Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Course Reviews

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.

This is a well known term that generally means people should actually put something on the line if they are going on so much about something. In that sense, it's a bit like 'practise what you preach' but they aren't really the same idea. However, "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" (hence forth PYM) is used by some people to talk about what people actually value. The logic is that PYM means that what people really value is what they actually spend their money on. Or, rather, what is truly valued by people is what their money goes towards. Sounds reasonable, right? We'll call this the PYM principle.

The trouble is that the logic of the PYM principle is actually flawed. Imagine, for instance, that you are a university student choosing what university to go to. Imagine that you can spend, and we're making up sums here, $30,000 p.a. to go to Cambridge or Harvard or you can spend $10,000 p.a. to go to some (relatively) local university. Now, in purely monetary terms a lot of students and their families cannot afford the first amount, but they could borrow. However, in doing that there's a lot that can go wrong: what if they don't pass/struggle etc? You're lumped with that enormous cost and the perceived risk is too large. They opt for the cheaper option. Now, is that really an issue with the PYM principle's logic? Well, maybe not because the sums aren't the same. But, our student goes to the local university all the same and they end up taking courses and borrowing money to pay for things (or not borrowing, that doesn't matter too much: they're spending the money however it is obtained). Sooner or later they reach the end of their first semester and have to make sure they've enrolled in the right things for semester two.

What's happened, though, is that our student has to pay for any and all courses that they take. Furthermore, they've finished a course that they really liked and found very interesting and they've also finished another course which they liked and found interesting. However, in the first course they got a C and felt as things were touch and go (in terms of passing), whereas in the second course they got an A+ and weren't really troubled academically. They can take further courses in discipline one or further courses in discipline two. They choose discipline two, that's where they put their money. Now, the PYM principle is telling us that discipline two is the course that they value more. However, we started off with establishing that course 1 was better liked and more interesting so that suggests the conclusion of the PYM principle is wrong. There's a reason for this.

In any decision that the student makes there are a number of factors that are involved. These factors may appear ordinal but they're not necessarily ordered in the following fashion. For some people, cost is low down and interest is higher: this order, then, is not representative (and, in fact, just what pops into my head first). So, anyway...firstly, there's the cost. Substantively, the costs for the courses aren't different (because we're not sure if substantive costs are meaningful) so they're irrelevant. Secondly, there's the level of interest and enjoyment: emotional factors. We've determined that there is a difference: this is relevant. Thirdly, there's the fact that the student is spending the money and needs a degree for the investment to pay off. Fourthly, there's the difficulty of the courses. There are probably other things as well but these are the things to consider for us. Basically, what we know is that the student needs to be able to get some sort of return from their investment (i.e. we assume that there is a high value placed on the money). This is particularly obvious if the money is borrowed but still applies even if it isn't (provided it's not coming from a scholarship*). This is huge and will dominate the students' thinking. In other words, the student chooses another course in discipline 2 because that is what is more likely to get them a degree.

What can we draw from this? Well, the PYM principle doesn't work because it may be capturing a different decision. It's fundamental idea is sound, but the PYM principle, as it is used out in the world, is used in situations where Person A opts for option 1 over, say, 2 and 3 to conclude that Option 1 must be the most valued option. There is a logical error in there because the decision factor that really matters may not have anything to do with Person's A valuation of the individual options. Rather, they could be considering some bigger picture as we saw in the example above. Thus, the PYM principle must be treated with caution and studied critically when seen in use (note, it's unlikely to be described as the PYM principle).

But wasn't this about course reviews?

Well, what we've just seen is that there's risk involved in decision making when it comes to choosing courses. There are a bunch of different ways of talking about this risk actually and there's also further ways of discussing the issue involved. Courses are services and are subject to the same problems that services in general face. As an educational service, there are also questions over the ability of a student, even having passed the course, to truly evaluate the quality. However, what we do know, in marketing theory, is that reviews are a great way of reducing the risk and providing some decision factors for students to think about. This helps students make better, more informed decisions, which helps them choose the right thing to do. Furthermore, we know that price is sometimes understood to be a mark of quality. But we also know, from economics, that when people make the wrong choices we end up with inefficient outcomes/socially undesirable ones.

I put it to you, dear reader, that there are, therefore, two arguments for why course reviewing should be a habit of more people.

1) Argument from Human Decency - Compassionate Man

Be a good person and help people make better decisions.

2) Argument from Social Responsibility - Economic Man

Help improve society by helping people make better decisions.

There's also another argument:

3) Argument from Personal Reward - Selfish Man

Yeah, that's me.

I have, on Student Course Review posted reviews, which are thoughtful and serious. for all my courses that I have received marks for. Here, (to date) I have three expansions. One on Infosys 110 which I either read way more than I thought or is the most popular blog post I've made, a joint Business 101 & 102 review (and, I have word that the course is different from second semester this year) and the third is one for History 106. I am intending on writing more expansions up, just with lesser detail for the older courses, and doing reviews for this semester's courses once I have my final mark.**

So, in theory, the discussion on PYM provides a way of getting a reader to think about the logic that I deployed in "formulating" the first two arguments.

*But there are usually terms attached to scholarships.

**The final remark, after all, does provide and indication of where the review is coming from.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Power at a Point?

This blog isn't going to be like the others.

You may have noticed that I can spend a lot of time talking about relatively small/contained things. For instance, the numerous course reviews that I have done. In fact, I can even talk at length about those (indeed, I am intending on writing a post on the idea of student course reviews found at places like studentcoursereview). You may have also noticed that quite a lot of what I do is based on responses to articles. You may have concluded from this that I have less to say than I actually say, a conclusion to which I can only say, "You may very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment". This blog will cover these sorts of things, but it's going to be... different.

Summary (of sorts)

two ideas

1) right and wrong ways of using powerpoints

2) student power -- just because there is a right way that doesn't mean the right way is what appeals to students
   If you look at Auckland you get extremely slide heavy courses and you get ones which seem to be enough, there are some levels of confusion around what is what, compare/contrast history vs marketing vs economics vs infosys. (clocktower)

Have finished with credits. Find whatever thing was talking about the nature of the slides because that article just discusses the student/PowerPoint relationship. Draw cartoon of student dependency on PowerPoint.

Conclusion Side:

The viewer wants but does not need explicit statements. Use picture of Batman... irony again. Problem is that I really want to explain it.

Broader point: decent slides aren't decent revision material because there's next to nothing on them. I hope that this is a good approximation of a decent PowerPoint what with visuals, the odd quote and point just acting as a springboard for things to attach to. As you can see, though, there's very rough outline, Possibly the point is made. Maybe it's not. In any case, I feel as if I have to stop with slides and now provide the notes that would go with them.

Okay, that's a little bit of a lie. But, broadly speaking, were this blog one of my history essays it would look something like that at first. What one does is read the thing, break it down and then think about what one wants to say on it. For a real world example, here's part of my essay writing process for History 219, the text in question is Jean de Joinville's Life of St Louis. The essay itself was a cool 1500 words +/- 10%, just in case that's relevant.
Conceptual Approach: identify the mentality around some sub-aspect and then discuss how that is approached.
Basically, I’ll be discussing examples. These mentalities are mostly revealed through the specific choices of incidents that Joinville chose to bring. In some cases, Joinville would have been aware that he was showing something: a mentality around what the ideal was. In others, Joinville would have really considered that he was conveying a medieval understanding of kingship because it would have been too central. You then also get the more specific parts of things.
The Military and Political King
                Conflict with nobles, esp. wedding
                Commitment of self to battle/combat
Just King
                Way justice is administered, personal level
                Mercy, not always free of reward for self (some tension here with Gaposhkin reading)
                Extensive reform in this respect
                Gaposhkin, faith as the source of this
                Poor/Those in Need?
                                Extensive commitment to aid
                                Way he tries to present Louis’ actions to his family
                                Joinville’s commentary on the king’s obligations to his nobles
                                Joinville’s refusal to swear oath (I’m not a vassal), that the oath is sworn
                                Clothes and sitting arrangements

Original Introduction Draft
In Jean de Joinville’s Life of St Louis, the friend and biographer of Louis IX presented Louis’ family with a portrait of an ideal king. Joinville’s Louis was a deeply pious and immensely wise thinker whilst simultaneously being a brave and just man of action. Louis IX was also an example of kingship that his grandson, Philip IV, was failing to match. The Life of St Louis is an uncritical text written decades after the events it describes by a man who was both close to Louis as a friend and to his power, in his role as Seneschal of Champagne. However, it is also text that does manage to capture a medieval understanding of what being a king really meant. That Joinville splits his text into the words and actions of his subject is deeply significant and helps show the dual nature of the king. For Joinville, the ideal king embodied by Louis is not a simple figure who exercises power effectively and runs a country well. Instead, the king has an understanding of how he should be and how he should perform his roles. He is both able to understand why he should balance almsgiving and support of his nobles and capable of doing that. While, perhaps, this shows Joinville’s own aristocratic concerns it is certainly a mentality of kingship.
So, what do I mean by lie? Well, I made a couple of alterations at the start to make it rougher than it really was but also to make it slightly more readable (which is also true of the above). Other than that, it captures my explorations of the idea at early and later stages quite well. In fact, it actually includes some ideas that I didn't follow through on. Which I think also ended up being true of the above planning (introduction draft excluded).

There's a further problem in that I haven't really recorded all my different sources of information. Consequently, this blogpost is, ethically, extremely sketchy. Basically none of the images are of my own creation but all are unattributed. The opening quote isn't attached to its author (although, hopefully, it only appears confusingly placed, not of confusing origin: if its author's identity is a mystery to you I don't want you to read this blog again until it isn't). Some images are also modified and/or combined with other images which gets a bit more dubious again. The last Batman one does have an attached credit and I must say, isn't it cool? To an extent, this is also far more meta than any reader could possibly have the capacity to understand because the thing that makes it meta? Yep, that's right: not cited anywhere.* This is not, as we see with the Joinville stuff, my standard way of doing things (e.g. Gaposhkin).** Making matters worse, some things are out of context entirely (e.g. the emulsion thing, that's an example of how not to do things) and some things have had their context forgotten by me (i.e. the Batman quote, which possibly means the point I hope it makes is not the point it is making).

