Saturday, February 11, 2012


There are a couple of excellent problems in the theory of evolution.  One is how life began (the topic of an early blog) and another, which I scratched my head over in another entry, is the strange phenomena of speciation, particularly hybrid infertility.  And there is morality.

But one of the most interesting is consciousness itself.  I’ve found it easy to accept that there is an advantage to being conscious in terms of the flexibility it provides when faced with complex situations.  But that just begs the question.  Even if we could process our environment very well – if we were supercomputers – why would we need a sense of self?

According to Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, many cognitive scientists consider short-term memory (which, counter to popular belief, refers to just the last few seconds), is a lot like consciousness. Just a handfull of things can be held in the short term memory at a time, so objects, models and concepts are particularly efficient use of that space.  "When we are aware of a piece of information, many parts of the mind can act on it.  ...  Conscious information is inferentially promiscuous; it makes itself available to a large number of information-processing agents rather than committing itself to one alone."  He argued that consciousness has four components: 1) the perceptual field of sights, smells etc., 2) a "spotlight of attention" which creates a model from raw perception, 3) a range of emotions which color the objects, and 4) a sense of self, an "I" who has executive control.  And each of these is groomed by evolution.

This still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  So when I read great reviews for a recent book specifically on the topic of consciousness -- and then it was recommended by a friend -- I put the Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self on my wish list and received it for the winter holiday.

I haven't become a great fan of the book, because I think the author, a philosopher, was unable or unwilling to write clearly.  But I’m still very interested in the topic and I’d like to lay down my own na├»ve musings, and some items I gleaned from The Tunnel.

I feel certain that consciousness, like the other aspects of higher organisms, was assembled piece by piece, usually for an advantage and sometimes as a side effect of something else that was advantageous.  I think we can understand it and we eventually will.  I’m suspicious of free will, as it seems obvious to me that both nature and nurture are fundamentally given.  But there is much of consciousness I just can’t easily see, probably because I am swimming – maybe drowning – in it.

Most of my life I have had bizarre and lucid dreams, and friends have encouraged me to look closely at them.  The more mystical friends think the dreams might be information from beyond, and the Freudian ones say they reveal something fundamental from myself, things I repress in my waking state.  I’ve always considered both prospects nonsense, and I decided a couple of decades ago to dismiss the stupid dreams altogether and I’ve made no effort on their behalf since.

But this book suggests that dreams are interesting in a way I hadn't considered.  They are a subset of processes, he said.  You see part of consciousness in the dream.  Dreams, then, may be a way to parse out how the mind works because parts are missing.  In particular, one is rarely able to “look around” as in an awakened state.  Metzinger calls this a lack of "attentional agency."  Places, time, people’s identities, pain, temperature, smell and taste .. these are often missing in dreams.  Fear, elation, and anger are often exaggerated but the emotions shame, guilt, and sadness are rare.  I know my dreams.  This is pretty true.  I've taken a new interest not in the content of dreams, but in their elements.

Metzinger also makes an interesting argument that our sense of a seen object involves a “first order process” of integrating visual information into an entity (book, tree etc.), followed by a “second order process”: directing ones’ attention to the book or tree.  Because the first order process occurs faster than the second order process we are not aware of it.  We think the book simply exists; we don't imagine we created from patches of light waves because that part happens so fast.  “It makes your brain invisible to itself.  You are in contact only with its content.”  I find this fascinating.

I read myself to sleep.  Then, I had a lucid dream; these are the dreams where you are aware that you’re dreaming and have memory of waking life and the dream simultaneously.  In the dream I was reading The Ego Tunnel, but the paragraphs were forming on the page before my eyes, six lines or so in advance.  Although the words were nonsense I was actually gaining insight from them; I was having “aha” moments.  This was so interesting that I paused to dream-explain it to a constructed not-identifiable person who was standing beside my bed – and I went back to dream reading.  It lasted I’d guess about 10 minutes.

I wonder if my brain was confirming not only the first order visual perception – the appearance of the paragraphs on the page – but also the construction of meaning from even random patterns.  As for the insights themselves, this itself is the only one I can recall.  What makes this most interesting to me is that there was no illusion of an existing paragraph to begin with.

Or maybe it was just more nonsense.  The author, who has studied this very carefully, said he could find no evolutionary advantage to dreaming except the heat regulation in mammals – idling of the engine, so to speak, to run the heater.

