A Better Way to Grade

Another huge stack of papers to grade. So as good teachers of writing we bundle them up in our arms and take them home, make a big pot of coffee (or brew some tea), and spend countless hours commenting and grading, alone. What are we doing? And why? More importantly, what are the students doing (or not doing)? And why?

A recent Inside Higher Ed article discussed the experimental work of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, involving students grading themselves. According to Davidson, when students are held responsible for assessing their own — and their peers’ — writing performances and products, they learn to take more responsibility for their own learning, and consequently apply themselves much more energetically to their work. In response, Leonard Cassuto of Fordham University points to the fact that at least 15 of Davidson’s 16 students in this experiment earned As for the course. Cassuto sees that as a problem and argues that professors need to be the ones saying “You did good work, but not the best in the class.”

I think I may have somewhat of a compromise when it comes to assessing student written work. I was in the same situation as many writing instructors for years. Students write, write, write. Then I would spend about five minutes per page supplying written commentary individually on each of their papers. But about a year ago I started doing things differently. And I don’t plan on going back any time soon.

First students in all my courses form groups of three the first week of the term. I allow students to initially form their own groups, but sometimes I have to make adjustments as the term progresses. They exchange contact information. These "home groups" become the basis of their peer review and response writing groups (as well as other collaborative activities). All the writing for the course also goes into online file sharing space. Students post first drafts of their papers into a file. Then they peer-review each other’s papers. Next they discuss and consider their partners’ commentary. (This usually occurs in-class since we are fortunate enough to be in wired, computer-equipped classrooms. There I am also able to circulate among the groups and contribute commentary and answer questions.) Then students rewrite their papers and resubmit to a second draft file. Then I go in for my commentary.

But not alone -- not anymore.

Since I scaffold my sequences of writing assignments so that smaller papers serve to build up to larger papers, I do not comment on the smaller ones myself — although they do undergo the peer review process described above and are included in the midterm and final collected-works portfolio. (This is a method advocated by John Bean in his influential book Engaging Ideas, for all teachers of writing.) Instead, once students have written the larger paper (usually three per term) I meet with each writing group in person. We all sit around the computer screen and read each person’s paper and supply interactive commentary. Usually I write in the notes and commentary for the students. But sometimes, depending, I’ll have students write the notes and commentary themselves. I end up spending about the same amount of time per paper as I would commenting in isolation. (I save all of my grading until the midterm portfolio, then again at the end with the final portfolio. One of the key elements of the portfolio is substantial student critical self-reflection of their writing strengths and weaknesses. Like Davidson, I do ask students what they feel they’ve earned as a grade for the course. But I do not depend solely on students’ self-assessments.)

What I’ve found over the past year is that this method brings together everything I value most about the teaching and learning of writing. Students learn to become better readers of their own papers through this collaborative, iterative and dynamically recursive process. The movement of group commentary from the classroom, to my office, back to the classroom, and into the students’ papers mimics the social construction of knowledge made popular by teacher-scholars like John Dewey and Kenneth Bruffee and educational and learning researchers like Albert Bandura, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky (and practiced every day in writing centers and other peer tutoring programs across the country). It also makes my job more interesting. It takes what I had started to consider the somewhat dreary act of grading countless papers and turns it into a synergistic, multi-vocal, live conversation.

And I am starting to share and hone this method with my graduate teaching assistants and fellow instructors. A former TA of mine, Stephanie Serenita, comments on a particularly successful experience with this method: "I found that throughout the group tutoring session, the three students were offering more help and insight than I could try to muster, in between their vigorous comments and thoughts on the paper at hand. Although I felt as though I wasn’t participating as a teacher ‘should’ during this tutoring session, I couldn’t help but be astounded and proud that these three students were teaching each other, and in turn, themselves. It wasn’t all about me and my intellectual ability and what I thought could help their papers. Rather, it was about the students — what they know, how they can help their papers grow and, in turn, how they were growing as writers and co-learners of the craft."

As a group we can see each other’s facial expressions, hear the tone and quality of our words, qualify our statements, and answer questions, concerns or confusions immediately.

I’ve had students repeatedly comment on how much they appreciate this method. One student recently said, "I really like this way of getting feedback because a lot of times I don’t know what the teacher means in their comments on my paper."

Granted, this can be a physically intensive method, just as one-to-one conferences and tutorials are. It also requires a bit of scheduling and organizing that can sometimes be tricky. And, of course, like any other teaching-and-learning activity, sometimes students won’t want to play happily along like the students Serenita speaks of above.

Commenting on what she felt was a less-successful session, Serenita observes, "In the second group session I held that day, none of the three students came prepared. The first student who we focused on had his first draft instead of his second, which we had just looked at as a class during our last session. Already having revised this paper three days prior, how productive could his session be? The second student only had half of his first draft written, with little to no focus in his paper. Is it then the instructor’s job to point him in the direction he needs? My knee-jerk reaction would be ‘yes,’ but why should a teacher give a student answers and a direction if he came without any questions prepared concerning his paper and especially with the lack of work he had put in? The second student didn’t seem to mind that he was wandering in the dark, which eventually led the entire group to amble with his half-hearted paper. The third student, like the second, came in with under half of what was supposed to be the completed second draft. At this point I started to wonder if this group was ever going to find their way out of the shadows. It is at this point that I pointed out how unproductive this session had been. Their final draft was due soon, and with little to no changes or improvement in anyone’s paper, I didn’t really see the helpfulness of this peer tutoring session."

But even in this seemingly bleak situation Serenita came to see a glimmer of hope. She continues, "It was at that point that one of the group members started to speak about what he hopes to accomplish in his paper and how he means to get there. This jump-started a productive conversation between the group members about their papers and where they wanted to take them next. In the end, the maturity level of the group rose, I believe, leaving them understanding what went wrong in this group session and how it could be more productive the next time."

Yes, sometimes sessions don’t go as swimmingly as we might hope. But by and large my students and I are so happy with this method that I wouldn’t dream of going back to my old ways. And, granted, this method might not sound appealing to everyone. Many writing instructors, for example, teach several courses at several different colleges at once. These teachers may find it quite difficult to arrange and conduct face-to-face group tutorials.

Maybe some teachers like, or feel they need, to give written feedback (or even assign grades to every paper) the way they do. Perhaps they’ve made peace with it and developed feedback strategies that work well for them and their students. And, sure, “grading” papers will always be part of our jobs. But, personally and professionally, I would rather spend my physical and mental energies now experimenting with ways to make this method work better for me and my students, together.

Steven J. Corbett
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Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and co-coordinator of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University. More tips on using student peer review may be found here.

Digital Students, Industrial-Era Universities

The American university, like the nation’s other major social institutions — government, banks, the media, health care — was created for an industrial society. Buffeted by dramatic changes in demography, the economy, technology, and globalization, all these institutions function less well than they once did. In today’s international information economy, they appear to be broken and must be refitted for a world transformed.

