July 30, 2010

You're telling me I can't teach everything I know in a semester?

I've been revising my plans for the upcoming fall undergrad history of ed class based on a bunch of things that have been percolating in my head this summer, including the need to recertify it for my university's gen-ed program (or at least apply for recertification), the Utah Tuning project in history and what we expect from undergraduates, some thoughts about formative assessment in history, and other items. As a result, I've tinkered with the major writing assignments and the exam item structures, linked some of the weekly work more tightly to a major writing assignment, changed how I address attendance, bit the bullet on students and laptops, and then realized I have 28 class sessions (T-Th class, so Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving are gone).

Hoo, boy, that's a limit. So I decided how I'd handle some of the longer primary-source documents, tied the shorter ones I wanted everyone to read to a calendar, and looked again. Still "hoo, boy." So I created a table to sketch out each day of class, the immediate upcoming assignments (i.e., how students might look at the near-term future for a class), and the theme of readings. In went the obvious topics I address every semester, at the logical locations. This morning, I did the rest: figure out in more detail than I ever have before what I could do with each class session--the stuff that will take up a whole class, the stuff that won't and what combinations would work where, the topics where simulation/debriefing would make sense, topics for "fishbowl" discussions, topics for certain types of structured activities, and one week where I'm not sure what I'm doing in detail but I know how to set up the intellectual puzzle.

Apart from that week in mid-October where I'm a bit at loose ends, there are still plans I need to make in the ordinary course of things: how to guide students for certain activities I haven't tried before, or haven't tried with a particular topic, how to set days up (with a motivating issue/puzzle, by foreshadowing something earlier in the semester, by tying it into a major course theme, by tying it to a major assignment, etc.), and so forth. Nonetheless, this is fairly detailed. I won't follow this plan to the letter, guaranteed, but this has been a very useful planning activity, in part to guarantee that as many loose ends are tied up as possible by the end of the semester. One of the conclusions I drew from reading the draft and final state social-studies standards a few years ago is that I share the "topic-a-week" symptom of my fellow historians: I'm competent at addressing the topic du jour, and I can tie things together impromptu when it's appropriate and obvious. But taking an intro/survey course and making those connections explicit, so that the intellectual core of a class is clear and the work for students is as easy as possible (and by this I mean easy to accomplish, not easy by lowering the bar)? I needed to carve out a few days and be selfish for that.

The reward for students should be a better course. The immediate reward for me: in addition to generally liking teaching this class, I've also got something very specific to be excited about for every class.

July 26, 2010

The passive-aggressive student

I'm working this year with several thoughtful, independent-minded grad students right now, and this afternoon I realized that I've been quite lucky the last few years in terms of my experiences with grad students (and I hope the converse as well!). Since that hasn't always been the case, I thought I'd put down my thoughts while there wasn't anyone I was advising to whom this applied: how can an advisor explain what's not working for a grad student beyond low grades?

I've been thinking specifically about two former grad students on whose committees I sat (not as advisor). (Some details have been obscured to protect the guilty.) In one case, I had already been a bit concerned because in one of my classes, the student had turned in a paper that didn't meet my standards, and the student struggled to revise in response to quite specific feedback. So we get to comps: the student's comprehensive exam essays were largely unresponsive to the questions, though the questions were worded broadly enough to give the student a chance to show off what she or he knew about the field and how he or she could think either synthetically or critically. We (the committee) gave the student a chance to revise: the revision was nonresponsive to our concerns. A second revision?  We hemmed, hawed, and passed the student (barely). Those of you who know grad school can probably figure out what happened next: the student crapped out in the thesis phase.

The other student was someone who seemed to waver between wanting to dive into reading parts of the field she or he was deeply interested in, on the one hand, and skimming by with only the required readings of other classes/topics, on the other hand. I know of at least a few faculty who said, roughly, "If you want to be a faculty member someday (the person's stated goal), you'll need to be well-read in your field, broadly understood." Time comes for the comprehensive exam and the person's weaknesses shine through: the references are to a very small handful of readings rather than to broad areas of the literature. Because many of our college's comps are closed-book, limited-time (three days of exams, each with one question and a half-day to type an answer), I don't expect students to remember dozens and dozens of names. But maybe I have a reasonable expectation that a doctoral student will know and talk about more than three pieces of the literature per day???!!!

Okay, so these students were over the line in terms of not meeting expectations, but it wasn't entirely clear until comps that they'd screw up so badly. Ultimately, it was their choice to screw up, but I wonder if their choice might have been different with different faculty behavior. And I think part of my role as a faculty member is not only to set expectations but identify problems earlier than we sometimes do. That's NOT good for the student or the program. For a few years I've been thinking about it as a "damnit, listen to the faculty" issue, but that's not fair or appropriate for several reasons. What if a faculty member is totally nuts in advice? And what about conscientious dissent on a matter of intellectual controversy? So there has to be a different way of explaining where a grad student is off the tracks.

Today, I'm thinking of it as a matter of being passive-aggressive: saying "yeah, yeah, I'm listening," and then not changing behavior at all or responding substantively to feedback on papers. There are lots of reasons for grad students to be passive-aggressive, from the power dynamics at a university to our collective experiences with impersonal institutions and supervisors who are unreasonable/unreasoning. But it's generally dysfunctional both for students and for professional environments. I have no problems with students who disagree with me and revise papers to strengthen their arguments. But someone who tinkers here and there and doesn't respond substantively to feedback? That gives me a rending-garments feeling: this isn't what I put time into advising for.

So the next time I face passive-aggressive behavior from a grad student, I'm inclined to say something like the following:

The last time we talked, I gave you some specific advice. In what you sent me recently, I don't see evidence of your response to the advice. That means I don't see evidence either of your changing something to address my advice because you agreed with it or your working to demonstrate I'm wrong if you didn't. I have no problems if you can persuade me through your intellectual work that my advice was wrong, but there was a reason why I gave you advice. I hope I don't have to cite chapter and verse from those who study academics to persuade you that the way a community of scholars works best is by conversation. Being largely nonresponsive to feedback on an intellectual matter is a very effective way of telling me that you don't want to be in that community, if you had wanted to send that message. But if you don't want to send that message, you need to engage in the type of conversation that being a grad student requires.

I haven't wanted to say that for several years, and I hope I never again feel that I'm facing a passive-aggressive grad student. But my opportunities for advising doctoral students is relatively limited, and I may be off my rocker. For those who have advised far more grad students than I, does this make sense?

June 8, 2010

The value of college III

Part of the value of a good college education is that much of it is surplus. In the same way that the early nineteenth-century education of women could have been perceived as superfluous, a good deal of what students learn could be seen as not directly or immediately useful in their lives. To some economists, this may smack of inefficiency: why should we educate anyone beyond what we can see as an immediate payback on the job or in life? To others, this gets absorbed in a metastatic notion of human capital, where everything good in life is redefined as investment. (Read the new introduction in the 1993 edition of Gary Becker's Human Capital if you doubt me: not only are schooling and standalone job training considered human capital, so is love from one's parents.) Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz refer generically to education as critical to handling changing technology on the job, which makes a certain amount of sense as long as you're not operating a picture-based point-of-sale register (technology can deskill jobs as well as require greater skills). Goldin, Katz, and Uwe Reinhardt are definitely well-meaning, and I'd want them all at my back in an unlit economics-department hallway. But at some level, the economic justification of surplus education is troublesome because it is a black box (how the extra education works exactly isn't modeled); the slop between formal schooling and economic utility (which I've termed surplus) is a fundamental problem for how economists approach education.

An inefficient education as useful play

So let's turn from economics to anthropology for some help. In 1973, American Anthropologist published Stephen Miller's "Ends, Means, and Galumphing," which explored the social and evolutionary purposes of play. It's reasonably well-cited for a social-science article, but more importantly it's widely cited in areas as diverse as educational and social psychology (where you might expect it to be cited) and... well, it's cited in "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments" (1996, in the Journal of Marketing). In other words, it's got legs. Miller argues that one can define play within multiple species as activity that is deliberately inefficient and where the individuals involved gain pleasure from facing challenges that stem directly from the inefficiency, whether we're talking formal inefficiencies such as the rules of baseball and chess or informal make-believe... or activities one might find in college such as analyzing a real or fictional company's operations, writing a history paper, spending ten or more hours talking about a single play of Shakespeare, and so forth.

More importantly, Miller argues that play has some advantage for a species in that it turns specific skills into general problem-solving capacity. In play, one uses skills repeatedly and in a range of combinations. (One could argue a little differently about some videogames I know, but I'm describing his argument, not making my own, and the point would still be important even if you removed videogames that require nothing but exactly-repetitive behavior.) Play looks remarkably inefficient in one way, but it has important adaptive value in another.

So too with much of formal education. I could make the same faculty-psychology arguments on behalf of studying history that many people do: not only does it provide specific knowledge of certain times and places, it also prepares you for any career that requires the presentation of linear arguments with specific time- and place-bound evidence. (Legal brief, anyone?) It teaches you about human foibles and prepares you for situations where you have to suspend antipathy towards individuals to identify potential motives and key interests. David Brooks makes all of those arguments in his column today.

But that type of argument has always struck me as beside the point, not because history majors do not have practice in those skills but because any faculty-psychology argument is easily turned into a nebulous "this will help you learn critical thinking" claim, which my time-and-place-specific training makes me skeptical of. Yes, majoring in history will help you in a lot of fields more than not going to college at all, but it's hard to argue that a history major is better suited to a professional biochem lab's gruntwork than a math or physics major, even if the gruntwork has occasional public presentations attached to it requiring linear arguments with detailed evidence (see above on that refrain).

(Margaret Soltan argues a different point today, asserting that the value of the humanities is in the embodiment of human frailty, not its rational analysis. She writes, "For [William Arrowsmith], a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos." I'm not going to argue with her or Arrowsmith, since I'm sure many a student in a Milton seminar has probably had crises of faith, and I had the odd experience of The Painted Bird as a soothing read at the end of my first semester in college. I'm just making a different point that can stretch beyond the humanities.)

