Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why I Will Not Be Going To See "The Impossible" This Holiday Weekend

I don't usually use this blog for personal stuff, but I think it might be helpful to others if I told my holiday travel story. No movies about tropical vacations interrupted by typhoons, please.

When my children were younger, we went to Aruba several times over winter break. We love the island --- easy to get to, reliable sun, sea, and sand, safe, friendly, and neither too large nor too small. So we decided to go back for Christmas this year, with my wife and younger daughter.

We stayed at the Divi golf resort, a few steps from the beautiful beach. (Great place.) My wife and I went in for a swim. She had a little trouble getting out of the water -- the swells had started to get pretty heavy, and when they broke on the shore, the receding water was hard to walk against. I decided to float around for a few minutes more.

By the time I tried to get out, I couldn't. It turned out there was a storm at sea --- an hour later there were very heavy rains --- and the swells were quite huge. I managed to get myself standing in a position where huge waves were breaking over my head but I also could not walk out of the water at all because of the undertow. I took 3 or 4 waves, timing my inhalations, and then a really big one knocked me off my feet and swept me under.

I smashed my head on an submerged rock, came back to the surface, tried to right myself, got knocked down again, and very quickly some people spotted me and pulled me out. They supported me while I walked up to a place I could sit down while they sought medical attention. Within a few minutes my wife and daughter found me, so I was relieved of any decision making. I was taken by ambulance to the Aruba hospital --- only one on the island but only a block from the beach.

I spent the afternoon in the ER, getting complete head and spine CT scans, X rays, blood tests, etc. Diagnosis: First rib on the left fractured; fissure of transverse process of first thoracic vertebra. 6 cm gash in my scalp required stitching. (Lots of blood I gather, but the stitching was almost an afterthought.) Sundry lacerations on my back, and various limbs probably stretched in ways they were not intended to move. But no concussion, never lost consciousness, never aspirated any seawater, neurological, circulatory, and pulmonary function normal. (Well, as normal as they ever were -- I am a Type I diabetic, so that added a little extra drama during the work-up but made no real difference.) Spent overnight under observation and was discharged the next morning. We spent another 3 nights on the island as planned, not partying quite as hard as intended, and returned home on schedule.

So the bottom line is that I have the privilege of sitting here with the Alamo Bowl on TV in the background telling you how much I hurt all over, but there is actually nothing to do about any of my aches and pains except wait for that rib and whatnot to heal themselves. I have been through this business of fractured ribs twice before, and I hate it. (For those of you haven't had the pleasure, the problem is that almost everything you do with any part of your body, breathing for example, involves contracting your rib cage, and that is extremely uncomfortable.)

On the other hand there are things I would have hated worse than complaining about the pain while watching football games on TV, like breaking my neck and being paralyzed, or smashing my face in rather than needing a few scalp stitches, or drowning of course, which could easily have happened. Cardiac arrest might have been another likely failure mode; I was seriously hyperventilating when I was pulled out of the water and I am, as a waitress kindly reminded me the next night, not as young as I once was. (It is nice to be able to tell myself that those endless hours on the treadmill and ellipse every morning for the past 3 or 4 decades were actually well invested. If you think it's monotonous when you do it, keep it up -- you never know when your heart may need to be able to handle extreme stress.)

So I am very, very lucky.

The hospitalization was great, except for when the big guys transferred my overweight, banged-up body off and on the imaging tables. The doctors all seemed to be Dutch (and they tended to be young female, good-looking, and skilled with needle and suture). A thoroughly professional experience. Total cost, including the ambulance, was about $3000. So thanks to everyone at the hospital, and the overnight nursing staff that watched me closely. You were great.

Thanks of course the the folks who pulled me out of the water, whoever you are. I appreciate it, and it should not go without saying, as we all know that there are those of our species who would not want to get involved.

Thanks to Marlyn and Annie for nursing me, and for putting up with my grumpiness when I want everything put just a little closer so I don't have to stretch! Not the romantic get-away I had in mind.

And finally, in the hope it will do someone some good: Even if there are lots of people swimming and you are on a pristine sandy beach, if the surf looks too big when it breaks, get out of the water. The line between fun and catastrophe is pretty narrow.

Now: more Tylenol, please.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jell-O and US Broadband Inferiority

As you drive from east to west across the US, there is a meridian in the breadbasket, somewhere in the eastern Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, where gelatin salads start to appear in the supermarket deli cases. In the prairies it is not only acceptable but fashionable to serve molded, multicolored Jell-O with grapes, pineapple, and heaven knows what else arranged inside it. Once you get over the Continental Divide the fashion fades out. It's not a thing on either coast.

How did this get started? It's not an ethnic fashion. The folks who settled the Great Plains were Norwegians and Swedes and Germans, and gelatin is not an ethnic treat anywhere in Europe. Or anywhere else, as far as I know!

No, it's because there was a time when only rich folks could make Jello on their farms in the summer. People who were rich enough to have their farms electrified. Once Jell-O got imprinted as a luxury item, it remained fashionable even when everybody could have it.

You see, electricity itself was a luxury in the early 20th century, and gelatin salads were a proxy for being rich enough to have electric power delivered to your place. In her brilliantly troubling new book Captive Audience, Susan Crawford quotes this 1905 dismissal of government interference with the electricity market.

The ownership and operation of municipal light plants stands upon a different basis from that of the ownership of water works, which it is so often compared. Water is a necessity to the health and life of every individual member of a community … It must be supplied in order to preserve the public health, whether it can be done proitably or not, and must be furnished, not to a few individuals, but to every individual.
Electric lights are different. Electricity is not in any sense a necessity, and under no conditions is it universally used by the people of a community. It is but a luxury enjoyed by a small proportion of the members of any municipality, and yet if the plant be owned and operated by the city, the burden of such ownership and operation must be borne by all the people through taxation.
This is exactly the argument being used today against government involvement in broadband. It is why children even in such hardly remote locales as western Massachusetts have to go to public libraries to do their homework. Comcast and Verizon just don't find it profitable to run cables and fibers into rural locales.

Those profits are maximized by managing scarcity. with the cooperation of a deregulatory-minded Congress, always hungry for campaign contributions from big corporations. As a result, what the FCC laughably calls its broadband plan of 2010 would have every American household getting 4 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload by 2020 --- with 100 million households getting up to 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload. The South Korean plan, by contrast, is for every household to get 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) right now!

I recommend this book to everyone. It explains why my ophthalmologist can't send my retinal scans from his Boston to his Cambridge office electronically (that example explains why symmetric channels, with comparable upload and download speeds, are essential for economic development). Why the backup service Mozy will use postal mail to send you your backed up files on disk if your computer crashes -- the files were uploaded incrementally but to download them all at once would take a week or more.

The US is going to be a second-rate economy if we don't wake up to the simple fact that some regulation in communication technologies is needed to create universal service, and ensuring that service is one of the functions of government. Broadband Internet service is like electricity really turned out to be, and not as the privately owned electric utilities wanted the public to see it at the turn of the 20th century.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Educational Wisdom from Another Age department

Continuing an old series.

…[E]ven if we sacrifice the letter of the old Bachelor of Arts degree, we should strive to preserve its spirit. This spirit is threatened at present in manifold ways,---by the upward push of utilitarianism and kindergarten methods, by the downward push of professionalism and specialization, by the almost irresistible pressure of commercial and industrial influences. … The time is above all one for careful thinking and accurate definition. This, it is to be feared, will prove unwelcome doctrine to the ears of an age that hopes to accomplish its main ends by the appointment of committees, and has developed, in lieu of real communion among men, nearly every form of gregariousness. -- Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (1908).

