Thursday, February 28, 2013

In Today's Inbox

Several interesting pieces today, touching on themes in which I am interested. No time for a lot of blogging but here are quick links:

Today's Crimson has a good piece called The Fall of Academics at Harvard. The thesis is that Harvard students care more about winning and prestige than they care about learning, and that has something to do with the so-called "cheating scandal." I am quoted several times, and some of my comments are more temperate than others. The important question behind the thesis is, of course, who is to blame and what can be done about it. I think Howard Gardner's comments are excellent for the most part (though I wonder: do a lot of Harvard students really aim for Hollywood?). The absence of any comment from the University leadership is unfortunate, not sure whether that is a problem with the reporting or what.

The Nation has a piece called University Presidents—Speak Out! It hits on a theme that has been troubling me, the lack of moral voice from universities, and the tendency of their leaders to value inoffensiveness a bit too much. Unfortunately the writer makes the standard mistake about Larry Summers, casting him as the victim of a faculty rebellion triggered by his women-in-science speech, rather than by his role in the Shleifer affair. And I disagree with his thesis that university presidents can step out of their presidential roles to speak personally without using the university itself as their bully pulpit. As a commenter says, I doubt The Nation would be trumpeting the courage of a university president who went around the country giving heartfelt anti-abortion speeches. When you become a university president you do sacrifice some of your freedom of speech as you assume the moral cloak of the university, to the extent one exists.

And I just want to link to this blog post by Internet scholar Christian Sandvig about a professor at the National Technical University in Singapore who was denied tenure apparently for publishing an editorial opinion piece in a Singaporean newspaper discussing some aspects of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Hardly high-test radical stuff, but the university seems to acknowledge that it was the killer in the tenure case, citing "non-academic factors." Though I care about academic freedom, I wouldn't ordinarily get exercised about what was happening inside a foreign university. But Singapore is the home of Yale's new branch campus, and it raises again the questions of how the university is going to run a liberal arts college in a country that does not respect the right to challenge authority, even a little.

Added 8:30pm 2/28: Apparently the Crimson did not ask the University to comment for the "Fall of Academics Story." Too bad.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nap Space in Harvard Yard???

The Crimson reports that undergraduates are petitioning the dean for nap space in Harvard Yard. “People don’t realize how important it is to take a nap,” said the student who started the petition. “It improves your GPA because you’re actually more focused.” 

I should probably be glad that the student body has recovered from the cheating scandal and is returning its attention to silly ideas. Of course getting enough sleep is not a silly idea, but let's remember that virtually all undergraduates live in College housing, at worst 20 minutes from where the classrooms are. There is free bus service. Or they could just go to bed earlier. Does someone really need to say this sort of thing?

Recalling a previous piece of impish student silliness, I blogged a few days ago in Harvard Wins the Super Bowl, "at some point, deans really have to tell students to act like grownups." This would be a fine place to make the point before the university once again turns up on the Daily Show!

Monday, February 18, 2013

I am sure the tax code has its logic, but

… how is it that Facebook had $1.1 billion in pre-tax profits from US operations in 2012, resulting in a federal tax liability of $559 million, but will instead receive a tax refund of $429 million?

Because of the deductibility of executive and employee stock options. This is all explained quite clearly in footnote 68 of Facebook's 10-K, according to Business Insider, for those who know how to read such footnotes.

That's right -- while the rest of us are working on our 1040s, and while Congress dithers as the automatic budget cuts loom, Facebook is paying a negative corporate tax rate.

As it did for 2011. And for 2010. And as it will probably pay for years in the future, because after all that, it still has $5.8 billion of tax loss carry forwards to use in future years.

So you tax grumblers, stop complaining about government inefficiency, fraud, and waste. Just remember how happy you are making some people with your tax payments. Facebook shareholders are smiling; a slice of your check is going to their company, with Uncle Sam just acting as a conduit.

I am sure someone can explain this tax policy to me. I am sure it stimulates innovation and the growth of new businesses. But aren't those businesses supposed to start paying taxes at some point?

I suppose the good news in the coming budget crisis will be that if health care and medical research are cut, that will begin to get at the root of the problem, which is that people are living longer than they used to. It's a pretty indirect strategy, but in the long run it might work: cut government spending on health and the nation's population will start to move back toward the age distribution which the existing tax structure was adequate to support.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A sobering thought

I was with a group of Harvard classmates this evening, planning our 45th reunion. (Class of 1968.) One of them pointed out that the beginning of the Vietnam war is as distant from today's freshmen as the beginning of World War I was from us during our freshman year.

