Georgetown Hints at Grad Assistant Union Election Agreement

Georgetown University hinted this week at a possible private union election agreement with its would-be graduate student union. Graduate assistants rallied last month after the university said it would not voluntarily agree to recognize the union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. But organizers have since floated the idea of a private union election, one overseen by a body other than the federal National Labor Relations Board. In a memo this week, Robert Groves, provost, said Georgetown “is seriously considering this proposal to determine whether it might provide an opportunity for a framework that recognizes that our graduate students’ relationship with the university is fundamentally an educational one, while also responding to some graduate students’ desire to have a stronger voice in our continuing work to create the conditions under which they can flourish.” 

Graduate assistant organizers said on their Facebook page that Georgetown’s “partial reversal” from its “steadfast denial of our legal status as workers to now being willing to negotiate a third party election is the direct result of our collective actions and our support from faculty, alumni, undergraduates, fellow grad workers and the Georgetown community as a whole.” New York University surprised many when it entered into a private agreement with its United Auto Workers-Affiliated graduate student union in 2013. The NLRB has since said that graduate assistants on private campuses are employees entitled to collective bargaining.

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How engineering students can learn through improvisational theater (opinion)

A few years ago, Northwestern University alumnus Stephen Colbert spoke to our graduating seniors about improvisation. He said one of the first rules is that “you are not the most important person in the scene. Everyone else is.” He explained that your job is to pay attention and serve the other people in the scene.

He added that there is good news: “You’re in the scene, too, so hopefully to them you are the most important person and they will serve you.” In other words, if everyone is doing their job, each is focusing on serving the other.

Out of that thought came one of the more unusual and highly popular courses available to Northwestern’s engineering students: Engineering Improv. And I became one of its unlikely teachers.

For the past 23 years, a big part of my work at Northwestern has been helping struggling engineering students think and act productively when facing moments of intense uncertainty. It’s hard to imagine a cohort of young people more focused on getting things exactly right than engineering students. So when things seem to be going wrong, or success is not certain, it can knock them off track and make some of them feel as if they are losing -- especially those who arrived at college never having tested the limits of their abilities.

My challenge is helping them turn obstacles into opportunities. It seemed to me that an art form designed to help a person focus on the needs of others might be just the thing.

So I hired someone with a background in improv instruction to help me develop a curriculum to get us started and let the adventure begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of improv, they include “Just say yes,” “Start anywhere” and “Embrace your mistakes.” As it happens, these are also essential skills for the effective problem solving and design innovation that is central to the study of engineering.

All successful improvisation -- and effective engineering -- begins and ends with paying attention. I tell students to think of their attention as a flashlight. It creates a beam of light, and whatever that light illuminates represents their awareness. In addition, wherever they shine that light represents their intention. For many students, the flashlight is constantly being jerked back and forth by deadlines, crises or failed expectations, leaving them feeling ungrounded and exhausted much of the time.

Early in the course, we introduce the idea of the flashlight, telling the students that when they realize they are the one holding it, they will come to understand that they also hold the power to be intentional. By deciding where to direct the light, they can choose to illuminate things that feed their energy rather than consume it with thoughts that haunt or distract.

I ask my students if they have ever wondered why we use the verb “pay” in reference to attention. The act of attending is a transaction, in which the currency is energy and the product is awareness. For example, when I walk around my house and shine my attention on all the unfinished projects and broken appliances, I feel a burden in terms of time and resources: “It just isn’t right -- when will it be right?” If, in contrast, I can redirect my attention from a desire to have everything be right to simply saying, “Yes, it’s a mess” and just getting started, I become open to opportunities to practice creative problem solving. And it’s that kind of creative problem solving they need to learn to embrace as engineers.

Just saying yes is more difficult than it sounds. Engineering Improv students learn the difference between figuring it out and letting it out. Improv isn’t about winging it. It actually requires enormous structure, as participants commit to a character and to a common set of assumptions and boundaries before committing to each other as they enter a scene. Agreeing on the context of the scene allows the players the freedom to let the content emerge through connection, which is the true joy of improv and an extraordinary thing to witness. The same thing happens in engineering, but the context is the problem, the commitment is to the team and the process of user-centered problem solving, and the content that’s allowed to emerge consists of the users’ underlying needs and interests -- which leads to a user-centered solution.

One evening in class, the students were engaged in a group scene exercise that began with one student starting an action and another joining that action with the intention to be helpful. I observed one of the students gently shoving a teammate into the scene while saying, “I got it. You start and I will come in.” Imagine how hard it must be for a perfectionist to trust that a scene will organically develop and work. And imagine the group discussion that follows. Why is it so hard for us to avoid the need to always be right? What gets in our way? Think about the continuous stream of judgments and feelings flooding each moment: “You better not blow this.” “Don’t embarrass yourself.” “Think of something funny.”

When the students recognize that they are having an unhelpful thought or feeling, they can redirect the flashlight of their attention to what is happening outside their own head, allowing them to notice what is being offered so they can say yes without piling on more judgments and expectations. Improvising is responding with generosity and expressing optimism, while giving the benefit of the doubt to yourself and your team.

That is an important lesson that translates directly into a highly challenging curriculum like engineering. Having self-critical thoughts or doubts is human. The students come to understand that those thoughts are not necessarily accurate and thus don’t need to be resolved or even pursued. That allows them to be pragmatic with their intentions as they choose how best to invest their energy through their attention.

A student who took the class last year recently told me that the Engineering Improv is the only course he has taken that has changed how he lives his life. This past quarter, the overall course rating was six out of six among the students who completed the evaluation. Some sample student comments:

  • “This course challenged me to throw all my preconceived notions on what it means to be an engineer and student at Northwestern out the door. When we entered the room, we entered a judgment-free zone where everyone had a clean slate. The course challenged us to reconstruct ourselves by focusing our intentional attention on the present moment. After I left the classroom, I was able to use my new control over my focus throughout my life and in other classes.”
  • As an engineer, we rarely have the opportunity to think critically or question our own convictions, but this class forced me to begin to pay attention to my surroundings and behavior and the behavior of others.”
  • “Improv walked a beautiful line between the creative expression of theater and the purposeful, collaborative involvement of engineering. I think every engineer should learn to ‘share the stage’ by taking this class.”

It may not seem as if there is a big difference between the intention to succeed and the intention not to fail, but when considered through the flashlight analogy, those two intentions produce very different outcomes in the form of awareness. If your intention is to not fail, you focus your flashlight on what failure looks like, what threatens your success, how you have failed in the past and the consequences of failing now. Shining your light on such things produces an awareness of fear, rumination and threat, which is unproductive when you are seeking to say yes and achieve your best performance. Setting the intention to succeed in the form of curiosity, excitement and connection allows you to shine your flashlight on opportunities to learn and find common purpose and authentic connection as you work with others to find a mutually beneficial solution.

Setting one’s sights on success doesn’t eliminate potential threats or risks, but it does trigger a fundamental shift from reacting defensively to responding proactively with optimism. For the students in Engineering Improv, applying these principles to their work as engineers helps them worry less about getting it right and encourages them to just get started. It helps them realize that making mistakes isn’t losing but learning. And it can be the best part of the scene.

Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

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Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically entitled students

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically "entitled" students.

We have a shared vision for the future faculty -- it's time to implement it (opinion)

It is 2018 and we still have a crisis with the faculty. For 30 years critics have proclaimed the tenure-track and adjunct models of faculty broken.

Tenure-track models overemphasize a very narrow definition of research and do not encourage or provide accountability for quality teaching or improvement of teaching. For example, studies demonstrate that only 25 percent of faculty are excellent at both research and teaching. Furthermore, the tenure track can commit institutions to wages beyond retirement and to fields of study where enrollments may no longer exist.

Adjunct lines provide no institutional stability for the teaching force and bring in droves of fluctuating staff with limited or no experience teaching for a particular institution. Many adjuncts are not granted office space and have little support in acclimating to a particular campus, which leaves students without instructors available for office hours and unprepared for mentoring.

In addition, adjuncts are left out of institutional discussions about learning goals, course assignments and textbook selection, and they are excluded from professional development, evaluation and feedback. Lastly, the adjunct model has serious human and moral costs: faculty members often live on poverty wages with no benefits, job security or career trajectory. These adjunct faculty have received Ph.D.s from universities without having been informed of the often poor job prospects in their fields. Institutions continue enlarging their doctoral enrollments amid a significant decline in reasonable jobs.

As part of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, we have long described the need to better support faculty off the tenure track as a short-term solution to the larger faculty crisis. But that is only a short-term solution -- one with increasing popularity but very limited long-term utility.

While we can eradicate some of the most egregious aspects of the growing adjunct and contingent roles with better support, we also have to rethink faculty roles more comprehensively for the future. With the growing visibility of struggling adjunct faculty and the clear links between their struggle and the very structure of their roles, the academy can no longer ignore this essential work.

What should the faculty look like in the future to overcome this crisis once and for all? We recently developed a survey of key stakeholders across higher education including boards, policy makers, administrators at all levels, faculty members of all types, disciplinary societies and unions to examine their views about the future of the faculty.