He would have loved Facebook.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Decline of Civilization Department (Part II)

I just filled out a recommendation web form for a student applying to a PhD program at Stanford. The form informed me: "The applicant has waived their right to view this recommendation."

I don't mean to pick on Stanford -- I bet those from other top schools have adopted this convenient barbarism also. I will watch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Bright Idea About Take Home Exams -- From Yale, of All Places!

The idea: Don't give them. So reports the Yale Daily News.

Admirably stating the obvious for the benefit of faculty who, in New Haven as in Cambridge, apparently can't be counted on to figure it out for themselves,
[Dean of Yale College Mary] Miller and Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard urged professors who use take-home final examinations to consider switching to an in-class examination. Though the University has traditionally discouraged take-home exams, Miller said, she wanted to re-emphasize other options in light of the recent events at Harvard. In-class examinations enable students to better balance their finals schedule and maintain a healthier lifestyle during the exam period because on take-home finals, students often take more time than the three hours budgeted for in-class examinations, she said.
I wonder: Is there less a sense at Yale than there is at Harvard that professors shall not be told how best to run their courses? The only advice Harvard has given its faculty is to be clear about our collaboration policies, and to meet with our departmental colleagues "to share best practices on how we can each foster a culture of honesty and integrity in our classes and learning assessments," as Dean Smith put it in his late-August email to faculty. 

As I have said since the beginning, the "cheating scandal" seems to me less an issue of student culture than one of faculty behavior. For some reason, they seem less afraid to talk about that in New Haven.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day Care in Holyoke Center?

There has been a little chattering among a few of my faculty colleagues about child care -- how limited and how expensive the options are. Of course this is an issue that affects staff as well as faculty, but to begin with I want to think about it just from the perspective of the faculty.

The Harvard-affiliated day care centers (not actually run by Harvard -- each is on Harvard property, but is corporately independent, with its own board of directors) offer convenience if you work at Harvard but (I am told) no price advantage over other child care centers. You can save some money by using one of the two Harvard-affiliated co-op centers -- but then, of course, you have to co-operate, by donating your time taking care of other people's children, which may be neither convenient nor appealing.

Both my daughters are alumnae of what were then called the Radcliffe Child Care Centers. Given the total absence of other options in the 1980s, we were glad to be able to use these centers (my wife and I were both working and we did not go the co-op route). I am less happy to discover the problem has not gone away, and that Harvard has, perhaps, not kept up with advances. The Stata Center at MIT has a day care center, very visible on the ground floor (where there are also a gym and a cafe). I gather it is well planned and well run.

How much should Harvard invest in a benefit that is of use to only part of its employee base? One could argue that people who have chosen not to be parents, or for whom parenthood is impossible, have their own challenging personal needs, which compromise their work lives. Is parenthood special in some way that makes it sensible for Harvard, exceptionally, to mitigate its financial burdens?

I don't know the answer to that question. I have some moral qualms about the answer, frankly; in principle I would prefer that the University just pay faculty more and let them decide how to spend the money.

But day care could easily become a competitive disadvantage for Harvard -- in the way the lack of a "tenure track" used to be, before two-career couples became the norm and Harvard suddenly realized it was losing its top senior faculty candidates because their spouses were unwilling to give up their law partnerships, etc., at mid-career in another city. And it could also be argued that it would pay the university in productivity to deprive faculty of their standard, legitimate excuse for not teaching classes or showing up for meetings that begin before 9:30am or end after 5:00pm.

If there are reasons to re-think any of this, this is the moment to do it. President Faust told the Crimson that she hopes that a student center may come into being in Holyoke Center. That is the perfect location for a university-run day care center, like the one in the Stata Center.

How about it? Good idea, given Harvard's financial condition, and what it might cost and what other uses that imagined money could be put? How would the cost-benefit analysis be done, when the benefits (recruitment and retention of faculty, productivity of faculty, improved work climate for faculty) are so hard to quantify?

And then there are the questions about staff. If the center is Harvard-run, should faculty get priority? On the one hand there are certainly other benefits faculty get that staff do not. And there is greater competition for faculty than for staff. But then the moral issues re-emerge. The cost of child care is an even greater stress on less well-paid Harvard workers; could Harvard really create a center from which they were excluded? I doubt that it could or should. And then what about grad students? But what if limiting was the only way to get its cost within a feasible range? Would it be better for the university not to have a center at all than to have one that is limited?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Decline of Civilization department

Spotted in the Harvard Business School parking lot, among the manicured lawns and carefully landscaped bushes, as I was walking from the garage to the Yale game yesterday. Maybe they meant "Really"?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Harvard's Financial Report (III)

Would someone who is better at math than I am please tell me whether I am crazy to regard this statement, from the Harvard Management Company's annual report, with extreme skepticism?
To maintain purchasing power, HMC’s investment professionals aim for a long-term annualized rate of return of approximately 8 percent, so the endowment appreciates even after a normalized 4.5 percent to 5 percent distribution rate. 
Two questions.

1. Who else in this business is these days distributing 5% on the theory that they will be generating 8% returns over the long run?

2. The difference between the planned return and the planned distribution, namely 3-3.5%, results in endowment appreciation only if the inflation rate is less than that over the long run.

And I don't mean the general inflation rate, I mean the rate at which university expenditures inflate. Hard to predict what that will be, but historically it has been more than 3%, I think. For example, "Our benefits cost has doubled in the last 10 years," says EVP Katie Lapp in an interview with the Gazette. Benefit increases are promised to be contained going forward, but Lapp continues that the offer on the table to Harvard's unions entails increases "ranging between 2 and 3 percent in wages."

Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how the endowment is going to grow or even stay level even under the improbable circumstance that the 8% and 4.5-5% figures are accurate. Are the quoted numbers any more than wishful thinking?

And if not, what is going to become of Harvard, especially if it has to survive another recession?

Harvard has a whole risk management office, which monitors everything from data security to the safety of day care centers. Are the governing boards watching Harvard's financial planning assumptions with the same steely eye?

PS. Note that the distribution to the Schools will not be 4.5-5% even under these assumptions, since 0.5% will be retained by the center, as I discussed earlier.

Verizon and Speech Control

We did not hear as much in the 2012 election cycle about the national communications infrastructure as we did in 2008. In the interim, the FCC adopted some some Net Neutrality rules -- providing that service providers such as Verizon can't pick and choose what to deliver to your house, or indeed whether it wants you as a customer. Verizon wasn't happy, but the issue didn't make much campaign news.

Over the summer Verizon appealed the new rules, and the decision now rests with a federal court. Verizon has taken a strong stand, on basic Constitutional grounds. "Broadband networks are the modern-day microphone by which their owners engage in First Amendment speech," states their appeal. So, Verizon and their fellow appellants argue, the FCC rule "violates the First Amendment by stripping them of control over the transmission of speech on their networks."