What a good argument for teaching history. The follies of yesterday's politicians are so easily forgotten, or rewritten.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Allston Mini-Golf Course

In the previous post I wondered what the miniature golf course was, adjacent to the projected SEAS site. Turns out Harvard opened it in 2010 as a community benefit, along with a batting cage.
“Given the success of the ice rink, we wanted to host another community-friendly attraction, as we continue our search for a long-term tenant for this property,” said Katie Lapp, Harvard’s executive vice president. “The Field and Fairway is yet another example of how Harvard is constantly looking for ways to benefit its communities.”
 Looks like it is closed down now, awaiting the arrival of the SEAS faculty and students, perhaps! I know they would use it ...

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cross-Campus Teaching

Hard on the heels of yesterday's report about SEAS moving to Allston, I just happened this morning to do some cross-campus teaching myself, at the Medical School. Well, the students learned from me, but I wasn't teaching in the usual sense. I was a clinical specimen.

Thomas Michel teaches MCB 234, Cellular Metabolism and Human Disease, which is offered jointly by FAS and (under another number) HMS. There are about 70 students in the class, 20 undergrads, some FAS grad students, and some medical school students. The class meets alternately in FAS and in the Longwood Medical campus, and students can attend the lectures in either location, watching and participating live via two-way video link if they are remote. Certain classes are "clinical encounters with patients," and that is where I come in: during the class on the metabolic pathways that are compromised in diabetes, I talk to the class about the experience of being a Type I diabetic. In such clinical lectures there is no video--students are required to go to the Medical School, and attendance is taken.

It was a fun lively class, and the undergrads showed up for it at 9am. In fact, they asked most of the questions, I think. And HMS is much, much farther from the Cambridge campus than SEAS will be.

In a few years, this sort of thing will seem perfectly natural. Yes, these are dedicated students, but it is not just one or two--Dr. Michel had to turn many away. Yes, the travel time is a problem. I mention it here only to say that there are upsides and downsides to moving, and things we may today consider unacceptable may turn into non-issues in a few years.

Of course the real secret to success here is not the shuttle bus schedule or the speed of the video link. It is the quality of the teaching. Dr. Michel is a master, funny and engaging. If I were a student, I would certainly get myself over there to take his class. On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that lecture classes for which students ALREADY don't make the effort to show up would be even more sparsely attended if they are simply moved, as is, over to Allston. So the issue here is not whether students will show up--it is whether the professors will teach in ways that make it worthwhile for students to show up. Because right now that is not a given in a lot of undergraduate classes. (Cf. this take on the "cheating scandal," which I promised not to blog about any more.)

So the move to Allston will put a different kind of burden on the faculty. We will have to learn how to teach better. But it is hard for me to think of that as a downside!

By the way, here is a nice aerial shot of the location SEAS will be moving to. Anybody know anything about that miniature golf course next door? [2/7: link fixed.]

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

SEAS Moving to Allston!

What has been the subject of some buzz and quiet rumors came fully out of the bag at today's FAS meeting. SEAS, or at least most of it, will be moving to Allston. We'll be going into a building on the south side of Western Ave near HBS and the i-Lab, now only partly finished and awaiting a construction restart. The primary driver for SEAS is the need to expand the faculty and lab space and the difficulty (impossibility, maybe) of doing that in Cambridge.