One of the myths that circulates in academe is that faculty and administrative views of the faculty are so diametrically opposed that discussions of future faculty roles are not possible. The myth foregrounds two stereotypes: professors (and their unions) who cling to luxurious tenure-track roles, and administrators driven by neoliberalism and the desire to deprofessionalize all faculty members. The survey findings challenge these views and find many points of consensus that can lead to a vision of the faculty for the future.

Although professors and administrators/policy makers share many common perspectives, unions and unionized faculty showed no lesser willingness to consider these features. Some key points of agreement are:

  1. We need to hire more full-time faculty (though not necessarily on the tenure track) and cease our overreliance on part-time faculty.
  2. We need to professionalize all faculty through ensuring academic freedom (potentially outside tenure systems), inclusion in shared governance, professional development, a system of promotion and decision-making related to curriculum and students. This point was seen as critical to any faculty role or contract type.
  3. Nontenured faculty need longer contracts: semester to semester and year to year are just too short. Three- to seven-year contracts, with increased durations over time, are seen as more reasonable.
  4. We need more emphasis on teaching, whether through tenuring faculty for teaching or hiring full-time faculty members into teaching roles on long-term contracts.
  5. All faculty should have a scholarly role -- not necessarily conducting original research, but attending conferences and keeping up with developments in one’s field and conceptualizing scholarship more broadly to include research on teaching.
  6. Faculty need differentiation and customization of role, and this should be desirable. Not all faculty members need to focus solely on teaching and research, and faculty should not focus on the same role their whole careers. For example, they may focus on teaching for a while, then shift to service or administrative roles, then research.
  7. Faculty members need flexible work policies and contract options. For example, flexibility around stop-the-clock policies, part-time tenure-track routes and consortial job sharing of part-time positions create variability for full-time positions to accommodate family or create better working conditions.
  8. Faculty roles should emphasize collaboration and working across departments, within units and with outside groups to foster student success and cross-disciplinary research and service.
  9. Faculty members should focus on student success and learning as the most central activity; particularly important is support for students of color and first-generation and low-income students.

There are several other points of agreement, which indicate some clear ways forward for academe. We recently came out with a book that highlights a model in keeping with this shared vision: Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century (Rutgers University Press). This diagram captures the key features.

Our survey asked not only about future faculty models or roles but also the feasibility of these features becoming part of the enterprise. There was pessimism about the funding to support this vision for the faculty and about bureaucratic complexities in implementing these approaches.

We can engineer our way to the moon, we can map the human genome, we can cure polio, but we cannot realign our budgets to support the faculty we all believe in?

We can develop complex shared-services partnerships and systems with education companies, nonprofit organizations and governments, yet we cannot work out the contracts, policies and procedures to implement the vision for a future faculty? This seems an easy hurdle.

Ironically, those who do implement new models have found it fairly easy. I have spoken to people at dozens of campuses and departments that are quietly revising their faculty to look much more like the vision noted above in the emerging consensus. But these same leaders voice a fear about being too far out from what other campuses are doing.

Campuses do not embrace this work with a sense of pride as leaders. I think the time has come for institutions to stop being quiet and start seeing this work as essential to satisfying the broad mission of student and institutional success. Ample evidence shows that the future faculty model outlined above would much better support students. Nationally, leaders have been called upon to make student success a primary focus (see Aspen Institute Initiative), and championing these new faculty models would be clearly aligned with these efforts.

My challenge to the academy is this:

Proudly promote your innovative work to implement new faculty models that support student learning and success. Take ownership of your role at the forefront of the evolution of the higher education enterprise.

It is time that foundations and policy groups find ways to support this work, bringing it out of the shadows and demonstrating the simple yet elusive fact that it can be done, and that reconceiving sustainable faculty roles represents a high priority for the future of academe.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. Daniel Scott and Hannah Yang are research associates at USC.

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Finding OER remains challenging, but solutions abound

Faculty members struggle to find open educational resources or even understand what they are -- but solutions are bubbling up.

Robots help distance students seamlessly join classrooms at Michigan State

At Michigan State, some online students embody robots to populate face-to-face classrooms, helping bridge the distance gap with their on-campus counterparts.

Advice for giving an effective job presentation (opinion)

Stephen J. Aguilar outlines some suggestions to help you avoid common pitfalls.

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Does your institution really need a new LMS?

Colleges and universities should avoid “shiny new object syndrome” when considering if they need to move to a new learning management system, writes Sasha Thackaberry.

A recruiter describes how she experiences job conferences (essay)

Ruth Gotian describes what she sees in job candidates from the other side of the recruitment conference booth.

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Why experiential learning often isn't as good as classroom learning (opinion)

In his classic 1963 study Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter convincingly argues that Americans’ suspicion of purely intellectual pursuits extends even to our thinking about how to structure and value higher education. He might not have been surprised at the currently popular movement on college campuses that goes under the banners of “experiential learning,” “service learning” and “engaged learning.”

I’m not referring here to perfectly legitimate collaborations between communities and higher education institutions in such areas as research centers, clinics or legal programs. My concern is with how the experiential learning movement affects how administrators, some faculty members and the public think about what is most valuable in undergraduate education. Over the past 15 years, in my roles as faculty member and then dean of arts and sciences at two different universities, I have observed proponents of this movement gain more and more credence in their assertion that what undergraduate students need most is more “real-life” experience as a part of their college education -- often at the expense of important academic work.

This admonition to give undergraduate students plenty of real-life experience is justified by a high-minded claim that it is in the service of a higher good. Such experience, it is argued, will help students by giving them a leg up in their careers and making them more useful people. And although that may often prove true in the short term, I am convinced it is not reliably the case when we consider a longer time frame -- particularly for students in the foundational arts and sciences disciplines.

Take, for example, the following three situations. In each one, the student must select between an “academic” and a “real-life” experience, each offered for college credit. My examples do not represent false dilemmas. In an ideal world, one would want to select both, but time is limited, and students, in an understandable desire to graduate on time, are forced to make such choices.

  • A junior majoring in political science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division course in statistical analysis (taught by a professor of statistics, not a political scientist) or (b) do a service-learning experience with a state legislator.
  • A junior majoring in environmental science can either: (a) take a nonrequired upper-division laboratory course in the biochemistry of water-based environmental toxicity or (b) work with the Fish and Game Department monitoring the impact of pollution on the local duck population.
  • A senior history major can either: (a) spend the summer at the Middlebury College Language Schools to become competent as a reader, writer and speaker of French or (b) work with an archivist at a local historical library.

Although each of the activities listed above is worthy, it is clear to me that, in the long term, the (a) options will serve the student much better than the (b) options. Each (a) option provides the student with the opportunity to study and learn a difficult subject matter, something valuable that can’t easily be learned “experientially.” But in the climate that currently exists on so many campuses, the student will likely be pushed toward taking the “real-life” option that has short-term, rather than long-term, benefits.

Around the country, numerous higher education institutions boast that all of their students have had at least one “experiential learning” experience, sometimes in the form of an extended internship. One of the current goals of the State University of New York System, for instance, is “to ensure that every SUNY student has the opportunity to take part in at least one applied learning experience before they graduate.” Other institutions trumpet their experiential learning approach in their marketing materials as a distinctive, overarching characteristic that sets them apart. Drexel University highlights the “Drexel Difference” on its website, proclaiming, “Our interdisciplinary approach to applied education is part of what makes us stand out, in Philadelphia and around the world. At Drexel, we value experiential learning, which is a process through which our students develop knowledge, skills and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.”

These experiences are, of course, valuable, but they should not be done at the expense of credits that could be devoted to learning difficult intellectual skills within a traditional academic setting. Many of the same programs that require or strongly recommend “engaged learning” also allow students to graduate who are unable to read or speak proficiently any language other than English, whose quantitative abilities don’t allow them to understand even midlevel mathematical analysis, and who are not demonstrably able to write clearly and persuasively about complex topics.

Undergraduates are enrolled in our colleges for usually about 120 credits hours, and before we stress too emphatically the value of “real-life” engagement, we should have the intellectual commitment and confidence that we can offer students many things in our classrooms that are even more valuable than what can be learned on the job.

Almost all of us will eventually have to work for a living, and that will always require sustained “real-life, engaged learning.” It will also call for immersion in interactions with average minds (like most of our own) working toward mundane ends. As educators, we should be proud that we give our students, while they are students, the opportunity to interact -- through their reading and writing, their laboratory work, and our instruction -- with what the best minds have discovered and developed within our various disciplines. This is something the “real world” is unlikely to offer them regularly once they leave college.

Oscar Wilde once said (contradicting Goethe) that it is much more difficult to think than to act. The most valuable thing we can teach students is the ability to think through, with patient focus, demanding intellectual challenges. Solving a difficult linear algebra problem, working to understand an intricate passage from Descartes, figuring out how, exactly, the findings of evolutionary morphology explain the current human stride -- all these are examples of the sort of learning that we should be proud to provide our students. And not one of them features “real-life” engagement.

John Kijinski teaches English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Before returning to the classroom, he was the dean of arts and sciences at Fredonia and at Idaho State University.

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