If the court upholds that interpretation of the Internet, the consequences would be staggering. As an Amicus brief filed yesterday by Susan Crawford and other experts explains, 

the law, and Verizon itself, have long recognized a sharp distinction between providing a facility whereby someone else’s speech is transmitted and expression itself. The Communications Decency Act, which was enacted as part of the same 1996 statute on which Verizon relies to attack the Open Internet Rules here, provides that “No provider ... of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Readers of Blown to Bits will remember this as the "Publisher or Distributor" question (p. 234). Verizon, having enjoyed its status as a mere distributor to avoid liability for the speech it transmits, now wishes to be treated as a publisher so it can at its whim censor that speech, and pick and choose to whom it is delivered. As Verizon itself said in a previous court case quoted in the Amici brief,
The minute that anyone, whether from the government or the private sector, starts to control how people access and use the Internet would be the beginning of the end of the Net as we know it....When a person accesses the Internet, he or she should be able to connect with any other person that he or she wants to[.] 
It is scary to think how this might play out -- and not at all obvious that a deregulatory-minded Supreme Court, if the case got that far, might not agree with Verizon that it should be left alone as a private party to block, alter, slow down, or edit the bits that flow through its pipes without government interference. And that would be the end of the Internet as "the most participatory form of mass speech ever invented," in the words of the opinion that struck down part of the Communications Decency Act.

Another reminder, if anyone needed one, that elections matter because the judiciary is the last protector of civil rights, including free speech rights, when the privately-bought-and-paid-for Congress can't be counted on to do its job.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Books that Watch Students Read Them

The Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus Blog (sorry about the paywall) reports that a publisher of e-textbooks is going to offer professors a new feature: The ability to monitor students as they read and report back to the authorities.

Those details are what will make the new CourseSmart service tick. Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.
The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.
 When asked if this isn't creepy, Mr. Devine says "Not if it helps you succeed." But surely ends do not always justify means (water torture might work even better, after all).

The comment thread is interesting. Some object because, they say, it won't work -- students will figure out how to game it. (But tracking eye saccades, so the professor can get word by word data for each student rather than page by page, will probably be next.) Others defend the practice on the basis that students can opt out (though that itself is arguably a privacy issue). Others complain that time spent reading is a poor measure of anything since students simply read a different speeds. Another just says "Relax and welcome to the 21st century," going on to explain some other electronic learning tools that help both instruction and assessment.

I think I react to this in other terms: dignity, maturity, independence. To the extent colleges behave as though they believe students are lab rats, to be trained through operant conditioning, they aren't doing anything to create intellectual excitement or an inclination to continue learning when unsupervised. And if higher education does not aspire to such things, we might as well be replaced by MOOCs, without those expensive dormitories, libraries, and student laboratories. If students aren't doing their reading, maybe we need to look deeper at why rather than resorting to surveillance in order to force them.

University Throttles Information

A grand lede for a silly story. It's connected to the previous post in that both illustrate this principle: Technology makes lots of things possible. The fact that things are possible and legal doesn't make them good ideas. Sometimes we need to take a step back and exercise some judgment based on principles to which technology itself does not speak.

OK, with that out of the way, here is the story: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON LIMITS REPORTERS' LIVE TWEETS DURING GAMES. Huh?

Well, you know the riff about "pictures, descriptions, and accounts of this game" that at least used to precede broadcasts of Major League Baseball games? Here is some current text explaining the limits of your rights to talk about a Yankees game if you buy a ticket and go to the ball park:
So there! It seems you are not allowed to come back from the game and tell your kids what happened. "Go read a report authorized by the Yankees," you are apparently supposed to say.

 Intellectual property!

This is silly of course. It is one of those absurdly overbroad and unenforced contracts that we all accept without thinking about it. In Fenway Park anyway, where similar license terms apply, nobody will stop you from taking a photo of the field (unless you are blocking somebody's view).

Incredibly, the University of Washington has decided that tweets by reporters are threatening an important revenue stream, the licensed transmission of live accounts of games. So they have implemented this policy:
Credential Holders (including television, Internet, new media, and print publications) are not permitted to promote or produce in any form a “real-time” description of the event.  Real-time is defined by the NCAA as a continuous play-by-play account or live, extended live/real-time statistics, or detailed description of an event.  Live-video/digital images or live audio are not permitted.  Each of the aforementioned descriptions is exclusive to the official athletic website of the host institution (, the official athletic website of the visiting institution, and any designee of the UW department of athletics.  Periodic updates of scores, statistics or other brief descriptions of the competition throughout the event are acceptable, as long as they do not exceed the recommended frequency (20 total in-game updates for basketball, 45 total in-game updates for football).  Credential Holder agrees that the determination of whether an outlet is posting a real-time description shall be in UW’s sole discretion.  If UW deems that a Credential Holder is producing a real-time description of the contest, UW reserves all actions against Credential Holder, including but not limited to the revocation of the credential.
So the good news is that this does not apply to fans--only to journalists, including "new media" journalists. On the other hand, it doesn't apply to UW press folks either. God forbid someone should follow the Twitter stream of the struggling local newspaper reporter rather than the institutional press office. After all, a university needs to be run like a business, and NBA teams have implemented similar policies. Gotta keep up with the times.

But a university is more than a business. Universities are instruments of human enlightenment. They should not be teaching their students that every bit of information has its price, to be extracted by the legal owner. Of course the UW policy acknowledges that college football is just a branch of the entertainment business. But along with the pretext that the players are students comes the message that real students, and professors, should not give away for free information for which they can demand a price. That message is contrary to the spirit of learning, and a university that sends it should be ashamed of itself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One Thing Leads to Another

Some time in the 1980s when I was teaching a big introductory computer programming course, one of my TFs brought to my attention two programs that seemed to be copies. They were submissions by two students in his section. I asked the two students if they could explain the similarities and they claimed they could not. They had not communicated or discussed their papers. In fact, they had never met each other and neither even recognized the other's name.

Students confronted with their sins often initially deny wrongdoing (and for that reason I no longer surprise students with such accusations -- I email them and ask them to come see me, so they can get past the denial stage while sleeping on it). But I thought for these two students to deny that they even knew each other was pretty bold. It gave me pause. As I am wont to do when puzzled, I brought it up in TF meeting, showed my assistants the two papers and asked them how they thought we should handle the situation. 

A couple of other TFs recognized the submissions as matching ones they had received. It turned out there was a chain -- everyone had been careful not to cheat with someone in their own section, as they knew their TF would spot the similarities immediately. They had not calculated that as the chain grew it might reconnect. The two original students may well have been telling the truth about not copying from each other.

Today such assignments are cross-compared automatically and not only are cheaters revealed, but the full structure of any web of influence is disclosed in an instant. 

I thought of this story while reading the New York Times news analysis this morning, Online Privacy is Also In Play in Petraeus Scandal. As the report states, 
The F.B.I. investigation that toppled the director of the C.I.A. andhas now entangled the top American commander in Afghanistan underscores a danger that civil libertarians have long warned about: that in policing the Web for crime, espionage and sabotage, government investigators will unavoidably invade the private lives of Americans.
Most of us are now used to (even if, apparently, not fully conscious of) some of the unusual properties of bits: that they stick around indefinitely, that they can be moved and stored at almost no cost, that they can be searched easily. And I am glad that the public is now suddenly aware of the low level of legal protection for your email, if you use a cloud service like Gmail.

But this case makes a somewhat different point. Social connections tend to be numerous and many of them weak. Gumshoe investigations used to require a lot of effort to track down who knew whom who knew whom. Some human judgment was required to discriminate between potentially strong or suspicious connections; a chain of three or four weak connections would get you so far from the origin and into a circumference of such huge size that it just wasn't worth following all the leads.

No more. The full social web of any of us is a scary thing. Even people without infidelity issues have second-cousins-by-marriage involved in sketchy activities. Do we all need to ask ourselves, for example, whether we should have been more careful about refusing small favors from distant relatives? Must every molehill be viewed as a potential mountain?