Several of my colleagues spoke today, expressing their reservations. I am sure this will all be reported in the Crimson and in Harvard Magazine tomorrow. I was prepared to speak but we moved onto the next item before I could be recognized. I thought it might be worth putting down here the gist of what I was going to say. (Not prepared remarks--scratched out on the back of the agenda while others of my colleagues were speaking.)
Thank you, Madam President. I would perhaps uncharacteristically like to play the role of optimist here. I would remind my colleagues that their remarks may read a lot differently a century from now than they do today. Rarely can I remember so many SEAS professors rising to say that they like things pretty much as they are! 
We in SEAS are, at best, on a local optimum in the development of applied science and engineering, and we won't be able to get off it without moving and growing. The issue is not whether everything we have today will be just as good after the move as it is today. The issue is whether the problems created by the move, mitigated and resolved as best we can, outweigh the opportunities created by moving. I find that very hard to imagine, given the constraints under which we are now operating. The future is over there.
Let us recall that the Medical School has moved not once but twice--once in the early 19th century and then in the early 20th. Both times, enormous institutions grew up around it as it became a center of medical service, education, and research. On the second move it was put in swampland that at first had nothing around it, not even the ballpark that would shortly thereafter be erected a few blocks closer to the city center. What would HMS be today if the president and fellows had been too timid to move it out of Cambridge, or to move it again out of its home down near the MGH? Can we imagine what may grow up around SEAS?
Of course the analogy is imperfect--the medical school is purely professional. Or is it? The Longwood shuttle carries undergraduate research students by the dozens over to the medical area every day. It would be much better if it could all stay in Cambridge--but it can't. Faculty go back and forth to the Wyss. Commuting is a nuisance, but the landlocked alternative future for SEAS would be a tragedy of short-sightedness.
The transportation issues are important, and I wish we had answers now. But this is an engineering and scheduling problem. It can be solved well enough. I remember how horrified the athletic community was about House randomization--athletes could never manage the commute from the Quad to Soldiers Field, they would quit teams, transfer to Stanford, etc. The commute is inconvenient, but it works;  now everyone takes it for granted, and the benefits of randomization are almost universally accepted. As the president noted, there is already lots of undergraduate traffic to the I-Lab too.
This is a momentous decision, one of those decisions that has to be thought about in a century-scale time frame. But let's remember that it is not a decision being made for the benefit of us who are here today worrying about it, but for the benefit of our successors and their successors into the indefinite future.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Harvard Wins the Super Bowl

Like most members of Patriots nation, I was not emotionally invested in yesterday's game. But I am glad the Ravens won, because I am glad Matt Birk, after 15 years in the NFL, has a Super Bowl ring.

I am not sure I ever met Birk, though I certainly watched him play for four years. But I have some warm feelings for him, because I quoted him in a testy piece I wrote for the Crimson in 1999, after the newspaper had run a ridiculous story about how Harvard was assigning too much homework, and that was getting in the way of students' love lives. Sometimes I just couldn't let stuff like that pass without responding, because the next thing you knew it would be on the student government agenda--at some point, deans really have to tell students to act like grownups. Here is where I quoted Birk:
During college, students learn to take responsibility for their own actions, to make choices and to live with the consequences. Sometimes these choices require compromising conflicting goals and values. So it is in later life. How can it be helpful to students' development as adults and as citizens for the College to assume responsibility for seeing to it that students do not feel they need to study on Friday nights? To quote a young professional, featured in The Crimson the following day, on his progress in his career: "Sometimes you just have to dig inside and find the strength to get out of bed in the morning. Mentally it's demanding, and coming from Harvard I knew I could do it." Did Harvard do this fellow a disservice, by not empowering him to feel that he need not work nights? [Love and Romance at Harvard]
Of course, I didn't say what profession this unnamed alumnus was pursuing!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lingering questions about the "cheating scandal"

Harvard released a letter from Dean Michael Smith Friday presenting what most likely will be the final public word on the so-called “cheating scandal.” Harvard Magazine does an excellent job summarizing and glossing the letter, and noting what it does not say as well as what it does. (The full text of Dean Smith’s letter is included in the HM article. The editor also seems to have been able to clarify some of the letter’s ambiguous language about numbers.) The New York Times coverage includes some skeptical notes, and my colleague Howard Gardner, who early in the fall suggested that the case might be part of “the regular thinning of ethical muscles in our country,” rightly now suggests that eventually the university should “give a much more complete account of exactly what happened and why it happened.”

That won’t happen, not in any way that would allow judgment of whether the blame and punishment in this sorry affair have fallen where they should. As I have blogged, I don’t doubt that the Ad Board has followed its procedures in coming to the various decisions it reached. (Except for one anomaly discussed at the very end of this post.) What troubles me, and what deserves discussion, is purely a matter of judgment: why harsh penalties were meted out to more than a hundred students (even probation has to be reported on law school applications, for example) when there were so many shades of gray in what students did and so much room for misinterpreting the course’s rules and policies. If there were ever a case that called for judicial restraint, this was it. In cases like this, the human costs of being too harsh far exceed the damage to academic values of being too lenient, or too cautious.

But we’ll never know the details. The first thing that would have to be disclosed in a “complete account” of the case is the name of the course and how it was run. The University has never confirmed that that the course was Government 1310 or the name of the professor, but that information has been very widely reported. The professor has made no comment and no representative of the department has commented either, that I can recall.

