Winners Never Cheat (And Cheaters Should Never Win)

About 8 years ago, I was in a conference session discussing academic honesty. The general consensus, as the session began, was that our student’s willingness to cheat was largely our fault as professors and a sign of the general disintegration of America. (That and since it was an educational conference, I’m pretty sure someone blamed George Bush and wikipedia.) ((That was a joke by the way. No one blamed wikipedia.)) (((That was another joke. Everyone blamed wikipedia.))) ((((A few people still blamed George Bush.))))

The guy in the back, you know the one because he’s always in the back and always the expert, made it clear that if we created better assessments and inspired our students they wouldn’t cheat.

“People who assign multiple choice tests or ask students to write an essay on Humor in Huck Finn,” he proclaimed in that condescendingly superior tone, “are just encouraging cheating. If the student can find the answers online, we aren’t asking the write questions. Our job,” he paused for dramatic educational impact, “is to inspire students to value the information so much they don’t want to cheat.” Blah, blah, blah.

Some days I know why higher ed gets criticized so much.

Never one to sit quietly on the sidelines, I pointed out that the assessment shouldn’t matter. There is no reason, I argued, that I can’t expect or even demand that my students behave with integrity and honesty regardless of the assessment technique. “I mean, no offense,” (because that’s what you say when you don’t want to say anything ugly), “but perhaps, we should blame the students for cheating not the person asking the question. After all, we don’t excuse people from speeding just because the car can go 120. Plus, If we stop asking questions found on the internet, we might as well stop asking questions.”

Unfortunately, this conference session and cheating is much on my mind today since one of my students plagiarized his major, out of class essay. In the 15 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only had two semesters without a plagiarist.

Admittedly, I have some sympathy for my students. On the one hand, they could have had the goofball at that conference for a teacher. On the other hand, as public education increasingly emphasizes collaboration and group work, the line between cheating and working together gets increasingly blurry for our students. Additionally, far too few public schools punish students for infractions and when they do, far too many parents race to rescue little Suzy from punishment.

In essence, many students come to college without a clear sense of what academic integrity actually means.

Unlike my colleague, bless his innocent and misguided heart, I find myself teaching in the real world. I’ll give him some credit: in an ideal world all our students would be so inspired by every subject and they would all recognize the inherent value of reading, writing, science, and math to their future brilliant selves they would never consider cheating.

And in that dream world, my teaching would be the light that brightens the dark rooms of their mind. (I would also make a lot of money and be really good looking in that world. I mean, if it’s a dream world . . .)

Meanwhile, on planet earth where I have 45 animal science students, football players, physics majors, and various other students who haven’t quite managed to recognize why knowing Huck Finn is important to their future careers, perhaps we can take an approach that demands integrity and honesty from our students and holds everyone accountable for such things.

That includes faculty. Last year, I had a faculty member call me to ask what he should do after he caught a group of students cheating on a quiz.

“Give them zeros this time. Fail them next time,” I said with a kind of incredulous lilt to my voice.

“That seems harsh. I mean, no one else in my department fails students who cheat so I’m not sure they knew it was wrong to share answers.”

Sigh.

But I don’t want to bash on teachers or professors. My colleagues are working with students confused about issues of integrity and they, including the professor from the conference, are genuinely concerned about student learning. They recognize that zero tolerance policies are often unfair if they punish ignorance as harshly as iniquity. We are often trying to balance our expectations with our student’s abilities and understanding.

I just think sometimes we can over complicate things.

My student failed the course today because he cheated and because I spent valuable class time discussing academic integrity and defining plagiarism. The consequences are clearly outlined on the syllabus, on the essay assignment, and in every discussion of the essay assignment. I warn them that some faculty members won’t hold them accountable for unethical behavior. I’m not that faculty member.

And he still cheated. And, like most of my colleagues, it saddens me.

I’m not upset because he doesn’t find sophomore American literature valuable to his future as an engineer in the oil field. I tell my students that knowing literature and literary terms isn’t a sign that they will be poor surgeons or build bad bridges. I know plenty of people who don’t know an allegory from a parable or a metaphor from a simile. They are still my friends and many of them are pretty successful people.

