The Kindle Factor

Recent announcements of a series of new experiments with Amazon’s Kindle reader have prompted much discussion about how it can be used to help students learn and, perhaps, save money at the same time. Naturally, some academics – having been burned before – are dubious of claims of technology revolutionizing instruction. But as one who has been using Kindle well before the recent announcements, I think there is real promise. Here’s what I’ve found.

The Opportunity

Southern Vermont College is a small, private college with both liberal arts and professional programs. Our educational and operational tasks are challenging and demanding. I lead one of our innovative programs, Build the Enterprise (BTE), a four-year entrepreneurship and management degree program. Through the lens of BTE, I want to share our experience with Kindle.

Our learners’ stories – which inspire me – are a critical feature in our strategy. They read like this: first generation to college and/or imperfect academic experience and/or limited financial resources. They have no unallocated money. They are also like every other contemporary young learner: they possess a different cultural literacy. Now add the Kindle, an eBook reader, to this learner profile. Amazon’s Kindle 1.0 arrived in late 2007 and, admittedly, it didn’t catch my interest right away.

Now it is “Kindle this, Kindle that” in the media, with the Kindle 2.0 (introduced in February 2009) and the new Kindle DX (introduced in May 2009 and will ship sometime in Summer, 2009). It is sold exclusively by Amazon.com, although there are competing models, such as the Sony Portable Reader and the BeBook. It has wireless connectivity almost anywhere via the Sprint 3G network. Connectivity is free. It includes a Web browser. It has a keyboard. You can send and access e-mail. You can browse the Web, although not nearly with the effectiveness and full screen display of a computer. It can be both an educational and a leisure tool. Importantly, it has many of the attributes of a digital communication tool.

My thought, then, was that the Kindle could be a viable addition to the digital cultural literacies of our learners. It aligns with two pedagogies: a more traditional one and a more contemporary pedagogy.

The Traditional Pedagogy and Its Budgetary Argument

I was an early adopter of the Kindle 2.0. I brought it to my classes. I brought it to admissions open houses. Learners were quite intrigued. Prospective enrollees in the college were intrigued. Mom, Dad, and the attending siblings were quite intrigued. This techno-cultural symbol had meaning and implicit value to all of them. I began to experiment with using the Kindle 2.0 as a substitute for textbooks. For my own pedagogical practice, it is a powerful learning tool.

Our use of the Kindle has two important benefits. One of the prospective benefits of the Kindle is budgetary. Another benefit is favorable market differentiation.

The marketing benefit for the Kindle (and other multi-format eBook readers) available to an educational institution is the opportunity to demonstrate sensitivity to the costs of higher education by deploying an innovative strategy that significantly lowers textbooks expenses.

The budgetary argument is this. According to the College Board, the average costs for books and supplies for private, four-year colleges in New England, for the 2008-9 academic year was $965.00. Nationally, for that same time period, the average cost for books and supplies was $1,054.00.

One of the benefits of the Kindle is that learners can replace expensive textbooks with digital books in a format read by the Kindle. For example, for a Knowledge Organizations course I will lead in the Fall, one hardcover textbook, Organizations as Knowledge Systems (2004, Tsoukas, H. & Mylonopoulos, Eds.) currently costs $89.95 at retail, $71.97 from Amazon.com, and $63.96 in its Kindle version. That’s a 28.9% savings over the retail cost of the book. Another textbook, Theory U (2009, Scharmer, C. O.), in paper, currently costs $28.95 at retail, $26.05 from Amazon, and $15.92 in its Kindle version.

The sum of those savings would be $39.02, or a 32.9% savings over retail for both books.

For my upcoming Ecological Economics course, I expect to use Daly, H.E. and Farley, J. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (2003), which sells at retail at $49.95 and through Amazon.com for $39.95. For this book, there is currently no Kindle version. In addition, another assigned reading in the course is “How to be an Ecological Economist” (Faber, M. 2007) available on the Web here.

In the instance of this Ecological Economics course, there will be no textbook savings available through the use of a Kindle – although that signals that perhaps I should re-think the materials I am using and assigning, and search for comparable eBook or digital journal resources.

These two circumstances form what we can construe as two likely boundaries of the current “Kindle opportunity”: one course with Kindle choices for all of the selected textbooks and another course in which there are presently no Kindle choices.

If we extrapolate these savings from these two courses over a two-semester, ten-course academic year, we could expect an average savings of $245.05. That number, of course, would vary according to the cost of the respective textbooks, their number, the number of textbooks in a Kindle format, and the Kindle version price of those textbooks. Lots of variables, but my point here is that there are some budgetary savings available from a traditional pedagogical approach to using the Kindle. As textbook publishers put more and more textbooks into formats that can be read by eBook readers of any type, the savings should be larger. I’ve modeled prospective savings in a traditional, textbook-based pedagogy, and the savings would appear to be on the order of 50 percent per year. Over four years of undergraduate school, that’s a savings of several thousand dollars.

The Budgetary and Pedagogical Impact of Another Approach

Several thousand dollars in prospective savings is not an insignificant budgetary impact, but here’s an alternative approach with an even greater budgetary (and pedagogical) impact.

The Kindle 2.0 is both an intriguing and powerful learning tool. It is small and lightweight (no more lugging around heavy parcels of books); it is convenient to use (I find that I read much more, pulling my Kindle 2.0 out of the case for my laptop when waiting in a queue, waiting for a meeting to start or the conference call to begin, at my daughter’s soccer practice, at the airport or after boarding a plane, or in those few minutes when I arrive somewhere early, and so forth); and you can transfer documents to it. For example, you can transfer to it syllabi, assignments, and other faculty-created documents in Word (.doc), .txt, unprotected MOBI, PRC, PDF, and HTML formats.

One of the attributes which currently separates the Kindle from its competitors is its free (yes, free) high speed wireless access almost anywhere in the continental United States.

Yet, the real power of the Kindle and other eBook readers is their ability to receive and read documents.

More clearly, nearly all colleges and universities have significant digital professional and scholarly journal collections for which they pay subscription fees. For example, EBSCOhost and ProQuest are major digital information databases commonly used by college and university libraries. Importantly, individual learners have full access to these online research scholarly and professional databases.

So what if we could use these features in a way that significantly lowered textbook expenses to learners? What if we could use these features in a way that not only eliminated all, or nearly all, of the textbook expenses for learners, but also raised the quality of our pedagogy?

The average timeframe for college textbooks, from proposal to printing and distribution, is five years. No viable business organization would attempt to operate on the basis of contemporary information five years out-of-date. Neither should our learners, especially in the contemporary global environment.

In addition, the pedagogical benefits of requiring faculty to stay sufficiently current in their professional fields so that they can identify, evaluate, and select current articles out of the scholarly and professional literature – and, thereby, replacing the textbooks they currently use -- would be extensive. This is exactly the approach the faculty in our Build The Enterprise program will employ in courses for this academic year and in all of our coursework thereafter.

There are, of course, instances where one or several textbooks may be indispensable or, in the instance of professional programs like nursing, there may need to be, at least in the near-term, a continued reliance on selected textbooks in traditional (as opposed to eBook) formats. Accordingly, the savings would be less.

Fair Use

Rarely does an innovation come easily. This is also true in a transition away from a traditional reliance on hard- or soft-copy textbooks to digital media and utilizing the Kindle and other eBook readers.

One current challenge is the limited number of first-rate textbooks that are available in eBook formats. (There are, though, more than you might think.) In addition, in order to acquire both the cost savings and the pedagogical benefits of the capabilities of the Kindle or similar eBook reader, there is the need to utilize the professional and scholarly resources of online, digital journal resources most likely already available through your institution’s library.

Here, then, is a very important Fair Use principle to which I strongly subscribe: as you migrate from print to digital media and the use of the Kindle or other eBook readers, authors should continue to be compensated, fairly and properly, for their work and their ownership privileges thoroughly protected. Access and use of research databases, online full-text journals, and additional types of electronic content are governed by license agreements which restrict use to educational pursuits, and distribution of content is prohibited

Hence, as a critical operational point when utilizing the Kindle, faculty may offer the source of a digital document in an online, digital collection like EBSCOhost or ProQuest, but, in order to conform to Fair Use practice, learners must each individually access such documents and transfer them to their Kindles themselves.


