Photo of the day

From a Big Picture “daily life” compilation for May:

Amelia Johnson of Bremerton, plays fetch with her dog Boobah at sunset the Tracyton boat ramp in Bremerton, Wash., on May 11. (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via Associated Press)

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Private prisons and incentives

I covered prison policy in class this week, so very timely to have this NYT article on the abominable conditions in private prisons in Mississippi:

JACKSON, Miss. — Open fires sometimes burn unheeded in the solitary-confinement units of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Meridian, 90 miles east of here.

Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells.

For years, the prison, the state’s primary facility for inmates with mental illnesses, has been plagued by problems. When a previous private operator, the GEO Group, left in 2012 after complaints to the state about squalor and lack of medical treatment, hopes rose that conditions would improve. But two years later, advocates for inmates assert that little has changed under the current operator, Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based company.

Civil rights lawyers and medical and mental health experts who toured the facility recently painted a picture of an institution where violence is frequent, medical treatment substandard or absent, and corruption common among corrections officers, who receive low wages and minimal training.

This really is not all the complicated.  First, obviously, the state social/political culture of Mississippi is such that if there’s any place that is just not going to care enough about how prisoners are treated and spending the money to treat them humanely, MS would surely be near the top of the list.  Second, the point I want to make is that you are inevitably asking for situations like this with private prisons.  There are certainly some cases where it makes sense for private corporations to run/manage things for a state (concessions at parks, janitorial services, etc., come to mind), but running a prison is clearly not one of them.

A state’s primary goals in incarceration should be to protect the public and to provide a humane, well-functioning prison for the inmates and the correctional officers.  A private company’s main goal is simply going to be to maximize profit.  Whereas consumers provide a check on the behavior of many private companies, the “consumers’ of prison services (as well as their families) don’t really get a lot of say in things.  And the people of Mississippi are the ultimate consumers and should care about having inhumane prisons, but they don’t.  Therefore, the private prison company basically has every incentive to cut costs– correctional officer salary, training, safety, etc., as well as cutting costs on the prisoners– health care, the physical plant, etc.  Not exactly a recipe for a humane, well-functioning prison.  Now, clearly, this is a bad case and not all private prisons are this bad, but regardless, you are setting up a system of incentives where the less humane the conditions the more profit for the company.  There’s just no way that’s a good thing.

Laptops in the classroom

Like most professors I know, I’ve been frustrated by laptops in the classroom for quite a while.  As somebody who hates to write by hand, I appreciate the fact that many students strongly prefer to type.  But it is quite obvious that they are a huge distraction, even for good students that use them– and certainly for any student near a classmate using a laptop for FB, etc.  My current policy has been to require laptop users to sit in the first two rows.  Why?  In my experience you are much less likely to ignore me and be wrapped up in your computer screen if there is close physical proximity.  Seems to work reasonably well, from what I can tell.

That said, the latest research has me strongly considering banning them entirely.  Some pretty solid research suggests that– hate it or not– you just learn better writing by hand than typing into a computer.  Basically, you have to process the material more in your brain.  Here’s Vox:

It’s not just because internet-connected laptops are sodistracting. It’s because even if students aren’t distracted, the act of taking notes on a computer actually seems to interfere with their ability to remember information.

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the psychologists who conducted the new research, believe it’s because students on laptops usually just mindlesslytype everything a professor says. Those taking notes by hand, though, have to actively listen and decide what’s important — because they generally can’t write fast enough to get everything down — which ultimately helps them learn…

When done with pen and paper, that act involves active listening, trying to figure out what information is most important, and putting it down. When done on a laptop, it generally involves robotically taking in spoken words and converting them into typed text…

This new research suggests that even when students aren’t doing anything else, taking notes on a laptop hinders their ability to learn. This is something of a surprise.

What isn’t a surprise, though, is that real-life students that use laptops seldom focus on the lecture.

You probably know this if you’ve looked across a lecture hall recently. But in case you want confirmation from professionals, research on both undergrads andlaw students has shown that those who use laptops have something unrelated to class up on their screens around 40 percent of the time. Ultimately, theyperform more poorly in classes and rate themselves as less satisfied with their college educations.

And I also read this take from a Computer Science professor in the New Yorker:

I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school. When I created my “electronic etiquette policy” (as I call it in my syllabus), I was acting on a gut feeling based on personal experience. I’d always figured that, for the kinds of computer-science and math classes that I generally teach, which can have a significant theoretical component, any advantage that might be gained by having a machine at the ready, or available for the primary goal of taking notes, was negligible at best. We still haven’t made it easy to type notation-laden sentences, so the potential benefits were low. Meanwhile, the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

Over time, a wealth of studies on students’ use of computers in the classroom has accumulated to support this intuition.

I’m not 100% made up on this, but strongly leaning towards moving this way in the Fall.  My current summer class has only 8 students, but none of them uses a laptop, and I must say, I really like it.

Alas, on the downside, without laptops, my students’ handwriting will probably be more difficult for them than ever.

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