Friday, April 11, 2014

One way to handle cheating

They Yankees beat the Red Sox last night. They cheated. The Red Sox TV crew noticed that the Yankees pitcher, Michael Pineda, had something on the heel of his hand. Pine tar probably. Sweat and dirt, he says. Dunno, says his manager.

In the fifth inning, it disappeared. Guess it must have gotten enough cooler as the evening wore on that he stopped sweating. Still, Mr. Pineda, I'd have your endocrine system checked out. Sweating like that isn't normal.

This has turned into a great moral debate in the media. My esteemed fellow blogger Richard Bradley, who has on other occasions taken cheating allegations very seriously, has a no-big-deal attitude this time.

He's right for a change.

Whether Pineda was disqualified or not would not have changed the outcome of the game. The Red Sox are not hitting.

Some Red Sox players even suggested they were glad Pineda was cheating, because that meant he would be less likely to lose control of one of his fast balls and bean somebody. Pretty generous, given that it also meant that his slider was more effective.

Like a lot of cheating, this is something for management to sort out. Farrell did not want to show up Girardi, not so much because "everybody does it" (they don't, to that degree), but because he knew that Girardi was on notice to fix the egregious cheating, and there was no reason to embarrass him or Pineda, or to cost Pineda a fine in the short run or a scarred reputation in the long run.

I'd say Farrell acted like a grown up, everybody on both teams learned a lesson, and nobody got hurt. Good.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Honor, Freedom, and Honors

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences last Tuesday discussed the proposal to adopt an honor code. The item was formally moved, so it could be voted at the next meeting.

Several comments were offered to the effect that there would be something wrong with asking students to write the formulaic honor statement repeatedly. No decision has been taken as to how frequently the affirmation would have to be made, and that seems to me a problem with the legislation. As the Crimson accurately quotes me as saying, there is a big difference between affirming one's commitment to academic integrity once at matriculation, or once a year, and reciting the commitment like a ritual prayer on each item of submitted academic work. (CS 20 students have to answer "check in questions" on the reading the night before every class. There are just three or four questions and they are multiple choice, click-click-click and you are done. Would they be expected to type out the honor pledge in addition?)

I observed that it seemed to me unlikely that a defiant soul like Emerson would have ritually and uncomplainingly written out the honor pledge for four years. Wouldn't he and some of Harvard's other eminent nonconformists at some point have refused? What sanction would Harvard want to have visited on such young cranks, destined for greatness, for the perfectly logical sin of refusing to affirm their own honesty? I am trying to imagine Harvard's great logicians, Quine and Putnam and Sacks et al., explaining to their logic classes that yes, "I am being honest" is a self-refential, semantically challenged proposition, but it didn't matter, they had to keep saying something like that anyway, because the Faculty had voted to require it of them.

Part of the rationale for the code is that we have a cheating problem, and schools with honor codes have less cheating. A literature review was offered in support of the latter thesis, but upon reading it, I am not convinced that it actually supports any such conclusion. (Alas, the literature review, like the draft honor code and implementing legislation, is confidential by the protocol of Faculty meetings, not to be shared with those who are not members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.)

Even if it were true that reciting the pledge made people less likely to cheat, I wouldn't favor it. "Why not, if it works?" Because there are values more important than effectiveness. It might also work to lower the room temperature or to paint the walls pink, but academic integrity is not a matter of behavioral manipulation by tried and true methods of psychological trickery. If it were, we'd just hire an ad agency. And getting people to be honest at Harvard is not the objective anyway; we want to graduate honest people. When Harvard students become corporate executives or political leaders or professionals, there will be no one there to make them recite the pledge that reminded them to be honest while they were students. Integrity has to come from some deeper place in their beings.

A requirement that students affirm the honor pledge, repeatedly, feels to me like an infringement of students' right to free speech, which includes not only the right to say what they wish but also not to say what they don't wish.  Rather than training students to recite formulas, we should be educating them toward exactly the opposite frame of mind, to resist and challenge attempts to require them to say things.

At the end of the day, I think the honor pledge is an attempt to find the solution to a problem under the lamppost that is easiest illuminated.

Students cheat for a variety of reasons. But one important reason students cheat, especially in catastrophic cases like Harvard's Gov 1310 or the Dartmouth CS course a few years ago, is that they feel they are being cheated. Students tend to work hard when they think the course is making an effort to teach well and to make fair demands on students; they cut corners when they think the demands on them are unfair, or they reason that lazy professors should expect little work in return. This is a version of Harvard sociologist Chris Winship's Low-Low Contract between faculty and students: "Faculty pretend to teach, students pretend to study, and as long as parents and others paying the bills are oblivious, everyone is happy." A major cheating scandal disrupts the oblivious compromise, but making students recite the honor pledge without changing faculty behavior isn't a solution to the real problem.

