Lecturing & daydreaming: what happens when students have no decisions to make?

A few weeks ago, I spent several days at a conference on a topic that holds great intrinsic interest for me. I signed up for the conference, eagerly anticipating meeting new people and being challenged with novel ideas. I had never attended the conference before and had few preconceived notions about the format for presentations. However, because most of the scholars were in the humanities, I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many tables of numbers or hearing about esoteric statistics!

What I wasn’t prepared for was being read to. Over the course of several days, almost every speaker read their presentations from pre-prepared scripts. In one typical session, the first two presenters held their papers with two hands, looked up occasionally, and put the paper down only to change the PowerPoint pictures. They read well, using inflection and pitch to emphasize important points, but it was still a word for word matching of oral presentation to the text. The third presenter had a script but had done a better job in memorizing it, as she occasionally made eye contact with us and did a fairly good job of disguising the fact that she was reading.

Biennale sculptures in Arsenale

Which way to turn?

As I always try to do in conferences, I had made a point of sitting in the first row, so I could see the slides clearly and also have a clear view of the presenters’ faces. I found that being able to see faces helps me catch meanings I otherwise might miss when I don’t hear all the words.

Despite my advantageous location, where I should’ve been in the thick of the action, there wasn’t any. I found my attention wandering, and to stay focused, I tried taking notes of the key points that I heard. As often happens, my notes quickly became observations on the format of the presentations and not just their contents.

Why couldn’t I stay focused on the content? Frequently in such situations I find myself lamenting the lack of presentational skills by the panelists and speculating about what it must be like to sit through one of their classes. But in this case, I turned the focus on myself and asked why I wasn’t doing a better job in playing along with the role of an “audience member,” which is apparently how the presenter saw me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to play that role anymore.

Instead, I wanted to do something. I wanted the presenters to ask me questions, to solicit my feedback, and to force me to puzzle out where they were going next. Alas, their one-way talk left me with no options — no decisions to make. I had been forced into a thoroughly passive role.

If there was to be action, I needed to force it myself. I started writing down objections to what was being said, but because the presenter had left no space for such diversions, whenever I wrote something down, I missed a part of the presentation. Because the presenter was reading from the text, and redundancy had mostly been edited out, missing a few sentences often meant I lost the thread of the argument.

Colleagues who know me well will recognize that, once again, I’ve found another provocation from which to push my case for active learning! The situation in which I found myself was very much like that of our undergraduate students in classic lecture based classes: an instructor does 90% or more of the talking while students passively try to record in their notes as much as possible of what has been said. The few questions asked of the students are mostly rhetorical and only answers that conform to the a priori expectations of the instructor will be followed up.

Why do such situations make me so unhappy? Why was I so disappointed with the presentations I heard at the conference? I think it is because the presenters had made no allowance in their plans for bringing me into the session as an active participant. Just as instructors who rely heavily on one way talk give their students no decisions to make, as an audience member, I also was expected to simply absorb what was being offered rather than let the speaker know that I actually understood – – or not – – what was being said.

The decisions offered to me could have been simple ones: the presenters could’ve asked for examples of what they were talking about. The speakers could have offered several alternative scenarios that completed their narrative and then asked us which one we thought was the most plausible, and why. They could have purposefully constructed an alternative counterfactual scenario and then asked us why it didn’t occur.


Venice red threads & keys

You Keep Me Hanging On! Keys hanging by red threads at Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2015

My point is straightforward: when humans are put in situations where they are simply being talked to, with no opportunities offered for them to engage their higher order cognitive powers, they will struggle mightily to stay engaged with the material. I recently read a blog post by a scholar who works with online courses and who noted that she had viewed some amazingly well produced videos. However, within one week, she had completely forgotten their contents! The slick videos had given her no role to play in her own instruction.

The natural cycle of human attention is quite short, but it is further truncated when people are asked to play only passive roles, as audience members. Daydreaming is a more likely outcome than deep learning!

Memories of Clark Terry at Jazz Land in Vienna, Austria

The death of Clark Terry (1920-2015) this past week brought back memories of watching him in concerts when I was teaching in Vienna several decades ago. He appeared at a small jazz venue called Jazz Land, run by Axel Melhardt, an Austrian man who clearly has a great love for American jazz. Somehow, he has been able to book great American jazz artists for his small club off Schwedenplatz, near the banks of the Danube. Jazz Land lives in a small brick cellar that you reach through a dark alley, under St. Ruprecht’s Church, not an obvious jazz venue to people just casually passing by. Concerts are played in a dark room about 30’ x 50’, with a low-arching ceiling and rickety wooden chairs arranged in closely packed rows and tables. Two archways lead to the bar area in an adjoining room, and there are several smaller rooms leading off of that, down some steps. That’s where the band retreats to rest between sets, but audience members can mingle with them, buy them drinks, and get autographs.

