Goodbye and thanks

Earth Day is probably a good time for my adieux, as I think Mark invited me to post here originally when I mugged him with overlong comments or responses to an environmental post.
Being here over the years has been a privilege and a pleasure, not to mention allowing me to bask in Mark’s reflected glory and that of the very distinguished gang Mark assembled. The medium, while it was lively, was perfect for an impatient and glib person with a trivia-flypaper mind; where else could I opine to a thoughtful and informed readership on pedagogy, kitchen ware, and biofuels, and have serious people like Mark, Harold, James, and Keith lead unsuspecting readers into my posts?
Of course we’re not just saying goodbye to a content channel, of which there are and will be more, but to Mark, whose loss has cast a shadow over the whole last year. We shall not see his like again. Mark’s taste in music ranged from the Renaissance to about 1700, so I’m going take one last chance to tease him with this summary of how I’m feeling

The sleep of reason brings nightmares

Nothing combines Trump’s ignorance, cruelty, fecklessness and desperation like [what I suppose is] Stephen Miller’s idea of sending refugees into sanctuary cities.  It’s nature imitating art, Brers Fox and Bear throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

The way this scheme is supposed to work is that we (I live in one of those places) will be terrified at the prospect and crime will soar when it happens, so we will vote against all our Democratic officials and, I guess, form vigilante gangs and go after the refugees violently. Boy, that’ll show those luftmensch liberals and the refugees both, right?

But every assumption behind this is completely wrong. These are people who don’t want to be raped and killed, and have the courage to trek two thousand miles to protect their kids, and who trust US decency and law, and being immigrants will have lower crime rates than the native population. The idea that they are going to scare the pants off us is completely and obviously nuts. Sanctuary cities declared themselves such having lots of experience with immigrants; we know exactly what to expect, and it’s OK with us.

Aside from its viciousness and illegality, it’s hard to think of a Trump initiative that is so completely disconnected from facts and reality; not just slightly off, but totally mad.  The White House continues to plumb new depths of sick and stupid; are there any more wheels that can come off this thing?

Percentages and the pastrami panic…

the hot dog horror, and the salami scare. This story in the NYT quotes a source:

 “We see a 4 percent increase in the risk of cancer even at 15 grams a day, which is a single slice of ham on a sandwich,” said Dr. Nigel Brockton, director of research for the American Institute for Cancer Research.  
Eating a more typical serving of 50 grams of processed meat a day would increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, a 
2011 review of studies found.

What does this really mean? Lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23, or a little over 4%.  Now, does that slice of ham double your risk (4% to 8%), or merely increase it from 4.3% to (1.04*.043 = .045), 4.5%? Do a full fifth (18 + 4 = 22) of the 50-gram noshers get these specific cancers? Of course not. The quote, and the story, are completely ambiguous, but if you follow the link, you find that the data are relative risk values, which is the second interpretation. 50 grams a day entails about a 1% extra risk, and that’s not even counting all the people already in the 4.3% who eat deli meat and get cancer. If you do, and you stop, your risk of these cancers goes down from about 4% to…a little more than 3%. Perhaps Zabar’s should sue the Times over this alarmism.

Eating a reasonable amount of these exceptionally yummy foods seems to me a good deal, at the price of being 1% more likely to get this type of cancer before I get one of the other kinds or a heart attack. YMMV, of course. Everyone dies of something, so a much more useful statistic would be the average number of [quality adjusted ?] life years I’m putting at risk from a ham habit, and from an occasional indulgence.

The lesson here is that any statistics involving percentages have to be stated carefully to make it clear whether an increase adds to an existing rate or multiplies it, and “X% added risk” simply doesn’t cut it. Dr. Brockton and the reporter are equally at fault here, along with the Times copy editor. Students and colleagues: don’t make this mistake, especially when you’re explaining science to the public. What Dr. Brockton meant to say is that “the 15g pigout habit raises your lifetime risk from 4 to 5%”. There’s no escaping the additional words. Or reporting base rates: something that “quadruples your risk of contracting the gleeps” is not a big deal if the incidence of gleeps is a fraction of a percent.

Do professors care whether college students are actually learning?

