Redesigning Microeconomics – Part 1

~700 words, ~4 min reading time

Because I, apparently, don’t actually believe in breaks, I’ve decided to do a major redesign of the main course I teach: Principles of Microeconomics. This has been inspired by a few things – some of it being the research which I’ve linked and summarized here.

Thus far, I have redesigned my syllabi for both my online and face to face courses – including the “Honors addendum” for my face-to-face honors students. I’ll summarize a bit of what I’m doing here:

Assessment

Both face-to-face and online sections are now basically 40% engagement and 60% mastery.

In my online course, I’m using a point system. Students accumulate points in 3 ways: Knewton Homework assignments (100 points, based on successful completion), Short Papers (300 points total), and Engagement Activities (100 points).

Knewton is an adaptive online homework system designed to help students achieve mastery of the course material. The system tries to teach through trial and error. So, if a student answers questions in a topic correct consistently, they won’t see as many questions on that topic. If a student answers them incorrectly, then Knewton tries to adjust the difficulty level to where students can start seeing what a correct answer should look like, and builds them up to the point of mastery. I’m counting this as “engagement” because their grade, in the end, comes from their willingness to keep participating until they “get it” rather than from a summative assessment.

The Short Papers are three papers, each of which is designed to evaluate one of the main course learning objectives in an “authentic” setting. For example: the first paper asks students to choose a good and to make a forecast for the price of that good 1 year from now, and explain that forecast in terms of supply and demand elasticities and supply and demand shifts. In the Spring, I am modifying this assignment a bit by requiring a rough draft and self and peer assessments before the final copy is submitted.

The Engagement Activities give students an ability to customize the course to their own interests. These are generally completion based assignments. Right now, I offer three different options: Excel projects (which teach some basic Excel skills), Economics in the News, and Book Reviews. Students are also free to make their own, if I approve them. These are all completion based, and really just have the goal of convincing students to think a little bit about economics as a field.

My face to face course uses a weighted system, which explicitly separates “Mastery” and “Engagement”. “Mastery” is evaluated based on their performance on the multiple-choice final exam, which can be modified by an optional Grade Proposal – in which they provide evidence that they should get a specific grade for their mastery of course material. This idea was taken from “Rethinking Exams and Letter Grades…” by Kitchen et al. So students aren’t in the dark about the final, I will also have them participate in a “Midterm Diagnostic” which will look a lot like the final, but won’t count toward the course grade.

The Engagement portion is evaluated based on 4 things: (1) Class attendance, (2) Class Preparation Questions, (3) Short Papers (like I use in my online course – but, here graded more on participating in the process than for mastery), and (4) Engagement Choice Activities (which mirror the Engagement Activities from the online course).

For my Honors students, half of their Engagement Choice Activities points come from their Honors Project.

Weekly Rhythm

I’ve established a “Weekly Rhythm”.

For the online courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Knewton Assignments, Short Paper Step.

For the face-to-face courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Class Preparation Questions, Short Paper Step, Class Activities.

Next Step

Now that I have my overarching design set up (sequence of course topics, etc), and an assessment plan in place, the next step is to set up my assessments – so I need to write the final and the rubrics/checklists for the papers for my online class – this should help me align everything during the semester with how students will ultimately be evaluated. (YAY for backward design!)

Fall Commencement Address 2018

~2400 words, ~12 min read time

What follows is the text of the Commencement Address that I gave today, December 16, 2018, to the graduates of Kent State University’s Stark Campus.

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. So, it is with a certain sense of what I will call “humble realism” that I approach this talk today. It seemed appropriate, then, to talk about the value of humility.

To demonstrate the value of humility, I hope to make three points – first, arrogance is destructive. Second, humility leads us to a realistic view of ourselves. Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

Before we get too far, let us consider what humility is and, first, what it isn’t.

The following list clarifying what humility is not comes from Dr Larry Osborne.

Humility is not low self-esteem. We have another name for that. Low self-esteem. In the words of the Dalai Lama “there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit – which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.” So, humility does ask us not to have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves. But, it certainly does not require that we have an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves, either.

Humility is also not a lack of ambition. One can seek to accomplish great things – and still do so with a sense of humility. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as saying “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”

Humility is, thirdly, not downplaying our own accomplishments. There is nothing humble in claiming to be bad at something that you actually do well. There are only two possibilities here. Either you are delusional, and don’t realize your own strengths. Or you are dishonest, and simply want to cover them up. Neither delusion nor dishonesty are part of humility.

So, humility is not low self-esteem, a lack of ambition, or downplaying our own accomplishments. But, what is it?