Clark Terry at Jazz Land

Clark Terry playing at Jazz Land

One of the notable features of this venue is a small coterie of jazz aficionados that sits in the front row, occasionally bending down to tinker with something under their chairs. One evening when I was sitting in the second row and could see clearly what they were doing, I realized they had small tape recorders running under their chairs, creating tapes which they exchanged among themselves, I assume. Several of the men took photos and then sold the glossy black & white photos to patrons the next night. If a musician is booked for multiple nights, the photographers provide indelible markers for autographed photos on subsequent nights. (I have no idea what financial arrangements they make with the musicians.)

Jazz Land customers are an incredibly attentive audience. Anyone who tries to carry on a conversation while the guest artists are playing is promptly told to shut up and no one needs a second reminder.

Sitting through two or three sets was a challenge for me back in the old days, because of the clouds of smoke that eventually hung down from the ceiling and more or less engulfed the audience. I suspect there were ventilation shafts running out of the room, but they were clearly overwhelmed by the amount of smoke produced by the patrons! Every night I went home with my hair and close smelling of smoke. But, whenever I complained, people who’d accompanied me would probably remind me that we had a great time. I haven’t been back in a long time and so for all I know, the place is now non-smoking.)

From the late 80s through the early 90s, I probably made seven or eight trips to Vienna to teach in entrepreneurship program of the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. As I was there for a week or two on each trip, I typically was able to see two or three great jazz artists. Some evenings it was just local artists, but other evenings Axel had booked guests such as Benny Carter, Eric Reed, Art Farmer (who lived in Vienna for over 30 years, preferring it to the US), Gene Harris, Frank Wess, Bob Wilber, Joe Williams, and Howard Arlen. Wild Bill Davidson (1906-1989), a great jazz trumpet player from my home town in Northwest Ohio, often appeared there. (I had no idea Wild Bill had grown up in the basement of the library I used to frequent – I only learned about it when I was in my 50’s.)

Usually the club was packed, but occasionally the crowds were sparse, giving me an opportunity to spend some time with the musicians. For example, Howard Arlen was in town for two nights and on the first night, only about 15 or 20 people showed up. We gathered in a circle around him and he entertained us with tunes and tales. I asked him a question I’m sure he’d heard before, “are you related to Harold Arlen [e.g. “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love”] the song-writing guy?” He paused, sighed, and said, “If I were, do you think I’d be out on the road like this?”

Gene Harris

Gene Harris at Jazz Land in Vienna, Austria

Frank Wess

Frank Wess playing at Jazz Land, Vienna Austria

On one memorable occasion, I got a chance to talk with Gene Harris (1933-2000) and Frank Wess (1922-2013), who were backed up by three local musicians. Of the two, Harris seemed more lively and talkative, but oddly enough, Frank Wess outlived him by more than a decade. When I told Wess that I was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he mentioned that he had “bivouacked” nearby on one of his tours. At first I thought he was talking about being in the Army, but then I realized that he would’ve come through in the days when black artists couldn’t stay in local white-only hotels and so he had to stay in a hotel in Durham that accepted black customers. Times have changed.

My Evening with Talcott Parsons

Between 1970 and 1973, Anant Negandhi held a series of conferences at Kent State University, sponsored by the Comparative Administration Research Institute. The conference focus was on “the various conceptual problems encountered in studying the functioning of complex social organizations.” I took part in several of these, including one that led to the publication of a book on Interorganizational Theory, edited by Anant. These conferences attracted a stellar cast of organization scholars, including Richard Hall, Don Hellriegel, David Hickson, Hans Penning, Jeff Pfeffer, Lou Pondy, Jon Slocum, Andy Van de Ven, and Donald Warren. Looking back, I’m astonished that Anant was able to attract this group to a regional State University in the Northeastern corner of Ohio. Up to that point, Kent State was known primarily for the infamous killings of four students by the Ohio National Guard during a peaceful protest against the Cambodian invasion. Indeed, memories of that tragedy were still in my mind when I contemplated whether to accept Anant’s invitation to attend the conferences.