An honest explanation of the value of college acknowledges that when college accomplishes what it can, a good part of that achievement is teaching students how to play with ideas in thoughtful ways and follow up that play in a reasonable, rigorous manner. This is neither a comprehensive nor exclusive way of thinking about college: formal schooling doesn't guarantee this result, and there are plenty of wise people in this world who can play with ideas without having finished secondary school, let alone college. But you're far more likely to get adults who can play with ideas in a productive sense if some critical mass of them have attended formal schooling where that was one of the outcomes.

I think Stanley Fish and gaming-for-learning enthusiasts are some of the more extreme proponents of this view, though they may not like being put in the same bin. At some times eloquently and inarticulately at other times, Fish argues (or just implies, as in yesterday's piece) that playing with ideas is the purest and highest aim of college and university life. That's a good part of the reason why he is allergic to some other conceptions of teaching (such as passionate engagement in the world). Those who have pushed for the insertion of game design in teaching likewise see value in gaming in and of itself, and they have the well-intentioned goal of spreading that joy to students through the use of gaming in teaching.

I do not think the promotion of intellectual play is the sole purpose of higher education, which is why I do not agree with Fish on his save the world on your own time refrain, which would place a wall between classes and any concern with what happens off a campus. Nor do I think that constructing game-like structures inside classes is the only way to promote intellectual play, which is why I have only experimented in a tiny way (and not that well) with game-like structures inside classes. Instead, what a good college (and many a good high school course) provides is the foundation, tools, and time and space for students to play with ideas.

This play needs to be rooted in specifics: some critical mass of specific knowledge in an area, which includes stuff we might call factual information and also knowledge about important questions that have been and continue to be asked in the discipline or field. In most (but not all) colleges and for most (but not all) students in those colleges, that foundation and set of tools require some breadth and some depth. You can't be a great student of history without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of places and time, or without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of other fields that bring other questions to bear on the ideas you're playing with.

And then you need the opportunities and encouragement to play with ideas in important ways. Sometimes these come in structured assignments that look playful, sometimes in serious assignments that engage students in the flow that positive psychologists write about, and sometimes the opportunity comes in extracurricular activities. Again, none of this necessarily requires formal schooling, but the playful autodidact must discipline herself or himself, and a formal school can provide structures to encourage this type of engagement. The institutional nature of a school can often grate on those within its walls, but it can also provide helpful structures. From an historical standpoint, the amazing feature of non-mandatory secondary and postsecondary education is not that one-quarter of teenagers leave high school and two-thirds of young adults do not complete a B.A. but that so many finish when there is no law requiring it. Normative expectations play an important role, and that is as true for shaping behavior within a school as standing outside it pushing students towards school.


Justifying public subsidies

Okay, some of you must be thinking, I'll follow this argument about the play of ideas as far as formal schooling doesn't cost much. But why should taxpayers subsidize this, and why should someone incur more than $100,000 in debt to learn how to play with ideas? Taxpayers should subsidize surplus education because it's worked for society in the past, which may seem highly unsatisfying but is true with one caveat (below). More pragmatically, the obviously-useful parts of higher education easily justify the subsidy, and what appear to be "frills" are comparatively cheap: try to tell a provost that the English department or history department is a money-waster, and she or he will laugh in your face with good reason: humanities faculty are generally the cheapest dates in any place, in part because of their low salaries and in part because even at the ritziest research universities they don't require several hundred thousand dollars in start-up money each. Doubt me? Go ask your local university the annual maintenance costs per student of a intro-chem lab and an intro-languages lab.

Costs to students: the car rule-of-thumb

Student debt is a different issue. I don't think someone should incur more than $100,000 in debt for an undergraduate education. However, that issue is complicated by stories about new college graduates with mountains of debt that come from enrollment in private schooling, either non-profit colleges and universities or for-profit programs. We need to watch the debt issue, but the streams of student debt origins are concentrated away from public colleges and universities (i.e., not what the solid majority of students face). There are plenty of public colleges and universities where the average debt for graduates carrying debt is under $20,000, and that's a reasonable debt to incur for the part of a college education with likely immediate payoffs in the job market (assuming that there's a job market in the next few years). In addition, the creation of income-based repayment plans is a buffer against college debt peonage if debt begins in the federal loan programs that are captured by income-based repayment. Again, that's easy when you're talking about public colleges and universities. Fortunately, a very large majority of high school seniors and their families are skeptical of mountains of debt, which is why (for example) two of my daughter's closest friends are going to the University of Florida next year rather than Rensselaer, Rutgers, or Georgia Tech (some of the other places one or the other was accepted, where they would have paid out-of-state or private tuition).

(As I've noted, private loans and gigantic debt coming from attendance at private institutions comprise a different matter, in addition to credit card debt. Part of the role of Pell grants, the new GI Bill, and federal loans is to encourage families to take on both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. That may sound remarkably like the type of public-private partnership that's become common in economic development, except that here, families and students incur substantial risk. Private non-profits and for-profits are in the same boat here, receiving a federal subsidy that's often bundled in with additional unsubsidized loans that families and students carry forward, something NYU is struggling to respond to, at least. And all university administrators who approve privacy-invading deals with credit-card companies should rot in Purgatory for a very, very long time.)

There is another way in which student debt is taken out of context: for full-time students and a number of part-time students, a significant part of the cost of college is the opportunity cost of not being in the labor market (or giving up some job opportunities, for part-time students). That can end up in debt if students borrow to pay for living expenses while going to school, and in any case, it reduces income and the accumulation of job experience. For a few years, that's more than balanced by expected greater earnings. The opportunity cost of not gaining job experience becomes a larger issue for someone who is out of the job market for an extended period, as happens with longer graduate programs (such as programs that have an average time-to-degree of nine years for students who finish, and that would be on top of the time spent in an undergraduate program).

A few rules of thumb, to summarize on debt and opportunity costs of attending college: if the direct debt incurred by going to college is on the order of magnitude of an economy or low-priced midsize car, it's justified by the anticipated concrete returns, so the chance to play with ideas isn't a giant financial risk. Don't go into debt on the order of a house note unless the degree leads directly to a lucrative career (e.g., medicine or law, and even there I have some questions). And if you're going to spend more than ten years out of the labor market as part of getting an education, definitely get that economy-car-sized education.

The assessment dilemma

Let me return now to the issue of public subsidies in part for what might look like surplus education. Part of the justification for public subsidy (concerned with value) is taken care of by the parts of college you can identify concretely as human capital, specific bits of skills and knowledge with clear social benefits. Part of the justification for subsidy (concerned with cost) is taken care of by the fact that the more expensive parts of college and university academic programs are concentrated where you see more clearly identified returns (the "humanities are cheap dates" principle). (Athletic programs and student affairs are different subjects.)

That might be enough from the perspective of some faculty (and Stanley Fish and David Brooks, at least this week), but the push for accountability in learning outcomes in higher education can easily be turned into the type of mechanism that squeezes out opportunities and structures for playing with ideas. For the foreseeable future, there will be key actors in several states who would be willing to impose reductive standardized testing on colleges and universities. That is the alternative to the current set of assessment mechanisms embedded in regional accreditation. So let's look at assessment and accreditation with regard to playing with ideas.

The black hole of accreditation-centered assessment

Assessment in the context of regional accreditation is best thought of as meta-assessment, where accreditors hold colleges and universities responsible for having a curriculum and assessing how well students learn it. That putatively gives institutions the freedom to create a structure consistent with a unique mission as long as there is assessment of student learning. In reality, this type of meta-game can be difficult to navigate, and the default behavior leans heavily towards mimesis: many colleges and universities hire consultants familiar with a particular regional accreditor, and they tend to suggest whatever structure has enabled similar institutions to pass muster. In addition, because consultants (or former consultants) are sometimes brought in-house to handle the logistics, they focus on the parts of the process that are most easily managed and cause the least hiccups internally... and that often turns into a small universe of reductive measures available commercially, especially for general-education goals. (Want to assess writing? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess problem-solving? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess critical thinking? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Yes, of course we can create our own in-house assessment, but we'd also have to justify its use to our accreditor, and it's just easier to use the ABCXYZ; why don't we at least try that as we're developing our own...) There's a reason why the Voluntary System of Accountability specified one of three cognitive measures: it piggybacked on existing trends in accreditation and institutional inertia.

My general concern is that the mechanisms of assessment through regional accreditation can become the black hole of faculty time, absorbing everything around it and making it difficult to plan a structure for more engaged projects or the type of activity I have described as intellectual play. In addition to what else I could say about that narrow range of measures, the long-term problem with institutional meta-gaming is that the rules of the game can change, sometimes with nasty consequences for faculty time. Every time that an accrediting body changes the rules by which institutions have to set rules for students (i.e., the curriculum), faculty have to rework their lives and often entire programs of studies to accommodate the changes. Every time my state reworks licensing requirements for college-based teacher education, or changes the rules for state review, faculty in my college have their time stolen by the logistics of meeting the rules. (Please don't ask a Florida dean of education to describe the double-standard between the rules for college-based teacher education and alt-cert unless you have a few hours.) One of the consequences is an overburden on both faculty and student time. Let me stop talking about faculty time and focus instead on student time: Look at a few random programs of study for baccalaureate programs in nursing or education. Count the number of elective courses. Compare with a program of studies in any social-science or humanities major. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

On the one hand, the licensure requirements make a certain amount of sense from the perspective of professional training: you want teachers, social workers, and nurses to have the tools to do the job. On the other hand, an undergraduate education that is devoid of anything but instrumentalist technical courses is job-training and nothing else. And especially for teachers, that is inconsistent with one central purpose of college and dangerous for what we'd like them to do on the job. And the Holmes Group's proposal to shift all teacher training to the masters is unrealistic for working-class students if you apply the car-cost limit to student debt for future teachers. I am not sure there is a good way out of this problem for elementary teacher education, and it is on the extreme end of the "no room for thought" problem we face with accreditation-based assessment.

