faculty

Journal, Citing Ethics Concerns, Retracts Paper

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has retracted a paper by Guangwen Tang, a professor at Tufts University, raising concerns about the ethics of her research in China, The Boston Globe reported. Tang went to court without success to try to block the retraction of her paper on children with a vitamin A deficiency who were fed genetically modified rice. The journal said that Tang could not produce evidence that the parents of the children were informed of the nature of the study. Tang declined to comment. A statement by Tufts to the website Retraction Watch, which first reported on the matter, said in part: “No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects. The decision to retract a paper is ultimately a matter between the journal and the authors, and we must respect an academic journal’s editorial process and decisions.”

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Teaching Long-Term Critical Thinking

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there’s a dependable way to foster long-term improvements in students’ critical thinking skills. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia developed a framework consisting of cycles and decision making based on comparisons between data sets or data and models, and applied the learning structure to 130 students in an introductory physics lab.

During a series of simple physics experiments, the students received instructions to compare new data to existing data, and to decide how to act on those comparisons based on statistical tests. For example, students used a stopwatch to time a pendulum swinging between two angles of amplitude. Rather than just conducting data and comparing them to equations in a textbook, as a control group of students did, the students in the modified course were instructed to make decisions based on the comparison. What should they do to improve the quality of their data and better explain the difference between their results and the equation in the textbook? Students chose everything from conducting more trials to putting the team member with the biggest finger on stopwatch duty. Their data improved, along with their understanding of the process.

Even after the instructions were taken away, the students in the test group were 12 times more likely than a group of 130 students the previous year (the control group) to propose changes to improve their data or methods. The test group students also were four times more likely to identify and explain a shortcoming of the model using their data.

The test group students demonstrated similar critical thinking skills in a second course the next year, suggesting that their learning was long-term. Lead author N. G. Holmes, a postdoctoral researcher in physics education at Stanford, and her co-authors argue that the framework they developed could be adapted to a range of settings beyond physics. The study is available here.

Holmes said via email that "giving students the space to make decisions about how to follow up on an experimental result, with careful guidance, ingrained critical thinking long-term. … I think this adds to the existing literature a concrete, yet simple way to structure how these skills can be taught with lasting improvements. It is a demonstration of how to teach expert-level skills in context that can be generalized outside a particular classroom."

Missouri Ends Subsidies for Grad Student Worker Health Insurance

The University of Missouri notified graduate student employees that it will no longer pay for their health insurance, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. In a letter to students, the university said businesses like theirs were prohibited from “providing employees subsidies specifically for the purpose of purchasing health insurance from individual market plans,” in accordance with the Affordable Care Act. A university administrator attributed the change to a recent interpretation of the law by the Internal Revenue Service, saying that health care plans such as Missouri’s Aetna package for grad students are “individual market plans” and therefore exempt from employer subsidies. Other Missouri employees use one of a number of “employer-sponsored plans” and are therefore unaffected, the university explained in an online memo.

The university said not complying with the law could result in fines. It is reportedly using the $3.1 million originally budgeted for health insurance subsidies for graduate student employees to create one-time fellowships of between $600 and $1,200 for those affected, to be spent at their discretion. Starting in the spring, graduate student employees will have to pay completely out of pocket for health insurance.

Graduate students have taken to Twitter and other social media to express their outrage and concern about being able to pay for health care. John Meador, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, told KOMU that the university effectively “eliminated my ability to function as a graduate student. … They knew about it. I believe they could have warned us earlier.” The university became aware of the issue in late July and consulted lawyers and various national organizations for advice before notifying students late last week.

The change could affect other graduate student employees elsewhere in the U.S. Andy Brantley, president and chief executive of College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said via email that several colleges and universities have "expressed concern about this issue, and we have been working with other higher ed associations to get clarity from the IRS." He added, "We are hoping the agency will issue a short-term waiver as it deliberates application of the [Affordable Care Act] in these situations so colleges and universities can move forward this year without fear of liability."