Here is what I think is really going on, aside from those egregious examples of catastrophic failure. The Faculty, as a corporate body, honors students for basically only one thing: Grade Point Average. For honors a student requires a departmental recommendation in addition, especially for High and Highest Honors, but a large component of the basis for those recommendations is itself based on GPA. Of course, even to graduate without honors a student needs grades that are above a very low minimum. So grades are the coin of the realm, whether you are struggling to meet the minimum standard or vying to graduate summa.

We do nothing to control the currency. There has been no Faculty-wide discussion of grades in years. Instructors used to get information about overall grade distributions, but such information is no longer routinely distributed.

The only person who ever asks about grades is Professor Mansfield, and he always couches his question as one about grade inflation, sometimes, in my opinion, incorrectly.

The result of the lack of effort at conversation, much less standardization, is that the grading practices of individual faculty members have drifted apart. The only people who realize that this is happening seem to be the students who go from one course to another and are surprised, at the end of the term, to discover that quite different standards have been applied. Sometimes students make life-altering decisions as a result of their very limited view of Harvard grading practices. Economics Professor Claudia Goldin recently discovered quite stunning differences between the way men and women respond to getting B's in introductory economics. If Econ gives a B for the level of work for which English or Computer Science gives an A–, the variability is important, regardless of the compression. (I have no idea whether that might be true, but we did decide a year ago to offer a SAT-UNSAT track through our introductory course.)

I have thought about things that my own Computer Science colleagues might do without a College-wide reform movement. We could certainly talk to each other about our grading practices, and we have started to do that. A more radical step would be to stop basing our honors recommendations so much on GPA. We might, for example, collectively examine and discuss students' programs, and reward, quite subjectively, the programs that are ambitious and daring as well as meeting some more relaxed standard of achievement. This would have various problems -- there could be inconsistencies and biases, and students would still have to meet certain College-wide grading standards to actually receive honors, whatever the local faculty group might recommend. It might be unworkable and it might be unfair, but the alternative is not without its own problems. Carrying out GPA calculations to five decimal places to check against a numerical threshold, when the input data are so noisy, uncalibrated, and unreliable, ought to offend the sensibilities of any proper scholar.

Students, to the extent they understand that they are playing a game (one course from each of 8 Gen Ed areas, so many for the concentration, grading standards all over the place, and your goal is to exceed GPA x in the concentration and GPA y overall, while relying on assumptions and gossip about the grading practices in individual courses), are likely to cut corners when they decide the rules of the game are meaningless and the objective is arbitrary but valuable. One way of cutting corners is to take the easiest courses. Another is to take the courses you already know the best, and from which you will therefore learn the least, because the only metric for which Harvard will reward you is the grade you receive. And another is to skim the edge of honest behavior and hope you won't get caught, especially in a course where the professor doesn't seem to care much about what students are doing.

I wish we could go after the real problem rather than the symptoms. I don't look kindly on cheating and I wish there were less of it (though I don't really have the sense that there is a lot of it in my courses). But to say that we need to respond with an honor code to our cheating problem, rather than taking up some of the larger educational issues that lie behind it, is a mistake. It feels like the patient has cancer and we are treating the acne, because acne medicine is what we have available to us.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Asian Universities Introspect

There was a conference in South Korea about university education in Asia, the relentless push for rankings and preparing students for the job market, and all that is lost when these objectives are paramount.
Are modern universities, asked Inwon Choue, president of Kyung Hee University, in Seoul, “begetting academic excellence without soul?”
That man has a gift for a memorable phrase.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is the Jig Up for the NCAA?

Yesterday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees of the University and entitled to unionize and bargain with the University about their work conditions. As William Rhoden of the New York Times says, "The jig is up."

I have been teaching a freshman seminar about the curious notion of athletic amateurism. It's an un-American concept, in its origins and in its implications; there are things that seem sketchy when you get money for doing them, donating a kidney for example, but generally speaking Americans don't have any trouble with payments and prizes. Amateurism is actually a British concept, rooted in the social class separation between gentlemen and laborers. But as a condition on athletics it does not survive in England, or in the Olympic movement which once celebrated it -- only in American colleges.

Whatever its origins, amateurism has been becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective fiction as the sums of money in college sports have exploded. Contrary to common belief, few schools actually make a profit on their athletic programs, because expenses have exploded too. But the sums made by the profitable programs have tempted many others to try.

To maximize their competitive strength, on which their revenues depend, the schools offering athletic scholarships have agreed to screw their athletes in various ways. For example, they offer only one-year athletic scholarships, so they don't have to bear the cost for four years if someone either chooses not to play or becomes physically unable to play -- or just turns out not to be as good as a someone admitted later on. If I recall correctly, the scholarship schools have collectively agreed not to allow any school to offer multiple-year scholarships, as that, however good for the student, would create too much of a competitive advantage for the schools that were able to absorb the incremental cost.

The Ivy League, which offers no athletic scholarships, is free from that form of abuse. Having no athletic scholarships also keeps the coaches on better behavior, since dissatisfied players can walk away from their teams without any financial penalty. It happens a lot, often not out of dissatisfaction but just because other opportunities become more interesting. One Harvard CS entrepreneur I have taught was a recruited athlete and never played a single game, having quit the team during the first week of practice.

The NLRB regional director has concluded, reasonably enough, that players whose continued financial support is dependent on athletic performance are employees first and students second.

This will be litigated, of course; the NCAA, which can afford very good lawyers, is not going to come crashing down on the say-so of one regional labor director. But I do think the jig is up. Between the Ed O'Bannon case, and some persistent, high-profile journalism that is laying bare the NCAA's hypocrisy, some things are going to have to change.

In fact, the remarkable thing to me is that the NCAA, which has been so successful in turning football and men's basketball into a national entertainment empire, could not have seen this coming and made some limited changes to their most ethically indefensible policies. They must have calculated that there was no reason to increase their costs until they were forced to. So much for the student-athlete fiction. And now they may not get away with offering decent protections against the financial consequences of injuries and whatnot; the big time schools may have to pay their athletes, which could get very very complicated -- since whatever other ripples that step might have, it could surely not happen without paying women athletes as well as men.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Obama calls for end of bulk telephone metadata collection

The New York Times reports that the president will ask Congress not to renew the authorization for the NSA to collect all the telephone numbers of calls made in the US, one of the most shocking of Snowden's revelations. Obama has also decided not to have the phone companies retain that information for five years so the feds could get it without storing it, a workaround that had been considered.

This is an important privacy victory, made easier for everyone by the fact that the telephone metadata collection never seems to have yielded much useful intelligence anyway. In making it, the president has accepted the argument of the EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which the NYT cites, and on whose advisory board I sit) and US District Judge Leon, who concluded that the program was probably unconstitutional.

(A note: In a previous post I overstated the opportunity for eavesdropping on US citizens due to the reported recording of all phone calls in a foreign country. If a call involves a US citizen, the spooks are not supposed to be listening without a warrant. Thanks to a careful reader for pointing that out; I have struck the offending sentence.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Only for Fans of the Printed Word

If you look forward to the disappearance of paper and ink in favor of digital media, you can skip this post.

If you think computer-typeset, laser-printed text is all the world needs, don't bother reading on.

Because when I say printed, I mean printed, with moveable lead type set in trays, inked, and pressed onto, really into, heavy paper.

Oh yes, and if you don't want me to ask you to make a donation, you'd better switch to the next blog on your list. I have never done it before on this blog, but I am going to break my rule and suggest that you give a few bucks for something cool.

Alex Green has run a small indie bookstore in Waltham, Back Pages Books, for the past ten years, starting shortly after he got out of college. Needless to say, nobody does this to get rich. It's amazing he has been able to stay in business. It is an old fashioned place, with unfinished wood bookshelves, readings in the evenings, no parking lot, and a proprietor who knows his customers by name.

He's been doing letterpress printing on the side. High quality small run things, single poems, short pamphlets and books, special programs and invitations.

This is a dying art. He used to use a printing press located near him, but it moved, so he now has to carry trays of lead type on buses. It is, as he says in this nice video, romantic but absurd.

He is trying to raise money to buy his own letter press, so he can keep up his art, maybe even give some lessons. Donations in any amount are accepted; if you want to go straight to the donation page, it's here. Credit cards are fine. He even has some printed items he will send you in exchange for donations at various levels.

I have known Alex for a long time; he is the nephew of my college roommate Larry Green. Larry and I had met at a science fair and remained friends after college, when he became a promising medical researcher. And then all of a sudden he died at a young age, of Hodgkin's disease.

It was actually Larry who taught me, deep in the night on the second floor of Weld Hall, the concept of the absurd. He argued to me in the language Kierkegaard and Sartre, and I lamely tried to argue back in that of Quine. A Harvard education at its best.

Alex is an honest man and a good guy, and no crazier than you have to be to want to live your life running a tiny bookstore and printing beautiful documents by laboriously setting lead type and cranking fine paper through a hand-operated press. He won't squander the money, and if you support him, then some day, perhaps, you will be able to get him to do some beautiful printing for you.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"What is College For?" Chosen as CHE Book Club first selection

The Chronicle of Higher Education has started a book club – a scheduled and paced group reading of a different book every month, with online discussion and an online chat with the authors. The editors proposed four books about higher education for the first book to be discussed, and my book with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, won the balloting. The format for the reading is presented here, and I certainly hope we can schedule an online chat about the book in April.

I have been thinking about public purposes as I watch what is happening to liberal education in Asia and the US …