Outside elementary teacher education, there are a few escapes, but none are palatable. Ignoring assessment requirements of accreditors is either fatally brave or foolish, so what's left? Assessing intellectual play. You can stop groaning now. Yes, attempts to assess "creativity" make you tear your hair out, and the thought of assessing intellectual play makes you want to punch me out for the oxymoron or the threat of one of these projects unmoored from substance and rigor. But from an institutional standpoint for a faculty member in one of those regions with an accreditor that threatens micromanagement, you can either tilt at windmills or see what the power might be used for. I've got a limited appetite for windmill-tilting, and I've got enough blunted spears in my garage for a lifetime, thank you very much. This may sound like squaring the circle or getting out from within the horizon of a black hole, but the ability to assess intellectual play would allow faculty to justify all sorts of projects within an existing accreditation framework.

Defining and assessing a challenge

First, a reminder of Miller's notion of galumphing, or play: pleasurable activity that is deliberately inefficient and encourages the combination of existing skills to accomplish the self-defined or agreed-upon goals over and around the obstacles presented by the constructed inefficiencies. The tricky part of assessing such activity is not focusing on the issue of pleasure but instead on the meta-rules that characterize the nature of the activity. For this purpose, it's best to think about a circumscribed type of intellectual play: a challenge that is at least partially well-defined, based in considerable part on what others have done (i.e., not entirely reinventing the wheel), and that requires putting together at least a few skills. Then the assessment of the student activity has two levels: the level of the meta-game, where you assess how well the student defines the challenge, shows where and how the project relies on other work or is new, and how well the student used multiple skills; and the level of the project itself, where disciplinary conventions come into play...

And for history, at least, the disciplinary conventions match fairly well with the first level: having an appropriate historical topic, using the historiography in a sensible way, and handling a range of evidence and argument structures. The guts of most undergraduate history papers are in that last catch-all category: "handling a range of evidence and argument structures." There are a number of more idiosyncratic and less comparable assessment frames (such as student reflection on engagement), and this short essay is about the larger picture, not a detailed (let alone a tested!) framework for assessing intellectual play. And this sketch is about a narrowly-defined type of challenge, with lots left out. But it's a way to think a bit about the issue... or play with the idea of assessing playing with ideas.

Tools to explore

A few words about some recent developments to watch in this vein. The Lumina Foundation's Tuning project could have begun within a regional accreditation context, but it's geared instead towards a proof of concept that a faculty-driven definition of outcomes and assessments can simultaneously honor disciplinary conventions and also satisfy external constituencies (thus the term "tuning" to get everyone singing in the same key: I've got to ask Cliff Adelman sometime whether it's harmonic or tempered tuning). If I remember correctly, the first discipline-specific reports should have been available on the foundation website sometime this spring, but it's not there now (just a cutesy cartoonish presentation of the idea along with Cliff Adelman's concept paper and other materials from 2009). At a first glance, it looks like an application of the accountability framework of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (i.e., the liberal-arts office in One Dupont Circle). But without sample exemplar projects, it's hard to judge at the moment.

Then there's the movement for undergraduate research. When my daughter and I were visiting colleges over the past few years, it's clear that every institution devoted resources specifically to undergraduate research, whether they were public or private. Then again, these were generally small colleges where undergraduates were the only research assistants that faculty would be getting. On the third hand, undergraduate research is a type of operation that both liberal-arts colleges and universities are trying to develop and promote, albeit with different understandings of student engagement. I think my alma mater (a small liberal-arts college) now requires seniors to engage in a major thesis-like project. At my current university, that's expected only of Honors College students, and the resources of the Undergraduate Research office are available to all in theory and would be totally swamped if every student asked to be involved. Again, neither the development of Tuning and undergraduate research are models in any practical sense of the word, but they're something to watch and, if nothing else, they provide a few rocks on which to stand and survey the landscape of playing with ideas.

March 27, 2010

In #1b1t lies a proof of concept for microblogging for group annotation

Wired.com writer Jeff Howe has proposed a giant Twitter-wide reading experiment he's calling One Book, One Twitter, where everyone on Twitter (or a great big gob of people) read and tweet about the passages they're currently on. The topics code #1b1t (an example of a "hashtag") is Howe's proposal, and you can follow the latest discussion online if a series of disconnected 140-charater texts tapped out by people reading a book on their own is a discussion.

Ah, but the last clause is the key here: can Twitter or other microblogging services provide an opportunity for collective discussion of a text? In theory the answer is "sure, of course," but would that happen in practice? I've thought about this with regard to teaching, since the term "mobile learning" has usually had passive interpretations: listen to a lecture anytime! anywhere! Okay, I think, and where's the interaction? Oh, but we can do better: you can click on screens and get more lecture anytime! anywhere! Thanks, but that's not a substitute for intense discussion.

In the past few months, I've spent a bit of time thinking about the role of "collective exegesis/commentary" and possible tools to conduct it anywhere, anytime.

In theory, what I'd love is to see some capacity for a student who is reading some material (a novel, a primary source in a history class, etc.) to respond to questions using a cell phone and have that text message be collected for the class purposes, or to read the collective responses. Don't tell me that a smartphone can do that with browser capacities; most students don't have smartphones, and the interfaces are often clunky at best. I want any student with a dumb phone to be able to send text messages that can be collected by a secure service for a class and have some way for it to be sorted by text location (by the service or a relatively simple manual post-submission step).

There are at least two sides to that: tools and practices/culture.


What's needed in terms of tools is

  1. a way for a student to use either an SMS service or a simple browser interface to enter responses
  2. a way for teachers to provide prompts/some coding to tie comments to specific parts of the text or questions

I think the only SMS-to-secure-environment tool is ShoutEm, a proprietary microblogging site where you can set up private groups. (Several CMS packages such as Blackboard and Moodle have ways to broadcast text messages to students, but I'm not aware of modules that allow students to submit texts to Bb or Moodle modules. If I'm wrong, please let me know of the modules in comments!) Edmodo is the simplest CMS interface I'm aware of and has a good reputation for K-12; certainly it would be navigable with a smartphone, though there's no SMS-submission route that I'm aware of.

For the tagging/sorting, one could use two possibilities right now, either a hashtag system that a teacher uses tied to prompts or a set of QR-code symbols in the margins (or on a question sheet). QR codes linking to website URLs are reputedly very common in Japan, and if I remember correctly, you can construct QR codes that would start a text message (with the hashtag, yes).

Application: a student in a high school English class could be reading Hamlet at home along with a teacher's question sheet. Suppose the teacher has a list of questions ordered by scene, and I suspect most such sheets would inevitably have a question about the "providence in the fall of a sparrow" speech (act V, scene ii). Say it's the 11th question for that scene. Next to the question is a QR code and below it a hashtag: #hamlet5.2.11. The student opens her cell phone, starts the QR program, and takes a picture of the QR code. The cell phone automatically starts a text message to go to ShoutEm (or someday a CMS that allows incoming texts) with #hamlet5.2.11 already entered as text. She answers the question and sends it off. On the other end, a teacher looks in the entry box (whether it's a microblogging stream or a module inside a CMS). I could imagine teachers doing a lot of different things with the responses (probably starting with a simple sort by hashtag), and my instinct might be to pick a range of responses for a few questions and start out the next day's class with very, very different responses to several questions and asking students to decide who's right.

Or think of an undergraduate cultural anthropology class, where an assignment might require a student to observe a common gathering place on campus or in the community and answer a bunch of questions designed to teach students ethnography skills. Again, the answers could be in the form of microblogging, and that allows a student's growing field notes to be examined by a teacher between notebook-submission rounds.

Those are two possible uses, and they ignore the fact that U.S. cell phone users don't generally have experience with QR codes, QR programs are easier to find for some cell phones than others, and a lot of students do not have either cell phones or home access to the internet. And that raises the issue of ...


One critical question about such dreams is whether people will use the tools at hand, or whether a critical mass of people will. In observing how hundreds of students have responded to technology challenges in college classes in a wide range of ways, I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan that "digital natives" is a dubious concept, and the idea of having students send text messages as way of promoting engagement with text is something to be tested empirically rather than assumed.

First question: are there any such examples? I thought of two possibilities: discussions of Talmudic commentary and Protestant Bible study. It turns out that you can find services that will text you individual  lines from some Bible (if they're 140 characters or less!), but I couldn't find examples of people engaging in SMS textual engagement in the wild (so to speak). That was depressing; if a few long-established commentary/discussion communities had never experimented with SMS commentary (there's plenty of stuff on web pages, just not much microblogging), that didn't bode well for what I had in mind.

So One Book, One Twitter (#1b1t) is another proof-of-concept test, this time with a more highly-motivated group. We'll see (maybe) if #1b1t engages a critical mass of readers, engages them with something more than superficial text, and is a novelty phenomenon or something that gets repeated.

March 7, 2010

Historians' automaticity, part 1

Concerns with science and math education are nothing new, and although the rhetoric today focuses on saving the planet and the economy, the argument for urgent intensification of STEM education is remarkably similar in structure to the Cold War era debates in the 1940s through the early 1960s: our country is in crisis, we need science and technology to solve the crisis, and so we must reform education. A 1959 forum about science and math education at Woods Hole was summarized by Jerome Bruner in The Process of Education (1960), which essentially was an argument about education in the disciplines. (Bruner later was instrumental in creating Man: A Course of Study [MACOS], and fellow Woods Hole conference participant Jerrold Zacharias was a key mover in MIT's Physical Science Study Committee, whose materials were used by my high school physics teacher.)

For a number of reasons, MACOS flopped as a curriculum project, but the central question raised at the 1959 Woods Hole conference remains: what's necessary for students to be successful at learning disciplinary thinking? Several of my colleagues at USF (Will Tyson, Kathy Borman, and others) have been involved in NSF-funded work studying recruitment to and success in undergraduate STEM education, including preparatory math and science work in high school. In lower grades, the National Math Advisory Panel made some suggestions about curriculum in primary and intermediate elementary grades that would be prerequisite for success in algebra, including work with fractions. (Speaking of which, check out this very cool Java Spirograph simulation. Yes, it's connected to fractions... or rather the nature of reciprocal relationships between frequency and wavelength.)

And somewhere along here, along with debates about the purposes of various proposed curricula, we generally get debates about which is more important, procedural fluidity or conceptual understanding. My answer: yes. They are. You need both "content" and "process" (and we'll get to the problem with those terms shortly), and I am generally sympathetic to arguments that getting to the point of automaticity with core skills is a part of getting ahead in conceptual understanding and also needs to be matched by teaching of concepts. (See my entry a few years ago on how to explain the more recent and reasonable NCTM curriculum framework materials.)