At the university, the clash between old and new is manifest in profound differences between institutions of higher education and the students they enroll. Today’s traditional undergraduates, aged 18 to 25, are digital natives. They grew up in a world of computers, Internet, cell phones, MP3 players, and social networking.

They differ from their colleges on matters as fundamental as how they conceive of and utilize physical plant and time. For the most part, universities operate in fixed locales, campuses, and on fixed calendars, semesters and quarters with classes typically set for 50 minutes, three times per week. In contrast, digital natives live in an anytime/anyplace world, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unbounded by physical location.

There is also a mismatch between institutions of higher education and digital natives on the goals and dynamics of education. Universities focus on teaching, the process of education, exposing students to instruction for specific periods of time, typically a semester for a course, and four years of instruction for a bachelor’s degree; digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games. which is why an online game pro will never boast about how long she was at a certain level, but will talk about the level that has been reached.

Higher education and digital natives also favor different methods of instruction. Universities have historically emphasized passive means of instruction — lectures and books — while digital natives tend to be more active learners, preferring interactive, hands-on methods of learning such as case studies, field study and simulations. The institution gives preference to the most traditional medium, print, while the students favor new media — the Internet and its associated applications.

This is mirrored in a split between professors and students, who approach knowledge in very different ways. Traditional faculty might be described as hunters who search for and generate knowledge to answer questions. Digital natives by contrast are gatherers, who wade through a sea of data available to them online to find the answers to their questions. Faculty are rooted in the disciplines and depth of knowledge, while students think in increasingly interdisciplinary or a-disciplinary ways, with a focus on breadth.

Universities and students also now see students in polar fashion. Higher education focuses on the individual, captured in 1871, by President James Garfield, who famously described the ideal college as Mark Hopkins, the 19th-century president of Williams College, at one end of a log and a student on the other. Today’s digital natives are oriented more toward group learning, multiple “teachers” or learning resources, and social networking, characterized by collaboration and sharing of content. This approach is causing an ethical challenge for universities, which under certain circumstances view collaboration as cheating and content sharing as plagiarism.

These are substantial gaps, complicated by the disparities in the way colleges and digital learners see their roles in education. Higher education is provider-driven in belief and practice. That is, the university, through its faculty, determines the curriculum, the content, the instructional methods, the study materials, and the class schedule. Digital natives tend to be consumer-driven, preferring to choose, if not the curriculum and content they wish to study, then the instructional method by which they learn best, the materials they use to learn, and the schedule by which they choose to study.

So what should be done? First, we need to recognize that this is not the first time colleges and their students have been out of step. In the early 19th century, as the industrial revolution gathered momentum, colleges in the main clung stubbornly to their classical curriculums, rooted in the ancient trivium and quadrivium, and to outmoded methods of instruction. College enrollments actually declined, and numerous institutions closed their doors. Bold colleges like Union, in Schenectady, New York — among the earliest adopters of modern language, science and engineering instruction — boomed in enrollment, topping Yale and Harvard combined.

Today, with college essential in obtaining most well-paying jobs, we will not see higher education enrollments drop. However, tardiness in acting will give impetus to the growth and expansion of alternative higher education — for-profit and nontraditional educational institutions that have been more successful in offering programs better geared to digital learners and their older counterparts.

Second, it is important to ask how much colleges and universities need to change. In 1828, facing industrialization and a Connecticut legislature that disapproved of Yale’s classical curriculum, the Yale faculty responded with a report which asked, in part, whether the college needed to change a lot or a little. This, Yale’s faculty said, was the wrong question. The question to be asked, they argued, was: What is the purpose of a college? This remains the right question today.

What is certain is that higher education needs to change, because students won’t, and the digital revolution is not a passing fad. To be sure, the purposes of the university have not changed. They remain the preservation and advancement of knowledge and the education of our students for humane, productive and satisfying lives in the world in which they will live. The activities of universities will continue to be teaching, research and service.

What must change, however, is the means by which we educate the digital natives who are and will be sitting in our classrooms — employing calendars, locations, pedagogies, and learning materials consistent with ways our students learn most effectively. It means that the curriculum must meet our students where they are, not where we hope they might be or where we are. All education is essentially remedial, teaching students what they do not know. This, for example, is a generation that is stronger in gathering than hunting skills. So let the curriculum begin with breadth and move to depth. Cheating and plagiarism violate the cardinal values of the academy, so let’s make it crystal clear to our students how and why they differ from sharing and collaboration.

It doesn’t make sense anymore to tie education to a common process; a uniform amount of seat time exposed to teaching and a fixed clock is outdated. We all learn at different rates. Each of us even learns different subject matters at different rates. As a consequence, higher education must in the years ahead move away from its emphasis on teaching to learning, from its focus on common processes to common outcomes. With this shift will come the possibility of offering students a variety of ways to achieve those outcomes rooted in the ways they learn best, an approach Alverno College in Milwaukee embraced four decades ago.

This needed transformation of the American university is merely the task of taking a healthy institution and maintaining its vitality. In an information economy, there is no more important social institution than the university in its capacity to fuel our economy, our society and our minds. To accomplish these ends, the university must be rooted simultaneously in our past and our present, with its vision directed toward the future.

Traditional Colleges and Digital Students

Colleges Students
Fixed time (semesters, credits, office hours) 24/7 (anytime)
Location-bound Location-free
Provider-driven Consumer-driven
Passive learning Active learning
Abstract Concrete
Traditional media New media
Teaching (one-way instruction) Learning (interactive)
Individual (cheating) Group (collaboration)
Depth / hunters Breadth / gatherers
Arthur Levine
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Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Honorable Technology

"It’s not honors English. It’s honorable English," said Mr. McCann of La Jolla High School in 1979. Three thousand miles away and 30 years later, this principle is still true. So true that Mr. McCann’s wisdom has become something of a motto for Macaulay Honors College. Beyond just honors classes or programs, the concept of honorable behavior is one that is essential for all students -- but too often relegated to a page in the student handbook or a mandated paragraph on a syllabus forbidding plagiarism.

What is missing from such notifications is a comprehensive, ethical, and honorable approach to teaching and learning, especially when technology is involved and is as crucial to a program as it is to ours. This is something we learned the hard way.

All Macaulay students are provided with laptops and digital cameras as part of their honors scholarships. But we don’t just give out tech gifts and run. Our core belief is that, like scholars and explorers throughout history, students should make use of the latest, most innovative, productive tools of their age and understand that tools by themselves are not value-free. Although a student's laptop is not a tool on the order of magnitude of an atomic bomb, the principle is the same: With power, greater or lesser, comes responsibility. So we work with students from the moment they are handed their laptops to train them and to challenge them to understand the power they hold.

Of course, in the digital age, "tool" is an increasingly amorphous concept. Wikis, blogs, and social networking -- these days it’s the rare student who is not connected in these ways, ways unheard- and unthought-of just a few years ago. Perhaps precisely because students take it all for granted, our responsibility is to help them become thoughtful and self-critical. For while they're learning and researching and presenting their academic work through these tools, they're also doing a great deal more – with real potential for harm.

