Monday, September 29, 2014

One thousand five hundred and ninety six...*

There is some math you ought not do.  Never subtract your age from your life expectancy.  Never tot up the number of hours you spend grading papers, and never do that depressing little back of the envelope calculation to discover how many individual papers you will have assigned, read and graded by semester's end.  The number you arrive at for any of these questions is far too depressing. 

My provost occasionally reminds faculty that we put the assignments in the course; we can just as easily take them out.  This is technically true, but I have to assign a lot of writing if I really want the students to engage the texts, ideas and subjects I teach.  Nothing else holds them as accountable as having to wrestle their understanding into words.

And the students secretly know this.  In my first-year courses, for example, I often have the students design a mock quiz during the first few weeks of class.  I divide them up into groups of four and assign each group to come up with quiz questions for the material we covered at our last meeting.  One group creates true/false statements, another multiple choice questions, and still another a series of terms to be matched to examples in a corresponding column.  And one lucky group is assigned the task of developing take-home essay questions.  I tell the class to make these quizzes as tough as possible.  And each group places its quiz  on a large piece of poster paper, which I affix to the four walls of the classroom. 

Then I ask the students to stand next to the quiz that would prove most challenging.  Hands down, the wall with the take-home essay questions has 80 to 90 percent of the class standing in front of it.  So I ask the class why they chose this one (and they always do).  The response never varies: "This one means you really have to think."

"Um, yes.  And that's why there's so much writing in this course."  

I just don't see the same results unless I make students write and write a lot.  I also think I need to respond to what they tell me.  Writing is an act of communication.  If there is not someone at the other end listening and responding, what's the point?  It's a lot of work.  It eats up hours and hours of my life.  I wish there were another way to get the same result.


Now back to the stack.

* Ye'p, that's the number I shouldn't have calculated this semester (and it doesn't count revisions).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lift Off!

It's the end of the fifth week of classes and I have been hammering students with writing assignments due at nearly every meeting.  All of the qualities of good critical engagement I painstakingly laid out the first week have been so far willfully ignored.  Some students have been working hell-for-leather to give me the right answer; others have yet to fully comprehend that reading the syllabus can be a helpful tool for remembering when things are due.

Everyone is at a different place, but one or two have been trembling on the launch pad all week.  They are just now beginning to get why I have been making them write and write and write.  It's their voice I want to hear engaging the text, not mine.  Yes, summarize ideas in your own words, gentle reader, but cite them too.  Citing keeps you honest.  It forces you to deal with and honor what is actually on the page.

Wednesday we worked on posing our own questions to the text and looking for connections and patterns. I have been asking them to do this from the beginning, but only now is it dawning on a few of them that this is what good critical reading means: how is Andromache's speech in Book VI of the Iliad like Phoenix's speech in Book IX?  Is Achilles' refusal of the treasure in Book IX the same mistake as Agamemnon's refusal of the priest's ransom in Book I?

Many of the students set personal goals the first week to become stronger readers and writers, and I have been working my rear off to honor these goals.  It took weeks of reminding them not to quote-bomb me or simply spit back the examples I offered in class.  It took weeks to get them to cite their summary and then to cite both ends of an inter-textual connection.  It took me writing, "Yes, but what do you make of it? numberless times at the end of each paper to get them to trust themselves enough to venture an opinion on what they have read.  So it was with great relief that I was able to write this earlier this morning:


Now you are doing some good critical reading and writing. Why do I say this?  Well you have connected the texts together and constructed an understanding that's all your own.  Moreover you drew some parallels between Achilles' choice and your own life decisions.  Do you see how much smarter and more engaged this is than circling an answer on a multiple choice quiz?  Now how do I keep you doing this?  More please, much, much more.  I finally feel like I am getting to hear what you to have say.  And I like it. 

You just have to burn a ton of fuel to get the rocket an inch off the pad, but it remains a thrill every time one lifts off.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Inexcusably Self-Indulgent

A number of years ago the BBC put together a documentary on the creative approach Charlie Chaplin used in his early film career.  And by early, I mean really early.  In 1916-17 Chaplin had gotten a contract with Mutual Film Corporation to churn out short comedies. Moreover, he was given a free hand by Mutual to do things his own way.

The documentary (Unknown Chaplin) was comprised of hundreds of outtakes that were never meant to be preserved.  Someone failed to destroy them and they were rediscovered in the 70s.  Arranged chronologically they provided a fascinating look at how Chaplin worked.  Indeed, his early shorts and even his later full-length films emerged from a slow, exploratory process of innovation and trial and error.  He might begin without even a plot.  All he would have was an idea for a gag, or a prop, or maybe he would have the set builders run up something to play with: an escalator, a high dive. 

From there he added elements, characters and new gags. Sometimes he would film 100 takes exploring the possibilities of an idea only to throw it away and veer off in an entirely new direction. Because this was the early days of Hollywood (and because Chaplin was such a star), there were no Mutual accountants or producers pacing nervously just off camera with clipboards and spreadsheets.  Chaplin had a creative freedom that subsequent filmmakers could only imagine.

What struck me about the documentary is how similar Chaplin's approach was to the way I figure out a new class.  I tinker with bits, go off in wrong directions, circle round, try this, try that, abandon everything and start over.  I should admit upfront that I am no pedagogical Chaplin. Not even close. Still there is a creative discovery process that accompanies figuring out how to teach something that is not unlike what Chaplin was doing.  And here's my guilty secret: it's what I really like about teaching.  I just love the process of figuring it out in the classroom.  This means of course that the first few times I teach anything it's going to be hit or miss.

A few years back we had a wonderful speaker at our summer institute, a fellow by the name of Dee Fink.  He had worked out a very logical and scientific approach to course design. Most of us, Fink said, have very unsound methods for putting together significant learning experiences.  You have no idea how I inwardly quailed upon hearing this.  He was talking about me and my inexcusably self-indulgent method for creating my courses.  I am, frankly, the poster child for this sloppy approach to teaching and learning. 

For nearly two hours I tried to follow Fink's method and then I slumped off at the break and never went back. The idea of having it all planned out before the course begins, of having a unified design with each day and activity targeted for maximum impact, is really, really smart.  It's what I should be doing.  But I won't lie. I don't want a script and I don't want a shooting schedule. Where's the fun in that?

Hollywood, of course, had to change.  Directors had to be reined in.  By 1952 they wouldn't even let Chaplin back in the country let alone a Hollywood studio.  A few years after that Universal took a chance on Orson Welles, allowing him to direct Touch of Evil, a 'B picture' with a tight budget.  On the first day of shooting, Welles set up an almost four-minute continuous crane shot.  It took the entire night to get right and the bean counters at Universal were apoplectic. The producers made it clear to him that he and his so-called creative process were on a short leash.  They were watching.

Eventually everything succumbs to rationalization.  That's true in higher education today.  Increasingly our teaching approaches and our results are under scrutiny by accreditors and the federal government.  There are new assessment demands, faculty evaluation instruments and a concerted push for that most grown-up of all words: accountability.  This is as it should be, no doubt.  We've had it too good for too long.  Nobody gets Chaplin's Mutual contract these days.

Sometimes I find myself imagining that somewhere there is a grim, small-minded man locked in a stuffy office.  He's neatly dressed and at his desk poring over enormous ledgers filled with long columns of tiny numbers.  He's on a mission and he won't be satisfied until he's finally located, targeted and eradicated the last few parts of this job that actually make it fun. 

He's a determined fellow.  I'll give him that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Making Adjustments

I love responding to students in my comments and spend way too much time doing it.  I have a kid in my course right now who always starts his writing responses with phrases like "This was dumb" or "I thought this reading was really boring."  He's not a strategic learner.  By that I mean he is not the kind of student who has developed a careful strategy for getting an A.  You know, the do-exactly-what-was-asked and no more kind of student.  These are the ones who figure out how to game the system, say what the professor wants to hear and become the most exacting little syllabus lawyers.
No, this kid just tells me he didn't much care for it, as if he alone were entitled to decide whether something was worth his time or not.  I actually like this in him and hope it doesn't get beaten out of him too quickly.  I always end up writing more back to students like these than I ever do to strategic learners, who usually receive some formulation of the following: "Hey, these are my ideas.  Go get some of your own."

So here was my side of the most recent exchange with my wonderfully non-strategic learner:
I actually like it when you tell me that you thought a reading was dumb or boring (as you did with the Stephen L.Carter reading).  It’s amusing and I think it’s probably good to assess the value of assignments.  In high school I had a teacher who assigned us to write the preamble to the Constitution backwards and to have it on his desk the next day.  Everybody (including me) did it but one guy: Sammy G.  But Sammy never did any of the work. He mostly just got high, occasionally by sniffing the gas out of lawnmowers.  So the next day, the teacher announced, “Everybody failed this assignment but Sammy, who gets an A.” 
The students were like “What the…?”  Sammy just smiled.  The teacher said, “Sammy was the only one smart enough to know that this was a dumb assignment.  You people are seniors and will be graduating soon.  You’ve got to start thinking for yourselves and not just doing everything you’re told.”   I kind of thought that was a dirty trick and hated that teacher, but he was right.  And I’ve never forgotten the lesson, so I guess he was actually a pretty good teacher.
So you should question what you are assigned to read.  Keep in mind, though, that not all professors will appreciate being told you thought a reading was boring or dumb.  They assigned it for a reason.  Me?  I’m just different that way.  I don’t mind.  Besides I actually did assign Carter for a reason, and it occurs to me that I am pulling the same stunt my high school teacher did years ago.  You may have noticed in class last time that every single person but one said they wanted Boss A, the principled, consistent, open and caring boss.  I even made them declare their choice by moving to one side of the room.   I wanted them on the record.
Today, of course, we met Mr. Machiavelli, who argued that you don’t want Boss A in charge of things.  In fact, such people are absolute disasters in leadership positions, especially in politics.  And did you see how many people changed where they were standing today?  That’s exactly what I was hoping for.  We should change our thinking when we encounter new evidence or arguments.  Carter’s not opposed to that, by the way.  Read carefully, he does believe a leader can and should change his or her mind when his principle is shown to be wrong.  Machiavelli is all about changing, too, although for tactical advantage rather than principles.  You could say his only principle is just win, baby.  How you get there doesn’t matter.
I keep saying this and it remains true: deep learning means change.  We all start with an idea about what good leadership is, but after we gather some new information, or look at it from a different perspective, or encounter a problem where our idea doesn’t apply, we may have to adjust our thinking.  That’s what real critical thinking is: adjusting to new understanding.   Not adjusting = not good.  It means your learning curve is flat-lining.  This isn’t to say that Carter is wrong and Machiavelli right.  I’m simply suggesting that we might want to closely question the assumptions of Carter and Machiavelli before we adjust our ideas on leadership.
You know who didn’t adjust?  Sammy G.  Saw him in a bar several years back and talked to him.  He was still all about getting loaded, and along the way he had been kicked out of the army and been in and out of various institutions (psych ward, prison).  When I asked him what he had been doing with his life, he just made his thumb and forefinger into a nice round “zero.”  So, yeah, keep questioning the readings, but keep doing them anyway.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Week Three Clean and Jerk

I have been meeting one-on-one with my new baby freshmen for the past two weeks.  Every year I am assigned 20 new ones and they are required to be in my three-credit First-Year Seminar for fall semester (and for the one-credit follow up course in spring).  The first question I ask each one goes something like this: "So after X many days in college, what do you think?"  

The answers vary, but the one I fear is "It's not really as hard as I thought it would be." 

Very few of my students have been aimed at higher education like cruise missiles.  Most amble in with a vague sense of what college is and, often, an even vaguer sense of who they are and where they want to end up.  They're here because they have heard that you need a degree to avoid a crappy job, or they wanted to keep playing a sport, or their high school somehow lacked a 13th grade.  This is just the next place you go when you are done with what came before.

Not a few of these kids swanned through high school blowing off reading, turning in the bare minimum, memorizing just enough to pass an exam.  High School was for many of them pro forma, a joke, a mug's game. I've got two weeks--three tops--to convince them college is different.  After that they know it all.

And they really do arrive here hoping it will be different.  They want to change their approach.  I have them set goals for themselves in a paper due at the second class meeting, and these goals are honest and earnest in the way only an 18-year-old can be earnest.
  • In high school I never really read.  I want to read and really understand things at a deeper level.
  • I know my writing is bad. I want to strengthen it.
  • I kind of blew off a lot my senior year.  I sure don't want to do that in college.
The first few weeks either confirm or negate the assumption that they need to make any changes, which is why I have been busting my hump reading, responding and grading essays in my first-year seminar.  My 100-level classes are all heavily front loaded with writing assignments.  There is one due every single meeting the first three weeks, and I work like hell to get it back with a page of comments at the next class meeting.  For me and for them, it's one heavy lift just to get to the set point.

Add to that meeting four times last week on a hiring committee for a new Admissions Director, and this week standing in for a colleague with a father in the last stages of life, and it's been a nearly impossible lift.  Up every morning at 4:00 am to read, grade and prepare, grading every night after dinner...

But these two or three weeks are the most crucial weeks in my baby freshmen's college experience.  They have to get the message that the same old approach will yield the same old results.  So I growl, I cajole, I sweet talk and I bluff.  Whatever it takes.  I found myself writing this on a kid's paper last night:

Ahem, a few words about turning in your best effort.  This looks like it was dashed off and given a once over with spell check.  That won’t cut it.  You are in a university now and the expectations are higher.  So let’s slow down, read your paper aloud before hitting print and catch the little things. You are paying for an education and I’m determined to give you one, but you have to step up.   So this is the last time you hand in work with un-capitalized proper nouns.  This isn’t a text message.  Let’s get in the ball park.  Show me what you can do.  I’ll shower you with praise when you do.  Promise.

And I do promise.
Yesterday in my 100-level Humanities section I found myself explaining the Greek idea of a kairotic moment.  This is a moment when an opportunity arises that must be seized or rejected.  You have a choice, but once the choice is made the outcome is determined and the opportunity will not come again.  Think Oedipus at the crossroad.  That way lies Corinth, that way lies Thebes, and who is this disagreeable man in my way? 
The first three weeks of a kid's freshmen year is a kairotic moment.  It will not come again.  And it is the great tragedy of life that we seldom recognize these things when they appear. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

You look, but you do not see, grasshopper

Yesterday I completed the first Kung-Fu mind game with the freshmen. In our first-year program instructors are allowed to chose the content.  My section focuses on deception, specifically lies, magic, magical thinking and con games.  The real focus, however, is helping 18-year-olds ramp up to university-level standards for critical inquiry and writing. 

In class yesterday we went over the opening chapter of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, which covers some fascinating research on why and how we lie.  Chapter one is all about poking holes in the S.M.O.R.C. (the simple model of rational crime).  This is our default view of why people lie.  It holds that the decision to lie or cheat is simply a cost/benefit analysis. 

In other words, when we are presented with a chance to gain an unfair advantage, we weigh the risk of getting caught against the reward of getting away with it.  If the odds are decidedly in our favor, most of us will cheat or lie.  This--or a version of it--is usually what students come up with when I ask the them to produce a theory for when and why people lie. 

After we put their theories on the board, we overviewed some experiments that really torpedo the SMORC.  Researchers gave a group of people puzzle matrices containing 10 solutions and they asked participants to find as many solutions as they could in a set amount of time. For each right answer, the participant would receive a dollar (or $10 in some versions). The average number most people could solve was four.  

Okay, so what would happen if you gave people the chance to lie about their results and reduced the risk of getting caught to zero?  My students predicted a large increase in cheating.  But that's not what happened.  In one version of this experiment, researchers had participants first shred their puzzle sheets and then self-report their scores.  Actually the shredder wasn't really shredding and, besides, the researchers already knew the average would be four correct solutions. 

To be sure, most people did cheat (almost 90 percent), but they only did so by a little, not a lot (an average increase of two answers).  Even when primed beforehand with the false idea that the average participant got seven solutions, people would still only cheat a little (6 rather 7, 8 or 9).  Cheating and lying were happening, of course, but something other than SMORC was clearly taking place.

So I asked my students to come up with new theories to account for these findings.  Eventually they arrived at something similar to what Ariely proposed.  People will cheat if the risk is low, but they still want to think of themselves as basically honest people, so they won't get too greedy.  In other words, our line between honesty and dishonesty is not distinct.  Most of us operate with a fudge factor, a gray borderline that separates honesty from dishonesty.   We even allow ourselves to cross into this gray zone from time to time, but we also want to retain the belief that we are basically honest people.  Indeed, when researchers reminded people before the experiment that they were on the 'honor system' to report their scores accurately (and when they had them sign a pledge to do so), lying about performance dropped considerably.

After going over all of these results, I asked my students if they thought the"fudge factor" theory was better than SMORC in describing why and when we lie.  They all agreed.  It was more accurate.  Students said things like, "He's right in a way.  I would feel bad if I said I got 10 solutions" or "Most people want to be good, but we all get tempted now and then.  Doesn't mean we're bad people."

Fine, wonderful, great work, everybody.

Next slide:  "Let's imagine that we went from offering As, Bs, Cs, etc., to offering cash payouts for top performance.  Instead of an A in a course, you receive $1,000, a B gets you $250, a C $75.  The money would be paid to you in cash at semester's end.  If we switched to this system, would cheating at this university go up or down?  Get into groups, talk it over and give me your prediction and hypothesis."

Result: they went right back to SMORC.

It did not matter that they had just seen evidence that SMORC was problematic, or that I had reminded them the risk of getting caught in the cash-for-grades scheme wasn't zero.


SMORC it was.

I say all the time that mental models change slowly.  Students can look right at evidence, spit it back at you, explain it to you perfectly, but when you ask them to think with it they haven't moved at all. So on Monday I'll walk into class with a puzzled expression and say something's been eating at me all weekend.  I just can't figure it out.

"Last Friday you guys told me the "fudge factor theory" was superior to SMORC in accounting for why and how we lie.  But when I gave you the hypothetical about money for grades, you reverted right back to the theory you had just discredited.  I don't get it.  What gives?"

Then, and only then, will we discuss the difference between surface and deep learning. 


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.  ...