But there is something about the term automaticity that itches inside my head, because it sort of gets the idea right but is not entirely persuasive... and the places where it is not persuasive are troubling in a subtle but very important way. Let me explain why I can fluidly pull out material from my memory that looks remarkably like the standard definition of automaticity and yet really isn't like that at all. 

First, a digression: with apologies to Douglas Adams, the process of doing history is almost but not quite entirely unlike what Sam Wineburg describes in his research. Wineburg's writing is appealing to historians because it focuses on precisely the discipline-based processes that Bruner discussed 50 years ago in his book, and Wineburg's message is flattering: "academic historians, you have interesting ways of thinking, and here is what I see as a cognitive researcher and why high school history teachers need to pay much closer attention to what you do." And to be honest, there is some part of his work that has all sorts of interesting detail on the level of nuance and sophistication with which people try to commit history (such as the research on how people from different fields read primary sources about Abraham Lincoln and slavery). But Wineburg is enormously popular because his intended audience has a confirmation bias that leads them (us) to agree with someone who comes along and tells us we're special and intellectual. Wineburg weaves a story of historical thinking's exceptionalism... and there's the rub. As an historian, I'm supposed to be wary of anyone talking about American exceptionalism, and here comes this cognitive psychologist trying to seduce me with glorious tales of my discipline's exceptionalism, how difficult it is to be an historian, and so forth.

Pardon me, but I'll take the interesting cognitive questions without the side dish of (probably unintentional) pandering. A good bit of Wineburg's efforts have been to parse out how people read primary sources, and they generally focus on the level of ambiguity people read into primary sources: ambiguity about intent, background, effect, and so forth. And that's all fine and good except for two problems: Wineburg's work in this vein has generally been with adults, and they generally ignore the process participants use to put the primary source in context. The second is the part that troubles me most as a teacher, because the place where students in my undergrad history of education class first fall down is typically in putting a primary source in a broader context. It's not the most difficult task I put before students: usually the most difficult task in the semester is asking students to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue. But the difficulty of putting material in a broader context is a fundamental barrier to success in my class.

That sounds remarkably like students who are not yet at the level of history automaticity, whatever that might mean, and one would be tempted to refer to Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's argument from the late 1980s, that American teenagers don't know enough history. But focusing on factual recall is begging the question: what does it mean to have sufficiently fluid mastery of history to put a primary document in context? Something about factual recall is helpful, but is that enough, and is that what successful students do? 

It might be helpful to explain the type of task that is not hard for students: confronting people whose glib brutality stands out of the page. That characterizes the very first primary source I use in my undergrad history class (printed in Jim Fraser's education history primary-source collection), instructions from the London Virginia Council to the colony's governor in 1636. It reads in part,

And if you find it convenient, we think it reasonable you first remove... [Native American children] from their ... priests by a surprise of them all and detain their prisoners... [and] we pronounce it not cruelty nor breach of charity to deal more sharply with [the priests] and to proceed even to dash with these murderers of souls and sacrificers of gods' images to the devil...

With 17th century texts, the first challenge is simply to understand what the source says, and that's a bit of skill in language, but the students usually figure out this passage soon enough, and their eyes open a bit wider: the official supervisors of the colony sitting in England were telling the colonial governor to kidnap Native American children and beat (or kill) the elders. That type of detail sticks with students, because it engages their emotions and sense of what a society is supposed to be doing (as well as what colonists did). It's not that any student is exactly surprised that English colonists in Virginia were patronizing and occasionally brutal, but there is something that takes them aback in the casual way which which colonists and English elite discussed their goals. 

I wish that all of history was that engaging, but that's just not true, and there is a good bit of background context that students need to pull out to put any primary source in context, and when you get to material whose explicit text is boring but is still important, students cannot rely on the immediately-engaging story to "get it." Instead, most primary sources require a student to identify at least one salient context that is not immediately apparent, and they need to be able to identify a relevant context (or more than one) without a huge amount of effort. If there is an "automaticity" to a professional historian's thinking, it is that: where does this primary source or other detail fit in a large scheme?

That larger scheme can start with "issues of the day," whatever the time and place. To be successful, you need to know what was happening at about the time of the primary source/event. You start with the year, go back and forth a few years, and think about possible connections. So when you look at the last of Horace Mann's annual reports on the state of education in Massachusetts (in 1848) and read the following passage, what pops out as contemporary and possibly relevant?

Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor in different classes are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor in the same class are essentially fraternal.

That's from the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. So when I ask a class about the relevant context, some students look at servility and suggest slavery as an issue, point out that Mann was writing for an audience in the North, or ask whether Mann was anti-slavery. (No one in my classes has mentioned the compromise of 1850, but that would fit with this tentative reach for context.) Few of them would have heard of Eric Foner's book on free-labor ideology, but I can probe a bit: slavery's part of the picture, at least in rhetoric, but there's something else there. What were some of the concepts used in the North to discuss slavery? I wish that probe worked more frequently than it does, so I usually point out the "different classes" phrase and ask what else was happening in the U.S. in the 19th century. At least one student usually mentions industrialization. So what's Mann arguing, I follow up? More faces light up at that point.

Part of the problem here is that Mann's argument is too familiar, a little too close to a human-capital argument for students to realize how new this was. (Maris Vinovkis credits Mann with that early human-capital argument.) Part of it is also that students don't have a visceral sense of the simmering conflicts in Northern cities, even after hearing about the religious conflicts in Boston in 1836 or Philadelphia in 1844 (the latter so-called "Bible riot"). Because all of that was also related to social class, industrialization, and immigration, I can almost feel Mann's sense of urgency here in promoting mass education ("common schools") as a cure-all for social conflict. But most students usually can't. The prose is too prosaic and the context insufficiently emotional to engage students in the same way that happens in response to the "kidnap the kids and eliminate the elders" instructions from the 17th century.

There's an additional layer to this context, because 1848 is a signal year in European history: revolutions galore and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To a literate, well-connected American, Europe was dissolving in chaos in 1847 and 1848. What could prevent the U.S. from doing the same? There is no evidence I am aware of that Mann was explicitly referring to European events, but it would have been in the air in the same way that natural disasters are "in the air" around the globe today after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Even if he was not consciously constructing the passage above to respond to European events, it would have resonated more for someone concerned about social stability in 1848. 

There is nothing special about what I do in class: I take a simple question of context to push students about the importance of something Horace Mann wrote. And there is nothing particularly hard about asking what else was happening at the time. But while it's an easy task for me, this task flummoxes a lot of students. That task of pulling relevant context out of one's memory is the closest thing I can think of for the historian's automaticity, and looking for contemporary events and issues is the most obvious (but not the only) way to cut the issue. One might want to call this type of context affinity in time. I can think of other affinities which I might explore in other entries, but the key thing here is that this task is extraordinarily difficult for students. 

Why this is difficult is an interesting, substantive question beyond the usual "fact-process" dualism. You need a mastery of chronology to pull context out of your head, but to build that mastery you need a way to put the details into your head in a way that's not "one damned thing after another"--i.e., a mental scheme. And while I wish I could look inside my head to see what my internal schemes are, I suspect any attempt at reflection is going to fall far short. I suppose one metaphor might be a "thick" timeline of issues and events and trends inside my head, so that when someone says, "1848," I can think of a bunch of things (as described above). Or if someone tells you that the Little Rock crisis was in fall of 1957, you just might think of Sputnik and ask whether there might be a Cold War context to Eisenhower's decision to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and send in the 101st Airborne.

In addition, you need to be able to filter out nonsalient issues. What else was going on in 1957? Let's see: the Ford Thunderbird that year was a particularly popular "muscle" car. And the Dodgers were planning to move away from Brooklyn. The Communist party won elections in the Indian state of Kerala. ABC started national broadcast distribution of American Bandstand. On the Road was published. You can find more details at the 1957 Wikipedia page, but going to an almanac-style "here's what happened" listing is an incredibly inefficient way to put something in context. But to be honest, I wish I had the problem of students who found too many potential contexts where I had to suggest filtering. Usually the problem is a lack of candidate hypotheses about context.

February 7, 2010

Peer reviewing, redux and redux

I regularly attempt some form of student peer review process for short writing assignments and am regularly frustrated with the inadequacy of the process--inevitably someone falls down on the job either in terms of participating in peer review or submitting draft work or providing advice that is counterproductive... and leaves an awkward gap and a reasonable question by students: "Do I follow my classmates' advice if I'm not sure it's wise?" That's the reaction that gets me to suspend peer reviewing for a semester or two and restructure. Yet I keep returning to it because there is value in having students look at a range of actual work and think about their own work in comparison.

In odd moments over the past few weeks I've been thinking about a different structure, focused less on providing written feedback and more on just comparing a sample of assigned writing. To give the exercise some meaning (and motivation), I've been thinking about incorporating student judgment into the grades for the assignments. (The idea is that if student ratings or rankings make a difference to peers, they will take the process more seriously.)

That's nice in theory, but how do you do that in practice in a way that is fair and does not provide perverse incentives (with students' having a reason to rate peers either high or low in some fashion)? (Please don't tell me not to grade: I'm not at UC Santa Cruz or New College!) That took me in some interesting directions, through some psychophysics literature (Thurstone's "law of comparative judgments"), some folks named Bradley, Terry, and Mallow (and Kenneth Arrow's preference/voting paradox), and eventually into BCS football rankings and the international chess fideration ranking system. Because I did some of my reading late at night, and some of this is far out of my comfort zone, my brain was hurting at several points, but I think I have stumbled onto something that is simple enough to administer, consistent with how I'd like to look at the inclusion of student judgment, and gives students a structure that is easy to respond to and gives them a reason to be honest in expressing judgments.

Again, that's in theory. It'll probably be the end of 2010 before I know whether I'm completely bonkers or if it's workable.

January 23, 2010

Ebook readers and markets

At the beginning of the month, one of The Big Things at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the proliferation of electronic readers (or ebook readers), and as someone who bought a Sony ebook reader a few years ago for work purposes, I have a few thoughts that are different from the standard speculation you can find online.

