Steven D. Ward, M.P.A.

Foreign Assistant Professor of Political Science; Chosun University

How the 2016 Election Changed Marketing Forever

Have you ever gone on public record (I mean radio, TV, or newspaper) saying something you were certain about, only to be proved wrong?

Some people might shrug it off. In the case of the 2016 Presidential election, though, the explanations I was hearing didn’t cut the mustard and I just couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit for my daughters until I figured out what I’d missed. This, you see, was personal.

I teach political science, have a weekly radio show where I talk about politics, and am routinely interviewed by journalists for my political analysis. I had gone on the record last year predicting the election would turn out very differently.

I was dead wrong.

I couldn’t rest until I figured out what we all had missed.

Diving into the research

Of all the reasons why the pundits, including myself, were wrong about 2016, one in particular stands out: a new way to use digital marketing strategies by political campaigns that flew completely under the radar.

A few years back, a Psychologist by the name of Michal Kosinski developed a set of psychographic categories based on people’s public social media profiles. In other words, by looking at the TV programs people like and the websites they visit, Dr. Kosinski was able to predict surprising details about their lives including their education and income levels, and political beliefs.

From this work, a company by the name of Cambridge Analytica developed a method of micro-targeting people that were pre-disposed to certain political messages and used the Facebook advertising platform to put highly customized messages on their news feeds.

Who was this company working for? In England, they worked for the politicians that supported the BREXIT vote, which took everyone by surprise. In the United States, Cambridge Analytica worked for, you guessed it, Donald Trump.

No matter how you feel about Trump and BREXIT, there is no denying that they both stunned the world.

It turned out that this academic connection was the easy part. The difficult part, was actually diving into the world of professional digital marketing agencies and figuring out their strategies and tactics. An afternoon of reading Dr. Kosinski’s journal articles grew into months of learning, networking, and personally practicing these tactics. The rest of this post goes into the key takeaways from this deep-dive that I feel any political campaign, advocacy group, or business can benefit from.

What Business are getting wrong about digital marketing

The same strategies Trump’s campaign used can be used to help businesses target new customers with stunning accuracy.

There are three main avenues where these strategies apply:

  1. Facebook advertising campaigns
  2. Google AdSense
  3. SEO

Now, buying ad placements on these services is nothing new. Many small and medium sized businesses have already thrown a lot of money at them, to mediocre results. In fact, millions of dollars are thrown away every year for two reasons: companies don’t know how to do the micro-targeting probably and they don’t have the right sales funnel in place.

What is a ‘Sales Funnel?’

Grouping people by their psychological profiles was only the first phase of Cambridge Analytica’s brilliant campaign. The second step was making sure that when someone clicked an ad, they would land on a website that triggered the right emotions for their profile. That website is called a ‘landing page.’ A landing page is the first step in a sales funnel; a series of pages that lead a customer to make a purchase, join your email list, or get in touch with you in another way.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that the micro-targeting for many local businesses is not quite as complex as what Cambridge Analytica had to do in order to sway public opinion completely under the radar of the pundits and pollsters. On the other hand, a business’ funnel needs a lot of consideration. Furthermore, the most effective funnel for a business can be different depending on whether the campaign is being run on Facebook, Adsense, or via SEO.

The Right Tool for the Job

Okay so if you are a medium-sized business owner interested in running a digital marketing campaign, how do you know which one is right? It basically breaks down like this:

SEO -> Long-term strategy for search engine discoverability

AdWords -> For services usually needed quickly (emergency plumbers, locksmiths, etc.)

FaceBook -> Services that customers need but may not be aware of it.

In reality, these services are not mutually exclusive. You can mix and match for different purposes.

Think about it this way: If you have a situation at your house that demands emergency plumbing services, do you pull up Facebook? No, of course not. You go right to Google. You search for “emergency plumber” with your zip code, and when you see an ad that says, “We can be there in an hour or less, guaranteed,” that’s the one you are going to click.

On the other hand, if you are killing time on Facebook while waiting in line at the bank and you see that same ad, it’s not going to do much for you, unless you see it hundreds of times, so that that particular company is the first thing you think of when you DO have a plumbing issue. This marketing strategy was the M.O. for radio and television marketing for decades, but it is not cost effective for digital marketing campaigns.

Instead, that plumbing company, if it really wanted to market on Facebook, should put out an ad that says, “When was the last time your plumbing was inspected? Free inspections for a limited time only!”

The Tip of the IceBerg

We have only scratched the surface of what digital marketing can do. When Obama was first elected, people lauded his marketing campaign. You know what he did? Fundraising by email.

It seems so simplistic now, doesn’t it? Can you imagine how different elections will be in the year 2020? Or even just 2018?