I know people who have never, gasp, read a novel in their lives. And they are my friends and great workers. I even trust some of them with my children.

Reading literature or writing a paper (or taking the test) isn’t the issue.

The issue is, and here I do pause in my class, what kind of person will you be when you grow up? If you are willing, I tell my students, to cut corners in a class that doesn’t seem to matter, if you are willing to take credit for things you didn’t do, if you are willing to steal other people’s ideas, I pity your co-workers.

I fear for the patients who don’t inspire you.

I worry about the building design you don’t care that much about.

I’m concerned about  the report you will write on days when you are tired.

In simple terms: if you are willing to cut corners now, you will be willing to cut corners later.

And that is dangerous. To me. To others. And to you.

It’s certainly not true that cheaters never win. But, I tell my students, they shouldn’t. And neither should you.

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Free Application: All It Costs You Is Your Sanity Plus Interest

Like any good parents of a college bound child, we completed our FAFSA so our son would be eligible, in theory, for financial aid. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, ironically named since our tax dollars paid both to create the form and for the agency that collects the forms but I guess “free” is a relative term to the government. There’s is a world, remember, where the Internal Revenue Service exists only because of all the External Revenue it collects.

I’ll willingly admit that I’m no genius and my greatest math triumphs where in 8th grade UIL competitions. I’m happy these days to let my wife do the economic gymnastics of robbing Peter to pay Paul with our family finances. But, I do complete our 1040 tax form myself, I can balance a checkbook if a gun is at my head, and I average my students’ grades every semester without much difficulty.

For the most part, I am capable of following directions and completing forms.

So, when I saw all those flyers and emails from my son’s school offering “Help With the FAFSA”, I pretty much ignored them. How complicated can it be?

Yeah.

I forgot it was a government form.

If President Obama is reading this blog (and if you are you should probably be focused on Syria or North Korea right now), perhaps the signature domestic goal of your second term could be revising the FAFSA and the process of federal financial aid. Want to stop terrorism: tell them we’ll leave the middle East if they successfully complete the FAFSA without any mistakes.

When I was a kid, we lived in town where the streets radiating from downtown ended in the word Way: This Way, That Way, Winding Way, Circle Way–you get the idea. You could meet your friends at the intersection of This Way and That Way.

Clearly, the architects of the streets were also hired to help write government forms.

When my son finally decided to attend the state university of his choice, we were immediately told to complete the FAFSA  by the end of January. Except the FAFSA wants us to enter our tax information, tax information we don’t have yet. That’s okay, though, we can fill it out for real later! This information debt, by the way, is a running theme throughout the whole financial aid process.

In the meantime, the government, based on incomplete information about our income and tax estimates and based on the tuition costs of the school he plans to attend (tuition that could increase after the legislative session) generate what they call an estimated family contribution. The EFC is a percentage of the tuition we can pay. The government, then, authorizes aid to make up the rest. For now. Because remember that all the numbers could change in April or May.

Think about that for a minute. The amount of money my son might get from the government is directly related to the potential cost of the university he will attend. Does it take a rocket scientist to see where this is headed? If you are a university and you want to maximize the federal dollars you can get . . .

At least I think that’s how it works. I know I went this way and then that way, but I’m fairly certain I simply circled the entire way. I think I ended up at the intersection of Which Way and What the Heck Did I just Sign Way.

Fortunately, the government isn’t just handing out dollar bills willy-nilly: They have a formula! Unfortunately, the formula was developed by three guys who regularly attend the 4/20 celebration in Colorado. (If you don’t get the reference, click the link and let wikipedia explain.)

Either way, according to our federal financial aid brain trust our estimated family contribution is $15,000.

If I had $15,000 sitting around the house I wouldn’t need any damn financial aid.

Somehow, the government imagines that I have $1250 per month extra. That’s almost twice my house payment.

The good news, of course, is that the government is more than happy to subsidize a loan to cover the remaining college costs (minus the $15000 I will contribute). The bad news is that rising tuition, confusing formulas, and unclear costs create a vicious cycle that hides and obscures the actual costs of a university education.

