Archive for the the problems of higher education Category

Opportunity cost

In my not so humble opinion, it is the single most important economic idea.

Nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost. You can’t get something for nothing. If you want something, you’re going to have to give something else up. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

(Actually, one might argue for close to three hundred years of free (or at least really close to free) lunches, but that’s another lesson for another day.)

It’s just about the first term talked about in any economics textbook. And, frankly, I can’t imagine an economics course taught anywhere where it hasn’t come up, multiple times. Personally, I have trouble going an entire class meeting without using and/or mentioning it.

Opportunity cost.

The true cost of any action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of taking that action.

So why is it that economics teachers have been singularly inept at getting the concept across? Why is it that, despite the phrase have been used in introeconomics economics classes over the last several generations, at least as often as “supply and demand,” and more often than “inflation” or “recession”, and far more often than “stock market” or “public policy” or “profit,” that so few people understand it?

I mean, after all, millions of people have done the Economics 1 class in the century or three since the concept was first understood and the phrase coined. But communicating the concept in a way that understanding trickled down to wide-spread understanding and use in public economic discourse? It has to count as one of economic teaching professions most spectacular failures.

I bring all this up because in my interaction with colleagues and leaders in “higher education” over recent weeks I have been regularly reminded, again, of just how few in the educated and chattering classes get the idea.

Like most institutions below the highest tier, i.e. those of us whose endowments are a couple hundred million or less (and often a lot less), ours had seen its share of solemn faces over the last few years. First we moaned about the recession (forgetting that, just as in most recessions of the past, education spending moves counter-cyclically as people strive to escape unemployment risks by acquiring new varieties of human capital). And now we’re concerned about something called a “permanent recessionary economy” (whatever the eff *that* is; it can’t be a term coined by any serious economist, surely, not even a Bernanke wannabe). All of

So, in honor of our school’s sesquicentennial, we’ve got a new task force studying the college’s direction for the future. (Our current President loves looking at things through lenses of “strategic planning.” His first major act upon being hired about a decade ago was to form multiple — as in like 12 or 17 — “task forces,” each populated by representatives from a whole bunch of “constituencies,” to come up with an integrated strategic plan.}

But my criticism here is not of the President, or even of the idea and processes of strategic planning. Though I have disagreed with both at times in the past (and probably will again), the President has the track record to support his leadership judgment. Strategic planning has a long pedigree in management circles. And, lets face it, the academic world has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to the values of governance by committee and consensus-building. It’s the way we do things. And it’s going to continue to be the way we do things for the foreseeable future.

No, my concern is the quality of the discussion within those consensus-building committees and task forces — and in conversations between those committees and the rest of us. My concern is that part of the consensus shared across all those task forces and constituencies — the consensus that will ultimately shape the findings and the decision-making — is fundamentally flawed.

In recent on-campus presentations, the President pointed out — and correctly so — that “we’re going to have to change what we do and expect.” It may be a bit of clichéd management speak, but it’s still correct in its basic sentiment. Schools like ours are going to have to make some tough choices about what they can do (and what they can’t do) over the next couple decades.

So today our department chair shared with us a “planning and positioning” document (I presume it comes from the task force). This lists ten “defining characteristics that must be sustained.

And lest you think that this is just a step in the prioritization of mission objectives, a list of items to be weighed against each other as we narrow them down to three or five manageable strategic objectives, the same document also lists 10 “transformational opportunities to be strengthened, 12 “goals for student learning,” and 33 “strategic actions to enhance operational stewardship. So someone somewhere has to find a way to take these 65 valued bits of the college and decide which ones really matter and which ones will be merely boilerplate for college catalogs, recruiting/marketing materials, and the like.

Good luck. No, I’m not going to criticize the President here. I wouldn’t want his job for anything, thank you very much.

Will we “interested parties” help? Not likely. No more than it’s likely that the NFL and the organization formerly known as its players union will wake up tomorrow morning and immediately replace their chest thumping about the significance of this or that without recognizing that some valuable this or that has to be given up.

Next week’s department meeting — and, I presume all the other department and program and leadership and committee meetings that happen like clockwork around here — will devote some serious time to discussion of the task force and its objectives. Blah, blah, blah, and more blah blah blah. Everyone will get a chance to speak.

And everyone who speaks will talk about how essential and beneficial pursuit of their particular favorite goals are, about how much we’ll have to give up if we don’t pursue that particular essential and beneficial thing.

Virtually no one will engage the President’s real point. The opportunity cost point. The point that we’re going to have to give up things that are valuable. Things that are really valuable.

We’re going to have to choose. Yet no one’s going to confront the question of how we decide which “good thing” is worth more and which “good thing” is worth less.

Not even, I expect, me.

Because, if you’re wondering what I’m going to say in such discussions, the answer is, probably not very much.

Oh, I expect I’ll be unable to wholly resist the desire to speak my own piece. After all, I have my own personal list of “essential and important bits” (can you say, “economics for citizenship,” “quantitative literacy,” and “higher order listening skills”?). And I’m no less blinded by the truth of my beliefs than my colleagues are of theirs.

But my speaking is more a reflection of my inability to keep my mouth shut, than it is out of any hope that I’ll convince anyone. Frankly, I’m nearly 100% convinced at this point that the consensus here about anything Wade says about the needs of higher education is near absolute. And near absolute on the position that Wade is a flake whose ideas are far too unrealistic to pay any serious attention to.

No, I don’t expect to convince anyone here (save the three people who still listen to me) of anything that matters.

But that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that everyone thinks this “critical” collective approach to the “issues” of ours, this having each of us share the advantages of our favorite bits of the mission, is somehow going to deal successfully with the opportunity cost problem.

No, having a long list of objectives now isn’t the problem. The problem is that without careful and honest and correct attention to the tradeoffs of opportunity cost, we’re going to end up with a vague set of objectives, many incompatible in their pursuit. And as the President and leadership make one after another of those tough choices — since you don’t eliminate the need to make tradeoffs just by keeping everything on the published list of essentials, and so someone has to make the choice — you merely postpone the inevitable and perhaps change who decides which tradeoffs are made.

And when the tradeoffs are made, expect them to be accompanied by more-than-necessary bad feelings.

The college can afford an occasional frustrated Wade — he’s a flake, after all. But you aren’t going to deal with the needed change by just ignoring a couple flakes, any more than you’ll solve serious revenue shortfalls by reducing photocopy budgets. You’re going to have to get rid of some valuable people and some valuable programs and some objectives really worth pursuing.

Because opportunity cost is not a flaky idea.

Just ask Greece.

Or Portugal.

For that matter, look at the consequences here in America we’re just starting to see with regard to the profligate spending in pursuit of “good ideas” by America’s own state and federal governments. The consequences of decades worth of trying to cheat the tradeoffs of opportunity cost.