I bought the Sony (a PRS-505 for the geeks) because I needed a device to hold article MSS for Education Policy Analysis Archives so I could squirrel myself and it away somewhere without distraction. Then I started carting student papers around in it, and then tried downloading articles onto it, as well as a few books for pleasure reading. It certainly served its main purpose for me, with a small but important exception.

The major weakness of the Sony for my purpose was displays of tables and figures, which tend to be important in professional research papers. Since the Sony's size mimics the mass-market paperback size, it cannot display a regular 8.5x11 (or similarly-sized A4) page without reformatting it. Reflowable text is beautiful, but reflowed tables are gibberish. The Sony's handling of PDF allows a sideways-display of half a page, but that still produces fairly tiny text and is disastrous if the midpoint of a page is not the logical breaking point for a display. Even with text-only PDFs, the reformatting to text-only is awkward, and often does not work for two-column pieces. For professionals who have similar needs, the larger-format devices are mandatory for most work purposes.

The other issue that would determine future purchases is annotation. I would like to be able to comment on student papers using a device. With my current device, I can read papers but cannot comment on them. For a variety of reasons, doing so on a computer is workable but awkward (at least for me). And moreso, the point is not annotation but creating annotations that I can share with students when I return papers. I don't know whether the annotation systems available on some devices attach notes to the documents in ways that can be shared, but an annotation system that is private, just for me, is a deal-breaker. I contacted the Entourage Edge folks, and they say that the scribbled notes on PDF documents would be added to the documents (and thus can be given back to students), but not typed notes. That'll do as a minimum.  I haven't heard whether the other large-format ereaders have (or will have) similar capacity. And of course there are the two major question marks in the near-term future, the Apple tablet and the Notion Ink Adam. I mention those two because an Apple tablet that's modeled on the iPhone will have multitouch zooming (extraordinarily helpful for reading figures) and the Adam looks like it will be the first tablet with a PixelQi screen. I've heard that the Edge may have a very good shot at education markets in Asia, but an Apple or a PixelQi tablet with sharable annotation would be very appealing to me. On the other hand, if a tablet has no documentation annotation I can share, it's not practical for me.

I am not typical of e-book reader users in general, but I am typical of some. The discussion I've read thus far too often ignores the likely fragmentation of the potential market for ebook readers and tablets and the way that people might think about and use the devices. Manufacturers and software developers are obviously making bets about which devices and software will capture enough segments to be profitable (and sustainable). Maybe we should think about these market segments as potentially "thick" in some commercial sense (likely to sustain either a type of device or a type of product) or "thin" (not likely to sustain a commercial enterprise).  (Okay, I'm using the "long tail" metaphor here.) Amazon clearly went for profiting on the device rather than a printer-and-cartridge system, and that was evidently a correct judge of the market (especially customers who had become used to heavily-discounted books from Amazon). Jeff Bezos benefited from Sony going first; in technology, sometimes being the second mover is the big advantage. Who knows if the creators of the Skiff reader or various hardware or software alternatives will hit a thick-enough segment? 

Some clearly amateur thoughts on this:

  • Someone aiming for customers who read primarily fiction and nonfiction in the "bestseller" categories need a smoothly-functioning catalog of books but not necessarily a huge title list or a large part of that segment. If you doubt me, guess what proportion of books is sold in airport shops and other non-bookstore retail outlets and then find documentation of whether you were correct. 
  • A multipurpose device (such as what Apple's tablet is likely to be) needs to be easy to use in its central apps. It does not need to have an enormous feature set to be commercially successful, and an open SDK will help the apps develop. This gives Apple a substantial advantage in tablets, though someone working with Android might catch up in terms of a singularly beautiful design.
  • Something that is more aimed at a niche, such as the Entourage Edge or the Skiff reader, needs to be head and shoulders above competition in doing its job well or the niche needs to be larger than expected.
  • Alternative for niche devices: be incredibly inexpensive and incredibly consumer-friendly.

November 7, 2009

Avoid the interrupting, comma

One more bit of advice to students this afternoon: If you wish to write forceful sentences, do not be a writer, who places a comma between the subject, and verb of a sentence, nor between parts of a compound verb or noun with, only two items, nor in the middle of, a prepositional phrase. (Remove the underlined commas and reread.)

Doctoral students and Ph.D.s tend to be addicted to the dual comma interruptus, but other students appear to have a habit with the single, self-pleasuring comma. 

Do not use dictionary definitions in papers, unless you're writing a paper about dictionaries

A word of advice to all students: in almost every subject, no matter what some teacher told you years ago, do not ever waste your time or words repeating a dictionary definition in an academic paper. Whatever Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Webster's successors wrote down is descriptive, not authoritative, and almost certainly it is useless for the argument you wish to make. There are obvious exceptions (philology, etymology, etc.), but I have never seen a paper where a dictionary definition serves any purpose other than to motivate my tooth-grinding. 

October 17, 2009

New grading routine attempt... and why Blackboard 8 continues to be horrible

I need to crack down on myself today and spend all of it grading and doing other teaching-related tasks. Now that I have figured out an awful, awkward, arguably arbitrary workaround for an incredibly stupid usability problem with the Blackboard 8 Grade Center,* I know how students can access feedback I upload and can be confident that the students in my online class can access it. Yes, we're in the middle of the semester, and I had asked for some help with this weeks ago. But I don't blame the tech-support professionals at USF much, given that a power outage a few weeks ago crashed a disk with a key CMS database. Given that massive failure, Blackboard's ordinary, predictable stupidies are minor. And I usually can figure out workarounds myself.

In any case, the new routine over the past week: spend some time at the beginning of grading providing intense, line-editing feedback on a short passage for each paper in a batch. Take a break, and then read, provide feedback, and grade the substance of the entire paper. Yes, this is a standard writing across the curriculum division of writing vs. content feedback, except that I have a very hard time stopping myself from line editing everywhere. So let me see if this separation of tasks works for my time and my students.

* First, the Blackboard 8 Writing Center makes it very hard to upload files with feedback. In the Writing Center, you have to know to right-click in a cell, click on "Grade Details," wait for another page to load, know to click the "View Details" link in the middle-right of the screen, and then upload a file. Repeat for every student.

In addition, Blackboard 8 does not provide automatic links from a student's individual grade to the page where you can upload a file with feedback. Instead, students have to go back to the original assignment, click "View/Complete," wait for another page to load, and know to click "OK," the button that usually returns you to the prior page in BB but here sends you to a page where you can access a file that your instructor uploads.

And because many faculty who set deadlines for assignments ask Blackboard to make the original assignment link invisible after the deadline, my workaround is to modify the assignment entry so that it has a new title with the phrase now graded at the end and so that it is visible to students again.

Oh, yes, and because of the structure of the database with assignments, Blackboard does not allow instructors to create a folder labeled "Graded assignments" and move the assignment entry-points into that new folder. Noooooo... that would be logical, helpful to students, easy for instructors. Therefore, Blackboard makes it impossible.

Next predictable stupidity: Blackboard 9 and accessibility, since BB9 just expands the Javascript unpredictable-flickerable-on-mouseover feature from Grade Center to everything. The evidence on BB's understanding of Section 508 (and that's from 2008--I couldn't find anything more recent) is not impressive.

September 30, 2009

Looking forward to reading midterms

A few minutes ago, I finished preparing the midterm for my undergraduate history of education class, and I am looking forward to reading student responses.

For this semester, I decided to write a midterm that was entirely focused on historical documents in the form of primary-source identification items. The task for each item requires that students identify the item, place it in time (reasonably close), provide a little bit of close reading, and then explain at least two dimensions of broader historical significance. At the beginning of the semester, I was hoping that having this structure would encourage students to focus on the primary sources, and I think it is working reasonably well. But we will all see for certain after class tomorrow.

I am also shoving the midterm as close to the beginning of the semester as I can (this is our sixth week), so students have at least two key grades before the drop deadline. 

I think next week I will ask students what they've thought of the pace thus far in the semester. Because of a number of events this month, my sense of time is all messed up, and I have no solid feel for student perceptions. My rational guess based on prior experience is that students might feel a little rushed now but might appreciate the midterm timing later in October, as other assignments begin to pile up.  But that's why I need to ask; it's a guess and not firm knowledge.

September 17, 2009

Serious science toy for the International Year of Astronomy: the Galileoscope

Galileoscope (not the ones in my house)

I wasn't going to mention it here until I got my hands on it, but the two Galileoscopes I ordered in the summer finally made their way to my house yesterday, so I can now tell you all: they're shipping! They're real! One is for us and the other is for a young man we hope to surprise with it (and not upset his parents by giving him an excuse to stay up far, far too late, as well as insisting that they drive him somewhere without light pollution).

These 25x telescopes were designed for the International Year of Astronomy (2009) to have much better optics than telescopes of similar cost ($20 per for small orders), and while I cannot vouch for their qualities (yet!), I am definitely looking forward to putting this together, putting it on a tripod, and looking up at the sky this winter (when Floridians can stargaze with some reliability). The people who are behind this project are dearly hoping that this will give kids all over the world an experience that helps teach them science and inspires some to go into science. I hope they're right!

The following is an image of the moon through a prototype of the Galileoscope:

A great site for astronomy photos if you can't stargaze today: APOD, or the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Today's is absolutely amazing (and that's going to be true no matter when you read this entry).

September 15, 2009

Reality-check request

I have what should be a more long-lasting podcast that I'm starting for both of my classes this semester. It'll be a set of historical perspectives on education news, and it should be public-access, though it's hosted on a walled-garden CMS. Right now there are three podcasts, and I'd appreciate if someone could try to add it to your podcast aggregator (whether iTunes or something else) and let me know if you can grab the episodes.

August 22, 2009

H1N1-motivated (and very brief) reviews of CamStudio, Captivate, and Elluminate

Preparation is better than panic, or so they say. With questions about the expected wave of H1N1 infections this fall and winter, my administration is trying to gently prod faculty into thinking about what might happen if 30-40% of students in a class are infected and absent. (Well, I'd hope they're absent if they're infectious.) While I've heard from one colleague who thinks that the admin is being unreasonable, at least my first impression is that they're not being heavy-handed (and certainly not as heavy-handed as a "gee, that's a lawyerly rather than educational" response over the summer to FERPA complaints, but I think the faculty will solve the latter problem quickly, now that the fall's upon us). One issue is the question of whether and how to adjust attendance policies (see the quick survey responses of about 100 USF faculty here). Another is the issue of making material available to students. Students would like classroom capture, and apart from the fact that the technology isn't there yet for a lot of situations, we need to address some intellectual-property issues before that becomes widespread.