The school my son will attend costs about $19000 a year for tuition (15 hours), room, and board. Just by applying to school and getting accepted, they gave him $10,000 in merit based aide. In order to give him a discount, someone else has to pay more.  In the long run, though, I will end up paying more because to generate the funding to give my son the discount tuition has to keep rising (remember they set aside 10% each time for scholarships) but my family contribution will remain absurdly high.

In other words, the funding makes absolutely no sense. It’s a shell game that rivals a trip to the hospital in its complexity and duplicity.

Only in America is the government’s basic plan for higher education dependent on burying students and families in debt.

Like health care and taxes, we have created an unnecessarily complex system of financial aid and higher ed costs that are linked in a way that increases costs and decreases aid.

As a population, we have a vested interest in helping people go to college and in creating an accessible system of higher education. I accept that ours is a system that reflects our American values. We expect participants will invest and pay, believing doing so adds value and desire. But we have moved beyond asking people to pay their fair share and have created a system where each person pays a different share.

If we aren’t careful we will have a system where potential college students meet at the intersection of “That Way” and “No Way,” leaving them few options regarding the right way.

Save Some Money but Lose Some Learning: The Dilemma of the E-Text

Nothing brings home the cost of higher education more than having a child prepare for college. Various studies show the rising costs of tuition and various other studies offer a variety of explanations. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s also the cause of confusion and consternation.

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious as we look at tuition and housing bills is that, as a college professor, I’m clearly not getting my cut. Somehow, I’m missing out on this supposed gravy train.

I have a great deal of sympathy for universities. Like everyone else, the basic cost of doing business has increased. Faculty are more expensive, not because our salaries are going up and we are lazy, good for nothing bums, but because the university’s share of our medical costs are increasing and we do, I know it’s a crazy idea, expect a salary appropriate to our educational attainment. Last time I checked, the cost of everyone’s employees is going up. (If you think we are getting rich, the average salary is about $81,000. That’s not chump change and we have a great job, but we aren’t exactly hanging out with Mitt Romney.)

Tuition also rises when light bills increase, insurance goes up, and infrastructure has to be repaired. Enrollment is up and more and more academically challenged students are sitting in our classes. We don’t offer student services because we were lacking things to do around campus. If you want us to educate kids who can barely read, don’t know how to study, have never lived outside mom’s shadow, expect a ribbon just for showing up, and are popping six adderrall a day, we might need some non-faculty support.

It’s also not cheap to provide first class technology across campus, and, contrary to popular belief, online and distance education classes are difficult to deliver and expensive to do really well. Sure, you can scale a lecture out to 25,000 people but who is going to grade the essays or visit with the students? Faculty and students still need the tools to take and deliver the class.

Oh, and by the way, most of those large scale online programs are being funded with either start-up funds (that’s business speak for investment dollars) or public funds from universities ($50 million from U Texas). If online education was so cheap, why is the University of Phoenix tuition has high as Harvard’s? Western Governor’s tuition is the same as my university’s tuition. Online education, warts and all, can be (as Allison Morris argues, an effective way to teach and learn, but for the most part, we only cost more only if a student lives on campus.

I’ll willing admit I have no solution to reeling in high ed costs.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t create some savings for students. Most universities estimate textbook costs at around $600-$800 per semester. Considering that most of our students don’t read very many books (if any) prior to showing up, books costs are a pretty big shock.

We do, though, have the power to reduce the cost of books and, correspondingly, provide some measure of relief for our students. I stopped requiring textbooks in my freshman composition classes 5 years ago. Everything you ever needed to know about grammar is available online and, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, so are most of the greatest essays ever written. Even better–there are good examples of top notch writing and thinking available free every day on that world wide web thingy.

Even better, there are now a variety of open educational resources that exist. Notably, OpenStax, Connexions, and Lumen Learning all have systems in place that can reduce or eliminate textbook costs for students in their first two years of college. I realize that $600 a semester might not be important to everyone, but in my world that’s a nice chunk of savings.

Savings here we come!

Maybe.

The problem, Ferris Jabr argues in “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” is that “screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.” In essence, there is a growing body of data that e-readers create reading experiences that are less complete and actually might “inhibit reading comprehension. . . . people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens.”

Now, this isn’t really an issue if you are reading Michael Connelly (no offense to Connelly or his readers. I love his novels), but if you are reading your Physics textbook, Shakespeare, or all about chemical compounds online, we might have some issues.

Fortunately, according to many higher ed critics students aren’t learning anything anyway (see Academically Adrift) so maybe we should just save the money regardless.

Contrary to what some of our critics think, though, most of my colleagues care whether the students learn. We want them to retain the information and apply their knowledge both on our tests and in their future, tax paying (remember I work at a publicly funded university supported by taxpayers), careers.

Such studies regarding comprehension of e-texts might have implications for any kind of screen reading associated with education. Perhaps, we need to begin paying more attention to comprehension in online classes and carefully crafting classes that don’t simply rely on reading text on the screen. We already know that the best online classes involve far more than passively digesting information (another reason good distance ed classes take time to build). We also know that hybrid courses, those that blend online and face to face are highly effective, blending the the virtual and the real, tactile experience of the classroom.

In the meantime, I guess I need to keep digging in the couch cushions for textbook money and hold off on buying that kindle for my son.

Kids Do Weird Shit: One More Reason Parenting is So Hard

About 8 or 9 years ago, the writer Reginald McKnight was on our campus doing a reading and a Q&A session for our students. McKnight’s collection The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas is a really nice collection of stories exploring the emerging post-civil rights community. His minority characters exist in a world where they are “representatives” of their race, whether they know it or not. Such is the plight of any minority in recently desegregated classrooms or office buildings. Or, perhaps, the plight of any minority even in our post-racial, post-discriminatory America. McKnight’s collection draws a bead on how we so easily reduce the one black person (or gay friend, or hispanic friend, or [insert minority here]) we know into the whole. (Creating, of course, the irony that we are not really “post” anything.)

In the title story of the collection, one of the kids walks into class every day, spits in the crease of his elbow, rubs the saliva around, and then lays his head on the desk. It smells like mayonnaise, the narrator tells us. If I had the collection with me, I would let McKnight’s much better language build the scene, but, suffice it to say, it’s odd. During the Q&A session after his reading, one of our students asked McKnight what the significance was of that scene. Clearly, the student saw the moment as allegorical or metaphorical, perhaps a commentary on the irrelevance of the public school system on integration or an attempt to rub the “blackness” off.

McKnight looked at the student. “I don’t know. ” He paused, looked at the table and then back up. “Kids do weird shit.”

He wasn’t being flippant. He added, after the laughter in the room died down, that it wasn’t the job of the writer to deliver meaning, but the role of the critic and reader to infer, develop, and think critically about the language and the story. Literature, McKnight added, is a puzzle where meaning emerges as we encounter the text.

As a professor, I loved McKnight’s answer. I’m no fan of biographical criticism and, I tell my students, we must move beyond assuming the author is master of her own work. The narrator and the author are two very different people. As D.H. Lawrence told us oh so many years ago, we must trust the tale not the teller. Authors are liars by trade. Like teenagers trying to craft an excuse after coming in past curfew, what authors write and what they say they meant are often two very different things.

I’ve thought of McKnight as good bit as a parent over the years also. Like all kids, my boys are prone to doing things that make absolutely no sense. One of my sons didn’t start talking (or walking for that matter) until it was absolutely necessary. The other came sprinting out of the womb letting us know what he wanted and when. We wondered if they both had an attention deficit disorder because one never seemed to pay attention and the other might get so focused on one thing the world could end and he wouldn’t notice.

Like most parents, we’ve watched our kids be lazy, hate school, throw fits, struggle with ethics, act half-crazy, be sweet, rude, stupid, dangerous, and everything else in between.

Fortunately, we had great friends around us whose kids did the same things and we could look back at our own childhoods for reference. When I came home one day to watch my sons jumping off the roof onto the trampoline, my wife reminded me that she and her sister used to ride a rope swing, together, off the barn roof. When my older son forgot to get rid of the red solo cup package and throw the beer cans into the neighbor’s trash instead of ours, I was reminded that I once put the whiskey bottle under the house in clear view from the back yard.

If you are a parent, pause for a moment and count the number of times you said “What were you thinking!?”

When my wife and I wondered about the intellectual ability of our kids, usually late at night after watching various particularly inane displays of what will eventually become great stories we tell our grand kids, the answer seems obvious:

Kids do weird shit.

I can’t help but think we need this reminder more often as we discuss children and teens.

There is no doubt that parenting is hard work. We have to sacrifice our own self-interests as we help our kids learn to make good choices. We also want what is best for our kids and we want them to have good, clean, pain free lives. We brought them into this world and we sure as heck don’t want to watch them suffer while they are in it.

But just because your son can’t speak complete sentences at 20 months doesn’t mean he needs a speech therapist. When little Johnny throws a fit and refuses to pick up his clothes, he’s not being a hooligan. If Suzy isn’t  reading before kindergarten, she still has a shot at going to college. If your 2 year old bites his brother (or his friends), it doesn’t mean he has the taste for human flesh. (If he lights the family pet on fire and starts running with scissors, disregard anything I’ve said.)

Certainly, I’m not advocating that we stop concerning ourselves with the idiocy that is our children, but we also need to remember that life is a marathon not a sprint. Over the course of 18 years, our kids will do weird shit but not everything they do is worthy of our obsession or our therapist. Good parents disappoint their children. Good children, at some point, disappoint their parents.

In the meantime, let’s let them be kids and, most importantly, let’s let them be weird.

 

Building Memories to Dull Today’s Pain

John Banville, in his novel Ancient Light, writes that “Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.” His character continues, noting that the “reticence, the tactfulness, that mutual grieving” is caused by the “dread of stirring up and provoking to even more inventive exercises those demonic torturers whose special task it was, is, to torment us.”

Banville, if you haven’t read him, is a craftsman, using language much like a great cook uses spices and ingredients. We taste the ideas as Banville stirs words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. He articulates emotions we normally only feel in our hearts, and his characters’ pain and joy hangs in the air around us in the same way smells envelop us when we walk into an active kitchen.

Reading Banville, we start slowly, taking sips of wine between bites, holding the fork lightly, moving just quickly enough to keep the food warm, but never in a hurry to see an empty plate. We are often surprised when the food is gone and we linger at the table much longer than required, savoring a meal that leaves us satisfied and pleasantly drowsy. Our memories begin reliving the moment, seeing nuances we missed during the reality of the meal.

I’m only a few pages into Banville’s newest novel, but as often happens with great writers, I’m struck by the timely passages we can pull from their works. Banville’s characters (including in his Benjamin Black novels) are prone to reflection and they struggle with the inevitable conflict between memory and fact. Like Faulkner in  Light in August, Banville seems to argue that “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even remembers.”

The strength of our memory often puts us at odds with our past and can just as easily dominate our present. In Banville’s newest novel, Alexander Cleave is discussing his wife’s reaction to their daughter’s death. She was an only child and her death has created an aura of grief that surrounds the couple. She dies unexpectedly off the coast of Italy, pregnant, her body battered by the rocks of the coastline. The don’t know the father or why she died.

We can become slaves, Banville (and Faulkner) seem to argue, when our memories become locked in particular moments or times, regardless of their veracity or our understanding. Our grieving bonds us in that “curious constraint” of fear, pain, and loss. Speaking not only threatens to awaken those “demonic torturers” but we also risk seeing the inevitable disconnect between our memory and the knowing of the people around us. Our pain and their pain are built, often, on differing visions of the past.

As I read Banville this week, my thoughts are with families in Boston, West (Texas), and, as always seems to be the case when memory reminds us what we sometimes forget, survivors of any and all awful, tragic, and senseless events.

One of the iconic images from Boston will be the Boston PD standing over the fallen runner, guns drawn, rushing to protect and serve. In West, we can envision the first responders rushing to the fire, realizing only too late that they wouldn’t be going home.

And we surely must think of the families of the runners, the parents of Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy killed, and the spouses and children of the volunteer fire-fighters in West. They are in the midst of the immediate pain but the grief will set in and they, too, will struggle with memory and knowing. Literature come to life.

Faulkner argued in his 1952 Nobel Prize speech that the greatness of mankind was not in our ability to overcome but in our strength to endure. That endurance was built on our ability to work through the conflicts of memory and knowing, and our willingness to confront what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself.

As always, I’m struck by the ability of literature to recognize and articulate the large, complex, human emotions. We can only hope, with whatever small consolation it offers, that time helps these families build the memories that dull today’s pain to help them endure and move forward.

Give the Employers What The Want: Liberal Arts Majors

tuitionincreaseatlanticgraph

Truly Devastating Graph from the Atlantic Monthly–click to see the article

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Drop in state funding for higher ed from Atlantic Monthly. Click to view.

It’s no secret that higher education has been under attack in recent years. Costs have skyrocketed (see the graph to the left) while state support has dropped dramatically (see the graph to the right). As the cost of higher ed increases (with the corresponding debt students incur), more and more critics are encouraging students to seek skills-based degrees. The thinking, as you might imagine, is that after 4 years (or 5 or 6) and $20,000 (or $40,000 +) a college graduate should be job-ready.

There is no evidence that the leading proponents of skills-based, employment ready education are parents who recovered nicely from the empty nest syndrome and spent 4 years practicing their interior design skills on the extra room. Notice they didn’t leave a bed in there? Some politicians and business leaders also care.

Higher education, experts tell us repeatedly, is hip deep in a national crisis. It is, they proclaim in shrill voices, an edupocalypse!

More importantly for the parents of a son about to head off to college, forecasts for costs, tuition, and student debt are pretty darn depressing. Like many people, I worked my way through college at a time when such things where possible. The state paid around 75%-80% of my education and I ponied up the money for the rest. I lived in various houses and trailer parks (at least one with flying cock roaches), drove beat up and broke down cars, and lived pretty low on the hog. Such things where doable because we had a national, collective desire to support and fund higher education. At the end of my Ph.D. I had a relatively small, yet manageable debt.

Doing this today is increasingly difficult. As tuition soars and students arrive hoping to maintain a middle class life on a college student’s salary, we push more students and families into debt.

As times change, higher education faces some tough choices. Students also face tough decisions as they consider how much bang for their buck they can get from a college degree. Or if a college degree is even worth the cost.

But let’s not hold business leaders harmless from this conversation about difficult choices.

The simple reality is that if business stopped requiring college degrees for entry level jobs that didn’t require a college education, and they willingly promoted workers based on the quality of their work not their educational pedigree, all high school students wouldn’t feel compelled to go to college just for the sake of going to college.

The latest survey of employers (read it here) tells us that job creators say they aren’t really all that concerned about the choice of major. Instead “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” They aren’t as concerned with specific majors, partly, because they will train new employees. (Obviously, there are specialized fields that require some training prior to employment.)

As a college professor, let me say I agree whole-heartedly with employers. These are exactly the traits I want to instill in my students. And, please note the restrained sarcasm in my voice, these are the tenets of a liberal arts education and we would be happy to provide such workers to you. We are not your version of the minor-leagues where kids can spend four years with us and then step in to your most advanced jobs. No matter what we do, you will train your new employees. The best thing I can do is make sure the graduates can think, learn, and solve problems.

But we can’t help students achieve these skills on the cheap and we can’t teach communication skills and critical thinking in massive, scale-able, competency-based, “efficient” online classes. And we sure as heck can’t do it if you don’t actually start hiring college graduates whose primary fields value those skills. As importantly, we can’t win an argument that these degrees are valuable when Florida governor Rick Scott claims “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job” while business leaders stand behind him (both literally and figuratively with a checkbook) nodding in agreement.

These anthropologists, sociologists, history majors spend 4 years reading, evaluating, communicating, analyzing, and learning about diverse cultures. Sure, it might take our job creators a little time to train them in their particular business, but these are students trained to learn. They are the jacks of all trades of the educational world.

Oh, and by the way, they learn how to write and communicate throughout their degree.

They learn such things by working closely with the professors and classmates in the slow, laborious educational world where competence isn’t the equivalent of critical thinking.

And if the business world says they value those things, then they need to start acting like it.

 

 

You Want a Treadmill with Those Fries?

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Click to view table. Four different menu labels used in the study.