Recently, we had two instances where things went wrong, which gave us a chance to consider how to make them go right. The first incident involved a student collaborative Web site project. In one of our four New York City-focused seminars, students create neighborhood Web sites with audio, video, photographs, text, survey data, interview transcripts, and all the products of their research into historical immigration and present-day communities. In order to make these Web sites a truly collaborative product, students use wikis to gather the material, arrange it, and present it online. Unfortunately, because the wiki is open to editing, malicious vandalism is always a potential problem. Last year, one group of students found to their dismay that their hard work had been erased and replaced with the random rantings of pranksters from another campus.

There were immediate and practical remedies and responses. Because it’s the nature of a wiki that all changes can be rolled back and the previous state restored, no student work was ultimately lost. Still, we realized the need to lock down the wikis more securely so that while they can be as public as the students or instructors desire, only registered users can make changes. Even more importantly, we realized that student training needs to address the ethical "why" as well as the pragmatic "how." So our doctoral student instructional technology fellows, who work directly with our undergraduates in class, in the honors lounges, and via e-mail, came up with strategies to bring ethics to the students’ attention: an attempt to head off problems before they arise.

The second incident from last year, involving a different group of students, brought up even more directly the need for attention to ethics. A student who was unimpressed with the work of students from different campuses posted a negative review on his Facebook page. When one of the critiqued students responded, also on Facebook, the original poster escalated his comments into an attack on the students and their college phrased in racial and sexual terms. Things he probably would never have said in person were said electronically and disseminated widely. Because all of this happened on Facebook, it was outside the traditional channels of college communication and interaction and thus outside of our institutional control. However, because Facebook is a world also open to all, we were able to see the offense when the students who were attacked called on us to address it.

A number of consequences resulted, for the offender, his victims, and for the rest of the community. First, over the course of a series of conversations, a skilled student affairs professional led the offending student to understand that his Facebook interactions, far from being innocuous or private, had real effects, real impact, on real people – his classmates and peers. Second, when he accepted his responsibility and demonstrated empathy towards his victims, they in turn chose not to push for a public apology or formal sanctions. They were satisfied with knowing that the perpetrator had achieved an emotional connection to those he had hurt. In other words, all parties, including those not directly involved, learned from this incident, in ways important and somewhat unexpected. We all now recognize that while Facebook or other such sites may seem like the internet Wild West, without law, regulation, or consequences, in fact, there are people out there, people to whom responsibility and respect are owed.

Most importantly, students learned that honors takes place within a community. And that they could rely on the support of their friendly neighborhood sheriff: the college administration. So another consequence: we didn’t just ride into town to save the day, then ride out again in an e-version of Shane, but rather we insisted that everyone be part of our community, respect the standards of that community, and participate in enacting and enforcing them.

As part of this process of developing community awareness, we decided to develop a digital ethics code parallel to our existing honors code (see page 4 of this link). All members of the community, from students to instructional technology fellows to faculty to staff, are working together to develop this code. Importantly, it will go beyond a mere bulleted list of rules to include case studies, discussion questions, and practical exercises, as well as links to university policies, legal and copyright resources, and current news. Because the code will include open-ended and unresolved questions, it will naturally continue to evolve and serve as a place for further interaction and true inquiry. (The draft version of the new code, along with the open-ended case studies, is online here.) Beyond Macaulay, we hope this code will serve as a springboard for discussion in the wider honors and academic communities.

The academic and the e-community have this in common: both necessarily go beyond the classroom and beyond direct, physical interactions. So Facebook, for instance, is necessarily part of our honors community. It's not just "out there," it’s also "in here" – whether we invite it in or not. If we truly believe in technology as integral to teaching and learning (as we do), we must remain open to these tools – even when they’re misused. We don't, we won't, forbid their use (as if we could); rather, we promote their use – but in ethical ways.

It's ironic that the violation of feelings and ethical standards led to a new awareness of responsibility, human contact, principles of behavior: of the common decency that a civil society runs on but often takes for granted. Because the new tools gave students the opportunity to do harm, they also gave them the opportunity to see that harm and develop new standards which they could follow and reinforce in thoughtful and intentional ways.

As we teach students to use these new tools, it’s incumbent upon us to teach them how to use them not just in the practical sense but also in the ethical sense: not just how can they be used, but also when and where and why they should be used. While there are no guarantees against bad behavior, we want students to think before they post, before they e-mail, before they edit a wiki, before they blog, and so forth. As always, it's the thinking, not the tool, on which all education, including honorable education, rests.

Sylvia Tomasch and Joseph Ugoretz
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Sylvia Tomasch is associate university dean of academic affairs and Joseph Ugoretz is director of technology and learning at Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York.

All Summer in a Day

(With apologies to Ray Bradbury. Text in italics is quoted from his short story, "All Summer in a Day")





“Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?”

“Look, look; see for yourself!”

From my fourth-floor office window, I watched my students spring forth from their underground architectural studio to the plaza above, like meerkats spilling out of their dens. They came in twos and threes, cameras swinging from their necks, balancing their models as they surged out of the door, looking up at the sky expectantly.

The sun came out.

It was the color of flaming bronze and it was very large. And the sky around it was a blazing blue tile color. And the jungle burned with sunlight as the children, released from their spell, rushed out, yelling, into the springtime.

Quickly they tilted their models in the fleeting sun, capturing the shadows that they had not seen for several cloudy, rainy days.

And then—

In the midst of their running one of the girls wailed.

Everyone stopped.

The girl, standing in the open, held out her hand.

“Oh, look, look,” she said, trembling.

They came slowly to look at her opened palm.

In the center of it, cupped and huge, was a single raindrop.

She began to cry, looking at it.

They glanced quietly at the sky.

“Oh. Oh.”

A few cold drops fell on their noses and their cheeks and their mouths. The sun faded behind a stir of mist. A wind blew cold around them. They turned and started to walk back toward the underground house, their hands at their sides, their smiles vanishing away.

Then they came back inside, hopped on their laptops (not up the stairs to my office), and begged for a time extension on their assignment.

“I had to watch my brother play football this weekend.”

“Things don’t always go as we plan.”

“The forecaster said…”

I did not respond.

“But this is the day, the scientists predict, they say, they know, the sun…”

They needed sunlight for their assignment, due the next day. They needed to observe and photograph clear shadows on their architectural models, using a sundial to simulate these shadows at various times of the day and year. They’d had two weeks already, the first week and a half of which had been unremittingly sunny.

I waited a while longer. Finally, when the sun still wasn’t forthcoming, I wrote back with some constructive advice. I told them what I would do in their position, had I painted myself into that particular corner — I would use the light from a slide projector, which is less than ideal, but better than nothing. They didn’t like my suggestion. They parsed words like “partial credit” and brought out the predictable “you didn’t say that in class”. They wanted the sun, the real sun, which would redeem them and make everything all right. And at the 11th hour, it came back out.

… they were running and turning their faces up to the sky and feeling the sun on their cheeks like a warm iron; they were taking off their jackets and letting the sun burn their arms.

