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Essay on what a professor learned from intense discussions with three international students

Suppose it’s been discovered that a person’s thoughts can be mapped from a close examination of the physiology of the person’s brain and, à la Fantastic Voyage, that humans can be shrunk to the size where they can be injected into the brain of another to perform such an examination. If this happened to an instructor of a college course so the instructor was able to get at the inner thinking of his students, what discoveries would he make? In what ways would he be surprised by what he learned?

Of course, the above remains science fiction rather than science. What might really be done in lieu of the shrinkage capability and the taking of such a fantastic voyage so the instructor can understand how students think? An instructor needs some sense of his students’ minds for making the various practical decisions in teaching a course. How difficult should the content be? What examples would well illustrate the subject matter? How can student interest be sustained during the class session? On what basis are such questions answered?

In a recent Opinionator column at The New York Times site, Paul Bloom asks: Just how successful are we at seeing the world as others see it?

His answer, consistent with Daniel Kahneman’s depiction of how people come to believe things as described in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, is that we are overly confident about this capability. We think we are reasonably competent in our projections about the worldviews of others, when in fact we are not good at this at all. Bloom writes [my emphasis added]:

“These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect -- people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded -- but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as ‘perched precariously between gift and invasion.’”

The unmistakable message for instructors is that they need to find ways for their students to speak up and then they need to pay attention to what the students have to say. One way I have found to do this is by having the students write weekly blog posts, which I comment on and to which they then respond in kind, in advance of a class session that brings in what the students say in their posts as part of the discussion. I first wrote about this in a column from five years ago. I have repeatedly tweaked the approach since and used it in a variety of different classes. The current description reflects a more mature approach and is based on the class I currently teach, The Economics of Organizations, which is offered each fall.

I would like to discuss a different way to get at what students have to say that I tried this past spring, but first I want to note that the blogging and commenting builds a kind of trust between the students and me. In the language of the course, trust is a reputational asset, which has potential for producing return after the course has concluded. Students occasionally make use of this asset by asking the instructor to supervise them in an independent study project or to get the instructor to serve as a reference for them when applying to graduate school. But this use is highly idiosyncratic to the student.

I have recently reread the Boyer Commission Report, and in it there is a recommendation that every first-year student be part of a faculty-led seminar aimed at such students. Were this recommendation to be fully adopted in spite of the tough budget times we find ourselves in, there might be some follow-up that is more systematic and is driven by the institution to leverage the reputational asset that would emerge from this teaching setting. My example, described below, is perhaps suggestive of what such a systematic approach might be like.

Near the tail end of my class last fall, an upper-level undergraduate class that attracts mainly juniors and seniors, I invited the students to join me in a weekly discussion group for the spring. I had tried something similar the year before, but it failed then. There weren’t enough takers. This time around three students indicated interest. That was sufficient for us to get going. Indeed we started during the intersession between the two semesters, and except for the week of spring break went through till finals week. There were a few stumbles on the way, as this was a voluntary activity and these students were very busy with other things. We persevered nonetheless. I will now sketch our process and what I learned about the students from the discussion.

Note that opting in to the discussion group implies something other than a random selection from the class. Twenty-three students completed the course. Each of the three students from the discussion group received an A in the class, with the course grade not contingent on participating in the discussion group. (About 43 percent of all students got an A.) Each was an international student (about one-third of the total). Two were from China, the other from Korea. They were all double majors, with one of these majors economics. They were very diligent about their studies and took their grades quite seriously, much more so than I ever did when I was a student. They also enjoyed the friendly banter we had in the discussion group and would smile quite readily. Humor was part of the glue that held the group together.

There is something admirable about taking college courses in other than one’s own native language and to do so many thousands of miles away from home. These are acts of courage. In many ways these students are models for what we’d like to see from all students who go to college. Yet there is also something amiss, not covered in taking this model student view. These students were terribly overprogrammed, in my judgment. The Korean student, for example, whose other major is Electrical and Computer Engineering -- an unlikely combination in my experience, but he told me that he had an interest in patents, which explained the engineering part -- was taking 23 credit hours this spring. He accomplished this Herculean feat by not sleeping much at all, claiming to average only about three hours per night.