You want to know why the quality of discourse in the Wisconsin mess is so low? It’s low because virtually no one seems to want to admit the constraints of opportunity cost.

Because opportunity cost is not an idea we can dismiss as easily as we can sneer at the flakier of those who might be pointing it out.

No, opportunity cost is something else. Something that applies whether we get it or not.

It is, to steal a phrase from Agent Smith, “the sound of inevitability.”

Me, I blame economics teachers.


Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.


What’s wrong with education today?

Is it our content?  Is it our method?

Frankly, its both.  But even though both our content and our method need work, the real problem lies far deeper.   All of the usual suspects regarding content and method of our teaching could be eliminated, and we’d still have a set of institutions that deserve to be on life support.

Because our content is flawed because our method is flawed.  And our method is flawed because our epistemology of “learning” is flawed.

In brief, our governing philosophy of education is outdated.  Our entire education system is optimized for preparing people for an industrial world.  We no longer live in an industrial world.

For example, the industrial world demanded mass production and mass consumption, led by a core elite of broadly educated professional class.   (As opposed to the artisanal/agricultural world which preceded it, which required primarily agricultural production and local craftsman for small markets.)

But the world of the 21st century is no more an industrial world than the 20th century was an agricultural world.  Just as the fraction of agriculture during the industrial period fell from 80 percent of the economy at the beginning to less than percent at its end, manufacturing today is at most 10% of the modern economy.

The binding limitations on economic and social improvement in the agricultural world were land.  The binding limitation on improvement in the industrial world were labor and capital.  The binding constraints in today’s world are human ingenuity and its primary product, innovation.

Mass production and mass consumption is about conformity and submission to rules about time and the control of effort.  And, unsurprisingly in such a world, a big part of the story becomes control and power over the means of production (yes, Marx had that part right).  And since the key means of production were labor and capital, it’s not at all surprising that battles between “corporations” and “unions” became a critical component in the path of change over the industrial period.

But where mass production and mass consumption are a declining fraction of economic activity  (how many people know that 99 percent of business in America today is done by enterprises with 20 or fewer employes?), it’s no longer a battle over power by labor and capital.  Its about providing and enabling maximum opportunity for innovation.

But that’s not what most of education does.  In fact we are going the opposite direction, focusing on development of “standard” curricula, “standard” credentials, “standard” practices, and “standard” standards.  Progress in a world limited by labor and capital depends on exploiting economies of scale.  Progress in a world limited by human ingenuity depends on increasing the ways things do not depend on “standards” and “conformity” and “scale.”

Until “educators” figure out better ways of inspiring and enabling the practices of human ingenuity, we will find what we do as of increasingly marginal importance — and deservedly so.

Just like the industrial world that spawned us.


People talk of craft these days, if they talk about it at all, to bemoan its absence.  We complain about the lack of craftsmanship in what we buy, and we complain about how the modern world of mass production has replaced a world of artisans and craftsmen.

But, as is the case of so many of our complaints, we rarely look in the mirror.

How many of us, really, have spent our lives in the pursuit of a craft?  Be honest.

Most of us haven’t.  We’ve been too busy focusing on our jobs and being producers and consumers.  We haven’t had time to be interested in the pursuit of a “craft.”

Aside:  I’ve used italics here because I’m not just talking about “traditional” crafts  like cabinetmaking or basket-making or blacksmithing.  I’m not talking out of some nostalgic pastoralism.  I’d much rather live in today’s world than some pre-industrial world, because in today’s world I”m much more likely to be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s craftsmanship.

No, I’m speaking of the attitude of the craftsman toward his craft.

The true craftsman cares about craft for its own sake, not because its a job or production requirement.    The true craftsman goes beyond what others ask for.  He explores deeper.  He develops skills and ways of seeing that ordinary producers or consumers employers or employees never even contemplate a need for.  He does so, not because someone has asked these things of him, but because the craft, and his personal character, demand attention to them.

When I think of craft, I always think of my late father.  I did not appreciate it while he was alive, but as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly realized just how unusual he was. (I was, alas, only 18 when he died, firmly in the grip of the sophomoric adolescence that would still control me for a couple more decades.)

Dad was a master plumber, but he never made a lot of money.  He could have — even in those days, master plumbers could make a pretty penny if they desired.  I had more than my older sister and brother did, but even I wore hand-me down clothes until I was nearly in high school.

My dad moved to a different beat.

I never realized just how good Dad was as a plumber until I owned my own house and started hiring plumbers for repairs and re-modelling projects.  Until I realized that even most people who the state certifies as “masters” weren’t in his league.

I’m not complaining of the work these other plumbers did for me — it has generally been just fine at getting the hot water to my shower and the feces safely to the sewer.

But Dad, his understanding of plumbing took him beyond the mundane  into the realm of art.  He could solder a fitting without just a fine uniform line of solder showing:  no globs, no drips, no errors.  (This was back when all plumbers used copper for hot/cold water service.)  And he’d do so whether he was soldering uphill or cramped like a pretzel in a crawl space.

Nothing was wasted.

Take a look at the pipe in your basement sometime.  If it’s like most houses, new or old, done by professionals or DYI, you’ll find a a number of excess fittings used as the plumber dealt with joists, walls, wiring, or the efforts of previous plumbers.   Try tracing the lines to and from each fixture:  it can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti.

Look at how many 90-degree ells are used.  Ask yourself whether any of the lines might have been better suited to the use of 45-degree fittings.  Traveling the hypotenuse of a triangle by definition uses less pipe than traveling through the other two sides.  However, as anyone who has struggled to remember and apply the Pythagorean theorem knows, its also harder to measure the distance.

I’m not a plumber.  I can fix a toilet or replace a faucet.  But running pipe — frankly I think something as important to your health as plumbing (and it’s far more important than most of the stuff the health care “debate” focuses on) should be left to the professionals.  When I think of the complexity of what they do, frankly I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have a clue.

But when I think of Dad’s plumbing, I’m not just amazed.  I’m awed.

I guarantee that if you asked him and just about any other plumber of his time to plumb identical new houses in a subdivision, he’d do it with less materials than the other plumber.  And if you looked carefully at the result, his arrangement of pipes would make more sense to you and the system would perform better.

(Not only can you save some pipe by using 45′s instead of 90′s, it can greatly improve the water flow and mean less clogging, freezing, etc.)

But the real craftsmanship of what he did would come down the line, when the owner of the house wants to remodel or build on or replace the bathtub with a jacuzzi.  When you realize that he didn’t just build “to last”, he built “to modify easily” at the same time.

But really, that’s just his output as a craftsman.  What really matters is how he got there.