“Oh, it’s better than the sun lamps, isn’t it?”

“Much, much better!”

Most of them got to see the sun for just enough time to finish the assignment as intended. But I found out later just how alien the sun still was to them, and sadly, to me, though we live on Earth and not in the near-perpetual rain of Venus, like the children in Bradbury’s story.

One of my students, a girl with clear blue eyes and smooth, straight, light brown hair, came to visit me shortly after the first test. She wanted to check which questions she’d gotten wrong, since she’d done so poorly. She was frustrated that she’d focused too much on the wrong things while studying and at first I was at a loss to help her. Finally we came to a moment of enlightenment. She was surprised that I had asked her to be able to figure out where the sun would be in the sky at various times of the day and year. I had expected that she and her peers had internalized something from recording the sun’s position during their sundial exercise. In short, I had expected her to be like Margot, an earth-born girl who knew the sun by heart.

But Margot remembered.

“It’s like a penny,” she said once, eyes closed.

“No it’s not!” the children cried.

“It’s like a fire,” she said, “in the stove.”

“You’re lying, you don’t remember!” cried the children.

My student admitted that she didn’t really understand this business about the sun. While flipping through the appendixes of the textbook looking for sun path diagrams to show her, it was clear that I still didn’t really, either. I still needed to look it up. As I lay in bed that night, I dreamt up a “sun dance” that I would do in class the next week. It was designed to help the students, and me, remember where the sun is in the summer, winter, spring and fall. Because we all know it, but we all forget. Sitting in that oversized, refrigerated auditorium where my lectures are held, there’s no way we could know what the sun is doing. So in the next class, we stood up and danced:

“It’s the winter solstice. Face south. Stretch out your arms, a little forward. Your left fist is the sun, rising above the horizon to the south of east. Lift it up through the southern sky, in front of you. The angle is low; it will reach into the building. Now raise your right hand to meet it at its highest point, and arc back down to the south of west.”

“OK, now it’s the equinox. Reach your arms straight out to the sides. On the equinoxes, the sun rises directly in the east and sets in the west. It’s now higher in the sky.”

“Now it’s the summer solstice. Stretch your left arm behind you. The sun rises north of east, shines on your back, the north face, at a low angle. As it rises to its apex, it’s even higher in the sky; now you can block it with an overhang. As it sets, the north façade receives this low, western sun.”

… they squinted at the sun until tears ran down their faces, they put their hands up to that yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no sound and no motion. They looked at everything and savored everything.

But I learned, months later, that they didn’t appreciate the dancing. They complained about it to my program chair and on my course assessments, saying it was beneath them, that I was talking down to them.

“She belongs in an elementary school classroom.”

“It is unfair to assume that college classes should involve dancing.”

“No,” said Margot, falling back.

They surged about her, caught her up and bore her, protesting, and then pleading, and then crying, back into a tunnel, a room, a closet, where they slammed and locked the door. They stood looking at the door and saw it tremble from her beating and throwing herself against it. They heard her muffled cries.

Once I learned about the students’ objections, I reacted as quickly as I could. In class, I became more subdued, more opaque. I tried to show more and explain less. I stopped dancing.

Spring came, and with it, more chances for us to get out of our windowless classroom and to see firsthand the work of architects and builders who worked with the sun in a far more direct and convincing way than my abstract explanations could ever convey. I learned the hard way, like Margot, that I can’t really describe the sun. The students have to see it for themselves.

On the last day of classes, they evaluated me again.

“Your opinions are important as we make plans for this course in the future. Please be candid about what topics and experiences you felt were useful, and which ones weren’t,” I heard myself say. What I thought was the same thing all new teachers think, “I am trying to teach you in the best way I know how. Please be kind.”

They stood as if someone had driven them, like so many stakes, into the floor. They looked at each other and then looked away. They glanced out at the world that was raining now and raining and raining steadily. They could not meet each other’s glances. Their faces were solemn and pale. They looked at their hands and feet, their faces down.


One of the girls said, “Well…?”

No one moved.

“Go on,” whispered the girl.

I left them there, filling out that one last set of bubbles before they were set free. For me, retreating down the corridor, it was a moment of reckoning; for them, a chore barely restraining them from running out into the May sunshine.

They walked slowly down the hall in the sound of cold rain. They turned through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightning on their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closet door slowly and stood by it.

Behind the closet door was only silence.

They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.

Elizabeth Grant
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Elizabeth Grant is an assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.

Teaching With Blogs

“It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding.”
--Eric Hoffer, Between The Devil And The Dragon

I tried the new in fall 2009, teaching with student blogs, (look in sidebar and scroll down) out in the open where anyone who wanted to could see what the students were producing. The blogging wasn’t new for me. I’d been doing that for almost five years. Having students blog was a different matter. I had no experience in getting them to overcome their anxieties, relaxing in writing online, learning to trust one another that way. Normally I believe what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I could blog comfortably and get something from that, so could they. On reflection, however, I was very gentle with myself when I started to blog. As an experiment to prove to myself whether I could do it, for three full weeks I made at least one post a day, 500 to 600 words, a couple of times 1,100 to 1,200 words. I didn’t tell a soul I was doing this. There was no pressure on me to keep it up. It was out in the open, yet nobody seemed to be watching. After those three weeks I felt ready. In the teaching, however, at best I could ask the students to blog once a week. I gave the students weekly prompts on the readings or to follow up on class discussion. (See the class calendar for fall 2009. The prompts are in the Friday afternoon entries.) If I let them blog quietly to get comfortable as I had done, the entire semester would expire before they were ready to go public. There seemed no alternative but to have them plunge in.

The uncertainty about how best to assist the students once they had taken the plunge created an important symmetry between the students and me; we both were to learn about how to do this well, often by first doing it less well. Though it was an inadvertent consequence, of all my teaching over the past 30 years I believe this course came closest to emulating the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson. I learned to comment on the student posts, not with some pre-thought-through response based on what I anticipated they’d write, but rather to react to where they appeared to be in their own thinking. (This post provides a typical example. The student introduced time management as a theme. My comment aimed to make her think more about time management.) As natural as that is to do in ordinary conversation, I had never done it before when evaluating student work. Indeed, I didn’t think of these comments as evaluation at all. I thought of them as response. In the normal course of my non-teaching work I respond to colleagues all the time and they respond to me. This form of online interaction in the class made it more like the rest of my interactions at work.

Most of the students were quite awkward in their initial blogging. Good students all, the class was a seminar on "Designing for Effective Change" for the Honors Program, but lacking experience in this sort of approach to instruction, the students wrote to their conception of what I wanted to hear from them. I can’t imagine a more constipated mindset for producing interesting prose. For this class there was a need for them to unlearn much of their approach which had been finely tuned and was quite successful in their other classes. They needed to take more responsibility for their choices. While I gave them a prompt each week on which to write, I also gave them the freedom to choose their own topic so long as they could create a tie to the course themes. Upon reading much of the early writing, I admonished many of them to "please themselves" in the writing. I informed them that they could not possibly please other readers if they didn’t first please themselves. It was a message they were not used to hearing. So it took a while for them to believe it was true. In several instances they tried it out only after being frustrating with the results from their usual approach. This, as Ken Bain teaches us, is how students learn on a fundamental level.