The lead article in the 25th anniversary issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Affairs Education , by Heather Campbell, is a deep-dive review of research that throws significant shade on student evaluations of teaching (SETs). SETs do not measure student learning, and may actually have the wrong sign (not to mention that their inherent gender, age, and racial/ethnic bias means their use for personnel decisions is probably illegal). Universities like my own, in which SET scores are the main, or often the only, teaching evidence used in promotion and tenure decisions are systematically damaging student learning.

From the abstract:

In many if not most colleges and universities in the United States,
raw scores from Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) are the
primary tool of teaching assessment, and teaching evaluations
often have real consequences for promotion and tenure. In 2005,
JPAE published an article on teaching evaluations, and this article
added to what was at that time a somewhat thin literature indicating
that SETs are systematically biased against female faculty,
and probably against older and minority faculty. Since that time,
this literature has swelled and grown and now the evidence that
SETs are invalid and systematically biased is too strong to ignore.

Why do we keep doing this? I have four hypotheses:

(1) A body of research of which I am unaware and can’t find refutes the findings Campbell summarizes. This is certainly the most generous conjecture, but JPAE is peer-reviewed and reviewers would have rejected this paper if they knew about such material. Not to mention reviewers for all the publications Campbell cites.

(2) Confirmation bias. We used to think SETs were valid indicators, and we subconsciously reject evidence that would change our mind. This mode of inference has recently been validated by our US president, who “just knows things” that are contradicted by every kind of expertise and evidence.

(3) Fecklessness and laziness. We assert our commitment to good teaching if asked, but actually we just don’t care enough to do anything that would actually advance it. The joke is, “Teaching is the tax you pay to do your research; tax evasion is a crime, but tax avoidance is the duty of a citizen” and the corollary is, “why are you talking about whether students are learning, when I have a research article to finish writing for my academic peers to admire?” SETs take a distasteful task (collegial responsibility for better teaching) off my desk and load it onto an unpaid, docile labor pool (students); what’s not to like?

(4) Fear. I have never received evidence I can respect as a scholar, or any other way, that I am any good at teaching or could become so (I do have evidence of this kind that I can do research OK and that I’ve gotten better at it over the years). Teaching is affectively fraught, and like everyone I know, I’m sure my emotional intelligence is not what it should be. The ego hit of talking while a roomful of people write down everything I say (lecturing, just as an example of a dubious pedagogical habit) is a lot to risk by trying to learn a new skill. Anyway, improving my teaching will take a lot of time and my job depends on publishing.

We would be a lot better off if we could shift our attention more generally from summative evaluation (at promotion time) to formative methods (coaching and experimentation between these high-anxiety moments). I suppose one could believe that college teachers only respond to money and status incentives, so if we reward good ones and ding or fire bad ones, we will eventually have only good teaching, but one would be wrong (ask any successful manager whether you can fire (or bribe) your way to success). One would be especially wrong if your filter for “good teachers” doesn’t measure student learning.

What we need is not a cheap, lazy way to pretend we are improving our teaching, but a real quality assurance program that a Google or Toyota manager, for example, would recognize as such. Got kids choosing a college? on your junior year visit, ask what their QA program is, be sure it doesn’t depend on SETs, and don’t be distracted by the fancy athletic facilities. Are you a student, paying through the nose with your time and money for the best possible education? Do the same, and if you don’t get good answers, recruit your classmates to go in the quad with pitchforks and torches.

Why you can skip the SOTU

The word considerable does not mean what most people think it does. It means “needing or deserving of consideration” , not “big”  or “a lot” .  It means what everything Donald Trump says is not, and tonight’s speech (and the post-speech tweets and flailing about by flacks and shills that will follow) will be more proof: Trump’s discourse is not considerable and should just be ignored as such. 

One significance of the Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is that the principal is now responsible for what he says: when an adult says he will do something, the odds that he will should go up, and in general people can depend on that and make corresponding commitments. What Trump says he will do has no such significance: his statements of intent are vacuous and ephemeral, as Mitch McConnell and the dozens people he has stiffed in business can attest.

When grownups assert facts about the world, the assertion has some bearing on what you should believe, though of course some are better informed than others or smarter.  When Trump says practically anything, his relentless, terrier-like, purposeful ignorance means it has no informative value whatever, whether he’s noodling about climate, Iran, the border, or trade data.