The prospects here are compelling. With a little reconsideration of how we use and frame simple educational tools like textbooks, we can not only significantly lower some of the costs of higher education, but also enhance our pedagogical practices and educational outcomes. A little new work. A little innovation and new practice. Lots of benefit. At SVC, we’ll be documenting our practices and assessing our progress with these innovations beginning this fall.

Charles Crowell
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Charles Crowell is associate professor and director of the Build The Enterprise program at Southern Vermont College.

Occupational Hazard

“The students said they don’t do paragraphs anymore. They insisted that I let them do PowerPoint,” the professor regaled his colleagues. The room of instructors stopped chewing lunch to chuckle.

“So the students can’t write,” he went on, “I guess we have to live with that and I told them they could use bulleted slides. I assigned a chapter with five short answer questions. And you know what?” He threw up his manicured hands. “They can’t read either.”

The room rumbled with laughter. My gut grumbled as I waited for enough chicken salad to disappear before I could start my talk. When faculty members discuss teaching, stories about ill-prepared, unmotivated, and ungrateful students bubble up like swamp gas. Always this talk ends in gallows humor. Everyone laughs and walks off with the same unspoken phrase – “How are we supposed to teach these creatures?”

Who hasn’t heard that message? When my patience thinned as failures multiplied, I shared my student stories, enjoyed the laughs, and walked away feeling like I’d been playing in the dirt. These moments happen. Students resist learning. They are sometimes cunning, incompetent, threatening and privileged. The worst scenarios get passed around like bawdy postcards.

The practice corrodes our craft. You can’t be a competent and successful teacher until you throw it out. Most good teachers can tell you when they gave it up. But truthfully it takes time to kick the cynicism monkey.

On an early morning walk many years ago with my neighbor, a journeyman carpenter, I expounded instructor funny bile for maybe a mile. My companion began shaking his head even as he laughed at my riffs on preposterous excuses and dumbfounding laziness. Finally, he said, “You know I could never be a professor. I don’t know how you do it.”

I waved off the acknowledgment of our heroic task. “You get tough and you learn to laugh.” His head shook. “No, no. I’ve listened to your jokes and complaints about students for a long time. I feel sorry for you.”

I slowed the pace. “Every day,” he went on, “I build houses. The studs are never quite straight; the nails are imperfect and the plans mistaken. Contractors screw up schedules, suppliers deliver late, clients change their plans -- I could complain about these blunders every day but I’d never build anything.”

I flushed as I saw myself through his eyes – a crabby professor, always with a funny student story flavored with blame. The jokes hid a deeper problem. I saw students in terms of their deficits, not mine. They couldn’t construct or evaluate arguments; fathom an author’s conceptual framework; read for connections and patterns; write engaging and vibrant prose; and most of all bring knowledge of culture or history to their learning. They were impossible.

Seen that way there was no way to teach them. I thought about my neighbor’s example. His materials and conditions weren’t perfect but he continued to learn to be a better carpenter.

Blame the student stories stopped on our walks that day. My students weren’t perfect but they were all the materials I had. I couldn’t do my job without them. In my head there was a new rule – the students are the stuff with which you work. You can’t blame them. If they don’t learn, you haven’t taught well enough. To follow that rule was hard.

My colleagues thought I had become an “idealist” – a polite way of saying, “patsy”. They knew that so many outside things caused student failure – high schools, the media, computer games, and all the other flotsam of ignorance – it was beyond their control. By taking responsibility for all those failures wouldn’t I doom myself to flagellation?

At first, it wasn’t so bad. I organized past data on grade distributions by topics, assignments and schedules. Performance always went down in the seventh and eighth weeks of the semester no matter what I did. Investigating assignments I found learning failures caused by my mistaken assumptions.

Unease developed as I got deeper into the details. Students dropped more often; hostility grew in the classroom. It came to a head one day when Tony bristled into my office. He was just the kind of student – always curious and fermenting with ideas and questions – that delighted me.

Tony said, “I can see what you are trying to do. We need skills and practice. “But,” he stared at the floor to hide the embers in his eyes, “does it have to be so awful? Can’t we ever feel good? Must we always hear about mistakes?”

My ready answers – learning is hard, the early stages confuse, and you have to practice even when you hate it -- stuck in my throat. A fine student was miserable and something was wrong. As we argued, I began to see my mistake.

Learning for me was about disciplined practice and correcting mistakes. But Tony saw learning as curiosity, questions, and triumphant answers. My version had no emotions to mush things up. Tony thought it was drab and joyless; based on fear and shame. Tony’s version could keep him working for hours. My version made it hard to even get started.

Mistakes are mistakes, I told myself, but that didn’t alleviate the gloom of failure. I remembered my infant son determined to walk and falling down, getting up and falling down; sometimes crying and sometimes smiling as he swayed upright. What could drive that relentless resolve to learn but desire? All learning, I began to see, was ignited by emotions. Without them, classrooms were barren.

That insight forced me to see students not as deficits, but as knowing people with potentials that I could not imagine. As a result, my courses did not get easier for me or the students; but they ignited with energy and occasional bursts of joy.

The great teacher of basketball, John Wooden, once said you aren’t a loser until you blame others. I thought that was a moral judgment. It wasn’t. Wooden meant that if you blame others you can’t learn. And I would add if you can’t learn you cannot teach.

Larry D. Spence
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Larry D. Spence is a learning innovation consultant at the Smeal College of Business of Pennsylvania State University.

Teaching After Midnight

3:15 a.m. Friday, today, as in a little while ago. Back from teaching my midnight class, College Writing I, 11:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. I drove past Harvard and MIT on the way home. The lights were out. I only have a few minutes until Inside Higher Ed’s 4 a.m. deadline. Here goes.

Any students at midnight?

Yes. My section is full. Same for Pysch 101, which began Tuesday. Forty-seven students in all are enrolled in the two midnight courses. Four students are taking both courses. Two thirds of the midnight students are part time, same as at the college as a whole. The youngest of the 47 is 18, the oldest 59. Sixty-four percent of the midnight students are 18-22 years old, the so-called traditional college age. Nationally and at Bunker Hill, most students are women, but most of my midnight students are men. The national average age for community colleges students is 27. Languages other than English in my class this morning: Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Somali. The Russian student also spoke Ukranian and German.

Since the classroom had no windows, I couldn’t tell it was midnight. No one nodded off. This was just a regular class. Kathleen O’Neill, who taught the Tuesday midnight class, said that her section may even have been livelier than daytime sections. This morning we applied Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, writing in class to read aloud. I sent them off with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and an assignment, from the Advanced Placement English composition exam, to analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln used to achieve his purpose. Students stayed after class to ask questions.

Why midnight?

“Adding other sections during the day or running classes until 10 p.m. isn’t enough. We are already doing that,” said my colleague John P. Reeves, chair of the behavioral sciences department. “And there is also a whole population whose day begins after everyone else’s ends. There’s a crying need to address their education as well as we do everyone else’s.” Reeves and his colleague Kathleen O’Neill, who taught Psych 101 on Tuesday, thought up the midnight classes last winter. “What if we ran all night?” O’Neill wondered.

Reeves, as it happens, was a model for the Robin Williams character in the 1997 film, set at MIT and Bunker Hill Community College Good Will Hunting. Reeves took the plan to Bunker Hill’s president, Mary L. Fifield. She loved the idea. By July, posters and fliers and newspaper ads were appearing all over Boston. I volunteered. The economy has since driven enrollment here to 10,849, an increase of about 25 percent, and the registrar has added 109 new sections. No one knows how many midnight sections could have filled this time.

Take a course at midnight? Why?

Two thirds of my class this morning enrolled at midnight because all the day, evening and weekend sections were full. The rest have night jobs, most of them at hospitals, and one is a taxi dispatcher. Almost all plan to go on to a four-year college. One loves physics. One is earning the credits to transfer to become a doctor of pharmacology. It was midnight or put their ambitions on hold.

Is this a good news story, or what?

No. This is a national nightmare. Not a cry but a scream for help from these students. Sure, it’s great that community colleges are finding ways to respond to the huge enrollment increases they are seeing. But, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, do we want to be citizens in a country that forces its poorest students to go to college at midnight?

