May 19, 2009

A day in the life of a summer course

Third class of the summer session this morning, first one where students were supposed to have finished readings. This is an undergraduate social-foundations class, and the readings for this week include Gary Becker on human capital, Sam Bowles on social reproduction, and either the start of Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes or Joe Williams's Cheating Our Kids (which is apparently out of stock now).The summer session is only ten weeks, so they need to hit the ground running. I tossed the schedule around a bit to put the suck-the-reader-in books at the top of the term.


We start with an ungraded quiz. The incentive to do well here is because the questions might show up on the (absolutely graded) final exam. The last item is to propose scoring criteria (jargon: rubric) for one question on the back of the sheet. The substantive questions are of the compare/contrast sort with an implied 3-4 sentence answer, and I provide the broad hint that the authors "cannot all agree." Student groups talk about their answers, propose them on the dry-erase board, then we talk about the sketchy phrases, and they turn in the sheets, which I've now read.

Next is a quick exercise suggested by the latest edition of Wilbert McKeachie's college-teaching classic: they read drafts of their weekly papers to a peer, give reality-check feedback (i.e., after the reading, the listener summarizes what she or he thinks the main point is), and then hear me remind them to use formal citation mechanics, even if the format for the paper may be informal. 

We then started to talk about the books -- they first had to find someone at a different table who read a different book and represent their book to their classmate. Then as a whole, we compared the settings, the (inferred) motivations for each author, the (implied) major questions in each book, and the assumptions behind those questions. Students decided they wanted to discuss Bowles and Becker rather than have me lecture, so we spent the rest of the two-hour class talking about those ideas, discussing how Bowles and Becker would interpret Geoffrey Canada's personal history and education, and figuring out where Barack Obama's stated views on college would fit.

Somewhere in there we had questions on the logistics of the class, I met the three students who registered after the second class last week, I discovered that a PDF I thought I had locked for editing had been locked so students couldn't open the file (ouch), and we left loads of potential issues on the table. That's life. Thursday they upload a draft section of the major paper for the course (the section where they don't need a critical mass of readings under their belt yet), and Friday they upload the final version of the weekly paper. And somehow I will return feedback and grades Tuesday morning.

In some ways I am "working without a net" this semester, with a little more turnover on readings than usual. In particular, I dropped Kozol's The Shame of the Nation and paired Williams with Tough this semester. Maybe I should have dropped Williams because of the limited supply of books, but while Kozol and Williams were great contrasts the last time I taught this course (they both express outrage over unequal education in many of the same cities, but their explanations are worlds apart), I wanted to get Tough in there, and I may stick with Tough as a universal reading because of Chapter 2. But switching books always creates a little more demand in thinking-on-my-feet skills because I don't have experience in how students will respond.

Also, because of the compressed schedule, I made a commitment to learn student names in the first week. I'm awful with names and used every mental trick I could. I think I'm about 80-90% of the way there, and for a class of approximately 40, that's good for me. Right now, students are trying to keep up with the readings. My challenge is to keep the class rolling, to identify students who are behind from the get-go, and to manage the reading/feedback in a compressed semester.

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Posted in Education policy on May 19, 2009 2:37 PM |