A third kind of discourse enlightens us about the speaker’s values: “I’m a Christian” is shorthand for a bunch of actions in the world one can expect the speaker to try to perform or not.  Trump’s value statements are as vacuous, and as labile—whether odious or decent-as his fact discourse. 

It’s not just a matter of mendacity, though his endless, insouciant lying about big things and small have a lot to do with this. He doesn’t misrepresent his values; he just doesn’t have any (except his own ego). If there were money to made from it, and he had permission from Laura Ingraham and Putin, he would as readily get on a climate alarm jag as he does about immigrants.

All of which has been a paralyzing problem for all of us and especially for the press.  Deference to his office, and long journalistic tradition, seems to require that when the president says “A is B”, the fact that he said it requires reporting, perhaps with a quote from another source who says “no, it’s not!” But when this president says absolutely anything, the event is not like any other president, or any other important public official saying something.  It has no bearing on anyone’s belief, on what he will do in the future, or on our views of him: it’s not considerable. It’s like a horserace prediction based on a dice roll. We’ve had two years of our press trying to treat Trump’s discourse as the utterances of a responsible, more-or-less-informed, responsible adult: it’s time to stop. The word lie is, thankfully, starting to be used to characterize his mendacities, but why tell us about something that will be inoperative or a passing fancy by the next news cycle?  We need a completely new convention, recognizing that the presidential utterance process has been replaced with an inconsequential-not considerable—model, and treating it like the “speech” of a parrot or random artificial speech generator.

Not considerable: how to listen to tonight’s speech, or why you can just ignore it.

An aspirational goal for teaching (more music)

Andy Narell frequently plays and teaches with young people. Here he is visiting with the UNT steel band, playing with their admirable jazz ensemble. Everyone here is making music at a high level, but compare the affect-expressions, body language, everything-of the kids on the left side of the screen (who are actually wearing uniforms, symbols of identity suppression and servility) with those on the right (who are not). Which would you like your students to display?

How do we make this happen in, say, a statistics class?

Learning about pedagogy from art and kids

A few weeks ago, surfing around on YouTube, I came upon a video of a performance by the Sant Andreu Jazz Band, or maybe a small group drawn from it. Following it to other posts down the right side of the screen, I was hooked in ten minutes and didn’t surface for at least a couple of hours. This operation is an orchestra of six- [sic] to sixteen-year-olds, based in a music school in Barcelona and led by Joan Chamorro, who seems to be some kind of genius, or prophet. Listen for yourself; search YouTube for Chamorro or Sant Andreu. They have several CDs on Spotify, but watching their faces and body language is half the experience. I’m plugging this operation because I think it embodies value way beyond the performances.

It’s not your ordinary youth band, or even a jazz version of El Sistema [see below for more on this]. These kids don’t play like kids in organized programs, who often have amazing technical chops but tend to play the notes on the page without a lot of insight or musicality, let alone attend to each other the way jazz musicians do. They are obviously having a great time, and they swing, with none of the “frozen in aspic” quality of, say, early Stephanie Trick or the Lincoln Center Jazz Museum Orchestra. The band has generated a couple of soloists who have agendas and gigs (like Andrea Motis) and who also seem to play more than one instrument, and sing. Finally, girls are up front and central to the performances; they sing, but also play frontline, and solo on sax, trumpet, bass, etc.

They also play a lot of different kinds of music; straight-ahead pre-bebop, dixieland, and even Brazilian and jazz manouche. International jazz stars join them on stage. There is a documentary (PAL, so you can’t play it on a US TV, but it works fine on a computer) that is charming and illuminating, with look-ins to Chamorro’s pedagogy. Along the way, we get unexpected look-ins, like a trumpet player who appears to be about eight disassembling and cleaning her instrument, and all the kids splashing around in a swimming pool like, um, kids.

The most interesting aspect of the program is that Chamorro has the students pick up instruments and play before they get into notation, theory, transcription, solfege, etc., and they listen to a lot of recorded jazz. This way the musical machinery becomes solutions to problems the students have (or, better, tools with which to seize opportunities: jazz is an improvisatory form) rather than a new bunch of problems they don’t want.