But then there's distance education. Hi, Margaret! For many classes it is far from the ideal, but it may be a backstop in case H1N1 develops a more virulent strain (and here, virulent might well mean "upchucking for a day, followed by fevers, chills, and no capacity to read or do work for a week" rather than high mortality). At USF, as at many places, staff in many places are already skeletal, and it's the spread of H1N1 through staff more than students that could cause a university to close for a week or two.

So... what's a faculty member to do? One week? "Let's see where we are when we reopen" is as good for a short-term flu-related closure as hurricane/earthquake closure. More than two weeks?  Hmmn... the options there are mixed. Today, while preparing a few things for a class I designed to be online, I tried out the latest versions of three technologies, one geared for tutorials (CamStudio's capture/narrative of Things You Do While Computing), one geared for one-way presentations (Captivate, which has some interactive features but is probably most quickly learned as a way to narrate presentations), and one geared for recording live online sessions (Elluminate, which has a tool [Elluminate Publish] that can export the recording to mp3, mp4, etc.).

CamStudio: Best for tutorials. I suppose this might be modified to work for an MST3K version of commentary on video, but I'd recommend other software for that. Nothing else, I think.

Captivate: Produces a very slick Flash file, and if you have a decent microphone, it'll work fine for one-way presentations sure to put your students to sleep, which they might need anyway with the flu. I happened to be using my onboard mic inside my office, and until I discovered a way to improve a pop screen for the computer's built-in mic, my recordings were echoey, harsh, and POPoPOPped far too much.  Pop screen workaround: multi-folded kleenex over the tiny hole leading to the mic's diaphram. Now the recordings were just echoey and harsh. Much better. The interface is relatively easy to master, but I found it very clunky to use, in part because when I talk to students I am talking to real, live students, not to a hole on the top margin of the inside of the laptop's clamshell. For those who point to the inestimable Scott Simon as the paragon of radio storytelling, I can only say, Scott Simon is also talking to real, live human beings, the recording engineers in the studio!

Elluminate is a clunkyish way of connecting to students live, while everyone is miles away. I spoke with two students using it today and used Elluminate's publishing tool to turn a test recording into an mp3, an mp4, and a few other items whose purpose I couldn't quite figure out. The benefit: Ah, real students who can respond, ask questions, and keep me feeling a little as if I'm not alone in the world! The cost: oh, the pain of audio compression! Ugh. It's bad enough when you have a crackly connection and you know you're coping because, well, you have to cope. But while my voice in the Captivate Flash file was uncomfortable to hear, at least it didn't have the type of quality you'd associate with mid-20th century AM nighttime radio bounced off the ionosphere. 

My personal plans if USF closes for any reason this semester? Captivate for anything I really want to record (and figure out how to work that without feeling like I'm talking to a computer), Elluminate for connecting with students who know how to log into our CMS and almost nothing else, and then pray that students start to learn how to use Skype.

July 19, 2009

Exam reflections

Today I finished grading my summer class finals. USF's Blackboard installation is throwing a hissy fit when I try to upload the grades, and it's Sunday, so I'll wait for the tech wizards to straighten things out early in the week. In the meantime, since my brain is fried, I'll repeat a few thoughts I've had while grading in the last few days (memory of thoughts more than active thinking at the moment):

  • My individualized questions worked (I had quoted early-paper passages back to students and asked them to rethink their ideas): I had some wonderfully thoughtful responses that I strongly doubt they would have written without confronting their own writing.
  • Ah... one more benefit to using mail-merge so I could create individualized exams: student names on each page, so if one tears off, I don't have to identify it by process of elimination.
  • Looks like the rubric-on-every-page experiment worked to save me time/energy, and a few students obviously were reading them. (Each page of the exam had a single question, space for a longish paragraph, and then explicit scoring criteria at the bottom.) Not as many as I expected, but I think I'll keep this as well. Maybe use it for weekly quizzes...
  • Why did so many of them forget to cite sources on this question but not others?
  • This was obviously an easy question if you had done the reading and slow death if you hadn't. Glad that was my desire.
  • Oh, I need to e-mail those authors and tell them what the students learned from reading the pieces (respectively).
  • I'm glad I placed that question at the end of the exam: a few students tried to bluff their way through earlier questions, but this one showed who had read the stuff or paid attention in the review session. It's not as though I didn't telegraph the question sufficiently, but I was worried that I had made it too easy to answer this without having done the reading. I guess I was wrong!
I have the class's papers queued up on my ebook reader for the next week, to juggle along with other tasks. And when I've taken short breaks this weekend, I've started to fantasize about a large class on education policy--how to build in co-teaching, create a model that would sustain some graduate student involvement, and possibly put it online (and appropriately so). Oh, yes, and make it fun. Possibly idle hallucinations while trying to read all sorts of handwriting, but we'll see.

June 28, 2009

The purpose of seminars/discussion

I'm at THATcamp this weekend and having a great deal of fun. (Check the Twitter archive for tweets with the #thatcamp tag...) But there is a lot of serious stuff here, and I was hoping that it would confirm or undermine the way I'm currently thinking about the problems of teaching online. The demography of the group doesn't quite give me enough of that reality check, since I'm in the minority as an experienced teacher; the majority of attendees are graduate students, staff members at one of the digital humanities centers in the country, or library/museum staff, but it still was a first shot at this. 

No disconfirmation in the relevant session, but it's honed the way I'm thinking about the purposes of a seminar or discussion. What many great humanities discussions share is the entree into and development of skills in a specific discourse and in "academicizing" more generally (to borrow a term from Stanley Fish). In memorable humanities discussions, teachers model analysis and establish an environment within which students can learn and practice close reading, the identification of key issues in a disciplinary or interdisciplinary context, the articulation of critical perspectives, and engagement in a dicursive community. 

Several characteristics of face-to-face classes contribute to that: the ability of a teacher to take any issue and analyze it extemporaneously, the ability to annotate material for everyone present (if verbally), the probing of assertions with either questions or counterarguments, and the capacity to revise arguments on the spot.

There are online tools for some of this, if without the immediacy. Diigo is a great social annotation tool; while it's not the type of immediacy that happens in close readings in class, I have some anecdotal evidence that it can be powerful for students. Teachers could take issues that pop up in discussion boards and expand upon them by modeling analysis and should probably be careful to construct prompts that set the stage for that. And I've been thinking about requiring weekly recorded fishbowl sessions with small numbers of students in my fall online class, as a way to generate some immediacy in the engagement.

In other words, no great insights, but the honing itself is important. And it required a bunch of people who are very comfortable online getting together face-to-face to bat around some ideas. There was an ironic moment in the session related to that fact: One staff member from the Center for History and New Media left the room just before the session to address some technical issues. I started moderating, and we generated a list of functions for seminars and discussions in general. She returned to the room, and as she started to talk a few minutes later, she said, "I'm sorry if this was mentioned before... I wasn't here at the beginning of the session."

June 23, 2009

Being paid to sit in a/c

As Notorious Ph.D. wrote at the end of last week, most nine-month faculty do not get a vacation in summer but are just unemployed and often still have to work. Some such folks have plenty of resources to tide them over until the fall, others have a salary that is stretched out over twelve months, and yet others are paid fairly pitifully. I'm in none of those categories, having a salary that's well below the average for rank and discipline but higher than the median U.S. salary and considerably higher than the average wages through human history. I also have a paid teaching gig this summer, one course, and for most of yesterday from about 8 am until 9 pm, I was reading papers or engaged in various class logistics. Last week, any time not in class was spent on union work or a teaching workshop for high-school history teachers on the Spanish Civil War and American involvement in it. The latter is a far cry from a Teaching American History project, but it gives me a taste of what the best of workshops can be like.

This morning is one of those days when I had a substantial incentive to get to campus early: when I woke up, the temperatures were already in the mid-80s (F.). Right now, the weather station at Tampa International is recording 85 F. with 82% relative humidity. I keep telling myself that at least the sauna is free, and the driver of the car parked next to mine this morning added, "In the north, you have to shovel stuff." For the record, 82% humidity in mid-80s temperatures is darned close to shovelworthy, but not yet.

So I'm in my office, and with luck I'll be able to grade some straggler student papers before class. Because of last week's workshop and a whole set of other things, I'm behinder than usual on other matters. And if you think the third-to-last word in the previous sentence is not in fact a word, you may not have been reading a slew of student papers recently, and you might be one of those language mavens who would like to bury the student body, preferably next to Jimmy Hoffa (apologies to Strunk and White).

May 28, 2009

OCD in collaboration

I spent some time this afternoon working with colleagues in a teaching-like context (planning a weeklong summer workshop), and while we had talked about a number of possible ways to run the week, it wasn't until one of us brought in a grid of the week divided into days and hours that we started to flesh it out. We now have most of the week sketched out, including accommodations for when one of us is unavailable because of prior commitments. 

This level of planning is essential because it's hard to think about portioning out 30 hours in a single week in collaboration with others (yeah, yeah--assistant principals and head nurses are ridiculing me as they read). But we're cooperating. Thus far, only one of us at a time is heading off on a tangent, and we are politely taking our turns at being distracted.

At least the project is a blast. It's one of those outside activities with a nominal stipend where I don't really want to figure out my hourly wage for it, but it's one of the most worthwhile extra projects I've done in many years. Yes, you'll all find out about it in due time, since the work products will go public sometime in the next year.

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.

May 8, 2009

Does 416 have southern or northern exposure??