We, the people, are all supporting federal education policies that discriminate against students like my 47 midnight students. There’s federal tax policy, extravagant overhead reimbursement for federally sponsored university research, and fine print for student aid even a CPA can’t figure out. Yes, I rejoice that the Obama team is here. Simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is on the way.

But actually providing community colleges with enough money to meet the demands of their very hard working students? Actually give these institutions enough money so that there are professors and classroom space before midnight? No one is really talking about that – and students are being denied sections in massive numbers, nationwide this year.

Why me? I already have a 7 a.m. section of College Writing I.

Outrage. Fury. I’ve shredded several drafts that were not in a tone, as I’d point out to my students, likely to persuade anyone of anything. If motivated students want to learn writing and psychology at midnight, Kathleen O’Neill and I are honored to teach them. This is what community college professors do. Kathleen and I agree that we are examples, not exceptions.

Outrage? Fury? Too strong? No. As I’ve noted before, the federal tax policies of we, the people, through deductions on donations and tax-free endowments, subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student. A single mother at a community college or a 23-year-old student supporting her parents are lucky to win a full federal Pell Grant. Harvard lost $8 billion from its endowment and Williams College, where I went, lost hundreds of millions by taking their charitable, federal tax-deducted dollars to the dog track. So what? We haven’t changed any of the federal tax rules, and these wealthy colleges are out panhandling for more money.

Last Sunday, I settled in on the lawn of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. I can’t make this up. I ended up, to my left, surrounded by a busload of Williams freshmen, with picnics and tickets bought by Williams. I telephoned Williams this morning. Are jazz festivals a prudent use of money by a place that’s just lost hundreds of millions of dollars? No clear answer. I learned that this was a freshman orientation group that had also done community service. I don’t begrudge the Williams students great music. What about my students? Why no federal penalties for losing hundreds of millions? (Anyone know U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee? Please forward him a copy of this column.)

Are we professors getting time and a half? Like the people who fix the roads at night?

No. Our union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, made no provisions for this possibility. On Tuesday, I e-mailed our NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel, to ask what exactly the NEA has on the table now to address the exploding workload for community college faculty. True, the states have no money. The federal stimulus package is just sitting there, I said. I gave Van Roekel my cell phone number and asked him to call. No reply.

Is anyone else there after midnight?

A security guard and a campus police officer, who was already at work when I arrived yesterday morning at 8 a.m. She had arrived at 6 a.m. and would be back at 6 a.m. today, Friday. She is also a Bunker Hill student, putting in as many hours on the job as possible to help her daughter, a BHCC graduate now at Northeastern University. Tuesday night, though, had a reporters and photographers from the Associated Press and the Boston Globe, plus a reporter from WBUR, Boston public radio. Channel 5 TV was going to come to my class but postponed until next week.

Why Bunker Hill Community College?

Charlestown, the Boston neighborhood where BHCC stands, has known midnight action and history before. Just a few blocks from the campus, on the 18th of April in ’75, Paul Revere mounted his horse and rode to warn the colonists. (The BHCC site then was water, part of the Boston Harbor. I’ve suggested to my students that Paul Revere rowed here.) In the 19th century, The Charlestown Prison, designed by the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, rose on the present BHCC site.

That prison housed Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, two immigrants convicted of murder amidst an international uproar over whether they received a fair trial. Shortly after midnight on August 23, 1927, according to an article in The New York Times, Sacco and Vanzetti were both executed in the Charlestown Prison electric chair. (Thank you, Jessy, at the Boston Public Library Reference Desk.)

Back to John Reeves and the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Reeves has been teaching since 1967. In the film, Matt Damon/Will Hunting is night janitor at MIT, who left solutions to impossible problems on the black boards for students and professors to find in the morning. Robin Williams, from his BHCC office, helps Damon/Hunting out of the trap. “It’s not your fault,” was Williams’s repeated point to the anger and pain of the trapped Hunting/Damon. Robin Williams and director Gus Van Sant ("Milk") spent an afternoon with Reeves talking about how to make the story credible. Nine years later, Reeves is still living that story.

I hope this semester we add to the midnight history of Charlestown. I think I’ll imagine that Paul Revere, reining in his horse before galloping off and looking over his left shoulder across the water, where Bunker Hill Community College would stand 324 years later, tipped his cocked hat to Kathleen O’Neill and John Reeves and Mary Fifield, who would take another run at freedom 324 years later, but with the pen, not a musket or a sword.

Are nobility and altruism and history my true motives?

No. I want a movie deal with Denzel playing me.

Haben wanagsan. That, I just learned, means “Good night” in Somali. Subah wanagsan, though, means “Good morning.” Whatever.

Wick Sloane
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Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.

Resist the Pedagagogical Far Right

This fall I will be starting my 41st year as a professor at a so co-called “Public Ivy” institution. Some of my colleagues ask me if I’ll ever retire. Whenever I give my stock response -- “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box, and bury me on the main university green before I retire” -- my colleagues look at me as if I’m crazy. Perhaps from their perspective I am, but from my own view, I’m very sane. I love the life of academe, in spite of its irritating intellectual rigidities, its sometimes lethal, passive-aggressive competitiveness, its deeply entrenched resistance to change, and, worst of all, its over-the-top superiority complex. Still, I’m here to shout to the world that academe has been good to me, and I consider myself lucky to be a professor. But it is my teaching that fills me up the most, and it is my teaching that has provided the lasting memories.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about teaching and learning as preparation for writing a book on how to help students create meaning both inside and outside the classroom. Most of the work I’ve read, with a few remarkable exceptions, resounds with critique, regrets, complaints, settling old scores with some perceived enemy, and, worst of all, with belligerent put-downs of millennial and quarterlife students. For many of these authors, today’s college students are lazy, preoccupied, unmotivated, poorly prepared, distracted, politically correct, and, above all, “entitled.” In a word, students today are “unteachable.”

These scholars go on to say that if the academy is to save itself, it must return to the older ideals of a reduced elective curriculum, a stringent, no-prisoners-taken grading policy, an uncompromising commitment to the tried-and-true academic research methodologies, and, most of all, a no-nonsense, lecture-only, close-textual-analysis, stick-to-the-facts/research approach to reading and writing. “Rigor” is the catchword for these writers. Sadly, in the aftermath, “rigor mortis” could very well become, if it hasn’t already, the catchword for students.

I mourn the current turn to the far pedagogical right in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. I am deeply troubled by the retreat from recent curricular reform, alternative research methodologies, innovative teaching and learning experiments based on a multiple-intelligences understanding, and, most of all, the turning away from helping students at all levels to find and make meaning of their personal and professional lives through their classroom studies. And, so, in the spirit of reviewing the personal meaning of my own professorial calling — particularly its teaching-learning dimension — I offer the following propositions:

As professors, our primary purpose on a college campus is to teach students. Without them, there would be no campus, no professors, and no subject matter to teach, scholarship to cite, or research to undertake.

As professors we are in the classroom to inspire, evoke, respond, inform (not conform), and clarify. Students must retake center stage on the college campus. At best, we educators ought to be located somewhere backstage or in the orchestra pit. Only secondarily, if at all, are we there to direct or choreograph. Neither is our classroom function primarily to expound, propound, or confound. The conventional pedagogical practices of most professors serve only to blunt and defeat students’ independent pursuit of learning.

Truth be told, before we are anything else, we are teachers. Proportionately speaking, few of us actually spend much time researching, writing grants, and producing original scholarship. We may talk this game, but we don’t play it. Those of us who do consistent research reside in perhaps 100 of the most elite colleges and universities in the country. Furthermore, of this privileged group, a large percentage stops doing original research and creative scholarship upon getting tenure.

Thus, most professors in the majority of the 3,500 institutions of higher education in the United States get paid primarily to teach, advise, and do committee work. The point I am making is that the academic culture in more than 90 percent of higher education is built on the teaching function of its workers. Shouldn’t we, therefore, avoid sending the message to our constituents that the university would be a great place to work if only there were no students there to interrupt what’s really important — our research, intra-mural politicking, grantsmanship, and committee work?

The publish-or-perish reward syndrome on college campuses today is the major cause of the retreat from effective and innovative teaching and learning.