He got there because he was driven by plumbing, how and why it works.  He was like Scotty on the original Star Trek — he read tech manuals in his spare time.  He didn’t just go to hardware/plumbing supply shows (he also ran a hardware business) to find new products to sell, he went to listen to what the other tech types were saying about new materials, techniques, and tools.  He listened not just to what a new tool would do, but the reasoning behind the development of the tool.  He had a curiosity about everything that might remotely affect plumbing.   Less than a year before his death at the age of 57, he completed a design course that required him to travel 35 miles each way to attend class.  And, were he still alive, I expect he would still be extending his craft.

Not because he needed to keep up with his discipline.  He was far enough beyond the usual plumber that the only “continuing education” he would have needed was to keep track of the idiocies non-plumbing bureaucrats keep thinking up.

No, that’s not why he did it.  He did it because, for him, plumbing was important in its own right.

Why did he value plumbing so much?   I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I never thought to ask him until long after he was gone.  And, to be honest, when I was a kid, I would much rather he would have spent less time on it.  But whatever the reason, whether it was what he should have valued or not, that was what he was.

And that attitude is what made him not just a plumber, but a craftsman.

Personally, I think the world would be better off if more people took my dad’s approach to life.  But if they don’t, the problem isn’t in “the system” or “the economy.”

The problem is in the mirror.



Academics love to talk about excellence.  You can bet that as terms start all over the country in the next month, convocations and lecture halls are going to be full of people proclaiming its importance and its connection to the education tasks being embarked upon.

Yet even if we agree to the silly distinction that used to be made between “liberal arts” and “vulgar arts,” and look at just the liberal arts, that which one would think would be the province of academics, even if we look at the century (the 20th) where American higher education reached its pinnacle, what do we find?

The greatest American poet of the twentieth century was an insurance man.*
The second greatest American poet of the twentieth century was a family physician**.
As to poetry coming out of the academy? Sell, can one say obscure, pedantic, self-absorbed?  Even, ahem, boring as hell?

And the greatest 21st century American philosopher?   He was a longshoreman***.

The smartest, most creative person I’ve ever known was a plumber who never went to college****.

Four is too small a sample to generalize upon.  But you’ have to admit, they’re three examples to get you wondering.  If higher education is not the place where the best of the best are to be found, should it be the place that we look to when we seek to credential “excellence”?


*Wallace Stevens
**William Carlos Williams
***Eric Hoffer
****My dad


I wish I had more time to spend on marketing research.  I keep thinking of things that need measuring but never seem to find the time to develop the metrics.

Take the term I use in the title of this post:  “time to cliché”.   It may be a WOT (in both “Wade original term” and “wot?????” senses), but I’ll leave to those less lazy than I the task of  searching for prior use.

I get an awful lot of email that isn’t technically spam, but might as well be for all the likelihood of my opening the messages.  (For me, the technical definition of spam is something like “unsolicited, without offering double-opt out, etc.”)  It might as well be spam because the subject line tries to pull via cliche.  Using phrases like:

?    ”free web summit”
?    ”"double your …”
?    ”the secrets to …”
?    ”official notice”
?    ”save up to…”
?    ”how to … Now!”
?    ”you’re invited…”
?    ”only XX hours left”
?    ”I don’t usually do this, but …”
?    ”I blew it…”

And the same is true for the teaser copy on the snail mail solicitations…
?    ”urgent update”
?    ”final
?    ”official correspondence”

And so on.

Now, I understand that these cliches are used because they worked in the past.  And, direct response being what it is in the Internet age, abandoned when they don’t pull enough.  That I’m still getting all of the above means they probably are still working to some extent.

But it’s amazing how quick they become tired and unproductive.  Take the first one.  I’ve been offered more web summits than there are peaks in the Rockies, Himalayas, and Andes combined.  “double” and “secrets” and all the others — instant trashing.

And it happens faster and faster all the time.

And I don’t think its just me finally developing better bullshit filters.  I’m still pretty gullible, after all.  But I think individual pieces of language are getting worn out faster and faster.  Scroll down your inbox (if that’s where you keep your clutter), or though your email trash before you hit “empty” — look at all the phrases that bring forth that delete key in your mind….and think about how recently it was that the same subject line phrase would have pulled you into opening the email.

For years I’ve taught about the dangers of cliché in writing.   But a hidden assumption of that teaching was that it takes awhile for something to become a cliche, a while during which the word or phrase has social or economic value.  How should one approach the use of cliche when the half-life of meaning begins to resemble that of a transuranic element.

I don’t think the answer is obvious anymore.


In my last post, I compared being a successful teacher to running a successful conference. Today, I want to discuss the benefits and limits of the analogy.

First, a warning: At just a bit under 5400 words, what follows will be the single longest Iterations post to date. Perhaps ever.

The rules of Iterations haven’t changed. Notwithstanding this particular child of Godzilla, and perhaps one more near the end of summer, Iterations will remain a place for fragmentary exploration. One where posts aim for the short side of 500-1500 words. Indeed, since I’m trying to develop my information-density skills to become followorthy on Twitter before fall term starts, what Iterations will morph to if anything, is shorter and shorter entries.

However, as the Barriers of Faith (formerly titled “Technology and Education”) book project moves into its next phase, I feel compelled to post a full chapter or two. Partly it’s simple vanity: I want to keep people updated on my (clearly cool) ideas. :) But also necessity: BoF will be as radical in rhetorical design as in content. As people encounter the book, they’ll experience not one odd design feature, but three.

And that’s a risky strategy, since if I screw it up, it’ll make listening more expensive. If I want my ideas, including the design for exploring those ideas — to sell, I need to test the costs of listening to them with as many different kinds of reader as possible. Iterations readers by definition being rather diverse, I’m hoping “Letter #3″ below will intrigue several of you enough to volunteer as readers of future piece.

(If you want to be a reader/reviewer, e-mail me at  You won’t get paid in $$. But if you review at least one piece of the book, even just this one, you’ll get a free copy of the book when published (target date: late fall, 2010). And not just a free PDF; I’ll mail an autographed copy of a physical book.)

Second, a bit of preface about that larger design. (If you don’t read prefaces, feel free to skip to “Letter 3” below.) Since I’m only giving one piece here, I’d like to say a bit about the overall design of Barriers to Faith, and how I hope it will work.

Design innovation A: “Discourses.Barriers of Faith is built around four multi-chapter “discourses,” each iterating a different dimension of the larger question of “whence economic higher ed in the 21st century?” Chapters will be short, on the order of 10-12 pages.

“Discourse” is not just a pretentious word for “part” or “section” or even (for those of you who like books from the 18th and 19th centuries) “volume.” Chapters within each discourse here do not merely explore a sub-question of that section’s main question.

