Author Archives: ElizabethHousworth

The Liberal Arts

I excelled at mathematics and science in high school. Many of my classmates went on to study at Georgia Tech. I was never interested. Despite my lack of skill in foreign language, writing poetry, and interpreting literature, I only ever wanted to go to a college of liberal arts. At Emory, there was a “math or foreign language” requirement. I fulfilled both. My lowest grade was in a physical education class for modern dance, I took several classes of Russian Literature in Translation. I took plenty of mathematics courses, it was my major after all, and plenty of science courses since I started out a Chemistry major. But I also had a sense that I needed to take courses in a variety of areas in order to be exposed to the ideas of various fields. My sophomore year, I attended an 8 am Tuesday/Thursday psychology course for an entire semester because, although I could not fit psychology into my schedule, I thought I should know something about it.

Why? That is the question I am asking myself these days. What was it about my experience, my intrinsic belief in the liberal arts, that I want to convey to my students? What did I get out of my education that helps me today?

Many things get said about the value of the liberal arts these days, especially as whole schools shut down due to enrollment crises and others face serious and challenging enrollment declines. Emory’s mission statement includes: “As an institution dedicated to intellectual discovery and creativity, Emory College is charged both with generating new knowledge and with inventing new ways of understanding what is already known.” The University of Virginia, where I attended graduate school, has a new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, who speaks of “educating students for lives of inspired vocation and worldly citizenship.” The University of Oregon, where I was an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, has a mission statement that speaks of “the elemental skills of an arts and sciences education: … to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, live ethically.” Indiana University Bloomington, where I am now employed, has adopted the same idea: “The members of the College are dedicated to the liberal arts that teach our students to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically.” Wake Forest College is a place that has been successful in meeting the challenge of Colleges of Liberal Arts to address the job-skills and employment concerns of students and their parents. I very much like the following part of their mission statement: “The College honors the ideals of liberal learning, which encourages habits of mind that ask “why,” that evaluate evidence, that are open to new ideas, that attempt to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others, that accept complexity and grapple with it, that admit error, and that pursue truth.”

As I was asking myself yesterday what I would say about the value of a liberal arts education, I thought of something close to the Wake Forest statement: We ask the questions that change the world. More importantly, we teach our students to ask those questions. Enhancing my ability to ask questions, and learning enough of a variety of subjects to be able to ask good questions, is the enduring benefit that I obtained from my liberal arts education.

Incentives: Part 2

This is a post of incentives for adults. Most of the adults I know are in academia. I have heard that leading academics is akin to herding cats.

A while back, I watched a TEDx collection of talks about leadership. Barry Schwartz talked about incentives in the context of doing the right thing versus abiding by a list of duties or rules. Examples given included a janitor who mopped a hospital room twice because the distressed father of a critically ill patient had not seen him do it the first time and wanted it done again. Mopping it twice wasn’t in his job description; the janitor did it to make the father feel better. There were countless other examples where empowering people to make the right decision worked better than giving them a long list of rules or devising incentives, especially monetary ones. The emphasis of the talk was on “practical wisdom,” the combination of moral will and moral skill, according to Aristotle. Providing long lists of rules and increasing incentives undermines the opportunities for individuals to practice their moral skills.

A major issue facing many Deans of Colleges of Arts and Sciences at research institutions, from John Hopkins to my own Indiana University, is reinvigorating tenure-track faculty involvement with undergraduate education. The 2013 strategic plan at John Hopkins incentivized undergraduate teaching. Faculty in the humanities and social sciences who were willing to teach 3 rather than 2 undergraduate courses a year would be awarded a sabbatical after 3 years instead of after 5 years. The plan from the College at my own institution is more rule-based: reduce graduate instruction of tenure track faculty to a ratio of 2 undergraduate courses: 1 graduate course on average, “or else.” The plan at John Hopkins has a goal of raising graduate student stipends in order to provide a decent wage and to compete for the best students, the trade-off being reducing the number of graduate students and covering some of their duties with undergraduates or unemployed Masters Degree students. The plan at Indiana University is to address the budget crisis the College seems to be facing due to decreasing undergraduate enrollments.

The moral issues should be obvious: it is the undergraduate tuition and fees that make the really rather pleasant academic life of tenured faculty possible; therefore tenured faculty have a moral obligation to engage with undergraduates at their institution. Moreover, engagement with the undergraduate curriculum demonstrates to our students the intellectual inquisitiveness that the Liberal Arts instills into its beneficiaries. The over-production of PhDs creates a very pleasant faculty teaching situation but does not generally benefit the graduate students who cannot go on to find the kinds of academic jobs that they come to expect after spending 4-8 years conducting research at a premier research institution. Producing a reasonable number of PhDs, providing them with realistic expectations for their futures, individually, and providing opportunities for them to obtain the skills they need for the kinds of careers they will likely have are all moral obligations.

I am not sure about the ethical understanding of cats, but humans from janitors to professors want to do the right thing, generally. They just need to be given the opportunity and freedom to practice their moral skills.

Incentives: Part 1

Incentive structures have rarely worked with my older son. We offered to pay him $20 a week if he got 85% or better on his written math work (Singapore). He earned the money for only a few weeks out of the year the incentive was in place. We tried various incentives at different times. Stickers for good behavior. Two weeks vacation from school for every Singapore math workbook completed. Extra electronics time. We tried various disincentive structures such as the removal of electronics time. Nothing was particularly motivating.

Then, this summer, Math IXL, the online math program that I found to give him some routine practice problems, had a summer usage contest whereby the student in each of three grade groups who answers the most questions wins a Samsung Galaxy tablet. My son was hooked as soon as he discovered the contest in mid-June. He really wanted a new computer. I was sure he would not be competitive in the contest, more about this later, so I told him that I didn’t care about the contest. If he completed all the problem sets in 7th grade math on IXL with a smart score of 90% or better by the end of July, I would buy him a computer. He had some bad days, but he only wavered in his commitment to earning a computer once. When I told him it was very unlikely he would earn enough money dog-sitting at age 13 to buy himself a computer, he got back on track for winning one quickly. He had a bad day two days before the end of the month. On the day before the end of the month, I sat with him while he did a double-load. On the last day, he had to work hard because he saved the problem sets that were hardest for him for the end, but he did it. Now he is the proud owner of a 17″ HP Envy! And my husband is envious.

In total, he attempted 7,844 problems with a cumulative score of 23778 out of 26100. Math IXL posted Leaderboards at the end of June and the end of July. At the end of June, the number reported for the leader in my son’s grade group was 21,396, At the end of July, the number reported for the leader in my son’s grade group was 44,831. Whether these numbers are problems attempted or cumulative scores, my son was never going to be competitive for earning a computer from IXL. There are rumors that older children can work pre-K problems for credit in this contest; I do not know whether the rumors are true or not, but, if so, that isn’t what I wanted out of the incentive.

I am proud he stuck with his math and completed all of the 7th grade problems in about 7 weeks. Now we are all taking a well-earned week-long vacation before we start his 7th-grade homeschool year.

What Do Women Want

I started Blogging partially because I so admire Meredith Wu’s Blog when she was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. As I have said before, I thought it was very brave for an academic administrator to Blog. Occasionally, I took issue with some of her posts. One that I felt was a little lacking was her response to “What Do Women Want.” She mentions major, contemporary books and essays on this theme: Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. She goes on to say that these discussions are too self-absorbed and praises the self-sacrifice and dedication of numerous women staff members at the University of Virginia. She concludes by answering the question of “What Do Women Want” with Hannah Arendt’s definition of “What a Woman Is.” Although the answer couches the self-sacrifices women make in terms of the constructive and creative work of building communities, I feel that she hasn’t quite done the question, self-absorbed as it is, the feminist justice it deserves.

I have been thinking about what my own response to that question would be. There can be no universal answer, because there can be no universal answer for any large, heterogeneous group of people – not for men, not for women, not for children, … I have a feeling that women are generally judged more harshly, and feel like they are judged more harshly, than men are. What I hope we all would want for each other, and be able to give to each other, is acceptance of the decisions that we each make in order to make our lives work. That is what I want. I want the entire range of possible decisions about work-life balance to be as equally acceptable for a woman to make as for a man. I would like everyone, men and women, to be able to carve out time from their schedules, and be respected for doing so, for their personal goals whether they be religious, family-oriented, athletic, intellectual, solitary, etc… Paraphrasing Bella Abzug, I would like women and men of equal talents and accomplishments to be recognized equally. I should add: I want to see it all happen in my lifetime!

Special Education

Both of my children have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) with the local public schools. Both have autism diagnoses, among other things. I cried the entire hour driving home from the psychologist’s office who provided details about just how much my children were lacking in normality, and neither I nor my husband value normality!

My youngest went to the public school for special preschool education one year. My oldest went to two private schools. His first school promised that if he were at, say, an advanced level of mathematics, he could take that level in their school while being with his peers for his other subjects. After we enrolled him and paid the entire year’s tuition up front, as they demanded, they said that his poor handwriting meant that he had to be held back in math. Ultimately, they allowed him to advance a little. But they sent him home with so much homework that we were all frustrated. We could not cope, none of us. So we taught him at home under the “Housworth Homeschooling Plan” which is a 320+-day-a-year program and 2-4 hours/day of work. We discovered another private school for him, and he attended it from the end of second grade to the middle of the fourth. He had a wonderful teacher who was very good with him until fourth grade. In the fourth grade, the teaching deteriorated substantially. I can’t be alone in believing that because the class dropped in half by Christmas when we withdrew him and educated him at home again.

The Housworth Homeschooling Plan involves doing a little every day, with very few school breaks. On the other hand, the schoolwork is usually over in the mornings, with the afternoon free for other things. Initially, the focus was almost exclusively on reading, writing, and mathematics. As the years progressed, we added science, history, grammar, and other subjects as suited us, like chess. Currently, with his checklist/day-planner, he guides himself through much of his work.

Under this plan, my oldest has remained roughly at grade level in most subjects and is a little advanced in mathematics. I know because we test. We are not allowed to give Indiana state exams as a private, unaccredited homeschool. However, some states provide their multiple choice standardized exams online for test preparation, and, using those, I test my oldest child each year. We also use a number of online learning tools: Spelling City, Read Theory, and Math IXL, that record his progress. This summer, Math IXL has a contest that gives away a computer for the child who practices the most. My oldest is really excited – I told him that if he completed all 7th grade exercises with at least a 90% level by August 1, I would buy him a new computer even if Math IXL does not. He’s a third of the way there in two weeks. He has over four weeks and 2/3 to go, but he hasn’t lost interest yet. If he makes it, he will be a year ahead in math by the standards in this program when the new school year begins.

My youngest is more difficult for me to plan for. He is more severely autistic, with irregular sleep patterns, and he is more resistant to even short periods of sustained schoolwork. He has 8 hours a day of Applied Behavioral Analysis; the therapists work with him on school-readiness such as sustained engagement with materials. He can read; he has been able to read since he was 2 or 3. But unlike my oldest, he would never do it on command. For years, we thought he would be our brilliant child. He walked at 9 months, like I did. He spoke about then too. In a rural coffee shop, I bought him a chocolate muffin that I knew he wanted, and he was so happy he said “I love you, mama.” Maybe he was a year and a half, and I bought him a stuffed animal because I was so happy. For the next few years, he would say a complete sentence once: Pick me up (I did). On another occasion: Put me down (I did). But he rarely spoke, never said the same thing twice, and became more picky in his eating habits. We tried putting him in an Indiana University preschool and they rejected him because he would not nap at noon. He would not lie still on a cot. We put him in another normal preschool that was able to provide an alternative to napping. But he didn’t learn to act like “normal” children. It became increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to and that he needed help. So I got the psychologist to evaluate him, and his older brother, and cried driving the hour home. I am crying now.

I refused stop trying to have a second child, which probably landed me in this mess, but I am not going to give up on him now. The child can read and spell nearly anything. I can’t tell whether he can do basic math or not. He doesn’t do it willingly. Sometimes, he will do a problem quickly and correctly. At other times, he puts every wrong answer in the box before he chooses the correct one. We have gone through “Teach Me Kindergarten” and “Teach Me First Grade” math twice now, and I still don’t know what he knows. But we will figure it out. I found him doing a headstand in his room one day recently – a perfect headstand – so there is something in him that maybe we can still unlock.

In loco parentis

I often think about the role that schools, including universities, play as “parent” to their students. Prior to the 1960’s, this role was strong: pregnant teenagers often were not allowed to complete high school, curfew and conduct rules, especially for female students, existed at most colleges and universities, etc… In the 1960’s, this changed. Students rebelled. The Supreme Court said colleges could not arbitrarily expel students (for instance, for attending civil rights demonstrations). There was an approximately 180 degree turn with students being viewed as independent adults. More recently, there has been a shift back towards colleges and universities acting in loco parentis. There are rules limiting relationships between faculty and students, for instance, even when the faculty and students are not in an instructor/student or mentor/mentee relationship. The in loco parentis emphasis in the reason behind these new rules is clear in the quote from Billie Dziech: “It sends a message: You don’t sleep with other people’s children — whether they agree to do it or not — because you’re abusing your power.” Undergraduate students are children. See:

Currently, Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences are suffering from decreases in enrollments. Basic demographic trends in America are behind some of these losses; peak 18-24 year old population has passed; it will tick up again in a few years but much of the uptick will be due to immigration, which might not correspond to the same growth in Liberal Arts enrollment as occurred during past upticks. In order to attract more students to the Liberal Arts, some schools, such as Wake Forest University, are combining an emphasis on career preparation with a liberal arts degree. Students learn to write resumes in addition to learning to write essays and poetry. The Wake Forest program is impressive. It includes steps for Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors to take while in College to prepare for careers. Students can take classes to explore what will make them happy, get help creating linkedin profiles and resumes, plan for internships, job shadowing, and/or international experiences, and even get help learning how to interview. See:

Such programs can add value to a liberal arts education. They are also part of colleges and universities acting in loco parentis, providing students with extra guidance and protection from the bad choice of not planning for a career. When thinking about these shifts back to regarding students as children, I wonder if we should not also impose curfews again. A bad choice a number of students make is partying too late in the evenings. A curfew and a bed check at midnight on schoolnights and 1 am on the weekends, something I might well do with teenage children, might also help improve the on-time graduation rate…..


There seem to be many ways to lead an organization. There is leadership by example. A past Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, Mort Lowengrub, used this method. The entire time he was Dean he taught for the Mathematics Department. Rumor has it that it did not always work out so well; the department had to carefully assign a graduate instructor to shadow him to substitute when he had to be absent due to duties of the Dean taking precedence over his duties as a teacher. However, this is a prime example of leadership by example. Old Bloomington Faculty Council minutes relate Mort emphasizing the importance of teaching to Indiana University and how everyone in his office, the Dean’s office, taught. His words carried the weight of the moral authority of someone who leads by example.

There is leadership by peer pressure. This form of leadership most likely works best for leaders who can read a room and determine the consensus opinion without having to take a vote. Thus, instead of having the loudest voice in the room dictate the outcome, the leader guides the conversation so that the voice of the quiet majority is heard over the din of the few. This is especially helpful if the leader agrees with the quiet majority. If not, the conversation can be guided around the din. A former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, Kumble Subbaswamy, I am told, led Chairs and Directors meetings by discussion, making all parties feel like their input was valued, and undoubtedly, taking in the consensus opinion in the room.

There is leadership by force. For this to be effective, it is good to have a clear sense of what things you control and what things are in the control of others. Here it is also good to understand consensus opinion and to clearly communicate why one is forcing an outcome. It is a leadership style that is unfortunately necessary at times, but I would recommend limiting its use. Dean Subbaswamy tried to use force on me to get me to move from the Department of Mathematics to the newly formed Department of Statistics. He did not have the power to do so, so his use of force failed.

There is leadership by manufactured crisis. You declare that the ship is sinking, things have to change immediately, you have the vision of how things should change, and everyone should jump on board immediately in order to save the ship. Academia is a Behemoth. If you nudge it to the right when you meant to nudge it to the left, you have made a terrible mistake that will be hard to undo. Is it really necessary to declare the ship is sinking? Do you not believe in what you have been doing enough to stand by it for a little while, giving time for some calm reflection on the state of higher education? There is a guest column in today’s Herald Times (6/2/2015) by James Hart, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, about the history of academia, its role in asking intrinsically important questions such as whether there is a robust sense of “knowing” that goes further than having an opinion. There is intrinsic value to an institution which asks and tries to answer such questions, one that teaches students to ask and answer such questions for themselves, one that teaches all of us not to accept the wisdom of experts but to question it in the pursuit of new knowledge. The economic future of the United States is closely tied to universities successfully instilling such values in the next generation. When saving the sinking ship of Higher Education in the United States, it would be worth remembering the important role Colleges of Arts and Sciences should play in teaching the future generation how to question; it is an important skill in the education of our future leaders.

Ode to Bad Teachers

There are different kinds of “bad” teachers. In approximate decreasing order of badness, there are teachers that don’t care, teachers who do not know their subject, and teachers that teach poorly. I fear that occasionally I fall into these categories myself, but I have learned a great deal from bad teachers. This blog is an ode to them.

My high school physics teacher did not know physics. It was not ideal, but I taught myself physics and occasionally taught the class what I learned. That was good for me.

My college history teacher was so shy that he mumbled daily at the podium without looking at us. I studied with a future lawyer in that class. Sometimes I sat in the front, but sometimes I sat in the back with the lawyer-to-be, probably giggling and exchanging notes. We were given the questions for the Final Exam in advance with some vague instructions that talking to each other was all right but we should form our own essays. I decided I should not study for the Final with the lawyer-to-be and the group he was forming – my internal moral compass strongly indicated that doing so was wandering into the dark gray area of acceptability. Instead, I did something surprising – I wrote my own essays and went to talk to the professor during his office hours. There I learned the only thing that has stuck with me from the course: that a terrible teacher could be a terrific human being. The professor was not shy at all in a one-on-one conversation, was very kind to a fairly bad history student, and must have given me good advice since my grade in the course turned out much better than I expected.

One of my favorite college mathematics professors received bad reviews from many students, at least in the student course guide available at Emory at the time. In this case, I think the students just didn’t recognize good teaching, which sometimes involves not teaching and letting students work things out for themselves. I cannot say that I believe student evaluation of teaching is a gold standard for measuring real teaching effectiveness, and I always think back on this example of a teacher I loved with not-so-great student reviews.

One of my high school mathematics teachers, if he could have, would have preached the gospel to us every day in class. He could not, so he saved it for when we visited him at his home. I learned that when a man proposes to a woman he should think about it in advance for a year and the woman should take just as long deciding whether to accept the proposal or not. I may not be remembering correctly, and the teacher may have been trying to prevent an inadvisable wedding on the part of a young classmate, but the advice struck me as being reasonably sound. He wanted us to take marriage seriously when we considered it. By the way, I didn’t follow the advice when I married, but I did consider the marriage seriously, as seriously as someone who has not been married can consider such a thing. The advice may have saved me from some undesirable unions.

Much of what I learned from teachers, good or bad, was not the material they were assigned to teach us, but bits of advice they gave out, not necessarily to me. I went to summer school in high school in order to graduate a year early. I took 9th grade English in the summer before my 9th grade and some silly non-academic subjects like personal finance. In one such course, the teacher was counseling another student. I don’t know that I overheard the entire conversation, but part of it was that the student did not have to love his parents. At the time, this was a radical notion to me. I am sure the teacher meant well and was counseling a student with a very difficult home life. It is advice that I still remember overhearing, even if I chose not to accept it for myself. My favorite college mathematics teacher was also a wealth of advice: Always dress up to teach and dress down to deal with the administration; You can enjoy a beer privately, but it is morally wrong to drink with students.

My college German teacher for first semester second year German chose to teach us linguistics instead. By second semester second year German, I decided to take the class pass-fail. It was a good thing I did. While knowing linguistics might be a good thing, it isn’t particularly helpful for reading Gunter Grass in German and writing a coherent essay in German about it!

My college Statistics teacher chose to teach us Stochastic Processes instead. One day, he showed off a Markov Chain simulation of Monopoly. I hated it. I thought if we were going to be playing with computers in class, I should get to play with the computer in class. Ironically, I often demonstrate software to my students, and I always ask if they want me to do it, citing this example of my hating it myself. My students always want the software demonstrations.

I had two teachers who decided that they were not going to lecture. They announced that they would come in and answer questions about the assigned reading. We never had questions, but they could not dismiss the class, so they rambled on about the material in an unorganized way for the entire class period. Of course, there is a natural thing to do instead; if there are no questions, give a quiz over the material and see how the students do. If they can do the quiz, they read and understood the material and you can safely dismiss class. If they cannot do the quiz, then they didn’t, and so there should be questions to be answered! I got my worse grade in a college mathematics class in one of these courses. It was an A- and it was the highest grade the professor gave out that term. And nearly 2 years later, the linear algebra I taught myself and my classmates helped me answer an unexpected qualifying exam question at the University of Virginia.

I can’t justify teachers who really don’t care. Mental lapses and teaching courses outside our immediate area of expertise can lead to a teacher not being able to answer a question immediately in class. Teachers are often nervous and shy people, which does not lead easily to dynamic lecturing styles. However, there is a lot to learn from other people in this world, even from bad teachers, and I am glad I had all of the teachers I had, even the bad ones.

Homeschooling: The Early Years

We have been homeschooling our older son, Dagon, off and on for the last 6 years. His brother, Ireah, is kindergarten age this year and is receiving Applied Behavior Analysis therapy from Crystal’s Behavior Solutions at home. The Housworth Homeschool is a 320+ day per year operation with a belief that doing a little nearly every day is best for both child and parent. More recently, the parents have been relying on nannies and tutors to implement the homeschooling routine. But, in the early years when I was doing more of the homeschooling myself, the only way I could work it into my day was to limit the time it took each day. In the very early years, kindergarten and first grade, the emphasis is on reading, handwriting, and mathematics. As the children enter the upper elementary ages, more subjects are added and the children are expected to take more responsibility for doing their schoolwork. Our children, like all children only perhaps a little more so, have their own unique areas of need. Dagon’s handwriting is illegible most of the time, so we have started a keyboarding course for him. Both children seem to delight in doing mathematics incorrectly for the sake of their two mathematician parents.

A page from the Kindergarten Diary I created is available here:

A month from Dagon’s Fifth Grade Planner is available here:

While it looks like Dagon can earn more than the recommended limit of 2 hours a day of electronics time, in practice, he most often spends 2 hours or less on electronics time. We keep him busy! Besides schoolwork, he has activities with local homeschooled children through the secular homeschool association, he has activities as the YMCA, and one of his nannies is going to get him to participate in making meals for homeless persons starting in January.

Both documents were created using the word processing program LaTeX. The raw code is available here:

LaTeX and the more basic TeX software are freely available powerful word processing programs:

Some variant of TeX is used by almost all mathematicians to type technical papers. It is used in many other technical fields as well. There are online tutorials describing features of TeX/LaTeX:

More Deans

Katherine Newman is the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at John Hopkins University. In a radical move, her strategic plan is to hire younger rather than older faculty and cut graduate programs by 20-25% across the board in order to raise graduate student stipends. There is a nice article about her at:

and nice articles about her strategic plan at