So I am glad to see that people are asking how it was that half a dozen mildly annoying emails from one woman to another led to the resignation of the CIA director, and what that says about our expectations for government officials and others. Let's get real: we can't keep losing good people this way, foolish men though they be.

But I also think Harvard is going to have to ask itself how much it really wants to know before it launches another "cheating" investigation like the one involving Gov 1310. According to the Crimson, this started when the professor reported 10-20 students to the College, which subsequently decided to compare all the hundreds of take-home exam papers to each other. It seems this was done by hand over the summer, not electronically, but the fact that the papers were easily retrievable was likely a digital phenomenon. I am told by relatives of students in the course that until fairly recently, the College was still contacting students with new examples of allegedly suspiciously similar papers submitted by other students.

One can see the scope of this case as evidence of a deep rot in the moral fabric of Harvard students, or even college students in general. I tend to see it more as the result of faculty negligence. Perhaps we will be able to make a clearer judgment about all that when the College finishes its work and reports the body counts.

In either case, it illustrates, as the Petraeus case also illustrates, the risks in the digital era of asking too many questions while in a self-righteous frame of mind. Why not have automatic cheat-detection software review all papers submitted to all courses, or all email sent by top government officials? Because the world has ambiguous and evolving standards (and while Gov 1310 seems to have been egregious, I doubt that precision about collaboration is likely to become universal any time soon). In a world of imprecise standards that require human judgment to apply fairly, the full social cost of surveillance, the collateral damage in shattered dreams of relatives and friends, and the intimidating effect on the community of making plausible but unwise accusations, will be greater than the benefit to be gained from the attempt to keep society squeaky-clean. We need to remember that just because digital technologies have given us tools to do important investigative work with unprecedented efficiency and thoroughness, that does not mean we should use those tools to the full extent of their capabilities. Such tools also allow us to create destruction at a scale that used to be impracticable if not impossible.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Harvard Financial Report (II)

After reading my last blog post, an alum in the financial world sent me this note, quoted by permission:
Isn't the bigger story that no one has been willing to take any responsibility for the mistakes and the overreaching that occurred in the past decade? Especially galling to me is the loss of institutional memory and the new paradigm that says nothing counts before 2010.
The alum is right, of course. Everything is about how we keep moving forward as we recover from the financial collapse at the end of the last decade; there is not a whisper about how we got into the mess in the first place.
Three years ago, Fred Abernathy and I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe highlighting what had happened. (Sorry that the full text is behind a paywall.)

IF AN ORDINARY corporation had the kind of fiscal year Harvard University just had, some of its directors would be gone. Long-term investments down $11 billion; another $1.8 billion lost by top management speculating with cash accounts; another half-billion gone in an untimely exit from a debt rate gambit. The institution left so illiquid that it was forced to sell assets and issue bonds at the worst possible time, just to pay the bills. A publicly held company would have experienced a shareholder rebellion - especially after the Globe reported that the chief investment officer had repeatedly warned the president about the risks he was taking with the institution's cash. …The Harvard Corporation is a dangerous anachronism. It failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities. Some of its members should resign. But the Corporation's problems are also structural. It is too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be. Until the board can be restructured, the fellows should voluntarily share their power with the overseers. And Harvard should reveal the risks of its business plans, as would be required if it were a publicly held corporation. That exercise in transparency would surely serve Harvard well. 
There have been changes in the Corporation, but some of those who oversaw the meltdown are still there, including Robert Rubin. There is no more transparency now than there ever was.

If the reaction of the alum quoted above is representative of any general alumni sentiment, the capital campaign may be a tough sell.

And by the way, what would be the impact on the campaign, or on higher education generally, if charitable deductions are limited to $35,000 as the New York Times today suggests may be under consideration?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Harvard's financial report

Harvard Magazine has a clear, comprehensible translation of the recently released Harvard financial report. The Campaign is going to be important, because revenue is not going up (if you set aside now-exhausted stimulus funding, research funding is hardly growing at all, and undergraduate tuition receipts are going down, inflation-adjusted, though continuing ed and executive ed are showing healthy growth). Reading the grim news, one can't help wonder about the continuing expansion in non-educational bureaucracy (here and there).

Particularly interesting to longtime Harvard watchers is what has happened to the "strategic infrastructure fund," introduced by President Rudenstine as a 5-year, temporary tax on endowments to fund the clean-up and development of the newly acquired Allston site. I well remember the faculty meeting where this was explained; professors were extremely skeptical. Of course they had no actual say in the decision, and the president explained that it just had to be done and we would all eventually reap the benefits. So how has it turned out? President Summers extended its timeline to 25 years and expanded the uses to which it could be put. And now, like almost any tax imposed by any government, it has become permanent and has been utterly repurposed. Harvard's ambitions for Allston are vastly diminished, and what projects are left are going to be built through fundraising or private partnerships. Instead, as the Magazine summarizes,
treating the 2001 assessment mechanism as an Allston-related decapitalization item no longer makes sense; rather, it is an assessment on endowment assets that defrays central operating expenses, and so, from an accounting sense, is an operating item: a financial-reporting change that reflects, in fact, almost revolutionary upheaval in Harvard’s fiscal assumptions, operations, and position.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

FDR on Romney

This really is oddly prescient, whether you think it is fair or not! Oh for the days when politicians could give campaign speeches in whole sentences.

Off to Korea and Hong Kong

I'm headed to Asia for some intense lecturing. Here is the quick rundown on the schedule.

25 October, 9:30am, Korean Educational Development Institute, Seoul: "Higher Education in the Age of the Internet"
26 October, 10:00am, Keimyung University, Daegu: "The Moral Role of Higher Education"
29 October, 12:15pm, Asia Society, Hong Kong: "Globalization of Education, US and Asia" (panel discussion)
29 October, 3:00pm, Hong Kong Science Park: "Innovation and Venture Acceleration in the Digital Era"
30 October, 12:30pm, Hong Kong University: "Flipping the Classroom"
30 October, 5:30pm, Hong Kong University: "Excellence With a Soul: What you should get from your university education"

What ever happened to Dinesh D'Souza?

Survivors of the culture wars will remember D'Souza's 1991 anti-political-correctness manifesto, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. His career as a a conservative had begun suitably enough a decade earlier while he was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. He continued to publish best-selling books, which I suspect were (unlike IE) read mostly by those who already accepted their affirming bottom lines: Capitalism is good, patriotism is good, Christianity is good, Ronald Reagan was good. D'Souza was a go-to guy for educated conservatism in many venues and fora. Here, for example, is an anti-gay-marriage piece he wrote a few years ago.

I lost track of D'Souza a few years ago; turns out he had become president of Kings College, a small evangelical college housed in the Empire State Building. He was an odd choice, since he is Roman Catholic, or was. And it was an equally odd choice for him, unless it was a sinecure that gave him a place to stand from which he thought he might move the earth.

Well, he resigned yesterday following a bit of messiness that began when he turned up somewhere with a lady who was not his wife of twenty years, but whom he introduced as his fiancé.

I don't care about his sex life, but there you go again. What a judgmental hypocrite.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A 30th Anniversary Family Photo

We often talk about the "Harvard Family," a phrase that rings hollow to some who find Harvard expressing the family love more passionately during fundraising season than other parts of the year. But after you've been teaching for awhile, it is impossible not to have a family love for people you knew years before, when they (and you) were younger and less formed. Santayana expresses beautifully the joy of working forever with the young, and yet seeing some of them in their maturity. "While we are young," he says, "and as yet amount to nothing, we retain the privilege of infinite potentiality. The poor actuality as not yet taken its place, and in giving one thing made everything else forever unattainable." That seems a bit sour for a Harvard professor, even given that Harvard admissions did not have the standards in his day that it has in mine. In any case, today's students have enough job changes that they can certainly count on more than one realization of their potentiality.

