FACULTY JOBS

Concrete ways faculty can work with other colleagues to improve their teaching (essay)

The need to “educate for judgment” is as urgent for those of us who teach at universities and professional schools today as it was for Aristotle. Twenty-five years ago, three expert professors at Harvard Business School reminded and guided their colleagues in the professions to do exactly that. C. Roland Christensen, David Garvin and Ann Sweet, the editors of Education for Judgment, rightly noticed that the way we professors teach our students often discourages them from learning how to exercise independent judgment in their scholarship, in their professions, in their lives. The first step in turning this around is for teachers themselves to learn how to reflect on their own practices so that they can encourage their students to exercise judgment, too.

Obvious? Perhaps. But Richard Elmore’s observation in the foreword to the book is not that far off the mark today, noting that “teaching is seldom taken as a subject for serious intellectual discourse in universities.” In fact, most of our students, if they knew, would find this amazing, even troubling: we college teachers have never been taught how to teach, and we generally work in isolation on improving our practice.

If we were lucky, we were teaching assistants in graduate school, placed in charge of smaller discussion sections for the lecture classes given by the famous professors. If we were really lucky, the senior professor gave us some guidance on our pedagogy.

Yet most of us started as college teachers woefully inexperienced and unprepared. Some colleges and universities have recognized that lack of preparation in recent years and have created centers for teaching excellence, offering lectures, workshops and maybe the chance to have your class videotaped. But Education for Judgment signaled a still-missing ingredient needed for learning how to practice our craft wisely: structured ways that those of us who are experts as well as novices can reflect on our ongoing teaching practices.

Outside of academe, this approach is not rocket science. Firefighters routinely do post-incident reviews in the same ways that athletes review videos of the game they just played. Novice public school teachers practice teaching with trained teachers. That’s also how interns and residents learn doctoring. Continuing mentoring and coaching are essential for even expert musicians, singers and athletes.

But when professors start teaching, they are largely isolated in their own classrooms. Worse, with the criteria for tenure traditionally being “publish or perish,” collegial reflection about improving our teaching expertise is not encouraged. Indeed, young faculty members who show a serious concern about their teaching are often warned about “misplaced priorities.”

Many professors would like to improve their expertise in leading discussion classes and lectures so as to foster understanding, deep engagement with the material, curiosity and wonderment, and a passion for lifelong learning. They want especially to foster students’ capacities to exercise the judgment they need to apply their learning to their lives and work. But college and university teachers -- any teachers -- can only develop the judgment that expertise requires the way any expert develops such judgment: by working with mentors, coaches and colleagues to continually reflect on their own practice of teaching.

There is already some coaching of faculty going on. Some colleges and universities (including Swarthmore) assign senior faculty members to mentor young faculty, bring in outside teaching coaches on a paid basis or hold workshops that instruct teachers how to be sensitive to diversity or to teach more effectively. Yet we and some of our colleagues at Swarthmore wanted to go further: to teach faculty to be peer coaches for each other, to combine one-on-one coaching with group reflection, to privilege ongoing observation and coaching over onetime or short-term encounters, and to create a continuous process that could renew and improve the wider culture of pedagogy at the college.

The Faculty Teaching Seminar

Thus, several of us recently set out to identify ways to do just that. We asked ourselves, could we design a structure to foster such learning through reflective practice? Could we figure out a way to learn how to mentor and coach each other -- and then do it at a low cost and in ways that would create a culture of learning about pedagogy across the college?

We decided to make ourselves mutual apprentices -- peer coaches -- observing each other’s classes, reflecting together and practicing again. Instead of the presumption that “teachers teach and students learn,” we flipped the paradigm to “teachers as learners.” What could we learn about the kind of reflective learning we wanted to encourage in students by putting ourselves in the position of learners?

We convinced the college to offer some free food and a token honorarium, and 12 of us (out of 20 applicants) signed up for the ride. The Faculty Teaching Seminar, supported in part by a development grant from the John F. Templeton Foundation and an operating grant from the Aydelotte Foundation, combined peer coaching and observation with tri-weekly faculty seminars.

We faculty members were divided into six pairs, each of which observed classes of our peer coach for the whole academic year -- a minimum of 10 coaching encounters, although many people did more. Every three weeks, the 12 of us would meet for three hours to discuss what we were observing and learning. Among the things we focused on were:

Creating a safe, supportive environment. Almost every faculty member who joined the seminar expressed fears about having another faculty member in their class on a regular basis. Many heads nodded when a senior faculty member laughingly admitted: “As someone afflicted by the impostor syndrome, I had some reservations that I might be found out -- that I wasn’t living up to Swarthmore standards.”

This fear was a central obstacle that had to be overcome. The only way you learn good judgment is from experience, Will Rogers famously said, and most of that experience is the exercise of bad judgment. If trial and error is a necessary condition for such learning, then that meant taking on a demon that plagues collegial relations at most colleges and universities: the continued high-stakes evaluation for promotion and tenure.

We intentionally aimed to create a supportive community of practice. In recruiting the participants, we avoided (with one exception) having people from the same department. We also avoided pairing junior and senior faculty members. We explicitly talked about how to break the culture of evaluation. We worked to keep our discussions confidential.

In two humorous but poignant sessions that senior faculty members first led, we used storytelling to share our worst learning experience as students and our worst teaching experience. “Once those disasters had been publicly aired,” said one faculty member, “we had little to fear from exposure -- and we could all see that moments of failure are an inevitable part of the pedagogical landscape.”

Learning how to coach each other. Being a good teacher does not make someone a good coach of other teachers any more than being a good athlete or musician makes someone a good athletic or musical coach. With the exception of one faculty participant -- the women’s softball coach who provided us with valuable guidance -- few others had much practice coaching, and none had practice coaching other teachers. We recognized that “the coaches themselves must be coached” (with a grateful nod to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach).

We developed a preliminary script to scaffold the pre- and post-conversations each coach had with their peer. We performed a live coaching session with each other in the first seminar to model it and get reactions. Before: What are you aiming at in this course, in this class? What obstacles and challenges will you face? Is there anything you want me to pay attention to? After: What did you think worked well and not so well? I noticed you did such and such -- what made you decide to do that?

Then we tried our hands at observing and coaching. We reported back at subsequent seminars on what worked and what fizzled. Actually learning how to see and listen to what was happening in the classroom was a crucial skill that the participants gained and found important. “Once I learned how to listen actively, I was able to observe the flow of the lecture and identify key moments. The skill of coaching started to focus on, ‘What does he find important, and how can I help him reflect on those issues?’”

Combining reflective practice with skills building. We didn’t need a faculty seminar to know the importance of skills like good listening. Indeed, many of us thought of ourselves as good listeners -- that is, until we did a listening-skills training exercise. We broke into groups of three. Each of us took a turn at being a speaker, a listener, an observer. The listener had to summarize the speaker’s core ideas and feelings. The speaker let the listener know whether he or she had been understood, and if not, they had to try again. The observer then commented on what was happening. We all had to try again: listening was harder than we thought. We all needed more practice and reflection.

We did readings about the traits, skills and techniques of good teachers and coaches. But the central pedagogy was moving in a circle from theory to practice to coaching and mentoring each other -- then re-evaluating the theory or technique and then practicing again. We improved our skills by practicing, observing and questioning each other: When did you ask and when did you tell? What were you thinking when you interrupted that energized conversation? How did you choose whom to call upon today, and why did you allow so and so to talk for so long? That was an interesting learning puzzle you set up in class -- what were you aiming at, and how did you think it up? Let’s discuss some of the tough choices you made when you were grading the last set of papers. What were you balancing?

The synergy between the peer coaching and group seminar discussions became clearer throughout the year. The coaching was vital for improving our teaching. What we observed gave us the grist for an educated dialogue in the seminar on how we learn and teach. And the seminar discussions and exercises fed back into improving our peer coaching and teaching.

Fostering an academic culture that encourages learning about learning should certainly include approaches less labor intensive than our seminar-peer coaching model. Lectures or workshops about teaching methods as well as insider tips can be helpful. But creating a culture that encourages us to continually reflect on and improve our pedagogy -- turning a college into a learning organization -- requires that faculty as well as students find ways to learn from the trial and error of experience. That demands creating a safe, supportive environment where we can observe our teaching practices and learn the skills of reflection, analysis, coaching and mentoring.

We in American higher education can’t just hire brilliant Ph.D.s and expect them to be brilliant teachers. The Faculty Teaching Seminar at Swarthmore is only one approach to help teachers learn the judgment they need to educate their students for judgment. Colleges and universities committed to quality teaching need to explore other ways to institutionalize such reflective practice if the teaching at the heart of a liberal arts education is to be nourished.

Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and co-author with Barry Schwartz of Practical Wisdom (Riverhead Books, 2010). Elizabeth Bolton is a professor of English Literature at Swarthmore and author of Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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Grad students should think like entrepreneurs about their careers (essay)

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Grad students need to apply to their career preparation the same entrepreneurial spirit they apply to their academic research, argues James M. Van Wyck.

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The difficulties of being a minority in higher ed grow when one forces relationships (essay)

Being a minority of any kind in academe can be difficult, writes Manya Whitaker. But you can be much happier if you don't force relationships with people whom you are not naturally inclined to befriend.

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Wheaton professors ask college to drop case against colleague

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At Wheaton in Illinois, faculty members are asking the college to drop its case against a professor who said Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Will the administration listen?

A professor compares his students' struggles with writing with his learning to dance (essay)

I turn and pause, and I know I have only one step to take.

She sees before I even understand it that I’m blocked. My face is frozen, my eyes blank. Vera, on her toes, raises a forefinger. We’ll catch the next go-round.

My dance instructor is ever encouraging and perfectly tactful, but I burn with shame.

The other couples are moving. They occasionally stumble, but they continue. I’m blocked the way a wind-up toy is blocked by a wall, its feet nevertheless churning. Even when there is no literal wall, there is sometimes a figurative wall in front of me, and it feels as if my feet have only the one-two rhythm, side to side. I cannot go forward or backward, although one of my feet must. But which one? And then what?

The motion has to flow, and I cannot. It is the ever-intensifying faintheartedness of leaping into a cold lake or off a diving board, or while driving onto a freeway trying to merge with a stream of cars.

I would go, but I can’t.

“We’ll try again,” says Vera. She offers her hands, and I can do that, I can take them.

I’ve never been able to dance unself-consciously except while clowning it up for my own kids and nieces. I signed up for Vera’s dance lessons because I wanted to please my wife. Suzanne deserves a husband who can dance in public, I tell myself -- the thought of which increases rather than diminishes the pressure.

Get loose, Bob! Relax!

After all, as an English professor at a community college, I continually encourage my hesitant students to let go, to write freely -- not to answer or please me but to show themselves what they’re thinking. I tell them they can write their panic right down on the paper.

“But I’m stuck.”

“Write that.”

“What?”

“Write, ‘I’m stuck …’ and then ask the question you know I’d ask: ‘Why?’ And then continue with ‘because …’ And go on like that. You always have the room to write what’s going on in your head right now.”

And Vera has said pretty much the same to me: I always have the room to move my feet and create the space I want, that remembering the steps or forgetting them needn’t stop me from moving. My feet still work, and the music keeps playing, and she or my wife is waiting for me …. So while trying to decide where to move, don’t stop -- just move!

“It’s life, it’s rhythm, and you can do it with or without the music, with or without the steps,” says Vera. “You’re confused because you’re blocking your body with your own thoughts.”

But “I’m not thinking,” I want to tell her. I’m shutting down. I’m trying to listen to her, to the music, to my memory.

In the classroom, I sympathize with my students when I see them stuck, but I know now it’s nothing compared to the truckloads of pity I feel for myself on the dance floor.

I try to trick the students into experiencing (not “learning” but doing!) various ways of dealing with anxieties about writing. But Donald -- 19 years old, a native speaker of English, not unintelligent, obeying the law I wish I would obey on the dance floor -- stumps me. He plunges in, never looks back, no hesitations, no regrets!

In class, I watch him, and I’m impressed. His pen is moving all the time, ink covering line after line. But when I get home to my rhythmically consoling rocking chair where I do most of my marking, I read on and on, confused by Donald’s plainspoken nothingness and carelessness. One phrase thoughtlessly follows one another: “Nick was idean in a boat on water and don’t know the idean lady and the husband takes his ax out and makes the baby born and the doctor named George saw this and liked smoking with ideans.”

He even carelessly miscopies the title of “Indian Camp,” calls the author not Hemingway but “earnest” and hops and skips along, summarizing the story into long curls of nonsense that would bring him up short if he only registered what he was saying, but he tumbles on, lest he notice what he’s written. He is scrupulous about not looking at what he’s written because, he tells me one day, it would freeze him.

“Did you read what you just wrote?” I ask as he rises up, half crouched, writing the last phrase of what was supposed to be a response to, not a summary of, the story.

“To be honest, no,” he responds, walking up and handing me the paper.

“You have to.”

“Really, Professor … it’s forward or nowhere. I can’t.”

The other students are listening.

“You can.”

He avoids my eyes but makes tiny shakes of his head. I don’t like putting him on the spot. “Hold on to this,” I say, pointing to the paper, “and take a break. And come back and try to read it just the way you read somebody else’s work.”

He takes it and goes back to his desk. He sits a moment, then gets up and puts it in his folder and slides the folder into his backpack. He nods at me, and then he walks past with his pack and says, “I’ll be back in a few.”

Is Donald really to be the person I model myself upon on the dance floor? He doesn’t come back for a week!

I ask him the following Tuesday, “Do you still have your response to ‘Indian Camp’?”

“The what?” He looks for a minute in his bag. “This?” He pinches it like a dirty diaper and reluctantly offers it to me.

But wait, there’s also Marya, who dashingly composes first in Ukrainian and then into a peculiar English -- an English she has never heard or read before. Back home, she has told me, she wrote hundreds of essays, and though I try to discourage her and other ESL students from composing in their native languages, she tells me that the Ukrainian is a constant stream that can’t be shut off.

Her writing for class is a kind of argument with English, as if she imagines she’s showing the English grammar how to reform itself: “According to me, Nicholas is child who both neither death nor being born knowledge they have given him to understand. Father, by me, is made pathos by act of many sufferings seen by son.” She’s in touch with her own private “Ukrainlish” and -- this is true (she’s argued the point with me) -- I usually understand her perfectly, so why fuss?

I try to explain: “Because the writing makes me …” I cringe (which is a visual aid I hope she gleans) and try to think of another word that conveys cringe. “It reads with a thick accent,” I say, “and while I love accents in speech, I can’t help thinking we don’t want to show it in writing if we can help it.” I don’t mention how she unrepentantly crowbars English grammar into places it’s never been.

I decide I could try Donald’s method as a dancer and go blank and ignore my own incoherent moves, or I could try Marya’s method. I could wrench my partner (my wife, lucky girl!) around the floor, listening to an inner rhythm that bends the music and my partner to it. Or I could keep doing what I have been doing, stumbling and halting, my face borscht red, my wife and Vera hopefully and anxiously awaiting my improvement.

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

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Anonymous astronomers object to efforts to name and shame harassers in the field

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Anonymous astronomers object to some of their peers' efforts to name and shame known harassers in the field.

How to follow up with underrepresented faculty who decide to leave your institution (essay)

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If you want to know why underrepresented faculty members decide to leave your department, ask them, advises Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

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New ways to grade more effectively (essay)

Pause a moment to consider the way we’ve been grading our students’ work since time immemorial. The way we allocate points on the basis of apparent quality. The way we struggle to be fair in giving the same number of points to works of comparable quality, even though they differ a great deal -- and the time it takes us to make these hairsplitting decisions. The way students stress over the points their work does or doesn’t get. The way they challenge our grading decisions in the hope of squeezing more points out of us -- despite the agonizing care and attention to detail we give to their work. For students, it’s all about maximizing partial credit.

Consider, too, the value that external stakeholders attach to our grading. Most employers of our graduates give grades little heed in hiring. They want experience. At the program and university level, accreditors eschew grades and demand independent evidence of student achievement of learning outcomes.

Our grading system is broken, yet we educators keep using it. You may think you have no alternative. But you do. And you can comfortably make the change in your own classes and not confront your administration.

Imagine another grading system, one where you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail. Students earn all of the points associated with the work, or none of them, depending on whether their work meets the particular specifications you laid out for it. This is why I call this grading system specifications, or specs, grading. Think of the specs as a one-level, uni-dimensional rubric. But don’t think of them as defining D or even C minus work. Rather, imagine that they define truly “satisfactory” as at least B work -- maybe even A minus work. This assures rigor.

The specs may be as simple as “completeness”: for instance, all the questions are answered, all the problems attempted in good faith or all the directions followed (that is, the work satisfies the assignment), plus the work meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex: for instance, the work fulfills the criteria you set out for a good literature review, research proposal or substantial reflection.

You must write the specs for a complex assignment very carefully, clearly and thoroughly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you want and will look for. This may mean specifying the organization as well as contents of each section of the work, perhaps even paragraph by paragraph.

Too formulaic? Let’s be real: most of our assignments follow a formula. All you have to do is lay out that formula or whatever part of the formula is important for your students to learn and follow. If you’re bothered by late work, you can include on-time submission among the specs, too.

If your objective for an assignment is creativity, simply provide loose specs of the various ways that students can demonstrate their ability to explain and apply the material -- such as a 20-minute informational video or dramatic performance, a four-minute original musical performance, a 15-page short story or an eight-minute persuasive speech. You can specify basic parameters for creative assignments and not worry about “grading” them.

In sum, complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For students, it’s all or nothing. No skipping the directions and no sliding by on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

In fact, research reveals that this kind of assignment grading increases student motivation and produces higher-quality work than traditional grading systems do. And the 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement has found that only 54 percent of freshmen and 61 percent of seniors believe that they have been “highly challenged to do their best work” in college. Clearly, our students have room to meet higher and more rigorous academic standards. Maybe we’ve gone too far with lowering the stakes of our assignments and tests. Now, nothing students do matters much to them.

But what about second chances, redemption and flexibility? Consider this second element of specs grading: a virtual-token economy, which buffers the riskiness of no partial credit and allows the opportunity for redemption.

At the beginning of the term, you give your students one, two or three virtual tokens that give them the chance to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in an assignment 24 hours late without penalty or to take a makeup exam. (It’s easier to keep track of three tokens than points docked.) Of course, students who consistently submit satisfactory work on time will keep their tokens. If you choose, you can even let students earn tokens by submitting satisfactory work early, successfully completing additional assignments or doing whatever you’d like to reward. Then, at the end of the course, you can give the student(s) with the most tokens something desirable -- perhaps the chance to skip the final exam or a gift certificate for a pizza.

Actually, you can import this token economy into any grading system. Many students regard it as a game and want to hoard their tokens.

Bundles of Assignments

Specs grading has one more exotic feature: course grades are based on the bundles of assignments and tests that students complete at a pass/satisfactory level. Bundles that require more work, more challenging work or both earn students higher grades. No more points to painstakingly allocate and haggle over with students. By choosing the bundle they want to complete, students select the final grade they want to earn, taking into account their motivation, time available, grade point needs and commitment. If a student chooses a C because that’s all he or she needs in your course, you can respect that. Under such conditions, students are often more motivated to learn because they have a sense of choice, volition, self-determination and responsibility for their grade, as well as less grade anxiety.

Another benefit is the option to associate each bundle with one or more student learning outcomes, so completing a given bundle indicates that the student has achieved certain of those outcomes. Why shouldn’t our grades reflect the outcomes students have and have not achieved? Then our grades may actually mean something.

Let’s admit that, right now, our grades have little connection to outcomes. Students earning an A may have achieved all the outcomes of a course, but what about those getting a B, a C or a D? Did they achieve some outcomes and not others? If so, which ones? Or did they achieve few or none at an acceptable level? Even so, they passed the course.

The idea of bundles can be hard to grasp without examples. Let’s say you set up 10 assignments and tests. These may be papers, essays, objective items, problem sets, programs, designs or some combination of these. Each assignment and test has a companion assignment that enhances its learning value, such as a self-regulated learning exercise, a self-assessment, a paraphrase of your feedback or a plan for doing better next time. Together, they form a bundle.

Then, number each bundle according to the challenge level so that the lower numbers designate relatively easy and lower-level thinking assignments and tests and the higher numbers indicate increasingly demanding and higher-level thinking assignments and tests. Therefore, your course offers 10 bundles.

  • For a D, students have to complete bundles 1 through 5, which require achieving only knowledge/recall outcomes, plus the ability to write brief reflections.
  • For a C, they have to complete bundles 1 through 6, where bundle 6 also requires comprehension, plus the ability to correct their errors.
  • For a B, they have to complete bundles 1 through 8, where bundles 7 and 8 also require application, plus the ability to plan improvement strategies.
  • For an A, they have to complete all 10 bundles, where bundles 9 and 10 also require evaluation and creation, plus the ability to assess their work.

Here is an even simpler system with only four bundles of assignments and tests, ranging from relatively easy/basic to very challenging/advanced. The more challenging bundles will require students to achieve more learning outcomes, including higher levels of thinking about broader and more complex knowledge.

  • For a D, students have to complete only the easiest and most basic bundle.
  • For a C, they have to complete that basic bundle and a somewhat more challenging one.
  • For a B, they have to complete these two bundles and a third one that is even more challenging.
  • For an A, they have to complete all four bundles, the fourth of which is the most challenging.

Again, to complete a bundle, a student must finish all the assignments and tests within it at a satisfactory level -- which means at least a B level. That is, each piece of work within a bundle must meet all your specs for satisfactory completion.

Specs grading is flexible. You can adopt one or two of the three elements, or apply an element in some cases and not others. For instance, you can integrate pass/fail grading and tokens into a course but retain your current point system. Or you may choose to grade only some assignments and tests pass/fail. Or you may institute bundles only for grades C and D, or only for grades A and B.

Some faculty members already use specs grading in their courses, in whole or in part, and they get better results than they did grading the traditional way. Most of them claim that their students produce higher-quality work, pay more attention to feedback, feel more responsible for their grades and are less grade anxious and less likely to protest their grades.

In addition, these instructors find the grading process simpler and less stressful and time-consuming. More of their time goes more toward figuring out what they want their students to show they can do and at what level.

So take heart. If you don’t like the impact that our grading system has on you and your students, you don’t have to tolerate it anymore.

Linda B. Nilson is director of the office of teaching effectiveness and innovation at Clemson University.

How to communicate research results beyond academe (essay)

Effective communication gives you the means to reach deep into the institutions that make decisions that affect us all, writes M. V. Lee Badgett.

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Are historians the ideal futurists?

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Is history really future studies in reverse? Panel at recent gathering of historians' association makes case for teaching the future.

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