my experience, the vast majority of students who read Descartes for the first time end up thinking Descartes literally believes an evil genius is out to deceive him.  They get so fixated on trying to keep up with what Descartes is doing that they lose sight of the argument being laid out before their eyes.

Reading the text before class is a great way to have students develop critical thinking skills, but if you want the students to understand what they are reading, it might be worth your time to consider helping them to explore the text together.  At least for an intro phil course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

The Role of Good Media (On Liberty)

While I didn’t dive too deeply into political philosophy while in school, I do muse on it from time to time.  I grant that my knowledge about political philosophy can be charitably labelled as “naive,” so please forgive some of the silliness I’m about to wade around in.

On the whole, I tend towards the idea that the protection of liberty is good, even at the cost of bad actors.  I think the State should limit as few liberties as they can to ensure social cohesion and social protection.  This will come with a few hard to manage examples where people’s liberties can come into conflict (e.g. the right to free speech and the right for people to not give platforms to people they disagree with).

I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive exploration here.  I just want to comment on why good media is important for moral education.

Last week, I was rolling around with an idea I was tentatively calling “dynamic homeostatic liberty.”  I don’t know if this concept has been expressed by anyone else, but the term refers to the idea that the rights respected by the State are dynamically recognized and abide by the principle of homeostasis according to the social and economic conditions at play at any given time.  During times of war or disaster, rights are constricted to maximize good while also achieving some sort of political aim (think curfews and forced redistribution of material goods, for example).  There would have to be some mechanism that says the State owes more responsibility of care to the people in proportion to the amount the State restricts the freedoms of its people.  And this would also recognize that when the strife is over, liberties are relaxed and the State removes itself from meddling in people’s lives.

This is a fantasy, of course, because it assumes the government would always keep the best interests of the people in mind and not lead to tyranny.  It also assumes people would freely give up their rights for better protection and better outcomes.

I was wondering how well a system like this would work, then I watched the season 4 episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Drumhead.”  The episode covers a situation aboard the Enterprise which leads to a series of conspiratorial speculations about members of the crew.  A set of minor accusations ends up leading to wild allegations and a full-blown future version of a witch hunt.

The voice of reason on the ship is Captain Picard, who pauses throughout the ordeal to question whether things are spinning out of control, and people are letting their passions and righteousness get the best of them.

Watching the two speeches above made me realize how silly my idea of “dynamic homeostatic liberty” is.  The truth is, there is no way to ensure that the restriction of liberties would be in the best interests of the people who need their liberties protected the most.  The powerful have a tendency to allow themselves to be corrupted by their righteous fury and perceived moral authority.  It was a fantastic example of why we need good media that makes us think and reflect.

Good media helps to elevate us and educate us morally.  It helps us to empathize, and see ourselves from outside our perspectives and lived experiences.

I often think about what kind of media I will want to promote to my children.  I think about what stories I want to tell them to give them a good, moral education.  I think Star Trek will definitely be on that list.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

20181018_154129~2

I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan