Saturday, March 28, 2015

Speed Dating

Getting student writers to develop their compositions more slowly (i.e., using a process approach) is the reigning pedagogical orthodoxy.  And it's a good one because left to their own devices most students will sit down--usually the night before a paper is due--and invent, compose, revise and edit all in one go. 

What they usually fail to do is test out various approaches, drop arguments that aren't working or even rethink their original idea.  Too often the deadline looms and the deadline dictates. 

So structuring the stages of the writing process inside the work of the classroom really helps.  At one class period you ask them to choose the prompt they will respond to; the next time you begin to work out the thesis and think about evidence; at a later time you ask for a CFD (crappy first draft).  Anything you can do to slow them down and stretch out their thinking and writing process is good work.
That said, there is a moment during the process where it's fun to speed things up.  Yesterday in the first-year honors seminar, for example, I had the students working out the logic of their papers.  They had already thought about the prompts they wanted to write on (or written their own prompts).  So I asked them to write out the thesis they wanted to defend.  Among these were the following:
  • A consistent theme in all the authors we've read from Plato to Swift has been the dual nature of humanity.
  • Human beings are no better than Swift's savage Yahoos.
  • Victor Frankenstein had the potential to be an Emersonian Man-Thinking, but he failed to trust in his vision in the way Emerson recommended.
We spent some time work-shopping what textual evidence might support these theses and I had them try to state the larger significance or the implications of their arguments (in other words, why do you want to make this argument?  Why does it matter to you?).  After 30 minutes or so they ended up with a loose one-page outline that was ready for speed dating.

So they paired up, activated the stop watch function on their phones and Ipods, and each person in a pair had 30 seconds to state a thesis, the arguments and the larger significance of the idea to a partner.  Then they switched to a new partner and did it again, and again, and again.  In a few minutes they could run through the logic of their argument four or five times.  I kept the pace moving and hollered out "Switch!" every 30 seconds.

Next came the interesting part.  I asked them to do it once more, but this time they had to change the thesis to the opposite view, or use the same thesis but come up with at least one new argument in support.  The aim was to create a fun, fast moving, almost physical way for them to play around with their thesis and arguments.  I don't want them to get locked into a set way of seeing things, and they do tend to get locked in.

They will stick with a bad argument when they could easily tweak their forecasting statement to make it work.  They will write a paper that doesn't support their thesis, panic as they realize this and then just go with it, when they could simply alter the thesis to fit the paper.  Making them see new possibilities in the evidence overcomes something cognitive psychologists call field dependence, the tendency to see the data set before you in only one way.

Speed dating an argument is silly and fast-paced so it communicates that this is low stakes play.  They can screw up, flub an idea and fool around with bad or weak arguments that really don't work.  Nothing is fixed.  The evidence can change, the thesis can change, even their opinion can change as they play around with ideas.  In other words, they are just dating the field.  Their argument doesn't have to be Mr. Right,  just Mr. Right Now.

I suppose there is some fancy pedagogical word for why this works and I doubt I'm the first person whoever came up with the idea.  But the students seem to have fun with it and it seems to help them see new possibilities. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Got my mojo workin' but it just don't work on you

It's March, the week after break, and lately spring has been playing a coquettish game of slap and tickle: one day all is bright and beautiful, the next day cold rains smack us back into reality.

And me? 

Well I'm up there in front of the classroom dancing my little pedagogical posterior off, and with some darned good stuff, too.  A lot of it is my A material.

In the junior-level core seminar I'm tearing Thomas Friedman's "World is Flat" thesis asunder with charts and graphs.  Charts and graphs, man, and the occasional derisive sneer.   In Introduction to Humanities I am exploring the increased tensions inherent in the emergent religious pluralism of 17th century Western European society. Scientific Revolution, baby!  Bacon, Newton, Harvey!

And in the Honors Seminar we're applying developmental psychological models to both Victor Frankenstein and his creature.  My mojo is more than working.  Frankly, the stuff I'm doing in class is downright interesting.  But if I'm honest, it doesn't appear to interest my students all that much. 

Some of this is due to spring and the fact that the mental shadow line that separates the beginning of a term from a semester's fated end has silently passed.  This old semester is what it is and all thoughts now bend toward the end.  On a five-hundred mile trip, the hardest driving is the last 20 miles. 

But it's also not working because students are just wired differently than I am.  They don't geek on applying Bacon's Idols of the Mind to contemporary beliefs or letting the air out of gasbags like Tom Friedman.  In the end, their blues ain't like my blues.

But that's okay.  Some of the numbers I play in class aren't meant to be crowd pleasers.  Some are just about the music and one or two are just for me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

They're not broken

Yesterday I sat in on a meeting with a hired-gun retention expert who told us we aren't imagining it if we sense a change in the readiness levels of our current students.  I've long known about the statistics showing today's students are less well-prepared.  Only 25 percent of first-year students are hitting all four ACT readiness benchmarks in writing, reading, math and science.  The numbers for science and reading are particularly depressing (only 30 percent achieve readiness standards in science, 50 percent in reading). 

At the same time, I have also been reluctant to fall into "the students today are broken" school of thought, an all-too seductive position for faculty to adopt because it allows us to sniff and say, "Well, until the high schools start sending me better students, there's nothing I can do." 

The truth is there are things we can do to increase our effectiveness with underprepared students and they don't always involve lowering our standards (quite the opposite).  They will, however, require us to change, and change is a word most faculty greet with suspicion.  It comes all too often from people with agendas beyond classroom teaching.

I'm no expert, but I know that I've had to change my approach to teaching over the last ten years.  These changes have been driven by necessity but also by a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the results in my classes.  So, for what it's worth, here are three broad brushstroke changes I've had to make:

Assume nothing: so many of the basic academic survival skills that we take as a given are just not there anymore.  A lot of students don't (and do not see the need to) read the syllabus, keep a planner, or calculate their GPA (let alone understand the conventions of academic writing, critical reading or the ethical use of source material).  We can express our frustration about this all we want, but it isn't going to change anything.  Last week, for example, there was a rash of all-campus emails expressing faculty consternation about students who make and then don't keep advising appointments.  Anyone who is surprised by the fact students aren't tracking on meetings and due dates either hasn't been teaching for very long or hasn't adjusted to the new reality.  It doesn't take much to address the problem: a simple email reminder to advisees each morning during advising week works wonders.   Should we have to do this?   No.  Ought we do it?  Why not if it gets the job done with less frustration?  Like I said, don't assume they will remember.

Teach material by teaching skills: there is a long (and quite frankly tedious) debate among professors about whether we have to get students up to speed before they are ready to think about more demanding material, or whether we can teach thinking and the material at the same time.  I am firmly in the latter camp.  If there is some benchmark of critical ability needed before we get to the demanding content, then we are unlikely ever to get there.  Yes, I teach demanding material, but I also have to teach them how to read it.  Yes, I want them to think critically, analytically, creatively, but I also have to as concretely as possible show students how to do this and why it matters.  My experience is students will do whatever you ask of them so long as you have been clear about what you want and why.  I mean they're underprepared, not broken.

Emphasize a "growth mindset": given the profile of students in our classes, much of what we do on the undergraduate level will be formative.  It's important to integrate into courses some self-assessments that allow students to measure and see their growth and development.  This can be something as simple as asking them to write a note on where they see improvement on the back of a assignment just before they turn it in.  You can build in self-assessment components to final projects or exams.   I like to assign final reflection papers in which students walk me back through their semester highlighting the frustrations and breakthroughs along the way.   The key thing is to change the conversation from point totals and grades to growth and development, which is what education is suppose to be about, right?  Students really do like to see themselves getting better.  The research on "mastery" as a motivator is clear.

A great resource on pedagogy for teaching to who our students are today is Teaching Underprepared Students by Kathleen Gabriel and Sandra Flake.  It's a practical guide for doing the job in today's higher education landscape.  Let's face it: the preparedness level of our incoming students isn't likely to change anytime soon.  The only change that's likely is--for better or worse--how we approach our job.  .

Friday, March 6, 2015

Babbling and Strewing Flowers

All week the students have been watching the weather forecast.  Today--for the first time since possibly last November--the temperatures will creep close to 50 degrees, which means there will be no end of incandescently pale knees and bared toes all over campus. 

If this were last fall and temps were in the 40s, students would be laden in sweatshirts, Ugg boots and freshly un-mothballed sweaters.  But let the first warm day in March appear and common sense can take a hike.  It's spring!  Break out the shorts and flip-flops.  And if spring is here, can one long Corona-soaked patio bar summer be far behind?  Yippee!

It doesn't help that Spring Break is a week away or that today in the first-year honors seminar we begin to discuss Emerson's Nature.  When temps hit 65 next Wednesday, I fully expect to hear requests to take the class outside.  The fact that we're reading Nature will no doubt be among the arguments employed.  Damn Emerson with his head "bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space."
I never take classes outside, ever.  A professor--however fascinating he or she may be-- simply cannot compete with spring.  

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.  ...