But, the way this has been laid out is quite deliberate. There is a perception that people want something handed to them on a platter. Instead of progression to the point, people want the point. This is, generally, true. When I consume mystery fiction (which includes the likes of CSI as well as proper stuff like the Speckled Band) I generally do not try and figure out the answer. To an extent, this is because I am not particularly good at it. However, what I do think I am good at, is understanding implicit points, In fact, it is a source of deep frustration for me that implicit points, as opposed that have been explicitly pointed out in neon lights that scream "the point! the point!," are often not understood. And here we have something that is almost entirely implicit. The "draft" does wrap up these ends, though, because I want the damn pay-off: for people to see what I mean and hopefully think it clever (ah, blogs). Here I am the audience and all readers are my actors pottering across the stage.

So, what has actually happened here?

Well, in an ideal world a slide show acts as something to ground the speech or provide interest. In this sense, when you look at the slides, you get, at best, an idea of what it's all about. Let's consider this "slide show".

Firstly, we have a title slide which introduces, very vaguely, what the subject of the thing is. The next three slides are intended to function as platforms to talk about the article itself. Notice how they parallel with the summary in the "draft"? These slides form the core of the initial discussion as they set up some room for me to comment on the views but mostly it is description rather than analysis. That background in the second of the "Ralph slides" is from my Accounting 101 coursebook. That's my handwriting and those are my drawings. I would, potentially, note them here but, ultimately, they are more relevant later on.

The next slide continues from Ralph's conclusions. We have an article from Minding the Campus on on one of his exact points (as best I remember) and a slide from someone else's show which discusses student behaviour and perception in practice. In other words, you see, right there in that slide, that something that worked wasn't preferred (remember Ralph's arguments?). Next up we get a bunch of quotes from students at the same university as Ralph and myself (including one where he presumably knows the lecturer mentioned). These indicate that the picture is actually more complex (ironic given some of the article's remarks) because here we have students criticising lecturers for "reading off the slides". I would talk about this for a bit in terms of what that means for the argument and how the apparent dissonance is resolvable. Then we move into something that really goes further than merely just beyond Ralph because that slide is about the mechanics of the slide show in general. What makes a good slide, what does a good slide show look like? There's potentially a problem here (and with the previous slide) because I have tried to make these slides something that would work as part of a proper presentation but there may be too much going on. The slide after that draws the previous two slides together. These are actual experiences: various different actual university slides (now I have legal and ethical concerns, any copyright complaints will result in removed materials, rest assured) and another version of a coursebook which is nothing but slides (mostly). Issues of representativeness do arise here, of course. Such things need discussing.

Finally, we hit the conclusions. To be honest, I am not sure what I would say at this point. I often prefer to be implicit as the explicit statement is harder to make in some cases (can't quite find the words?), The Batman that follows it, though, is, as the draft points out, where we can sort of wrap things up.


"The viewer wants but does not need explicit statements." When we are looking at university slides there is, often, a bit of an identity crisis going on. For instance, does one write the slide down first or what the lecturer is saying? It gets a bit messy rather quickly and as history courses are breakneck "He who hesitates is lost" is far too apt in a literal sense. But the bigger thing is, how do the slides actually relate to the rest of the course? Do lectures complement the textbook? The textbook the lectures? Do lectures have everything that one needs to know? Does the textbook? It is no surprise that "Do I need to read the textbook?" is a common question. The easiest way of doing things is if there is just one thing so, generally, the textbook disappears in resolutions.

However, this means that Ralph, in some sense, really needs to consider the entire course more or, at least, from a different perspective. History, in my experience, doesn't have these problems. The readings are understood as an integral part of what goes on, with lectures containing what needs to be known and everything else you can do builds upon the lectures. Thus, some courses need to be much clearer about whether the lectures develop the textbook or if it's vice versa. The University of Auckland, in my eyes, can be extremely haphazard about how learning resources fit together. Business 101 and 102 avoided this problem because they were explicitly flipped whereas I think, perhaps, Infosys 110 wanted to be flipped but was ambiguously so (all I know for sure is that the textbook definitely helps, so read it damn it).

But, getting to Batman specifically, what you have to understand is that user pays means that there is a definite cost associated with failure and the primary aim, in some sense, is just making sure you don't fail. What the modern student is after is a degree, not an education. The mind-boggling separation of these ideas, to my mind, has led to a world where passing the exam/course is the particular thing to do.† In such a conception, the thing that is wanted is a single source which can be studied from and used to pass the exam. To such an end, what the student wants is very comprehensive slides. Hence, "The slides the student deserves but not the one the student needs right now" is the better slide. The solution, is pretty obvious, train lecturers in how to create good (or, at least, better slides) and hope the students are not so stupid as to think what is on very bare bones slides is the point. If the course looks like it should be one way, students will think it should be that way. If the course seems ambiguous then they well conclude: "Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticised for not providing proper notes."

Oh, and consistency between lecturers is crucial. One of the big issues with Marketing 201 is that the first lecturer we had (Karen) did things in a way where there was a clear relationship between different materials. Margot was a bit less clear but it wasn't a biggie. Sandy... oh, Jesus Christ. We went from one mentality and did a complete 180, it was a mess. It didn't help that the slides were of the fill in the blank kind which meant what is on them matters and what is being talked about does too, but if you are not typing it is very difficult to keep up. This is easily avoided by having less on slides (which is probably good for typists as well because they have to pay more complete attention).

