Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Minority Report

Last March and April, Ateneo de Davao conducted a pre-election survey in-campus and in all three districts of Davao City. Not surprisingly, Rodrigo Duterte caught the lion’s share of presumptive votes among the sample population. Some 87.5% of eligible voters said they would choose him as their president. The next largest group, at 6%, were the undecideds, leaving all the other candidates with single percentage points.

In a city where there is a clear majority of opinion, let me then be the one to put out a minority report. I will not vote for Rodrigo Duterte. I think he is a foolish and dangerous choice for president. He does not represent the best future for the country. I could be wrong in my assessment of the man, and if the survey predictions hold true and he does take the presidency, I will certainly hope that I am wrong, else it will be a long and chaotic six years ahead.

The selling point for Duterte rests on his perceived toughness, his authenticity, and his effectiveness as mayor. But you will have to counterbalance that against his statements and his behavior during this campaign period. Duterte has been long on the promises but short on the specifics. He has held the spotlight and, supported by a Greek chorus on social media, he has delivered the entertainment. But take his statements at face value and what do you get?

He will clean up the country of crime and corruption in three to six months. It will be bloody. But he also cannot promise to get rid of it entirely. If he fails to meet the deadline, he will resign as president. On the dispute with China, he will negotiate with them, and if they will not listen, he will jetski alone to the islands and there plant the Philippine flag. Americans and Australians meddling with Philippine politics? Well, let them cut diplomatic ties if they want! He will double the salaries of the army and law enforcers and they will be immune from human rights violation lawsuits.. He will sign a pardon for himself for the killings he will commit. Traffic? He will Stop It, just...Stop It.

Is this the man we should entrust the presidency to? Is this the man we want to represent us on the international stage? If we expect him to deliver something else, what? What demonstrable and practical plan can we glean from all that he has said thus far?

And yet for all these bizarre statements seemingly aimed at pleasing the masa crowd, Duterte’s strongest base of support actually comes from Class A, B, and C! Indeed, the plethora of DU30 campaign materials here in Davao City – baller bands, vanity plates, stickers, magnets, t-shirts, all professionally done, I might add – have come from the deep pockets of well-heeled supporters. Why is this?

The only explanation I can think of is that, to a large segment of the middle class, Duterte is the anti-Aquino. Impatient with the slow progress of promises delivered six years ago, frustrated by continued corruption and worsening traffic, fearful of terrorism and lawlessness, angry at the lack of president’s lack of empathy, this middle class is turning to Duterte as a repudiation of Benigno Aquino and Daang Matuwid. No other candidate goes to the opposite end of the spectrum as Duterte: not Grace Poe, not Jejomar Binay, not Miriam Defensor Santiago, and certainly not Mar Roxas.

And really, this is what this election boils down to: Rodrigo Duterte vs. Mar Roxas. Duterte knows this. Duterte may talk tough about Binay’s corruption, he may rail against Poe’s citizenship, (never against Miriam, because that would be like kicking a puppy) but the sharpest and most sustained attacks have been against Roxas. Never mind that Roxas is third or fourth in the surveys, always the barbs aimed at bringing Roxas down. Why? Because Roxas equates to Aquino.

The Aquino government has had many serious missteps, in my opinion the most serious being the Mamasapano debacle. But the danger with choosing a candidate like Duterte out of spite is that we risk reversing all the gains that the country has achieved over these six years.

Financially, the stock market index has doubled over the last six years and our credit rating has improved. We are in the midst of a construction boom. The jobs available in the country continue to grow. The ombudsman has gone after high-profile violators, including known allies of the Aquino administration. The 4Ps have kept many impoverished families afloat, improved nutrition for their children, and sent them to school. After many false starts, we will finally see implementation of K-12, politically unpopular but a necessary adjustment in our education system. We have taken a stand and are holding our own against a major superpower, engaging them through the international community rather than through military confrontation. Are we going to risk throwing all that away, just for the sake of “change”?

And there’s the BBL. Truth be told, I was never a fan of the BBL and early on I was hoping deep down that it would fail. Over this past year, my opinion of it has changed. We have seen a cessation of hostilities from the MILF and we have greater political engagement from Muslim Filipinos. While the peace we seek is still far off, we are seeing glimmers of it not just in Davao but from the rest of Mindanao.

I bring up the BBL because it was a truly bold move from the Aquino administration. After the failure of the MOA-AD, it took an act of sheer political will to push it through, despite strong opposition even from administration allies. That it went as far as it did (though not as far as originally intended) showed a lot of good will from the government.

The Aquino administration has not been perfect, but it is patently unfair to say of it, as it is often accused of, “Walang ginawa!” This is an easy and lazy charge to make it, but it is also just plain slander.

I have seen enough good in the past six years that I want to see a continuance of its programs and its policies. There is enough clarity of vision as to where we are headed, though we may fumble along the way, that I want to see where it leads. It’s fashionable and easy to carp about what government is doing wrong, but this time I won’t take that route. I won’t be the sneering cynic.

I watched the last presidential debates on April 24. I watched it in its entirety. I did not take it through the filter of newspapers, television, op-eds, or -- God forbid -- social media. I thought Mar Roxas acquitted himself well. He was well-prepared, he was specific, his proposed solutions were practical. He may not have had the folksy charm of Duterte or Binay, but he showed more empathy than Aquino. He addressed each interpellator as a person instead of launching into his plans. He was the only candidate to talk of job creation, and he was the only one to talk about keeping families together. Mar Roxas has been consistent in his message of continuing the present government’s programs and policies. I will not be embarrassed to see him represent the country in the international stage.

That’s why I’m going to vote for Mar Roxas and for his partner Leni Robredo. I hope you will, too.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Experiments in Teaching, Part 3

So far I've written about experiments in teaching creative writing classes. The other subject domains I handle are computer science and information technology classes. Call these my confessions on the bad things I did teaching there.

Last year, I finally got to teaching the freshman introductory programming class. The language was C, not my first choice, but the department chairs told me that it was already decided and there would be no more argument about it. Well, okay. The last time I taught C was twenty years ago. The thing with C, though, is that the language hasn't changed all that much so I settled right in quite quickly.

Here's the thing: throughout the entire semester, I never actuallly read nor manually graded the students' code. Shocking, isn't it?

Instead, I used an automated testing tool (Virtual Programming Laboratory -- VPL -- on Moodle, in case you're interested) to evaluate my students' work. Every week, I would post a set of programming problems. On the testing tool, I specified different inputs and the expected outputs. The students would then work against these inputs. After submitting, the tool would give them immediate feedback on whether their code was correct or not. This is the essence of test-driven development, and I was using it with first year students.

It's not strictly true that I never read students' code. I did, but on individual basis. As they were working through the problems, some of them would run into a wall. I would sit with them and give them pointers of where their code went wrong. But I only did this for those who were stuck and for those whose shoulders I was randomly peering over.

The main problem with this freewheeling approach is that it lets the students develop all sorts of bad habits. They make up their own variable names, they can write inefficient code, they don't place comments. Just like professional programmers.

The upside of this approach is that my students got to do thirty programming problems throughout the semester. That's an average of 2.5 problems per week. This is for three classes, two of which had the full complement of forty students. I had exactly one hundred students. Imagine checking 250 submissions every week. That would be just insane.

Now that they're under different teachers this second semester, my former students are telling me they miss my way of teaching. The benefit of automated testing was the immediate feedback, which allowed them to adjust and rethink their programs. For their present teachers, it could take as much as a month before they got their results.

Another thing they miss: all my programming exercises, quizzes, and exams are open notes. Really, what's the point of putting away all the notes and references? In real world programming, we're always looking up examples and documentation anyway. It would be hypocritical to ask students to do otherwise.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Experiments in Teaching, Part 2

The workshop is a staple of writers growing into the literary craft. Writers submit complete works for scrutiny and dissection by their peers and mentors. It's a time-consuming process, though, because the discussions for some pieces can be quite involved. So how do you fit all of that into a single classroom hour?

It's not so much a problem if you have less than ten students, but if you have twenty-five? (Luckily I didn't have to handle the usual full complement of forty-five.) Very difficult to do. For one thing, it's hard to keep all twenty-five engaged, and even if they were, the comments would pretty much devolve to more of the same. Again, this falls back to the problem of the one-hour class session, to the stricture it imposes.

I got around this problem by dividing the class into two. For one week, I would meet with only group. The other group I told not to show up. Then the following week, swap places. Not exactly a kosher solution because it violates the holy rule of the almighty contact hour, but I wasn't planning on telling (then) and neither were the students. The checker usually just checks if the instructor is present, not how many students are in the classroom.

I like to think the experiment worked well. With the smaller groups, the students were more engaged and more open with their comments. Everyone got a chance to participate because in a small group it's harder to hide in the anonymity of the crowd.

Other experiments in creative writing class: parlor games, those oriented towards wordplay and role-playing. In Balderdash, also known as The Dicitionary Game, the game master picks out an uncommon word and the players attempt to write the most convincing definition. In Werewolf, the players assume the roles of townsfolk besieged by werewolves among their neighbors. Paranoia and fast talk ensue as the townsfolk try to identify the werewolves and talk their way out of the lynch mob. Talecraft, a storytelling card game, is great for eliciting stories.

I gauge the success of these techniques by how my own students adopt them in the classes they teach. For at least one former student, Talecraft is a staple of his writing classes. I have also heard of regular Werewolf gaming sessions, complete with variations.

Are these related to the lessons at hand? Tangentially, but one can make a convincing case for including them. After all, role-play and make-believe are important in writing. But really, the main reason I put them in was because they were fun.

Speaking of fun: instead of meeting for two weeks, I asked our department chair if the class could meet for one entire Saturday. We would start at 9AM and end at 5PM. The activity: movie and TV series marathons (and to stay relevant with the lesson plan, some discussion about the merits of each episode.) That is how there are more Doctor Who fans in Ateneo now.