So most of what we know about the course comes from anonymous comments from students reported in the press. I have been in touch with several accused students, who did not know each other. All their comments have been consistent with the reporting in the press. Of course, that does not mean these comments are not exaggerated or might not be incorrect in some details, but the overall picture is consistent and troubling at two levels. First, would Harvard think it OK if we all taught our courses this way? And second, did any of the course practices create enough confusion in students’ minds that they did not realize they were cheating when, according to the Ad Board decisions, they were? Historically, Harvard has not used a strict liability standard—you had to be able to know you were cheating before you could be punished for it. And as I have blogged, the Ad Board in the past has used a high standard of proof and has paused in the face of flat denials.

Let’s look at some of what has been reported about the course.

The professor announced at the beginning of the course that he didn’t care whether students attended class, and that he intended to give out a lot of As as he had in previous years.

The course atmosphere was highly collaborative and it was accepted practice for students to share notes. Of course swapping notes happens in lots of classes—it really would be silly to try to ban it. And surely any professor who instructs students that class attendance was optional could not rationally discourage note-sharing. But if two answers to a week-long, take-home, “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” were similar because students had shared their notes before the exam began, did the Ad Board consider that cheating because it was a violation of the “no collaboration” policy that governed the exam?

 A student reportedly was saved from requirement to withdraw because he was able to produce such shared lecture notes when the Board demanded them, six months after the course had ended. That suggests that similar answers that resulted from shared lecture notes were not considered the worst form of cheating—but perhaps only if students could produce the evidence to defend their good names. [2/4/13: Fixed the link and removed suggestion that the student was exonerated.] Students have reported to me that they were expected to turn over email threads to document the discussions in which they were involved among students in the course, in order to refute suspicions that they had gotten answers from other students. Did the Board apply a standard of “guilty until proven innocent”? If so, how did that affect students who don’t save their email and did not plan on having to defend their honor, and therefore discarded course-related materials at the end of the course, long before they were accused of cheating? Were such students out of luck if their exam answers resembled those of other students? Would students be well advised in the future to retain all notes and emails relating to coursework until they graduate, so they can survive an audit if their integrity is challenged long after the end of a course?

According to the Crimson, the spring 2012 version of the final exam included “a short answer section containing several multi-part questions, many of which had a definitively right or wrong answer.” However the questions confused some students, apparently enough that the professor had to clarify them. As the Crimson explained, “Two students in the class who are not being investigated said they found many of the final exam questions were confusing, leading both of them to email their teaching fellows for clarification. Eventually, in two emails sent to the class on April 30, [the professor] was compelled to clarify three short-answer questions on the final exam in response to ‘some good questions’ that he had received about it.” Doesn’t the combination of exam questions with short, definite answers, questions sufficiently confusing that many students had to seek explanations of the questions, and the history of collaborative note-taking suggest plausible innocent explanations for certain kinds of textual overlaps?

Teaching fellows sat with groups of students and discussed their exam responses while the exam was going on. If two students in such a group then turned in similar answers, did the Board consider them to have cheated?

 A teaching fellow held office hours on the day the exam was due and helped students with the exam. If two students got the same advice from the same teaching fellow and their answers were similar, did the Board consider them to have cheated? One student said that “everybody went to the TFs and begged for help. Some of the T.F.’s really laid it out for you, as explicit as you need, so of course the answers were the same.”

Reportedly the professor cancelled his office hours on the last day of the exam, leaving students who were puzzled about the exam’s unfamiliar terminology with no official representative of the course from whom to seek clarification. The exam instructions said that except for its open-everything nature, it was to be treated like an in-class exam. But in an in-class exam there is always supposed to be a representative of the course staff available to answer questions. Why did the professor not hold his staff to the same standard about exam protocols to which he was holding his students?

One student reportedly turned in his exam on the first day of the eight-day take-home exam period, and months later was accused of cheating. After recovering from his shock, he realized that a mealtime conversation he had with another student a week after he had submitted his own exam occurred just before the last moment the other student’s exam might have been submitted. Is this student a cheater?

The bottom line seems to be that the great majority of the students accused of violating the Gov 1310 no-collaboration policy were found to have violated it. Was the emphasis at the beginning of the fall term and again at the beginning of the spring term on having faculty clearly state their collaboration policies then misplaced? Harvard apparently felt the Gov 1310 policy to be unambiguous—otherwise it would surely not have tarred permanently the reputations of scores of students for having violated it. Why then would this be an occasion for reminding faculty to be clear? Or if in fact the Gov 1310 policy was a mess, why weren’t more students given the benefit of the doubt?