A few years after I started teaching, I started maintaining a list of my teaching fellows. I work with these students, including many undergraduates, very closely. Of course I pick only people who have already shown their promise in Harvard coursework, and then mentor them about taking responsibility for teaching and grading and helping each other be the best. It's a pretty amazing alumni club, including professors of computer science at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and a bunch of other top CS departments, as well as some prominent scientists in industry. The full list is posted here. I don't think there are any errors, but there are some lacunae in the early years; if by chance anyone out there can fill in the gaps I would greatly appreciate it.

Many of these people stayed friendly with each other and with me long after that intense teaching experience. In fact two marriages (that I know of) emerged from the intimate experience of designing and grading problem sets and sharing teaching tricks. I haven't had any children of TFs as TFs, though I have certainly had some children of students as students!

In the fall of 1982, I taught CS50, intro CS (it was then called AS11 and was a Pascal programming course). This was only the second year the course existed; today it has become legendary (see this lovely tribute to today's CS50 posted by an HBS student). We graded the hour exam on Halloween and after we were done doing that, the TFs were invited over to my house for dinner. One of them got the bright idea to get up in Harry Lewis Halloween costumes. I snapped this picture, which will be 30 years old in a few weeks.

Here are the people in the picture, in their approximate positions:

                                                                   John Thielens   Michael Cote
        Craig Partridge          Penny Chase    Phillip Stern                              John Ramsdell          Ted Nesson  
       Anders Weinstein   Lisa Hellerstein       Larry Lebowitz  Phil Klein  Rony Sebok  Beth Adelson
  Christoph Freytag                                  Michael Massimilla                                        Jonathan Amsterdam
Margo Seltzer

And here, including the people who did not make it into the picture, are their current affiliations as far as I know. Some of them are informed guesses. Again, if anyone can supply better pointers I would love to have them.

Beth Adelson: Professor of Psychology, Rutgers U.
Jonathon Amsterdam: Software engineer, Google
Eric Carter: Cardiologist, Utah
Melissa Chase: Department head, MITRE
Michael Cote: Deceased
Larry Denenberg: Software engineer, Tripadvisor
Christoph Freytag: CS Professor, Humboldt University, Berlin
Boo Gershun: Lives in Boston area
Adam Gottlieb: Lost
Lisa Hellerstein: CS Professor, NYU-Poly
Charles Hurd: Team Lead, Instruments Data Systems Group at Susquehanna International Group (SIG)
Philip Klein: CS Professor, Brown U.
Larry Lebowitz: Chief Investment Officer, The Investment Fund for Foundations
Joe Marks: previously head of Mitsubishi Lab in Cambridge and Disney Research, now with a startup
Michael Massimilla: Senior Director, Software Architect at DealerTrack
Ted Nesson: Senior Director of Engineering at Pegasystems
Craig Partridge: VP for Network Research, Raytheon BBN
John Ramsdell: MITRE
Rony Sebok: VP, Operations, 1 Beyond
Margo Seltzer: CS Professor, Harvard
Phillip Stern: FPGA Design Verification Lead, Teradyne
John Thielens: Chief Architect, Cloud Services, Axway
Anders Weinstein: Senior Research Programmer, Robotics Institute, CMU

A fabulous group and I am proud to know them all, including the ones I have not seen since shortly after the photo was taken. But there are two who deserve special mention. One is Margo Seltzer, who improbably wound up (after realizing a few other actualities) my wonderful colleague, a few doors down from mine in Maxwell Dworkin. She deserves a shout, if for no other reason, because she organized this Halloween-costume stunt.

The other is Larry Lebowitz. TIFF, which he now heads, is an investment fund whose investors are nonprofits. So it is possible that the modest endowment of your favorite small college or museum is under his management. Larry came to this post recently having headed a big hedge fund in Texas. He is not of an age to be slowing down, but he is of an age where he is thinking about how to do good in the world, using both his energies and his skills. I have kept in touch with him over the years because we are both Roxbury Latin School alumni; he has served RLS as trustee and we spent time together on that board.

It has just been announced in Harvard Magazine that Larry has given a chair to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a stunning act of generosity. A few weeks ago I got a call from the Harvard development office explaining that I had to approve the name of the chair. Why? I asked. Because it is going to be named for me and Marlyn (my wife, Marlyn McGrath, another alum and longtime servant of Harvard).

It is the greatest honor that I have ever received, and Marlyn and I are moved beyond words. Thank you!

Here is the announcement. Our names will not be attached to the chair until we retire; until then it will be the Charles River Professorship. The chair has been awarded to Rob Wood, our amazing micro-robotic engineer. It is a great choice.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A footnote on take home exams

I suggested in a post below that take home exams, if we are going to continue to offer them, could become a graver exercise if they were centrally administered using standard software, which would limit the time available for a student to complete the exam. It turns out that software already exists. The Registrar uses it to administer placement exams, which freshmen now take before they arrive in Cambridge. So all that needs to be built to implement my suggestion is a policy change.

Kindness Revisited

In a series of posts on this blog a year ago (here, here, and here), I raised my worries about the "kindness pledge" that incoming freshmen were invited to sign. In the original plan, the signatures would be posted in the entryway of the dormitory, so that those who refused to sign would be known to the members of the entryway. This year there was no pledge, but there was sensitivity training instead. I didn't pay much attention to it, but Harvey Silverglate and Juliana DeVries have a good analysis called Harvard, Where Civility Trumps Free Speech. If it is unfair in its factual reporting, I hope someone will let me know.

These programs grew out of the "community conversations" that have been run for years, in which small groups of freshmen read and discuss texts with faculty and staff group leaders. Part of my concern with the programs is that the texts are more politically correct and less challenging than they used to be. Excerpts from Emerson's Self-Reliance used to be one of the texts, but is no more. This year's list is shown below. Was there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will vote?

I have taken some heat from people I respect (I would not mind taking heat from people I don't!) because these programs are so well intended. There are some values we would like our students to have, not just for the sake of peace in the dorms, but because the world will be a better place if our lawyers and politicians and business leaders and so on are all more civil than they typically are today.

That is all true. But the reason these efforts seem so juvenile to me, beyond the nature of the texts, is that there is so little mention of these kindness values elsewhere in the institutional discourse. Silverglate and DeVries mention the litigation about tips involving the Faculty Club waitstaff; that is, perhaps, a bit of a cheap shot. A better example might be the amusement and utter absence of institutional shock that greeted President Summers' public declaration a year ago that the Winklevoss brothers were assholes. Here, in case you missed it, is what he told Fortune:
One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o'clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they're looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole. This was the latter case.
If any dean said at the time that it was unkind for President Summers to suggest that students who dressed up to visit the president were assholes, I must have missed it. (And by the way, I don't know the Winklevoss brothers, but it is not that unusual to see Final Club guys in jacket and tie, even when they are not going to see the president of the university.)

Of course there are daily examples of rudeness and thoughtlessness at Harvard--I would not suggest that such incidents are worse or more frequent here elsewhere in the Boston area, but we certainly don't talk about them much. (Boston is a ruder place than, say, Michigan--it used to be a signature of the famous eatery Durgin Park that you could count on the waitresses insulting you.)