The internet is changing our world in countless ways, but the democratization of technology is, in my opinion, the most exciting one of all. It is now possible for somebody to write a book in their spare time, self-publish it, and compete with Stephen King.

I can’t tell you what is coming next, but in the mean time the ones we have are only going to spread. These digital marketing strategies are cheap, precise, and effective if you know how to do it the right way.

Comparing Options for English News Subscriptions in Korea

I’m a news junkie. Although I have posted before about reading 100 books in a year (something I’ve only managed to do once), most of my reading is not books but articles from online media sources.

Back in the day, I got my fix via Google Reader. I was addicted to it the way people today are addicted to Facebook. It was the first thing I checked when I sat down at my computer and it was probably a blessing in disguise when Google finally stopped offering the service several years ago.

Ever so often I have tried similar services like Flipboard and Feedly but so far nothing has caught my fancy as a suitable replacement. The default method for me to gather my news and current events analysis has been social media in recent years.

The US Presidential election of 2016, however, convinced me that this is not just inadequate but actually dangerous. Although I cultivate a ‘bubble’ of Facebook friends of all political stripes, much of what was being shared around the end of October from my conservative-leaning friends was not anything resembling thoughtful analysis and reasoned counter-points, but highly misleading and even completely fake news. Many of the ones I remember featured still paparazzi-type shots of Hillary doing things that proved one or more conspiracy theories, where “Hillary” was obviously a look-a-like model or actor.

I’m glad I saw this stuff out there floating around so that I was aware that people were, in fact, taking them seriously. However, I could tell that I was missing out on valuable conservative analysis due to this viral smoke and mirrors.

In all of the craziness of that last election cycle, I seemed to max out the number of free articles that I could view on several different sites. This got me to thinking that I really should just pony up the cash to support media outlets that provide valuable and important coverage. One outlet in particular seemed to rise above the fray in its reporting: The Atlantic.

I was continually impressed with it’s political articles I saw being shared, but after I liked the Facebook page and I saw it’s articles on all manner of cultural topics, I found myself wanting to read nearly everything they posted. It was time, I knew, to buy a subscription.

Luckily I found The Atlantic’s international subscription terms quite reasonable and affordable and it was an easy decision. I knew, however, that I need to strive for balance in the sources I choose. Thus, I sought out to find a publication slight right-of-center to balance The Atlantic’s left-of-center viewpoint. This is where I started to run into trouble.

That Atlantic’s very reasonable price point of $40 for one year’s worth of (10) issues with international delivery turned out to be the very cheapest I found. I found the process of comparing the various media sources against each other to find good bargains so frustrating that I ended up taking notes to plug into an excel file.

And now I share it with you in a handy chart.

This is ONLY an exhaustive breakdown of subscription services available in Korea in the sense that I was exhausted by the time I got done making it, and it’s not even that long. I would LOVE to hear opinions on other publications that belong on the list, so feel free to contact me with your suggestions.

As a general rule, publications tend to be setting their price for a digital subscription as the “base” membership option, with the print version being the up-sell (a slight bump up in price for an extra benefit). My personal interest was in finding deals on print publications, so I did not take the time to research every possible method of getting a digital version (eg., check availability as native apps vs. presence in a “newsstand” app). Note that I used Wikipedia’s Political Bias chart to help with classifying the slant of each source.
Link to the Google doc

Using this data to help you make a decision

In my case, most of the news and analysis I get has a liberal bent, so I know I need to bring in the conservative perspective. Price is also a major concern. Every one of these publications (except for The Atlantic) is more expensive than I thought. Still, I can take a general approach of choosing 1 daily, 1 weekly, and 1 monthly publication to choose from. Because of my own liberal bias, I know if I’m not careful, I’ll likely choose all three options from liberal sources, so I’m going to try and force myself to choose one right-leaning source.

The biggest choice in terms of price, however, is going to be your daily news source. If we start there, just going with the cheapest option, we have to go with IHT/Joongang Ilbo.

I’ve already chosen my monthly publication with The Atlantic, though, so that means my conservative news outlet must come from my weekly publication. The only choice here is The Economist, and it’s 344,000 won / year.

Ouch.

Looking at this configuration objectively, however, the field of economics is an intellectual weakness of mine so it could do me good on a few different fronts to make a habit of reading the magazine. All-in, this configuration would cost me:

  • 280,000 won for my Daily IHT
  • 344,000 won for weekly Economist
  • $40 for monthly Atlantic.

Add the first two together, and a quick conversion ($533.69) brings us to a total of:

$573.69

Gulp…

On the one hand, that’s only $47.80 per month.

Or, $11.03 per week.

