Archive for the rounding up the usual suspects Category

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.


It sort of hurts to admit this, but “listening habit” is an oxymoron.

What, you ask, aren’t you the guy who’s always going on about the value of listening?  The one who has just posted two long essays on the need for a listening mindset?  The one who, for crying out loud, calls himself “the listening PhD”?

Yep.  Yep again.  And a third time, yep.

But I’m not contradicting myself.  Really.  Here’s why.

Listening is about thinking.  Thinking about what others are saying.  Thinking about why they’re saying what they’re saying.  Thinking about what they are thinking.

It’s “Listen. Think. Repeat.”  Not just “Listen. Repeat.”

But what’s a habit?  It’s repeating-without-thinking.  It’s hitting the snooze button twice every morning.  It’s commuting by the same route every day, and getting to work each morning with no memory of the intervening 10 or 45 minutes.  It’s reciting the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday without thinking about the meaning of “hallowed” or “Thy kingdom come.”  It’s flossing before bed every night.

Indeed, one of the great virtues of a habit is that you can do it without thinking.  Imagine what it would be like if you had to lie there in bed with that damn alarm blaring and think first about how one goes about hitting a snooze button, if you couldn’t just unthinkingly flop your hand down on top of the alarm and roll into the pillow for another 5 minutes.  Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t do part of your daily commute on autopilot and instead had to pay attention to everything like you did when you were taking driver’s ed?

Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t sometimes just let the liturgy work on your subconscious as you communed with the Almighty?

Imagine what it would be like if you had to think about what was between each of your teeth?  Habits can be not only good, but essential to sanity.

But when it comes to thinking, habits are all about rounding up the usual suspects.  Habits drive you down the thinking roads you’ve been a hundred times before.  The road of hearing what you want to hear.  The road of asking the same questions every time.  The roads where you don’t have to acknowledge your particular hot buttons or biases, and so you remain captive of them.   The roads where everything is focused upon you and your beliefs and your questions, not upon the beliefs and questions of the person you purport to be hearing.

The listening problem isn’t one of failing to hear.  If it was, deaf people like Helen Keller, Thomas Gallaudet, or Marlee Matlin wouldn’t be such great listeners.  The listening problem isn’t people failing to hear.  It’s people failing to pay attention.

And paying attention requires thinking.  To the extent you aren’t thinking, you aren’t paying attention.

Oh, I don’t have a problem with someone who says we should be in the habit of paying attention.  Of course.  You need to regularly pay attention.  That’s why you see me ranting about the “listening mindset.”

But you can’t pay attention the same way every time.   Not if your goal is truly listening.  If it’s the same every time, at some point it’s not going to be paying attention any more.  It’s got to be different, tailored to the particular moment and to the specific person being listened to.  You can’t just say, “It’s 10 a.m. and time for listening.”   You can’t listen to a student named Yusuf or Brandy the way you listen to your sister, and you can’t listen to your sister the retired lawyer the way you listen to your sister the preparer of today’s breakfast.

That’s why I’m writing an e-book tentatively titled, 47 Techniques for Effective Listening (hoped-for release August or September) even though there are only five “guiding principles” in “The Listening Paradigm” (a white paper coming out sometime this spring).  Effective listening is not reducible to five habits for to-do lists, bullet points, and meeting agendas.

I wish it were.  My own marketing job a heck of a lot easier, and that would be wonderful for the cash flow.  I join those ripping off Stephen Covey’s and publish my “Seven habits for highly effective listening.”

But it isn’t.  The tools of listening must be chosen anew every time, not put on autopilot.

If you want to think of carrying your listening toolbox around all the time as a “habit,” fine.  As long as you remember that that toolbox will do you good only when you open it and take something out.

Something that is going to be different every time.  Sometimes it’ll be a hammer or a crowbar, sometimes a jeweler’s loupe, and sometimes a diamond micro-scalpel.

Something particular to the moment.

Something non-habitual.


Which of the following have you heard from your teachers?

1.  The more you learn about this subject, the more you learn you don’t know.

2.   Here’s what you need to know.

If you are a teacher, how many times have you uttered each of these statements in your career?

I’m not criticizing.  I’ve used each many times, and I’ll use them many times more.

However, if you think of the two statements together, they say something about the appropriateness of wearing an “I’m an expert” clothes in the classroom.