So I think the Silverglate-DeVries critique is right on. The freshman exercise is more about peacekeeping, at some cost to free expression, than it really is about creating a kinder Harvard community. I don't doubt that the deans would be glad to see everyone at Harvard be kinder, but they are carrying out their limited mission in a vacuum and without a larger support structure. And while peacekeeping is a good and necessary thing in a residential college, in a serious university there are other, sometimes conflicting values at stake.

This year's readings:

A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama
Whistling Vivaldi , Claude M. Steele
Choosing the Color of My Collar, David Tebaldi ’10
Every Asian American I Know Is Smart, Frank H. Wu
Who Is the Surgeon? , Chris Barrett, GSAS ’12
Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska
Demographic Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Constructive Suggestion About Take Home Exams

A couple of the commenters on my Huffington Post piece about the "cheating scandal" (really more of a course administration scandal) have expressed puzzlement over the idea of a "take home exam" and the amateurish way this one was administered. As one of my colleagues noted below in response to one of my posts on this topic, take home exams absolutely have their place. So to leave for the moment my sense that the blame being cast on the students should be shared and hence diminished, let me make some pretty obvious observations about take home exam protocols.

One of the oddities of the transition Harvard has undergone from a proctored-3-hour-exam form of assessment to a roll-your-own form of assessment is that there has been so little study, guidance, or regulation about those alternative forms of assessment. The faculty handbook states,
It is the responsibility of faculty members to determine the best means of assessing the work of students in their courses. One option available to them is the seated three-hour written Final or Midyear examination scheduled during Examination Period by the staff of the Office of the Registrar and proctored by instructional staff of the course, at locations and times specified by the Registrar. Such examinations are subject to the following rules …
followed by many pages of regulations about exams--what you have to do about students with disabilities, make-up exams, and so on. As far as I can see, all that is said anywhere about other forms of evaluation is this:

Completion of Work in Courses without Three-Hour Examination

Course heads should not assign any work to be done during the Examination Period. Faculty policy stipulates that this time should be reserved for standard three-hour exams. Any final assignments other than final examinations must be completed before the end of Reading Period. 
Take-Home Final Examinations 
Take-home examinations are considered like other projects and not as scheduled final exams; as such they must be due before the end of Reading Period. When assigning a take-home exam it is imperative that the instructor be mindful of student obligations to other courses, some of which continue to meet during Reading Period. Course heads should be careful to explain to students in writing the extent of collaboration and any source materials that may be permitted in the preparation of the examination.
 As a faculty member I love the lack of regulation. But the lack of regulation is accompanied by a general lack of cultural norms, junior faculty mentoring, faculty orientation about evaluation protocols and professional commitment, institutional memory, and so on. If I were still writing big tuition checks, I would wonder whether it isn't taking the my-classroom-is-my-castle view of professorial prerogative a bit too far when a professor can assign four take home exams as not only the sole form of evaluation, but the only work for the entire course, and the College can then round up almost half the class for cheating (but not until the course is over). I think that if the "exam" protocol falls below a certain level of professionalism, the College shouldn't have to enforce its sanctions as strictly.

Students tend to take their courses as seriously or un-seriously as their instructors appear to. Sometimes the signals instructors send are misinterpreted, and I suppose that is what happened here.

After some chit-chat with faculty colleagues, it occurs to me that there are ways Harvard could ensure that courses signal that their evaluations are serious business. It could partly restore the sense that there was a grave, central authority overseeing even take home exams.

Flip the default back, making alternative forms of assessment the exception rather than the norm. Set up some standard mechanisms for timed take home exams, so a clock starts when the exam is downloaded and the solution must be securely uploaded within some time period not to exceed 24 hours. If collaboration is to be disallowed, have the tool scream NO COLLABORATION and make students type a statement that they have in fact not collaborated. Anything that would take more time than that may not be termed a "take home exam" and must be considered a research exercise, for which discussion and collaboration with other students is not disallowed (though of course sources would have to be properly credited).

And the take-home exam option would not be available to any course with more than X students without a personal, face to face meeting between the instructor, the department chair, and some appropriate central authority to talk about the educational rationale and the spirit in which the option was being taken (e.g., not because the instructor wants to leave early for the summer or hates proctoring multiple exams for disabled students). Everybody would learn something; right now the university administration has no way to know what these big courses are actually doing to evaluate their students. Pick X large enough that the number of such direct conversations would be manageably small and this would not turn into an administrative nightmare--recognizing that the present loosy-goosey attitude about take home exams does create nightmares.

(P.S. For those who can't get enough of this, there is a video now up on the HuffPo of a conversation between me, the president of the Crimson, and some recent alums.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Deregulatory Failure

Almost my first reaction when I heard about the so-called "cheating scandal" at Harvard was that with that many cases, there must have been something wrong with the way the course was run. With all the difficulties in adjudicating 125 disciplinary cases, each implicating the reputation and career of an actual human being, I hope Harvard will be able to avoid being influenced by its worries about its own reputation. That would make it even less likely to look in the mirror and ask what it was about its course administration culture that set this debacle in motion. 

The more I know, the more I think this case is a deregulatory failure. Professors didn't like the heavy apparatus of secure, centrally administered final exams, and when the centrally hired proctors were eliminated along with hot breakfasts as a cost-saving measure a few years ago, they liked it even less that they had to do exam proctoring themselves. Vacation beckoned at the end of each term, and would come sooner if evaluations were done before Exam Period began. Going with the flow of faculty sentiment, the administration flipped the default so some non-exam form of evaluation during Reading Period became the norm rather than the exception. The faculty, left to their own devices to make up evaluation protocols, came up with a variety of methods, some better than others. I doubt much time was spent in department meetings talking about this; no guidance was given to the full faculty, except that we should be clear about our expectations. The prose in the student handbook regarding collaboration was revised along similarly permissive lines. The newly empowered, lightly regulated faculty experimented with some good and some unwise evaluation practices, without supporting norms and cultural memories.

Since the scandal broke, students are reacting in confused and self-protective ways. A student told me over the weekend that her peers are avoiding classes with take-home exams out of fear that innocent coincidences will get them swept up in some future compare-all-the-papers investigation. Hard to imagine that is really going to affect enrollments significantly, but the fact that a student thinks so is already troubling.

In the Huffington Post today I have a piece called Harvard, Know Thyself, which takes up several of the points I have blogged about recently, with somewhat greater specificity.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Another Casualty of the "Cheating Scandal"

5pm update: The Bureau of Study Counsel has fixed its broken link and the excellent collaboration guide is now accessible.

It would not be surprising if confusion and fear about collaboration prevailed among Harvard students this fall, due to the large penumbra cast by the investigation of the Congress course. The investigation involves not just students who had cut-and-pasted but others who report that they had talked to each other, or talked to their TFs in a group, or worked in study groups prior to the exam, etc.

Just out of curiosity, I went to the Bureau of Study Counsel web page to see what guidance Harvard offers students about appropriate and inappropriate forms of collaboration. I recall, for example, that studying in groups is one of the things that students from less fancy schools had to be taught to do here--they are more likely to sit by themselves and stare at their notes and text books. Various studies, including Dick Light's very widely read Making the Most of College as I recall, cite group study as one of the keys to success. I knew a couple of students who always watched the videos of my lectures together rather than coming to class, because they found it better to stop and back up the videos and talk to each other about what I was saying than to listen to me lecture or interrupt me if they didn't understand what I was saying.

I was pleased to see that the BSC page on Handouts and Resources has a link labeled "What Do Teachers Mean by 'Collaborate'?" It seems to me perfectly symbolic of the present state of affairs that when I click on that link, my browser responds, "The file you are looking for may not exist."