The best definition I could find comes from a very scholarly source. Urbandictionary.com. No, I’m serious. Urbandictionary.com offers this definition: True humility is to recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be. To be humble is to serve others and be for their good as well as your own. To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses. We’ll come back to these – but let’s first look at the opposite of humility: arrogance.

How easy it is for confidence – which is not a bad thing – to be twisted into arrogance. The arrogant, then, demand credit for all the wonderful things they do – and somehow find a way to shift blame away from themselves whenever their plans go awry. Once arrogance takes this turn, it, in turn has morphed into something else – fear. As the wise Jedi Master Yoda reminds us – Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And this is true – the arrogant person becomes afraid that, if people don’t know their accomplishments – or if people discover their failings – then their value as people will be diminished. Then, all it takes is not receiving credit for something, and the arrogant person lashes out in anger – is overcome by resentment, and begins plotting revenge.

Imagine with me, if you will, a hypothetical city filled with arrogant people – people who are continuously seeking credit for themselves, and seeking to shift blame to others. Let’s call this hypothetical city… say, Washington. What can we expect Washington to accomplish? I suggest that the best answer is “little to nothing”. So, why is that?

I’m an economist – and my wife can assure you that I’m an economist 24 hours a day, whether she likes it or not – so I can’t help but fit a little of that into this address. One of the most basic principles of economics is the division of labor. That is, we can accomplish more if we divide up tasks according to people’s relative abilities to do them. But, when each person is consumed with a desire for credit and fear of blame, cooperation – which is really just the common word for the division of labor – becomes impossible. And, without that cooperation – that division of labor – it is remarkably difficult to accomplish any complicated task – even the making of something as simple as a pencil cannot be done without an astounding amount of cooperation. I dare say that a society filled with such arrogant people will find itself paralyzed by continuous conflict and a lack of productivity. Such a society will destroy itself – unless it can live parasitically off of another group of people – a group of people that is more interested in accomplishing a goal than in receiving recognition for doing it – and, as such, is willing to cooperate to get the job done.

Arrogance – and the dangers that accompany it – is nothing new. There’s a reason that so many religious and philosophical systems – spanning time and civilizations – warn of the dangers of arrogance.

Solomon – one of the Kings of ancient Israel – is reported to have said that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”

Jesus warned his disciples that those who exalt themselves would be humbled.

Aesop shares a number of fables about the dangers of arrogance. I’ll share three:

Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?’ While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, “Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction.”

A gnat settled on the horn of a Bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise, and inquired of the Bull if he would like him to go. The Bull replied, “I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away.”

A deer was drinking from a river and began to admire his antlers. He then began to think about his hooves, and he wished his hooves were as big and majestic as his antlers were. To the deer’s surprise, a hunter appeared and fired an arrow, barely missing him. The deer took off into the trees and realized that he was able to get away only because of his small, nimble hooves. He realized how truly great they were, but as he was looking at his hooves, his antlers got caught in some tree branches. The hunter caught up to the deer and just before he met his fate, he lamented his love for his antlers and wished he should have realized how great his hooves were sooner.

Having seen that arrogance is personally and socially destructive, let’s turn then to consider humility. First, the fact that humility requires that we have a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The philosopher Socrates showed the virtue of humble realism in this story, which I paraphrase from Plato: The story goes that Socrates went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who was wisest – as, knowing his own ignorance, Socrates wanted to learn. The Oracle declares that Socrates was the wisest person in Greece. Not believing this – after all, Socrates knew that he knew nothing – Socrates visited people of various occupations – politicians, poets, craftsmen – but he found that everyone else lived under a pretense of knowledge – that is, they believed they knew things that they did not actually know. Socrates – and he alone – recognized what he did NOT know. And, so Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle was right. For, while Socrates knew nothing, he was at least aware of that fact.

True humility requires that we recognize both our strengths and our weaknesses. In this facet, humility is a form of clarity of perception reflected in the Delphic maxim “gnothi sauton” – “know thyself”. If we truly know ourselves, we will recognize that we have often been wrong – or at least I have. This should lead us to a more tolerant view of those we disagree with. This does not mean that I have no confidence in my beliefs – if that were the case, I would change them. Rather, it simply means that we recognize that we may not be 100% right on all of them – and we’re not quite sure which ones we got wrong.

True humility requires a recognition that – regardless how good we are, we can always be better. One of my college friends recently told me that he had come to two realizations in life. First, he would never be good enough. Second, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t better than everyone else. I think if we reverse the order, we discover humility. Humility asks us to recognize that, even when we are better than everyone else, there is still room to be better still.

Can you look at yourself and your accomplishments objectively? Can you see the things you have done the way that other people would see them – with all of their flaws and glories? If so, you are on the path to a humble realism.

Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

True humility requires that we take on the role of a servant. I’m guessing this story is fictional, but it, none-the-less, is a good illustration. In the early days after the United States was born, a rider came across a group of soldiers trying to remove a tree that had fallen across the country road that the rider was traveling. The rider noticed that one soldier was standing aside, doing nothing, and asked the man about this. This person clarified that he was the corporal – so it was his job to give the orders. The rider accepted this fact, got down off of his horse, and helped the soldiers. With his help, the tree could be removed and the road cleared. After this, the rider walked up to the corporal and said to him “The next time this happens, just ask the Commander-in-Chief for help” – for the rider was none other than President Washington, himself. True humility asks us to serve others – regardless our relative positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a leader is a bad thing. On the contrary, leadership often places you into a position where you are able to serve more broadly – as long as you have the strength of character not to let the position go to your head.

Many of the ancients – from Laozi to Jesus to Muhammad – suggest that humility is rewarded with exaltation – and often leadership.

Humility is so central to Islam that even the term “Islam” can be translated approximately as “humility” or “submission”. And the Qu’Ran declared that “Success comes to believers who humble themselves.”

Jesus tells his disciples not only that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but that the reverse is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Laozi says “I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be generous; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.”

Why do so many – across time and civilizations – see a connection between humility and being exalted to a position of leadership? For the answer to that, I turn to a more modern source.

This past October, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses”. Why is that? Because humble leaders are more successful at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people are more aware of their own weaknesses – sound familiar? – are more eager to improve themselves, and – here is a key – are appreciative of others’ strengths.

Putting these pieces together, a leader that displays humility recognizes the value of working as a team – so that each person can show their own strengths, and that each person – including the leader – can minimize the effects of their own weaknesses. It is no wonder then, that those who are humble would find themselves lifted up into positions of leadership.

I am convinced that each of us can change our own little corner of the world – and for the better – if we follow three rules. Let us do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I’m going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you overly sure of yourself? Do you find it difficult to admit when you are wrong or make a mistake? Do you find it difficult to respect people who disagree with you? Are you upset when you don’t get credit for things you do? Do you look for others to blame when things don’t go as they should?

Are you realistically aware of your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you look at your accomplishments objectively – as if they were accomplished by someone else? Do you recognize when others are better than you are in certain tasks or traits, and try to learn from them?

How do you serve those around you? Do you seek to build teams, helping each person you come into contact with discover their own strengths?

Do you do justly? Do you love mercy? Do you walk humbly?

Again, congratulations, and all the best as you walk the path that lies before you.

Thank you.

Results Update 2018

~1200 words, ~6 min reading time

Introduction

So, I’ve tracked biometric data for a while, and have started tracking strength about a year ago. So, I decided it would be good to do some yearly testing – and, though it feels weird to report this, I figured I would for those that want to know.

Because I’m an American, everything is in pounds and inches.

Strength Results:

Dumbbell squat (combined, estimated 1RM): 149lb -> 180lb (+31lb)

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts (combined, est 1RM): 144lb -> 173 lb (+29 lb)

Dumbbell Floor Press (combined, est 1RM): 116.1lb -> 140 lb (+23.9 lb)

Combined: 409.1 -> 493 (+83.9 lb)

Bodyweight Dips: 10 -> 6

Bodyweight Pullups: 6 -> 8

Bodyweight Pushups: 17 -> 21

So, lifts all went up decently – not “wow” levels, and I’m still not “strong” by any reasonable measure – but stronger than before. Dips dropping wasn’t a big shock – last year, my routine included dips, what I’ve been doing this year really doesn’t.

These also probably understate my true maxes – I didn’t really warm up, and just lifted 90% of last year’s estimated 1RM. To be more accurate, I should get an estimate, and test at 90% of that estimate to double-check. But, I don’t care that much.

Biometrics Results:

Overall:

Weight: 166.6 lb => 162.2 lb (still in goal range)
BF%: 15.3% => 16.3% by the Navy method, 14.5 => 14.6 by bf% scale (a bit on the high side of my goal 10-15% range)
Lean weight: 141.1 lb => 135.7 lb (using Navy method estimation) (surprised it fell, given other measurements)

By body part:

Maintained in Goal Range:

Neck: 16 -> 16
Hips: 36.75 -> 37
Calves: 14.75 -> 15.5

All of these were in my goal range in 2017, and stayed there in 2018 – though hips and calves showed some growth in that range.

Moved up into Goal Range:

Chest: 39.5 -> 41

My chest just hit my goal range.