In many of our colleges and universities, faculty are still driven by the myth of tenure-track terror fueled by the unrealistic desire for second- and third-tier institutions to enter the first-tier ranks. Even though this rarely if ever happens (why this goal is important in the first place is a question we ought to be asking throughout higher education), the publish-or-perish imperative in these institutions keeps junior faculty constantly on edge. It reduces the time and effort they can put into their teaching. While it might be true that grants, scholarly publications, and conference gigging throughout the country put some institutions on the prestige map, it is effective, responsive, and passionate teaching that attracts, and retains, students.

I believe that the realistic, everyday question for most of us in the academy ought to be how to make our teaching better. How can we get our students actively and passionately involved in their own learning? And, from the perspective of their critics, how can we excite them enough to distract them for a little while from texting, surfing the Internet, tweeting, and Facebooking? How can we convey to them that, when push comes to shove, we want to teach students as much as we want to teach our cherished subject matter? Better still, how can we find that special pedagogical flow in our classrooms that does not even promote such a dichotomy; a flow that makes process and content, and teaching and research, inseparable? Whether one publishes a hundred articles or none, these questions ought to be central to the academic experience. Here’s a maxim that guides my own teaching and scholarship these days: research is best whenever it’s connected directly to a student’s me-search.

There is a body of research that can help us to put the student at the vital center of the teaching-learning transaction — without compromising the high intellectual standards that are so near and dear to most of us.

I’ve been able to unearth the following research during the writing of my newest book that points the way to what students will need in order to be fully engaged in their own learning. Richard Light’s (2001) and Kenneth Bain’s (2004) empirical findings confirm that when teaching is working well, the following learning patterns are evident:

1) Students engage actively in their learning with a vibrant sense of expectancy and excitement; 2) open-ended, evocative, problem-based questions in lively conversation are far more prominent than close-ended, test-based answers; 3) learning is interdisciplinary, unbounded, and wide-ranging; 4) teaching and learning are frequently narrative-based, personally vulnerable, and honest; 5) a variety of pedagogical techniques fill the learning space, including lectures, small and large group conversations, student-generated colloquia sessions, service learning, and the frequent use of internet chat rooms, listservs, and blogs.

So, too, the latest research on brain-based learning by such neuroscientists as Gerald Edelman (2006) and Michael Gazzaniga (2008) demonstrates that students learn best when they are given the opportunity to personalize their learning by looking for its practical implications in their everyday lives. When students can see the organic connections between subject matter and their interests in performing service to others, or dedicating themselves to a social cause that results in self-transcendence, or creating something artistic, then their learning becomes intense, focused, integrated, and full of passion. Dichotomies disappear. During this time, students’ neurons are at optimal firing capacity, and their cognitive patternings are rich and complex. Also, according to this brain-based research, while students highly appreciate some type of evaluative feedback from educators, nearly always the imposition of grades acts as a serious deterrent to their relaxed alertness and complex cognitive processing.

Building authentic relationships with our students both inside and outside the classroom is the sine qua non for successfully transmitting subject matter.

A growing body of research supports this assertion. Light’s findings, stemming from his decades-long research on the Harvard Assessment Project, confirmed that the classes hundreds of undergraduate students like the best and learned the most were those that involved being able to make connections with others. Students mentioned getting involved outside of class with the arts, special-interest clubs and groups, and a variety of content-linked, experiential activities. While the hands-on experiences were important to them, even more important were the interactions they had with others in order to achieve a common goal. Through these interactions, students learned the invaluable human skills of how to initiate, sustain, and deepen relationships.

In the classroom, students especially appreciated small classes. It was in this setting that students were best able to get to know the professor, both in and out of the classroom. Students also enjoyed classes that emphasized writing assignments. They particularly appreciated classes with a lot of personal narrative writing, because over 90 percent of them felt that being able to write clearly and creatively about their own lives was the most important single skill they hoped to develop during their undergraduate years. Also, students learned best about how to write when they were able to share their writing with small groups and, in the process, receive valuable feedback from their peers.

The warning flag that predicted future academic frustration and failure, however, was when a student felt a sense of isolation from others. Light’s research showed that initial feelings of being isolated only served to intensify the state of isolation, because the student, motivated by feelings of embarrassment and loneliness, tended to dig in, withdraw even more, and work alone. Isolation led to increasing feelings of desolation. It was when faculty and staff reached out to put students in touch with like-minded others, as well as with counselors, however, that their grades, and attitudes, drastically improved.

We must rethink conventional assessment strategies and homework assignments.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself.

Some of Bain’s best teachers asked their students to evaluate themselves, while still requiring them to provide various types of hands-on evidence that learning did, indeed, occur. Often, these students presented this evidence in face-to-face conversation with their teachers, in addition to writing extensive narrative self-evaluations, complete with such “evidence” as learning portfolios, time logs, daily or weekly written reports, and a variety of independently designed work projects. The upshot for the successful assessment of learning in meaning-making is to encourage students to set their own goals and to take full responsibility for determining whether or not they were able to meet those goals.

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

Robert J. Nash
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Robert J. Nash is an Official University Scholar in the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Vermont. His latest book, co-authored with Michele C. Murray, is Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making (forthcoming from Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010).

The Limitations of Portfolios

Colleges have come to realize the need to assess and improve student learning and to report their efforts to students, faculty, administrators, and the public; including policy makers and prospective students and their parents.

The question is how to accomplish this. The roar of yesterday’s Spellings Commission and its vision of accountability is background noise to today’s cacophony of calls for more transparency and campus-based, authentic assessment of student learning. Some of the advocates for more authentic measures, such as Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, have suggested using electronic portfolios -- collections of a student’s work products, such as term papers, research papers or descriptions, and the student’s written thoughts (“reflections”) about these work products and curricular experiences that are bundled together on an electronic platform. The presumed merits of portfolios, such as their supposed ability to drill down into the local curriculum, have been extolled elsewhere.

Portfolios are simply not up to the task of providing the necessary data for making a sound assessment of student learning. They do not and cannot yield the trustworthy information that is needed for this purpose. However, there are approaches that can provide some of the information that is required.

Portfolio Assessment’s Inherent Limitations

There are three major reasons portfolios are not appropriate for higher education assessment programs: They are (a) not standardized, (b) not feasible for large-scale assessment due to administration and scoring problems, and (c) potentially biased. Indeed, course grades, aggregated across an academic major or program, provide more reliable and better evidence of student learning than do portfolios. Here’s why.

Lack of Standardization

Standardization refers to assessments in which (a) all students take the same or conceptually and statistically parallel measures; (b) all students take the measures under the same administrative conditions (such as on-site proctors and time limits); (c) the same evaluation methods, graders, and scoring criteria are applied consistently to all of the students’ work; and (d) the score assigned to a student most likely reflects the quality of the work done by that student and that student alone (without assistance from others).

Portfolios do not and cannot meet the requirements for standardization because by their very nature, they are tailored to each student. AAC&U’s attempts at “metarubrics” are not even close to being an adequate solution to address this problem. Portfolio advocates simply ignore the evidence that valid comparisons in the level of learning achieved can only be made when students take the same or statistically “equated” measures (such as different versions of the SAT).

Without standardization, faculty and administrators at individual campuses cannot answer the fundamental questions: Is the amount of student learning and level of achievement attained by the students at our campus good enough? Could they do better, and if so, how much better? For example, are the critical writing skills of our students on a par with those of students at comparable institutions and if below, what might be done to improve their performance?

The reason that campuses using portfolio assessment cannot answer these types of questions is that determining how much learning has occurred has to be measured by comparison to some type of standardized benchmarks. For example, to assess whether seniors write better than freshmen, both groups need to respond to the same essay questions within the same time limits and have their answers mixed together before being graded by readers who do not know whether an answer was written by a freshman or senior.

The same standardization is needed to assess whether the students at one school (or in one program within a school) are more proficient (or learned more) than students at similar schools. In short, learning has to be measured by some type of standardized, controlled, and unbiased comparison. There is no absolute scale (like weight and height) that is interpretable in and of itself.

Descriptions of scoring criteria are not sufficient to ensure comparable grading standards even when benchmark answers are used to train raters. In order to answer the good enough question, performance comparisons -- “benchmarking” -- is necessary. But benchmarking cannot occur without standardization and benchmarking is necessary to interpret differences in scores between programs within a campus and between peer campuses. Without standardization, differences might be due to variation in portfolio content, rater background and training, assistance provided to students for building their portfolios, bias (see below), and a host of other factors.