So in addition to enjoying some great listening, I think I’m onto a source of insight-and, importantly, demonstrated efficacy-about teaching and learning. Theory C teaching is nothing new in the arts. Apprentice painters may have begun by grinding colors for their teacher, but that didn’t mean they learned anything useful about painting from the task; that was tuition payment, along with sweeping out the studio and making coffee. Art teaching has always been Theory C (for coaching), with three standard steps: (1) Assign students a task somewhat beyond their abilities (2) Students do the task (3) Everyone discusses what happened and how it could be even better. There’s a role for didactic telling, but it’s always responsive to the roadblock (or overlooked opportunity) the students have run aground on.

I have always been amazed at how high students-even college students whose courage has been squeezed out of them in twelve years of conventional education-will reach when invited to try new things. No, a roomful of grade schoolers will not discover all the theorems of statistics if just turned loose in a Montessori classroom; teachers are not chopped liver and structure is important. But we don’t learn to sail a boat by passing fluid mechanics courses about sails and keels first: we jump in a boat, sail it awkwardly, and struggle back to the dock with questions.

This model is the core of my current favorite teaching scheme, an elaboration of Theory C called PBL, for project-based learningPBL originated in K-12, but if we are creative and experimental, it translates to higher education, and Rick Reis’ indispensable Tomorrow’s Professor blog has a good riff on this coming up in the next edition. After all, the graduate education delivered to PhD students is PBL: “can we figure out why the mice who got oats for breakfast ran their mazes faster? Stephanie, go learn about oats and tell us what you find out and what we should do next; George, see what happens with rats; Eddie, you like birds, anything going on with oats and pigeons?”

I have learned from experience that PBL entitles students to learn things that are not only not in the syllabus, but which I don’t know. and if I can convince them that my ego is not as delicate as they fear, they will do it. Mark Moore used to ask colleagues, rhetorically, “what entitles you to hold the chalk?” and realizing that the answer is not that I know more than the students about the official course content, but that I know how to get them to (allow them to?) learn what they need to know is the beginning of wisdom. Not the same thing, not at all. It’s not irrelevant that jazz is different from classical music in an important sense: every one in a combo is expected not only to play from a chart and comp the soloist, and not to reflect exactly what Gershwin intended when he wrote “Summertime”, but bring his own take on the standard they are improvising from and take a solo of his own, with riffs and phrasing that have never been heard before, and from which the bass player can leap into another unexplored space.

I inquired at our music department; we teach performance and have several great ensembles to prove it, but we apparently have no faculty engaged in research about how to do it! This seems odd, because amateur musicians-and not just a bunch of guitar players-are the most promising source of the audiences all sorts of music needs, especially as music education in schools continues to atrophy. Maybe that’s a monopoly of the education school, watch this space. This can’t be left to Berklee and Juilliard.

In any case, I’m more and more convinced that a major cost of professors never watching each other work is that all of us who don’t teach arts practice, in whatever medium, are deprived of learning Stuff We Can Use, and Should. Colleagues, check out Chamorro’s operation and see what you think. The exploration is not only free but has negative cost, because you will hear some great stuff along the way.

Staffing for success

Every management book says choosing the right lieutenants and partners is critical to success for any enterprise: always surround yourself with the best people. Even Donald Trump at least paid lip service to the idea when he promised to do that coming into office (that was before the best, the pretty good, the OK-I-guess, and strata right down to unqualified figured out it was time to run away from him, so he had to hire out of dumpsters). So his judgment of Michael Cohen as “weak” and “not very smart” seemed odd given their two-decade relationship…was that a new insight?

Readers will surely be as puzzled as I was, but Alexandra Petri brilliantly resolves this mystery today.

Historians of our current malaise will have to credit Trump, against all his evils, for inspiring Petri to new personal bests.

Museum outreach and accueil

Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome.  They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.

One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant. Continue reading “Museum outreach and accueil”

The art bubble

A David Hockney painting has sold for $90m , and it couldn’t happen* to a nicer guy. Actually I have no idea whether Hockney is nice, but he’s certainly an endlessly interesting, provocative artist with whose work I never tire of engaging.

*In fact it didn’t happen to him: I think he’s doing OK, but this sale was by a speculator/collector and it didn’t put this awesome sum into the artist’s pocket.

What, though, does this event mean? Philip Kennicott reflects on the event in WaPo. He explores two questions, one right and interesting (how can a painting be worth so much money?) and the other partly wrong (is it right to spend so much on a painting when there are homeless and all the other real needs?). Continue reading “The art bubble”