Note, in general, what I think people want, and what I certainly want, is for lectures to be sufficient to pass with everything else building on that, or for lectures to make sense of some other resource. For instance, Stats 20x. Most of the information, if not all of it, is right there in the handout but, for me, going to the lectures and paying attention was what made it make sense.

*Because this, if I stuck with this this long, would drive me insane (and I am not, by nature, cruel), somewhere I read a criticism that sources of information are just lifted without attribution. What has happened to create this slideshow? Exactly.

**There's a law called conservation of detail (well, to TV tropers there is) and here it's mucked around with a bit. My work on Joinville is tangentially connected to some remarks on a website I came across whilst looking for some more images for the fourth slide called Unemployed Professors. That site is an ethical nightmare (and also really really concerning for people like me) but it did have a few interesting looking blogs to the 1am mind. A number of these related to how one writes papers and whatnot. So, there you have an explanation of sorts but still no picture credits because, hey, the site didn't have anything I was looking for. 

†Again, not wholly original an idea. It's largely based on something I read as part of writing this blog and now I have forgotten where exactly it came from. I'm still university student, I am unlikely to have reached an opinion like this based on observation.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Not Number Twenty-Eight

I've put this out there a few times now: I am not keen on blogging. I see it as a largely narcissistic endeavour that is more interested in talking than holding a conversation (this is a common view among forumites). Yet, as should be clear, I am a reasonably prolific blogger who has made around three posts a month for the year to date. June and July will quite likely have more posts than that (this is June's fourth). I write these with a particular awareness of the narcissism because a) I spend a lot of time writing about me and b) there is no evidence of any readership beyond me. But I want a readership for two reasons. There's the obvious implication of the preceding discussion (i.e. my ego demands a readership... as opposed to a haphazard few readers/site visitors) but I really want to talk about this stuff that I write about. In some sense, then, this blog exists primarily as a socially acceptable version of talking to myself. I am sounding out ideas and trying to host conversations that don't really exist in the way I want them to,

It's pretty clear what sort of conversations I am interested in. Look at the labels with more than twelve instances. We have: Education (27), New Zealand (19), auckland university (17), personal views (12) and achievement (12). Now, that personal views one is pretty nebulous as it covers my thoughts on big things like Art and Charity, a couple of extended course-reviews that build on my comments at student course review and a couple of reflections (mostly on uni but also one on Lord of the Flies). Basically, personal views has been used to mark anything where my opinions could be somewhat controversial (Art and Charity) as well as to signpost some necessary things about "This is the opinion of one particular dude". Oh, well, I am not the world's best labeller. However, I am good enough at it that one can clearly see that there is an interest in primarily education and secondarily New Zealand. That's something to bear in mind.

Earlier today I decided to have a look at Reddit. I don't like Reddit. It takes a good idea (i.e. a forum) but incorporates a very Facebook/Twitter mentality which results in the upvote mechanism which is horrible. I guess this explains its broader appeal. It's dissimilar enough from Facebook to cultivate an air of superiority among Redditors yet the way it works fundamentally appeals to the mindset of the younger internet user (which is, theoretically, me but I believe Reddit's average age is mid-twenties, which is not me: these are people old enough to feel as though there is something objective justification to sentiments like "the internet's gone downhill"). End rant. The point I was trying to establish (and I know that I can just edit out the reddit rant but this feels more organic) is that I looked at r/uni (goes to a specific US university), r/university (not really active approx. 500 members) and even r/college (which was exactly as American as I expected it to be). I went out to one of the larger and certainly one of the more granular sites out there looking for a conversation and I did not find it.

As the people who I did Business 101 and also those who joined my for Business 102 would know, I am big on relevance. Not in the way the pathetic whiners who go, "But, sir, when will we ever use complex numbers? quadratics?" do but in the sense that when we are given examples to help us understand concepts, they need to be relevant otherwise they aren't fit for purpose. This is a big issue with the Bovee and Thill textbook that we had for Business (both courses): how many people had ever heard of Red Ants Pants? Examples like that became more like product placement than the learning tools I hope they were intended to be (although, hey, could be both: hence the hope). The whiners miss the point whereas my questions of relevance cut deeply at the core of the point.

that being said, in all fairness to the whiners, my views are influenced by my anti-American sentiments: we live in NZ dammit, is it too much to ask to have a little NZ output? The answer, of course, is yes. We are stuck with soap operas and reality television (which, these days, also includes our news because it is like a weird perverted blend between Keeping up with Kardashians, weather reports and infotainment. The first bit happens because most of NZ's celebrities are theoretically newsreaders). In other words, we are either stuck with convoluted plot lines that only make sense because they indoctrinate hook viewers from a young age (the outside observer is aware of just how weird things really are), or we get fake realness. At no point does NZ ever produce anything capable of representing part of a conversation. Hell, even things as contained as CSI are capable of joining discussions on things like prostitution, drug and gun control or terrorism. We don't do docos either. This runs extremely deeply. But we also see that this little attack on the state of NZ's media is also a reaction to US cultural imperialism.