Another insight from the book, if I might paraphrase, is that consciousness evolved so that we can imagine and at the same time know we're imagining. This allows us to work out various if/then scenarios safely: thought experiments without the risk, which would be a clear evolutionary advantage.

And then there is the possible influence of mirror neurons in early development. These neurons, recently found in both monkeys and humans, match the body behavior we witness in others with our internal motor vocabulary.  In other words, when I see a see a batter swing and miss, I feel some of the same twisting.  And when I see someone laughing, or weeping, I feel the humor and the sorrow too.  Metzinger’s idea is that these neurons were form of communication which predated language (and maybe contributed to language too -- as they are found in the same regions of the brain.)  He says they are still active in learning and a source of permanent, instinctive empathy.  Perhaps the mirror neurons underlie our partnerships, attachments, socialization, empathy, altruism, and community.  Our brains are connected with wireless: mirror neurons.

Before you run out and buy the book, let me warn you.  Most of it is written in a convoluted and rambling prose which is difficult to follow unless (I suppose) you're both a philosopher and cognitive scientist.  I gave it three stars on Amazon, with the title “Obfuscation blurs the insight.”  At times I found the lack of clarity not only annoying but suspicious, and I had to put on my waders to get through some particularly swampy parts. 

Here’s a sample, taken almost at random:
"On this foundational level, which forms the preconditions of knowing something, truth and falsity do not yet exist, nor is there an entity who could have the illusion of a self. In this ongoing process on the subpersonal level, there is no agent - no evil demon that could count as the creator of an illusion. And there is no entity that could count as the subject of the illusion, either. There is nobody in the system who could be mistaken or confused about anything - the homunculus does not exist. We have only the dynamical self-organization of a new coherent structure - namely, the transparent self-model in the brain - and this is what it means to be no one and an Ego Machine at the same time. In sum and on the level of phenomenology as well as on the level of neurobiology, the conscious self is neither a form of knowledge nor an illusion. It just is what it is."
I kind of sort of know what that might mean. Maybe.  I made something of it, anyway -- like I did in my lucid dream, but I'm not confident it was exactly what the author intended.  But, like my dream, it is interesting, anyway.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Adrift and Focused in Academia: A model

 A workshop was held at my university recently to discuss the Arum and Roska book Academically Adrift. The authors are critical of academia, and some of my colleagues dismissed their conclusions out of hand as not relevant to our situation.  This surprised me, as I had found the book interesting, although I question some of its conclusions.  Academically Adrift is based on one large study which asks a good question : are students in college learning very much? The authors answer “for 95% -- no.”

The study hadn’t seemed robust enough for an entire book; it relied on one study and one measure of learning, exclusively.  But some of the findings were interesting: Faculty members spent an average of 11 hours per week in course preparation and delivery, they were never taught how to teach.  When they require less of students, and entertain more, they get better evaluations – and these may be the only assessment their teaching ever gets. Students spend 2.5 hours a week studying for an average course, they do worse -- not better -- if they study with peers, and better if they work on campus (only up to 10 hours), but not off campus. Some of this I knew, some I found surprising. Some I consider doubtful.

When my small group convened we were asked to consider the question “Are We Adrift?” It got me thinking.  My short answer to the question: yes and no, yes and no.

I have passed my 20th year as faculty, and have been chair for 6 years, over 17 faculty members in two departments.  My University is a public institution, an urban campus, with 11,000 students – 7,000 full time equivalents.  I think in many ways we are typical of higher education.

It’s no surprise that there is a spectrum of students; we score and grade them constantly. In this model I’ve cut the student body horizontally, down the middle, but any individual can switch rows at will and I’ll suggest later what forces might encourage him/her to do that.  In the top row we find the truly Adrift; that is, they are not focused on learning. For some, a college degree is seen as a credential or currency – a ticket. You must pay in time and money but may choose to skip much of the hard work of actually learning. While most employers will know whether someone got just the degree or the education too, some won’t understand the difference fully either. Some students in this row might simply speak English as a second language, they may have a long commute or full time job, they may have children or an elderly dependent or a learning disability they are rising above. They may have had an inferior high school education.  And true, they may be lazy, simply looking for the easiest route.  If, for whatever reason, they decide neither the degree nor the education is worth the trouble, they may drop out. This is a sizable group in some institutions.