I'm crustier now than I was as a younger faculty member. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to deal with the emotion that underlies giving feedback to students when that feedback is less than entirely complimentary to them. Yet given their awkward early attempts at writing posts that’s exactly what honest response demanded. It’s here where having the postings and the comments out in the open so all can see is so important, before the class has become a community, before the students have made up their minds about what they think about this blogging stuff. Though both the writing and the response are highly subjective, of necessity, it is equally important for the process to be fair. How can a student who receives critical comments judge those comments to be fitting and appropriate, rather than an example of the insensitive instructor picking on the hapless student? Perhaps a very mature student can discern this even-handedly from the comments themselves and a self-critique of the original post. I believe most students benefit by reading the posts of their classmates, making their own judgments about those writings and then seeing the instructor’s comments, finally making a subsequent determination as to whether those comments seem appropriate and helpful for the student in reconsidering the writing.

A positive feedback loop can be created by this process. The commenting, more than any other activity the instructor engages in, demonstrates the instructor’s commitment to the course and to the students. In turn the students, learning to appreciate the value of the comments, start to push themselves in the writing. Their learning is encouraged this way. Further, since the blogging is not a competition between the students and their classmates, those who like getting comments begin to comment on the posts of other students. The elements of the community that the class can become are found in this activity.

Since on a daily basis I use blogs and blog readers in my regular work, one of the original reasons for me taking this approach rather than use the campus learning management system was simply that I thought it would be more convenient for me. Also, given my job as a learning technology administrator, I went into the course with some thought that I might showcase the work afterward. Openness is clearly better for that. However in retrospect neither of these is primary. The main reason to be open is to set a good tone for the class. We want ideas to emerge and not remain concealed.

Yet there remains one troubling element: student privacy. Is open blogging this way consistent with FERPA? As best as I’ve been able to determine, it is as long as students “opt in.” (I did give students the alternatives of writing in the class LMS site or writing in the class wiki site. No student opted for those.) My experience suggests, however, that is not quite sufficient. If most students opt in, peer pressure may drive others to opt in as well. More importantly, however, students choose to opt in when they are largely ignorant of the consequences. Might they feel regret after they better understand what the blogging is all about?

Based on my discussion with the students on this point, essentially all their reservations about blogging would have been eliminated were they to have blogged under aliases. One of my students figured that out on her own, for self-protection. A few others took out any mention of their name on their blogs partway into the class. I’ve been thinking of the next class I will teach and how I’ll adopt aliases in that setting. My current plan is to assign aliases generated by concatenating the names of famous economists (I teach microeconomics) with the course rubric and number. Then in the bio section of their blogs I’ll have the students post a little about the economists who are their namesakes. The actual aliases will be a little long and clunky this way, but in the colloquial way students are apt to communicate with each other, I’m sure they’ll embrace shorter forms. And this way they’ll become acquainted with some of the giants in the field, not a bad byproduct from satisfying their privacy need. I had briefly considered using something considerably shorter, say a number. But that conjured up thoughts of The Prisoner and that’s not the ambiance I’m trying to create for the course.

I wonder if partway into the semester, after having established some confidence with the blogging, students might choose to reveal their true identities. I’m curious to find out.

Lanny Arvan
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Lanny Arvan is CIO and associate dean for e-learning at the College of Business of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Fixing Higher Ed

The press and the blogosphere have devoted significant coverage recently to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that predicted that the United States is on "collision course with the future." The report estimated that within a mere eight years, the nation will suffer a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees and 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates. The authors of the report concluded that to meet the challenges of a global economy in which 59 to 63 percent of domestic jobs require education beyond the high-school level, America’s colleges and universities "need to increase the number of degrees they confer by 10 percent annually, a tall order."

Although numerous commentators have responded to the report by echoing its call for increased access to higher education, it seems to me that few have focused on a key term in the report’s call to "develop reforms that result in both cost-efficient and high quality postsecondary education." Producing millions more baccalaureate-educated workers will do nothing to address the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce if those degrees are not high quality ones. Sadly, it is pretty clear that far too many college degrees aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed.

In 2006, the Spellings Commission reported disturbing data that more than 60 percent of college graduates were not proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In other words, significantly more than half of college degree holders in the United States lack the “critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces.”

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, cited these findings in his recent Huffington Post essay, "The Failure of American Higher Education." He shared stories about recent college graduates, many from prestigious universities, who had applied for jobs at his think tank who were unable to complete basic tasks such as summarizing a person’s credentials into a short biographical sketch or calculating an average using a spreadsheet. Atkinson argues that one of the primary reasons for the inability of so many college graduates to think, write, speak, argue, research, or compute proficiently is that colleges “are focused on teaching kids content, not on teaching them skills.” His explanation for this is that members of the professoriate are not interested in teaching these important skills, but rather are interested in exploring the content of the subject matter in which they specialize. Atkinson then advocates several "solutions" to his perception of the problem, which include a requirement that all college graduates take a national test to measure skills competencies and “radical experimentation” in college design that focuses “on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.” These ideas are typical of the well-intentioned but misinformed suggestions that abound these days about higher education.

The commentators are correct that there is a mismatch between what faculty members are doing and could be doing to teach students. But the problem isn't a lack of faculty interest in students, but a broader set of staggering challenges facing professors – challenges that deserve more attention.

First, college and university faculty members often lack the ability to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills. Why? Because most professors are not trained to do so. With few exceptions, doctoral programs focus on teaching disciplinary content and methods of inquiry, not pedagogy. Even in universities that provide their doctoral students with a "preparing future faculty" program to help Ph.D. candidates develop some teaching skills, such programs focus on teaching and learning at the college level, not on basic reading comprehension, the fundamentals of composition, or elementary quantitative skills. The K-12 educational system is supposed to teach these abilities. By the time students get to college, faculty members rightfully expect that they will already know how to calculate an average or summarize the main points of a newspaper article, a book chapter, or a journal article. Accordingly, faculty members see their role as then honing students’ critical thinking abilities within the context of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, often within a disciplinary framework.

These assumptions were fair ones once upon a time. Sadly, though, far too many students who have earned a high school diploma are unable to meet such expectations. Absent a handful of specialists in English departments, most college faculty members are simply ill-equipped to know how to teach students how to begin writing coherently. Professors expect to provide students with feedback on writing more efficiently and persuasively, not teach about tenses, subject-verb agreement, or basic punctuation. Yet, these are types of problems with which faculty routinely try to cope, at least for a while. And that leads to my second point.

