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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

#SundayReads 2016-05-23 How College Works

Charlie writes:

Following are my observations after reading the book "How College Works" by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, 2014, selected for the Ashesi Faculty/Staff retreat, June, 2016

Interesting quote: "More like a church or even a family, a college serves multiple interests which are constantly shifting." I had not expected academics to admit of this reality, but the book exhibits a student-centered tone throughout.

As I read the chapter on entering and making friends, I considered the FDE class our freshmen experienced as an academic activity similar to sports or choirs that demanded lots of time and could have resulted in close friendships for the members of the class of 2019. I wonder if other faculty/staff have heard this from the class.

Sociological factors important for making friends: Physical proximity, Meeting early in college career, Time together with a large, yet knowable number of fellow students, Some exclusivity, and Shared interests. This helps me understand Patrick's emphasis on constructing adequate on-campus living spaces.

Students without friends are more likely to transfer, drop out, or not be able to study well. Have one 2019 student in mind that I'm concerned about.

Faculty that students choose as mentors have these characteristics: exciting, skilled and knowledgeable, accessible (easy to find, available, approachable), and engaging. Worthwhile objectives, hard to measure.

Vital importance of freshmen instructors: engaging the students into the academy, legitimating the disciplines. The first year is a special opportunity.

When professors don't have students in a series of classes, mentorships don't develop.

Dinner at a professor's home is magical, a talisman.

The authors make an interesting argument on the "arithmetic of engagement." Given that there are only a few teachers that regularly engage students, you really should put as many students in front of those, rather than concentrate on arranging small class sizes.

Also interesting that quoting class sizes based on the "class-weighted" average class size results in a much smaller-sounding typical class size than a "student-weighted" average class size. This can be a significant effect when there are many small upper level classes, which is not so much the case at Ashesi.

"Belonging" as a goal. I would say from what I have seen that Ashesi students in general seem to form a strong connection to the mission of the school by the time they leave. As in other venues, four factors are important: co-presence (physical interaction), shared focus of attention, ritualized common activities, exclusivity.

The typical progression of connection begins with a few close friends from the dorm, then a sport or club, then a wider institutional set of "weak" linkages mediated through parties or friends of friends. Would have to validate that in the Ashesi context through student interviews, not sure.

Improving the writing skills is dramatic over first two years, but mostly comes from recognizing you have a caring audience for your writing. The importance of a one-on-one conference between a faculty member and the student is also magical. This brought back memories of the extravagant efforts Marian Horowitz made while here, that I still hear students mention.

Improvements in public speaking. I would contend that Ashesi concentrates a lot of attention on this, and generates students that compete well on an international stage.

The science versus humanities divide at Hamilton echoes comments I hear from Ashesi students at Akorno as they compare CS and Management tracks. I have to wonder how the introduction of engineering will impact on this.

Students need to care about relationships, and this is the strength of peer pressure, "making the grade" or "joining the group." I also see an increased willingness to challenge each other's arguments as students spend time at Ashesi.

Skills, confidence, and relationships are the three most salient benefits of attending college, according to the authors of the book. A nice summary of the value of a liberal arts education: "The greater potential benefits of college may lie not just in learning discrete skills, but in acquiring the habits and attitudes that support learning and make it intrinsically enjoyable."

I was shocked to read authors' contention that "satisfaction" of alumni is really the "whole point" of the college experience. I take the "transformation of the continent" as the crux of the Ashesi vision, although the short term measureable outcomes that I see Ashesi watching include the ethical outlook of its graduates, their employ-ability, and the research output of their faculty.

Curious advice to exec for how to improve alumni satisfaction: "helping the right people find each other at the right time." As my father-in-law said, "you could say that is how to run any organization..."

Takeaway advice for me: learn and use your students' names, a little personal contact goes a long way.

Takeaway advice for my students: spend your time with good people. You must find a few good friends and a couple of great teachers. Steps:
1. start meeting people right away.
2. choose teachers over topics.
3. pick your places for maximum interaction.
4. join high-contact activities.
5. keep your options open, socially and academically.

Ashesi could evaluate our success via phone interviews with students who entered ten years prior. This is a difficult, but potentially interesting approach.

The authors' closing shots on the relative unimportance of facilities, as opposed to people, at Socrates Academy seemed too facile.

I'm sorry I won't be present for the conversations at the retreat!

Monday, February 22, 2016

#SundayReads 2016-02-21 Tears and Watchmen

#SundayReads 2016-02-21, a day late...
Two books this week. The first, Tears on the Sand was a page-turner that kept me up for a night or two. Dr. Joseph Agris, a cosmetic surgeon from Houston, narrates an adventure in Pakistan. He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan multiple times on medical mission trips, repairing cleft palates and other facial defects, as well as injuries caused by drone attacks of the US and the collateral damages of the war on terror. After thousands of these surgeries all over the country, he decides he wants to meet with Osama bin Laden to try to understand what sort of thoughts and habits motivate that man. As his bodyguards tell him, he will not find Osama, but if Osama wants to find him, the meetings will take place. The "crazy Texan" notices some Pepsi that he cannot buy, and figures out where Osama is getting his fix, and shortly after, emmisaries manage to kidnap him and deliver him to the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad for a series of conversations. Just minutes after his last conversation with the leader, Dr. Agris is able to witness the Navy seal assasination squad arrival, and then has to beat a speedy exit from the country. The doctor's musings about the impact of drones and the nuclear ambitions of Pakistan makes one pause and think about how so much money can be spent to so little improvement of the situation on the ground. He also highlights how al Qaeda, when cut off by the financial lock-down by the international banking system, turned to the refining of grade four heroin as a mechanism to extract billions of dollars of revenue from enemy states. And he realized how efficiently al Qaeda was able to wage war, with an unheard-of kill ratio by its suicide bombers. Most upsetting for me to read were claims that Osama supposedly made to the doctor about suitcase-sized dirty nuclear bombs that he claimed had already been smuggled into sleeper cells at dozens of US cities. If true, this could be the next phase in the global war on terror. All in all, a disturbing, but reasonably plausible story. Also interesting is his report of an ambush on the road that required him to kill four men in order to rescue his bodyguards after being thrown from the vehicle by an improvised explosive device. Not exactly a typical tourist jaunt! The second book this week was Harper Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman. It was kind of spooky that I finished the book the day before the author died. My host at a missions conference in Helena, outside Birmingham, AL, had a copy her aunt had read, and the Accra Book Club had read it and "To Kill a Mockingbird" for their January meeting, so it was one that had been on my list. It was short, and written in a simple style. The story picks up after the story reported in her first book, as Scout returns home for a visit after moving to New York. The theme is coming to grips with a human father who is not the hero she had portrayed in the first book, but I found the psychological portrait very realistic. Books such as these make for great conversations about race relations in the USA, and understanding life in Alabama. As a yankee who lived in Atlanta for a generation, the culture is still mysterious, and books like these are a good way for me to try to understand southern culture. Oh, and the newspapers here reported the author's original title had been "God sent a Watchman" but in today's book-publishing environment, such a title was not perceived as viable, apparently. So they took off one letter... Ready anything good lately?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

#SundayReads 14-Feb-2016

#SundayReads 14-Feb-2016 Charlie writes:

Image from Central UMC, Atlanta, GA

As Lent begins, I have resolved to listen to an audio version of the New Testament, according to a 40-day plan. There is an on-line audio Bible site,, and I was able to use the FOSS audio editor audacity to paste together the thirty minutes or so of audio for each day, deleting the chapter labels. Finally did my first listen today, so it may be a challenge!

My big read this week was Michael Lewis's expose of the Salomon Brothers meltdown in the mid 1980s, Liar's Poker. I was intrigued after my readings on risk two weeks ago. Here is an Art History major who became incredibly sucessful as a bond salesman, but bailed out before the company imploded. His depiction of the personalities involved and their motivations seem as unlikely as the fictional account by Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities.

I was intrigued by Lewis's Epilogue:

"When you sit, as I did, at the center of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever and benefit all out of proportion to your value to society..."
introducing his decision to quit that job, freeing him to write about it. Once again, the theme was the weirdness that happens when you can't find the person on the other side of a trade or a market.

I've also been plowing through a MOOC by Scott Page, of the University of Michigan, on coursera, about Model Thinking. This will be great preparation for my Data Mining class this fall, although the amount of stuff he crams into each ten minute clip is truly exhausting in tempo. An interesting reading that came out of that one was Dr. Feynman's essay "The Value of Science" in his book "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" which is available here on page 141. This famous physics prof from CalTech argues that the skepticism of the rational scientist is an attitude that was only affirmed in the relatively recent future, but represents an attitude that is a pre-requisite to a functioning democracy. Earlier forms of governance just don't allow dissent, since those in charge are certain they know how to run society. He claims that the skeptical attitude of science is very related to the development of the "Age of Reason," and he for one doesn't want to go back:
"Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar."

On to Alabama next week, planning to carry a tome called "Tears on the Sand" by a reconstructive surgeon in Houston who had just visited Osama bin Laden hours before the US military engineered his assasination.

Monday, February 08, 2016

#SundayReads 7-Feb-2016

Charlie writes: During this week I only read one book:

Old 300: Gone to Texas, by Paul N Spellman, 2014, self-published, ISBN: 1497470587

My father-in-law took me along to the yearly meeting of the San Jacinto Historical Society, here in Houston, TX. The author delivered an entertaining talk about his research into the 300 families who were granted properties under the Empresario Samuel F. Austin during the years 1822-1826. Dr. Spellman has been teaching Texas history for a generation, to fourth and seventh grade classes, to university students, and most recently at Wharton County Junior College in Richmond, TX, and felt that it was time to document three issues:

  • Who were these people?
  • Why did they come to Texas?
  • Where did they come from, and how did they get here?

Professor Spellman was able to lay hands on the original land records in the Texas Land Office in Austin, and then tracked back through census records to conclude that there was at least one family with a connection to each of the 24 United States at the time, and some from Ireland and Canada. He also discovered that not all the 300 were huge, poor families, although there were many who fit that bill. While Austin tried his best to keep out bandits, and had confronted five escaped convicts, throwing out two, not all the folks were necessarily upstanding characters. There were a handful of women who arrived as widows when husbands died on the perilous journeys to the Brazos and Colorado River basins. It seemed that the land route through Nacogdoches and the "Piney Woods" was easier than the skiff journeys over the sand bars of the Gulf of Mexico from New Orleans.

The book also used the word "filibuster" in a sense I had never encountered, meaning "a person engaging in unauthorized warfare against a foreign country." There had been some earlier attempts by citizens of the USA to invade Mexico and settle the northern portions, but Moses Austin had proposed to settle Anglo farmers who were willing to live under the Mexican catholic administration on tax-free plots to encourage the development of the area. Of course, this settlement approach ended up not lasting very long. In fact, the original grant was made by a government which was overthrown before he could mobilize his settlers, and his son Steven had to travel to Mexico City to renew the deal with the new administration, taking him nearly a year (during which he learned Spanish!).

You will find some of these 300 names, like Fulshear, Dickinson, Austin, Bastrop, Kerrville and Stafford across Texas today. The Texas Rangers date from these early years, and the importation of slaves also dates from this time.

The book was a long read, but carefully drawn. His original draft had been nearly 600 pages, so the 400+ represented quite an abbreviation. Dr. Spellman also quotes a few pages from other histories to give a taste for the challenges experienced by various families. I was particularly interested in his quotes from various, conflicting accounts of the first deaths recorded amongst these 300 families in attacks by the local Native Americans (p 194-196). This explains why history can be somewhat difficult to pin down.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

#SundayReads 31-Jan-2016

Charlie Writes:

During our sabbatical time, reading has become a priority. Noticing Kajsa Hallberg-Adu's weekly reading list inspired me to report in on mine as well. Not sure I'll be able to keep up the tempo, but it will keep me accountable....

Readings this week:

Children of the Earth: My Memories of EARTH University's History, Jose A. Zaglul, EARTH University, 2010. 221 pages.

This paperback, available in English translation as well as the original Spanish version, is sold at the Gift Shop on the EARTH University Campus in Guacimo, Costa Rica. Dr. Zaglul is the founding president of EARTH University, another institution benefitting from the Master Card Foundation scholarships program. Mary Kay and I had visited their Guacimo campus in Costa Rica for two days last week, and were eager to read the founder's take on the challenges of creating a university on a former banana and livestock plantation in the humid tropics of Limon province. The campus has about the same land area as Stanford University and teaches tropical agriculture.

I was very interested to read about the origins of their yearly international festival, organized by the students themselves, which has as one object the funding of travel for family members of graduates who would not be able to attend commencement otherwise. Also fascinating was the similarity of emphasis on entrepreneurship and ethics, with the additional "justice" component in their educational model. I think there should be ongoing collaboration between the schools, and hope that I can contribute to making that happen. While there, we had dinner with five students from Ghana, who explained how they had endured a "crash" course in Spanish while living with local farming families for the trimester before starting classes. We were humbled to even imagine attempting college in a foreign language, but they seemed to be thriving.

Liz Coleman speaks on Liberal Arts Education

The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.

Vulnerability in Teaching

Vulnerability as a teaching strategy. Some motivation for me to share my struggles in CS111 this past term on our blog.

Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, Peter L. Bernstein, John Wiley & Sons, 1996. 0-741-12104-5

A romp through the history of probability and statistics, concentrating the later chapters on the famous economists and behavioral scientists who presaged Freakonomics. The final few chapters' discussed the "porfolio insurance" meltdown of the 1990s and what it implied about the hubris of quants. These guys developed illiquid derivatives that proported to re-allocate risk, making the market safer. At the time, the author seemed convinced that the regulation of this activity was un-necessary, as the big banks just were too big to fail. Written a dozen years before the sub-prime mortgage collapse, it was odd to contrast with the events recorded in the book and movie The Big Short.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Charlie writes:
Practical Ethics at Ashesi University: Discipline inspired by faith

Clipart from Troy State University's website: "Plagiarism: It's Not a Laughing Mattter"

Teaching at Ashesi University College is an honor, but the ethical component of the work became more intense this last term.

I was teaching Ashesi first-year students studying business administration or management information systems an introduction to computing and programming course. That course's broad syllabus includes topics like how to generate a strong password, what is the internet, scientific prefixes used in computing, building and using basic databases, navigating email and the moodle-based software used for classes at Ashesi, and constructing a personal Linked-In page. We also introduced computer programming, using javascript, the "language of the web."

After designing an interactive web page with javascript, we went on to develop an electronic "battleship" game. In class, we showed how a series of buttons on the page could be linked to functions to play this game. The second programming assignment had the students generalize the individual button functions into a single handler with a parameter in order to make the code easier to read or extend. We also wanted the students to realize that editing existing code is often part of programming work.

The students pushed back that they were having problems with this assignment, so we presented other examples of functions with arguments and extended the deadline.

While grading the submissions we realized that many of them were either identical or very similar to others. On my invitation, Ashesi's Dean of Students presented the school's position about copying work on individual assignments the following week. I set about warning the 15 students who had submitted solutions identical to one or two others.

Ashesi uses an "Informal Resolution" process, where instructors can administer various sanctions in cases where a student has not kept with the standards we expect. The instructor can select from a range of sanctions less severe than failing the class, and the student my accept that sanction or appeal to the Ashesi Judicial Council (AJC) if they feel unfairly punished. The lecturer must report the evidence and the sanction to the Dean of Students, to prevent any student from avoiding AJC after multiple "Informal Resolutions" in different classes.

I initially proposed a sanction of a zero on the assignment plus a warning, but after having administered this to the 15 students, our Dean felt the school's administration wouldn't find that sanction rigorous enough.

My missionary colleague spent some time the next week coaching me through what message I needed to send, and what sanctions I felt sent that message. I ended up with a two-tier scheme. After further examination, I found there were 20 additional students who had submitted nearly identical solutions, changed just enough to avoid detection by submitting identical files. These seemed a more serious issue, deserving of a more severe sanction.

Side-by-Side comparison of two submissions, red text identical, green text changed slightly to hide the plagiarism.

I constructed a somewhat more complicated game as a makeup assignment, which we expected each of the 35 students to complete without copying each other's work. This makeup was worth no points, but was required in order to pass the course. Both groups were given a zero on the original assignment. The group with similar submissions were also docked a half grade on their final course grade.

The logistics of meeting with the original fifteen students a second time, the 20 new students, executing the agreements, presenting evidence in one case of a student who had a prior "Informal" and whose case was promoted to the AJC directly, and the emotions raised over the whole scandal were probably the most difficult few weeks I have experienced here at Ashesi. Yet, after a few weeks of time away and reflection over how I enforced expectations, I feel the effort was consistent with Ashesi's mission to train a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs who will transform Africa.