Yeah, that’s still pretty expensive considering my professor’s salary and the fact that we are mostly talking about consuming information that exists on the web totally for free.

Cost aside, I’m not entirely happy with this configuration. Because of my job, I need more international affairs analysis, for one.

Let’s see if we can bring this total cost down a bit while making the flow of information ultimately more tailored to my own needs.

Incorporating Social Media Tools Efficiently

Two things make me a huge hypocrite in regards to how I consume information:

  1. I’m always telling people they need to be reading the academic journals in their fields habitually; I do not do this enough myself.
  2. I criticize people that get most of their news from social media, but that’s exactly what I do.

 

Audible is a popular audiobook service, and it didn’t dawn on me until I sat down to start typing this section on other tools for consuming news, but I already get a daily 30 minute ‘news brief’ of either WSJ or NYT on my Audible app. You can join Audible for $14 / month (and there are promotional discounts you can find easily enough), but since I already have a membership to Audible this actually brings no added cost to me, while allowing me to bring in a much-needed conservative perspective. And it should be easy enough to integrate into my daily routine as I usually don’t do much of anything while walking the dog twice a day.

Free of the major cost of a weekly publication in my rotation, I can look at adding in something like The Economist: Espresso, which is a daily news brief for the cost of $4 / month ($38 / year) and seems put together quite well. This also has a conservative slant. Now my costs look more like: $78 per year. Much more manageable. We are almost there.

Alternatively, I could go with a digital subscription to the weekly publication rather than the print, but I genuinely like the feel of the Espresso App and it feels like something I would check while I’m still laying in bed in the mornings, before I tell Audible to download the daily briefing from the WSJ to listen to while I walk the dog.

Aiming for a Low Information Diet

Feedly is, essentially, a Google Reader replacement. When you first start looking at RSS readers it is easy to get excited about the possibilities and making a reader that pulls in hundreds or thousands of articles to sort through every day. This is the WRONG approach. And it is exactly what my Feedly currently looks like, which is why I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually read through it.

The idea I have with Feedly is to, rather than using it to make sure no article that might possibly be of interest to me flies under my radar, pull in academic sources. In particular, academic blogs and Journals that I would like to follow both in my fields and in areas of general curiosity.

Considering that most journals are behind paywalls themselves, so far this is no easy task. The RSS feeds seem to only provide titles, and I have to click to visit the website in order to even see the abstract.

And that is totally fine. Because the purpose here is to try and simplify and reduce my daily news consumption, not complicate it. This part of my plan is going to take some time to implement, but I have found enough journal feeds so far (there are feedly hashtags that make this easier to find journals) that I am excited about the possibility here.

I still would like to subscribe to print copies of either Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, plus National Interest. Additionally, I really just like Monocle. It’s such a slick, stylish magazine. I don’t think I can justify the expense of it right now, but we’ll see. I’ll try to get my hands on some recent issues and check out the recent political analysis for myself. If it’s rigorous enough for me to consider reading it beneficial to my teaching then I might go for it.

Making New Habits

None of this matters without implementation, right? For this I have my Todoist app. Todoist allows for scheduled and recurring to do items. I find it really gratifying to sit down with a cup of coffee and my laptop and start knocking off those items from the list.

I’m going to try and consume my daily bits (via the Espresso app and Audible) by the time I take the dog on her morning walk. For my print publications, I’ll carry them with me throughout the day and read them when I can. My RSS feed will be good to thumb through and bookmark while I’m waiting in lines, walking to the grocery store, etc.

I still expect that I will be tagged in Facebook discussions about articles, and wake up to Tweets from contacts telling me to read some breaking news. I’ll still do all that, but I’ll be working hard on my self-restraint to keep myself from wasting tens of minutes every day scrolling endlessly through my feeds looking for that next ‘hit’ from an interesting headline I just can’t resist.

Conclusion

This is all a work in progress. I hope that thinking about the way that I consume news and cultivate intentional habits around it saves me some time and helps my career. I’m sure there will be adjustments, and I will probably use some of the trial offers that many publications offer.

One big question mark here is how shipping is going to work overseas. It would be pretty annoying if The Economist is a weekly publication and it takes a week for each issue to arrive. To this end I will update this post, as well as the Google Sheet, as I go.

Teaching Strategies Based on The Art of Learning

Photo by Aalto University Library and Archive Commons

Recently hearing Josh Waitzkin on the Tim Ferriss podcast brought back memories of reading his book, The Art of Learning, a few years back when it first came out.

I remember finding the book interesting from the perspective of a person who enjoys studying a wide variety of fields. Listening to the podcast made me think about the concepts in the book from a whole new perspective, and that is the perspective of a teacher.

The Challenge of Teaching Politics in South Korea Jeollado

I teach in the political science department of a middle-of-the-pack private university in a region of South Korea that is, for the most part, disenfranchised from the rest of the country. Jeollado has a history of going its own way politically and the major revolts against authoritarian rule in South Korean were all down in my neck of the woods. Oh yeah, and it’s the geographical center of lingering anti-American sentiment in SK. Did I mention that the main thing that I, a U.S. citizen, teach is U.S. politics?

Honestly , I have never had any problems related to my specific nationality that couldn’t be attributed to general racism towards foreigners, and even that has been fairly mild in my experience. In fact, I often find myself telling other expats that complain about how their boss is treating them or what some rude grandma said to them on the street that if they were Korean they would likely be receiving far worse treatment. The harsh reality is that Korean society is, unfortunately, brutal and unforgiving.

Korea has many things to boast about. Its rapid development from the utter devastation of the Korean War is nothing short of a miracle. It has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. World leaders praise its education system as a model for producing a highly educated population.

Therein lies the problem. Korea is now actually over-educated. The assembly-line public school system based on standardized tests has sent so many young people marching off to college that the labor market for college-educated young adults is over-saturated, and, on average, one can now expect better lifetime earnings by going directly into the labor force out of high school than by delaying entry 4-5 extra years by going to college.

The jobs for all these very smart young people just are not there.

The Korean Dream in a Nutshell

If such a thing as a “Korean dream” exists for young Koreans, it probably looks something like this, and in this exact order:

  1. Study hard and get into a top university
  2. Get a job with one of the “Chaebol” (family-run conglomerates that are the bedrock of Korea’s economy).
  3. Continue to live with parents until you have saved enough money to get married (in other words, saved enough to purchase an apartment for men; for women they should purchase all the furnishings).
  4. Get married (Korea has some shockingly efficient ways of facilitating this life stage, but I won’t get into all of that here).
  5. Have children.
  6. Work hard. Take a yearly vacation, preferrably abroad. Send children to private academies (which can cost $1,000 / month) to supplement their education and make sure they get into a good university just like you did.

The problem is that the system is now breaking down at each and every step.

  1. The relentless focus on ‘getting in’ has led to a stunning lack of rigor in  higher education. College life is seen by many as their only taste of freedom before working life begins.
  2. The implied promise of a ‘job for life’ no longer exists as Korean firms have recently exhibited less loyalty to its employees (while still expecting their full devotion in return).
  3. Housing prices are skyrocketing and entry level salaries are stagnant. This dream is getting farther away. Oh yeah, and household debt to income ratio is now higher than it was in the U.S. just before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007/2008.
  4. Increasing competition in the professional and educational world means less time to devote to your love life. Those that do find a mate are delaying marriage and kids until later and later.
  5. Children also get delayed. Now Koreans are having less children than ever before and, in fact, one of the lowest birth rates in the OECD.
  6. The educational costs of having children is another driving factor for the low birth rates.

All of these factors add up to produce the concept known as “Hell Chosun,” an idiomatic term to describe the future (or lack thereof?) that Korean young adults have to look forward to as they enter the meat grinder public education system that forces them to pull all-nighters preparing for standardized tests from middle school on.

By the time I get to know them, many of my students have given up. They missed the top-tier universities of their (and their families’) dreams and are already feel like they have let themselves and their loved ones down. The only thing worse than that is the fierce competitiveness for low-paying jobs that awaits them upon graduation.

Coming back to The Art of Learning

This brings us back to the reason I am writing this blog post: Reconnecting with a book I read many years ago.

I remember tearing through the book at a rapid pace and finding it an exciting, motivating read. But at the end of the book I had a hard time putting into words exactly what I learned from the book. In that sense, the book was a disappointment; it is not a game plan for becoming a polymath as I had hoped. In fact, I bet 10 different people could all read the book and come away with ten different primary lessons that they pulled out.

In that sense, the book is more of a memoir of the author (a child chess prodigy turned martial arts world champion) and his own personal philosophy of learning. The blog Deconstructing Excellence has posted a thorough summary of the book and it’s concepts if you would like to know more about the concepts in great detail without actually buying and reading it yourself.

In the year 2016, the idea of the ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindsets is mainstream, but when TAOL was published in 2008 it wasn’t quite as well known.

Many of the concepts in TAOL were like that. I’ve read several psychology books in more recent years that have gone into excruciating detail on some of the phenomena that Waitzkin discusses anecdotally, through the lens of his own personal experience. This does not detract from TAOL but actually affirms it.

In other words, science has shown that the conclusions Waitzkin draws based on his own experiences with learning are not only right on the money but transferable to the general population. This means that you do not have to be a genius to develop exceptional skill.

As I listened to the aforementioned podcast a couple weeks ago, he kept referring to his foundation and the work that it does with teachers and programs around the world. He mentioned that they are interested in working with teachers at putting the principles to work in various contexts for various purposes. This sparked the realization that my approach to TAOL years ago had been all wrong. I had been looking at it selfishly, as a learner hoping to emulate Waitzkin’s success at rapidly becoming world class in a field (in my case, I had just become addicted to Brazilian Jiujitsu, which is Waitzkin’s most recent field of conquest).

I couldn’t even wait until I got home to make contact with the Josh Waitzkin foundation. I eagerly tapped out an email on my phone:

Katy,

My name is Steve, and I am really curious about how the JW Foundation could help my students. They are all adults so they may not be your target group, but they are all political science students at a university in the incredibly competitive education environment of South Korea.
Many have a lack of motivation for learning and are already discouraged because they did not make it into one of the top tier universities.
That being said, I am always looking at new ways of reaching out to them. Currently I am teaching a group of them Brazilian Jiujitsu on a totally volunteer basis and through that community I can see the passion come out of them from time to time. Ironically it is in learning a combat sport that they feel like they can relax and unwind from the competition they face in everyday life.
Anyway, if there is a possibility of working with you guys to introduce TAOL concepts I would definitely be game for trying new things.
Best regards,
Steve Ward
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited to get an email back from them in a couple days:

Hi Steve,

Thank you for contacting us.  We have several programs with universities, so the age of your students is not a problem!

I would be happy to discuss the specifics of developing an Art of Learning program with you.  I’m attaching an information sheet which will give you a basic outline of what our programs look like.  However, we don’t have a static curriculum, so they tend to be fairly individualized.  All programs are completely free of charge.

It sounds as though your students would really benefit from some work around Resilience.  I’ve also attached our Resilience guide.  It was created with younger students in mind, but many of the concepts would translate to older students with slight modification.  The work that you’re doing with Brazilian Jiujitsu is wonderful!  It provides a great opportunity for you to make a bridge between the Beginner’s Mind they have in learning this new art to what they see as an already established relationship with learning as university students.

I am happy to discuss all of this with you in greater detail both to give you some ideas for how to work with your students, and to provide me with the necessary information to write a program description.  If you would like to speak via Skype, I can do so most Mondays or Wednesdays between 10am and 1:30pm EST, and Fridays between10am and 3:30pm EST.  I’m not sure what the time difference is between New York and S. Korea, but perhaps we can find a time that will work for both of us.  If not, it’s fine to continue the discussion through email.

I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best,

Katy

I read through the attachments and then… I am ashamed to say that I did nothing with it. I quickly fell behind in my workload for the semester, but her comments about teaching resilience stuck with me and floated to the surface of my consciousness on occasion.
Resilience is a subject that is already dear to me. Nassim Taleb discusses it in some detail in his book Antifragile, which has been enormously influential in my own life. And Katy was exactly correct.

What teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu has taught me about teaching

During a person’s very first lesson in BJJ, they will likely be shown something considered “fundamental,” such as the rear naked choke. In the following ten years it takes that person to go from their very first lesson in any combative art to competing as an ‘expert’ in a mixed martial arts event, they will be exposed to countless other methods of winning a fight. And yet, once they reach expert status and have an encyclopedic knowledge of techniques, statistically it is quite likely that it will be the simple rear naked choke they rely upon. Interesting, no? Why bother spending all those years becoming an expert if you are just going to use what you learned on Day 1? Well, I have a couple of thoughts on this:
  1. You’ve practiced it about 5,000 times or so. You know how to do it from a hundred different entry positions. You now know what needs to be done, against an equally skilled opponent, in order to create the opportunity now too.
  2. You didn’t actually learn the rear naked choke on the first day. The real lesson was subconscious. And it remained that way for the first hundred or so times that you practiced it.

After showing the rear naked choke, and a litany of other techniques, to several people for the first time in their lives while also trying to simultaneously improve my own BJJ skill, I’ve developed a theory about the real purpose of the techniques. At the conscious level, on that first day, you think you are learning how to choke someone out. What you are really learning is your introduction to micro-level concepts such as cutting off the blood supply to the brain, the strongest way for your hands to grip each other, and the fact that once you have someone in this position, your relative size and strength is nearly completely irrelevant.

Teaching is more than adding entries to the encyclopedia program running in a student’s brain; we are inherently either updating or reinforcing the learning operating system too. That is a heavy responsibility and deserves both serious thought and intentional action.