Given the woefully inadequate preparedness of high school graduates to engage in college-level work, many professors quickly become burned out attempting to teach skills that they never expected they would need to teach at the postsecondary level. I have heard dozens of colleagues from across the country at different types of institutions of higher education say, "I didn’t earn a Ph.D. to teach what should have been taught in elementary and high school." Many such instructors give up; rather than teaching the skills that should have been learned before students arrive in college, they focus on content because it’s easier to do so. There is only so much that can be done over the course of a college quarter or semester. Worse yet, they fear holding students to high standards for a myriad of reasons, which is the third problem I wish to discuss.

College faculty members, especially those who are untenured, often fear setting course expectations too high, challenging students’ comfort levels too much, or being rigorous in their assessments of student performance. If students perceive a professor as being too hard, they will avoid that person's classes, which can lead to under-subscribed classes being canceled. Full-time faculty whose courses are canceled may be reassigned to less desirable duties; part-time faculty members whose classes are canceled often find themselves without any courses to teach. In addition, students often "punish" faculty members they perceive as being too demanding by evaluating them poorly at the end of a course. Because low student evaluations can lead to both tenure-track and adjunct faculty being fired, untenured professors may keep workloads at levels that students perceive to be reasonable and assess their performance more generously than may be actually deserved. Much has been written on this phenomenon as one of the leading factors contributing to the nationwide problem of grade inflation, the fourth issue I will address.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of college grading practices, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy documented that the average grade point average at U.S. colleges and universities rose from 2.35 in the 1930s, to 2.52 in the 1950s when a bifurcating trend in public and private institutions emerged. After sharp increases in the 1970s and 1980s, GPAs currently average an astonishing 3.00 and 3.30 at public and private schools, respectively. This trend could be explained by better students achieving at ever-higher levels. But, as discussed above, that is simply not the case when more than 60 percent of college graduates are not proficient in basic reading, writing, and math. Rojstaczer and Healy contend that grade inflation surged in the 1980s with “the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.” And the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education has only compounded this problem in higher education since corporate-based education is built upon the faulty premise of delivering a product (an "education" or a "degree") to paying consumers (what we used to call "students").

Professors who resist the pressures of grade inflation find themselves in the position of having to defend their rigorous teaching in a variety of forums, ranging from resolving complaints lodged against them with their department chairs to participating in pseudo-adversarial grade appeals proceedings and formal grievance hearings. Contemporary college students hold intense senses of consumer-based entitlement in which they see the default grade as an “A.” Recently, I defended a professor who had awarded a “D” to a student who, by my assessment, should have failed the course. During the heated discussion, the complaining student obnoxiously referred to the professor as “incompetent” and “unrealistic.” At one point, she said, “I pay your salaries!” I replied to her, “Then we want a raise for having to deal with snotty, entitled brats like you.”

Notably, the professor involved in this grade dispute was a tenured member of the faculty. For the reasons summarized above, untenured faculty (who comprise more than 70 percent of college instructors nationwide) may have caved in to the student’s demands and changed the student’s grade to avoid a confrontation in which the department chair became involved. But even when faculty members stand their ground, administrators often cave in to student demands because they are concerned with retention rates, time-to-degree completion statistics, complaints from helicopter parents (some of which escalate into lawsuits), and angry students who may turn into alumni who want nothing to do with their alma maters instead of happy alumni who become donors.

The recent case of Professor Dominique Homberger illustrates how college and university administrators contribute to grade inflation. The dean of her college recently removed Homberger from teaching an introductory biology course at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge in the middle of semester after students complained about her harsh grading on the first exam in the course, even though grades on subsequent quizzes and exams were higher (students appear to have gotten the message that they really needed to up their levels of performance).

What do we do about the sad state of affairs in higher education? There are changes we could make at the college level that could go a long way in improving the quality of higher education. First, no one should be able to earn a Ph.D. and secure a faculty position in an institution of higher education who has not taken graduate-level courses that prepare them to teach effectively at the college level. Graduate education must provide the next generation of college instructors the pedagogical toolkit to be more effective teachers, as well as more effective assessors of student learning. This is especially important with regard to teaching prose, information, and quantitative literacy.

Second, professors who rely exclusively on textbooks must change their ways. Of course, there are many fine textbooks out there, but no college course should rely on a textbook exclusively. Primary source materials from scholarly books and peer-reviewed journals, as well as material from popular culture media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, films, television shows, etc.), when applicable, should be assigned to complement textbook readings. But even more importantly, professors must jettison the “supplements” provided by textbook publishers. Today, many textbooks come with canned lecture notes, study guides, exams, PowerPoint presentations, and other supplementary materials designed to make professors’ lives easier. With few exceptions, most of these materials are targeted at the lowest common denominator.

For example, canned PowerPoint presentations and study guides boil down the information in a textbook chapter to a series of bullet points. But “test bank” questions are the worst offenders. These question focus exclusively on content and are targeted at low levels of cognitive achievement in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains: mere recall of data or information. These assessments do not provide any basis for professors to test students’ ability to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate information in a manner that demonstrates critical thinking, writing, or problem-solving abilities.

Third, we must get serious about confronting grade inflation. College professors are not just teachers; they also should be serving as gatekeepers as generations of professors did in the past by awarding grades commensurate with student performance. For this to occur, the consumer-based culture that pervades higher education must be changed. Professors, parents, and administrators must stop coddling students. If a student is not performing satisfactorily, then college instructors must be able to award “D”s or “F”s without worrying about whether doing so will cost them their jobs. Moreover, faculty rewards policies (e.g., reappointment, tenure, promotion, merit raises, etc.) must be changed to reward professors who teach and grade with rigor.

Such assessments must focus not just on the content of professors’ courses, but also on how they develop critical thinking, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Conversely, professors who give away high grades that are not actually earned by students should not be retained. This is not to say, however, that only those professors who award As to 10 percent or fewer of their students are necessarily effective teachers. Rather, we need to develop better ways of assessing a college instructor’s performance than student evaluations and grade distributions. Reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions should be based on holistic assessments which include qualitative evaluations by several peers who have observed the instructor teach and on teaching portfolios containing exams, writing assignments, grading rubrics, cooperative learning exercises, and the like. Rigor and transparency should be rewarded.

Finally, to effectively combat both grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in the college student–professor dynamic, politicians, accrediting bodies, and senior administrators must stop worrying about graduation rates and time-to-degree-completion. These artificial metrics miss the mark. The obsessive focus on what percentage of students graduate in four or six years only reinforces grade inflation and a consumer-based culture in higher education. If it takes a student eight years to graduate because professors actually hold that student to high levels of achievement before certifying that student as worthy of a degree, so be it! That, at least, would help to restore the value of a college degree rather than perpetuating the disturbing trend of the past few decades in which the value of the baccalaureate degree has deservedly diminished.

Henry F. Fradella
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Henry F. Fradella is professor and chair of criminal justice at California State University at Long Beach .

