Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Spared Dimes and Shadow Lines

Sitting in a meeting yesterday it occurred to me that I have become that person I once snickered at in younger days.  Whenever one of the older guys in my labor union would start to talk about building the interstate highway system or some other ancient "war story," my brother and I would roll our eyes and begin softly humming "Once I built a railroad, made it run..."  

And then, yesterday, I found myself bringing up something that took place in 1994.  We were discussing how to prepare for accreditation and, having done it twice before, I had some thoughts on how to go about it.  Everyone listened deferentially and then explained to me why I was wrong and that we should do it the same inefficient way we did it twice before. 

No matter.  I don't get to decide these things.  I was more struck by the fact that I had referenced events from 1994.  Nineteen-ninety-four?  For crying out loud.   No one else in the room was even employed by the college then.  Is this what awaits me?  Am I now the cause of the eye rolls and exasperated sighs?

* * * *

Joseph Conrad has a brilliant novella entitled The Shadow Line.  In it he tells the story of a second mate on a ship who is in line for a series of steady promotions.  If he sticks with it, he will make captain.  It's only a matter of time.  But something inside of him doesn't want the safe, plodding, surefire way, so on a whim he quits his position in a foreign port.  With no particular plan and no prospects, he wonders into a seaman's hotel and lands a job as a captain that very afternoon.

The problem is his ship is stranded up the coast in a primitive, pestilential port, where the former captain dropped dead and the crew is sick with malaria.  The new captain gets to his ship and tries to sail her out, but each time he reaches a certain point--the point where the previous captain died--the winds fail and he is driven back into the harbor.  Finally, after much herculean effort, he manages to get the ship beyond the imaginary shadow line and into the open sea, but in crossing that line something changes.  He realizes on some unstated level that he is no longer young.

There are perhaps many shadow lines in one's life.  And my dredging up ancient history in a meeting yesterday may even have been one of them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fishing for Criticism

Spring evaluations showed up in our faculty mailboxes yesterday, and like everyone else I read them closely.  In general my teaching evals are positive and sometimes really, really positive.  My 100-level Humanities section this past spring gave me an overall 5.0 on a five point scale.  Can't get much better than that.

Even so, I always have mixed feelings about positive course evaluations.    Maybe it's because they do a poor job of measuring whether the students actually learned anything.  In the end, it's just self-reported opinion, not a test of their abilities.  Of course hearing that I'm a great teacher is better than the alternative, but  I've always mistrusted compliments.  I know what an ambition-less bum I really am.  Besides, no mere formulation of words will ever erase a lifetime of self-doubting. (Oh, if only it could!)

Beyond that, positive evals don't help me improve my teaching.  Here's what I mean: one of the questions on the form asks students to evaluate how well I "found ways to help them answer their own questions."   I was rated 4.9 on the 5.0 scale and the accompanying report suggests that this is a "strength to retain."  Unfortunately, it doesn't tell me exactly when or how I helped students answer their own questions.  So how do I go about retaining this strength?

Far more useful to me are the students' written comments, but only half of the students write anything.  Often it's just a brief note to tell you they "liked the course."  That's great, but it's not really what I want to know.  So over the past few years I've begun to go fishing for feedback.  Before handing out the form, I list specific assignments, course policies, texts or teaching methods on the board and ask them to evaluate these things for me.  I tell them their written comments on  these items will really help me improve the course and my teaching.   It works, too. 

This year's comments were very specific. Here's what they liked and didn't like:
  • They really approved of a flexible policy on revision (I allow students to revise work as many times as they like), but they thought I should set a deadline so that they did not wait to turn in all of their revisions during the last two weeks of the semester.
  •  My first-year honors  seminar liked that I would start each class with a brief tip on writing.
  •  They appreciated the amount of feedback I gave on assignments.
  •  A few even said they liked being challenged when I called them on  not doing their best.
  • They especially liked that I get all work back to them in one week.  (A failure to get back work quickly has to be the number one student pet peeve).

Sometimes,  they say I should slow down and give them more time to think it through.  That's helpful, I guess.  I do get carried away.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Myth of Expertise

The fox knows many things,
But the hedgehog knows one big thing.
                   -- Archilocus
For the past few days I've been attending our college's annual summer teaching institute.  Every year for the past seven or so years we bring in a nationally-recognized figure in higher education to talk about teaching and learning.  And every year we are told some variant of the same message: lecturing at students doesn't work, cramming your courses full of content that you absolutely have to cover doesn't work, and teacher-centered courses in which the professor's expertise is the most precious thing in the room just does not work.  The research and evidence on all of this is definitive.

This year's presenter said much the same thing. He showed us how staging opportunities for students to naively wrestle with a problem before having sufficient information was a powerful method for helping them to see the relevance of the information. To demonstrate this, he put us in groups and asked us to respond to the following problem:

A karate expert hits downward with his bare hand on a stack of three two-inch thick solid concrete blocks supported at both ends. Describe the physical process of what happens to the blocks (i.e.: envision the breakage in extreme slow motion).  Precisely where does the breakage begin; how and why?
After we had wrestled our way to a theory, he laid out the possible kinds of forces that could be at work.
  • Tensile stress (like pulling on a wire from both ends).
  • Compressive stress (like putting weight or force on something).
  • Shear stress (putting pressure on an object in opposing directions: the pressure exerted by scissors in cutting paper).
  • Elasticity (an object’s capacity to return to its original shape after receiving stress).
Many of these concepts had informed our naive speculation, but we hadn't given them names.  Some we hadn't thought of, which caused us to consider that a multiplicity or things might be happening.  So we revised our hypothesis in light of new information.  The point was that we had a problem to solve, we were working together trying out ideas and anxious for more information.  In short, we were thinking critically. 

The presenter pointed out the powerful learning dynamic that had just taken place in our naive inquiry.  Then he went on to the next PowerPoint slide.  Several of my colleagues stopped him: "So what's the answer?  Where does it break?"  This only bolstered his point that naive inquiry is about fostering an attitude of "I really need to know this." 

Contrast that with the dynamic in a traditional college classroom.  The professor lectures on the four kinds of stress at work in various material failures.  The students really have no authentic reason to know this information (except to pass a test that gauges only how well  they can recall it).  In short, the emphasis here is not on critical thinking; it's on the professor's holy expertise and the students' ability to process and retain the sacred content.  We have to start putting students in "need to know" situations, which they often find frustrating.  The presenter explained that we will know it's working when we start to hear students say things like "Why don't you just give us the answer?" or "You're the professor, but you aren't teaching us the material."

* * *

So yesterday I had to close out the summer institute by leading faculty in an exercise that would get them to think creatively about designing courses for our new core, which has four domains of inquiry: the natural world, the arts, society and human behavior, and faith and meaning. I labeled the four corners of a room with these domains and asked people to group themselves in the corner where they thought their discipline most belonged. 

As you can imagine, the hard scientists went to the corner labeled natural world, the social scientists to society and human behavior, the artists to the arts, etc.  At this point I tagged them with color-coded stickers and sent them off to design courses where they don't think they belong.  They were forbidden to design courses in their preferred place.  I was trying to foster interdisciplinary thinking as well as to reinforce the idea that the domains are not discipline specific.  The arts have things to say about the natural world and science has something to say about society and human behavior. 

Then I went from room to room listening.  At one point, some of my colleagues started saying, "I can't teach in this area.  I don't have the expertise."  There it was: the myth of expertise.  Even though we had spent two full afternoons experiencing the power of a different model of teaching and learning, the old paradigm hadn't budged: no learning can possibly take place without the professor's holy expertise being the most important thing in the classroom. 

The truth is that few of us are experts in most of what we teach.  I teach writing and lack expertise in comp and rhetoric, I teach some history, philosophy, and science in my capstone course and lack expertise in all of them.  Most professors are experts on fairly narrow subjects (like their dissertation topic) and then for only about a year.  I look back now on some of the stuff I wrote in grad school and think, "Wow, I used to be really smart."  Moreover, almost no one ever gets to teach the obscure area of his or her transient expertise.  On the undergraduate level, we are usually required to be foxes, not hedgehogs. 

Nevertheless, we cling to the myth that our expertise is the necessary requirement for student learning.  


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...