I am a Professor of Political Science. I teach courses in US politics, international organizations, and academic writing. But the cold hard reality is that in my students’ future careers if there is a fact or figure about any of the above they find themselves in need of, it is at their fingertips within a few swipes on their smartphones. If teachers and schools continue to approach their jobs as simply moving facts from their brains into their students’ brains, they will quickly be replaced by Wikipedia and Udemy.

I’ve always aspired to be a great teacher but have only had a nebulous idea of what that means in practical terms, so I have never really been confident in my teaching. However, I am starting to get an idea about what that means for me now.

Thinking back on all of this, and mixing in some of my strengths identified in my student evaluations, here are things I believe I am doing right:

  • Bending over backward when a student asks for help (a professor  personally investing in a students’ success seems to give them a great deal of confidence)
  • Approaching classes as an opportunity to study a topic together (giving them respect and treating them as allies)
  • Treating mistakes as learning opportunities (plagiarism is a constant problem in Korea, as it isn’t really considered a serious problem here, but my approach of letting them re-submit an essay if, and only if, they come talk to me about how to properly use outside sources first seems to be appreciated)

When I think about what I can do better, though, I think about the underlying operating system in my students’ heads. Katy’s suggestion of making resilience an important part of that operating system is, I think, right on the money. Thankfully, the information she sent me did offer further suggestions on doing this:

  • Value Process Before Results
  • Investment in Loss
  • Beginner’s Mind
  • Using Adversity

For each of these four aspects of teaching resilience in the classroom, the guide gives concrete, practical suggestions. For example, for “Value Process Before Results,” is suggests, “Give process-oriented feedback to at least three students a day,” with the following examples: “I see you’re working really hard on this,” “Let’s think about how I can help you stretch yourself further,” and “I can see you’re putting a lot of work into this problem.”

Putting the Latest Learning Research into Practice Teaching

Those types of suggestions are all well and good. And yes, they are quite practical. As I have gone through the list, I find that I have already been doing a lot of these kinds of things, mostly because of parenting tips I’ve picked up since becoming a father. Praising people for their hard work, rather than a specific accomplishment, for example, has become almost second nature for me.

I want to take it a step farther, though, and build the structure of my classes in a way that they reinforce resilience as part of my students’ learning operating systems. How do I create homework assignments and exams in a way that encourage students to build the type of learning habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives?

One thing I could do is entirely change the way I teach my Politics English class. I could basically make it a “study skills” course. Since I am halfway through the year though, I wouldn’t want radically change the format of the class for the second semester. This means that the prime course for experimentation will have to be my International Organizations course next semester. The problem is that the course content does not lend itself easily to many of the suggestions given in the TAOL workbook.

One possibility is to have a group project based around important persons in IO history and ask them to give presentations on a “mistake” that these people made and how they made up for them. A few possibilities for people to study might be Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, Ban Ki-Moon, etc.

The hope would be that, much like the BJJ beginner learning a rear naked choke for the first time, it’s not the facts about the persons’ life that they remember five years from now, but the idea that person can make a grievous error and still come back from it to make an important contribution to the world.

This first idea feels grossly inadequate for the aspirations I have for my courses, but it’s a starting point. Like any course, they continuously evolve each time around. Just like my trial of the EduCanon portal last year in my US Politics course led to me going all-in on the ‘flipped classroom’ model with the course this year (even completely re-recording every lecture), I know that my first attempt at integrating lessons on resilience might only be marginally successful. But I also know that the first baby step in a new direction is the most important one, and it will lead to a boost in my own confidence, as well as a flood of further ideas coming shortly after.

In short, TAOL concepts are great, but bringing them into the classroom has been and continues to be a struggle. Nonetheless, I will continue to give it my best shot.

A Semester of Experimenting with LMS and a Flipped Classroom

I am in the midst of my fifth year in a row of teaching almost the exact same courseload. I had still been getting good student reviews, but I could feel myself getting into a rut.

At the same time, I’d been hearing more and more from colleagues about learning management systems (LMS) and the concept of the ‘flipped classroom.’ I had hesitated to try either of these earlier as, although I’m a technophile, I’ve always hesitated to bring technology into the classroom if I wasn’t absolutely sure it would directly benefit students and not be a distraction for them and a crutch for myself. The most I had used so far was ThinkWave, a cloud-based platform for grade book management, and dipped my toe in the waters of flipped classrooms with EduCanon.

After a bit of research, I decided to take the plunge. Here are the changes I made:

  • LMS: Switched from ThinkWave to Canvas.
  • Abandoned EduCanon in favor of Udemy for hosting video lectures
    • The extra in-class time gave me better chances to bring in documentary films, group projects, and guest speakers.