They attempt to face the reality that people first engage a “question of importance” come to true conversation on a “shared question” via different methodological, ideological, epistemological, intellectual, moral values, that their mode of discoursing gets converted from “arguing across each other” to “conversing with each other” only insofar as these differing values get exposed and dealt with. True conversation requires shared questions. Just as England and America often appear to be “two nations divided by a common language,” people in a public discourse who appear to be talking about the same question are not. Their different value sets assign different meaning to the same words. Persuasion isn’t possible in such a discourse. Only the sham victories of “getting the last word.”

Each of the four discourses of BofF seeks to expose these hidden barriers to serious conversation, then replace their false commonality with true common ground. They do so through the contrast of perspectives offered by what I call the “alternate universe.” By using perspectives that are clearly “out there” from most readers (e.g. technophiles in discourse II, anarchists and evangelical Christians in discourse IV, and science fiction writers throughout), the reader’s own ways of asking the same questions also get exposed. Listen more to the aliens of C.J. Cherryh or the alternate histories of L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and you hear yourself better as well. You hear when you are asking different questions than your neighbor.

Design innovation B:  “Provocations.“  Aiding exposure are, a half dozen “provocations” situated between each pair of discourses. Each provocation states specific — and very radical –”proposals” for pedagogic innovation. While I would love it if individual teachers followed my lead (I have tested, or will prior to the book’s publication, each provocation with actual students), that’s not my goal in presenting them. None, however, and emphatically, are proposals I expect to get reduced to actual “educational policy” or “curricular reform.” They are only what their name suggests, “provocations” to take public discussion past “the usual suspects” of funding, curriculum change, ideology, etc. Ways to help expose the real reforms needed, the ones that will arise from full engagement in the four discourses.

Borrowing a bit of jargon from one galaxy in the alternate universe, the provocations are not themselves the outside-the-box thinking. They’re a technique for getting real outside-the-box thinking to occur.

Design innovation C:  “Opening letters.“  Discourse plus provocation provides exposure. Yet exposure alone is isn’t enough. It must somehow encourage what Adam Smith called sympathy. Before a discourse will morph into mutually beneficial conversation, into something where “outside the box” ideas actually get traded, one needs a trigger of “fellow feeling” that encourages the discourse participants to see value in building that true common ground.

Which is where the third design innovation comes in. Each of the discourse’s open with a letter written to an “old friend” named Jack. Full sympathy, in my opinion, can come from strangers only if some of us are willing to practice what I call “absurd transparency.” And few things can be as transparent of our true beliefs, both the good ones and the bad ones, as the letters we write to long-time friends. And can I ask others to be sympathetic to my request for their transparency if I am unwilling to be provide my own?

For readers of Christian apologetics, or for fans of Narnia, “Jack” is my homage to the late C.S. Lewis. It was either that or address them to Paul, in honor of the famous ancient correspondent with Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Galatia, Colosse, and Thessalonica. And not even I am hubristic enough to dare the latter.

It’s a conceit, of course. I never met Lewis, who died long before I had heard of either Narnia or Mere Christianity, much less entertained a thought of corresponding. Yet for me he has been the sort of writers I expect all of us compulsive readers “know.” An influencer of my own thought and development as profound as any lifelong, first-name friend. In the manner of his life, in the quality of his thinking Lewis was, in my mind, far more significant than another, more famous, Christian who died on the same day in November, 1963. “Jack” Lewis was a model of how to reconcile Christian faith and intellectual rigor. A model for bridging interpretive worlds.

Were he around to read Barriers of Faith, I expect he’d have some rather strenuous objections. Yet, given that my immediate inspiration was one of his lesser-known gems, the posthumous Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, to who else could I address my own letters?

Readers of Iterations should feel free to quote-with-attribution from “Letter #3” in the usual ways of the blogosphere. I ask, however, that any quotation be accompanied by a link to this page, and that any discussion of the details of Letter #3 note that it has been released into the ether as a “work-in-progress.”

Without any further adieu, then, “Letter #3”:

Letter #3
On Giving Students Too Much Responsibility?

© 2009 Wade E. Shilts. All rights reserved.


Sometimes, I despair.

I mean, if I can’t even get someone as smart as you, someone as open-minded and thoughtful and caring as you are on matters pedagogic, to hear what I’m saying . . . how am I ever going to get the idiots without a clue to listen?

A case in point: your last letter, where you object on several grounds to my teaching-as-conference-programming idea. [Aside to Iterations readers: Immediately preceding this chapter will have been Provocation C, "It's not a class. It's an international conference." Following it will be the other five chapters of Discourse III, "Economics as fellow traveling; Or, education of the commons, by the commons, and for the commons."]

1. It’s unrealistic, you say. At most a good seminar might be able to handle 20 students. Even the smallest conferences have 50 to 150 people. You can’t run a effective seminar with 50.

2. Conferences take a lot of planning, you add. Work up front. How in the world can a teacher going to find the time to do all that before the term starts. It’s months of work, coordinating several people.

3. And students aren’t far enough along in their professional development to know what a good economics or history conference would be. They can’t even write a decent paper yet.

4. And look at all those other things we need to get done in the course of a semester-long class. The content we need to cover. How are we going to get that done via a “conference” format.

5. Oh, and by the way, have you forgotten how bad many conference panels are? We’d be bored stiff if we had to sit through an entire semester of conference panels.

I’m afraid, old friend, that you have missed my point altogether. That you have fallen, again, into the trap of rounding up the usual suspects.

Let’s start with your point about not being able to run a seminar with 50 people in it. Sure. Actually I think your 20 grossly optimistic. Personally, I wouldn’t want more than 10 students in a seminar. Maybe 15 if both “A” students and experienced.

But who said anything about running a seminar? I said “put together a conference.” With the exception of the by-invitation-only annual gathering of the Cliometric Society, I’ve never been to a “conference” that is a seminar. (And much as I think Clio provides the model for professional seminars, I’m not suggesting you run an undergrad Clio. Argh. That’d be a disaster.)

Seriously, Jack, have you never been to a good conference with more than 15 people? Conferences are a different animal than seminars. They do different things. They scale differently.

Have you never been to a conference and come away saying it was worth the trip? (And if not, whyever do you keep going? I mean, I know what a conference trip costs, and I know for a fact that your college doesn’t cover all travel expenses.) Yeah, I know some conferences are rotten — remember Boston? — but there are really good ones, too. Grand Rapids last month, for example.

And who said anything about the teacher doing all the prep? I didn’t say “run a conference.” I said “put together a conference.”

Look, I absolutely agree on conference prep. Lots of stuff has to happen before attendees get to check into posh hotel rooms and order room service. Contracts with hotels, finagling sponsors, finding activities, reviewing proposals, scheduling, checking prices, arranging airport shuttles, etc, etc, etc.

But whatever makes you think that all that stuff has to take place before your class starts? And what makes you think that you have to be the one to do it?

