The response to the Northwest 253 attempted terrorist attack has been interesting. As after 9/11 and the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempts, one of the distinctively American response has been the reach for the technological response.
A common lament has been that if only there had been a body scanner or an explosive puffer, then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would not have gotten his flammable underpants onboard. Another lament, one I am more sympathetic to, is that if the data matching was better the existing screening system would have worked. After all, his name was in the big watchlist database, and then Abdulmutallab purchased a one way ticket with cash and showed up without any luggage. But again the lament is that technology will save us. Data matching is just another fallible technology. The fact that this suspect's names matched in some databases alerts us to one aspect of this case that could have been handled better with technology. But the next terrorist might have different names in different databases and elude easy matching. Americans seem to like technological fixes to their problems. In New Zealand the more common response to problems is that the government should do something, pass a law or establish an agency.
The response has also been interesting in that the technology and organization of suspicion that is encapsulated in screening airline passengers is pretty widely accepted by Americans. But the same logic that makes it OK to screen airline passengers also makes it OK to stop drivers to check for drugs or alcohol, install red light or speed cameras, or impose restrictions on gun use. But few of these interventions which would also save lives are politically acceptable in the United States.
Tutorials (discussion sections, but referred to as tutorials throughout because it's shorter) are an important part of university education. Done well, students come away knowing and understanding a topic. Also, students make friends in this form of class. This is a non-trivial benefit. Done badly, they are excruciating in their silence and stupidity, and make a Catholic mass seem short. I refer here to discussions in the humanities and social sciences rather than focused problem-set oriented classes in sciences. The format is often that students have read some documents, perhaps a whole book (at graduate level), or some articles or chapters at undergraduate level. Questions about the readings are posed, and discussion is meant to ensue. But that discussion doesn't always happen in practice.
Done well the students get a great deal of benefit from preparing for the tutorial, and then add to that with their peers' contributions and different perspectives. A large part of the success of a good tutorial comes from a critical mass of prepared students who show up. The question is how to motivate good preparation and high attendance, while also respecting that university students are young adults who can make their own good or bad choices about whether to show up or not.
There are many models for how to motivate preparation and attendance. But I was not satisfied with policies I'd used previously. For example, many of my colleagues in New Zealand have a policy of requiring attendance at 8/11 tutorials during a semester. Missing more than 3 tutorials means that students have not met "mandatory course requirements," and are not permitted to complete the class. It's not uncommon in American colleges for 5-20% of the class grade to be for "participation and attendance."
What I tried this year in my second year (sophomore) social history class was the following policy for motivating preparation and attendance. It worked well.
It looks way more complicated than it really was. Since it was a policy that differed from the standard ones in our department (and cognate departments in the humanities and social sciences) there were some questions about it. But the students understood it without any problems.
With this policy, 27 of a class of 31 did not lose any marks. In other words, 90% of the class attended (or demonstrated their preparation if sick or otherwise legitimately absent) for all the tutorials they were responsible for coming to. One student lost 4% and another 8%. Two students failed after missing 4 tutorials.
So, the policy had a very beneficial impact on student attendance. Most students prepared for class by taking more notes than required, and class discussions went very well as a result.
The policy seemed to work well for the following inter-related reasons
The policy seemed to have a positive effect on classroom relationships, as well as motivating preparation and attendance. The awful tutorials where people attend without having done the reading, and the discussion proceeds slowly until the instructor realizes students haven't done the reading. The instructor then gets cranky at the students for not preparing for the class, and the relationship between students and instructor suffers.
All in all this was a low-workload way of motivating student preparation and attendance, and it seemed to improve student outcomes. By making the penalties for not preparing and attending explicit I respected students' abilities to make their own decisions about their time. Attendance was not compulsory, but it was valued.
By penalizing non-attendance and preparation rather than grading participation and attendance I did not have to grade students' contributions to discussion. This meant the discussion atmosphere was relaxed, because students who attended had prepared, but knew they weren't being evaluated for what they said and did once in class.
The details of the policy would vary in other classes, but the key features I would replicate are
Finally, I must gratefully acknowledge my colleague, Alexander Maxwell, who suggested aspects of this to me, but disagrees with some of my adaptations.
Now that Obama has given his big speech on Afghanistan we get the predictable debate between people who think that the June 2011 deadline is arbitrary and signals to the enemy how long they need to wait for America to leave, and those who think that's too long.
Really I sympathize with the idea that withdrawing from Afghanistan should be "conditions based" but there are few areas of human activity where open-ended commitments are a good idea (marriage is somewhat of an exception, but that's for another discussion).
People respond to deadlines. Although, as a professor, I get a regular stream of amusing excuses for why students haven't met deadlines, the striking thing is that most students meet most of their deadlines. Obviously there's a huge gap between a student assignment and the "world peace" scale problem we have in Afghanistan. The time it should take student assignments to be done is predictable; they've been done before and they are quite small. Afghanistan is a large problem we haven't met before.
Quite obviously the July 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is arbitrary. There is no previous Afghan war the deadline can be based on.
Deadlines, however arbitrary, concentrate the minds of the people affected by them. An open-ended commitment to war is good for defense contractors, but bad for everyone else, including the Afghans. If the U.S. said it was staying for some unspecified time, and withdrawing based on some concept of progress there would be fewer incentives for Afghans to take over their own security situation. The trick is that in situations like this—complex and unique—there has to be some flexibility in the deadline. Who knows if 18 months is long enough? The future is unpredictable. So it's no surprise that the morning after the speech the White House appears to be saying two things, there is a timeline for withdrawal, and that the timeline is flexible.
Sticking rigidly to a timeline or having no timeline at all are not strategies that work in any other area of 'complex' human activity. The timeline that can be altered is the only realistic way forward.