Yes, folks, it's the time when having been incredibly inefficient/distracted thus far this week, I finally have cleared enough from my plate to focus on organizing my summer class. I have been pondering bits and pieces of critical stuff for a few weeks, and it's time to crack down and finish updating the syllabus. This is an undergraduate class I've taught oodles of times before and we offer semi-oodles sections of it every semester, so it should be a simple update-and-be-done job, but I've switched around several readings, I'm having all sorts of thoughts on redesigning some parts of my section to have enough wasabi for the wasabi-loving students and still have enough sweet cumin for the ... oh, shoot. Forget the badly-constructed metaphors. I'll leave it as "I want to enjoy the class a little more and need to think explicitly about how to do that and help students a little more as well." I've just looked up the room # and have promptly forgotten whether EDU 416 has northern or southern exposure. My building complex (insert bad psychodynamic joke here) has rather random room assignments, so the even room number doesn't tell me anything. This matters, dear readers, though it's a morning class. I am teaching in Tampa in the summer.

I know what I'm ditching, though: the movie-preview-like introduction of class books the first 3 minutes of the first day of class. A sort-of-cute metaphor for the start of classes when I adopted it (when Don LaFontaine was alive), I think I can move on. More importantly, I need to reconstruct the first minutes of the term if I want to reframe how students look at the class. The simulated case/problem has more layers this year than we've had in the past, and the fundamental goal of any subtle redesign for me has to give students a reason to care about the case and connect it with everything else they're learning. I wish I'd had more time to think about this in the last month, but I'll take what I can, and I look forward to meeting the students on Tuesday morning!

February 15, 2009

Propagation of the rock-star professor myth

A few weeks ago, I worried about how the distribution of lectures on iTunes was promoting the idea of higher education as lecture. Along comes Academic Earth, which is collecting what appears to be the most charismatic of the iTunes professors. On the one hand, there are some wonderful lecturers, this is a great advertisement for good lecturing, and it sets the standard for what we should be doing when we choose to lecture.

On the other hand, this propagates the idea of the student as a voyeur, someone who watches a charismatic (generally male) teacher rather than works with the material. A class is not a lecture, and iTunes does not currently showcase great discussions and cannot showcase your personal experience in a class.

Richard Ludlow's project (and its showcasing of lecturing) is great as a small taste, a teaser for college that could democratize the appetite for a good class. But if it's not quite Don LaFontaine's voice (the trailer for Quantum Physics: "In a world where matter appears and disappears faster than you can observe it..."), it's still not the whole experience. 

See also Stephen Downes's concern about Academic Earth's reliance on U.S. faculty.

January 13, 2009

Where is the bureaucracy reenactor crowd?

In the past few months, I have been struggling with how to teach a difficult topic: bureaucracy. It's not hard to enter the topic with a class; everyone experiences bureaucracy in ways that they can talk about at one level. Generally, I find that students absorb notions of street-level bureaucrats, scripts about "real school," and loosely-coupled systems. And one of the most popular books I assign is about bureaucracy: Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia. Especially for current school administrators, bureaucracy can be a very attractive topic.

But at another level, a bureaucracy is hard to learn. Though we experience the status games that Weber discusses, and though most adults spend months and years learning the tacit knowledge that Polanyi has described, I know relatively few friends and colleagues who can reliably describe the weird ways that bureaucracies work.

It's not that people don't theorize, but that their theories are often two-dimensional: bureaucracies always behave a certain way, at least in many of the explanations I hear. But that's not a legitimate generalization. Large organizations have repertoires of behavior, and the choices of individuals matter. The truth is somewhere between guessing the psychology of individual administrators and making cookie-cutter pictures of school bureaucracies.

There are two common errors I have observed in the lay perspective on bureaucracy, even from people who work within them. First is an inattention to the interplay of explicit and tacit knowledge, an inattention to the relationship between formal rules and the inevitable discretion in applying them. At universities, this is often played out in arguments about what an accrediting body will or will not call a university on the carpet about. Some things are no-brainers: if news reports show that an institution is the victim of massive financial fraud and mismanagement, an accrediting body will almost inevitably place the institution on probation. But the rules are often more flexible than what a reader may assume. So while my regional accrediting body requires that college teachers have a masters degree with 18 hours in the instructional area, institutions (usually department heads) can certify an individual as qualified without meeting that requirement. Too many such exceptions will raise red flags, but not the occasional one.

At other times, people confuse the discretionary authority of administrators with what is politically or financially possible. In many universities, for example, there is a political balancing act between a provost's office and departments. While in theory many a provost can overrule every department recommendation on tenure and promotion, in few cases will university administrators ignore recommendations that come from both the tenured faculty and a department chair. If the recommendation is to deny tenure, few provosts want to discourage what they perceive as higher standards. And if a provost consistently denies tenure to faculty that are recommended for approval at the department level, there will also be a political price to pay. 

A related error is inattention to institutional routines. I recently read the novel manuscript of a friend, and while I loved the plot, I winced whenever the author confused jails with prisons, swapped police and sheriffs' deputies, ignored the existence of continuances, and so forth. I do not read many mysteries these days, and when I have, I have usually enjoyed the Agatha Christie more than police procedurals. But there is something about the details of institutional behavior that matters to me.

I suppose I am the bureaucratic equivalent of a Civil War reenactor: I have an acquired instinct for institutional behavior and can spot inaccuracies faster than you can say thin slice. I have no idea where I acquired it, and I am not sure how to teach it or if one can teach it at all. But that knowledge should be teachable, because many of the problems that frustrate parents on a day-to-day basis is bureaucratic behavior. "They're just unfair" is an understandable reaction to events, but neither despair nor screaming at principals (or threatening lawsuits) will get your child the best opportunities, or at least not without considerable cost.

January 1, 2009

Creative Commons and the First Sale Doctrine

To all my readers, Happy New Year!

Over at Open Content, David Wiley has a fascinating legal puzzle for us to ponder: does the First Sale doctrine undermine the Creative Commons licensing system? I suspect the answer is no from a practical basis because the First Sale doctrine only applies to individual copies of works. But I hope the folks at the Volokh Conspiracy or Crooked Timber take it up.

December 15, 2008

Grading highs

I have a bunch of odds and ends to finish before submitting grades, but I read two papers this morning that earned very high grades in different ways. I'll explain more after I'm done, but it was a great way to start the week. The rest of this week is for grading, EPAA stuff (yes, authors, I know I owe you e-mail!), and a bunch of loose ends to tie up on the new collective bargaining agreement. Next week, the university is closed, which is both good and bad, but no one can complain about the state of my office next week. As of now, I hope everyone understands that finishing the semester is the most urgent task.

September 23, 2008

Critical thinking and cultural work

I have another hour or so of work to do before bed, out of a combination of weekend-long computer woes, an uncooperative body, scheduling near-misses, and a delayed plane. But as a result of Michael Bérubé's visit this week, I've been thinking about What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and his discussion of his classes. I know that his explicit intention is to show how a liberal professor can teach (and usually does teach) literature without using it as an excuse to propagandize, because the other issues swamp anything that might stem from a professor-as-policy-liberal as opposed to a professor-as-procedural-and-intellectual-liberal.

But there are a bunch of other things in there, and one of them is how classroom discussion is cultural work. A seminar discussion about The Rise of Silas Lapham involves a great deal of give and take between students and faculty and among students. I get the sense from reading Bérubé that he works very hard to engage students and push them to think, about the book and related ideas about literature and humanity.  And students work hard as well. I suppose somebody might say that they're engaged in critical thinking, but that's wrong on several levels. At one level, it's wrong from the perspective of cognitive psychologists who have tried but failed to identify the modules that are connected to this mysterious entity. That doesn't mean that there is no such thing as critical thinking but that it may not be what we think it is, or we have to look at it differently. 

So, back to the students who are struggling to grasp what a Penn State English professor is saying. He's pushing them to examine the implications of Silas's ethical choices, force them (the students, readers) to decide what's right and wrong, to make connections. And they begin to (or so MB describes, and I have no reason to doubt his account). It's not a brilliant eureka moment that stems from cognitive growth, or at least not in any coherent sense that my friends the cognitivists can point to. But there is something going on, in the classroom space that has discussion, open questions, leading questions, pushy questions, pushback, and occasionally silence. Hundreds of thousands of students go through that process each semester; they may not go through it with Silas, and their epiphanies may not be original except to them and their classmates, but in the type of classroom that I hope all of us experience at least once, they do a type of work that can only happen in or with groups: cultural work.

Yeah, yeah, Peter McLaren wrote that a few decades ago, I know: the classroom is a performance space. But I mean something a bit deeper and more problematic: some of the best opportunities for cultural work is in a functional, engaging classroom. For a whole variety of reasons I won't go into detail about, beyond cognitive psychology, I am very skeptical of broad generalized claims about critical thinking when posed as a cognitive-psychology question. Usually, that turns the college curriculum into a sort of faculty-psychology jungle gym, much as the 1824 Yale Report claimed in its defense of a curriculum. But there is stuff going on in a good liberal-arts classroom, and that's inherently hard to capture because cultural work can simultaneously be local and universal, even at the mundane level of the individual, personalized classroom discussions that are going on about Moby Dick this fall, not at one university but at hundreds. To put it in a concrete sense, there are probably hundreds of students in different high schools, colleges, and universities who are talking this week about the fact that "The Cassock" (chapter 95, I think) is about the disposal/use of the whale's penis and foreskin, either giggling or being taken aback at it. Widepsread, but very personal and local. 

I think this cultural work is what distinguishes a liberal-arts college from lots of other educational experiences. I think it is why the Amethyst Initiative signatories are disproportionately from liberal-arts colleges: Despite the research suggesting how the 21 age threshold for alcohol saves lives, and in addition to the legal/political liability issues, liberal-arts college presidents are less devoted to a certain definition of "cognitive thinking" than to a common sense that college is for discursive, social learning. 

I have still been unable to find a work by an anthropologist of education who studies the type of cultural work that happens in college seminars. So maybe instead of hoping that an anthropologist of education takes this up, I'll issue a challenge instead to cognitive psychologists: surely you can do better than my social-science history-ish writing in capturing the cultural work that happens inside seminar classes, of finding more specific and narrow stuff rather than the global claims of "critical thinking" might suggest.

July 31, 2008

Waiting for one last paper... and panicking about the end of summer

I'm almost at the end of reading/grading for my summer class. I have one student's paper left to receive, and then I'll be done. In the meantime, I'll upload the rest of the material in a secure part of Blackboard hidden from students for the moment and then work on an article manuscript that should have been published yesterday (mostly my fault) and should be up today or tomorrow, with luck. I have another entry I've been working on late at night or early in the morning that I'll finish soon, but it will have to wait.