Students in the bottom row are qualitatively different. They are focused on learning and interested in the content of their courses. They read.  They study. They may be preparing for a chosen career or may be hungry for knowledge itself. But sadly, the positive attitude alone is not enough; some students are pressed into the top row by circumstances.

What baffles me that this next part is denied in many quarters, though it’s painfully obvious. Faculty members come in different stripes too, when it comes to their focus on teaching. I dissect them, for the sake of exploration.  Those in the left column are the perfect counterpart to unfocused students; they give excellent grades but put in a minimum of effort toward teaching. Their assignments and exams are few, easy to complete, and easy to grade, and their course content may be aging. They may show a lot of long videos, they may cancel classes often and end them early.  There are a thousand ways to cut corners in teaching.  Some of these faculty members are very busy doing research.  Others may be tired – tired of teaching, tired of going over the same thing again and again, tired of grading papers, tired of staying current in a changing academic field or tired of the field itself. Others may have life pressures: sick dependents, children, illness, long commutes, second jobs – just like students. Like students, some may be lazy, why would this not be true.

This is not a trivial issue even when their numbers are small.  Whether 20%, or 5%, these people do great damage. 1. the others have to carry their service and committee workload 2. if senior members, they may actively oppose the department itself if they feel threatened,  3. they create holes in the curriculum which are particularly bad if they teach prerequisites, 4. they damage the reputation of the department and the university, 5. they signal that the administration doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, thereby potentially fracturing the entire faculty from the entire administration, and 6. they provide a precedent for bad behavior: “if he can do that, I certainly can do this!”

Those in the right column are a different sort of instructor. They are pulling for their students, adjusting their methods to help those who are struggling to learn, while still challenging those who are out in front.  They stay current in their field and in the technologies of teaching. They develop new and engaging assignments which they revise and review.  They involve students in their research, they mentor alumni years after they leave the institution, and they take criticism seriously. There are a thousand things to do when you’re on the right side of the line.

When these different types of students and faculty members come together in the classroom, interesting things happen. In the top left square you have the worst situation, in my opinion. Students aren’t challenged, yet they get excellent grades and they’re happy. Some will seek out this sort of haven and camp there as often as they can. In this square you’ll find the worst grade inflation, because an A is all these students want and it's exactly all they get – yet they are the least deserving of an A.  In a sense the faculty member here is parasitic, cashing in on the currency colleagues have worked hard to establish, and by freely issuing those valuable A’s they will receive glowing reviews.  Because in this square everyone is happy, any force for change must come from outside.  However, the university has one big incentive to look the other way -- these students are filling seats, paying tuition, probably learning something, and not complaining. They are satisfied customers, after all. And those graduation rates, enrollments, tuition and fees, and credit hours generated are all monitored carefully by administrators -- and by state legislators.

There are two other squares with problems.

At top right we find poor students in tough classes. They may be baffled by the rigor and unprepared to do the work. They slow the class down. Suddenly amongst a qualitatively different set of peers, they may feel ashamed, or stupid, or resentful and they’re also not likely to approach the faculty member, who may consider them generically poor performers. Their low scores will be a blow to the ego which, at best, may serve as a wake-up call -- but is more likely to make them write a bitter (anonymous) student evaluation as they scurry back to the top left square, seeking shelter. Ironically, these ruffled students’ negative reviews may make the Focused faculty member look worse than the Adrift one.

At bottom left we find the focused students, metaphorically stuck on a raft in the backwaters. They will not be happy, but they rarely come forward.  First, they may consider the course a well deserved break.  Second, if they do rock the boat they may be threatened or intimidated. There are a thousand ways a faculty member can intimidate a good student, not the least of which is by grades. His/her class has become a little fiefdom, after all, and it’s not healthy to upset the overlord. In the end, these Focused students don’t represent a huge threat to the square because they’ll drop the course if they’re quick enough or, in any case, they won’t be back. Hopefully, they find their way to the right column, but if they leave the institution altogether they may become its most vocal (and articulate) critics.

What can be done? Since grades are the currency with which the Drifting faculty keep the Drifting students happy, it might seem that addressing grade inflation would help. But to these faculty members it’s the best students who exhibit bad behavior, so the required low grades might simply be given out to those who complain.