Okay, I’ll confess. I tricked you. I wrote Provocation C as I did because I was pretty sure each “you” I used would be read in the singular. Especially since some were. But the ones about putting together a conference? Go back and read those again. They’re the plural you. As in “you and your students.” Nyah, nyah, nyah. Gotcha.

I know. Unfair. I’m a bastard sometimes, what can I say. How can I sit here, having manipulated you through the ambiguity of my pronouns, and then take you to task?

But, don’t you see, my writing and your reading illustrate the point I’ve been trying to make about just how insidiously the usual suspects work upon us.

After all, as you read those opening sentences of Provocation C, did it even enter your mind to think there might be multiple ways of reading the second sentence?


Or did the interpretive paths hardwired into even your brilliant brain tell you that I was speaking to you, to the same singular teacher implied by “you’re teaching…”? Did you think, at all, whether I might be arguing that the you in the second sentence of the provocation, for example, was the plural you”?

Sure, now that I’ve thrown the possibility out there, you can see the annoying ambiguity in what I wrote. Anyone can. Now.

But earlier? Would the plural you of my audience have noticed? Will most “teacher” readers of the book know me as well as you do? If even someone as close to me as you, Jack, someone who knows what kind of writing smart ass I can be, couldn’t see through to the ambiguity, would the others? I doubt it.

And your own reaction just highlights the huge problem we have if we’re going to get higher ed types past the usual suspects. To get them past, means exposing their “you” as beholden to an evil “them”. None of us have problems showing others to be stuck in a rut — we mastered that skill in graduate school. The problems come when someone points out that we are rutting around the mud like the pigs my uncle used to slop.

I suspect this might be part of why economists on average get poorer course evaluations. In many ways, economics as a discipline is all about highlighting how usual suspects fall short. About how easy it is to miss all the consequences of personal or policy choice. About how so many questions are answered by “It depends…,” or by “On the one hand …., but on the other hand…” All disciplines have practitioners who specialize in debunking, iconoclasts who thrive on piercing the bubbles of received wisdom. But economics in many ways defines itself as debunking. Rounding up the usual suspects and striving to put them out of their misery — it’s not just what a few of us do, it’s what all of us are.

But, you’re right, I am asking you to do a lot of new work. Though not as much work as the “require a walkabout to understand local demand and supply” proposal I suggested earlier. (I’m assuming you failed to object to that idea since you know I borrowed it from John Taylor Gatto, who managed to do it in poorly funded NYC schools with 9th graders.)

But I’m not sure the “conference” idea has to mean more work in the long run. Oh it would require you to say “no” more often to the administrivia that surrounds you. Yes, it would be impossible were you one of our poor untenured or adjunct colleagues who lack significant say over the contents of their syllabi. But why is it that we tenured types find it so much easier to justify saying “no” to our students because of “other obligations” than justifying “no” to the committee babble because of our students?

And yes, coming to your third objection, I’m afraid that the proposal is that radical. Probably more so. Because, yes, I’m saying the class should “put together” the conference. Not you. Those 18-20 year olds.

The conference program won’t be a syllabus you hand out in week 1. It’ll be a collaborative effort that your class struggles to finish before week 10 or 11 of the term. That’s right. The bulk of “your” economic history “course” will be spent coaching your students in putting the program together, in finding people to moderate panels, and in the hundred other tasks that having a good conference requires.

Yes, yes. I know. That just strengthens your point. Our undergraduate students just aren’t ready for that. They’re not deep enough or versed enough in the discipline of thinking about choices and consequences, or in their writing skills, to write a conference-quality paper. Much less serve on the program committee.


But answer me this. Will your usual syllabus make them any more ready? Especially if that syllabus follows the model of the usual texts and the usual major requirements? Seriously.

Think about your objection a bit more. Think about why it is, after they have taken our history course, even our best students are still no more ready to decide which potential speakers are worthy of invitation, which papers are worth hearing. Think about why they’re no more ready to read the tea leaves of resumes and abstracts.

And be clear. They’re not going to be ready. I don’t want the economic history organizations in which I am a member involving undergraduates in the program selection and planning process either. In fact, I’m opposed to most of the “undergraduate research initiatives” that have been springing up in the minds of deans everywhere the last several years. For your reason: they’re not going to be ready. Not even close. At least not in the social sciences.

Yet is our student’s inability to judge well enough to serve on an actual program committee a reason against modeling our classes on conference preparation? Or exactly the opposite?

Judgment only improves by exercise. You can’t “tell” people that Xs are good and Ys are bad and then just expect them to be able to move on and correctly decide whether various Zs encountered in their life-after-your-class are more X-ish or more Y-ish. Until you give them opportunities to make dumb mistakes, are they going to learn to make smart judgments?

Have you ever wondered why, when you have students do an end-of-semester class presentation, so many are awful? Why so many give presentations a half-way diligent tenth grader should be ashamed to give?

Yes, I know. They leave things until the last minute. No matter what you or I say, they put too much off, until they’re long past the time where they can do everything that needs to be done. Sure. Okay. Fine.

But why do they leave it go so long?

Sorry, it isn’t that “they’re lazy” and it isn’t that “all they want to do is drink beer and get laid.” (As you’ll see in the “Genius of Gen Y” chapter I’ll send you soon.) It’s complicated, but a big reason they procrastinate on the projects we assign is because our projects don’t make them feel the necessities of collaboration. And if they don’t feel it, they aren’t going to listen to our rants that they’re procrastinating. Much less heed them.

Want good presentations? Want them to work at their writing and their Powerpoints and the quality of their Q&A? I’m sorry, Jack, but then you need to involve them in a project process that truly makes them hurt with the necessities of collaboration. A process that makes them see their individual tasks of outline, draft, final paper, what have you, all as part of a group activity. As Adam Smith pointed out in Theory of Moral Sentiments, coordination in a system depends on the quality of sympathy or “fellow feeling” by the individuals interacting within that system. Not the empathy of “I feel your pain” that our liberal do-gooder friends are always going on about, but the sympathy of “I feel my pain when you feel yours.”

Think. Have you ever noticed how the truly awful presentations at a conference almost never get made by conference committee members? And if anyone has an excuse for procrastinating on their own papers it would be a member of the committee member who has had to do all that other stuff. Yet, if you go to a paper being presented by a committee member, you’re much less likely to see her reading in a monotone. Or have a dozen boring Powerpoint slides, each with 200 words full of bullet points. Canned graphs from Excel. Fidgeting from the moderator when they run overtime.

Program committee members invest in their conference. Conference organizers don’t just take it personal when people think their own paper bad. Conference organizers take it personal whenever people think any paper is bad.

Oh, they aren’t always great presenters. But they’re not the horrible ones that get us cussing either.