While in 20 years of teaching there has been no shortage of occasions where I’ve been able to show students my superior knowledge, there also has been no shortage of occasions when they’ve pointed out that this particular Emperor of Expertise has no clothes.

Now what should be done in such cases is generally agreed upon by all:  “When a student asks a question for which you have no answer,” goes one common (and very good) piece of advice, “Don’t try to hide the fact.  Be up front and admit that you don’t know.”  And I don’t have any problem with that advice.

It seems to me, however, that the real issue is not what you should do after the student asks the question you can’t answer, but what you should do beforehand.  How do you set the intellectual stage for that inevitable question?

And I’m convinced that you set the stage by being highly, even absurdly, transparent in what you are doing and why you are doing it.

There’s a school of thought among educators that says you should start from a position of certainty; and then, as the student masters the general point, you start to add in more complications and uncertain bits.  Thus, for example, the principles of economics class gives the basics of the “pure competition” model first, and then looks at markets that have more and more complications (monopoly, then oligopoly and strategic behavior).  And if the student stays with economics past the principles class, then even more uncertainties are added in the intermediate and advanaced classes.

Well, maybe.  Or maybe not.

You see, an awful lot of those basic ideas only “work” in the student’s perception after they’ve seen the complications and uncertainties dealt with.  There is value in the simplest of stories, but the student is going to incorporate that value in their own economic thinking only after they have been shown why its safe to ignore this or that uncertainty in particular cases.

And if you do the “simple first, then the complication” approach, they may never trust you to go that far along with you.  And they surely aren’t going to buy the “well, you have to wait until the advanced course to see this.  Just trust me,” approach.

Because no matter what you do in that first ten or fifteen weeks of their economics education, they are going to see multiple examples where the “economic experts” don’t have a clue what’s going on.  Multiple examples where the economic experts use the simple solution because they don’t know how to make the more complicated stuff work and still get an answer.

Anyone who has studied economics formally knows that it can be extremely frustrating in application.  If as a teacher I present the material in such a way that suggests it doesn’t have to be, not only am I lying temporarily (another sort of moral dilemma), but I’m setting myself up for failure when, inevitably, my students reach a few of those frustrations.

So I try to avoid the simple answers from day one of every economics class I teach, even though in the short term both students and I prefer them.

And avoiding  simple answers means being upfront about doing so.  And it means admitting, also from day one, where I and the economcs profession don’t have nice and easy (or even agreed-upon) answers.

And, and this is part of where the “absurdly” in “absurdly transparent” comes in, I make clear where I-the-individual (as opposed to I-the-member-of-the-group-known-as-economists) don’t know.  I don’t wait for them to ask questions that reveal where the Shilts Encyclopedia has no entry, even though it probably should.  I volunteer the information up front.

And I reveal a lot more of my personal information than probably is good for me.  To me, the economic way of thinking — all its complications and uncertainties and gaps in understanding — is worth the trouble because it is personal.  It works for me, my oddities, my hopes and dreams, my problems, my prejudices.  And, it seems to me, it’s going to work for my students only if they also make it personal.

And since I know far too little of my student’s personal lives (and I think they want it to stay that way), the best example I know of making it personal is demonstrating how it is personal for me.

Oh, I’ve no doubt that my students think I’m weird in a hundred ways.  And I’ve no doubt that I’ve shared things that they have no interest in, that they would have been far happier never knowing.

But I’m going to keep doing it, because I think it is a big reason that most of those students stay interested in the subject through all the complications, through all the “on the one hand, on the other hand”-ing, through all the places of uncertainty and no good answer.  And they stay with it long enough, to make the “economic way” a bigger part of their thinking processes.

Don’t just be open.

Be a piece of Scotch® Magic™ tape.


In response to my last post, David writes,

I think it’s [the term "epistemology"] too long–7 syllables–and too Greek for a wider American audience. I mean you can get away with a Greek word that’s been used in common English for centuries and has only 4 syllables like “monopoly,” but even “oligopoly” with 5 syllables and much less use seems to push the envelop in terms of wider audiences. Of course you could argue that the more you use it, the more common it gets and thus the more people will accept it, but do you want to wait around for a century of more common use to make the points you want to make in your book?

Sigh.  He’s right.

Because I’m not interested in waiting a century.  (Actually, I think David’s a bit optimistic here. The e-word isn’t going to make it into the vernacular in anything as short as a century.)  While I admire the late Vincent Van Gogh, I’m far too much of an egoist to ever be content with “recognition after death.”