I’ve saved the best for the last: bottom right. Here we have another happy classroom but one in which there are motivated students engaged with a Focused faculty member. Arum and Roska estimate that this constitutes 5% -- I am quite sure it's actually a much larger portion.

The students in this cell are richly rewarded.  They get an excellent education, valuable skills, and the credential.  They land, and keep, good jobs -- or go on for a higher degree.  They are intellectually stimulated, and become advocates of the institution. These students become the success stories which the University should and will boast about.  This square is what is so good about the academy.

So how are individuals encouraged to move between quadrants?  It’s possible that the more motivated students (in the bottom row), may be enticed by peers into the easy classes or may just drift into them accidentally. But this is not so likely, I think. One of the many things one learns in the bottom row is the value of being there. More likely, the drifting students gradually find their way to the corner south and east. These are young people, after all, and it takes time to find ones way outside the structure of home and high school. This shift could be encouraged through advisement, mentoring, interaction with peers, by student clubs or group projects, or other extracurricular activities in which top and bottom rows meet.  Engaging instruction is probably the best way to snag them.  The structural obstacles -- jobs, difficult family situations, second languages -- might be attended to as well with counseling, academic support services, and so on.

When it comes to movement of faculty between columns, weariness drives them westward to Drift. Doing the same thing again and again, especially if one feels unnoticed and underappreciated, gets tiring. Students can help here by giving positive comments in their end-course evaluations, when it’s deserved.  Administrators could do the same.  It’s very easy to notice problems – they literally present themselves.  The system also benefits when people are recognized for doing things well. 

And this is where evolution comes in.  We are hardwired to care about our own reputation, as our reputation determines our status and status (for males especially) once determined the difference between having many offspring, or having none.  We care about what others think of us -- we have to.

The more difficult task is addressing the Adrift.  The first step is, of course, a direct conversation.  If the administrative will is in place all the way to the top, then rigorous reviews, notes to the personnel files and detailed, signed complaints by students can do more good than most people realize.  But even just noting lack of effort might be helpful, in some cases.  People behave better, after all, when they know someone is watching.  And one’s own reputation and ego is guarded carefully – this may be particularly true in higher education. 

And one of the key roles of the chairperson, I think, is to distinguish between these groups.  Yet, in fairness, this model must be extended to the administration itself, where there will be Focused and Adrift members too.  On the Adrift side (that is, not focused on teaching/learning), some will be so concerned with numbers that they forget what they actually represent.  One might expect that those who are not protected by tenure would be less likely to drift, for fear of their jobs, but in the administration there are a thousand ways to hide.   However, sometimes the problem is not due to lack of effort.  Some vigorous administrators may divert resources to project which promote their own interests over those of students.  Others will be assigned or will take on so many responsibilities that they can't possibly do them all well.  Faculty and chairs would do well to distinguish between administrators, too.

In some cases a union will play a role in this model, as well.  Unions may purposefully blur the distinction between the Adrift and Focused faculty, for overtly political reasons.  This can result in two perverse coalitions: the Adrift and Focused faculty on one side fighting against the Adrift and Focused administration on the other.  This arrangement is not likely to be in the interest of the Focused on either side; only the Adrift benefit from this muddling.  Is it naive to think we might somehow realign?

This model has simplified the situation; of course real students, faculty and administration are in gradients, not quadrants, and with more dimensions than two.   If the model is useful at all, however, chairpersons may be best situated to influence positive change.  They may improvement advisement, arrange social events where students meet one another, and encourage faculty to be aware of various ways in which they can help guide their students in the right direction.

When it comes to administration of faculty, chairpersons have the softest firm touch; problems involving motivation may often be nipped in the bud.  They will be among the first to notice them, and being themselves half faculty and half administration they are likely to understand the pressures on both sides.  Distinguishing between the Focused and Adrift, I would argue, is one of an administrator’s most important responsibilities.  Addressing only the problems is likely to make a chair unpopular, so special effort may be necessary to formally recognize the good things.    The chair may be able to provide a course release, a research assistant, equipment, travel funds, a preferred course schedules, freedom to develop new courses, strong support for promotion, research grants, grade appeals, sabbatical, and formal recognition in the personnel file.   There are a thousand ways to support good behavior, and guide faculty and students toward the bottom right, the sweet spot of academia.

Legal Notice: this article will appear in The Department Chair, Summer 2012.