Sympathize, Rationalize, and Strategize (Grade Complaints, Part 3)

Even after avoiding threats and using reasonable strategies to reduce the number of grade complaints an instructor receives, students will still have questions about their grades. And good for them! A student who is engaged with her grades is an opportunity to help turn a ‘C’ or ‘B’ student into a better student. But this transformation can only take place if an instructor engages with the student in a positive manner. So, to end this three part series on grade complaints, I will now discuss how to successfully handle a student grade complaint. It’s a three step process: sympathize, rationalize, and strategize.

First, sympathize with the student. Students are not coming to complain about a grade because they are scheming to get more points from a weak-willed instructor. Instead, students are complaining because of a difference between their expectations and the result; that is, they thought they were going to get a higher grade. So rather than launching immediately into the reasons why the student received her grade, spend some time sympathizing with the student. Get her side of the story: the amount of work she put in and where she came up short. This can go a long way toward building goodwill, even if the student’s grade remains unchanged after the conversation is over.

Second, rationalize the assigned grade. If the instructor has assigned grades carefully in the first place, this should actually be the easiest step in the process. Start first by talking about what the student did well. That can mean discussing the good parts of a paper or certain trends seen in test questions (e.g., “It looks like you really knew the concepts from chapter 4 well.”). Then move into the areas where the student can improve. Keep the comments positive and focused on improvement. For example, don’t say, “this line of argument was really weak.” Instead, say, “For your next paper, your grade would really be helped by making your argument stronger.” And be specific and exhaustive. Leave no doubt in the student’s mind: the grade assigned was done so after careful and thorough examination of the student’s work.

One helpful strategy may be to point out the student’s overall percentile in the class. I’ve found this to be especially useful in dealing with student questions about final grades. A student might say, “I was just two points from earning an ‘A’!” To which an instructor can respond, “But your overall points put you in the 78th percentile. 22% of the class did better than you. Does that really sound like ‘A’ level performance?” Some students will respond “YES!” but others will understand how they stacked up against their classmates. The most successful outcomes from a grade complaint are ones in which the student feels that the grade assigned was justified, even generous, and also knows what to do for the future.

That future focus brings us to the final part of the discussion; spend some time strategizing with the student to help him keep improving his work. For a test, give the student specific study tips and ways to change his current habits to help his score improve for the next test. For a paper or other type of assignment, give specific strategies for completing the assignment. This is also the perfect time to remind the student of all the help available to him – office hours, meeting with a TA, campus writing help, campus tutoring, studying with classmates or friends. Overall, the student should feel like there is a lot he can do to improve in the future.

Following these three tips should result in grade complaints that are much more pleasant and less combative for both student and teacher. But nowhere in these steps is information about when and how to change a grade. That’s primarily because I don’t believe that grades should be changed. Grades should be assigned correctly in the first place; if they aren’t, then grade changes should affect the whole class, or at least a large subsection of students, and should not be done on a per-student basis. But there is one thing that an instructor should be probing for in the interaction: make sure that the student understood the assignment!

In some cases, the student may have completely misunderstood the assignment. That means that the purpose of the assignment (assessing the student’s learning) was not fulfilled, and that the grade assigned is essentially meaningless. In cases of dramatic misunderstanding, especially for a student who seems highly motivated, it may be worthwhile to offer the student a chance to redo the assignment. This should be done in relatively few cases and only when evidence of misunderstanding is very clear, but grade complaints are an ideal time to get a sense of what the student’s understanding of the assignment was; this information can then be used to decide whether or not to extend similar opportunities to other struggling students. It’s good feedback for future classes as well, to help instructors adjust assignment descriptions to remove misunderstanding and ambiguity.

To conclude this series, let’s consider an adjective that some instructors and students may associate with grade complaints: combative. Each post in this series has been designed to reduce any feelings of combativeness for both students and instructors. Instructors shouldn’t artificially limit student access or threaten to take points away from the student just for asking for grade redress. And instructors also shouldn’t treat students like adversaries when they show up during office hours. An instructor must make students accept and trust an assigned grade in order to effectively teach. Grading is a necessary part of instruction, in part because of the formative feedback it provides to the instructor. If instructors are not able to measure how much their students are learning, then improvement to instruction would be impossible. Thus grade complaints should be treated as an opportunity to create student buy-in, not as a battle over a small number of points that the student thinks she’s earned and that the instructor is hellbent on not granting. Educators should save that kind of combat for struggles with politicians trying to defund schools, not for the students who are just trying to do their best.

Preemptive and Nonthreatening Strategies (Grade Complaints, Part 2)

On Friday, I wrote why threats to lower grades are not an effective or appropriate way to head off grade complaints. When instructors tell students that any grade complaint can result in grades being raised, kept the same, or lowered, it reduces student motivation to contact the instructor and suggests that the grades assigned are not reliable indicators of performance. But does that mean that instructors must prepare for an onslaught of grade complaints? The answer is no, because there are successful and appropriate ways to help students understand their grades when they get them and reduce grade complaints without resorting to threats.

The first way to reduce grade complaints is entirely preemptive: the grades assigned must be consistent and the reasons for their assignment must be made as clear as possible. By and large, students are motivated to complain about grades not because they are scheming to get more points but because they do not understand why they received a certain grade. The instructor can confront this lack of understanding by reducing two sources of student confusion: comparative confusion and correctness confusion. Students do compare their work to their peers, and in so doing, they may perceive inconsistencies in grading. For example, two students read each other’s papers and the student who received an ‘A’ says to the student who received a ‘B,’ “I don’t know why you got that grade! Your paper is WAY better than mine.” If the instructor’s comments on the paper do not illuminate the reasons why, then the instructor should prepare for the ‘B’ student to come and complain.

Correctness confusion occurs when a student does not know what he could have done differently to achieve a better grade. This type of confusion often co-occurs with students who perceived that they worked very hard on the assignment or in preparation for a test, yet still received a grade lower than expected. Instructors can head off this type of complaint by being open about the assignment, including examples, expectations, and detailed feedback. Some students may still be confused about why a certain correct answer is correct, but openness reduces the number of students who will complain.

Overall, reducing confusion requires the students to perceive clarity and does not require full or complete honesty on the part of the instructor. This point may sound overly cynical or Machiavellian. I’d argue that it instead suggests a reality-based approach to grading. Sometimes instructors should rely on ranking methods, rather than absolute point methods, for assigning grades. Doing this can be appropriate in certain situations, but a rubric should still be constructed to justify the points assigned. Perceptions must be built before the student considers complaining; explaining the grade after it has been assigned is a much greater struggle.

Another practical way to reduce student grade complaints is to outline a reasonable process for how students may address grades. First, instructors might set a waiting period before hearing grading complaints. It is not unreasonable to ask students to wait 24 hours before meeting about their grades. This need not be framed as a restriction on the student; rather, instructors can say something like, “With all that grading, I am just really tired. So if you want to talk with me about the assignment, let’s wait until tomorrow or the next day, rather than talking about it after class. Does that sound okay?”

Second, instructors might request that students come to discuss grades after engaging in some basic preparation. This works especially well for disputes about test questions, which should have a correct answer based in lecture material or course reading. For example, the instructor might say that she is happy to talk with students about any question on the test, and that the student should come prepared with references to the textbook or lecture to help explain why they believe their answer is the correct one. Whether or not students come prepared, the instructor should always be ready with a quick answer about what was the correct answer and why. That information should be put on the test key, including textbook page number or lecture day, for easy reference.

The final way to reduce grade complaints is through kindness. When instructors impose unreasonable restrictions on how students can complain about grades, it creates artificial constraints on the process. Students have an inherent right for information about their grades; instructors who deny this are asking for trouble. When students feel that their rights are constrained, it can paradoxically make them want to exercise those rights even more; this process is called “psychological reactance.” When an instructor is open and welcoming of student interaction, however, then students do not feel restrictions on their freedoms, and their overall motivation to complain may be reduced. Additionally, kind and competent instructors may be given the benefit of the doubt. Though a student may be unsure why she received a ‘B’ when she thought she deserved higher, she may not complain if she trusts her instructor.

Employing these types of strategies will likely result in reduced student grade complaints, but they will not lower the number of complaints to 0. Tomorrow, I will consider how instructors can make their interactions with complaining students go as smoothly as possible.

Threats Don’t Work (Grade Complaints, Part 1)

One of the most difficult conversations that any instructor will have is with a student who feels that the grade she was assigned was incorrect. As the student attempts to argue for more points, the instructor must balance a firm insistence that the grade will likely not be changed with a comforting and caring attitude that recognizes the student’s frustration. Because of the uncomfortable nature of this conversation, it is not surprising that instructors might attempt to limit the number of grading complaints.

During the 2011 Teaching and Learning Symposium, a discussion focused on encouraging students to attend office hours. One instructor wondered how this encouragement might increase the number of students complaining about grades. One of the discussion leaders, an individual with a campus leadership position, suggested that the instructor inform students that, if they come in to contest a grade, the instructor reserves the right to raise, keep unchanged, or even lower their assigned grade. This type of action is fundamentally wrong because it discourages student/teacher contact and undermines faith in assigned grades.

If an instructor’s goal is increased student contact, then encouraging office hour visits for most any purpose (even purely social) should be paramount. As grade questions and complaints are one of many reasons that students choose to attend office hours, a tone that makes these visits less desirable or sends a message that the instructor does not wish to see students will reduce overall student motivation to attend office hours. Suggesting that contested grades may be lowered serves as a threat to students: do not contact your instructor about a grade because it may result in lost points in the course. Even if an instructor’s goal is not to encourage office hour visits, such threats may dampen student motivation even in students who legitimately need help in the course. Any benefit provided to the professor in the reduction of difficult conversations is overwhelmed by the negative atmosphere such threats create.

In addition to creating a negative atmosphere around student/teacher interaction, suggesting that grades may be lowered also undermines student confidence in grading procedures. Grades should not be fickle things, susceptible to changes in mood or environment. A ‘B’ paper should earn a ‘B’ no matter who is grading it or when it was graded. This consistency is precisely the reason why rubrics are created and used; they provide specification for how to grade a particular assessment.

There are certainly cases when grades may be changed, but they should only be changed in the case of a clear error. For example, if a multiple choice question was intended to have only one right answer but in fact had two, then additional points should be awarded. Or if an instructor said one thing in class that was contradictory to something in the book, then points should be given for both points of view. (An even better solution would be to throw out the question altogether, but that is the subject for a different debate.) These types of changes are worthy of instructor attention, but they should be rare, and they should seldom occur on assignments like papers or essay exams.

Writing assessment does pose a unique challenge in that it can be more difficult to justify a particular assigned grade because the development of a successful rubric is more challenging. However, this is no excuse for instructors to reason that they need to shut out student grade complaints. An instructor must have confidence in the grade assigned when a paper is handed back, and that confidence should serve as a buffer between complaint and action. Suggesting that a grade may be changed up or down indicates a lack of confidence in the assigned grade. Though such a threat will likely reduce grade redress requests, it should actually serve as a catalyst for complaint: it is an indication that the grade assigned should be reviewed for accuracy. In the end, an accurate grade is better than a higher grade, because it provides the student with greater efficacy on the next assignment.

There is nothing wrong with recognizing error in grading. Classical testing theory is quick to recognize the inherent flaws in the assessment process. The assignment is designed to capture learning, but it cannot do so flawlessly. Any attempt at measurement also introduces error; grading is just one source of error in that measurement. But steps to minimize error, including rubrics and rechecking assignments, should be done before an assignment is returned to the student, not as part of a student complaint. Only addressing problematic grades when a student complains means that the “squeaky wheels” get their grades corrected; as students who complain are probably not a representative sample, it may systematically disadvantage some students.

The next challenge, then, is two fold: how to make sure that complaints about grades do not become excessive and how to make these conversations with students more open and successful. I will address these two questions in the coming days.

The Best Way To Demonstrate College Value

The founder of Pay Pal, Peter Thiel, has decided to shake up the conventional logic about college, namely that attending and finishing college is the only way to be successful in the world. He’s selected 24 people under the age of 20 with great ideas for tech companies, and he’s paying them each $100,000 to drop out of school and start working on their great ideas. Mr. Thiel has caused a bit of a stir because his suggestion seems to be that success does not depend on college. Though Mr. Thiel himself cannot serve as an example (he went to Stanford for his BA and law degree), he has plenty of other business leaders to point to: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg – not a college graduate among them.

Though I am highly skeptical that any of the dropouts Mr. Thiel is creating will go on to find success in the business world, I think his proposal is an excellent one. It helps put emphasis on the value of a college education specifically by suggesting that college should be a choice, not a path that all must march down to have any chance at success. It helps to reinforce a key message for high school students: you must begin to make your own choices in life.

There is no better way to demonstrate the value of college to a skeptical high school student than to suggest the student not go to college right away and instead try to make his way in the world with only a high school diploma. If enough students give this a try, we will likely see that some can make it. Perhaps they are entrepreneurial by nature, have a great idea, and are able to start a successful business. Perhaps they have connections through family or work in high school that leads to a good paying job. Perhaps they are just in the right place at the right time. There is no doubt that college is neither necessary nor sufficient for success in the world.

But what percentage of individuals, especially young people, with just a high school education will find that kind of success? For many, not going to college means a serious loss in wages. It also means a struggle to find employment that is meaningful, long-term, and career-based. The world of work is an often unforgiving, uncaring place; this reality is brutally reinforced when the only jobs available are entry-level positions. Moving up in a business can be very difficult without an education to back up experience.

Even more problematic for individuals who choose to eschew college after high school is a tendency to mistake freedom for opportunity. An 18 year old with a high school education may mistake herself for a real adult, especially if she is able to land a job that pays enough for rent, food, car payments, and money leftover each month. This is freedom, likely never-before experienced by the individual. If that freedom, however, is traded in for responsibility, then what once appeared to be opportunity (being able to do something) quickly reveals itself as burden. Buying a new car because one has the freedom to do so also means accepting monthly car payments and insurance costs, resulting in a dramatic loss of net income. Choosing to get married means facing responsibility for two people instead of just one. Having a child compounds the problem even more. In short, if high school graduates trade in their freedom for responsibility, then their opportunities inherent in being young and free will fade quickly and eventually disappear altogether.

Any advantage in choosing not to go to college comes only when such a choice increases the possibility of attending college in the future. Taking a job after high school and saving up money to pay for college is a great way to ensure reduced debt upon graduation. For a student worried about paying for college, this path increases the chances of going to college in the future. But skipping college to work at McDonald’s, having a couple of kids, and buying a new minivan means that going to college is a near impossibility should the individual decide that is what he wants to do.

The problem with suggesting that individuals don’t need college to be successful is that it can only be successfully argued using post hoc success stories. This logical fallacy (post hoc, ergo propter hoc) may be alluring for high school students who don’t think they need college to succeed, but it is no comfort to them after their chances to go to college have been diminished due to life circumstances. Mr. Thiel has evidence to suggest college is not necessary, but an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that Mr. Gates, Mr. Jobs, and Mr. Zuckerberg are complete anomalies. $100,000 from Mr. Thiel may make great startup cash, but the students selected should keep college in the horizon; the money won’t last forever.

Mr. Thiel has another motive for offering up cash for quitters: his money speaks out against the expense of college by arguing that its benefits are largely fleeting, especially for those with great ideas. But Mr. Thiel should not confuse the two debates. It is one thing to debate about the value of college, and quite another thing to debate about its cost. Considering the myriad ways students can control costs in their own education (not everyone needs to attend Stanford for 7 years like Mr. Thiel), the value of college cannot be eclipsed by its costs. While we might wish that our society valued other forms of education and experience, paying 24 individuals to drop out is not likely to change anything. Mr. Thiel should be credited for putting money toward his ideals; hopefully when those ideals fall short, he will also pony up some money for tuition.

Microsoft Doesn’t Get Apps

Today Microsoft revealed details of the next version of their mobile operating system. Dubbed Mango, the new OS contains 500 new features, according to Microsoft. It’s going to have to include something new if Microsoft is going to make any dent in the smart phone market, currently dominated by the likes of Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Reading accounts of how the operating system was pitched lead me to a striking conclusion: Microsoft doesn’t understand apps.

Here’s a quote from the New York Times Bits Blog, linked above:

The current smartphone experience, [Andrew Lees, president of the mobile communications business] explained, is organized around apps. “The user has to go app by app by app,” Mr. Lees said. “It’s as if every time you wanted to go from the living room to the dining room, you had to go through the front door.”

Mango links location data, information on about a subject and shopping options. The results are presented to the user as related views on the screen instead of links to Web sites, as conventional search does.

In a demo, a person typed in the name of a recent movie, “Water for Elephants.” The first screen displayed the location of nearby theaters and show times for the movie. Another tap, and the next screen showed the description and summary of the film, pulled from the movie information service IMDb. Next came options to purchase the ticket through a few online services.

Mr. Lees makes a worthwhile argument. On most smart phones, it is difficult to accomplish some tasks which are easy on a laptop. For example, let’s say I want to email a URL to someone else. I go to my browser, highlight the URL, and select ‘copy’ (either using a keyboard shortcut, or by right-clicking and selecting copy). Then I go to my mail program, paste the link into the email and hit send. The process on a smart phone is much more difficult.

But when we stop to consider WHY the process is more difficult on a smart phone, Mr. Lees’ argument falls short. He suggests that the tasks are difficult because of a centralized home screen that serves as an app switcher (the “front door” in his house metaphor). While this is a hassle, most smart phones today have a better method for switching apps (ironically, Windows Phone 7 lacks this type of multitasking feature). And being able to quickly switch apps doesn’t solve the problem of input. On a real computer, it’s easy to copy and paste a link because it’s easy to copy and paste, not because it is easy to switch between applications. After all, computers use applications too, and we must switch between them in similar ways. Switching is made easier, of course, because of better input (keyboard and mouse), but it’s a similar system to the one Mr. Lees makes out to be so problematic.

Having set up the issue (app switching), we might expect Mr. Lees to show some kind of solution that weaves apps seamlessly in some clever way. Instead, he just demos another type of app, this time a smart search function built directly into the phone. It sounds like a helpful app, but it hardly solves the problem that Mr. Lees used to preface the demo.

The demoed feature doesn’t help the input problem either. Having a central repository for a variety of functions is useful, but it doesn’t make it easier to input text into the phone or input intent through gestures or commands. If the new feature happens to know what I want to do, then I’m all set. But if I’m reading an interesting news article in the web browser and want to email it, I’m still stuck with the same onerous procedure.

Based on the setup of the problem and the proposed solution, I’m left to conclude that Mr. Lees doesn’t get what apps are or what they do. Microsoft has done a good job of demoing an application that delivers useful functionality. But they haven’t figured out yet how to make the smart phone experience better. Improving on the experience is challenging, first and foremost because of the small screen, so it’s not surprising that Microsoft hasn’t totally figured out how to make things better. But if Microsoft really thinks they can gain market share, then they will need to do a lot more than “[blur] the line between search and applications,” as Mr. Lees pitched today.

So Many Farmers Markets

Other towns must have this issue as well, but Saturday morning is really quite a zoo of farmers markets here in Madison. There is, of course, the big show downtown, around the Square. But there are also two farmers markets located in close proximity near Hilldale Mall on Saturday morning. Rumor has it that there was once just one farmers market there, but internal politics lead to an irreparable split, and vendors were forced to choose sides.

In general, the more the merrier, but in May the selection is so limited that it is hard for one stand to differentiate itself from another. Certainly if one wishes to purchase all food at the farmers market, then stands with meat, breads, preserves, and the like are very useful. And those stands are much fewer in number. The prospect of paying high prices (say, $6 for a loaf of delicious bread) just isn’t so appealing for me, unfortunately. So as Lauren and I strolled around the farmers market across the street from the Hilldale market, we were a bit disheartened by the homogeneity: rhubarb, green onions, some spinach, one stand with tomatoes, and asparagus that looked awful thick and woody for new spring. We bought some tomatoes and onions and made some salsa. We also bought some rhubarb for something (maybe compote with strawberries to eat with yogurt or on toast). We also bought some flowers that brightened our table.


I imagine that the market around the Capitol was quite busy; it usually is. But with such limited selection this time of year, what is the appeal for those shoppers? If they live downtown, that’s one thing. But having to pay for parking (or drive around for a while to find free), combined with produce you can get at any number of other markets, it just doesn’t seem worth it. I’m sure we’ll get up there once this year, but only for the spectacle! There is no way a farmers market that large could ever be considered a practical shopping experience.

Nurturing Yourself

It’s good practice to read a “get more done” type of book every few months. In particular, I like to read them right before a period of time during which I might reasonably accomplish things. That’s part of the reason that I’m reading the book 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam. (The other reason is that Lauren checked it out of the library and read it first; otherwise, I never would have heard of it and would have finished the classic Getting Things Done first.) In the beginning of the book, Ms. Vanderkam tells the story of Theresa Daytner, a person who manages to “have it all.” Ms. Daytner is able to run a successful business, maintain a rewarding family life, and find time for her self by focusing on what Ms. Vanderkam calls “core competencies,” or areas of work that an individual can do better than anyone else. For Ms. Daytner those areas are based on nurturing: nurturing her business, her family, and herself.

I find this concept very appealing, especially that third category, as it relates to a problem that I face each day with my work. I suspect I’m not alone when I say that I have trouble figuring out what to do when I need to step away from my work. Like many modern employees, I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, whether reading email, editing a paper, reading research articles, or planning a lecture. The prevailing recommendation for those engaged in computer activity is to take a 10 minute break every hour. I follow this recommendation for the most part (and when I deviate from it, it’s usually because I am taking a longer break, rather than no break at all). But my problem is that many of the leisure activities I enjoy also involve using the computer. For example, I love reading technology news, so taking a break from work may mean surfing websites to read about what companies like Apple and Google are up to.

Unfortunately, leisure activities that involve random website surfing don’t exactly leave me feeling refreshed and ready to go back to work. As such, the last hour of my work day is usually a struggle as I try to find the energy to wrap up projects. And as much of my work is under deadlines that I set myself (for example, when should this paper be sent out for publication? Whenever I get around to it!), it’s easy to put things off until tomorrow. It would be better if I could find a break activity that would still leave me able to work on projects up until I catch the bus to go home.

So what am I doing wrong? Using the nurture framework, my breaks aren’t falling into any of the three categories (which for me, I suppose, would be nurturing my career, my personal relationships, and myself). Breaks are hard to use to advance my career (which is, ostensibly, what my work is supposed to be doing), but they can be used to nurture relationships and myself. That means I need to start planning my breaks just as I plan my work. Stepping away from my computer to chat with someone should be done only when taking a break. And other types of breaks should be spent pursuing something that I actually find rewarding.

There’s no single type of break activity that all people will find useful, but for myself, there are several alternative things I can do. For example, writing on this blog is an activity I find immensely rewarding; I also find it rewarding to keep up on current events (of course, both mean continuing to stare at a computer screen). I also like to read books for pleasure, something that gives my eyes a small break. Similarly, a walk outside, especially in summer, gives me pleasure and is relaxing. There are plenty of options for breaks that are not merely downtime from work, but instead fulfill the goals of nurturing my relationships or myself.

In this day and age of constant connectivity, some productivity gurus recommend using each and every moment of the day to get work done. It’s a romantic notion for anyone with ambition. That 20 minute bus ride every morning and evening? It should be filled with work! But this way of thinking seems to lead either to exhaustion (from working too much) or disappointment (from feeling guilty because we choose to play Angry Birds instead of editing a manuscript). The nurturing framework works better than the constant productivity one. Yes, all parts of the day should be filled with rewarding activities, but there is more to life than just work. Taking appropriate time to nurture all parts of life will work to produce the best outcomes, and ultimately, make each part of the day as fulfilling as possible.

Make This Movie: Priest Victim Revenge

For all the attention that the child molestation scandals in the Catholic church get in the media, it’s surprising that the stories haven’t gotten equal treatment at the movies. I suppose there are films like Doubt, which suggest that abuse may have taken place. But there’s no real cinematic treatment of the issue, especially not in a way that would really pack the theater and draw protests from church groups worldwide. This deficit bothers me, so I’m offering up the following idea to anyone who wants it.

This film follows a group of adults, all of whom were victims of sexual abuse by officials in the Catholic church when they were children. A broad range of characters is preferred, including one woman (ideal for a potential romantic storyline). The group comes together to get revenge after they are frustrated at the handling of the scandal by church officials. The plot follows the group as they pursue priests and nuns, ideally in notable locations (perhaps Europe). They should work their way through numerous church officials, including bishops and cardinals. The final scenes should take place at the Vatican, preferably resulting in a violent confrontation with the Pope to end the film.

Quentin Tarantino would be ideal to direct. I’m picturing a combination of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. It’s got to have humor as well, perhaps some of the violent humor employed in recent movies like Pineapple Express and Hot Fuzz. But most importantly, it has to show the corrupt, dirty side of the Catholic church, complete with gun toting nuns and priests, perhaps also a good dose of shocking depravity. Maybe some kind of child slavery ring or something?

The movie is, of course, designed to draw protests. Indeed, part of the marketing strategy for the film will depend on controversy. With enough publicity courtesy of the church and the inevitable media coverage, I’m picturing a $40 million opening weekend, even with the R rating. So, aspiring auteurs, get cracking! This is the perfect picture for a director looking for a hit.

Why So Many Republican Presidential Candidates?

In case you haven’t noticed, any Republican who has ever been elected to office seems to be interested in running for the Republican presidential nomination for the 2012 election. Heck, even people who used to call themselves Democrats staged (fake) presidential pursuits (i.e. Donald Trump). Though some prominent figures have dropped out of the race (Mike Huckabee), and others have gotten off to terrible, terrible starts (Newt Gingrich), there is still a lot of time left and a lot of people interested in the nomination (including, most recently, Texas governor Rick Perry).

Why are there so many Republicans interested in the nomination? There are a lot of good reasons to stay out of the race. Barack Obama is a reasonably popular leader with approval ratings that speak favorably to his chances in 2012 (not to mention, incumbents have the upper hand anyway). Though President Obama has weak points (economy not recovering fast enough, high gas prices), the one thing that is absolutely not a weakness for him is campaigning. The same cannot be said for most Republican candidates (or President Obama’s Democratic opponents for the 2008 nomination). In short, it will be a tough battle that the Republican nominee (whoever he or she may be) is likely to lose.

But winning a nomination and losing the election looks pretty darn good for many Republicans, especially compared to the economic climate they are facing at home. Take Mr. Perry as an example. Texas is currently facing a budget deficit of 10s of billions of dollars, not to mention failing public infrastructure and some of the worst public schools in the nation. Texas has slashed taxes as far as they can, meaning the state can do little to stimulate its economy. It will instead have to depend on national trends before it can start to restore its budgets to where they ought to be. It’s not a lot of fun to try to be a leader in that kind of climate.

In short, there’s a dearth of appealing leadership positions available to Republicans (and Democrats too, but a presidential run is unlikely for them). State-level positions mean a lot of hard work and very little reward (you can bet being governor isn’t quite what Scott Walker thought it was cracked up to be). But a presidential run means money in your pocket, crowds out cheering for you, and some time in the national spotlight. So for any candidate with a recognizable name, this process can be downright fun.

Perhaps the ideal position for a Republican seeking their party’s nomination for president is to put up a good fight in the primaries, have fun doing it, and then to step aside when it looks like someone else is likely to secure the votes needed. My guess is that the general election won’t be quite as fun as the time spent drumming up interest in these first few months of campaigning.

Do Companies Need iPad Strategy?

Though a recent Digital Research survey showed that 50% of companies surveyed did not have a plan for how to use tablets in their business, this “news” does not warrant the attention given it in the tech press yesterday and today. First off, only 22% of businesses surveyed had actually deployed iPads to their workforce. If those businesses all had no iPad strategy, then it might be news; but it was 50% of all businesses surveyed, hardly a revealing statistic. But apart from that, companies should have plans for providing their employees with useful tools. The iPad and similar tablets (i.e. tablets running mobile operating systems) are too new a product category for anyone to know how they will be used to increase business profits.

It wasn’t long ago that the iPad was announced, and the iPad has been available for purchase for only about 5 quarters. Though the market for tablet-focused applications is growing rapidly, it is still small, especially in the area of business and productivity software. (Games make up the largest volume of tablet apps available.) Over time, as more businesses begin using iPads and other tablets, makers of business-focused apps will have a better sense of what apps will be popular; but this takes time as demand needs to increase before the supply will grow and produce applications that businesses need.

Given that tablets are only as useful as the apps available for them (and thus woe to fledgling Android tablets), and given that the tablet app market for business is still in its beginning stages, should we really expect businesses to know how their company will use the tablet? From an investor perspective, it may be worrying to see companies spending money on tablets without knowing what to do with them. But the question comes down to investment strategy: bull or bear? The bull wants the company to invest in the future, and that means taking a serious look at how new technology can help increase profits. iPads seem like a cheap investment in a case like this, especially if the company already budgeted money for technology purchases.

Looking to the top for a strategy on tablet deployment may be misguided anyway. If there is ever to be a revolutionary use for tablets in business (and I’m skeptical that there ever will be), it’s more likely that that revolution will come from the employees actually using the devices rather than from a strategy from the top of the IT department. In the end, the use of the tablet may not even matter much. Businesses want their employees to dress in a certain way, perhaps mandating suits. Do they have a strategy for suit deployment? No, rather they know that a suit carries cachet. Pulling out an iPad during a meeting with a client may have the same effect.

College is not Job Training

There’s no doubt that college costs are too much for most Americans. NPR’s recent efforts to draw attention to this problem should be lauded. But the idea that college should be a job training program and that college students should act like shrewd, purely rational economists when picking a major is simply absurd. Despite the rising costs of college, students would be wise to not simply pick the major that they believe will earn them the most money. Here’s why.

First, success in college is driven by concurrent factors more than future factors. That is, a student isn’t going to get an A in calculus by thinking about how much money he will make when he graduates. A student will find the most success in college by pursuing study in an area that interests him. Many students are interested in fields that are known as high paying, and that’s great, but majors like business or engineering aren’t for everyone. In the end, it’s better for a student to graduate with a 3.5+ GPA with a major he liked than it is to graduate with a significantly lower GPA in a major the student thinks will land him a job.

Second, college students who leave college with only a diploma will have a hard time competing for a job, no matter their major. If a student merely attends classes during college, then she has wasted her time earning a college degree. College is one of the only times in life when a student can take advantage of things like clubs, part time jobs, and unpaid internships and have employers actually take notice. And there are so many opportunities to take advantage of! Students who pass by these chances in order to “focus on their studies” are likely to find themselves at a severe disadvantage when it comes time to get a job. This may actually be a leading reason why certain majors are considered better: business and engineering departments may be more equipped to offer students meaningful work than other majors.

Taking advantage of these opportunities is necessary because college is not designed as job training. While some skills learned in college do overlap with the working world, college is not designed to teach students how to be good, successful employees. Given the wide array of work, colleges cannot aspire to this goal without falling short. And the goal itself is not worthwhile. Recent graduates will need to learn on the job not because their colleges failed them but because their employers wouldn’t want it any other way. Thus college students should graduate with a set of well-honed, basic skills: working in a group, making decisions, finding information, and communicating effectively. Anything beyond that should be shaped by how the company functions, not pre-formed by some college professor’s idea of how business should work.

Third, an undergraduate major is so meaningless they don’t even put it on your diploma (at least, not here at UW). Thinking that the major determines success is one of the principle myths that drives students to choose majors they dislike. In the NPR article linked above, they quote Mark Kantrowitz, a supposed “student financial aid expert,” as he discusses whether to take out lots of loans to major in ethnomusicology: “There are only two main occupations for a degree in ethnomusicology. One is being a music librarian, which doesn’t pay very well. The other is being [on the] university faculty, teaching other students about ethnomusicology.” Clearly, someone with that major doesn’t have many prospects, according to Mr. Kantrowitz.

But what if that student also worked summer internships with a music production company? And managed a local band? And was involved in her campus’ music scene, organizing weekly music performances? It seems like she would have a pretty decent resume to get into the music business. Now, if she wants to work as a librarian or a professor, more power to her! But it’s clear that her major doesn’t need to be anything more than something she enjoys if she is working to find a good career through other means. Whether it’s worth taking out $100,000 in loans to pay for the degree is another matter entirely; regardless of major, that kind of borrowing seems foolish.

As a side note, Mr. Kantrowitz may be a self-declared financial aid expert, but his expertise could not be farther from his work (web publishing and running “a consulting firm focused on computer science, artificial intellignece, and statistical and policy analysis”) and his education (ABD on a Ph.D. in computer science). He should serve as an excellent example of how the focus of one’s undergraduate education does not determine life course.

College costs are scary – there’s no possible way to deny this fact. But framing college education as a choice between massive debt or a potentially unappealing area of study is asinine. College education is a choice between borrowing a lot or a little, and between many areas of study. Those two should not cross. College students have options for funding their education that do not require going massively into debt. And students can also choose a major they like and still have success in the future, even if they major in ethnomusicology. In this day and age, going to college is NOT a choice for most people. So talking about scary debt and worthless future prospects is not at all helpful Mr. Kantrowitz should be taking about how he found success beyond his undergraduate major, not trying to convince students that their futures are writ in stone as soon as they take out a loan.

What’s the Appeal of California?

I haven’t spent much time in California, and the limited time I have spent there was totally centered around the San Francisco area. Still, having spent time in the city and driving around to its surrounding suburbs and towns, I fail to see the appeal of living in California. Though the state is often spoken of with reverence (something that has continued for quite some time, perhaps since the 1849 gold rush), it mostly seemed overly large, overly pricy, and dull.

Our time driving in the state was thankfully limited – both in terms of length (just one total day), distance, and time of day (not during rush hour, thank goodness). But it doesn’t take much driving to realize that it takes forever to get anywhere in California. Take the trip from San Francisco to Vallejo. Vallejo would be a less expensive place to live if one worked in San Francisco. In terms of millage, it’s close enough for a comfortable commute, just 30 miles away. But in traffic, Google Maps says that trip takes an hour and 20 minutes. Even the drive to Berkeley (13 miles away) takes 55 minutes in traffic!

These short trips take forever, but longer trips to California’s other major cities take hours. Los Angeles is over 380 miles from San Francisco. Compare this to the distance between New York and Boston – 219 miles. California is such a large state that traveling between these metropolitan areas takes much longer than trips on the East Coast. It means that one better plan to spend a lot of time in the car if living in California. Of course, one could take the train to get between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If this is your plan, expect a trip of over 9 hours, twice as long as it takes to take the train from New York to Boston.

With all that time spent in the car, get ready to pay a lot for gas. And expect to pay a lot more than people in other states pay. We saw gas for a full $.50 higher per gallon in San Francisco than gas costs in Wisconsin. High gas prices aren’t the only expensive item. Food was 15 to 20% more expensive. And the overall cost of living is higher as well, including ridiculously high home and rent prices. There’s basically no way to escape higher cost of living. Hopefully salary increases can make up for this increased expense.

Big cities can offer big thrills, but our experience with California entertainment scene was largely dull. Yes, San Francisco is an exciting city with lots to see and do. But so much of its entertainment is driven by tourism that a glance at a list of things to do from the San Francisco Chronicle had numerous entries for tourist activities like boat tours of San Francisco Bay. Leaving San Francisco for nearby towns revealed them as quiet and boring. Napa, heart of “wine country,” was especially dull, its downtown filled with vacant buildings. Perhaps the town would have been more interesting after a few glasses of wine.

I don’t want to conclude that the entire state of California is a wasteland, best to be avoided at all costs. We really enjoyed our vacation there, and I wouldn’t mind going back. But as a place to live, I don’t see its appeal over other states and regions. As a place to make a home, California comes in very low on my list.

What’s to Gain from PR Manipulation?

Another summer, another Facebook kerfuffle. Last summer it was issues over privacy, this summer it’s Facebook’s admission that they hired a PR company to try to undermine Google’s efforts to use social network data to improve search results. Facebook, without ever revealing who was paying for the PR, sought to encourage tech reporters to write articles critical of Google’s “Social Circle.” When it was uncovered that Facebook was behind the effort, Facebook was forced to issue a statement fessing up to the underhanded behavior. Many tech reporters are mad, and rightly so, but they aren’t mad for the right reasons.

I don’t have any problem with Facebook hiring a PR company in an attempt to discredit a rival’s product. And I don’t have any issue with them doing it anonymously. The world of PR is already somewhat shady, despite what companies may say about ethics in the business. And attempting to influence the media, especially about an issue that is this inconsequential, is so benign that it barely warrants a mention. Yet this shadiness seems to be the main issue that is upsetting tech writers.

Rather than focusing on how “ethical” it was to try to discredit a rival, tech critics should be angry about the motivation behind such an action. We should be asking the question, what did Facebook think they could gain by hiring a PR firm to sling dirt toward Google? This question is so difficult to answer that we are left to conclude that Facebook is basically throwing away money and possibly hurting their brand in the process. Still, it’s worth some speculation.

Perhaps they thought they could undermine Google’s services as a way to help speed along Google’s decline and Facebook’s rise as the web’s top company. Such aspirations are laughable. Google’s Social Circle attempts to use user’s social network data (provided, with permission, by users) to improve search results. If Facebook is about to roll out their own search engine that does the same thing, then perhaps trying to discredit a rival’s product is worthwhile, but there’s no evidence that Facebook is going to do anything of the sort. That means that, if they were trying to hurt Google, the efforts are ridiculous.

Perhaps they thought they could keep users away from Google and keep them on Facebook, as a way to hog even more of the total time people spend on the internet. But that forces the question, what image does Facebook have of their average user? The average Facebook user is not scouring tech news sites for news about the latest Google feature they can take advantage of. That means that the PR money is effectively worthless, as it will likely buy no influence at all.

Perhaps Facebook thought they should spend money to keep Google from using data that Facebook makes publicly available. This suggestion makes no sense because if Facebook doesn’t want Google to use that data, then they should just block access. Of course, this means a wide variety of hurt for Facebook who could easily be seen as not playing nice with others. Good tech companies know when they need to work together. Take Google and Apple. Though Google released a free mobile operating system that directly competes with Apple, Apple still uses Google maps for their Maps application, uses Google as their default search engine, and puts an un-deletable YouTube app on every iOS device. They do this because they know that people like Google services. Google, meanwhile, puts out apps for iOS devices and optimizes some of their websites (like Gmail and Google Reader) for iPhones and iPads. They do this because they know there is money to be made by serving every possible market. Facebook should take this relationship as a model.

In the end, the only reasonable conclusion about why Facebook tried this stunt is because Facebook has a lot of very valuable data and absolutely no idea what to do with it. They don’t want Google making money using Facebook data because they know that data is the only thing that will ever help them turn a healthy profit. If Google takes the data and turns it into revenue (through better targeted ads), then Facebook loses. Facebook needs to figure out how to make some money quick, or they are sure to lose profits to other companies. Spending money on PR stunts is never going to reap profits; indeed, when Facebook does their quarterly accounting, they should see PR losses much higher than PR gains.

Summer Work Starts Monday

Lauren and I return from vacation today. San Francisco has been wonderful and very relaxing. Come Monday, we both go back to work. The summer is a key time for getting projects wrapped up, especially as the regular school year is spent accumulating work “for later,” like writing papers and sending them out for publication. I will also have a summer course to put together and other miscellaneous work to do right away when I return.

Because summer is such a key time, the question becomes how to maximize the time. At the start of summer, the time looks long. Come July, one starts worrying that there isn’t enough time left. When summer is over, it can be hard to reflect on what was accomplished and what was missed, mostly because work starts up again as the fall semester begins. That means one needs to try to plan summer as much as possible to avoid wasting time. So, what am I planning to do in order to maximize the time?

1. Lists! In addition to my weekly to-do lists, I’ve got my summer projects list. It’s a handy reference to see the things that I should be doing, especially helpful on those beautiful days when I feel like reading outside instead of working. Breaking down each big to-do item into smaller tasks is necessary as well, and this will hopefully keep the summer rolling along.

2. Varied work. Part of the problem with the summer is that it feels like a big long stretch of time when it begins. It does not feel like time that will pass quickly. So when I get bored or tired, I often feel like taking an hour off, which stretches into a morning, and then into an entire day. But by carefully varying the work, I can hopefully get more done. This helps with monotonous work as well, like doing data entry. Small pieces at a time is the only way to successfully deal with data entry.

3. Getting out of the office. This item is sure to make everyone stuck inside in an office or lab jealous. One of the biggest pleasures of my work is the ability to take it elsewhere. That means I can work in some of campus’ most beautiful spaces. And with many fewer students around, the spaces are even better as I can easily find quiet areas by windows. This is a big help to my productivity.

4. Easy things last. My summer class starts in early June, and I am really looking forward to putting the syllabus together and starting to plan my lectures. Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of task that I need to put off. It won’t take long (a couple of hours to put together the syllabus), it will be fun, and it is exactly something that will distract me from tasks that are more time-pressing (and boring). So prioritizing the easy things last will hopefully keep me on track.

Come August, you can probably expect a blog post detailing all the ways I found to waste time, but right now – coming back from vacation ready to get to work – I hope I can ascend to these lofty goals. Summer is a long time (three and a half months), so I have no excuse for not being maximally productive.