Valid interpretations of differences in scores between students, programs, and schools can only occur when the assessment is standardized. Only then can institutions monitor their students’ progress toward improving their skills and abilities relative to (a) their school’s academic standards, (b) the progress made by their classmates, and (c) the improvements in performance made by students in other programs and similar institutions. Ironically then, by eliminating the standardization that is necessary for benchmarking learning, the portfolio method prevents making the kinds of comparisons that are essential for assessing improvement.

We recognize that there are roles for portfolios. For example, they might be used to provide information about the range of tasks and activities students engage in and their views about the importance of different aspects of their education and campus experiences. This information may have heuristic value in providing possible insights into areas for improvement.

Not Feasible for Large Scale Learning Assessment

By their un-standardized nature, portfolios (even electronic ones) are not practically feasible on a large scale. A moment’s reflection reveals why this is true. Because of their length, a single grader will typically need an hour or so to grade a single portfolio. To assure adequate score reliability, each portfolio needs at least two independent graders (and major differences between them should be resolved by a third). In addition, due to the potential interdisciplinary nature of a portfolio’s contents, raters with different areas of expertise might be needed which could lead to even more scoring time and feasibility problems.

For portfolios to be truly authentic, they have to relate to each student’s academic major or combination of majors. Hence, different teams of graders (and most likely different scoring rubrics) are needed for students with different majors. These and related concerns preclude combining results across students with different and perhaps unique combinations of majors.

Computer technology cannot solve portfolio feasibility and reliability problems. For example, computers with natural language processing software have been shown to provide a cost-effective and accurate way to grade large numbers of student responses to essay questions and other open-ended tasks. However, these machine grading methods require standardized prompts. They require that thousands of students respond to the same prompt and thus they are not applicable to portfolios.

Simply put, the time, content expertise, and other challenges -- and hence feasibility -- of grading portfolios substantially exceeds that of grading constructed responses (e.g., essays) that are administered and scored under standardized conditions. Incidentally, the solution to this problem does not lie in having local faculty grade portfolios, even when justified as a professor’s instructional and professional development responsibilities. The evidence is clear: in large-scale programs, portfolio assessment overwhelms faculty, and is a source of faculty resistance and low morale. Portfolio assessment, then, is simply not a feasible or practical tool for large-scale assessment programs.


A portfolio may include a photograph, videoclip, or other information about student identities. Their gender, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics also may be known by those evaluating the portfolio. This lack of anonymity may bias results.


Faculty are understandably skeptical of standardized tests. In an article last year in Academe, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein pointed out that many faculty erroneously equate standardized exams with the highly questionable multiple-choice tests that characterize the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Professors and administrators rightly celebrate the diversity of American higher education and therefore do not see how the same standardized test could be used across this range of institutions. However, colleges may share some important goals. For instance, virtually all faculty and college mission statements agree that critical thinking and writing skills are essential for all college graduates to possess. Graff and Birkenstein put it well:

A marketing instructor at a community college, a biblical studies instructor at a church-affiliated college, and a feminist literature instructor at an Ivy League research university would presumably differ radically in their disciplinary expertise, their intellectual outlooks, and the students they teach, but it would be surprising if there were not a great deal of common ground in what they regard as acceptable college-level work. They (these instructors) would probably agree -- or should agree -- that college-educated students, regardless of their background or major, should be critical thinkers, meaning that, at a minimum, they should be able to read a college-level text, offer a pertinent summary of its central claim, and make a relevant response, whether by agreeing with it, complicating its claims, or offering a critique.

If standardization is possible, the question arises as to whether it is possible to standardize “authentic” tasks. David C. McClelland's 1973 paper, provided the key to authenticity with standardization. He argued for a “criterion-sampling” approach to assessment in which students confront “real-world” tasks like those they may face in their further education, work, and private and civil lives. As McClelland said, if you want to know if a person can drive a car, observe and evaluate his performance on a sample of tasks like starting the car, pulling out into traffic, turning left, parking and the like. Moreover, you can evaluate performing these tasks in a standardized way. Put succinctly, he provided a strong argument for gaining authenticity through the assessment of criterion performances.

Performance assessment, then, represents an authentic, standardized testing paradigm in which students craft original responses to real-life (criterion-sampled) tasks. For example, most state bar examinations now include tasks in which candidates are given a realistic case situation and asked to use a library to perform a typical task, such as prepare deposition questions or a points-and-authorities brief, draft instructions for an investigator, or write a letter to opposing counsel. Candidates are given a “library” of documents and told to base their answers on the information in these documents. The library might include the opposing counsel’s brief, excerpts of relevant and irrelevant case law, letters, investigator reports, and other documents… just like they would review in practice. Performance tasks also have been used in credentialing teachers.

We applied this testing paradigm in developing the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). This testing tool taps critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem-solving and written communication skills of college students with standardized analytic writing and performance tasks that have been described elsewhere. Over 450 colleges with 200,000 students have participated in the CLA. Faculty and students recognize its authenticity and report that its tasks tap the kinds of thinking and reasoning they expect a college education will help students perform.

We are concerned about the suggestion to replace standardized higher education measures with electronic portfolios as a means for assessing the effects of campus’ programs and as a response to the demand for external accountability. Because of the inherent problems with portfolios, they do not and cannot provide trustworthy, unbiased, or cost effective information about student learning. This is just not in their DNA.

Gathering valid data about student performance levels and performance improvement requires making comparisons relative to fixed benchmarks and that can only be done when the assessments are standardized. Consequently, we urge the higher education community to embrace authentic, standardized performance-assessment approaches so as to gather valid data that can be used to improve teaching and learning as well as meet its obligations to external audiences to account for its actions and outcomes regarding student learning.

Richard J. Shavelson and Stephen Klein
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Richard J. Shavelson is a professor of education at Stanford University. Stephen Klein and Roger Benjamin are director of research and development and president/CEO, respectively, at the Council for Aid to Education, which owns the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

The Kids Are All Right

It happens. A few weeks into the semester you finish grading the first exam in a course, and check the class average only to find that performance is decidedly underwhelming. What happened? Was the exam too hard? Did it have confusing questions? Impossible, of course. You wrote the exam yourself and made sure that it assessed everything students should have gleaned over the past few weeks. The exam was a finely tuned instrument designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But, for whatever reason, the exam results were predominantly chaff.

Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)

Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."

This conclusion that students are not "all right" often takes the form of lamenting students’ lack of motivation, lack of interest, lack of preparation, excessive partying, excessive socializing, and a lack of enthusiasm for our teaching. Worse, some make broad claims that students in general "don't read," "can't write" and "can't think," especially compared to students of yesteryear. But are these novel complaints? A faculty report once concluded that 25 percent of students admitted to Harvard in 1897 did not have the writing skills necessary to succeed in college. This does not bode well for progress in higher education over the past 100+ years.

Unfortunately what this does suggest is that the phenomenon of blaming students is more ubiquitous and may not be limited to teachers who are exceptionally egocentric, narcissistic, burnt-out, curmudgeonly, or those who would rather not teach at all.

As professors who have the responsibility for helping our students learn, this seems like a counterproductive perspective. Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.

However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.

If students are not ideal scholars, there must be a good reason for how this came to be. A common explanation for students’ shortcomings involves generational differences. But it seems too easy to merely conclude that the students of today, "generation me," are qualitatively different than students of the past. We must remember that when we compare students past and present, we may be using an unfair comparison group.

We run the risk of using our own past experience as the default comparison group. This presents two problems. First, our recollection of our own college experience may suffer from retrospective biases where we recall things more favorably than they were. Did we really do all of our reading? Did we really avoid procrastinating? Did we truly devote ourselves to our coursework? Were we really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Certainly, we are prone to some degree of rosy retrospection.

The second problem is that even if we have perfect and bias-free retrospection, it is likely that you were not a typical college student. In fact, it is much more likely that you went on to become a professor because you were not a typical student. Compared to the typical student, you probably earned better grades and placed a higher value on education. Compared to the average student at most colleges and universities, you may have graduated from a better high school, had more encouragement along the way, or had better role models who reinforced the importance of pursuing higher education. Perhaps, as a result, you emerged from high school with better critical thinking skills, better writing skills, better reading skills, and were a more skilled test taker. Even if you did not benefit from any of these advantages, your superior performance as an undergraduate was undoubtedly the result of you paying better attention in class, studying more, reading the assigned texts, and conscientiously completing assignments.

More to the point, it is likely that your own college classrooms were not teeming with aspiring academics who shared your enthusiasm and appreciation of the learning process. Chances are that some of your fellow students were supremely prepared, some were supremely underprepared, the rest were somewhere in between. The same is true in our classrooms today. Thus, we should be careful to avoid portraying our personal academic experiences and motivations as the benchmark for comparisons.

In reality, we are much more like our students than we care to acknowledge. Who among us can say they have read all of the recent journals in their field, have never submitted a less than perfect manuscript or grant proposal, have never procrastinated on a project, have never missed a deadline, have never been late to class, have never skipped a meeting, or have not paid astute attention while a speaker provided information? If you have any doubt about this last one, I urge you to look around the room during your next faculty meeting to see how many of your colleagues are otherwise occupied.

Students in our classes today do check their cell phones excessively. When we were students, most of us never would have dreamed of doing such a thing (mainly because there weren’t cell phones). But, if you had such a device as a student, I suspect that you may have found it difficult to avoid checking for text messages about that night’s social activities as well. Now that we do have these devices, how many of your colleagues (if not yourself) check their BlackBerrys or iPhones on a potentially excessive basis? Although there may be generation differences in the available technology, students and teachers of yesterday and today share the same desire to learn useful information, to be financially secure, to lead a happy life, and to be efficient, and to avoid wasting time engaging in seemingly meaningless activities. Ultimately, if we focus on the similarities rather than highlight the differences, we will be more effective in helping our students to learn.

Students as a whole are not going to change. It is unlikely that an entire generation, student body, or even your early morning class will see the light, rebel against their nature, and suddenly enter your classroom as the dedicated scholars you think they should be. Not only will your students show up in the same state as they did last semester, it may be unrealistic to expect otherwise. If someone had the courage to enact change in our students, which of the following would be the wiser course of action? A) Assume that you should simply keep doing what you have been for years as students will make the choice to change and will enter your class prepared, motivated, and enthusiastic. B) Ask yourself, what can you do to connect with your students in a way that allows you to achieve the goals that you have for them? The wisdom is in Choice B.

Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

We'd like you to think back to the question posed above. When you were an undergraduate, were you really attentive in class 100 percent of the time? Always engaged? Or were you only attentive and engaged in the better classes, with the better teachers who projected positivity and respect for their students? If so, are you teaching one of the better classes? Are you one of the better teachers? If you have room for improvement, as all average, good, and great teachers do, keep in mind that it is impossible to be a master teacher without a fundamental respect and appreciation of your students. Only by avoiding the obstacle of blaming students, can you proceed to instill in your students a sense of curiosity, skepticism, and an interest in pursuing new ways of thinking about the world.

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. and David B. Strohmetz
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Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. David B. Strohmetz is associate professor of psychology and associate vice president for academic and institutional assessment at Monmouth University.

Learning in the Commons

Earlier this year at the kickoff event for our university’s Learning Commons — a bustling floor of the library that includes the main research help desk, the University Writing Center, the Quantitative Learning Center, a help desk for educational technology, clusters of computers, a video editing room, a series of glass-walled study rooms, and several lounge areas — Veronica Makowsky, our vice provost for undergraduate education, reflected on the history of the word “commons.” She traced its once pejorative connotations in British culture (commons as both the untitled classes and the shared land given to them by nobility); she focused, however, on how early Americans redefined and embraced the term. They adopted the idea of the commons as vital to democracy by both celebrating the common man and setting aside valuable land for civic purposes (town greens, public squares, town halls).

That our Learning Commons should evoke a capacious democratic ideal seems apt because a casual walk around the floor reveals several competing conceptions of learning gathered into one space. Even the University Writing Center (W for short) and the Quantitative Learning Center (Q), both founded in 2004 to support an overhaul of our general education system, have different ways of promoting learning.

W and Q are tutoring centers led by faculty and staffed by graduate and undergraduate tutors. The centers were originally placed side by side as a kind of matched set, but after a few weeks W pulled up stakes and moved to a different part of the library floor. Q was just too noisy.

It was not that W prized silence. Quite the contrary — every student who walked into the University Writing Center read his or her draft aloud and discussed it with a tutor. The two centers simply generated different kinds of noise.

We have since come to realize that W and Q work from different root metaphors. Q has taken on the feel of a busy emergency room. Learners arrive needing immediate help with homework or exam preparation, are triaged by a receptionist or graduate student supervisor, and are assigned to work with a tutor. In most cases, the tutor is already working with some students, but the student can join a group working on the same topic or time-share the tutor. Learners gather in clusters of various sizes, talking with one another as well as the circulating tutor, creating a buzz of active engagement with challenging material.

For Q tutors it can be challenging to handle multiple students and subject areas simultaneously. (Some of the best have been chemical engineering majors who can handle all four of Q’s core topics: math, chemistry, physics, and statistics.) But most rise to the challenge, like a chess grandmaster playing simultaneous games, walking from cluster to cluster, offering suggestions and encouragement. When faced with a particularly large group, the tutor can take them to nearby room for a mini-recitation.

The ER model was not premeditated; rather demand for Q tutoring has always exceeded its budget for tutors. Growth has been rapid: from 600 visits in fall 2005 to 7,000 in fall 2007 and (projected) 12,000 in fall 2009. Q has never come close to one-on-one tutoring — rather, we have needed to make the case strongly to administrators for enough resources to keep the learner to tutor ratio within reasonable bounds. Fortunately, our model of multitasking tutors seems to work for many students, giving them opportunities for independent thought or neighborly collaboration while the tutor is engaged elsewhere.

The ER analogy also captures a common emotional state of Q learners: the recently injured. Students are often anxious and confused; many have yet to appreciate confusion as a prerequisite to "figuring out" or learning. In some cases, the anxiety is based on old wounds from previous years or is correlated with "dropped stitches" in the students’ mathematics education.

Because calculus is taught on a foundation of algebra on a foundation of arithmetic, small confusions early in a student's career can have long-lasting, cumulative consequences.
Some learners resist being forced to do some of the work on their own and tutors need to confront a "Just show me how to do it!" ("Just cure me!") attitude. Tutors respond by revealing the reasoning behind the procedures and operations, explaining both the how and the why of the problem solving.
 In the Q disciplines undergraduates are largely mastering a fixed body of content rather than creating their own, but there is significant variation in the learning issues students face. Q tutoring is able to respond to those differences — diagnosing problems and delivering care — in a way that lectures or recitations cannot match.

Q does not, however, cast students as patients waiting to be "cured" or "fixed" by experts. Instead, it encourages self-help and growth. Tutors are urged to leave learners "in charge of the pencil," letting them do all of the writing and as much of the thinking as they can. Our goal is for learners to become more independent, to do as much as they can on their own.

For that very reason, most writing centers have tried to steer well clear of medical or clinical metaphors.

What one sees when strolling by the University Writing Center is tutors and writers, one on one, huddled around drafts, talking through ideas and options. Tutorials happen at two tables in a glassed-walled studio; others go on at tables out in front of the studio; others take place in soft reading chairs nearby.

This scene looks somewhat like a coffeehouse, and indeed W embraces the metaphor of the salon, an intellectual space where students come to discuss their ideas and their works in progress.

While it cultivates a café ethos, W is not about diffuse philosophizing; it is about work — collaborative and conversational work, for sure, but still work.

Most students make appointments in advance using Web-based scheduling software that shows both the first names of our tutors and their various majors, which range from business to biology, engineering to English. While all our tutors take all comers, writers often select a tutor whose major aligns with the topic of the draft that they plan to bring to the tutorial. And many writers, like students who come to the Q center, arrive anxious or with misconceptions about how our tutorials work. (The most common misconception first timers bring is that we will focus exclusively on sentence-level matters or edit their papers for them.)

Each 45-minute session begins with a discussion of the assignment and what the writer wants to work on; then the writer reads aloud. Following that, the tutor may provide encouragement, register understanding or confusion, ask questions, model writing strategies, consult a handbook, or prompt the writer to consider several options. Tutorials often start awkwardly but the best ones develop into thoughtful conversations punctuated by moments of perplexity, small breakthroughs, and occasional laughter.

