Higher Ed Worries and “The Norm Chronicles”

What do you worry about?

April 23, 2015
The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter
Published in June of 2014.
I’m a worrier. Mostly, I worry about higher education. 
Will we figure out a way to improve quality and expand access while reducing costs? Will we be able to retain our most cherished higher ed values and practices, while also evolving and improving? Will we find a way to improve postsecondary productivity without sacrificing our most cherished values? Will we be wise enough to use technology appropriately and modestly? Will we understand that real value of education is in the relationship between the educator and the learner, and that relationship can never be scaled?
So I worry.  
This is why The Norm Chronicles is my sort of book. It is not the case that the books authors address the various existential risks associated with working in higher education. Rather, if you are prone to see the world through the lens of risk, then The Norm Chronicles might also be the book for you.  
The goal of The Norm Chronicles is to help us think about risk. Our brains are poorly designed to evaluate probability. We worry about our airplane rides, where we should really be concerned about our daily automobile commutes. We think nonstop about the threats of terrorism, where the dangers of accidents should be what really concerns us. We assume that other people will get cancer or heart disease. And our sense of security is driven by what we see on the news rather than the true risks that face us on a daily basis.  
In order to help us understand risks, Blastland and Spiegelhalter utilize two clever narrative devices. First, they devise a new statistical measure - the MicroMort. A MicroMort is a equal to a one-in-a-million chance of dying. An example is the skydiving. Your chance of dying in a skyjump is 9 MicroMorts per jump, or 9 in 1 million jumps. Compare that to base-jumping, where your risk goes up to 430 MicroMorts per jump. The MicroMort, and the corresponding MicroLife also developed (which is one-millionth of a typical life span - equalling about 30 minutes of life), helps us to both understand the magnitude of various risks and to compare risks across categories.
The second narrative device that the authors employ is to give the book 3 protagonists: Prudence, Norm, and Kelvin. Prudence is like me when it comes to higher education - she worries about everything. Norm is a character who embodies the exact statistical average of every category. He makes the average income, he is the average height and weight, he marries at the average time, and lives in an average size house. Kelvin is Prudence’s opposite, a man who never met a fate that he did not tempt. Through the various decisions and actions of Prudence, Norm, and Kelvin we learn what behaviors are really more dangerous than others, and what risks are in and out of our control.
The Norm Chronicles would be the perfect book to assign to an Intro to Probability class. I could also see The Norm Chronicles serving as your next campus bookclub selection, as the book would get everyone talking about what they are worried about the most.   
What do you worry about?
What do you worry about when it comes to higher education?
What are you reading?


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