US Cultural Imperialism is a somewhat dubious term. After all, our broadcasters choose to view the material and I choose, every now and again, to watch things like the Unigene Buzzfeed video. The term should probably really be US Cultural Dominance where everything else is crowded out. Of course, there is another angle... imperialism is relevant because it's pervaded our mindset. The US has, in the past and continues to do so today, to preach a particular message which is a romanticised idealisation of the way that the US is. For countries like NZ this is problematic. We have a twisted mindset where we both share and make feeble objections to the way the US is. But our broadcasters are even more stuck because we are enough like the US that we sort of seem to respond in certain ways and our population is too small to make certain things economical. So a lot of data is really US data, and we don't produce anything because our population is too small. Except, this isn't really true. If we weren't convinced by quirks of history and US policy that there was something righteous about that romantic view, then we'd actually have something akin to the BBC or the ABC. But, no, TVNZ is nothing like either of those and TV3 is not our version of ITV. They used to be closer, not even that long ago, but now we have made conscious decisions to destroy any uniqueness of NZ culture. Instead we are content with a few mythologies around biculturalism, rugby and environmental friendliness, all of which become less true as each second ticks by.

So, what does that mean in the context of this blog? Well, it's a fairly reactionary thing, is it not? We have a blog, then, that exists largely to try and talk about a particular experience of university in NZ. In theory, Craccum is where it should happen but Craccum's in a bit of an identity crisis (sand slightly more popular than this unread blog) and the current editors are... I guess the best way of putting it is that to me, the editors and I are currently embroiled in a spat in the letters section so we're not getting along. Also, the commute to uni model that I adopt has been declared, in no uncertain terms, a Bad Thing by one of the columnists so yeah. Which, I guess, why it was probably easier, in this particular instance, to point out a few core things rather than start the discussion. Which is the problem with blogging. Without comments, without equal input, there is no real genesis of ideas except whatever happens to take my fancy. That's a big problem if you are trying, on some level, to hold a different (and hopefully better) conversation. These last three blogs all came from a list of topics conceived late at night in the wee hours. Some were written quite late as well. I want to talk about Education in NZ, usually specifically University in NZ, and sometimes NZ more generally.

But, yeah, a clever reader may have noticed that I do like talking about myself and, indeed, just generally want to be talking about things directly relevant to me. It's a very Harry-centric viewpoint... I now even read purely because I catch trains (although, hey, it is very interesting).

Who Are You?

There is a post that I hope to finish one day about the High School in US Films. Okay, actually, it's more a quote an article on that topic and insert my responses a la, well, there are too many to link. There's even one based on a Buzzfeed video. But I mention this because one of the most fundamental and striking things about that particular genre is the social hierarchy. That is, there are jocks/cheerleaders (the male and female equivalents) at the top, and nerds and geeks down at the bottom. In between there is a host of other different identities that may or may not include the obligatory Goth. Possibly there is a rebel who transcends the standard hierarchy: too tough to push around, too disinterested to push anyone around. You know it. If you don't try the likes of Mean Girls or Glee or something.

I don't really believe that this system above exists, even in America where this output invariably comes from. More realistically you are going to get something like what happens in Harry Potter where there's your central friend group (Harry, Ron and Hermione), some people you might not get on with so well (Draco, Gregory and Vincent), some better friends (Neville, Luna and Ginny in particular) and everyone else who is basically your friend (think the likes of Seamus, Anthony and Ernie). A lot of people probably don't have the second category so much (I can't really say that this was the case at college, although it did exist in primary). Even more realistically there will be a bunch of loose clusters of people and a few people who drift between a number of different clusters to help emphasise just how much they overlap. This can cause problem at uni though because this way of making friends, based on continual interaction in person, doesn't really happen for people outside halls. But, before we go further, why do people accept the stereotype promulgated by US media?

Well, one of the other striking things about the media is the uniformity and small-scale. My school had 2000 pupils give or take a few hundred: my cohort was roughly the size of my primary school (around 400). In these media depictions we deal with enough characters to meet and remember and everyone knows each other. Spacially everything's also fairly restricted (and this is a point in the article that inspired the as yet incomplete other post) so everyone's thrown in together (this helps create the article's prison metaphor). These aren't realistic but once we accept the media's invitation to accept these facets the above makes sense. Suddenly, people are defining themselves with respect to a population who they are basically never apart from. This is a bit like me at primary with only around 50 people in the year and we spent most of our time in a class with half of them. But the point to take away from all this set up is identity. Everyone has an idea of who they are and that idea is heavily influenced by the people around them.

Identity is a pretty big and powerful word but, generally, I don't think people really every voice their identities unless it comes under tension. Remember when Unigene complained about Asian Excellence? That is, to an extent, the exact sort of challenge that causes people to deal with their identities. Imagine, for instance, that Unigene defined himself as one of the smart people (and this is a reasonable interpretation of the character going by a number of the scenes within the sketch come to think of it). Suddenly, when confronted by the fact that at university there are a lot of clever people and a harder workload, Unigene stops doing as well whether absolutely or relatively. Now, to an extent, I am projecting/reading myself in here. This is, in some ways, my experience. I've had it twice, actually. Firstly, and less seriously because I could become one of the smarter people, when encountering the eventual dux of my college way back when and then again when dealing with the maths courses at uni and one or two essays/course marks. I guess this is reinforced by the fact that my one time closest friend (and eventual dux at the college he went to) who I reckoned should've been dux at primary now seems leagues ahead of me whereas back at primary this was not an idea I entertained. One's self identity, then, in my view, tends to a rather vague and fairly broad assessment like: a smart person. This identity is challenged by changing circumstances... by meeting more smart people, by finding more challenging things for instance.

People, of course, define themselves in a variety of ways. One of my friends, who defined himself similarly, seems to be embracing his ethnicity to a greater extent than is usual and certainly previously (although this was always a feature of him). I am... you know, I am not sure. I guess I am trying to be a smart slacker now. Which is why I really should get to be so I can get some sort of half decent study in for subjects I am woefully under-prepared for Thursday's exams on. This is a bad identity but, I guess, it's better than trying to, as one might at school, become a behaviour problem... which is a common reaction when dealing with the fact that one's perceived role is saturated. I think I saw this happening although the chronology, now that I think about it, doesn't quite add up. The dude in question and I had a, shall we say, complex and occasionally hostile relationship. On at least one occasion it came to blows... my younger self was reasonably quick to resort to violence. Which is, in fact, how this question plays out in Digimon Adventure where we have tension between Matt and Tai, which is largely as a result of Matt's struggle with who he is. On one hand, Matt openly talks about how everyone else seems to have grown whereas he hasn't (this is a different aspect of identity). On the other, we get a less explicitly explored aspect of why one can and, perhaps, should parallel Tai with Jack and Matt with Ralph (Izzy and Joe as aspects of Piggy and Simon). We see it also in this clip from Avatar (the real one). I am, though, not going to pretend that this particular blog post is anything more than a layman's exploration of a quite complex topic.

Harry, out.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

To Play The Game

To Play the Game. It sounds a bit like the title of an episode of Cracker (e.g. "To be a Somebody" or "To Say I Love You") but really we're returning to criticising Dale Carnegie because the man just cannot catch a break. But why? Well, to my knowledge, he hasn't done anything recently but with exams upon me again I'd like to discuss Carnegie's comments on gaming the system.
Carnegie’s submission warns that students tend to “game play” NCEA at school, then run into problems when they realise this is not possible at university.
I covered this view previously when it was more time-relevant, but now I'd like to filter these comments through the experience of three semesters of university. But, firstly, I really need to summarise my previous contention. In all honesty, I guess gaming links to Carnegie's views on resits (one should recall Carnegie appeared to know very little about NCEA), but I am not 100% sure. In the "Blind Faith" post I did wonder if one could game the system by attempting everything, inserting key words and in writing essays memorised by rote. I'm not sure, though, because the first two things are basically recommended. History 106 told us to get reference the primary source readings in our exam essays and Accounting 101's big on telling us to attempt everything, can't give you marks if you write nothing. The last thing never comes up as advice and NZQA does try to take measures against it. In all cases, these are instances of gaming in the sense that they attempt to exploit the system. Whether that is in the way things are marked or by exploiting the existence of exemplars. What I have found, though, is that university is eminently gameable.

Now, I have not done any engineering courses and I have not, in particular, done any engineering courses at university. I have done some maths ones so they'll have to do. With the maths ones, the only reason I passed was through the exploitation of the partial marks phenomenon. That is, if you can recognise what the question wants and can get part of the way to using an appropriate method, you get some marks. That's actually pretty fair and reasonable. After all, knowing what a question is asking you is demonstrating some knowledge. Thus, I passed, barely, Maths 250. I passed Maths 150 through this method but also through scaling. Now, scaling is extremely dubious: the university bumps students up by some amount to a different grade. The problem with this is obvious: one is never certain whether or not a mark that says A+ was an A+ based purely on its own merits or if it started out as something that looked more like, say, a B+. You also have no idea how much scaling was involved. I mean, 84% to 85% is different to 80% to 85% but both are A- to A. There are also some questions over how exactly scaling happens, which means that things are even more ambiguous. And, in this context, ambiguity == less integrity == can't trust this. How do you game with scaling, though? Well, you don't really... except you can alter your behaviour based on the expectation of scaling. So, I guess, scaling's a bit like inflation.

But, university is even more dodgy when it comes to exams. There is an idea known as plussage or, alternatively, exam benefit. Basically, plussage means that if you can do better on the exam than you do in the coursework + exam, your final mark will come from the exam only. I know, for a fact, that this is how I obtained an A- in History 106 and I may have obtained it in a few other courses as well (not all courses have plussage, and I believe that the exam must be worth at least 50% to start with for it to be on the table as it were). It is very easy to see how this leads to gaming the system. Plussage means that you can slack off on coursework and have a reasonably easy ride through the semester and still end up with a decent mark due to some hardcore cramming and decent exam technique. After all, exams are performance. But, wait, it gets worse! In some courses it is possible to use plussage to end up with a mark that reflects one's knowledge of only part of the syllabus because the exam only covers the content from certain parts of the course. There are better forms of plussage used in Stats 10x and 20x. Both of these courses assess most of the course in the exam and the mid-semester test but the way plussage works merely alters the weighting of the exam and test. The assignments, theoretically practical hands-on engagement with course content, are always weighted the same under this system. It's better but still a little dubious. The rationale for plussage is that people often get better as time goes on so it is better to reflect their understanding later on rather than earlier. This is particularly true of Accounting 101 which, in my eyes, deliberately designs its test to trip up first years with no experience of university tests.