Working with student writers to shape their ideas and sharpen their prose is less about covering what they don’t know than provoking dialogue about an emerging project. This process aligns well with assignments that ask students to discover and develop their own arguments. That is, most college writing assignments demand divergent learning: each student needs to do something distinctive and original with the material. Q activity is more keyed to convergent learning: students in a given calculus course all need to get to the same place, even if they take different routes to get there.

As a W session nears its end, the tutor typically asks, “So, what’s your plan for revision?” A Q tutor might ask, “Do you feel like you understand this concept better now?”

A good café and a good clinic. A vibrant public square needs both, just as a dynamic learning commons needs more than one kind of noise.

Tom Deans and Tom Roby
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Tom Deans and Tom Roby are on the faculty at the University of Connecticut. Deans is an associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center; Roby is an associate professor of mathematics and director of the Quantitative Learning Center.

An Ideal Teacher

I used to strive to be an ideal teacher, but I gave up, because not only could I not satisfy a single classroom, I couldn’t even maintain my ideality for smitten students who took me for a second course. If there were a teacher-god in Greek mythology, I would worship at that temple for guidance. Mentor, of course, is ideal, and he was ideal for Odysseus and Telemachos alike. But remember that Athena herself has to impersonate Mentor in order to instruct Telemachos. To be the ideal teacher of my students, who have come from all over the globe to our Brooklyn community college with various beliefs about teaching and learning, they would all have to have a hand in creating me. What a magnificent creature I would be!

Ideal Teacher is fluent in the first language of all of his students. He can explain arcane English grammar backwards and forwards and compare it to Mandarin or French; he sees the parallels of all human utterance. His thing isn’t language so much as divining the incomprehension each student has in her way. Ideal Teacher is continually murmuring “Ah!” as he surveys the classroom. “I see!” And he utters the perfect words (or projects the perfect expression from his twinkling face), and the enlightened student swoons, almost melts, with happy comprehension.

That’s Ideal Teacher.

In a more ideal world, Ideal Teacher has no gender, but we’re working from our limited human imagination here, and I wouldn’t want him to be a sideshow curiosity, as a double-sexed or neither-sexed being would be distracting. So, Ideal Teacher, the male version, is physically attractive -- but neither paternal nor sexy, avuncular rather and authoritative but also good-humored and funny -- very funny and very serious about his subject.

Ideal Teacher should not be too young or too old. He should not be too enthusiastic. (This subject, these books, cannot be his life-blood, can they?) He should be a handsome monk, but in civilian clothing. His clothing should not be too fashionable, and of course not odd, but it should be pleasing to look at. A perfect formal informality. His get-ups should not show too much flair; the student should not think of the giddy and clever and outrageously dressed teacher from the Magic School Bus. Id Tea’s hair should be neat and can have just a little bit of gray -- not a lot! He should not be bald -- that’s either a weakness or rather too suggestive of nakedness. His face, however, should be clean-shaven, the delicate creases of his delight and pleasure at being in his students’ company revealing themselves more obviously thereby.

Ideal Teacher inspires and never nags. Students do the classwork and homework not only because they love him but because, through his teaching, they come to love the subject. Ideal Teacher is somehow never an object of romantic love. I return to this, as do the student-creators of Ideal Teacher, because there is necessarily something sexless about him. He is, however, not so sexless as to be contemptible. But the students never ever have to think of him having a sex life, and none of his jokes ever suggest his own pleasure or experience in sexual activity. He never ever gets distracted when he sees a pair of bare twitchy female legs or the depthless slopes of cleavage! Of course he doesn’t look! He is above and beyond such primitive responses.

If he has children -- this is tricky -- it is better that they were adopted by him and his wife, who -- I didn’t make this up, the students did -- is dead. He is a widower, thereby sympathetic, but his children are out of the house, because he has no other life, really, than the students in his class.

And of course he has other classes! But the students in one class are never aware of and thereby not jealous of the ones in the others. If he has to miss a class (and each semester he should miss a couple, whenever several of the students are having a bad day or medical appointments or just really would appreciate that gift of an hour’s holiday), everyone hears about it ahead of time and doesn’t have to cross campus to find out. If a student is low or down and needs him, Id Tea is always in his office. He is also glimpsed once in a while in the hallways and also passing through the cafeteria. He can drink juice or water, maybe coffee, but it’s better if he doesn’t. He really shouldn’t eat. Ideal Teacher has to eat, but not when a student can see, because what if his diet includes the pork or beef or meat or vegetables or protein-matter that the student disapproves of? In any case, an Ideal who eats human food is disgusting and he really shouldn’t.

After school (he shouldn’t live there, not on campus or on a cot in his office), Ideal Teacher can be seen leaving but he absolutely does not take public transportation! He does not share the grim bus ride to the subway or the impatient rush-hour subway ride towards the city. He does not sit shoulder to shoulder with Brooklynites and mark papers while sipping and sloshing coffee and eating a crumbling cookie. Banish the thought! No bus, no train. He has a car, and it’s an unusual car -- not too expensive, but cute and funny. He does not live too close to the college.

What he does at home or when he’s not teaching is never mentioned or suggested. He does not talk about “back in the day” or ever sound confused about iPods or texting or anything electronic. He is accessible by e-mail but not on Twitter. Ideal Teacher, when telling jokes, is always funny and never misunderstood. Jonathan, for example, does not have to think a moment before he realizes Ideal Teacher’s only kidding! All of his jokes are hilarious, but somehow they’re also warm and everyone is reassured by these jokes -- that we’re all human and fallible. So Ideal Teacher is as funny as Bill Cosby, and he can wear loud sweaters if wants to. His wit always saves his students from embarrassment and awkwardness. It unites students and if he targets a particular student, the gentle barb tickles. The corrected student laughs without shame and is only momentarily embarrassed. He sees before him an open path back into the good graces of his classmates and of course the professor himself. There is a hazy bliss that descends every day or two in class, wherein all the students realize they love him and they love their classmates and they love everyone in the world equally -- everyone realizes their boundless humility and tolerance -- and the whole class and Ideal Teacher sit for long moments in the glow of mutual respect and appreciation.

Ideal Teacher, this combination of Bill Cosby and the Dalai Lama with a dash or two of the latest superhero, is an angel of light. He will live forever and he was never born.

Bob Blaisdell
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Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

Course Evaluations, Years Later

Just recently I got a set of teaching evaluations for a course that I taught in the fall of 2008 -- and another set for a course I taught in 2006.

This lag wasn't the fault of campus mail (it can be slow, but not that slow). Instead, the evaluations were part of small experiment with long-delayed course assessments, surveys that ask students to reflect on the classes that they have taken a year or two or three earlier.

I've been considering such evaluations ever since I went through the tenure a second time: the first was at a liberal arts college, the second two years later when I moved to a research university. Both institutions valued teaching but took markedly different approaches to student course evaluations. The research university relied almost exclusively on the summary scores of bubble-sheet course evaluations, while the liberal arts college didn't even allow candidates to include end-of-semester forms in tenure files. Instead they contacted former students, including alumni, and asked them to write letters.

In my post-tenure debriefing at the liberal arts college, the provost shared excerpts from the letters. Some sounded similar to comments I would typically see in my end-of-semester course evaluations; others, especially those by alumni, resonated more deeply. They let me know what in my assignments and teaching had staying power.

But how to get that kind of longitudinal feedback at a big, public university?

My first try has been a brief online survey sent to a selection of my former students. Using SurveyMonkey, I cooked up a six-item questionnaire. I'm only mildly tech-savvy and this was my first time creating an online survey, but the software escorted me through the process quickly and easily. I finished in half an hour.

Using my university's online student administration system, I downloaded two course rosters-one from a year ago, one from three years ago. I copied the e-mail address columns and pasted them into the survey. Eight clicks of the mouse later I was ready to send.

I sent the invitation to two sections of a small freshman honors English seminar I teach every other year. This course meets the first-year composition requirement and I teach it with a focus on the ways that writing can work as social action, both inside and outside the academy. During the first half of the semester students engage with a range of reading -- studies of literacy, theories of social change, articles from scholarly journals in composition studies, short stories and poems keyed to questions of social justice, essays from Harpers and The New York Times Magazine, papers written by my former students -- and they write four essays, all revised across drafts. During the latter part of the semester students work in teams on service-learning projects, first researching their local community partner organizations and then doing writing projects that I have worked out in advance of the semester with those organizations.

I taught the course pretty much the same in fall 2008 as I did in fall 2006, except that in 2008 I introduced a portfolio approach to assessment that deferred much of the final paper grading until the end of the course.

Through my online survey I wanted to know what stuck -- which readings (if any) continued to rattle around in their heads, whether all the drafting and revising we did proved relevant (or not) to their writing in other courses, and how the service experience shaped (or didn't) any future community engagement.

My small sample size -- only 28 (originally 30, but 2 students from the original rosters had left or graduated) -- certainly would not pass muster with the psychometricians. But the yield of 18 completed surveys, a response rate of over 60 percent, was encouraging.

I kept the survey short-just six questions -- and promised students that it would take five to ten minutes of their winter break and that their identities would be kept anonymous.

The first item asked them to signal when they had taken the course, in 2006 or 2008. The next two were open-ended: "Have any particular readings, concepts, experiences, etc. from Honors English 1 stayed with you? If so, which ones? Are there any ways that the course shaped how you think and/or write? If so, how?" and "Given your classwork and experiences since taking Honors English 1, what do you wish would have been covered in that course but wasn't?" These were followed by two multiple-choice questions: one about their involvement in community outreach (I wanted to get a rough sense of whether the service-learning component of the course had or hadn't influenced future community engagement); and another that queried whether they would recommend the course to an incoming student. I concluded with an open invitation to comment.

As might be expected from a small, interactive honors seminar, most who responded had favorable memories of the course. But more interesting to me were the specifics: they singled out particular books, stories, and assignments. Several of those I was planning to keep in the course anyway, a few of those I was considering replacing (each semester I fiddle with my reading list). The student comments rescued a few of those.

I also attend to what was not said. The readings and assignments that none of the 18 mentioned will be my prime candidates for cutting from the syllabus.

Without prompting, a few students from the 2008 section singled out the portfolio system as encouraging them to take risks in their writing, which affirms that approach. Students from both sections mentioned the value of the collaborative writing assignments (I'm always struggling with the proportion of individual versus collaborative assignments). Several surprised me by wishing that we had spent more time on prose style.

I also learned that while more than half of the respondents continued to be involved in some kind of community outreach (not a big surprise because they had self-selected a service-learning course), only one continued to work with the same community partner from the course. That suggested that I need to be more deliberate about encouraging such continuity.

In all, the responses didn't trigger a seismic shift in how I'll next teach the course, but they did help me revise with greater confidence and tinker with greater precision.

I am not suggesting that delayed online surveys should replace the traditional captive-audience, end-of-semester evaluations. Delayed surveys likely undercount students who are unmotivated or who had a bad experience in the course and miss entirely those who dropped or transferred out of the institution (and we need feedback from such students). Yet my small experiment suggests that time-tempered evaluations are worth the hour it takes to create and administer the survey.

Next January, another round, and this time with larger, non-honors courses.

Tom Deans
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Tom Deans is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

Put Out to Pasture

I want to believe that when I was taking my favorite professors’ classes, those great men and women were at their peak.

I was a little disconcerted, then, when an older friend recently told me about how good my hero and mentor, the critic Marvin Mudrick, had been 20 years before I had taken him. “But … but I was there at the end,” I whined to myself. For eight years (until he died in 1986), as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I took his classes or sat in on them.

Even so, I knew there were quarters and classes during that time where he was better than others. But I wanted him to have been at his best during those years and I guess he fed into that conceit himself. He would make fun of some of his own old views about books, writers, and teaching — so I believed I was taking him at his peak. He seemed to think he was at his peak.

This past week, with my 11-year-old daughter sitting in on a few of my classes during her school break, I was perhaps at my worst. She was looking at me with expectation, attentively — an encouraging, demanding student. I watched my language and I hoped the students would watch theirs, not that she hasn’t heard everything. And then the next day she was supposed to come again to my classes, but she stayed back to hang out with another professor’s daughter at a campus closer to home, and I was free, and I was in the classroom, happy to be free, aware, by this point in the semester, how far I could push the students and hoping, in a couple of them, to keep them engaged. I was funnier than I had been in a long while — telling tangential stories that then led into better conversations than we would’ve got.

“We tell you everything — what about you?” teased one student.

And that day I was not old Bob — that is, paternal, avuncular Bob — I was young Bob, the one I’ve been missing, and I was willing to tell them things about my life that I wouldn’t have told them if my daughter had been in the room.

I was younger without my daughter than with her — I was free again, and teaching like that, by my wits rather than by my deliberate, this-is-for-your-own-good friendliness and deadpan, I was better for a day.

I was better.

I’ve told a few young teachers this and a few young adjunct professors, that I was happier teaching as an adjunct than as a full-time professor. It’s something like the difference I felt as a student writing for one professor over another, or occasionally now, by writing for one publication instead of another. In one I’m loose, myself, giddy, and in the other I’m responsible and sober. I’m better unsober. I don’t drink alcohol, but I’m better and smarter when I’m funny, when my funniness loosens up the class and makes my developmental students, so very self-conscious, so very cautious, lean out a little for a look, go out on a limb.

Don’t things change for us as teachers? Don’t we have to deal with that damned aging in a way that our friends in non-teaching professions don’t? We get older, but the students stay the same age. Mr. Mudrick used to tell us, his students, that he talked about love and sex a lot in the classroom because it was the only thing we all shared an interest in. I’m not so daring or funny as he was, so I don’t go very far that way, except … sometimes.

Every semester I can still get the recent immigrants and 18-year-olds hot under the collar about William Carlos Williams’s “The Knife of the Times,” a story he wrote in the early 1930s about a potential affair between two women, who were girlhood friends, and are now middle-aged and married with families. Some of my students unashamedly express prejudices about homosexuality, but outrage as well about such affairs, and yet there are not one in five intact parental marriages in the room.

Fictional characters are somehow supposed to behave! Better than real people! Most of my non-literary students hate conflicted people, people struggling to make romantic decisions that will cripple them. Political decisions, social decisions, those are too easy, in my opinion. But dare to tell someone you love that you love her? In my experience that’s the biggest drama. Call me a Jane Austenite. But also call me old.

Aging athletes, like aging professors, also like to say that they’re better now than they used to be. But people who really pay attention know that sometimes the young superstar is best when young; that he doesn’t just get better and better as some artists do; he hits his physical peak, and, lacking steroids — are there steroids for artists or professors? — he deteriorates and becomes a coach.

As I’ve proceeded as a teacher of developmental English I’ve become, to my thinking, more like a coach, an encourager, a butt-slapper (but because we’re not on a field, I do so only metaphorically). But I was better, I think, as a young professor, someone in-between, as someone questioning what we as a classroom of friendly
strangers are doing, as the guide who occasionally stops and wonders out loud, “Where are we going and why?”

No, I’m older and so aware of time passing that I get as anxious as a sheepdog and herd them along.

Mr. Mudrick may have stayed younger by getting himself more and more aware of the constraints on him as provost of a large college program and professor. That is, he deliberately wouldn’t let himself hold back. Because he was my unorthodox model, perhaps it’s inevitable that I slide rather toward more conventionality than further away. And perhaps this has come to mind because last week I started listening again to old tape-recordings of his classes.

He was so much himself in those classes, so happy to be there, so interested in us, in our reactions to what we read, in our reactions to what he provokingly and amusingly said, that those hundreds of hours in his classes continue to make me happy. But having had those stirring experiences, on my teaching days where my students and I have slogged through something that my college or department or my own old-age practicality has decided is necessary, I despair!

And then I have a good day, and I remind me of my old self, and I know I’ve lost something.

But like an athlete on the long decline, I stick around because I really still do like the game. I grimace when I miss a good teaching moment! Like a batter missing a fat pitch, I wince, “Oh, I should’ve nailed that!” A while ago, back in the day, I would’ve! So I’m slower, more watchful and deliberate, and because I can’t afford to miss as much as I used to, I’ve become more likely to take advantage of the little things that come up and go my way.

Bob Blaisdell
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Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.


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