Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Comprehensive Ocean

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business. 
The end of the any academic semester is never free of its small human dramas.  A few students show up after weeks of missing class and desperate to undo the damage they've done.  There are also anxious grade grubbers who begin to argue every point or cajole you for extra credit.  All this is not to mention the general miasma of student stress that hovers over the campus.  Indeed, nearly every conversation with students is now about one thing: THE FINAL GRADE.

So constricted is the focus on the grade that it's easy to forget I'm not really in the grading business.  I'm actually in the human growth business.  And the key term here is human.  So here were some dramatic human moments that happened in the course of business over the past few weeks. 
  • I sent out an email to students staring down the barrel of mathematically certain Fs.   I told them that their grade neither defined them nor said anything about their potential for success.  I encouraged them not to give up or check out.  If they completed all remaining assignments and wrote a sincere final reflection paper analyzing what they could have done differently (and what they would do differently were they taking the course again), I would elevate their grade from F to D.   Not sure if this is the right thing to do, but I hate to see students give up on themselves.  If they keep at it, that says something to me.  So this past Monday a kid I haven't seen since early November walks into the final and sits down to write a heartfelt analysis of how he gave up on the course and grew so ashamed of himself that he couldn't bear to face me.  I told him I didn't give a damn about his grade.  I cared about him and admired the heck out of his willingness to face his anxiety and come for the final.  
  • I also got a late-night email from a C student who just wanted to apologize for not doing as well in my course as he wanted.  Again, I had to take the focus off of the grade.  I emailed back that that no one will give a rip about his GPA ten seconds after he graduates.  What matters is his growth and development and I've seen plenty of that this semester.   We talked after class one day and I learned that his life story is more complicated (and heartbreaking) than I realized.  It's amazing he's hung in there this far.  
  • Last Friday I sat down to write end-of-term cards to all of my first-year seminar students, congratulating them on completing their semester.  I always try to personalize these cards, noting how someone grew or overcame a difficulty.  One young woman in my FYS has had her fair share of family and financial issues this fall, but she has hung in there and completed the semester.  I told her how much I admired her grit and that--as we discussed in class--grit was often the most important ingredient for success.  And she has it, by god.  
  • Then, at the faculty meeting last Thursday, one of my colleagues took me aside and asked me how long I had been at the college.  Twenty-eight years, I told him.  He kind of shook his head and said "How do you do it?  I don't know how much longer I can keep going."  There was such a weariness in his voice that it took me aback.  This is one of the most upbeat, positive people I know. I didn't really have an answer, so I just mumbled something like 'I know it feels futile at times and you start to wonder if it anything you do really makes much of a difference, but it does matter to the students.'   This guy is a good professor who cares deeply about his students and I told him so.  His good teaching matters.  Despite all the crap of higher education, he still makes a difference. He matters.
So these have been the small human moments of the last few weeks of this semester.  I have not done a single thing that will show up on my annual update or my vita.  I haven't been published in scholarly journals or pioneered any nifty new teaching strategies.  Truth be told, I haven't even been teaching all that well.
It's just been business as usual.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Something beyond theory

One night after supper at a recent teaching conference, I was asked to sit on a panel of older professors and we fielded questions from people who were just beginning their academic careers.  One of the questions struck me as ironic. It came from a guy who had recently retired from the corporate sector and had been hired to run the business department at a community college.  He asked me about a management problem.

The gist of his question was whether it's better to have a highly-standardized set of assignments, textbooks and curriculum for courses taught by multiple faculty in a department, or to have some broad, general outcomes that people can reach in their own ways.  In other words, should he as department chair force his instructors to do the same thing in every section or give them a target and trust them to get there in ways that capitalize on their unique, individual strengths as educators.

This is not a new problem in education, but I wanted to put my answer in language he would understand.  This guy had been a manager for many years and he looked the part. Early 60s, lush senatorial white locks and resplendent in his business casual wear: khakis, a tucked in polo and Johnston and Murphy tasseled loafers.

Moreover, I had talked to this man over breakfast that day.  A nice guy, well meaning.  He had given me his "education is just a business rap" when I asked him about his transition from the business world to teaching.   I listened politely but resisted the urge to point out that, yes, higher education is a business, but it's a really strange one because people are paying you to do things to them that they really don't want done.

So now he was asking me--meof all people--about management.  "Okay," I said, "you were a manager for years, right?  Well your question is a classic management problem."

And it is.  I mean there are essentially just two schools of management. There's Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management: you measure, time and weigh everything and then hold people accountable to the most productive numbers, or you hire really good people and then get the hell out of their way so they can do the work in satisfying and self-motivating ways.   I think they called this Theory X and Theory Y back in the 1950s. Anyway, the answer is always somewhere in the middle, but never precisely in the middle. It just depends on the situation, the workforce and the nature of the work. 

I recall my questioner sighing at this answer, which didn't quite give him a clear-cut "here's what you do response."

The problem is knowing what to do takes something beyond theory.  Indeed, good managing--or in this case administrating--is generally not an application of theory.  It's an application of wisdom--of knowing a bit about the human nature, a bit about analyzing ill-structured problems and a bit about everyday pragmatism, or what the ancient Greeks called phronesis.

I'll be honest.  I never understood why management is taught in the business department.  It's always seemed to me that it could be covered in a couple of courses in the philosophy department.  I do understand just enough about the subject to realize that I would make a terrible administrator.  I once tried it for a year and hated every second. In fact, the only upshot of my annus horribilis was a newfound appreciation for good administrators.

My attitude now is when you find a good one--a wise one--pay 'em.  They're worth every cent.

Monday, November 18, 2019

In praise of true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the blank

For several years I have used an in-class exercise during the first week of class, but I have begun to think it is completely wrong-headed.  

Here’s the exercise.  On the first day of class, I assign students a short reading and ask them to bring three quiz questions about the material to our next meeting.  When we reconvene, I put the students into groups and have them assemble a five-question quiz composed of their "toughest" collective quiz questions.

They then write their quizzes on a piece of poster paper and place them up around the room.  I ask the students to look over all the quizzes in the room and to stand before the one they think would be the most challenging.  Inevitably their questions are a hodge-podge of fill-in-the blank, true/false and multiple choice (with the odd "match terms in column A to ideas in column B" thrown into the mix).

I then throw up an essay prompt on the smart board, something along the lines of this:
Creation stories are an important indication of how a culture views humanity's place in the world and its relationship to the world around it.  Look closely at how the world was created Genesis and Hesiod’s Theogony.   To what degree is the creation of the world intentional in each story?  In which is creation a well-ordered process and in which is it a haphazard process?  Would one worldview have an easier time explaining why bad things (hurricanes, plagues, floods) sometimes happen to good people?  Why?  Why not?
"Which one is the toughest now?" I ask. They all move to the essay prompt, but they really struggle to answer when I ask them what makes the prompt tougher than the other quizzes.  Often, they say something like "Well, this test means you really have to think."

"Exactly!" I respond.

Next I explain Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills and have them label (with post-it notes) the skills needed to do well on the “toughest” student quiz and the essay prompt.  What becomes clear—indeed what I’m hoping to show in the most concrete terms—is that the kinds of questions on their quizzes only exercise “retrieval,” the bottom rung of Bloom’s hierarchy.  The essay prompt, however, is now festooned with post-it notes betokening many higher-order thinking skills.

Then I announce that I won’t be testing their “retrieval” skills (i.e., memorization) in this class.  Instead, I say, I’m looking for those higher order-skills: summarized understanding, analysis, evaluation, synthesis. 

As I said, I have begun to think this is a blunder.  

Indeed, over the years I've intentionally moved away from multiple-choice tests and other forms of “retrieval assessment.”  There is, after all, a reason my students create these kinds of quizzes when asked to write questions.  In many cases, they are the only forms of assessment they’ve ever experienced.  As a result, they equate retrieving the right answer from memory with knowledge.

My goal has been to wean them away from this view, to emphasize that knowledge is constructed rather than receivedIn short, I've treated retrieval as a rung to be jumped over and not as a foundation under a set of more demanding critical skills. 

When I began teaching, I used a lot of retrieval assessments, but I grew dissatisfied with the kind of 'learning as memorization' they encouraged. So I moved away from them and went on a long journey of discovery, seeking to emphasize other skills and forms of assessment.  And now, decades later,  I find myself looking for ways to reintegrate short quizzes and retrieval practice back into my teaching.   I feel as though I over-corrected.  Fortunately, there are today any number of easy-to-use on-line quiz apps that lend themselves to this kind of assessment.  They can be taken in minutes via a student’s cell phone or administered with the course management system. 

So here I am back where I started.  Some days I think I may actually get good at this job if I live long enough.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Tell me a story...

This week in First-Year Seminar we're telling tales inside of school. The students were assigned a chapter in Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do and asked to come to class with a 2-3 minute story of how the ideas and research mentioned in the chapter connect to their experience as learners.  In class, we got on our feet and workshopped and polished their stories.  What are the beats?  What's an effective opener?   How do you put people in the moment or land the ending and take-away?

All this story-telling is the result of a curriculum change.  We ditched the research paper that used to be a part of FYS in favor of an oral presentation.  The thinking was that most students were already doing a major research paper in first-year composition, so a second was overkill.  Plus students have a dread of speaking in front of others.  They just need more chances to do this in college.

I have been teaching with oral communication for about five or six years now, but with seniors rather than first-years.  What's interesting--to me anyway--is how approaching the required oral presentation as a story-telling exercise rather than a formal speech reduces their anxiety. I keep saying to my students, "Don't make a speech.  A speech is boring.  Tell me a story."

Here's a sample prompt from this week's exercise.
  • Early in Chapter 5 of What the Best College Students Do, Bain makes a distinction between well-structured problems and ill-structured problems.   What are these concepts?  Tell a short story about a time in your life when you faced an “ill-structured problem.”  Be sure that you define the concepts somewhere in your story. 
So yesterday was the first time they practiced their story-telling skills.  The result?  Not bad.  Here were some of the story openers:
  • There's really no more ill-structured problem than a naked man...
  • Sometimes an ill-structured problem and a major life decision can appear with just the turn of your head...
  • What do I, Halloween, appendicitis and Harry Houdini all have in common?
See?  Not bad.

In the senior capstone, my students have to tell the story of how they discerned their callings in life.  And some of the best vocation stories I’ve heard over the past five or six years have come from students pursuing career choices that don’t at first seem to have much narrative appeal. You expect future nurses, teachers and social workers to have heartfelt stories about their desire to bring their gifts and passions to needs in the world, but what has surprised and gratified me have been the stories of students headed into careers like dentistry, accounting, athletic training or writing computer code.

A student headed to dental school, for example, told about the time he was able to job shadow an oral surgeon and how his vocation crystallized when the surgeon allowed him to be the one to hold up the mirror that allowed a patient to see her face free of disfigurement for the very first time. Another student spoke movingly about growing up with parents who mismanaged their finances and knowing firsthand what such financial precariousness can do to families.  Her own story fueled her desire to become a financial planner.

And taking a “story telling” approach in senior capstone has produced some notable successes. One graduate this past spring wrote to me to say that the storytelling work we did in the course was instrumental in helping him obtain a position in an investment firm over candidates from elite institutions.  As part of the interview, candidates were asked to tell a story.  Here's what my former student wrote last spring:
  • This class was the MOST useful class to me during my time at Grand View. Doesn’t matter what your back ground is, what degree you have, or what experience you have. You must be able to convey ideas, stories, and much more to someone in a clear, concise, and organized matter. 

I have to say that helping students find, polish and honor their stories is enormously rewarding work.  Also, sharing stories like these in a classroom transforms the relationships between the students in the room. As I said, I am still figuring our how to teach with story telling, but it sure seems like good work.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Gang aft agley

Walked into class yesterday with a bounce in my step.  I had a crackerjack lesson plan that I have used many times before, and with a track record of success.  First, I would briefly introduce the elements of architecture (line, color, shape, ornament, texture, light, form, void...).

Then I would have the students create 3D representations using these elements with any of the dozen or so block sets I brought to class.  The lesson plan culminated with me handing teams of students a card with a concept written on it.  Among the concepts were such things as playfulness, sacredness, might, efficiency and energy.

The teams had to talk through the elements and decide which ones they needed to incorporate into their design to communicate their selected concept.  Hmmm...?  Is a curved line more playful than a straight line?  What role does non-functional ornament play in creating a sense of the sacred?

So great plan, right?  Playing with blocks, right?  Fun, interactive and hands-on, right?  You would think so, but my crackerjack little plan just whimpered and died yesterday.

For whatever reason, the students weren't interested. They did not want to be there.  Some stared at phones, some gazed out the window and several actually grumbled when they had to get up and walk across the room to form teams.  So what went wrong?  What could I have done differently?

Actually nothing went wrong.  My plan was good and I taught it well.

That class flopped simply because it was a slightly past mid-term Monday, with snow in the offing later in the day and the newness of the semester dead and unceremoniously buried about three weeks ago.  My students are now living with assignment after assignment either hanging over the heads, due or in some cases past due. They are crabby, anxious and probably starting to wonder if the ritualized annoyance of education is really getting them anywhere but deeper in debt.  And no doofus professor with block sets is going to change that.

The class flopped because I am teaching human beings whose lives differ emotionally, intellectually and even motivation-ally from day-to-day.  In the end, there is no surefire plan or approach that works every time.  The Oxford don and classicist Gilbert Highet wrote The Art of Teaching almost 60 years ago, but it's still worth reading. In it he noted that teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction. Rather, he writes,
... it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter...  You must realize that it cannot be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work and your pupils and yourself.
Sometimes--often really--you have to remind yourself that the success or failure of any class is not always about you.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

On Missions and Marketing

College and university missions statements are curious things.  After being fussed over, scrutinized and wordsmithed on an almost phonetic level, they end up buried somewhere in a college catalog or hosted on some low hit-count page of the university's web site. 

Rare is the faculty member (and rarer still the student) who can limn the highlights of their institution's mission.  At my university, we do a bit better thanks to some handy alliteration in the first line: engage, equip, empower.  It's about all that most of us can recall.

Even so, some reflection on these statements is worthwhile, for they inevitably contain a host of value judgments and assumptions about what a good life should be and what education can do to bring this about.  In the opening portion of our mission statement, for example, there are four goals set forth for our graduates:
  • To realize their individual potential.
  • To develop their "whole person" (mind, body and spirit).
  • To serve society and the world.
  • To have a successful career.
Now let's stop and think about the lineage of the first bullet point above: to realize an individual potential.  Where do we get the idea that human beings possess an individual potential that they should realize?  It doesn't come from Judeo-Christianity, which tends to emphasize awakening to our inability to realize a potential for goodness.  No, the idea of human potential has roots in the Greek philosophical assumptions that every form has an ideal that it yearns to become, and that every ideal form is ideally suited to fulfill its inherit purpose (i.e., its telos).  

Indeed, with the possible exception of the last bullet point, all of the ostensible aims for our graduates operate with either Platonic assumptions about ideal forms or Aristotelian assumptions about teleological purpose.  These assumptions--which would make perfect sense to any ancient philosopher--are that individuals with fully-realized potentials will become more virtuous citizens who will in turn help us to realize a more ideally virtuous society. In short, every thing we do is an effort to equip people to realize a more ideal version of themselves and society.  That we never get there isn't the point.  Like Plato's fallen forms, we are meant to be aspiring to the virtuous ideal.

You can find aims similar to these in most mission statements.  And let me be clear: I don't object to any of them. I like them. They even happen now and then for more students than you might think.  But it's often hard to see how these ancient assumptions actually drive our day-to-day activities or curricular choices, to say nothing of our marketing messages.  Let's face it: the mission statement is almost never a "point of sale" when we recruit students or tout ourselves to the local business community.  

When we do this, our language loses the virtue assumptions of Plato and Aristotle and switches to Enlightenment assumptions about value neutral individualism and economic rationalism.
  • If you come here, you will realize your dreams and find personal happiness in your career (as opposed to becoming a more virtuous person, which may not always be pleasant and does not make happiness the end goal).
  • We have the credential/training you require to answer a need and enhance your competitiveness in the marketplace (as opposed to shouldering the often unpleasant and unprofitable burdens of responsible citizenship).
Enlightenment rationalism and economics attacked the notion of ideal virtues and ideal societies.  Indeed, society for Locke wasn't an ideal to be realized; it was something that had to be contained and restrained (by laws and constitutional checks and balances) so that people were free to pursue their individual happiness and economic self interest.  The virtue project was replaced by the happiness project.  Moreover, any economic marketplace is at best indifferent to people's virtue.  To function it only requires producers and consumers of goods and services, not citizens (something people are free to pursue, or not, on their own time, thank you very much).

Most mission statements try to efface the conflict between the assumptions that underlie them and the practicality of their function in today's consumer economy.  They are somewhat strained arguments that we can do both, or that these different purposes need not be seen as antithetical: "They can actually be shown to enhance one another if we could just find the right formulation of words."  I mean there's a reason these statements are so hard to write.  Marketing ourselves is a lot easier.  Figure out what people want to buy and convince them you've got it.  

University mission statements are often schizophrenic documents. The marketing materials, however, they tend to be right on the money.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Midterm is not the middle

Yesterday at noon was the deadline for turning in mid-term grades, a point in the semester that never seems to feel like the middle of anything you might call a learning process.  You would think that by midterm my students would have learned half of what I'm teaching.  Not so.

I have some who are only now grasping that work coming in without citation really is coming right back to them with a request to revise.  And it isn't that they are testing me or they didn't hear me say this with mantra-like repetition.  It's just that mental models change slowly.  I am asking them to do complicated cognitive tasks with strange new ideas and demanding material (and I'm not the only one asking this).

Yesterday in class, for example, I handed back a paper on which I had written "Stop quoting for support. Just paraphrase and cite."  I have been telling my student writers this for seven weeks. Don't quote-bomb. Cite ideas in the texts, not the exact wording of them.  We've even done multiple exercises in class on paraphrasing and citing evidence.  So my bright, wonderful student (who hasn't missed class and actively works while in class) looks down at the note on his paper.  He wrinkles his nose and then looks up at me.  "Oh, so you want me to put these ideas in my own words and cite them?" 

"Yes," I responded.  "It's your voice I want to hear."  He slowly shook his head in comprehension, and you could almost physically feel his understanding shift (like a lump of snow that finally slides off the roof in the April sun).

I used to get frustrated and grumble about "learning curves that needed to bloody-well start curving."  Now I just accept that this is the nature of the job.  Mental models really do change slowly, and you have to stay on message until it gets through.  Accepting this truth about human cognition makes me less frustrated in this job.  I've even come to like this broken record, zen mantra aspect of teaching.

Yesterday, too, I gave each student the midterm 3 x 5, a little index card that reminds them of the learning goal they set for themselves the first week of class, their current grade, some suggestions for things they could do to improve and a word of encouragement from me.

At the end of class, one of my students came up to me at the lectern waving his 3 x 5 card.  He failed the class last year and is retaking it this fall.  He's still struggling, but there is progress and I told him so on his card. 

"Thanks," he said. "I needed to hear this."  I told him to keep plugging away. He'll make it.

Indeed, research suggests that low-grades at midterm are not terribly predictive of where students will be at the end of a semester.  These early assessments are simply alerts aimed at those who struggle (only D and F students get a low grade notification at my institution). Useful?  I guess, but what's probably more useful is a word of encouragement and hearing that a professor actually gives a damn about your success.

Besides, a grade given in October or March will say little about whether any learning has taken place, for it is a truth--although one not universally acknowledged--that the real learning only begins after midterm.

The Comprehensive Ocean

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealin...