Oh, I Thought You Said You Wanted To Sell A Bus…

It’s a new year, the ground is covered with more-than-ankle-deep snow, and I told a friend tonight that it seems like, over the past couple of weeks, the notion of a “day of the week” has lost all meaning.

This is how winter break winds to a quiet close.

It is an opportunity to take stock, and think about what we do as faculty and researchers.  In a sense, it is the quintessential time for “well, time to get BACK AT IT.”  After all, the spring semester lurks right around a single left-click on the google calendar, and both students and journals are inexorably rising from a temporary slumber, bringing the holiday respite to a close.

The details of my own thinking are ephemeral even to me (though you never know when hindsight might prod one to think such classifications naive or at least short-sighted).  But the classic math of politics point that keeps coming back to me during this thinking is

Don’t start what you won’t want to finish.

Notice it’s not can’t finish…this is about incentives/motivations/desires, not ability. In the end, time is finite and, ironically, fleeting.  A project you’re not “into” has a very small chance of being finished.  In game theory, this idea is captured by what is referred to as sequential rationality. In a nutshell, a sequence of actions or decisions is sequentially rational if, at every opportunity one has to revisit and revise the sequence, continuing the sequence as originally prescribed is still in the decider’s interest.  In other words, it is a sequence of decisions that the decision-maker never has significant regret about continuing.

As one example, I (re)designed two syllabi this week.  I am teaching Intro to American Government, a course that I have always wanted to try, and graduate game theory, a course that I have taught for years, but never perfectly.  In both courses, there are topics I like more than others.  In both courses, there are topics I really don’t find relevant…at least for the way I think about “the course.”  However, many of these topics are de rigueur.

So, should I cover these topics?  I can stomach the claim that I should cover them well. But, to be blunt, both sequential rationality and experience—the two of which pair quite nicely, if you think about it for a minute—suggest that that fortuitous combination is not likely.  Rather, my real choice is between covering them as well as I will or simply omitting them.  (I’ll set aside the possibility of minimizing them for the purpose of maximizing clarity.)

On the one hand, it is likely (at least in my mind) that the time spent covering these topics in a subpar fashion could be better spent on other topics I feel more strongly about.  So, covering these topics comes at a cost.  On the other hand, not covering the topics, in addition to potentially leaving gaps in the student’s knowledge,[1] sends a signal about my own tastes/abilities/dedication.  Setting aside the “gaps in knowledge” worry, as none these topics couldn’t be covered by students on their own at least as well as I would cover them, given my lack of interest in them, the comparison is even more stark.

Specifically, if one presumes that my interest in/dedication to the topic—i.e., the sequential rationality of me “committing” to a syllabus where I will talk for 3 hours about the topic[2]—is positively associated with quality of the teaching, then an earnest student would, prior to the course beginning, wish that I would allocate my teaching of the various topics roughly in proportion to my interest in them.  But, I have an interest in being seen as “teaching well.”  Or, less admirably, I have a latent but abiding interest in avoiding scrutiny.  If I teach what I think most appropriate according to the logic of sequential rationality, and for some reason a student complains about the course, I would potentially have to explain why my course omitted some de rigueur topics.  My argument could, of course, be that I don’t find those topics as interesting, relevant, and/or important as others.  But, to be both clear and hyperbolic, this would be arguing against the discipline.

Now, luckily for me, it doesn’t really matter right now.  But, this is a classic and subtle point about accountability, discretion, and commitment.  My hypothetical earnest student is arguably also a plausible benchmark for the hypothetical earnest parent and/or university administrator.  But, once the “fire alarm oversight” of a disgruntled student (or, to be fair, many students) is “pulled,” the sequential rationality of even the hypothetical earnest parent and/or university administrator to stand up for “well, the syllabus was ex ante efficient given Professor Patty’s own sequential rationality constraints” is suspect.

In other words: the road to commitment problems is paved with unrealistic intentions.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] To be clear, in some cases, I might be preserving the students’ knowledge by not covering a topic.

[2] Arguably commensurate and definitely countervailing to the dropping of worries about the gaps in students’ knowledge, I am also setting aside the potentially deleterious effects of proffering a syllabus that is ultimately not followed. That’s the more traditional portrait of a failure of sequential rationality: the plan is ultimately “not followed.”  A piece of advice for those who have yet to teach your own course: varying from the syllabus is the surest way to lower your course’s evaluation without significantly risking your own dismissal. Trust me on this. I have plenty of evidence, all of which I regrettably “manufactured.”