Not to mention the fact that the things I have to say about higher education are about higher education in the 21st century, not the 22nd.

So I’ve got to come up with a better way of saying it.  Words of fewer syllables whose meaning, upon utterance in the context of education and its reform, is clear.  Words that make the epist***** point without ever mentioning the word.

How about this as a possibility:  “If we are to succeed in reshaping higher education for the 21st century, we must not only change the information we educate our students about, we must examine and change the way we think about information and its processing.”

We must not just provide more science education, we must examine how we think about the importance of science.  We must not just provide Generation Y with better instruction in writing and communication skills, we must examine how we think writing and communication works for Generation Y.  We must not just change our syllabi and our all college curricula.  We must think about, and make hard decisions about, how syllabi and fixed curricula ensure (or fail to ensure) the kind of thinking that is needed.

What is needed, it seems to me, is nothing short of another Enlightenment-scale intellectual revolution.

“Post-modernism” tried, but has fallen far short.  While the po-mos have been good at pointing out hidden agendas and social constructions and hegemonies in others, by and large they have been piss poor at recognizing their own blinders.  And so, most of the post-modern revolution has mostly just ended up rounding the usual suspects and giving them new names like, ahem, “agendas” and “social constructions” and “hegemonies.”

For a real revolution, we must expose our thinking about how we think.  Not just how “they” think.  But how “we” think.  Or we’re just going to keep rounding up the usual suspects, too.


The things we could learn if we could properly leverage insomnia!

It’s 3:00 a.m., and I ought to be in bed. But for the last forty minutes or so, I’ve been scanning a thread about science education on slashdot ( Can’t summarize it yet because, to be honest, and despite my ongoing claims to be an “expert” on education, I’m nowhere near where I need to be in the matter of my own science education. And there is so much nuance here that I need to sit down with the thread at length when I’m not yawning every five minutes.

However, three things are clear to me.

First, slashdot shouldn’t just be “news for nerds”, as its masthead suggests. It should be a regular stop for anyone who thinks technology is relevant to our common life. (Which, I hope, is everyone.) Beware if you’ve never visited /., before, however: read a couple of threads and you’ll quickly learn the depth of your ignorance.

Which brings me to …

Second, most people who are heard to comment publicly about “science education” don’t have an effing clue of the issues involved. I spent 40 minutes scanning the thread, and another 10-15 — so far — on blogging about the experience, and when I get back to it sometime later today, I’m going to dig a lot deeper into the thread and its arguments.

Why? Because its quite clear that even I, in the process of writing a book on “technology and the needs of higher education in the 21st century,” have some serious self-educating to do about the conversation.

Yesterday I decried our reliance on so-called experts. And here’s another example of why. Look at the debate on educational reform, and you’ll find no shortage of educators and policy wonks shouting for the need for improvement in science education.

Yet if you look carefully, you’ll see that public discussion tending to limit itself to what Claude Rains might call the usual suspects: declining test scores, horrible secondary education, failure to challenge students, need for more funding, appointment of new blue ribbon panels, etc, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

Which brings me to…

Third, there’s this great myth among the educated — even in the blogosphere — that blogs, bulletin boards, and the like only get to the superficial. Especially among us baby boomers who control most of the pursestrings nowadays. (Oh, some of us are big advocates of blogging, but we still emphasize how the “serious work” takes place elsewhere.

But the reality is that the greater superficiality is also elsewhere. When internet conversations hit their stride — as they do, repeatedly, in the the daunting database that is slash-dot — they dig deep in ways that our usual suspects of government education grants and academic taskforces and scholarly journals in education don’t do.

I’m not saying that every slash-dot thread should be subjected to the scrutiny of a “researcher” that I’m about to subject this one to in the days to come. Heck, who knows, this particular thread may turn out to be a lot emptier than I think it right now in my current insomniac state.

However, I’ve had this experience when not short of sleep, too. There’s a lot more stuff out there than you think.

So, the next time you’re fighting insomnia, get up and spend an hour or so surfing your favorite blogs or news sites or bulletin boards. You’ll never know what you’ll find, because my guess is, you will click on stuff you wouldn’t otherwise.

Stuff that will get you out of your own “usual suspects” thinking modes.

And now, back to bed.

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