I guess, then, that the last thing to really bring up are multiple choice tests. And because I am bored, dear reader, I hope my opinion on them is clear. You can use terms like "test what you know something is not" or "tests who can guess best" in reconstructing my opinion.

But to make a bigger point, ultimately, people on some level recognise that there is a game to be played. I don't think you can do anything about that.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Exams, Exhaustion and Turning Up to Last Week Lectures

So, I recently read an article called, "Facing the Dreaded End-of-Term Question." End of term, by the way, refers to the penultimate week of the semester. The main reason why I read it was to find out what exactly that question was. As it turns out it was, ""So we don’t have a final in this class, right?" But there's also a part ii, "So do we even have to come next week?" In hindsight, I guess, these questions/this question is pretty obvious. It's not like anyone's going to ask, "[lecturer's name here], do you think ritalin or speed is better for exam doping?" Although, frankly, that'd be hilarious (speed would help with cramming, ritalin is, to my knowledge, actually used as it calms nerves or something).

For me, and by extension all of Auckland uni's other students, today* marks the end of the penultimate week of lectures. After 12 weeks of lectures (with a two week holiday in an inconvenient 5/7 split rather than the usual 6/6, due to an unusual Easter) everything's largely winding down. For instance, History 219 (Medieval Mentalities) is having a review week in the surviving lecture* and I believe Marketing 201 is as well (with Friday's being cancelled, we were a bit confused on this point so this may not be the case). I imagine Economics 111 will try and wrap up before Thursday but maybe not (because of two public holiday missed lectures) and Stats 201 is intending to finish on Wednesday but definitely before Friday. I doubt Accounting 101 will do anything so interesting as to vary from its patterns more than the holiday induces it to (ah, accountants). Obviously, one can see something of a parallel with the circumstances in that article.

I do sympathise with the lecturer who wrote that piece. I turn up to everything regardless of whether it is recorded or not... provided it is in my timetable (never went to any stats 10x optional tutorials for instance). To me, the idea of not being there is unthinkable. What is the point of paying for the privilege to go to uni and not acting on it? Nothing. Thus, I turn up. Also, I try to engage with what is going on (I am audible on a few recordings here and there, generally with stats**), but, at the same time, I feel as if I don't turn up I won't end up watching the recordings. In general, these behaviours and ways of thinking lead me to think that people should be turning up regardless. In other words, the default, really, is thinking that there will be a lecture and not asking about it because the answer's probably no. If there is no lecture, we'll be told so don't worry about it. That's really my logic. But, when we look at the article more deeply, we see some quite fundamental differences.
I snap. "Well no one’s going to hold a gun to your head and threaten to pull the trigger if you don’t show up, if that’s what you mean. You don’t have to do anything. You just need to be aware that there are consequences for your actions and inactions. I can’t make you come to class. I can’t make you do anything.
Okay, so that's the same. This is sort of the perspective that a lot of lecturers take. The way Auckland works is that there are lectures and these are usually recorded. However, some lecturers such as Warren from Maths 150 and Andrew from Stats 20x will let you know that people who turn up are doing the Right ThingTM  and Warren goes as far as contriving to write on the white-board which isn't recorded (although it can be using a different system)†. Some lecturers also have different release systems (blocs at the end of the week, have them up for a few days etc. etc.) and some courses just flat out don't record. However, basically no course (certainly none that I have done, aside from a couple of headcounts in Maths 150 under Warren) has ever done the roll or used any attendance measurement system to try and encourage people to turn up. This is important as we hit:
"We do have scheduled class meetings next week. I will be taking attendance. I will be covering material. If you still have absences to burn, sure, go for it, take a day off, why not? Just make sure you get all your work in, because you do have assignments due next week. But if you’ve used up all your absences and you miss next week, it will negatively impact your grade, as will failing to submit the assignments that are due.
Man does that sound like school. One of the big differences, if not the biggest because it is a fundamental conceptual shift, in NZ between school and uni is that no-one is really there to care about what you are doing other than yourself. If you don't turn up or hand something in, tough potatoes that is your problem and your choice. Although, I did once spot one poor soul who was trolled badly by his friends into thinking the hand-in date was an hour after it really was. He was still an idiot, though, because it was pretty clearly pointed out from the first week that this particular assignment was due at 4pm (I was in the same course at the time). Which is cool, because without intending to do so, we haven't actually departed from this paragraph's content.

Really, though, this seems to suggest that absences are tied to grades. That's interesting because, for me, that never happened at school and barely does at uni. It did for "graduation" (a pretty pointless certificate ceremony with some nibbles) but as long as you handed something in and it met the standard's criteria you got the mark based on that pre-determined criteria. Obviously, though, wagging consistently did make doing well harder because you were missing out on a lot of learning, and this is also true of uni. In fact, Stats 20x this semester used a lot of examples about predicting exam marks and, unsurprisingly, a pretty strong relationship between success and attendance was found. Or, at least, it was something like a 15 mark advantage in the exam on average. But, again, at Auckland, you have to internalise this, for the most part, completely... there are no external incentives to turn up to lectures (tutorials are sometimes different with attendance yielding like half a percent of one's final mark).