The puzzle pieces came together in quite different ways for each class:

US Politics

Flipped classroom using Udemy. Electronic submissions (via Canvas) for homework (monthly essay assignments and occasional group project submissions).

Comparative Politics

This semester I taught this class for the first time. The difficult thing was that I do not have a substantial background in the topic myself, so I relied on the basic format the previous professor used with the class. Instead of bi-weekly essay assignments, I used Canvas for a weekly graded discussion. Each student was expected to make a substantive (100-200 word) comment on the prompt.  After making their initial comment, Canvas would then show other students’ comments. They were then expected to write two brief responses to classmates’ comments.

Instead of a group presentation, I let the class decide what kind of final project they would do and they picked an “individual case study report.” All of this submitted online through Canvas.

Politics English

This class remained structurally exactly the same as before. We follow the book closely in class with no homework to speak of. As we move through each chapter of the book, they complete a freewriting, brainstorming, outline, first draft, peer edit, self-edit, second draft progression. I collect this as homework.

At first, I tried to do it as an electronic submission, but I scrapped it after the first time. I continued to collect these hand-written papers in class for participation points and moved the “Essay test” for each unit to an online submission. The midterm exam was an online essay, as was the final exam. The final exam was a bit more difficult though because it asked them to make a bit of a leap: after writing 1-paragraph essays all semester, they have to apply what they’ve learned to a 3-paragraph essay.

What I am keeping

All told, I was very impressed with the technologies I brought in. Next semester I teach a slightly different course load. I will likely keep Politics English 2 exactly the same as this semester, but using the more difficult book.

I have to make a decision about International Organizations. I could pre-record the lectures and put them on Udemy just like I did with US Politics. But I’m thinking of structuring it more like Comparative Politics from this semester, where it is based on readings and has weekly discussion questions, and essays for exams. I could mix in a few films/documentaries as needed as well. The downside is that this means I need to spend my summer break finding a good textbook for it that continues keeping my IO class “practical” rather than theoretical. Most IO courses are more theoretical in nature, but I was asked to teach it in a way that would encourage students to apply for jobs with IOs.

Honestly, I am as surprised as anyone in terms of how much of these systems I will likely keep in place for future semesters. Udemy is imperfect in many ways, but the way I explained it to my students is that we are using it rather than a textbook. The only thing you get for student progress is a progress bar with the percentage of the course they have completed, but for the slick and professional interface as well as the mobile experience I think the tradeoff is worth it.

A Case Study in Improving Student Engagement

In 2004 I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri, and I started working with a program called English Proficiency and Internship (EPI). It involved students from Asia coming to MU for a 6-week intensive educational experience.

When I started working with the program as a Graduate Assistant, the two most time-consuming jobs were:

  1. Securing job shadow opportunities for the participants.
  2. Finding trustworthy mentors from the MU student population to make friends with the Korean students and give them a taste of what college life is like for students in the heart of America.

The job shadowing was fairly straightforward. Luckily we had existing relationships with local businesses and government agencies and we could secure a spot with just a phone call. I felt like there just HAD to be a way to systematize the recruiting of the mentors, though, and I thought about it for a long time.

Finally, one day I was out walking on campus and I saw an advertisement for a leadership class where you take a “ropes” course. This is where you learn leadership and team building by climbing up rock walls, rappelling down, and crossing rope bridges and things.

The thing that stuck with me about that ad was the word “course.” It was actually a credit-earning course. Now it was only like one credit hour or something like that, but I was intrigued enough to investigate. It turned out that it was run by the Office of Service Learning, and that was not the only experiential course on offer. Students could get credit through various travel programs and volunteering. That caught my attention.

We ended up going through the Office of Service Learning to create a course, complete with a curriculum that included an orientation session and reflective essay assignments, and we made it available to students in the Honors College.

By the end of the first EPI program, we had actually started hearing complaints from the regular international students because some of them had been on campus for years and were not getting to see what they called the “real” college experience.

If you look at the EPI website now, you can see that the Collegiate Ambassadors program is still going strong.

But what would I do different, now? 

My biggest mistake with EPI and the Collegiate Ambassadors was trying to micromanage. I wish I would have trusted the ambassadors, and the participating students themselves more and even delegated more responsibilities to them.

I would also love to have the opportunity to try a similar program again now that we have smartphones and apps like Slack that would make coordinating the team of volunteers SO much easier.

The Best Thing About Reading a LOT of Books

Last year was the most productive reading year of my life. Although I’ve only deliberately kept track of the books I read for the last couple years, I have no doubts that the 103 books I read are a record.