The other students were taking only 18 or 19 credit hours, but one of them was working two jobs in addition, while the other had quite a variety of extracurricular activity in registered student organizations. Indeed, being tired on a recurrent basis was an ongoing theme in our discussion.

My reason for starting the discussion group was that I thought students in my class were insufficiently creative in going about their studies. I wanted to see whether I might influence them to take a more experimental and rewarding approach to their learning in their other courses. As we already had the blogging mechanism from the course, we agreed that each week one of the group would write a post on the topic for that week (I would prompt the post author on that) and the others would write comments, this ahead of the group meeting to make sure everyone was ready and up to speed for the discussion, which occurred Friday afternoons at 3 p.m. and would last from 90 minutes to two hours.

We covered a variety of topics. As the University of China at Illinois piece had appeared soon before we got started, it informed our early sessions. We then talked about flow, my own variant of which I’ve called mental puttering, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, inquiry cycles à la John Dewey, procrastination and deferred gratification, Atul Gawande’s "The Bell Curve" on how an experimental approach that goes beyond known research is needed to achieve superior performance, straying from the crowd, and a host of other topics. The conversations were engaging and fun, yet I was getting a lot of pushback on the underlying message, which I admit was a bit of proselytizing by me in favor of creativity.

About two months in I was frustrated by our lack of progress on my goals, so I did a simulation in our discussion of the deep sort of thinking that I believe is at the heart of creativity. We spent the first 40 minutes or so by doing a deconstruction of one sentence that the blog poster for that week had written. One question would follow another as we tried to find meaning from this investigation. For the first 35 minutes or so, they were into it. Then they tired and their eyes glazed over. Afterward they told me the experience was new to them. They had never thought about such a small idea in such a deep way, looking at it from all angles, trying to understand all the implications. They already knew how to get an A in their classes.

We did make a bit more progress on the point that college was supposed to achieve a dual purpose, with one of those an investigation into self to understand what makes one tick and what gives one pleasure and satisfaction. On this the students could see how the more creative approach would be appealing. But to them it seemed to come at too high a cost in terms of success at college, possibly jeopardizing their future careers.

The sessions that had the most learning for me came near the end of the semester, when I became aware of the students' high school experiences, the intense drilling they received in preparation for exams, and that pleasure reading, play and spontaneity in the learning were drummed out of them at that time. Their stories were both fascinating and horrifying. The cultures in which they were raised expects extraordinary discipline and very hard work to win the day while at the same time having the students entirely yield to the judgment of others as to what is intellectually appealing and worthy of engagement. Consequently, as committed as these students are, they are not masters of their own thinking.

Apart from the intense acculturation, let me mention two causes that feed the credential game these students are playing. One is that they pay tuition at international student rates, so college is quite expensive for them. They are not wealthy and need to get good return on that investment. Building a strong résumé is one overt way to generate such a return. The other is that they are playing a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma with their fellow students. If the others produced less impressive credentials, they might treat their own education more as self-nurture and less as signal for the labor market. Self-nurture loses, however, when everyone else is playing the credential game.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma produces an individually rational but socially destructive outcome. How can we change the game in a way to make the outcome better?

Lanny Arvan is emeritus associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Essay about an unexpected success in teaching online

I remember well my first class in graduate school, now 10 years ago, because I was only somewhat prepared for it. My pencil pouch held a full canister of lead, but, when our creative writing professor asked us to go around the octagonal seminar table to sign up for our workshop dates, I had to ask, “What’s a workshop?”

“Well,” the guy next to me said, “you sit in the middle here, blindfolded, and we all take turns -- ” He held up his fist as if to throw a punch.

There is a kernel of truth in his humor: the cloth covers not your eyes but your mouth. On the days you “are workshopped,” as it is said, the class discusses the merits and faults of the writing you submitted the week before, and you’re not allowed to talk during this discussion. It’s called the gag rule. The main reason for this rule is that ungagged authors are too compelled to defend their writing -- but a workshop is not a defense. There is no passing or not passing the workshop. You simply gather feedback, take what you’d like and disregard the rest.

The stakes couldn’t be lower, in other words, so why is it commonly such a bruising experience?

“It’s just … not … good,” a student said in my second class, the first workshop of the semester. Ouch. The most infamous comment I heard in my years in graduate school was, “When I read something like this I think, ‘Oh, he must be writing in his underwear.’” I’m not sure what he meant, exactly, but we all caught the drift.

There’s another kernel of truth in my classmate’s comment: there’s something about a workshop that allows fists to fly, and I’m not above reproach. I regret once saying a page of dialogue was “like a soap opera script.” Another time, when I was workshopped, a classmate said, “I don’t see the point of reading this.” Afterward he came over to me and said, “That came off way more antagonistic than I meant it to.” I said bitterly, “You’re not a good reader.”

Is this how one becomes a master of fine arts?

Many say we can do better, for reasons personal (flying fists) and pedagogical (lack of evaluation of what students actually learn -- and tacit permission of flying fists). Sum it up in the title of a book by writers and teachers Carol Bly and Cynthea Loveland that came out in 2006, Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers.

***

After graduating, I began to teach creative writing classes, and, resolved to do justice, I tried alternatives to the workshop. I taught forms and principles and assigned exercises. I modeled how to write like a good reader -- which is to say, how I imitate writing I admire (and try to conceal this imitation). We studied “how to write” books -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and On Writing Well by Howard Zinsser. I wanted to scrutinize the methods and techniques of producing writing, rather than student writing itself. The closest we got to workshops were small groups in which students shared their work -- with no gag rule.

It was OK. Not great. The students seemed to like the class, but as a teacher, I felt like I was trying to cook on a feeble campfire, the water never getting to a full boil.

There is something valuable, I’ve since realized, in turning up the heat on students. In other classes, this heat comes in a term paper or a final exam, a culminating moment that tests student mettle, that makes students do the best they possibly can. In a creative writing class, this heat comes in a workshop.

***

Meanwhile, something else occupied my teaching life: I began teaching some of my classes online. My classes are asynchronous, meaning that while there are deadlines, there is no live interaction. The weekly conversation between students and myself happens on the discussion board, on which students respond to prompts I give them and comment on each other’s ideas. In my first-year composition class, they also review and edit fellow students’ drafts.

I love the discussion board as a teaching tool for several reasons, including how I can manage the occasional flying fist. The weekly, graded discussion board assignment asks students to give thoughtful feedback -- in agreement or disagreement -- and a nasty comment almost always stands in place of thoughtfulness. So, if a student writes something offhanded, snarky or just plain mean, I can get ’em where it counts: I take off points.

For doing so, in my anonymous student evaluations I once took a jab myself: “Taking off points for something the teacher took personally is crap.” I’m all but certain I know who wrote this, and it delights me to mention that, after my reprimand earlier in the semester, his discussion board participation was excellent, not to mention civil, and he got an A in the class.

As for his parting shot, well, I suppose I did take it personally: no one is going to be mean in my class.

***

With this capability, I’ve now returned to teaching creative writing workshops -- this time online. After a few weeks of preliminary exercises, much like I did in the classes I taught after graduate school, students spend the rest of the semester workshopping each other’s poetry, fiction and personal essays on the discussion boards. Students get full scrutiny of their peers -- the heat is up -- and when the time comes to administer student justice, I’m ready.

I’m surprised to say I’ve even instituted the gag rule, something I loathed as a student in workshops myself. It’s valuable for authors to see how little they control their readers, so long as I can control the readers from doing their worst. I have also been surprised to realize that, as it is often said of online education, students are welcome to come to class -- and write -- in their underwear.

Brian Goedde has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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Essay offers advice on how to be a good and effective professor

Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich offer advice for those starting off their careers, or just another academic year.

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Study: Appalachian Students Mask Dialects in Class

It’s been called academe’s last acceptable prejudice: that against rural, Southern students. And a new study supports that claim, suggesting that college students from Appalachia who speak a dialect feel made fun of or that they’re frequently corrected. Lead author Stephany Dunstan, the assistant director of the Office of Assessment at North Carolina State University, interviewed 26 students from rural, Southern Appalachia who attended an unnamed large research institution in the urban South. She asked about their experiences in college and their dialects, and performed vocalic analysis of several features typical to the Appalachian dialect. Many participants said they felt they had to work harder to prove to others on campus that they are intelligent and capable, “despite” their dialects, Dunstan said via email. “For some students this means that they code-switch (or change their speech) frequently or in some cases, categorically.”

Dunstan said a major implication of the study for faculty is to be “mindful in their courses that students of all dialect/language backgrounds are treated respectfully and feel comfortable using their own voices (for example, not feeling they must code-switch to a ‘standard’ variety to be taken seriously or respected).” It’s similarly important that faculty members who speak diverse dialects feel comfortable using them in class, so students hear them, she added.

The paper, called “Dialect and Influences on the Academic Experiences of College Students,” was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education.

Analysis considers contradictions in high school and college students' interest in humanities

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New analysis seeks to explain the declining interest of high school students in studying the humanities in college, and a reversal once they arrive.

Essay responds to criticism of possible changes in accreditation standards for engineering

Recent media coverage of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s pre-proposed engineering criteria changes has raised concerns that some of the professional competencies may be removed from our accreditation criteria. In addition, many have incorrectly assumed that such changes are a fait accompli. The reality is there is no intent to reduce the professional competencies at all. Rather, we are in the early stages of discussion and opinion gathering on how to improve our accreditation criteria so they are more appropriately aligned with what students will need in the future to succeed in the evolving global economy.

Although discussions about potential criteria changes are in process, they have triggered heated debate regarding the importance of professional skills and abilities. We understand the concern and realize the enormous importance of these skills in an ever-changing multidisciplinary global environment. That is why we introduced them to our criteria in the mid-1990s and have strengthened them ever since. The primary purpose of these recent discussions was to improve the criteria: to make them richer in content, measurable and above all realistic. Additionally, in the spirit of continuous quality improvement, there was a concerted effort to streamline reporting requirements by programs undergoing accreditation.

Twenty years ago, we developed comprehensive criteria that have been adopted throughout the world as the standard for producing engineers who can lead and excel in an increasingly multidisciplinary world. In the intervening two decades, the world has changed, professions have evolved (and new ones emerged), while the rate of technological advancement has exploded. It is our responsibility, as the global accreditor of technical education, to examine our fundamental tenets -- the criteria -- to ensure they match the reality of today’s world, while leading us through the 21st century.

Our accreditation criteria were developed to provide programs with guidance on what’s expected from graduates of modern engineering programs. They were intentionally designed to be nonprescriptive, providing academic programs enough latitude so that they have the freedom to innovate. We are aware that academe is constantly examining ways to improve the educational experience for their students, and they must be able to build and modify their programs to meet an ever-changing world. This is a complex task, and for this reason, our criteria committee has been examining these topics very carefully for the past six years.

And while we welcome the vigorous discussions prompted by news coverage and an essay on this site, we want to reassure that, as we have done in the past, we will continue to provide opportunities for professional societies, faculty, industry and the general public to offer their inputs at every stage. For that purpose, a link is available, and we remain committed to engaging in a clear communication process that reaches our key stakeholders.

The wealth of input and opinions is incredibly valuable to our deliberations. This feedback has been influencing our criteria committee members’ decisions throughout this effort. On July 16, the criteria committee recommended selected changes in the proposal. These proposed changes were subsequently approved by the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission. Now, this work will be sent to the ABET Board of Delegates for the first reading in October. If approved, the proposed changes will be released for public review and comment. We strongly believe that “continuous improvement is more productive than postponed perfection,” as the criteria committee noted during its recent meeting.

In closing, we cannot emphasize enough that it is not too late to provide comments at the ABET website at any time.

K. Jamie Rogers, professor of industrial and mechanical systems engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, is the 2014-15 president of ABET.

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Community college in New Jersey struggles to break through with adaptive math courses

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Newark's Essex County College tried adaptive learning software to improve remedial math success rates. It hasn't worked, as students and faculty have struggled with the "self-regulated" approach to learning.

Essay on the experience of teaching 'Fun Home,' and why the graphic novel is ideal for college students

Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home has received critical raves. A musical adaptation has become a Broadway smash. Despite these successes, some students in Duke University’s incoming class refused to read Fun Home when it was placed on their recommended summer reading list. Citing the book’s acceptance of lesbian identity, these students said they believe that exposing themselves to Bechdel’s story will violate their Christian morals.

As a professor who has taught Fun Home in his classes for years, I would advise these students to rethink their positions. Most of my students who have engaged with Fun Home find many connections to Bechdel’s autobiography and are moved by it. Although her story may be unfamiliar, her work has much to offer, both emotionally and educationally.

Fun Home is on the syllabus of a course titled the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where I teach. All our first-year students take the course simultaneously, grouped into classes of approximately 16, each group with a different professor. They read the same books at the same time, write papers with the same deadlines and so on. The course provides students the opportunity to explore the human experience from a myriad of perspectives. In their first semester, they read work by authors such as Plato, Galileo and Descartes. Students ponder and discuss the course’s three main questions from the perspectives of these different authors: (1) What does it mean to be human? (2) What is the universe and how do we fit into it? (3) How should we live our lives? The college is rightly proud of this course, as it is a fine example of a liberal arts education, and I am happy to be a participant in it.

Fun Home is the first text of the second semester, a semester that also includes Freud, Marx and the Declaration of Independence. Bechdel’s book focuses on the author’s coming to terms with being a lesbian, dealing with the revelation of her father’s homosexuality and discovering the true nature of their “entwined stories.” It gives the second semester of the course a contemporary start and allows the students to view the CIE questions in fresh ways. The course is discussion based and students are encouraged to debate opposing viewpoints respectfully, to shape reasoned arguments with strong points of view and to learn from diversity of opinion. Fun Home provides excellent material for the students to talk about themes of identity, family, home and growing up.

Fun Home, as a college text, has experienced controversy even before the Duke students’ rejection. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut funding to the College of Charleston because of its plan to place Bechdel’s book on a freshmen recommended reading list. State Representative Garry R. Smith said he believes that the memoir is inappropriate for students because it “graphically shows lesbian acts” and is “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

I am proud that Ursinus chose Fun Home as a central text for our common course and that we did not shy away from it because of its controversial history in academia. In my experience, working with the text in the classroom has been educative and productive. The character of Alison, as presented in Bechdel’s witty and distinctive illustrations, starts as naïve and feeling limited. As she matures, she forges her identity, diverges from her parents and makes her mark in the world. Our 18-year-old students grapple with similar issues. They easily relate to Alison in a variety of ways. Many of the students at Ursinus come from small communities in Pennsylvania, just like Alison Bechdel. They read about a young woman whose world is increasingly becoming wider and more varied at just the moment when the same is happening to them. The author’s themes resonate with all the students regardless of their sexuality, religion or cultural background. Bechdel is a canny writer whose specific experiences translate well to a universal audience.

I have prepared myself each semester for student objections. There is a controversial panel in the book which depicts an intimate sexual moment from Bechdel’s college days. Instead of ignoring it, I have met the subject head-on and asked my students, “Do you believe, in context, that this illustration is pornographic?” In the multiple times I have raised this question, not one student has been offended by the image. These are 18-year-olds. Burgeoning sexuality is nothing new to them. Bechdel shares her story from a young person’s perspective and the students easily relate to her personal sexual explorations.

If students in my class were to refuse to read the book altogether, I would urge them to reconsider. Yes, they may find the story alien and opposed to their morality, but, as college students, they should embrace these differing views. Exposure will help them to understand the world better and to strengthen their own opinions. As a college community, we should not shy away from difficult or complex points of view. Ursinus’s CIE students have read sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, objectionable by anyone’s standards. Being shielded from offensive or outrageous material does not make it disappear. If students want to navigate the world after graduation, they need to expose themselves to the variety of human experience while in the safety of their college campus.

Objectors to Fun Home are being reductive when they focus solely on the memoir’s frank presentation of sexuality. Fun Home is so much more. In the right atmosphere, this book allows young people to open up about their own lives and to share their struggles. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? These questions go from the abstract to the relevant when our CIE students discuss Fun Home in the classroom.

Alison Bechdel’s story will resonate with anyone who is grown up or is growing up. It is my sincere hope that the controversies surrounding the book will not stop it from being included on college reading lists. As our Ursinus students know, Bechdel is a wise teacher with much to teach all of us.

Domenick Scudera is professor of theater at Ursinus College.

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An experienced professor's advice for new teaching assistants (essay)

Julie Dodd shares the advice she gives graduate students about to teach undergrads for the first time -- and reminds professors of their obligation to share their expertise.

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University of Hull demonstrates pedagogical potential of world-building game

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University of Hull demonstrates pedagogical potential of world-building game.

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