I’m betting that if you do your job as program chair well, so will your students. That you’ll see a pretty substantial improvement in the overall level of end-of-semester presentations.

And more importantly, you’ll get more accomplished toward your real goals for the class.

If we want our students to have skills — writing skills, presentation skills, economic skills, historical skills — they bring to bear in their lives after college, we must involve in the collaborative judgment process from the beginning. Knowing that in their inexperience and their ignorance they are going to judge badly, we must get them judging early and often. If you think what program committees do is important — and your history of continuing conference-going tells me you do — then you need people practicing at doing program committee-type stuff.

Because the need for program-committee skills — the skills of collaborating — is critical. Not because we need our students to grow up and put on academic conferences. (I expect that, no matter how much you and I like them, the world could do without 90% of academic conferences.) But so they choose good professional development conferences. So they better decide what happens at all those industry conventions and trade shows and webinars. And — and this is the really big one — so they exercise better judgment in all those non-conference settings where they are going to have to collaborate and judge each other’s economic or historical claims.

No, I haven’t forgotten your fourth criticism. I was just saving it for last.

Because, to be frank, Jack, and please don’t take this personal, you know I love and respect you, I just don’t care whether your students get most of that content you and the textbook makers and the curriculum committee thinks so bloody important.

Sure, I care about my students’ ability to tell the differences among averages, marginals, and totals. But I could care less if they could manipulate the n-teen cost curves they get inundated in most principles-level courses. Sure, I firmly believe they need to get precise in their “balance sheet” and “national income” thinking. To know how to answer questions of “how big is ‘big’?” But I could care less if they remember the differences between gross national product, gross domestic product, or net national product.

Yes, yes, details matter. That’s my point. What we have to get across is that paying attention to details matters. Not “this detail matters” or “that detail matters”. That’s what my “walkabout” and “conference” ideas are about. Getting past the abstractions. Making them feel and work with the details.

What matters — what determines whether our classes are worth anything — is how our students think after having had our classes. Whether they work better when confronted with new details of “economic issues” or “historical experience” after they have been with us (and with their classmates) for 10 or 12 or 16 weeks. If they think better, we’ve succeeded. If they don’t, we’ve failed. Even if they got the best score on every test and wrote the best term paper we’ve seen in years.

And our usual methods of teaching — our survey courses, our lectures, our term papers, our exams? They’ve failed big time. They were failing long before Gen Y revolutionized the institutions of information and its interpretation and “made our job harder.:

Look no farther than what passes for “economic” discussion these days. I’m not talking about the evils of the Patriot Act or the idiocy of 2 trillion dollar deficits. Those are easy targets. Too easy. I’m talking about the everyday talk of Boomer CEOs, politicos, CNN reporters. Dinner table talk. New York Times editorial talk.

Look at the continued health of mercantilist ideas. I mean, it’s been, what, 235 years since Smith demolished the fallacies and empirical errors of mercantilism? And what economic doctrines still pervade virtually all public discussion? My conservative friends talk about the evils of socialism, my liberal friends talk about the evils of capitalism, and almost none of them realize how much they are captive of stupid, stupid, stupid 17th and 18th century ideas. I swear, sometimes it makes me want to puke.

And just how long have we undergraduate economics curriculum been teaching ideas better than mercantilism? Two generations? Three? Four? Five? Okay, I know, that other economic thinking — the neoclassicals and Keynesians and social democrats and the Chicago School, even Austro-institutionalist-anarchists like me — all of them have flaws, some of them big. But bigger than the idiocies of mercantilism’s zero-sum, it’s-all-about-who-has-power thinking that drives mercantilism.

I mean, it takes what, a couple production possibility curves, a couple stories about trade, and the seeds of anti-mercantilist thinking are planted, right?

Yet what the heck have we been watering and fertilizing with in the rest of our economics classes, if the best “public discourse” that comes from all the alternatives-to-mercantilism seeds we have planted over the last few generations is a nation sending millions of pieces of junk mail whining about NAFTA, a nation whose most educated people choose between the likes of Bush and Obama and Pelosi, between CNN and FoxNews? C’mon. A nation where undergraduate economic education had been doing its job should have laughed Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound” metaphor off the stage in 1992. Not still have “leaders” from the major political parties trying to out-Perot each other in 2009.

And it isn’t just politics. Look at the corporate world. I’m not talking Enron and Worldcom, or the banks, airlines, or GM. I’m talking about the middle manager at Ordinary Company, Inc., who thinks he’s in a “war” with the competition. The college-educated shop floor worker who thinks the only way to get hire wages for “labor” is to take something away from “management.” The farmer who blames low corn prices on increasing costs of growing corn.

Sorry. You knew you were going to wind me up, didn’t you?

But I get frustrated. I believe in the value of thinking “like an economist.” And there have been hundreds of thousands of economics classes taught on the current model in the last fifty years or so, thousands of economics teachers striving to illustrate the value of the economist’s thinking tools. Yet what gets the public energy up in economics? Three quarters of a century from The General Theory and “educated” America thinks the “new” ideas of Keynes and Roosevelt are workable?

And no I don’t want to debate Keynes with you again. Because that’s not my point. Regardless of whether Keynes was right (your position) or wrong (mine), the fact is that we economics and economic history teachers have for the better parts of three generations been teaching against Keynes. And if we had been doing anything other than a generally abysmal job, people would have either elected the new ideas of Obama decades earlier or have consigned them to the dustbin with the physiocrats, the real bills doctrine, anarchists, and all those other things we teachers have consigned to the dustbin.

I know, I know. I’m asking that a whole lot of trust to put in the hands of 18-20-year-olds. Trust that will with great frequency prove misplaced because, well, because 18-20-year-olds are, more often than not, inexperienced with, and ignorant of, important matters economic and historical.

And I have to admit this scares the heck out of me. (Remember, Jack, I’m the one who, with a bit of bourbon in me, likes to rant about the “utter idiocy” of so many of the ideas of so-called “student-centered” education.)

But we don’t have a choice.

No, I’m not just going off on my “Gen Y is special” thing again.

Yes, I do think Gen Y is special and exciting and willing and able to do things you and I weren’t at their age. And, yes, maybe I’m deluding myself.

But, don’t you see, Jack? If I’m wrong in seeing Gen Y as exceptional, if you’re right, then the case for radical reform of pedagogy of the sort I’m suggesting doesn’t get weaker.

It gets stronger.

A lot stronger. Because the important question isn’t whether they can be trusted at 18 with such responsibility. The question is how they handle that responsibility when they get it at age 22.

Because they will get it. No matter what you and I do, whether we stay with your trickle-down methods, or whether we adopt my radical ones, our students are going get responsibility when they graduate. A lot more than we did.

They’ll insist.

And, more importantly, the global marketplace will insist.

It has to. Paradigm shifts today happens too frequently, too fast, for a small core of masters and “leaders” to handle them all. Tomorrow’s paradigmatic changes will be even faster. A world of paradigm shiftiness, a world of change compression, will work only if we can find a way to enable 50 percent to think the way that liberal arts education has historically enabled 5-10 percent to think.

I’d love it if we were dealing with nothing more than the impatience of youth, than the foolish wisdom of sophomores. If we could do what our elders did. If we could just exert the power of our experience and position. Tell them to wait their turn. To play the game.

But the world of “playing the game” is gone. To quote the Wachowski brothers, “There is no spoon.” Sorry, but there is no one game. We have multiple games, each one changing, and changing faster and faster.

It’s our job, somehow, as teachers of economics and history, not to warn them about the brave new world, but to ready them for it. To help them acquire skills not of transmitting and receiving information, but next order skills of judging and interpreting it. Skills of creating, of collaborating. Skills of practicing all those skills at light speed.

I’d love to be able to say, as my teachers did, “Trust us, because in your youth, you’re not ready. Because we have the knowledge and the experience, and you don’t.” But I can’t. Way too much of that knowledge of mine is going to be outdated by the time they graduate. (If it isn’t already.) What we “know” simply isn’t going to remain worthy of trust long enough. If I ask them to “trust me” that way, I’m not doing my job. They’ll fail.

You and I are personally as safe as anyone in this flat world can be, thanks to the protections of tenure. But our students aren’t. When you and I screw up, they, not us, bear the biggest consequences. We may not agree about who will (or should) finally hold the bag when Social Security finally goes bye-bye, but we ought to agree about who hold the bag if we continue our ineffective economic and historical education.

We must trust our students today, knowing they will sometimes disappoint us. Because if we don’t, they will fail after they leave us. Bank on it.

And when they do, bank on losing a lot more of your retirement savings than you’ve lost in the last few years.

Maybe my “conference” idea is a bad one. But its not a bad one because it precludes us from covering enough content.

Content is just the icing on the economic/historical cake. If we want to ensure our students get the cake — i.e., the skills and judgment we yammer on about when talking about curriculum at faculty retreats, the skills and judgment we keep failing to get across — we’d better start thinking about something other than how much sugar to put in the icing.


p.s. Speaking of icing: About Friday — could we do the first martini at 7:30 this week instead of 7? I’ve a group who wants to talk about a piece of their history project and the only time all can make it is 6:30. And I’m guessing that, with this particular group of overachievers, their “little question or two” will go 40 minutes.


You are your info flow.

It’s long been the case.  If you teach, it’s going to be real hard to keep up with progress in your field.  Especially if you want to do things like sleep and hang out with friends and family.

And it’s harder than ever, because “keeping up” means paying attention not just to the narrow field of your own research, it means paying attention to not-so-parallel developments in several others.   And there’s more going on in every darn one of them.

Look, I’ve never met a college professor who wasn’t a big reader.   And if you visit a professor’s house, invariably you’ll see a lot more books than you’ll see in the houses of others.  Oh, novelists probably will be pretty close.  And there’s the occasional lawyer or business CEO.  But you want to see a lot of books, the place to go is a professor’s house.   It’s a good bet that you’ll find shelves of them, not just in the office or “study”, but in just about every room of the house.

The book collections are deceptive, however.   Watch those professors more carefully, and you’ll see that while they’ll still be processing a lot of written information, it’s not professional keep-up-with-the-field reading that they’re doing.    It’s student papers, drafts of committee memos, letters of reference for job applicants, email, class prep.

And that’s after they’ve left campus for the day.   If you think professors are sitting in their offices reading books and articles … forget it.  They’re in class, they’re in hallways talking to students, they’re meeting with their department chair about a problem student, they’re advising, they’re in meetings, meetings, meetings.

And if they do get home and find everything is graded (happens twice a year, about 15 minutes before the end-of-semester report goes to the registrar’s office, if there’s no family errand or house repair  or visiting relative to deal with, the book they pull out is likely to be a bestselling novel.

So I was imprecise:  I’ve rarely met a college professor who wasn’t at one time a big reader.  The problem is that “one time” was yesterday for lots of us.

Now, there are exceptions.  I’m not talking here about the people at top research institutions, those who have the biggest publish-or-perish pressure, and who (more often than not) have substantially lower teaching loads.  But there are a lot more college faculty out there who have 6 or more courses and 150+ students a year to have regular contact with, than there are those who have 4 courses or less and a graduate teaching assistant or six.  And that’s not even including those adjunct faculty who have to teach 8, or 10, even 12 courses a year, often commuting between multiple institutions.

No, it doesn’t surprise me that the average college teacher lags farther and farther behind progress in the field the older he or she gets.  Frankly, sometimes I’m amazed we do any field reading at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to whine about the college teacher’s lot in life. It’s not to rail against the unreasonable expectations of publication-or-perish or the stupid waste of mental resources that faculty commitee meetings entail.

No, I simply want to highlight a hidden, perhaps unavoidable, constraint on the effectiveness of teachers.  A constraint that makes effective teaching more problematic every day. A constraint that makes it increasingly questionable that the flagship economic institutions of higher education — the university and the 4-year college — will satisfy the educational functions that we would have them serve.

In today’s world, you are your information flow.  If you’re good at acquiring and interpreting the information you get and transmit, you’ll managel.  If you aren’t, you won’t.  If there’s a single skill set that determines how well a college graduate will do, it’s the skill set called “using information.”

“You are your information flow” isn’t new to 2009.  What is new, however, is that those we have traditionally tasked to ensure college graduates have the “using information: skill set, are themselves less and less likely to be masters of that skill set.

Mastering the information flow means, among other things, being closer to the cutting edge, not farther away.

Mastering the information flow means being close enough to the cutting edge that one has the right critical thinking and communication and interpretive skills for assessing when something is cutting edge and when it isn’t.

It isn’t that college professors need to be cutting edge researchers themselves, though that is one way to increase the odds.   It’s that college professors need to be able to channel more and more cutting edge information that more and more people are creating.

And channeling here is not merely possessing some New-Agish sort of drain pipe unclogger.  It’s knowing when to use PVC pipe and when to use copper, when to use a 90? ell and when to use a 45? bend, and when to put a plug in the line.  When to turn the faucet full open and when to run just a trickle.

While some of the plumbing of interpretation works the same in 2009 as it did in 1909 or 1809, much of it cannot.   Any more than today’s water supply can be governed by the rules Edwin Chadwick proposed when he was first advocating modern sewers for metropolitan London in the 19th century.

If we want our students to avoid being awash in the sewage of the Internet age, to avoid the informational choleras and influenzas that are going to be out there, we need to provide them with up-to-date master plumbers.