In addition to people known for their contributions to organizational studies, Anant invited Talcott Parsons to the conference because of Parsons’ interest in institutional theory and organizations. In 1956, Parsons published two lead-off articles in two successive issues of the Administrative Science Quarterly, laying out what he called “suggestions for a sociological approach to the theory of organizations.” In our book, Organizations Evolving, Martin Ruef and I gave Parsons a great deal of credit for offering one of the first systematic presentations of a multilevel theory of organizations’ relations with their environments. He anticipated many of the themes that institutional theorists of organizations “rediscovered” many years later.

Parsons had just announced his retirement in the spring of 1973, after 42 years at Harvard.

Fortunately for me, Anant held a small dinner party for Parsons at his house and some of the other speakers at the conference. I wish I could report that Parsons and I enjoyed a spirited exchange about the application of evolutionary theory to organizational studies, but I’m afraid I was so awestruck just being in his presence that I mostly stuck to asking the banal questions that junior professors tend to put to famous scholars.

Jean Boddewyn, from NYU, took pictures at the party and sent several to me, including the one shown below. The photo shows Parsons, cigarette in hand, holding court, while I sit to his left in rapt attention. Thankfully, the photo is not in color, or else you would see that the houndstooth pattern on my jacket is a mix of fire-engine red checks on a white background. We took lots of fashion risks in the early 1970s!

Talcott Parsons Kent State Spring 1973

Parsons chain-smoking is probably what I remember best about that evening. Memories of his habit are confirmed in an interview Parsons did with Robert Reinhold around the time of his retirement, when he was asked about his role in American sociology and the bridge he provided to European sociologist. In reply to a question, he said “it happened to be my particular role as it were to act as an importer,” and Reinhold then noted that Parsons said this as he lit up the first of six cigarettes consumed down to the filter in the course of a one hour interview.  ASA Footnotes, August 1973.

Parsons died in 1979, aged 77.

Outsmarted by a largemouth bass twice in the same day

Do largemouth bass learn from experience or are they just naturally cleverer than us? Discussions with other anglers have confirmed that the experience I describe in this post is a common occurrence, but no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation. I invite your speculations.

Largemouth Bass

One that didn’t get away, caught with a big popper

My unplanned experiment in trying to outsmart the bass began when I decided to spend a morning at a local lake, practicing my casting and, along the way, catching a few bream. The water had finally cleared up, after a few days of turbulence stirred up by big rainstorms. Thus, it was easy to spot the bream, swimming in a few feet of water. Fingerlings, recently hatched, were also clustered in schools at several points near the shore. I started out by casting short distances with a green, yellow, and white popper with little rubbery legs that evidently looks like a disoriented but tasty frog to the fish. I found that the bream hit the fly either almost immediately when it landed on the water, or else they ignored it.

As I was doing a retrieve after a cast, I noticed a dark shadow cruising among the bream, about 15 feet from shore in water that couldn’t be more than three feet deep. Next to the bream, it looked huge, and I knew it wasn’t just an overgrown blue gill. Instead, it was a big largemouth bass – at least a foot and a half long. If I could see it, could it see me? It didn’t seem at all concerned. The bream didn’t seem afraid of it, either. They just scattered as it cruised among them, taking their time getting out of the way. I tried casting my popper directly in the path of the bass, but it didn’t even both altering its course to investigate. I briefly considered trying something else, but the bass looked like it was just out for a recreational swim.

By contrast, the bream actually seemed to be fighting among themselves, at times, to eat the popper. I forgot about the bass. Then, as I was bringing in a small fish I had hooked, I saw a flash in the water and whoosh – not wham – the bream was gone. Only silently spreading ripples marked where the fish had been. Suddenly, my line straightened and I felt it being pulled out toward the middle of the lake. My first thought was, wow, this little fish really puts up a fight for someone its size. My second thought was, that damned turtle is back (the one I scrimmaged with a few weeks ago). My third thought, however, was that no turtle swims this fast and tugs this hard – I was holding my rod with both hands.

I quickly realized that the bass I’d seen previously had grabbed the bream and was taking its prize to deeper water to eat. I kept giving it line and held my rod tip up, hoping that the bass had actually eaten the bream & thus might be snagged on the hook. It pulled about 25 yards of line off my reel, with no sign of stopping, and I had a brief vision of watching my backing get burned up by this run. (Ok, a dumb fantasy.)

Regrettably, the bass eventually figured out that its lunch came with a string attached. After what seemed like an eternity but must have been only about 30 seconds, it was over. The line suddenly slackened & I was once more just “fighting” a bream. I reeled it in and when I netted it, I saw bite marks on its side and tail. However, they were superficial and it didn’t seem much worse for the wear. I released it and it swam off.

After reflecting on what it happened, I abandoned my original goal of catching a few bream & began to think of something bigger. Revenge? I tied on a black and green woolly bugger – my fishing club friends have shown me the way – and started casting where I’d last seen the bass. After 10 or 15 fruitless minutes of this, however, I snipped off the woolly bug or and went back to the bream, only this time with a bead-head copper john. The bream seemed to enjoy the change of pace.

I hooked another one and began stripping it in. I had pulled it to within five feet of the dock when once again, a dark form shot to the surface. This time, I not only saw the flash of the attacking bass but actually watched it grab the bream in its mouth. As it swam away, the fly popped out of the bream’s mouth and my dreams of landing a largemouth vanished once again. I don’t know if the bream got away, as both disappeared in a few seconds. I felt like I’d just seen one of those Animal Planet videos of a killer whale nabbing a seal off an ice floe.

Now, I know there is probably a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of bass stealing bream off an angler’s line. When a bream is hooked, it starts darting about frantically, sending out a signal of “fish in distress” which the bass probably interpret as “easy kill coming up.” However, I’m considering another hypothesis. Namely, these largemouths are really clever and are just hanging around offshore, waiting for us to serve up their meal for them. If my 5-wt rod could throw a big fly that looked just like a blue gill in distress, I think I’d hang out a sign “dinner served” and try winning this battle. In the interim, I’ll just enjoy the show.

What Sustains a Belief in Success Among the Unsuccessful?

I’ve been haunted by the question of what sustains belief in success among the unsuccessful ever since I read Reinhard Bendix’ magisterial book, Work and Authority in Industry. Bendix wrote about the economic ideology that kept millions of people in England, the United States, and other Western capitalist societies working in arduous and poorly paying jobs, apparently in the belief that someday, sooner or later, their hard work would be rewarded. Bendix’s view was that this ideology enabled developing capitalist societies to survive in spite of the hardships experienced by their working classes and the demonstrable economic inequality produced by economic growth.

A similar question occurred to me a few days ago after I finished a fruitless 6 hours of fly fishing at a local Lake. Along with the other members of my small fishing group, I had spent the day in bitterly cold weather, casting into a howling wind, with almost nothing to show for it by way of trout landed. This was not an atypical day, except for the cold, as we often spend an entire day fly fishing without catching more than a handful of fish. Nonetheless, every week, on our appointed day, we trek back to the lake and try it again.

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

On the way home from the lake, I found myself thinking about the similarities between my fly fishing experience and that of underemployed members of the creative professions that I’ve been studying. Actors, musicians, authors, dancers, filmmakers and others often spend years without finding steady employment in their profession, sustaining themselves by working in other jobs that may have little or no connection to their professional identity. For example, at the beginning of 2012 report by Actor’s Equity Association said that the average unemployment rate for actors was around 90%.

One of my friends asked if I would accept an analogy between the experience of athletes, who often experience “failures” through losses in competition and infrequently-employed creative artistic professionals. I said no, because the context for athletic failures is quite different. Athletes, whether amateur or professional, are competing within a context where there are rules that govern their actions: there is little uncertainty about the need to experience failure. Every athletic contest has a winner and a loser, determined by rules that were set a priori. The very nature of athletic competition mandates that someone will lose in every game.

By contrast, fly fishermen and creative professionals are operating in a highly uncertain context. There are well-established and standardized procedures for acquiring the skills needed to potentially do well as an angler or artist, but for any given performance, whether it will be a “success” or “failure” is highly uncertain.

Additionally, many products produced by creative professionals either fail to get distributed or lose money when they are distributed. Paul Hirsch pointed to the overproduction of many cultural products, such as films, records and CDs, books, and plays, resulting in a large number never reaching their intended audiences. American playwrights, for example, consider themselves fortunate if their new plays are produced for a 2nd or 3rd time, after their premier. Many are produced once and never appear in a theater again.

So, in the face of such long odds, what sustains a belief in success among these unsuccessful creative professionals? As I drove home, I pondered the similarities between these artists and fly fishermen. Admittedly, initially it seemed a bit of a stretch, but then several principles came to mind. 1st, as we know from behavioral psychology, intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful force in sustaining a behavior. Indeed, intermittent reinforcement – – receiving reinforcement on an unpredictable schedule – – is more powerful than receiving reinforcement consistently after every trial. For anglers, all it takes is a few successful catches in a day to create the feeling that the day has been a success. Perhaps for artists, the same thing holds?

2nd, and probably more important, anglers, especially fly fishermen, are often part of a very resilient community that gives them a very strong sense of shared fate with other anglers. Fly fishermen have magazines, blogs, videos, television programs, voluntary associations, and other mechanisms that enable communication with others who share a passion in fly fishing. I believe the same is true of the creative professions. Having a strong sense of social identity, in which someone perceives their identity as tied to that of a larger community of like-minded people, could sustain a person through difficult times.

3rd, if someone has experienced powerful socialization pressures such that their personal identity is bound up with their occupational identity, they may tolerate an enormous amount of misery before abandoning that identity. Thus, someone who strongly identifies with their artistic craft may continue to hold onto that belief, regardless of having few opportunities to demonstrate their prowess. Lena and Lindemann used data from a very large survey of individuals who had pursued an arts degree in the United States to investigate the question of artistic identity, noting that many workers are defined themselves as artists did not hold artistic jobs. They focused on the very large group that said they had worked in an occupation associated with the arts but who did not indicate that they identified as a professional artist. However, what caught my eye in the survey was a much smaller number of people who said they either currently or at one time had worked as a professional artist but then indicated in another question that they had never worked in an occupation associated with the arts. This small group of people apparently had sustained a sense of being an artistic professional while never having an opportunity to work in an occupation associated with the arts.

I would love to know more about these “artists” – – were they able to publish, record, perform, or otherwise display their talents just often enough to maintain a belief that someday they would “make it big”? Were they member of local communities of creative professionals who reinforce one another’s beliefs that they were just going through a temporary bad patch and success was just around the corner?

My 4 weight rod versus Vinnie the LMB

What every large mouth bass wants!

What every large mouth bass wants!

“My 4wt rod is not up to the job!” That’s the conclusion I came to after another losing battle with my tormentor, Vinnie, the LMB.

Down at my lake at night, I usually start up with a confidence builder — using either my 4wt or 5wt to fish for bream & crappie — and then when it starts to get dark, I switch over to the 7wt. I’m using the 7wt to cast poppers, Sneaky Pete’s, and the like, with the hope that something other than too-big-for-their-britches bream will attack. Some of those bream really do have delusions of grandeur — last night, I hooked a bream a bit smaller than my hand on a Sneaky Pete, which, if the fish had actually gotten into its mouth, would’ve throttled him.

As I’ve reported to the TFF Group, I’ve caught a couple of small LMB’s, but otherwise have only broken poppers, snapped hooks, and bitter disappointment to show for my efforts re Vinnie.

Tonight, I decided to start with the 7wt while it was still sunny & I could see where the poppers were actually splashing down. (I’m not the world’s smoothest caster.)

After a half hour wihout even getting a rise out of the overly ambitious bream, I decided to switch to the 4wt & console myself with battling a few scrappy bream.  I tied on a copper john — a fly they’ll always take, when all else fails. I started by working the deeper side of the inlet, where I usually catch the bigger bream. Then, I decided to try the shallower waters, on the other side, where I sometimes have luck.

On my first cast into water that couldn’t have been more than 2 feet deep, a small bream hit the copper john. I was surprised when he jumped out of the water, without a tug from me, but then I saw why: right behind him was Vinnie, who scarfed up the bream and headed for the center of the lake. You may have heard a similar story before, but it never gets old, in my book. As always, I fantasied that Vinnie was so hungry that he’d swallowed the bream, hook & all. For about 30 seconds, I thought my fantasy had come true. Just like last May, when the battle lasted long enough for me to think I’d actually hooked him, he made several runs across the inlet, bending my 4wt like a twig and stripping line off like I’d greased the reel. I tried stopping him a couple of times, but couldn’t hold onto the line. He finally turned & headed again out into the lake. I felt the line go slack & he was gone. I reeled in the line and saw that he’d not only taken the bream with him, but also the hook. For the record, it was tied on with the best improved clinch knot I could muster, but I guess I need to go back to the fly shop for a refresher course.

I think I only had a chance at landing him if I could’ve worn him out before he wore me out and/or snapped the line on one of his runs.

So, what do you do when the only thing a LMB seems to want is live bream on a stick?

Stand Up & Be Counted: Why I Don’t Like the Labels “qualitative/quantitative”

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