Still Below Goal Range:

Biceps: 13.5 -> 14
Forearms: 11.25 -> 11.25
Thigh: 20.75 -> 21.5
Shoulders: 46.75 -> 47.5

While none of these are in my goal range yet, they’re moving the right direction. Biceps, Forearms, and Thighs are all about 1 inch from the goal range (though, honestly, I don’t care much about my legs…) – I feel like this is going to be excruciatingly slow going. Shoulders are within spitting distance, and moving there pretty quick.

Still Above Goal Range:

Waist: 33.5 -> 34

Also, moving the wrong direction. Ideally, we’d be looking at something closer to 31. But, this is very affected by diet. It’s winter, so it’s a reasonable time to focus on gaining rather than losing weight, and for being in that phase 34 isn’t worrisome, especially since I measured at the end of the day after a big day of eating.

What I did this Year

This year, I went through a few distinct phases – combinations of various routines and diets. Diets were generally fairly simple bulking or cutting diets, depending on my bodyfat %. Not very interesting.

Workouts, though – I tried 4 fairly distinct workout routines this year. First, I finished using HST (Hypertrophy-Specific Training). It’s not a bad program, but I had gotten to where some of the exercises were getting cumbersome (especially leg exercises).

Second, I moved into a self-designed full-body program using some linear progression principles I picked up from Stronger by Science. Basically, you do 3×8, progressing linearly. Once you fail to make a step, you switch to 5×5 and proceed from there. Once you fail again, you switch to 5×3 and keep going. Once you fail again, you go through the same cycle, but with one more set – so 4×8, 6×5, and 6×3. Then, add another set if you cycle through again. The problem: the workouts pretty quickly got much too long. Why? Because I do arm exercises, not just big compound lifts. That means that the “steps” in linear progression are actually very big. While I actually made some good progress under this routine, it just got terrible to keep up with.

So, I switched to RippedBody.com’s Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine. This wasn’t too bad, except that I found that I just hated leg days. A lot of this is because a lot of leg exercises require machines to do comfortably. Yes, I can lay on the floor, stick a dumbbell between my feet, and do leg curls. But it’s awful. Same with leg extensions. Since I don’t have a machine, and they would be kind of stupid for me to buy right now, these were awkward and I hated them.

So, I switched to Lvysaur’s Intermediate Aesthetic routine – it avoids the more awkward leg exercises, and doesn’t have a leg day at all. Instead, deadlifts, squats, and calf raises are integrated in with other days. The results on Lvysaur have been weird, if I’m going to be honest. I switched to it during a bulking phase. But I gained basically no weight at all in the first 7 weeks (though this may have just been a failed VERY lean buld). Then, I switched to cutting for about 6 weeks – lost 4 lb of fat, but also 3 lb of lean. Not a great ratio, but okay. Since then, I’ve been doing a very slow transition back to a bulk – which means I’ve still been losing weight – about 0.5 lb of lean, but no fat. Not great there, either.

Focusing just on the “good” bulking phases, I gained more lean mass each week under Lvysaur’s first bulk (the one that wasn’t a transition period) than I did under either of the others.

So, I think I’m going to stick with Lvysaur for now. The most important thing is finding a routine that you can stick to. For me, that means figuring out what to do when I miss days, since working out is A priority – not my #1 priority. (Done!) There should also be a reasonable plan for failure (Lvysaur is very good with that) and progression (also pretty good), and the routines shouldn’t be outrageously long (yep).

I’ve also been experimenting more this year with putting my own twists on routines. For example – even though Lvysaur’s leg stuff isn’t as bad as some others’ I found myself hating it again. So, I switched up those particular exercises to something reminiscent of 5/3/1, which isn’t as awful. I also added in more arm work, since I know that’s a lagging body part for me. Also, I hate doing “as many reps as possible” sets – and am awful at feeling out what weight will hit a certain target on any particular day, so I changed how Lvysaur’s accessories work.  Might be a good idea to add some wrist curls as well – so I might modify that, next time around.

My plan for next year:

Diet- I just switched to a higher calorie bulk – I figure I can always scale back, if needed. But, I’ve been wasting time on too much transitioning. Anyway, I’m going to continue doing this until late April. Then, I’ll switch to cut – and I’ll maintain the cut until after our beach trips OR until I get down to 10% bodyfat, according to my body fat scale (I’m predicting the beach trips will come first…). Though I have debated whether I should just devote an entire year to bulking at some point….

Routine – I’m a bit unpredictable on this. I tend to do things until I hate them, and then switch to something else. So, I’m still thinking about that. Right now, I don’t have a good reason to ditch Lvysaur, as it seems to be doing alright. I’ll probably just make some more tweaks (adding wrist curls, maybe) and proceed.