Not with lots of world experts on outhouse cleaning.

But for now, I gotta go.  My sink’s plugged again.


140 words or less?

I woke up this morning and before I even logged on, I realized I had screwed up yesterday.  I was tempted to lie and say that my reference to the “150 character limit” of Twitter was a typo.   But no one would believe me anyway, and, besides, a mea culpa offered a better blog opportunity.  (Thanks again to Mark for  pointing out the error and demonstrating, again, just how quick error correction happens in the Internet age.)

The error wasn’t a typo.  It simply reflected the fact that I’m not as far along Internet-wise as I need to be.

I got the length limit wrong.  Because while I believe that Twittering demonstrates an essential skill for the flat world, I don’t Twitter much.


Because, to be honest, I’m just not very good at it.


When you spend most of your adult life acquiring the skills of the verbose, it takes more than a little effort to shorten things up.

For me, learning to speak in bullet points was the first step; learning to reduce things to a page or less in the manner of executive summary was the second.  And now I’m more or less on the third step, learning to write a short email.

And of course, there’s the regular falling off the wagon.  “A few bullets” can quickly explode into several pages in the corned powder of an academic-in-recovery.  The executive summary remains the hardest part of any report for me to write, and write well.  And anyone who reads here knows I have real trouble keeping blog articles under 1000 words.

Too, David’s comments on my last post crystallized something for me.  I’m used to seeing words as making arguments, as existing for persuade.  And persuasion of an educated person should only take place after the presentation of evidence.  And presenting evidence within 140 words is hard enough.  In 140 words?

But “persuasion” is more than argument.  Persuasion is also becoming interested, being provoked into thinking differently.  And those parts of the process ought not to be focused on evidence.  In fact, are less productive if they are.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity….these things come about because people refuse to worry constantly about the “can’ts” and the “what if’s” and the “what about’s”?  Because they only insist on evidence at particular parts of the process.

So  back to Twitter…well, can I just say it scares me and leave it at that?

No?  Crap.

You’re right.  I can’t.  And neither can you.  Because, and I can guarantee that 90+% (probably 99+%) of academics are going to disagree, being able to Tweet well is at least as important a thinking skill as being able to write a term paper.

No, I’ll go farther.  It’s a more important thinking skill.

Writing term papers, writing reports — those are skills of an entry-level tiny-cubicle employee.  One with no more career upside than Milton Waddams in Office Space.

Tweeting?  Tweeting is a skill of project managers.

No, of CEOs.  CEOs have to be good at weighing evidence, of course.  But they also have to be good at seeing opportunities and judging well in the absence of evidence.

And in a world of constant technological and cultural change, where three strategic moves have to be made before evidence on one is in, it’s a skill more valuable than ever.

Much as I enjoyed Stephen Root in his role as Milton, I’ll give you one guess whether I think we should be emulating his approach to skill development.

So, excuse me.  I’ve got to cut things short.

I’ve got to go follow some CEO tweets and see if I can figure out how they do it.


Observation #1:  “Students don’t read anymore.”
Observation #2:  CEOs write a lot shorter emails than I do.

If I’ve heard the sentiment of Observation #1 expressed once by colleagues and fellow teachers, I’ve heard it a thousand times.  When I’m not thinking carefully about my own language, I still say it sometimes myself.

But we’re mistaken.  Very mistaken.

The problem isn’t that students don’t read.  The problem, when it is a problem, is in what students read and how they read it.

The young read.  Watch their surfing of the Internet.  Oh, sure, they probably watch YouTube videos more often than most of the people reading this blog do. The cliche about this being a visual generation does, as most cliches do, have a large amount of truth in it.  But they’re also reading.  A lot.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say they process nearly as many words via reading as we do.

What they don’t do — and this is, or can be, a problem — is read what we want them to.   They read in portions of 300 words or less, not long blog articles of 3000 words like I tend to write, and certainly not books of 30,000 or 100,000 words.

And — and this can be, and often is, a much bigger problem — they don’t read critically enough.

And, not reading critically enough, they also don’t write or speak or collaborate well enough.

But, short reading spans, by themselves, need not be bad.  In fact, if sufficiently focused, they can be better and more productive.

CEO email reveals the point.

For example, last week I found myself involved in a brief email exchange with a Silicon Valley CEO when a Luther colleague and fellow consultant brought me into a discussion he and the CEO had been having.  Despite my best efforts, however, each of my contributions to the conversation was longer than it should have been.    The first was about 500 words, the second coming in at just over 220.  By comparison, the CEO’s reply to my first came in under 100.

Five years ago, this might have bothered me. I would have treated his brevity as insufficient engagement with my ideas.

And I would have been wrong.  Deeply so.  For, were I to share the exchange here, were you to look at those three e-mails, you would see him engaging matters at least as deeply as I did  Probably more so.

His less-than-100-word e-mail was chock full of content.  Every word counted.  Every word moved my thinking along.  Every word required me to think.

Even though I’m guessing it took him very little time to write.  Much less effort than I expended in trying to keep my two even as short as they were.

Now, last week I was fortunate.  The CEO took the time to listen to my long-windedness. (Maybe he was stuck in a security line at the San Francisco airport.)  But I also know that if I want to have conversations with CEOs I must strive to keep each e-mail as short as I can get it.  Because I know, the longer I get, the more I risk losing their attention.

When it comes to real-world communication, the choice is not between “short” and “value-packed.”  The choice is between “short and value-packed” on one hand and “not read” on the other.

And the choice gets starker every day.  CEOs (and non-CEOs) are cramming that value into shorter and shorter spaces, via texting and via the 150-character limit of Twitter.

Which brings me back to the matter of student reading and (by inference) writing habits:

The problem should not be seen as getting students to read more.  It’s getting them to read better.  And realizing — as, unfortunately, more students do than teachers — that better isn’t always a function correlated with length.

Yes, I know.  Not everything of value can be encapsulated in 100 words, much less in 150 characters.  Students still are going to need to read and comprehend longer stuff.  Of course.

The CEO knows that, too.  My first contact with him was after that same colleague passed on his request for books on the history of technology.

He reads a lot of longer articles (though, alas for me, probably not my blog).  And he reads a lot of books, probably more than most of my teaching colleagues, even those non-stop readers over in the humanities.  Teachers, want to get your students to read more books?  Invite a few CEOs in, and ask them to mention how much they read.  The “Whooaaa!” you get from students will be priceless.

The point isn’t package everything in Twitters or 100-word emails or executive summary bullet points.  The point is that stuff packaged in Twitters and 100-word emails and executive summaries must be value-packed.

The problem isn’t that students have short attention spans.  The problem is that too many of those bits of short attention are spent on words with a low value content.

The governing criterion isn’t length at all.

It’s value-per-word.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts