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Should an English Major be Dirt Cheap?

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One of the things I did in my short stint as a faculty senator was review some data on the cost per credit hour to deliver various degrees at my institution.   It was eye opening.  The differential between the highest cost major and the lowest was over $400 per credit hour.  Moreover, the cheapest majors to deliver were often the ones least in demand by today's career-minded higher education  marketplace (English Literature, History, Liberal Arts, Philosophy).  I mean what does it cost to deliver a philosophy major?  All you need is a room, a prof and a whiteboard.

So that got me wondering, why not make these majors cheaper?  Isn't that the logic of the marketplace?  High demand usually means high price. Low demand equals low cost.  Or think of it this way.  You are pondering sending your kid to college but blanching at the cost.  The smart money says put your son or daughter in a hot, sexy STEM major where future employment is highly remunerated and guaranteed.  But let'…

Breaking the Torpor of Week 14

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Okay, let's see...
Select fundamentally interesting questions  Check!Have top-flight material that engages with the subject.  Check!Develop innovative student-centered and active learning approaches.  Check! Then you walk into the room and can sense it.  They don't want to engage today.  It's two and half weeks until the end of the term and the students are just not that into you anymore.  The energy-level is pfffft.  When you say "Okay let's get started," there's a pained collective grimace as they reluctantly stow phones and finish text messages.

Welcome to week 14.

This is the class I found when I walked into the core capstone last Tuesday.  I should mention that the capstone is an interdisciplinary, senior-level seminar built around the theme of the "Good Life."  I don't lecture.  There are no high stakes exams or tons of content to memorize.  It's a discussion seminar in which students wrestle with interesting questions like can a …

The 100th Freakin' Time

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At the opening of Donald Finkel’s marvelous Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, he asks his readers to stop reading and take a simple test.Simply put the book down, he suggests, and spend a few minutes describing in writing the most significant learning experiences you ever had.When you are done, return to the book and answer a few questions about these experiences.

When I took this test, my mind immediately went to a couple of books that have had a significant impact on my thinking.Reading them had been an intellectual adventure.So I described myself stretched out on my couch one summer in my tiny apartment and so absorbed by all the new ideas that I did not realize the afternoon had slid into early evening.

Then I went back to Finkel’s book to answer his questions, among which were the following:  Did the learning experience take place in a classroom?   Did it take place in a school?   Was a professional teacher involved in making it happen?
For most people, Finkel notes, the answer to all …

"...eternity in an hour..."

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Two weeks ago I happened across a retired colleague who was back on campus for a special event.  I was returning to my office after a trip to the campus bookstore and she was exiting the auditorium where the event had been held.

Surprised to see her for the first time in a few years, I smiled and said hello.  And, although we had never been especially close, she beamed back at me and even gave me a warm hug.  There followed a short exchange in which we updated information about recent activities and I quickly realized that this may have been the first time she had been back on campus since retirement.  I could tell she was experiencing a variety of emotions just seeing old faces and walking the halls again.

This colleague had spent decades in the white hot center of faculty politics. There were few issues, controversies or changes that she sat out.  And she was good at it, a shrewd judge of her opponent's agendas, skilled at in-fighting and--like all good faculty pols--you seldom…

Orientation Zones

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A while back I was watching a documentary on  the design of gas station/convenience marts-- you know those ubiquitous commercial spaces you seldom consider.  Apparently one of the key features of their design is a carefully constructed "orientation zone." This is an open, empty space of maybe 35-40 square feet directly inside the main entrance--just enough room for customers to stand for a second or two and familiarize themselves to the store's layout.

Let's face it: customers who enter a Seven-Eleven or a Kwik-Trip aren't there to browse the merchandise.  They're bent on getting one or two items (maybe finding the restroom) and then bugging out.  So designers must think carefully about who customers are, what they want and how the space can be configured to meet their needs.  Good orientation zones will make the logic of the store's layout instantly clear.  They provide open sight lines to all the signage and possible routes into and back out of the spa…

The Perfect Class?

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Few professors would probably admit it, but one of the things that propelled them into teaching was some hidden fantasy of the perfect class.  They would be standing in some gorgeous oak-paneled classroom with wooden desks fanned out around them. The lighting would be somber and come from large mullioned windows, through which you would see a beautiful quad and tree limbs scoring an autumnal sky.

In my secret fantasy, I am not so much lecturing as holding the room spell-bound with questions concerning justice, truth, the nature of reality and the meaning and purpose of life. And on the last day of this life-changing seminar, a lone student stands and slowly begins to clap. Then, student-by-student, the entire class rises up to join in a unanimous ovation as I humbly stride from the room with the barest trace of a tear on my sallow cheek.

This fantasy is self-indulgent crap.  

What you get is uncomfortable desks in military cordons, concrete block rooms and half-asleep students texting …

The Emotional Bennies of Tagging Up

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By February whatever earnest and heartfelt personal learning goals my students set for themselves in their first-week papers have long been forgotten. Yes, they wanted to become better critical readers, successfully manage their time and use better textual support in their writing, but that was then.  Now it's February and they are well within the whirling blender of assignments, due dates and drudgery that make up mid-semester.  So five-weeks into the term is a good time to check-in and tag up..

Lots of professors do something called a Plus Delta Assessment.  It's a useful way to solicit early feedback. There are a lot of models for doing this kind of assessment.  Most involve an anonymous five to 10 minute survey containing three or four open-ended questions: What's working? What could work better?  What can I do differently to help you learn?  What could you do differently? 

Check-ins like these allow for mid-course corrections, but using them comes with an important c…