faculty

The importance of not overlooking A students in the classroom (opinion)

Teaching Today

Waving through our strongest students with some minimal comments does a disservice to them, to us as pedagogues and, ultimately, to the future of our profession itself, argues Adam Kotsko.

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A professor questions the current approaches to assessment (opinion)

I have questions for people who actually believe in assessment. You know who I’m talking about: administrators, accreditors and federal officials who insist that we generate reports that analyze -- sorry, assess -- whether students are meeting lists of “learning goals.” The assessophiles need those reports so they can verify that we -- the apparently untrustworthy faculty -- are spending our time on things that are educationally valuable. Because wouldn’t it be terrible if we were spending our time on tedious exercises disconnected from teaching and learning?

Here’s what I’d like to ask those people.

First, do you think that the question “Does this test or assignment get at what it really means to learn this subject?” can be reduced to a rubric that was written to satisfy outsiders and their regulatory imperatives? Do you think that this question can be substantively answered via your report-generating processes?

Also, when you’re evaluating rubrics and learning goals for programs outside your field, and it’s 2 a.m. and your report is due soon, are you really paying attention to anything besides the presence or absence of “action verbs”? Be honest. Are you truly interested in assessing the students’ learning of my subject, or are you really just checking my competency in the use of those verbs? If my mastery of parts of speech is all that you care about, can’t you just peruse my publications? Or should I also dig up my GRE verbal score from 20 years ago?

Do you think that faculty members who eschew your exercises don’t pay attention to how students perform when we try new things? Yes, we all know someone who drones on for an hour thrice weekly, never sees students in office hours and gives only multiple-choice tests. But are all the rest of us similarly suspect? And if an honest assessment effort demonstrated that students weren’t learning anything from Professor Droning On, what concrete steps would you actually be prepared to take?

Do you really think we don’t make changes in response to what we observe in the classroom and to how our students perform? Do you think we don’t talk to colleagues about what we’ve observed or share ideas for improvement?

If you acknowledge such introspective activities and collegial discussions as positive aspects of academic culture, do you have suggestions for turning them into reports that would satisfy you? Could we do so without making it tedious and unsatisfying for people who pursued this modestly compensated career for the love of the subject and the joy of sharing it?

Speaking of modest compensation, how much of a stipend will you pay the poor sucker who agrees to produce the reports that you claim to want? Any bonus if the reports are actually meaningful?

Besides, what if we, in fact, found evidence that freshmen aren’t learning the foundations that they’ll need to truly understand the more advanced material? Would you want us to grade accordingly? What if we were to write a report showing that seniors nearing graduation have disturbing gaps in their knowledge? Would you want us to withhold the passing grades that they need in order to receive their diplomas? Or would you want us to bury this embarrassing information in some report that nobody will actually read?

Are your answers to the last few questions in any way influenced by the state legislature’s concerns about graduation rates?

Oh, I see; you want us to improve classes so that students do learn. Great! Will you give us the budgets needed for offering smaller classes? For reconfiguring lecture halls into active learning centers with round tables for small-group discussions, and other “best practices” that you heard about in a TED talk? Would you fund more assistants to help us teach -- I mean, facilitate -- those discussions?

Ah, you heard about this one guy who managed to transform, flip and disrupt his class, or whatever the current jargon is. Well, this one guy just happens to teach one course per semester, and most of his publications are about best practices for the same class that he gives TED talks about. Can we have 1-1 teaching loads like him?

Speaking of job descriptions, can assistant professors stop publishing in whatever specialty they were hired for and start publishing on pedagogy like the TED talker does? Will they still get tenure?

If we want to try something new that we heard about at that workshop that you sponsored (in the overly air-conditioned conference room with the broken coffee machine), can we just do it, or will you still want course revisions to go through umpteen layers of curriculum committees?

Oh, and we tried to do the paperwork for a course revision, but it turns out that nobody’s actually handled the learning outcomes documents for that course since the Bush administration. (Don’t ask which one.) Do you know where those files might be?

Finally, have you done an assessment of assessment? Do students learn more when faculty members perform these rituals? Do frequent assessment activities via administratively sanctioned rubrics lead to better learning than faculty members who experiment on a regular basis, bringing a variety of approaches in accordance with their variety of specialties and perspectives?

And do assessment budgets correlate with how much students learn? With how much they earn? With how well they’re prepared for productive work, the life of the mind and active citizenship? Do graduate and professional schools find that students are better prepared if their undergraduate institutions devoted substantial resources to formal assessment processes?

Why don’t you write a report on that and get back to me?

Alex Small is a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He likes asking uncomfortable questions. For some reason he doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties.

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Tip for effective informational interviews (opinion)

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Many students are unclear how to conduct such conversations and are potentially sabotaging future career prospects, writes Thomas Magaldi.

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3 Informational Interview Mistakes

Professor Arrested for Allegedly Stalking Student

An assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida was arrested at his office last week and faces two charges of stalking, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The professor, Ali Borji, allegedly sent 800 messages per day to a Ph.D. student, watched her exercise through the window at her gym and followed her in his car. The student said Borji originally reached out to her on Facebook and offered to help her with her studies shortly after she met him, last summer. She said they went out several times before she told Borji that she did not want a relationship, but he did not stop contacting her.

After she threatened to inform the police, Borji allegedly sent the student an email saying, “We are just one step away from eternal happiness,” according to police. The woman said she left the campus in the fall to escape Borji but that he continued to contact her and seek her out when she returned to campus in the spring, even threatening to create an artificial-intelligence facsimile of her and “do anything he wanted.” He also allegedly told the student that she should be "happy that somebody likes you this much to stalk you." Borji resigned from the university prior to his arrest and may not trespass on campus, a Central Florida spokesperson said.

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UC Irvine says it will remove former professor's name from institutions he helped build after finding he harassed women

University of California, Irvine, says it will remove former professor's name from the science institutions he helped build after finding he harassed women.

Pearson Plans AI Expansion

Pearson today signaled an increased focus on artificial intelligence and personalized learning with the appointment of former Intel executive Milena Marinova.

Marinova joins the company as senior vice president for AI products and solutions.

Pearson already has an R&D team that works on AI, but Tim Bozik, global head of product at Pearson, said that the company would be expanding and accelerating its AI work under Marinova’s direction. “We’re doubling down our effort and investment,” said Bozik.

In addition to leading development of new AI tools and techniques, Marinova will act as a spokesperson for the role of AI in education. Marinova said that currently education is “not realizing a lot of benefits of AI that I’ve seen in other industries.” She added that Pearson “wants to be a leader in the space.”

AI can improve the efficiency of homework grading and give students a more tailored education experience, said Bozik. Pearson is currently developing a tool that can pinpoint where students go wrong when solving math problems. The company is also working on automated essay scoring and incorporating virtual tutors into its learning platforms.

Though a goal of AI is automation, Marinova stressed that Pearson's intent is not to replace instructors, but to help them. “AI-assisted decision making is better than human alone,” she said.

Ethically applied, AI techniques could help solve pervasive problems in education such as low completion and retention rates, said Bozik. “We have big ambitions,” he said. “But this is early days.”

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How a writing group can help you meet your goals for the summer (opinion)

Eszter Hargittai describes how a writing accountability group can help you meet your goals over the summer.

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With a Little Help From Your Friends

Class Size Matters

Do smaller classes help reduce performance gaps in science fields? Yes, according to a new study in BioScience. Researchers looked at the impact of class size on undergraduates in 17 introductory biology courses at four different institutions: California State University Chico, Cornell University, the University of Puget Sound and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Analyzing exam scores, nonexam assessments and final course grades from 1,836 students, the researchers found that smaller class sizes effectively closed the performance gap for women. More specifically, they found that while women underperformed on high-stakes exams compared with their male counterparts as class size increased, women received higher scores than men on other kinds of assessments.

Underrepresented minority students underperformed compared with other students regardless of class size, suggesting that other factors in the educational environment are at play. "Even when large classes are a 'necessary evil,' there are many simple ways to make even big classrooms feel small for students," lead author Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral associate in biology teaching and learning at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, said in a statement. "That includes group work, giving students more opportunities to interact with lecture material and instructors using inclusive teaching practices."

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Oregon State U Faculty Is Unionized

Oregon State University’s new faculty union is now certified, the American Federation of Teachers- and American Association of University Professors-affiliated union announced Thursday. A majority of the university’s nearly 2,400 teaching and research faculty members in tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, along with postdoctoral workers, pledged support for a union earlier this month, and the Oregon Employment Relations Board officially recognized the United Academics of Oregon State University this week.

Steve Clark, vice president for marketing and university relations, said in a statement that Oregon State "looks forward to a productive bargaining relationship with the UAOSU and our represented faculty as we continue to mutually advance the land grant mission and priorities of the university."

The union in its announcement noted that certification comes just as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the mandatory collection of agency fees by public-sector unions. Jan Medlock, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, said in the statement that collective bargaining remains “important to ensure research support as well as protect rigorous scientific inquiry.” AFT president Randi Weingarten also said that workers “are forming and sticking with unions to bargain collectively to make possible what would be impossible for individuals acting alone. Unions are built for times like these, as a vehicle to help people secure a better life.”

Oregon’s labor board this week also certified a 175-person faculty union affiliated with the AAUP at the Oregon Institute of Technology.

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Western Illinois U to Lay Off 24 Professors

Western Illinois University will lay off 24 faculty members, including seven who have tenure, by next summer, the institution’s Board of Trustees announced Thursday. Two nonfaculty members in academic affairs also will soon receive layoff notices. Twenty-three professors at the Macomb campus will lose their jobs, along with one professor at the Quad Cities campus in Moline, WQAD reported. Some 62 vacant faculty positions that are open due to retirements or resignations will be eliminated as well.

Cathy Early, board chair, said in a statement that institutions “must continually re-evaluate their methods of delivery and recalibrate to meet the ever-changing challenges and opportunities. We are making these decisions in order to reposition Western for future growth, viability and sustainability, while remaining fiscally responsible to our students and taxpayers.”

Bill Thompson, president of the institution’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union, University Professionals of Illinois, said the move marked “another dark day for Western Illinois University,” according to WQAD. While faculty and academic staff members didn’t cause the institution’s current drop in enrollment, he said, they “once again are being let go to pay for the failure of the administration to successfully address the decline.” Students don’t come to a university because of its administration, he said, but “because of the faculty and the curriculum the faculty teach. Students come to work with the faculty who will challenge them to surpass their teachers, that is to go forward, learn more, do more. When faculty are laid off, those opportunities decrease. And that can never be a good thing.”

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