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Essay calls for a new approach to college textbooks

The Book Industry Study Group just reported that 52 percent of college students surveyed agreed that “I would rather pay $100 for a learning solution that improves my result by one letter grade and reduces my study time by 25 percent than $50 for my current textbook.” As a professor, I am troubled by declines in the effort many in my classes are willing to put into doing the reading I assign. But as an administrator, I also recognize students’ concerns with scoring high grades, juggling internships and part-time jobs, and minimizing expenses.

Multiple factors are at play here: grade inflation, social pressures, student debt, the iffy job market. Further relevant is the time students report studying each week (now an average of 15 hours, down from about 24 in the 1960s). Yet one of the major culprits is the price tag on textbooks and other course materials, estimated at around $1,200 a year -- assuming you buy them.

Faculty members and students alike are in a quandary over how to handle textbook costs, especially for those hefty tomes often used in introductory courses. Increasingly, students are opting not to purchase these books -- not even rent them. Digital formats (and rentals of any kind) tend to be less expensive than buying print, though frequently the decision is not to acquire the materials at all. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports that two-thirds of students have refrained from purchasing at least one assigned textbook because of price.

Recently, American University ran focus groups with our undergraduates, looking to get a sense of how they make textbook decisions. For courses in their major, they are willing to lay out more money than for general education classes, which they perceive (often wrongly) not to require much work anyway. Over all, the common sentiment is that spending more than about $50 for a book is excessive. And of course there are plenty of college textbooks with prices that exceed $50.

This message was reinforced by an anecdote shared with me by Michael Rosenwald, a reporter for The Washington Post. While interviewing American University students for a story on college reading and book-purchasing habits, Rosenwald asked, “Who buys course materials from the campus store these days?” Their answer: “Freshmen,” revealing that once students settle into campus life, they discover less expensive ways to get their books -- or devise strategies on how much reading they'll actually do.

For faculty members, the challenge is to find a workable balance between the amount of reading we would like those in our classes to complete and realistic expectations for student follow-through. While some full-length books may remain on our required list, their numbers have shrunk over time. These days, assignments that used to call for complete books are being slimmed down to single chapters or articles. Our aspirations for our students to encounter and absorb substantial amounts of written material increasingly rub up against their notions of how much is worth reading.

The numbers tell the tale. That same Book Industry Study Group report noted that between 2010 and 2013, the percentage of students indicating that classes they were taking required “no formal course materials” rose from 4 percent to 11 percent.

Student complaints are equally revealing. When Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone came out, I assigned the book to a group of honors undergraduates, eager for them to experience careful, hypothesis-driven, data-rich social science research. One member of the class balked. In fact, she publicly berated me, demanding to know why I hadn’t told the group about the “short version” of the book -- meaning an article Putnam has written years earlier, before his full study was completed. She went on to inform the class what she had learned from a teacher in high school: books aren’t worth reading, only articles. The rest of what’s in books is just padding.

The author and teacher in me cringed at how this young woman perceived the intellectual enterprise.

For students, besides the understandable limitations on time and finances, there is the question of value proposition. If the objective is learning that lasts, maybe buying the book (and reading it) is worth it. But if the goal is getting a better grade, maybe not. All too often today, it is the grade that triumphs.

One player that faculty members generally leave out of the equation is the publishing industry, including not just the companies whose names are on the spines but the people who print the books, supply the paper and ink, and operate the presses. Recently I spoke at the Book Manufacturers’ Institute Conference and was troubled by the disconnect I perceived between those who produce and distribute textbooks and those who consume them. As students buy fewer books, publishers do smaller print runs, resulting in higher prices, which in turn reinforces the spiral of lower sales.

A potential compensatory financial strategy for publishers is issuing revised editions, intended to render obsolete those already in circulation. In reality, students often take a pass on these new offerings, waiting until they appear on the used book market. Yes, sometimes there is fresh, timely material in the new versions, but how often do we really need to update textbooks on the structure of English grammar or the history of early America?

When speaking with participants in the book manufacturers’ conference, I became increasingly convinced that the current model of book creation, distribution and use is not sustainable. What to do?

There is a pressing need for meaningful collaboration between faculty members and the publishing industry to find ways of producing materials designed to foster learning that reaches beyond the test -- and that students can be reasonably expected to procure and use. I would like to hope that textbook publishers (who I know are financially suffering) are in conversation not just with authors seeking book contracts but with faculty members who can share their own assignment practices, along with personal experiences about how students are voting with their feet regarding purchasing and reading decisions.

To help foster such dialogue, here are some suggestions:

  • Gather data on shifts in the amount and nature of reading that faculty assign, say, over the past 10-20 years.
  • Reconsider publishing strategies regarding those handsome, expensive, color-picture-laden texts, whose purpose is apparently to entice students to read them. If students aren’t willing to shell out the money, the book likely isn’t being read. Focus instead on producing meaningful material written with clear, engaging prose.
  • Rethink when a new edition is really warranted and when not. In many instances, issuing a smaller update, to be used as a supplement to the existing text, is really all that’s needed. (Think of those encyclopedia annuals with which many of us are familiar.) Students -- and far more of them -- will be willing to pay $9.95 for an update to an older book than $109.95 for a new one. McDonald’s learned long ago that you can turn a handsome profit through high volume on low-cost items. The publishing industry needs to do the math.
  • Make faculty members aware of the realities of both textbook prices (some professors never look before placing book orders) and student reading patterns. I heartily recommend hanging out in the student union (or equivalent) and eavesdropping. You will be amazed at how cunning -- and how honest -- students are about their study practices.
  • Encourage professors to assign readings (especially ones students are asked to pay for) that maximize long-term educational value.
  • Educate students about the difference between gaming the assignment system (either for grades or cost savings) and learning.

The results can yield a win-win situation for both the publishing industry and higher education.

Naomi S. Baron is executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

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Ashland University lays off tenured faculty, calls financial future 'bright'

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Ashland University eliminates faculty jobs -- including those of some with tenure -- to free up funds for new programs, deferred maintenance and faculty raises.

Essay on how to prepare a syllabus for a college course

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More detail can save faculty members lots of time answering questions later, writes Eszter Hargittai.

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Essay by a gay faculty member at a Christian college

I teach at a member institution of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. I also happen to be gay. A friend’s early morning text alerted me to announcements from Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, both CCCU and Mennonite colleges, that they will add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination hiring statements.

EMU’s nondiscrimination policy will now state: “Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, EMU expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the university.” The announcement adds that faculty members who are married to same-sex spouses will be hired. A similar announcement was issued by Goshen College.

The announcements surprised me. I had been aware of the vote at the recent Mennonite Church USA conference not to sanction same-sex marriages, so I had anticipated that Mennonite schools would keep the status quo. I was stunned to read about the changes.

It has been quite a summer. I rejoiced and will continue to rejoice in the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage. There are many who attend, teach at, work at or have graduated from Christian colleges and universities who are happy that the Supreme Court decided that same-sex couples have the right to marry wherever they live.

Two days before the Supreme Court announced its decision, a group gathered at a Washington restaurant for dinner. Some of us at the dinner currently teach or have taught at CCCU institutions and one was an administrator. Gay alumni of religiously affiliated institutions also attended. We are members of different Christian denominations, and some of us were active in the evangelical organizations, Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in former lives. Some have migrated out of conservative Christian churches into faith communities that welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons. We all have different stories but were united that evening in our hope for a good outcome from the court, and, in fact, toasted the court. Imagine ….

At the moment that Eastern Mennonite and Goshen have decided to be more inclusive, other institutions announced after the Supreme Court decision that they would not change their policies regarding marriage and hiring. Among them are Wheaton College in Illinois, Azusa Pacific University and Messiah College.

The contrast among CCCU institutions regarding human sexuality issues comes at a time when some Christian institutions are mounting a rearguard action regarding the teaching of evolution. At Northwest Nazarene University a professor lost his job because he affirmed that the Christian faith and evolution are compatible. Bryan College “‘clarified’ its statement of faith in ways many faculty members said made the historicity of Adam and Eve so narrow that they could no longer agree with it.” At Bethel College (Ind.) a statement was adopted that states that “Adam was created by an immediate act of God and not by process of evolution.” Faculty may teach other viewpoints, but “are not to advocate for, nor hold leadership positions” in professional organizations that have a different view.

Conservative Christian higher education views on evolution and human sexuality are not unrelated; they are of a piece because these views turn on a literal hermeneutic to interpret the Bible. Christian ethicist David Gushee, in his book Changing Our Mind, has pointed out that fashioning a Christian position on same-sex relations is a “faith/science integration issue.” New evidence emerged about the earth’s origins; new evidence is now emerging about human sexuality that now must be taken into consideration with biblical texts.

Christian higher education has accepted Copernicus and Galileo, however, Darwin remains iffy. Fortunately, institutions don’t burn people at the stake anymore, but they do fire them if they do not interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in a literal way. It is perplexing that some Christian colleges that implicitly accept evolution in their STEM programs deploy a different hermeneutic when it comes to interpreting the Bible regarding sexual ethics. Whereas Genesis 1 and 2 are interpreted as a metaphorical account of how the world came into being, these same biblical texts are interpreted literally regarding human sexuality. As Gushee suggests, the creation accounts should not be taken as “scientific self-descriptions.”

Old Testament scholar Peter Enns, in his book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, writes, “The most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one the recognizes Scripture as a product of times in which it was written and/or the events that took place -- not merely so, but unalterably so …. Unless one simply rejects scientific evidence (as some continue to do), adjustments to the biblical story are always necessary. The only question is what sorts of adjustments best account for the data.” It is not, as some insist, a matter of biblical authority; it is a matter of the interpretive principle one uses -- a literal/historical one or a metaphorical/symbolic one.

The literal interpretation of Scripture and the lack of attention to new evidence about human sexuality have led some Christian universities and colleges to tie themselves into knots when it comes to forming policies on LGBTQ issues. The casuistry is stunning. Take, for example, Hope College, not a CCCU institution, but a college affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Hope announced that it would extend benefits to same-sex couples. Many, including myself, rejoiced, however, Hope soon clarified (or made things murkier, depending on one’s point of view) -- no same-sex couple can be married in the Hope chapel because the RCA position is that marriage is to be between a man and a woman (Genesis again). Also, a 2011 Hope statement both affirms that RCA position and states that there will not be a student club that “promote[s] homosexuality.” It is not clear that Hope would hire an openly gay, married person. If that is the case, then benefits will never have to be offered.

One’s eyes begin to cross when trying to make sense of the situations at Baylor and Pepperdine, both affiliates of the CCCU. At Baylor, the phrase “homosexual acts” has been taken out of a student sexual misconduct statement, and the new policy states that “physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity,” but to know what “marital fidelity” means, one is referred to a 1963 Baptist position paper that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Pepperdine’s law and business schools have officially recognized LGBTQ student groups, which are limited to discussion of LGBTQ issues, networking and professional opportunities. But in 2011, Pepperdine denied official recognition for a LGBTQ undergraduate group that was perceived as an “identity group” rather than a professional networking group. The former did not fit with the Christian mission; professional networking does. I leave it to the reader to decipher the reasons why.

To navigate the tortured terrain of LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges, one must know the difference between sanctioned and unsanctioned student clubs, the difference between support and advocacy (when does a support group for LGBTQ students morph into an unacceptable advocacy group?), and whether a student handbook rule is referenced in a faculty handbook, therefore making the student rule applicable to faculty. What is crystal clear is that some CCCU institutions accept the tuition dollars of LGBTQ students, tell them that they are loved, provide small groups and support groups for them, train RAs to be more sensitive to LGBTQ issues, but will not hire them should they want to work at their alma mater. On commencement day, LGBTQ students are celebrated; the day after they will not be hired because they are openly gay and/or want to have a life partner. No longer at Eastern Mennonite and Goshen.

Christian colleges face a foreboding future. The most obvious challenge is one shared by any private institution -- namely, cost. Gordon College, a CCCU member institution, for example, is facing a $3.8 million budget deficit due to low enrollment. But if Christian higher education is perceived as dyspeptic and anachronistic, then younger millennials, fewer of whom are identifying as religious, will go elsewhere. If conservative boards of trustees, parents, donors and presidents are more concerned about the “brand,” “the optics,” then perhaps lines in the sand will be drawn and some Christian colleges will survive only because they become fortresses against the world.

At that point they will cease to be institutions of free inquiry, no longer universities. The changes at Eastern Mennonite and Goshen give me hope that more Christian colleges will be courageous, grapple with new evidence, hold on to a hermeneutic that is life giving and not life denying, and be prophetic in positions they take. I was moved to tears when I read that the student government at one Christian college passed a resolution asking that sexual orientation be included in the university’s nondiscrimination hiring policy.

Nancy Heisey, professor of biblical studies at Eastern Mennonite, stated of her university's willingness to hire gay and lesbian people in same-sex marriages, “We have a strong commitment to Christian principles, including that justice is central to the Scripture's teaching.” I am reminded of jazz great Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” May other CCCU institutions recognize that to be Christ centered is to be justice centered and decide to be more inclusive and change, as Eastern Mennonite and Goshen have.

The author asked to be anonymous to avoid endangering employment at the college where the author teaches.

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Researcher finds himself center of battle over GMOs and corporate support

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How a biotech professor found himself in the middle of a firestorm over ethics in research and outreach about genetically modified foods.

Politics, Public Records and Academic Freedom

Missouri has become the latest state with controversy over the privacy or lack thereof of faculty members' email and other documents. Josh Hawley is an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri at Columbia and a candidate for the Republican nomination to be attorney general in the state. A state representative who backs Hawley's rival for the nomination has requested documents and email from the university about, among other things, Hawley's tenure status, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported. Hawley says that his academic freedom will be violated with release of the records, and his dean has indicated that the tenure process could be threatened if documents about it are released. But so far the university says that under state law it has no choice but to release the records.

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Gauging Climate for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty

Lots of departments want to know what they’re doing right for non-tenure-track faculty members, what they can do better and how that climate affects student learning. But how to measure it? The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, which works with adjuncts and administrators on these issues, fields such questions all the time. So it created a self-assessment tool called Departmental Cultures and Non-Tenure-Track Faculty.

The anonymous survey tool can be used by provosts or administrators, department chairs, non-tenure-track faculty members themselves, or unions to understand departmental climates on campus. It collects information on basic demographics of non-tenure-track faculty members, such as length of service, whether respondents are part-time or full-time, and if they work primarily on campus or online. Questions on departmental culture explore treatment by tenure-track faculty members, participation at faculty meetings, salary and pay, hiring practices, communication, mentoring, and levels of institutional support. There’s a separate subsection for online-only faculty.

Based on non-tenure-track faculty members’ responses, departments fall into one of four “cultures” for adjuncts the Delphi Project has identified elsewhere in its research: destructive, neutral or invisible, inclusive, or “learning” (in which tenure-track colleagues view and treat non-tenure-track faculty members as true peers). The tool includes descriptions of various aspects of departmental culture within each, in part for the benefit of departments looking to improve their climates and therefore improve student learning. For example, departments with learning cultures employ intentional hiring practices and offer professional development that's not limited to campus events, resulting in less turnover and recruitment of quality faculty. Destructive departments, meanwhile, are constantly hiring and offer no professional development.

“The four cultures that the survey is designed to get at are linked to student learning in research,” Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education and director of the Delphi Project said via email. “We know it can really help campuses, and they have been asking for such an instrument, so we want to get the word out!”

Kezar added, “The destructive cultures are obviously very negative to student outcomes. The invisible one also is fairly problematic. What is surprising is even the inclusive culture does not fully support student learning. I think most people are in the invisible culture and a few moving to inclusive -- but the goal is to reach the learning culture.”

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