Fearlessly Facing the Freshman Seminar

True confession: I’ve never taught freshmen in my life. So why am I, a provost, offering a class to 18-year olds? I asked myself this question earlier this summer as I enrolled as a participant in a faculty workshop. Although I’ve taught employment law and public administration courses to thousands of graduate, law, and upper-level undergraduate students during my 25 years in the academy, all this was done at my former institution, a research university. But here I am, joining my colleagues from across the campus as we launch our new First Year Seminar program this fall.

For 20 years, the University of Richmond had a year-long, common-syllabus required course for freshmen. Last year, however, the faculty voted to replace that course with a series of seminars. Limited to 16 students apiece, the seminars have three major goals: enhancing our students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to develop the fundamentals of information literacy and library research. The seminars are part of an exciting and significant curriculum change at our university, a change designed to increase student engagement at every level.

Even after substantial faculty deliberation and discussion, we knew we were taking a risk – particularly when we first reached out for enough course proposals for the year. After all, we were asking faculty to come up with completely new writing-intensive courses, without much incentive beyond a small course-development stipend. And, we needed to staff 54 seminars each semester to ensure we met our commitment to small sections.

But the program had the support of the faculty — they’d voted it in, after all — and to our delight, we received 85 proposals from 28 departments, generating full participation across Richmond’s five schools. That means students have direct access to classes taught by faculty in our Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Law School and the Robins School of Business — traditionally not available until the junior year or graduate school. We could offer an unexpected breadth of topics, meaning that students could find a required seminar each semester to match their interests. Proposed seminar topics included bioethics, oceans, the postapocalyptic imagination, civilization and its discontents, heaven and hell, the social meanings of home, climate change, wrongful convictions, Muslim women, comedy, aging, gender, heroes and villains, Shakespeare, food, judicial leadership, sports, social justice, and a host of others. Although most proposals were offered by individual faculty, several were proposals for team-taught courses, and many were interdisciplinary offerings.

Two features of the program were striking: first, the range of topics was extraordinary; second, having senior faculty from across the campus, including the Law School, willing to share the investment in teaching freshmen was heartening.

So what was I to do? Rather than sitting on the sidelines, I decided to join in, and proposed a seminar entitled “Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World.” But once the proposal was approved, the hard part began: how to teach this new class, to an entirely new (to me) population of students?

Like the rest of my colleagues, I got help. Last spring, I attended four workshops to help me understand the students I’d be teaching. Two sessions addressed effective use of library materials to conduct research and copyright rules. Our counseling and student affairs staff led the third and fourth sessions, “Impediments to Academic Success,” and “Development and Transition in the First Year,” which revealed the incredible range of difficulties students face. Those of you who teach freshmen regularly may not be surprised to learn these findings from the 2008 National College Health Assessment: 34 percent of students feel stressed, overwhelmed, and over-scheduled; 25 percent experience sleep difficulties; and 16 percent suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. Data on our University of Richmond students showed they mirrored the national averages, and that problems of alcohol abuse, relationships, and uncertainty about identity were as real here as on any other campus. I was reminded of the challenges student affairs professionals face every day, and how important it is that those of us in academic affairs appreciate the work they do.

At first, this made me want to turn and run (and to increase our liability insurance). But I was also reminded during these workshops of how optimistic, capable and high-achieving most of our students are, and how many are focused on public service, sustainability, and creating a better life for themselves and others.

But the greatest help I received was through the FYS Summer Institute, a weeklong intensive academic boot camp. Five sessions were offered throughout the summer, and I enrolled in the first offering in May, along with my fellow participant, University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, a distinguished historian of the American South. We were joined by six faculty from the biology department, and eight other faculty members from the departments of philosophy, English, political science, psychology, theater and dance, and, just for good measure, the Law School. Our hearty band spent the first two days defining our common goals for the seminars, learning more about our student profile, and examining a variety of techniques for stimulating writing and addressing transition issues. We talked about designing our courses around controversy, so that students have something to argue about; the need to make frequent writing assignments to help students think through issues and receive constant feedback on their writing; the importance of group work outside of class to increase engagement, and other means to make the seminars a valuable learning experience. It was intriguing to move from the general goals of curriculum change to the hard work of accomplishing those goals one course at a time.

We were fortunate to spend the third and fourth days of the Institute with Nicole Wallack of the Columbia University Writing Program and the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking. She led us through a series of writing exercises in which we played the role of the student, trying out approaches like guided exploratory writing, evidence finding, and free writing. We critiqued essays, examined academic vs. nonacademic writing, listed our pet writing peeves, synthesized works, and generally tried to replicate the freshman experience for two days. By Thursday, we were exhausted but truly appreciative of Dr. Wallack’s techniques for teaching writing, and we all vowed to incorporate at least some of her methods into our seminars. The last day of the Institute focused on assessing learning outcomes, helping our students use library resources, and summarizing all we had discussed that week.

My confidence renewed, I began crafting my syllabus. I thought about the fact that our students come to college right out of high school with some idea of the working world, formed primarily from their own limited experience and by observing what their parents do. But few have had the opportunity to look into why the 21st century American workplace is the way it is, and to examine the role the courts, Congress, unions, and social movements have played in shaping that world. I decided that my seminar would require students to consider the views of writers ranging from U.S. Supreme Court justices to assembly line workers, and that it should challenge assumptions students may have about why people choose the work they do, and how they are or are not satisfied by that work.

Soon, however, I was confronted with a number of thoughts: should the first class begin with a case study? a writing exercise? a “get to know you” discussion”? When I taught graduate students I had them prepare an assignment for the first day of class; was that appropriate for freshmen? How, I wondered, should I accomplish the writing goals of the course in a way that required the student to produce a good research paper but would allow them to ease into the process? Given that one of the seminar goals is to enhance students’ oral communication skills, should individual presentations be required, or would classroom discussion and feedback be sufficient?

In the end, I designed a syllabus with readings that span the spectrum from Ben Hamper’s Rivethead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal 1971 ruling on race discrimination, Griggs v. Duke Power. I read a dozen books, rejecting Studs Terkel’s classic Working for the newer Gig by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, and enjoying again the humorous yet touching Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I read aloud to my wife some of the breathtaking prose of Alan de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and considered numerous other books, essays and descriptions of the American workplace, from Joanna Cuilla’s The Working Life to the Harvard Business School’s case study on the Hawthorne experiments. I don’t know if I’ve assigned too much or too little, although I suspect I’m guilty of the former. I devised a series of writing assignments, ranging from in-class one-page reaction pieces to a ten-page research paper. I decided to combine the students’ research with a requirement for a short presentation at the end of the semester, to help them synthesize and present their findings, answer questions from their fellow students, and simply have the crucial experience of publicly defending a point of view.

So here I go, off to teach freshmen in a seminar about working.

Oscar Wilde famously observed that “work is the curse of the drinking class,” but whether we view work as the fulfillment of our dreams or as daily drudgery, we’re all destined to spend the better part of our lives in various vocations. So we’ll use our seminar experience to consider workplace questions of employee rights, social justice, motivation, challenges, social behavior and economic necessity. I don’t aim to turn my students into experts in employment law, sociology, history, or economics. Rather, like all First-Year Seminars, my course should enhance students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to conduct research. And I expect to learn as much – and have as much fun — as my students do in the journey.