I’m not really bragging here. In fact, recently becoming a voracious reader is more the accidental result of suddenly having no more time of my own (hello fatherhood!), and trying to make the most out of time spent commuting, pushing a stroller, and countless nights spent vigilant over a sick/angry/sleepless baby. I was able to do this thanks to the back light on my Kindle Paperwhite and a membership to Audible.com.

In the process of reading all those books, as much as I enjoyed the escapism and assimilation of new trivia and factoids, I kept wondering if there was any real benefit to it. Was it pure escapism from the drudgery of taking care of an infant? Was burying myself in books a way of burying my head in the sand? I have to admit that sometimes I found myself getting lost in the intrigues surrounding the life of, for example, Franz Haber, so when it was time to change a diaper in the middle of the night, my mind was turning over the puzzle of how the Jewish man became widely (somewhat) misunderstood as a German war criminal, rather than soaking in the fleeting moment with my daughter.

Every once in a while an article will make the rounds on social media proclaiming things like, “Why you should marry a man that reads novels,” or “New Research Shows Cognitive Benefits of Reading Fiction.” The one thing these articles all had in common for me is that I basically shrugged them off.

First of all, what’s with all the anti-non-fiction rhetoric? As an avid non-fiction reader, the drama, suspense, and literary virtuosity of Robert Caro matches, if not surpasses, that of George R.R. Martin with the added benefit of being a true story. As entertaining as watching Stephen Colbert school James Franco in the obscure lore of The Simarillion was, I personally find it more gratifying, useful, and better for my career, to be able to discuss the finer points of Lyndon Johnson’s ascendency to the presidency than to spend the mental energy arguing about elves and dwarves.

But this is all nitpicking, because last night I realized the biggest benefit of all. While in the short term being a bookworm may seem anti-social, there is a big upside: People become more interesting.


I was out walking the dog when one of my neighbors approached and struck up a conversation. Amongst the ritual pleasantries, I cast out the old small talk standby: “What do you do?”

He responded somewhat sheepishly, “Fire safety engineer.” He was probably used to seeing eyes glaze over and hearing people struggle to offer polite responses like, “Oh, that’s… interesting,” or, “Hmm, sounds like an important job, see you later!”

My neurons were firing up a storm. Something in his statement sounded vaguely familiar and my brain was searching to find the connection. Then I had it: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley. Specifically, I remembered reading about a computer program that had piqued my interest because it simulated human behavior during fire evacuations. It is used by, you guessed it, fire safety engineers as they advise architects in the best places for fire exits and other safety measures. What kind of assumptions about human behaviors did the programmers make when crafting the A.I.? What real events were studied in the planning of such a computer program? What political beliefs do the makers and users of this kind of program have? All questions that I had turned over in my mind that were difficult to answer via google. Now I had a real life ‘Fire Safety Engineer’ standing in font of me.

The only reason I read The Unthinkable, or even knew about it in fact, was from reading The Disaster Diaries by Sam Sheridan. I might not have ever read that book either, had I not previously read Sheridan’s books A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind, which I read trying to figure out why I, and millions of others, have always been fascinated by martial arts and combat sports.

Unfortunately, by the time I had my question for my neighbor loaded and ready to fire, the conversation was already winding down, but as we parted ways, I found myself excited to meet him again.


Another one of these viral articles I read some time ago made the claim that if you read some shockingly low threshold like fifty books in a certain field, it would put you in the top 1% of people in the world knowledgeable about that area. My memory on this specific article is fuzzy, but I believe the larger point wasn’t necessarily about how easy it is to be an expert in a field, but rather how poorly read the people of today are, in spite of the fact that more data is produced and uploaded in a single day than all of human history up until this century. I totally just made that statistic up, but it is probably almost true.

Considering that, you would think that my resolution for the year 2015 would be to focus my reading on a particular field of knowledge. In fact, much of my reading falls somewhere in the overlaps between biology, computer science, security, and politics. However, achieving some sort of superficial expertise has never been the point. It has always been about allowing my mind to wonder; to follow the tangents of my own shifting interests. That meaningless number of 103 books read would be even larger if it included books halfway or even mostly read (mostly books that I tried to force myself to read when I didn’t have a sincere interest). And some of the books that do count as one of the 103 I can scarcely remember the titles of (mostly those I ‘powered-through’ in spite of losing interest).

The point is that the world around me, including fellow human beings I interact with on a daily basis, is infinitely more interesting, and my connections to it stronger and more meaningful, than ever was before.

I’m going to keep up my habit as much as I can moving forward. I’m going to get more fiction in the mix as well. But I’m going to continue to unapologetically follow the whims of my changing tastes.

In conclusion: Yes, dummy, you should read books. A lot, and with purpose and direction. But not too much.

This post originally appeared on Medium.