Friday, August 29, 2014

Broken Record

It's the first week of classes, which means in all four sections I am showing the students in as concrete a way as possible what I am looking for in the work they will do in the next 15 weeks.  And when I say concrete, I mean really concrete, Portland freakin' cement.  Even so, I know I am not getting through to them.  That's just the reality of this job.

Yesterday, for example, I led two classes through a series of exercises designed to make clear why I wanted every response they write to include three things: a cited summary of ideas in the text that is relevant to the question, some attempt to connect or distinguish these ideas with other ideas or authors in the course (or with contemporary events or their personal experience), and an evaluation of the ideas' significance or implication.

I even showed my classes sample writing prompts and had them diagram where summary was requested, a connection and an evaluation (with color-coded markers no less).  I handed out a grading rubric tied to these requirements and had them assess four short responses of varying quality, and they also discussed in small groups any consensus or disagreement about the grades they came up with.  Then I showed them the grades I actually gave these responses and explained with Smart Board diagrams why I gave them.  In short, we tried to synchronize our understanding of the grading criteria.

Today, too, I will have them write a brief quiz about what's required in all responses, which they will administer to me and then grade using my own standards.  This is all useful and worthwhile to do the first week, but I'm kidding myself if I think a significant number of them will actually do what I'm asking on the first assignment.  It will take many of them two, three, maybe even four attempts before they really grasp it.

I used to get frustrated and grumble about "learning curves that needed to start bloody-well curving."  Now I just accept that this is the nature of the job. Mental models change slowly and you have to stay on message until it gets through.  Accepting this makes me less frustrated.  I've even come to like this broken record part of teaching.  There's something kind of zen about it. 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

The "I Wish" Song

Disney musicals follow a formula.  At some point, early in the story, the main characters must sing their "I wish" song.   Then they set out on some mission or journey.  I too have something of an "I wish" song,  one I sing every time I come across a good book on teaching and learning.  Right now I am most of the way through Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know and I find myself repeatedly singing "I wish I had known this before, I wish I had done that, I wish I had come up with the idea to write this book." 

I've spent the bulk of my career teaching outside my discipline.  My background is English literature, but I've taught journalism courses and countless interdisciplinary seminars containing no small amount of philosophy, religion, history, art history, psychology and social science (I once taught a course on sportswriting, for Pete's sake).  Even so, I still hesitate to advertise my lack of expertise on such subjects. So it's affirming to hear someone say at last that this kind of teaching can be effective, innovative and invigorating, even if it does come with its fair share of anxiety. To be sure, Huston respects and values expertise, but she also has the courage to write about one of the great unspoken truths in higher education: a lot of us--not just me--are teaching well outside of our areas of academic training.

Even within our disciplines we are often assigned to teach courses that contain some material we don't know as well as we might like.  There are actually some plusses to this.  Huston notes that teaching what you don't know affords you the chance to learn something new (which may creatively cross pollinate with what you do know).  To me, this is the main reason to do it.  You get to be a student again.

It can also connect you with colleagues outside your area and broaden your CV.  At my institution, too, teaching in interdisciplinary programs outside your area is viewed as a form of faculty service to the larger institution and it's valued by the Promotions and Tenure Committee.  This isn't always the case at larger universities where junior faculty may be knocked for straying from their disciplines.

In a very helpful chapter on Teaching and Surviving, Huston offers some sound, practical tips like find an entry point to the material that interests you, design from the end to the front of the course, work from the highly concrete to the abstract, and never fake it when you don't know.  Students will maintain their respect for professors who respond with "I'm not sure of the answer and I don't want to lead you astray."  They'll smell blood when a prof tries to bluff it.  Besides, it's just so liberating to say, "That's such a great question.  I wish I had a good answer.  Let's tackle it together." 

Teaching what you don't know isn't always wonderful.  There are any number of subjects I should never be let near.  That said, the experience is a reality for a lot of us, and it can be some of the best teaching we do.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Especially With Advice

The last few years the provost's office has asked me to offer a few words of advice to new faculty members at their August orientation session.  The idea is for them to hear an old-timer's perspective (that would be me) and the view of a junior colleague who has been around just a few years.

The session is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon and I've been mulling over what I should say.  The problem is all of the advice I think worthwhile sounds awful or lame.  I mean really awful and really lame.  It's certainly not what I would have wanted to hear when I began.

For starters I would tell new faculty that their hard-won expertise is not the most important thing in the classroom.  And that's not an easy thing to hear, especially if you are fresh from graduate school and have spent a lot of time and money acquiring that expertise. In some ways, expertise can become an impediment. You forget that not everyone shares your great intellectual passion or that the raison d'etra for your discipline isn't blindingly obvious.  Certainly it's important to know your stuff and know it very well, but it's just as important to know your students and how they think and tend not to think. It's important to remember that the job is to get the students to think, not necessarily for you to display your thinking.

Sadly, the best teaching I do seldom takes the form of a life-changing lecture or an insiprational moment with a student.  Dead Poet's Society was just a Hollywood movie.  My best teaching usually occurs when I'm not saying or doing anything at all.  I have to remind myself time and again--almost every few weeks in fact--to shut the hell up and let the students do the thinking.  It's not about me.

Secondly, I would advise new teachers that they may have to get used to failure and maybe guilt.  There's just no getting around it.  Most of the time you will fail.  A shocking number of your students will be singularly unaffected by your efforts and most of them will promptly forget the bulk of what you taught within weeks of completing your course.   The reality is that you will never be as good at this job as you would like to be.  And you may secretly feel very, very guilty about this.   Like I said, get used to it. 

Try to remind yourself that the guilt is actually evidence that you give a damn about getting it right. Besides, there will be a few modest successes along the way and you are going to feel really great about them.  Indeed, the high from such moments may even last an entire afternoon. You will probably try to tell people about your amazing breakthrough--a spouse, a colleague, some random stranger on the bus--but, trust me, they won't really get it or be as excited by it as you are.  Even so, you'll just have to tell someone.   And you should be grateful for these rare but ultimately lonely successes when they come.  Just don't start to expect them.  That way lies madness.

Lastly, you may realize along the way that teaching tends to be permeated by fear (fear of your colleagues' judgments, fear of your course evaluations, fear of your inadequacies and fear that you're not making much of a difference in the world).  It's actually pretty easy to keep this hidden from others, but don't do it.  Find a colleague you trust and share your fears, failures and frustrations. Even share the occasional success.  And be prepared to listen to your colleagues' failures and fears with empathy and generosity.  Sharing won't make any of these feelings go away, but it will make you feel a little less alone.  In this job, you get by with help from your friends.  So find a friend and be a good one to others.  Kindness counts for a lot, especially at a small institution.

So there it is.  I would advise new faculty to profess less, expect to fail a lot and get used to feeling guilty and fearful.  Also, do try to be nice.  See?  I told you my advice sounded awful and lame.

But as Mark Twain once said, "When it comes to advice, it's always better to give than receive."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Signals en clair

Last spring I received an email from a professor at a college out east.  One of his students had plagiarized something from my faculty website for a paper and he asked if I would write a letter to the young woman explaining how I felt about having my words pilfered. The following is the letter I sent (the names of all involved have been changed, however).

Dear Marla,

Professor Smith emailed me recently and asked that I pass on to you a few words about the importance of academic honesty in student work.  As you no doubt are aware, most professors view plagiarism as a serious offence.  

Okay, why is that?  Why do professors make such a big deal about doing your own work and giving credit where credit is due?  There are a lot of reasons, but I want to share three that strike me as important.

First, it’s simply a matter of fairness and kindness, qualities that I am sure you value in your friends and family.  Most scholars I know are very generous with their work.  Indeed, sharing ideas with colleagues, students and the public is central to their job.  In many cases, all they ask in return is to have their ideas and words properly credited.  This seems a reasonable enough request and you should honor it. 

Second, the procedures for citing the words and ideas of others are not just a fussy academic game.  Judiciously-selected and well-documented support demonstrate that you have closely analyzed, evaluated and synthesized information into a well-constructed understanding.  Your use and integration of the ideas of others to support and document your own thinking is what your instructor is actually grading.  Citing your sources is no different than showing your math on an exam.  It isn’t enough to have an answer (even the right answer); the instructor needs to see how you worked the problem.  

College graduates are expected to be able analyze, summarize, evaluate and synthesize information.  These higher order thinking skills must be evidenced in their work.  They are also skills valued in most professions.  You may as well hone them now.

Third, and this is by far the most important reason, taking shortcuts undermines the value of your education.  I realize it may not seem this way to you and it's not surprising.  Our society increasingly sees education as a transaction: students do the work, earn the degree and thereby enhance their economic value in the marketplace.  And if education is merely a transaction, it makes a certain sense to get the maximum benefit for the least investment.  Buy low, sell high.  In a transaction, students should put forth the least amount of effort to complete the deal, which might make the shortcut of plagiarism seem like a savvy option. 

Here’s why it’s not.  For years I have taught a senior seminar at my college.  In it students reflect upon and define the meaning and value of their undergraduate experience.  I ask them to look over those courses they have taken and to select the ones that have been the most valuable.  I don’t define the term value.  I let them do that.  What’s amazing is that never in the 15 years I have taught the seminar has anyone found value in a course for which they received an easy “A” or performed below their potential. 

Indeed, all of the transaction talk vanishes when I ask my students to identify what's really valuable and meaningful in their education.  Instead, they speak only in terms of transformation.  The courses they value are the ones in which they were transformed by discovering a new passion or realized something new about the world, a subject or their own potential.   My students may often think of education as a transaction, but they only locate value in its capacity for transformation.  In fact, the word education comes from the Latin word educere, which means “to bring out or to develop.” 

Growth and development, of course, are often accompanied by challenge, struggle and not a little anxiety.  Taking shortcuts to get the grade without doing the actual work is certainly tempting, but it’s ultimately self-defeating.  Educating yourself is about so much more than a grade, a diploma or a job offer. It's that too, of course, but really so much more.  It’s about you and the kind of person that you hope to be.  My guess is that you are someone who values kindness and fairness.  My guess is that you also have a dream and a potential that are more than worth the effort and challenge. 

So be kind and fair when using the words and ideas of others.  Most of all, don’t take shortcuts at your own expense. 

I hope this incident can become a positive part of that process.

Best wishes...

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...