Saturday, September 20, 2014

When It's One of Those Days...

Sometimes we teachers just need to put things in perspective and smile. To that purpose: snippets from a new academic satire (Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, Doubleday, 2014) that is presented as a series of letters of recommendations written by a beleaguered English professor. (If you have favorite academic novels to recommend, please share the titles.)

From a letter to his department chair:
By the by:  I noticed in your departmental plan...that you intend to schedule two faculty meetings this year for the purpose of revising the department constitution. …Fair warning:  As a body we tried, in a plenary/horror session when Sarah Lempert was chair, to revise the momentous founding document on which our department depends. We argued for weeks about the existence and then the location of a particular semicolon, two senior members of the faculty--true, one of them retired and left for rehab that same semester--abandoning the penultimate meeting in tears. (If you'd like to see it, I've been keeping a log of department meetings ranked according to level of trauma, with a 1 indicating mild contentiousness, a 3 indicating uncontrolled shouting, and a 5 leading to at least one nervous breakdown and/or immediate referral to the crisis center run by the Office of Mental Health.) (p. 35-36)
From a letter to the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs:
... Finally, as for your recent memo on financial prudence:  Good lord, man. We know about the funding crunch, we aren't idiots; but we also know that your fiscal fix is being applied selectively.  For those in the sciences and social sciences, sacrifice will come in the form of fewer varieties of pâté on their lunch trays. For English: seven defections/retirements in three years and not one replaced; two graduate programs no longer permitted to accept new students; and a Captain Queeg-like sociologist at the helm. The junior faculty in our department will surely abandon their posts at the first opportunity, while the elder statesmen--I speak here for myself--may exact a more punishing revenge by refusing to retire. (p. 43)
From a letter to the HR director of an IT company to which one of the computer techs at the university has applied:
I am a professor in an English department whose members consult Tech Help…only in moments of desperation. For example, let us imagine that a computer screen, on the penultimate page of a lengthy document, winks coyly, twice, and before the "save" button can be deployed adopts a Stygian facade.  In such a circumstance one's only recourse--unpalatable though it may be--is to plead for assistance from a yawning adolescent who will roll his eyes at the prospect of one's limited capabilities and helpless despair. I often imagine that in olden days people like myself would crawl to the doorway of Tech Help on our knees, bearing baskets of food, offerings of the harvest, the inner organs of neighbors and friends--all in exchange for a tenuous promises from these careless and inattentive gods that the thoughts we entrusted to our computers will be restored unharmed. (p. 109-10)
From a letter to his dean:
I have been tapped, once again and for reasons that defy human understanding, to write a letter--during the final crisis-ridden week of the semester--on behalf of my colleague Franklin Kentrell, who has nominated himself for chair of the university curriculum committee.  Given your own recent, crucial work on the selection of dirges for the all-campus picnic, you may not have had time to grasp or appreciate the nature of Kentrell's contributions.  He is, to put it mildly, insane.  If you must allow him to self-nominate his way into a position of authority, please god let it be the faculty senate.  There, his eccentricities, though they may thrive and increase, will at least be harmless. The faculty senate, our own Tower of Babel, has not reached a decision of any import for a dozen years. (p. 164)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Failing is Good. Really.

Have you read “Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing” from last Sunday's NY Times magazine section?  If so, I would be interested in knowing what you thought of it. If not, it’s definitely worth a look.  According to author Benedict Carey,  
Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.
That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.
The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar. … A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.
The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It’s a way of enriching and altering memory.
The theory emerging suggests that pretesting, at least when followed by prompt feedback on the issues covered, “primes the brain,” making it more apt to absorb new information, and the test “becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.”
What is your philosophy on testing?  Do you use pre-testing at all? Why, how, why  not? 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Questions of Identity

Listening to an interesting TED talk recently --“Bring on the Learning Revolution” by Sir Ken Robinson ( I found myself thinking a lot about one of his statements.   

He said that we have to move education from an industrial model (= linearity, conformity, batching people) to an agricultural model (= adapting methods to the local environment and goals).   
Robinson argues that human flourishing is an organic, not a mechanical, process.  We can’t predict outcomes, just create conditions under which people will begin to flourish. Robinson's claim is that good teaching involves customizing information to our own circumstances, personalizing education to the people we’re actually teaching, and helping them develop their own solutions to problems with external support based on a personalized curriculum.

Assuming that is so, what does that mean for us here at Lincoln?   
What are our “local circumstances”? What are the outcomes under which Lincoln students will flourish? How do our teaching methods and our teaching content differ from those of West Chester down the street, or Drexel farther down the street, or even Cheyney, right around the corner?  Should they differ?   

What is our uniqueness here at Lincoln and how does it/should it carry over into our classes?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Classroom

 I can never resist articles that promise a finite number of answers: the three most important qualities of a good teacher, the five new technology tools everyone needs to know, the seven characteristics of a good manager, that sort of thing.  So when I saw Dr. Paula Cohen’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the 10 lessons she’s learned from her teaching career, I had to check it out. 

Cohen’s 10 lessons, learned over three decades of teaching English at Drexel University, were these:

  1. Don't take things personally.
  2. Be accountable to your students.
  3. Make students accountable for their performance.
  4. Simplify.
  5. Don't rush—i.e., slow down.
  6. Listen.
  7. Use. (I was relieved to see that this didn’t refer to illegal substances but rather to using everything said or done in the classroom as part of the teaching process).
  8. Connect learning to life.
  9. Make form follow function. (Don’t adopt a new tool until you weigh both what will be gained and what will be lost.)
  10. Trust your voice and amplify it. (Admit, for instance, when you don’t know something and then model “how not to know.”)

Her exploration of each of these 10 lessons is thought-provoking, and for me it raised the question of what else I would add. One “lesson” that came to mind was “Appreciate the joy.”  When I’m in the classroom, I’m doing something I love, and I think it’s important to my students and to myself that I remember to be grateful for that, even when faced with stacks of homework awaiting my attention or hours of meetings awaiting my presence.   

What would you add?  What lessons have you learned from your classroom during your teaching career?  Can we make it a baker’s dozen? Or two?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

So, Is This a Business?

The title of a recent article by David M. Perry in The Chronicle of Higher Education captured my attention: “Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers: Why the 'Customer Service' Lingo in Academe Is Bad for Students.”  The article itself (reprinted below) captured my imagination, talking as it does about the power of labels and language and the roles of student and teacher in education. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue.  In what ways are we professors engaged in a business relationship with our students? In what ways are we not? In what ways can the university be considered a business, with students as its consumers?  In what ways can it not?
This month Texas A&M University at Kingsville posted a new job ad for a faculty member in early-modern/Renaissance literature. The first line of the "job summary" reads, in all capital letters: "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." A bit lower, the job description mentions that the selected candidate will have to teach four courses a semester while remaining "active in research, professional development, and service to the university and profession."
The ad represents a culmination of dangerous trends in higher education that threaten to erode the single most important relationship we form in our profession: the complex, multifaceted one between teacher and student.
For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe, correlating with many other trends—the decline of public funding from states, the rising price of tuition, the amenities arms-race in student housing, the administrative bloat, the demands of assessment culture, and, most of all, the general saturation of corporate-speak into academic life. Institutions, especially branch campuses of public university systems and small private colleges, feel perpetually strapped for cash and desperate for tuition revenue.
In that context, the attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers—i.e., students—faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members "downsized."
Meanwhile, students (and their families) are taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt, paying higher tuition, and fearing that they will never earn enough to make those costs worthwhile (although a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that "for millennials, a bachelor’s degree continues to pay off"). It’s no wonder that American students in particular bring the cult of "the customer is always right" to the college campus. They’ve paid their money—or they will over the next 30 years or so—now they want service.
But public discourse has consequences for how we think and act. Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.
Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.
Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that "customer service" implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The "well-structured" point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.
It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.
I sympathize with students who employ the language of commerce in order to get redress for real problems, even as I resist the ones who demand customer satisfaction in the form of easy As for little-to-no work. But I can’t blame those students for unrealistic expectations when it’s the institution itself that has introduced business-speak to the education process. As Melonie Fullick noted in a 2012 essay, "Can Education Be Sold?," once a student has been indoctrinated into the discourse of education as commerce, it’s difficult to then say, "’You’ve paid $6,000; now you have to do the work,’ because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic."
Education is created, not consumed, but we cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it.
In addition, any short-term power that students gain over their professors by introducing a controlling commercial metaphor into the classroom dynamic is more than mitigated by the losses. Faculty members respond to the student-as-consumer by teaching defensively, fearing the management that we formerly referred to as administration. But administrators administrate on behalf of the faculty. Employees delivering customer service get managed.
The syllabus is one place where the defensive crouch of the customer-service professor hurts student learning. Many faculty members and some teaching centers talk about the syllabus as a contract, an explicit use of the corporate-speech in the classroom. The contractual model has some positive aspects. It’s a way of increasing the stakes in order to push students to actually read the syllabus and try to create a sense of reciprocal obligation. In a contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms.
I’m not at all sure that works because, in my experience, students actually treat the syllabus more as an End User License Agreement—something for which one glances at briefly, clicks "agree to terms," and moves on to the product without reading any of the document.
In any case, I don’t think encouraging notions of reciprocity lie at the heart of the emergence of the lengthy, faux-legalistic syllabus-as-contract. Instead, such a document functions as a form of pre-emptive defense from lawsuits or disciplinary complaints lodged by students upset about their grades, wanting special exemptions, or otherwise responding to challenges in the classroom—much like a customer angry at a business for providing lousy or incorrect service.
So we wonder: Maybe the syllabus as end-user agreement is the right model? After all, we know many students don’t read the syllabus, and in a dispute we can wield it like lawyer underlining the fine print. And in hearings and lawsuits, the defensive syllabus works pretty well. It just doesn’t help with learning.
A learning-centered syllabus, like a learning-centered class, offers a well-organized (one hopes) plan and an opportunity to learn. It’s not a defensively legalistic document or a way to trick students into agreeing to your terms.
Some of my absolute best classes have resulted from enabling the students to shift the trajectory of the course over time, an approach that’s difficult with the language of contract hemming us in. As a teacher, my goal isn’t to sell a product or to "PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." At my best, I push my students, encourage them, beg, plead, cajole, debate, critique, and praise. Perhaps I’m a romantic, but I believe in teaching as a vocation and a craft, not a sale. I believe that it’s possible to turn a class into a microcommunity of learners and teachers. Such an approach yields some of the power back to the students and makes us collaborators, all governed by expectations, feedback, evaluations, and conversations.
So let’s move past this language of customer and service. For all that we need revenue, students are not mere customers to be wrung out for tuition in the short term and donations in the future. Faculty members are not cashiers, ringing up the bill when students check out with knowledge—and not because that would be demeaning to the professor, but because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer.

This article appeared March 17, 2014, in The Chronicle of Higher Education