Government 1310 was a well known in the student body as an easy course—a “gut” in Harvard patois. The Crimson reported that “Fifty-seven percent of students in spring 2010 and 67 percent of students in spring 2011 who evaluated the course’s difficulty on the Q Guide rated the class as ‘easy’ or ‘very easy.’” So Gov 1310 had set and fulfilled the same relaxed standards for several years. (It apparently became much tougher this year, sometime after the first class when students were assured it would again be easy.) When the chair of the Government Department, who should have read the mandated course evaluations, learned how the course was being run, why didn’t he or she do something to stop it? Doesn’t the Director of Undergraduate Studies, or some other professor in the department, shoot the breeze with undergraduates to find out the buzz about courses with especially large or small enrollments, and then feed information about lax teaching practices back to the department administration? If it doesn’t happen in this department, in how many others is professional conduct left to the discretion of individual professors?

This last point is the most troubling of all. This is a great university. I am proud of the teaching that happens here. I just met with a freshman who had gone to a good high school and told me how much better the teaching was in her fall term courses, including CS50, than anything she had previously experienced. That sort of news always makes my day.

Gov 1310 seems to have been a fun course (you can see some of the lighthearted lecture slides, including one featuring Homer Simpson, here), until last year, but a pedagogical and managerial disgrace. Huge numbers of students knew it. Perhaps the Government Department knew it and did nothing, in which case the real question the faculty needs to discuss is not how to encourage students to academic integrity, but how to get departments to monitor and take responsibility for the teaching their faculty do. And perhaps the Government Department did not know it, in which case it should be placed into receivership until it knows at least as much about its own teaching as our students commonly know. If we professors continue to deflect responsibility by casting all the blame on students, the governing boards should insert themselves.

I am back to where I was in September, when I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, very little of which seems, five months later, to have been misguided. There is far less need for the sorts of programming on academic integrity for undergraduates mentioned in yesterday’s letter than there is for serious faculty introspection, and even regulation, about the way we teach and evaluate our students. Because for all the faculty have been told, professors could all teach their courses the same way as Gov 1310 was taught, and Harvard would again protect the faculty and discipline another hundred students or more.

I don’t want to go after the professor in this course, apparently an inexperienced teacher who may well have been doing exactly the job his senior colleagues expected him to do: teach a popular course with big enrollments. If so, he is as much a victim in this affair as his students. But there somehow should be a way to talk about the system of faculty and departmental incentives and rewards, of teaching rules and oversight and administrative protocols, that made this situation not only possible but likely to recur. We are in a sad state if our fear of acknowledging our mistakes in their details makes it impossible to discuss and correct the larger forces that caused them.

What sorts of incentives and rewards? For example:
·            Professors need to ask permission to administer a traditional, 3-hour final examination. Until a few years ago, they had to ask permission if they wanted to substitute a take-home exam for a sit-down exam—and that permission was granted only if they could explain why the alternative was superior.
·            Professors who give a take-home exams are likely to be able to begin their summer vacations a week or more earlier than professors who give sit-down exams, because the former must be completed before exam period and the latter can occur only during exam period. (Mind you, I think a take-home exam can be well structured. But the rules encourage faculty to offer them, without setting boundaries to see that they are good.)
·            The student evaluations of professors’ courses are included in their tenure dossiers, so they are incented to make students like them.
Thus there are forces pushing departments and professors in anti-educational directions. We should be talking about these issues.

So to finish where I began, I think none of the lingering questions will ever be answered. Today Harvard puts out public statements about disciplining undergraduates, causing their names to be splashed across their home town papers when they disappear from athletic squads. And when we professors do our jobs well, Harvard makes sure the world knows. But when it comes to faculty negligence and departmental mismanagement, a code of silence reigns.

One final question this case raises, unrelated to Gov 1310 but instead about what seems to be a new Ad Board protocol. The professor apparently reported 10 to 20 students for suspected cheating. The College then reviewed the exams of all the 279 students and identified another hundred or so in which it suspected (and ultimately, for the most part, confirmed) that cheating had occurred. Will that unprecedented (as far as I know) procedure be standard in the future? If the instructor in CS50, which I think had about 750 students this fall, reported a handful of cheating cases, would the College then review all the assignments of all the other students to find other miscreants? Why would Harvard do that? In the midst of proposals about honorable behavior by students, doesn’t it feel like a kind of police-state technique?

I expect this will be my last blog post on this case. For those who are interested in reading more, here is the complete list.

9/17/12: Harvard, know thyself (Huffington Post)
1/21/13: Campus culture