You wouldn’t think an article titled “Potential effect of physical activity based menu labels on the calorie content of selected fast food meals” would be all that exciting. (In fact, my students might point out, who expects any journal article to be all that sexy?) However, the authors of this piece in Appetite offer what seems to be a pretty revolutionary idea to help us battle obesity, clogged arteries, and our general penchant toward gluttony in the American population (and perhaps everywhere else in the world).

Essentially, the authors argue, it is far more effective to provide both a calorie count and the equivalent exercise required to burn that food off our hips if we want eaters to consider what they eat. For most eaters, calories are pretty meaningless numbers but when we visually remind them what calories add to the bottom line (or just the bottom), they tend to make different choices the authors claim. Other research has found similar results when we provide the work required to burn off that soda you drink every day.

On the surface, this idea seems brilliant. Like the anti-smoking signs in my doctor’s office showing nasty yellow teeth and black lungs, one can only imagine the impact of finding out that Big Mac you had for lunch equals 78 minutes of walking. (Is it indelicate to argue the person exercising on the poster should look like someone who eats hamburgers all the time? Super sizing could take on a whole new meaning.)

Imagine if we took this idea to it’s logical next step? Happy meals would come with pedometers. Your optional side with the Hunger Buster Meal Deal would be a pair of tennis shoes and a map of local walking trails. If we really want to go crazy, let’s invent straws that only work while you are walking. No sedentary sipping allowed.

Color me skeptical, though, of the long term benefits of this approach. Don’t get me wrong. I think a label with photos is far more effective than one with just a bunch of numbers. Heck, based on our most recent debt crisis, most American’s can’t balance their checkbooks. What makes anyone think we can count calories properly?

The problem with the interactive menu is our overall ignorance about eating or burning calories. I consider myself a half-way intelligent person who eats (mostly) well. I get my 5 fruits and veggies, avoid over eating, rarely eat fast food, only drink cola if there’s rum in it, and I limit my dessert consumption (most of the time). I walk almost every day for 30-45 minutes. We’ve raised our boys to understand eating well and being active matters and we try to model that advice.

But I have absolutely no earthly idea how many calories I consume in any given day or how many calories I need to consume so that I don’t pass out or start losing weight. I can tell I’m gaining weight because my pants get tighter.

I’ll also admit the obvious: when I go to McDonalds, I already know the food isn’t all that good for me. While I will admit my faith in human intelligence wains some days, I highly doubt anyone walking into Burger King thinks he’s waltzing into a health food store. A sign telling me I need to exercise after scarfing down 12 nuggets is about as useful as a sign showing me what happens after the 6th beer. (Or is it two signs?)

Menu-based labels drawings might, in the beginning, cause me to go with the medium fries, but I think attacking my choice of fast food meal size misses the point. We are seeing a relatively consistent increase in obesity across all income levels. Certainly, there are some complexities regarding race and gender, but for the most part fat cells don’t care about our bank accounts.

In other words, walk into an KFC in America and you will find a good economic cross section of America.

They are there because the food is inexpensive and convenient, but mostly we are there because it’s fast. Perhaps, instead of worrying about my choice of fast food, we might start asking why so many people need fast and inexpensive food.

The drive-thru window lets me leverage my time for other pursuits. Like working longer hours to pay for my health insurance. Or working two jobs to pay the mortgage on my little piece of the American dream. Or making the note on a second car so my partner can go to work (so we can pay for the  . . . ). Or letting my children play sports after school. Or . . ., well, you get the idea.

The issue, then, isn’t calories and exercise. Hell, if I had 78 minutes of free time to walk every day I wouldn’t be going through the drive-thru with 2 hungry kids.

While I applaud the authors of the study (and I don’t want to sound like I dismiss their data), I also think they are studying the symptom not the cure. Fast food used to be a treat or something we picked up on the road so we could keep on trucking down the line.

Over the years, the food hasn’t changed. It’s still fast, greasy, fattening, and mostly bad for you. What’s changed is our need and desire for speed. What we need is a menu-based choice that shows us how to slow down our lives so we can eat less often on the run and more food in our homes.

And they need to hurry up. I’ve got to stop by KFC on the way home tonight.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)