But, let's talk assessment now. Raymond DiSanza's overall conclusion was that this question is related to assessment. Due to the way that, particularly at school, the US experience is one of constant high-stakes, standardised tests (although there is no problem with the idea of a standardised test), it is difficult for students to feel anything for something that isn't on the exam. Not that DiSanza's course had an exam (because, hey, he's right, exams are sometimes a piss-poor means of assessment). It really follows pretty logically from this that if the last week isn't examined then why should the student turn up? Although, I reckon, his earlier explanation also holds some water. Particularly if he's teaching first years who don't have much/any prior experience so what happens in one course is more or less the sum total of their experience in such manners (take that as a reflection of my second year self on my first year's experiences). As such, he reasons (naturally) that just having an exam ("final") would cause people to turn up... but that doesn't really fix the problem because it just creates some assessment, as opposed to making people value learning for learning's sake.
There’s no joy for many of them in learning just to learn. They fail to see the value in anything not directly related to their chosen profession, whatever it is. Maybe I was the same way when I was a student; I can’t recall. I can, though, recall taking classes that I adored that were not specific to my academic discipline.
It's hard to not have this mindset when user pays systems force one to have to have a very conscious awareness of practical matters. This is much more pronounced in the US than here, though, as uni is more expensive (although community college where this dude teaches tends to be substantially cheaper and, also, there was that proposal to fund more people). I'm pretty tired at this point so we're going to lose some more coherence and make one more quote to try and lead into a discussion of more interest:
We’ll probably never be able to reach all of our students, no matter how enjoyable we make the classroom environment or how much we try to connect what goes on there to their lives outside of it. But if we are going to keep education from becoming little more than a series of corporately designed and administered tests, and if we’re going to save the humanities from being buried by systematic reforms designed to turn out unthinking worker bees, we must reach as many as possible, and rethink our practices to emphasize the importance of connecting education to the world in ways that go beyond simple professional preparation.
The trick? More interesting assessment. Instead of dull essays and tests, have all teachers be somewhat like Irwin and encourage taking edgy stances just to have a look at them, in some capacity. Don't tie these opportunities to anything in particular: have them do it, mark it and use them purely as indicators or feedback moments. But, really, I mean introduce assessments where formal language doesn't have to be as strict (in the sense of allowing contractions not lol, afaik or soz etc.) and a more creative aspect can be taken. For instance, in year thirteen, we had to look at Alexander the Great and ideology. This means the "policy of fusion" an idea that was explored through a dialogue (which meant I, excluding drama, ended up writing five dialogues that were assessed, four in English, three as responses to independently selected texts, in five years‡). This structure allowed one to introduce a sense of personality more obviously into the work, hence:
P: How barbaric? How could you stoop so low?
A: Look, I never wore trousers. 
P: Okay, you’re somewhat redeemed. 
A: That said, I wore “the Persian diadem and dressed [myself] in the white robe and the Persian sash and everything else except the trousers and the long-sleeved upper garment.”[1]
P: What?!
A: Well, again, it’s the same principle at work – stability

[1] Diod. 17.77.5
P was Philip, A's (i.e. Alexander) father. They had been talking about proskynesis. This was an exchange that amused my teacher and while I felt as that particular internal involved little more than pointing out a bunch of things that Alexander did, such more creative avenues can foster a deeper connection with what is being done. With any luck this can foster a sense that there is more to what is being done than sheer practical necessity.

So, I guess, this makes some kind of sense. But, yeah, 3am blogging and I'd rather not come back and do a more extensive draft because those tend to only get worked on months later.

*Technically it is now tomorrow, i,e. Monday, because it has gone twelve. I am only awake because Queen's Birthday, which sucks as it is another lot of missed Monday lectures because of public holidays (the previous one was caused by the despicable Mondayisation of ANZAC day). Also, that holiday killed my work ethic, but not as much as the mid-semester holidays.

**What is the world's largest forest? Ah, Andrew, trying to trick us. Some poor bastard fell into the trap and went Amazon but I knew it's the Taiga and answered soon afterwards. I imagine I am audible on that one. I tend not to answer questions relating to statistics directly though... (although Russell is less into asking questions).

†When I first heard that lectures were recorded I guess I imagined some sort of video camera type setting because that's what tended to be the case with recorded things at school (i.e. anything with a performance element like drama, music or speeches). In general, lecture recordings involve the use of the humble microphone, whether attached to the shirt, belt or, apparently in one case, beard (the infamous beard mic) but the lectern microphone is also an option. It turns out the security-style cameras can be used in the originally imagined fashion. This was mind-blowing for me but my friend had seen it all before.

‡The point is that dialogues were something I enjoy/ed. The first English one was in year ten and we had to do that. The other three were my way of trying to pass something I, to this day, did not understand the point of. How can a personal response ever fail??? The other three were more conventional... I cannot recall which texts got the dialogue treatment. Ozymandias was one of them for sure. I also did Vanity Fair, Death at a Funeral (the original), The House of the Dead, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and another one I cannot recall right now (this was 2011, it may have been another poem). Actually it was Blott on the Landscape, a comedy. 17/07/15, edited.