I do not believe there is a culture of cheating at Harvard. But it would not surprise me if a culture of fear of cheating developed--a fear that extremely useful educational practices should, just to be safe, be avoided. The biggest victims would be the very students who would most benefit from working together.

At some point, faculty should be told that academic freedom notwithstanding, they actually cannot run their courses however they want, or that if they do, the College will not round up and punish the alleged offenders of their ill-considered practices.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Thoughtless Evolution of Final Exams, Part II

In response to the last post, several people (including a commenter below) have mentioned to me that take-home finals are not new to Harvard. And they are common at other universities, and indeed in other Harvard schools. So what is different about the College that such a disaster could occur?

First, to fill out the history. Yes, professors have been giving take home exams during Reading Period for years, probably with increasing frequency. Since what happens during Reading Period is not centrally monitored, professors who did not want to deal with the rigid protocols for administration of final exams during exam period were rolling their own exam protocols, in-class or take-home, during Reading Period. The College's decision to flip the default doubtless had something to do with frustration with having to grant so many permissions for exam substitutions. But it was dangerous to respond by letting faculty do whatever they wanted.

Some forms of take-home exam work better than others. The exam protocol for the infamous Congress class was that students had eight days to do the exam; it was posted at the beginning of Reading Period and had to be turned in by 5pm on the last day of Reading Period. So there were students who put off doing the exam, because they were writing term papers, having dinner every night with roommates who did the take-home exam right away so they could study for other exams closer to the time they were taking them. That was a recipe for disaster, under the rules that students were not to be discussing the exam with each other.

An exam that had to be done over a 24-hour period would suffer less from that failure mode. But if that 24-hour period were a particular calendar day during Reading Period, then the lack of synchronization between courses would create the possibility that some unlucky soul would have four of those exams to do in the same 24-hour period. That, of course, is the problem that Exam Period was designed to avoid! By having classes that meet at different hours centrally allocated to different exam slots, no student would have to take different exams at the same time.

Technology has created another solution. Today a professor can post the final exam in such a way that a clock starts the instant an individual student downloads it. Each student must upload his or her response within 24 hours, but the students do not all have to be synchronized with each other. Of course this does not eliminate the possibility of information flowing from student to student, but the structure of the protocol reinforces the message that collaboration is not allowed, in exactly the way the structure of the Congress exam signaled the opposite, whatever the instructions said. (HBS gives exams this way.)

All this raises a larger question, which I hinted at near the end of the previous post. Harvard has been giving exams for hundreds of years. Have we really forgotten how to think through that there are better and worse ways to do it? The protocol in this course was amateurish.

Part of what has happened is that the university administration is increasingly deregulatory---if faculty members want to do their own thing, it seems, we might as well allow them to do it. I know how hard it is to herd these cats, but the collapse of regulations, norms, and even memory is dangerous. For all that we have to say these days about pedagogical improvement, the role of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, the Conversations@Harvard series on the future of the university, and so on, there is remarkably little practical guidance to faculty on how to avoid these avoidable disasters.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Curious History of "Take-Home Finals"

Much ink has been spilled about the significance of the cheating alleged to have occurred in Harvard's "Introduction to Congress" course. There has been such a run on high moral dudgeon that the supplies must be running short. What does this unprecedented scandal say about the ethics of youth, about their eroding sense of intellectual property in the Internet age, about the blurred line between collaboration and copying?

I suggested in a previous post that a deeper issue might be that large courses are sometimes run casually, or may even promote themselves as easy and fun in an attempt to swell enrollments. Students tend to take courses only as seriously as their instructors seem to be taking them. 

Over the weekend I was out of town and saw several alums at a party. They all asked the same question: What is this business of take-home exams anyway? There was a reason, they noted, that exams used to be proctored--it's called human nature. The greater the temptations, the easier the transgression, the more likely it is that people will sin.

I don't know what percentage of courses now administer take-home exams rather than sit-down exams or some other form of evaluation (seminars are often graded on the basis of research papers, for example). I suspect there are a great many more non-final-exam-evaluations today than even two years ago. They may well be the norm rather than the exception. And that is because NO EXAM is now the DEFAULT OPTION.

Until the fall term of 2010,courses gave final exams by default. Instructors could substitute a different form of evaluation if they made a timely request to the appropriate dean and explained what form of evaluation they wanted to use instead, and why. 

Starting four terms ago, the default was flipped, so that instructors are assumed to be using an alternate form of evaluation unless they make a request, by a certain date early in the term, to give a 3-hour, sit down final exam.

Defaults are well known to be powerful signaling devices, indicating what is normal and expected. For example, otherwise similar societies in which people are assumed to be willing to have their organs donated after death, unless they specify otherwise in advance, have far higher organ donation rates than places where the default is the opposite. Even though in both cases individuals have complete control over the decision, by checking a box at the time of renewing their drivers' licenses, for example, the donation rates vary drastically depending on whether you check to opt in or check to opt out. So while I don't know the numbers, I imagine the number of final exams being administered has shrunk rapidly since two years ago when the default changed.

And why was the default flipped? 

Because fall term exams were moved to before winter break. 


You see, professors were not very diligent about turning in those forms specifying what kind of exam they intended to give. The administration could not make up the exam schedule until they knew which courses were going to have final exams, so the the exam schedule tended to be posted late in the term. It was always a nuisance for students wanting to make their end-of-term plans not to know the date of their last exam. But the nuisance became a big cost item when fall term exams moved before Christmas, since airline ticket prices grow drastically as December 25 approaches. And Harvard was paying for a lot of those tickets, through its financial aid budget.  

So the solution was to change the default--no exam unless you asked for one, by a certain drop-dead date. No form to return any more, no email to respond to, unless you specifically want to given an exam.

One other wrinkle: Final exams may be given only during exam period, and other forms of assessment must be completed by the end of reading period, which precedes exam period. So courses that do not give final exams (and instead, for example, give "take home finals"), are finished earlier than courses that give final exams--certainly done for the students, and potentially for the professor too, depending on the exact timing of the alternative assessment and how long it takes to grade.

So altogether, there are pretty powerful incentives not to give final exams, and nobody is telling the faculty that they are educationally a good idea in spite of the disincentives.

I include below the memo that was sent to faculty in the spring of 2010 explaining the rationale for changing the default. I was on Faculty Council at the time and asked whether there were any educational considerations in the change. What I was thinking was not actually that students might cheat more on take home exams; I wondered whether anyone who had looked at the matter had come to the conclusion that take-home assessments are fairer, more accurate, more revealing, more educational in terms of what is learnt studying for and preparing the take home exam, and so on. As far as I can remember, educational questions did not enter into the discussion at all, essentially because it seemed the change was being forced upon us by other decisions already made.

To be sure, one thing sometimes leads willy-nilly to another to produce unexpected and unforeseen results. Still, I hope that somewhere along with the sanctimonious shock about the morals of the members of the Congress 125, someone asks some questions from 50,000 feet about what really happened here that could have been avoided. Of course mechanical changes to exam administration are not going to end cheating, but they will reduce the number of cases of students who thought they weren't cheating but learned to their sorrow that they were.

To: The Members of the Faculty
From: Jay Harris, Dean for Undergraduate Education
Date: May 7, 2010
Re: Change to default policy for Final Examinations given in courses in the FAS 
Because FAS policy requires that courses culminate in a scheduled three-hour final examination, the Office of the Registrar currently must schedule a final exam slot for each course unless the faculty member petitions for a substitution. At the start of each term, faculty are prompted to submit a Final Exam Request form to the Registrar. In order to produce an accurate schedule of final exams, the Office of the Registrar needs to hear from every faculty member before the Registrar’s Office can release a confirmed schedule for final exams, causing serious delays. As a consequence, our students and faculty are not able to plan for the end of the term until late into the semester. With the change of calendar, this problem becomes particularly acute in the fall semester when the exam period falls so close to the holidays. In the fall of 2009, our first term under the new calendar, many students who needed to purchase tickets to fly home were forced to wait until November because they needed to know when their exams would be scheduled before finalizing their plans. 
The solution to this problem is to post the final exam schedule much earlier in the term, but in the absence of accurate information from the faculty, and with the default requirement that we schedule a three-hour time slot for every course unless otherwise notified, any list of final exams produced early in the term would contain many courses that will not actually culminate in an exam. 
On behalf of the College and the Graduate School, I therefore move that, effective July 1, 2010, unless an instructor officially informs the Registrar by the end of the first week of the term of his or her intention to give a three-hour final examination for a specific course, the assumption shall be that the instructor will not be giving a three-hour final examination and no slot will be reserved for that course in the examination schedule. 
Should the Faculty vote to accept this motion, Information for Faculty Offering Instruction in Arts and Sciences would be updated accordingly. I enclose, for your review, a red-lined version of the changes that would be made to the handbook. It is important to note that faculty who wish to assign some alternative means of assessment for undergraduates would be allowed to do so, but the alternative assignment (even if it is an exam, such as a take-home exam) could not, according to current FAS policy, be scheduled to take place or be due during the Examination Period. For graduate students, Examination Period may be used for assignments when there is no final examination for the course.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Courses and the Problem of Parallel Universes

(Added: Those who are unaware of the cheating allegations at Harvard could read this quick summary from Bloomberg. It isn't the most complete--the Globe and the NYT have reporting that is fuller, but behind a paywall.)

Though I have weighed in on other blogs with some reactive comments about the Harvard cheating issue, I have been reluctant to go on the air or to launch an offensive since my knowledge of the course is limited. I have read some but not all of the news stories, and have talked to a student in the course. The professor's reputation is at stake, as well as the students' integrity, so I want to be careful about seeming to attack or defend either on the basis of inference or speculation. Still, a few structural and institutional things seem to be clear.

The course seems to have sent some mixed signals about the exam, with a TF holding office hours during the exam, in which students could hear each other's questions about their proposed answers, and the TF's responses.

Of course, the exam instructions were clear: No collaboration. But 60mph speed limit signs also could not be clearer. If you go 63 for an hour and people are passing you, and then you pass a speed trap and see that somebody who raced passed you at 75 has been pulled over, you get used to the idea that maybe you, everyone else, and the police all agree that 60mph signs don't literally mean what they say. It sounds to me like some students were going 75--they were cutting and pasting--and some of the other students who have been pulled in were going 63. Hopefully the Ad Board will respond in proportion, though I think those 63mph students have some justification for rolling their eyes about their culpability. Those who keep insisting that the students should be punished because the exam instructions were clear will, I trust, not complain if they are ticketed for driving 63, like everyone else,  in a 60mph zone.

Another thread (represented in a Globe editorial today, and an op-ed yesterday) suggests that if there is an institutional failure that contributed to the culture, it's that the course was too large. Again acknowledging that I know nothing in particular about this course or its professor, I think it's important to parse that a little bit--it has a germ of truth but it's not quite right. There are great courses that are large, and there are awful courses that are small.

First, why is a course large? If the course is large because the professor announces at the beginning that it is going to be a gut, there should really be no surprise that the students don't take it seriously, but the size itself is not the problem. It's that students put out in proportion to what is expected of them, and a professor who says that his course is a gut has announced that he doesn't expect much of his students. Of course they may misunderstand each other about what exactly that means, but the professor surely intends to signal SOMETHING if he says that.

A course can be large because it's a good course about an interesting subject. (Harvard's intro CS course is like that.) For certain courses, such as introductory economics, it doesn't matter that much whether it is a great course or not--the importance of the material will create demand, if it is the only intro to the field.

A course can also be big because the professor is famous. I'll bet Niall Ferguson draws crowds, even beyond what the high quality of his lecturing would produce.

Big courses, whatever the reason they are big, create management challenges. There are grading equity issues. There are problems with having adequate TF staffing, especially if enrollment is unexpectedly large.

And there is the problem that the guy in charge of the course may have no idea what is happening on the ground, among the students. That can't happen in a seminar, and is unlikely to happen in a lecture course of 20. It can happen very easily in a big lecture course with a lead instructor who is a celebrity or is very busy with other things, and has left the management of the course to his staff. It is hard to talk about this without naming names, and again I would stress that I don't know the first thing about Niall Ferguson and the way he runs his courses. But you have to wonder about a professor, affiliated with both Harvard and Oxford, who brings up a page beginning with the following Google results when you append "speakers bureau" to his name. (Only one of these lists a fee: $40,001 and up.)

I don't imagine that the professor involved in the current case is operating at that level. But isn't he taking his cues about personal and institutional values, as he works his way up the tenure ladder, from observing the behavior of his more celebrated peers?

One of the unhealthy divides in the faculty (not just at Harvard of course, but at any research university) is between those who lecture, and those who actually look forward to everything that teaching entails--not just lecturing, but to all the grungy work of educating students, in small numbers for sure, but in large numbers too. It is a lot of work to run a big course well--you in essence have to teach a second course, to the teaching staff. You need to tell them that you want them to take the temperature of the class and tell you the buzz. You yourself need, at least occasionally, to hang around the places where your students are talking over coffee or hacking on their laptops. You don't need to be a crack bureaucrat to run a big course, but you have to act like you care how the course is being experienced by your most ill-prepared and insecure students. (Of course, the top students too; they bring you the greatest joy. But they are not going to be your problem cases.) Because if those weaker students don't think you care, and your TFs pick up the same attitude, then your students will try to figure out how to navigate your course--what those 60mph signs mean--from their peers, from gossip, etc.

This is the problem of parallel universes in big courses. Not a new phenomenon--Lowell noted one of the problems Eliot had left him by hugely expanding the size of the College. "The personal contact of teacher and student becomes more difficult. . . . Great masses of unorganized young men . . . are prone to superficial currents of thought and interest, to the detriment of the personal intellectual progress that ought to dominate mature men seeking higher education."

The incentive and reward system is stacked against this kind of student-faculty engagement. There are papers and books to write to get yourself promoted and enhance your professional reputation. There are conferences to go to, or better yet for your standing in the academic community, to organize and run. You may be able to save something for your children's education if you take on outside work as an expert witness or a speaker or columnist, while your TFs are grading papers and holding office hours. And the only data about your teaching that you know will go into your tenure dossier, if you are junior faculty, are your Q guide ratings and enrollment numbers, so whatever else you do, you have an incentive to keep those high.

I enjoy those invitations to Faculty Dinners in the Houses, but have always found them rather odd--do the professors who go to them never talk informally to students otherwise? The trick in holding a big course together is to avoid the phenomenon of parallel universes, where the teaching staff talks to each other and the students talk to each other and the two groups have little to say to each other. The system of incentives in research universities is not set up to encourage mixing of those universes; there are plenty of great professors who do it, but they don't do it because it will show up on their annual Activity Reports. It is hard for me to imagine that half of a class could be charged with cheating in a course where the engagement and mutual understanding was at a healthier level.