Steve Allred
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Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.

Our Obligation to Adapt

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. Jen is a college first-year student. She attended a public high school in which randomly selected students received iPads as part of an innovative curricular grant project. Jen was fortunate enough to be one of the selected students. She loved writing, reading and using the computer – sometimes for fun, sometimes for homework.

Jen scored in the 78th percentile on the SATs, played on a varsity athletic team, and late in her senior year, showed an aptitude for and interest in photography. She worked during the summer. One of her two parents is a college graduate. Their combined income approximates $95,000.

Jen was accepted to a variety of colleges and universities, and decided to attend a mid-sized university, largely because of the financial aid package, and because its website showcased a new photography major.

Jen was bemused after her first week in college. She is a product of iPhones, smartboards, iPads and text messaging, and yet her classroom was devoid of technological gadgetry. Her professors lecture, sometimes with PowerPoint, sometimes without. They talk about research as if it is something to be done in a library, and not on one’s lap or in one’s hand.

The preceding example may or may not sound familiar to many educators and students, but it is likely to be the norm in the next few years. Our students process, retrieve and garner information in ways unimaginable a few years ago, if not months ago. We faculty, trained with card catalogs, photocopy packets, and reserve reading, are rapidly becoming living, breathing anachronisms.

Challenges abound – for Jen and for us. Students’ demand for infotainment need not be satisfied, but so too one should not dismiss the reality that such demand is a creation of cultural forces not easily ignored. Similarly, Jen’s technological acumen is not unique, nor is her professor’s lack of it. That divide is only likely to grow. Even as universities attempt to prepare faculty with info-tech workshops and seminars, today’s teenager is going to be more proficient at web design, for example, than your typical 50-something year-old English or sociology professor.

Years ago, I would find an article – in hard copy or on microfiche. If the abstract looked relevant, I would print out the article and read it. Now the digital version of that article is available with the touch of a few clicks. Which article abstracts does one read? How does one choose? The plethora of data is overwhelming for me; it must be daunting for someone without years of experience filtering and culling information.

We need to devote some time to rethink how we – faculty and students alike – read, write, study, research, and more generally, learn. As a relatively new dean, I have asked faculty to rethink their classes, not by tweaking a syllabus by adding or removing a book, but by thinking about today’s and tomorrow’s students. While this process has just commenced, I find that, generally, faculty are eager to accept the challenge. They too realize that today’s students are showing different learning skills than but a few years ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are comfortable with facts – dates, times, and places – but less secure questioning ambiguous or conflicting ideas. Perhaps this is nothing new. After all, contextual analysis is a tricky and sometimes exhausting enterprise.

We have to develop those skills by adapting our own pedagogy and modifying our formal training. Many of us still love the book – the smell, the spine, and the ability to write in the margins. But we need not be intellectual dinosaurs. Perhaps there is something to be said about digital textbooks, replete with high-pixel digital images, highlighting and note-taking capabilities, podcasts and moving cameras. (The new digital art history books are mesmerizing.)

How do we develop those skills? The responsibility, I would suggest first lies with provosts, deans and chairs. Instead of wasting valuable time on weekly meetings about the status quo, we should be listening carefully to college-bound high school students. Our faculty should be present too, perhaps sitting in the background taking copious notes (either on a memo pad or an iPad). Provosts should make technology in the classroom the theme of their faculty retreats, perhaps for the next year or two, if only because technological advancements find the marketplace faster than the glacially slow academic calendar.

We then should be holding a series of summits with our information technology departments, not as we always do to discuss next year’s budget, but to imagine together what the next five or ten years of classroom instruction will look like, and to develop specific strategies for implementing that vision. Perhaps it will require a million dollars. Perhaps, indeed. If so, then it is time for us deans to raise funds, or for us quickly to develop strategic partners with computer companies.

There are no more Luddites in the university. I should know. I learned how to do chi-squares calculations by hand, and I still believe such a method teaches students how to understand the relationship between two variables. I still have a file cabinet full of journal articles. My fondness for books and bookstores has not dissipated, nor has my passion for reading the hard copy of the newspaper.

Critics may misinterpret this call for action as a desire to teach to the whims of technology. Quite the contrary. Even the able scholar with a fountain pen now uses a laptop and a flash drive. Information abounds – good, bad, true and false. It can be retrieved and stored in ways inconceivable but two years ago. Teaching Jen to discern what is crud and what is critically valuable – in a way that both inspirational and imaginative – is no easy task. Her voracious intellectual appetite must be met with creative energy we have not yet tapped.

Robert M. Eisinger
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Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Gabrielle Giffords' Message

The entire nation is reeling with the devastating events in Tucson and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. While we do not yet know the full details of this tragedy, nor do we understand the true motivation that led to the killings, authorities indicate she was the clear target. We all struggle to understand how anyone could do something so heinous.

Scripps College, a small, women’s liberal arts college is Gabrielle Giffords’ alma mater. So we are particularly heartbroken by the tragic events and are rallying around Gabrielle and her family. As we hold her in our hearts, we are unified in our voice that Gabrielle embodies the values of Scripps College and a liberal arts education, and thus represents the best the nation has to offer.

Gabrielle is a role model, not just for our students, but for all women and for all Americans. She did not shy away from her calling to be a leader. With grace and determination, she has become an outstanding and courageous public servant. Gabrielle Giffords’s career shows that she is fiercely independent — framing her positions on issues thoughtfully and humanely, and, in the words of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, "with confidence, courage and hope."

Listen to her own words. In her 2009 commencement address at Scripps, Congresswoman Giffords told our students: “The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas. Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.” Prescient words.

Public service, in all forms, is courageous. Respectful disagreement — the ability to hear another’s viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion — has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest, and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric.

Gabrielle deeply appreciated her liberal arts education: the exposure to different ideas, different ways of thinking. In her words: "What Scripps forced you to grapple with was a peeling back of the human onion in order to discover the supreme value of the soul and how crucial it is to maintain personal integrity and honesty." She believes in free exchange of ideas, understanding difference, and taking a stand based on rational and critical reasoning. As Martha Kantor said to the Annapolis Group in 2010, "A liberal arts education teaches us [that] empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy."

What can we take away from this tragedy? We have a responsibility to the victims and their families to learn from this event. A senseless act must be turned into an opportunity for this country to unify, to learn from Gabrielle Giffords about the power of constructive and collaborative dialogue. To embrace human dignity, to resist the temptation to point fingers and blame, but to change the discourse for the betterment of our future. We are, after all, a democracy — a democracy that requires an empathetic and knowledgeable citizenship and respects the right to disagree.

Lori Bettison-Varga
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Lori Bettison-Varga is president of Scripps College.

'Holy Grail' of Reform

Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!

During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …

Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.

There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?

Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.

The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.

Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.

None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.

If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.

What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.

Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.

Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).

What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.

Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.

Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).

Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.

Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).

What Can Be Done?

The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.

The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.

Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
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Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.


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