In the next week I need to write/submit AERA proposals, turn to a few writing projects I've been promising colleagues, other matters ... yikes. I need a to-do list, and I haven't had a chance to breathe/reflect for a few weeks. I've got a bunch of things starting August 9 as well, including the back-to-school stuff with my children. My brain wants to think about other matters (I think I know where the shopping bug comes from), but I need to return it to logistics.

July 29, 2008

Strata game development: it's my family's fault

For the record, all I did was create a game to engage students in talking about education policy. But my daughter suggested we play it, even in draft form. Here's what I learned from that first round of playtesting:

  • The basic game is playable.
  • Everyone started inventing stories for their families, and my son (who was given the poorest family) complained about how unfair life was... until his family's children did well in the first round.
  • Game pieces exist for a reason: it's a headache to keep track of a game's state-space on a notepad
  • More generally, do not create a board game that requires a calculator or a spreadsheet
  • I now understand the role of Monopoly's chance and community chest cards -- to introduce shocks into the gameplay without having to change the regular rules.
I've simplified some of the rules and added a set of "change-agent" cards to be drawn each round. Half of the cards do nothing. Some of the other cards determine economic circumstances (long boom, boom-and-bust, depression), a few change the circumstances of either the wealthiest or poorest families, there's a forced vote on a tax cut (everyone gets a bit more money, but with a tradeoff in educational quality for the next turn or two), and a few cards give players the option to propose rule changes for the entire game. Oh, yes, and one of my children suggested a card for a social revolution and purge, with players exchanging families (the poorest and wealthiest players change families, then the 2nd poorest and wealthiest, and so forth). They've enjoyed games like Guillotine, my son has played nation/culture-strategy games such as Cyber Nations, and they may have come to the table expecting some dramatic turn of events. So for the record, the idea of a revolution and purge is not my idea.

While thinking about and drafting the game in the last week or so, I've come across a number of discussions about using nation/culture-strategy games in history classes, such as using historical war tactics games, Civilization modifications (or mods for short), or other teacher-selected/created simulations, or requiring that students create simulation games. Civilization or SimCity are good in thinking about resource limits, but I'm wondering if there are other structures for the type of history class I would teach (specifically, history of education), where decisions are in between the individual/family and the society-wide. (Strata is for an interdisciplinary class.)

July 27, 2008

Strata, the game

Today, I'm in limbo: I finished my summer class with an all-day session yesterday, but the papers aren't due until tomorrow at noon, so I have a day to recuperate from being on my feet for 8 hours. (I also picked up my daughter from the airport, and we waited around for a while because the ground crew isn't allowed on the tarmac to unload luggage if there is lightning within a few miles, so I didn't get home until about 8 pm or so.)

I have a few odds and ends I can get off the table today, until the rush hits. I need to prepare the next EPAA article, though the next one shouldn't be too hard, and I could finish the basic prep work tomorrow morning. I also have a few mini-projects for the fall classes: the basic story for our undergraduate social foundations case (each year, we create a new dilemma for teachers in the fictional town of Anchovy), the historical case for my undergrad history of ed class, and something I'm going with my online class: a game.

The point of this is less the gameplay than the discussion around the game -- since the class will be asynchronous, I need to generate discussion about education policy that gets students well out of their comfort zone. This has been a consistent concern of mine since I first taught the class some years ago. The idea is to create gameplay that includes several key topics in the class (the roles of schools, meritocratic assumptions, stratification models, etc.--all familiar in social foundations) but is flexible enough for (a) me to run it as a minor part of my teaching time and (b) people to imbue the gameplay with different meanings (and thus generate open discussion).

The storyline is simple: small groups of students will control the key decisions of families (one family per group), and I will tell them that their goal is to maximize the wealth of their familly. Every round, they'll be voting as a class on basic education policy (distribution of educational opportunity in a very simplistic manner), and then the families will make decisions about additional investments (if they can afford it -- each family will begin with different amounts of wealth and the proportion of family members with high school or college degrees). I'm not yet sure how to translate education policy and the additional investments into the next step, but students will then have to perform some task (probably a quiz on that week's reading), which will be translated into the families' new adult educational attainment. And then, depending on the economic environment, the families' prior wealth and cumulative educational attainment will translate into each family's assets at the end of the round.

And then the next round begins...

I've figured out the hard part mechanically: coming up with formulas for different economic conditions (a boom, a bust, steady growth, and stagnation). I suspect education policy and family investments in "tutoring" will translate into certain conditions on the reading quiz, but that will take care of itself. After 4-5 weeks, I will probably offer the class a chance to change a number of rules by vote... but with the possibility that wealthier families could bribe the GM to veto the class choice. And then a little over halfway through the semester, I will restart the game and give the entire class an opportunity to rewrite the rules before they know what families they're in or what the initial conditions are. (Yes, there's an explicit parallel to John Rawls here.)

I hope this is the right structure: students make two decisions each week (voting on one policy question, making a family decision about additional investments), take a quiz, and then see the family's attainment and wealth status at the end of the week. That's not much in terms of game play, deliberately, but the outcomes are unpredictable (in part because of their actions and in part because the economic circumstances will change every week). The vote and the investment decision will be an opportunity for discussion, and the quiz should encourage members of a "family" to help each other. And then the opportunities later to change the rules... well, we'll see.

In looking for a name, I thought about the layering involved here: the way that initial conditions (distribution of wealth and educational attainment) have consequences for later rounds, the deliberate stratification of initial conditions, and the layering of discussion on top of gameplay (I hope). For some reason, I looked at food. I first thought of strudel, but the twists... nah. Just not layered. Kugel is more of a pudding and lasagne: no. Just not "lasagne" as a title for a social foundations game. Then my wife told me of the bread-and-vegetable layer baked dish called strata. Even the name fits the meaning!

So Strata, the game, it is.

July 8, 2008

Mike Rose kicks ----

Tired of Professor X's dissing students who "don't belong" in college? Read Mike Rose's post about Teaching Remedial Writing, and then you'll understand a tiny piece of why I find his writing engaging and exciting. And this is the pedestrian version of Rose's writing, the relatively uncooked blog entry that even uses utilize. To see his polished prose, try his website.

June 22, 2008

History games

While my fall teaching schedule may change, I am currently slated to teach the undergraduate history of ed course I last taught in spring 2007. That semester's class worked well enough, but I want to raise the level of engagement with key issues, and I've been thinking about constructing games around key tasks in a history class. This thinking has also been inspired by Ivanhoe and by the discussion of casual games in liberal-arts education.

In a state university, the challenge for the course I teach is reaching students with a much more diverse background than in a small liberal-arts college. I don't mean demographic diversity but educational diversity: Far fewer will have had experiences with analyzing primary sources or constructing/struggling with historical arguments. Many are in there to knock out a gen-ed requirement, and so I have to "sell" the course. (I have to sell the social foundations course to students as well, but I figured that one out more than a decade ago.) Carole Srole's argument about scaffolding historical skills even for majors is an important contribution, and I've been mulling how to combine conceptual tasks and a game- or puzzle-like environment. The idea is to put some of the skill-building into team exercises that don't contribute to grades but do have a reason for students to stay engaged an work collaboratively.

I quickly figured out one game to build skills in paying attention to voice and other primary-source details. This is a "bluff the classmate" activity patterned after the "Bluff the Listener" challenge on NPR's Wait Wait! Don't tell me!, and with one caveat, it looks pretty good: give teams primary documents and a week to construct two fake documents. They get points for every other team that incorrectly identifies the real document, and other teams get points for correctly identifying the real document. The caveat is the ethical question: how do I explain/debrief on why it's okay to play around with fake primary sources in class but not in papers or published works? And how seriously should I be concerned about this?

There are a whole host of other skills and tasks that I'm keeping in the back of my head, hoping for games/puzzles to match up againt them: causal arguments, counterfactual reasoning, the difference between biases and perspectives (or maybe a spectrum of how one's perspective influences memory and portrayal), identifying underlying social models, identifying underlying assumptions about change/stasis/trends, and others. Suggestions are welcome!

June 18, 2008

Mental drops in a scattered morning

Some odd thoughts this morning as I catch up on a bunch of things (but probably not enough):

  • The key difference between great colloquial writing and great formal writing is how efficient the formal writing is. There are some vocabulary differences (colloquial writing uses slang, while formal writing generally avoids it), but too many undergraduate and graduate students misunderstand formality as syllable-counting. There is some difference in the complexity of sentences, but too many students misunderstand formality as a greater density of adverbs, commas, and semicolons. Great colloquial writing uses stories and extended metaphors and welcomes tangents. Great formal writing illustrates and uses metaphors to teach, not to distract. Great colloquial writing invites the reader into a conversation. Great formal writing leads the reader by the eyeballs. The greatest writers can shift between colloquial and formal without readers' noticing. The rest of us mortals must be more careful.
  • Reporting on education research is too close to tourism and too far away from analysis. I see too many articles that describe a single study, report, or brief without any context. I wish I had an easy solution to this. Newspapers could refuse to print anything on research unless there is a "here's the context" piece that passes a good reporter's sniff test on reasonableness. The fifteen-minute sniff test that a reporter can try with any press release that claims the research is the "first" or "only" anything: go to Google Scholar. Use a half-dozen search terms. See if that research really is the first of its kind.
  • Birthdays close to Father's Day are good for my sanity, but not great for completing work-related tasks. The world gave me a pretty good birthday this year, ending with an exciting finish to the Cubs-Rays game I took my son to. (Is it just Tropicana Stadium, or are fans in baseball stadiums far more racially homogeneous than when I was a child?) It wasn't as good a day for the world as in 1991, when South Africa repealed its Population Registration Act, but it certainly beat an attack on democracy in 1972 (Watergate break-in) and sheer weirdness in 1994 (the interminable car "chase" of O.J. Simpson leading to his arrest).
  • I need a working time machine to help me with my workload. Unfortunately, my search on eBay didn't turn up much of practical value.
  • The last two paragraphs were examples of (not-great) colloquial writing. So is this.

June 8, 2008

Feeling lazy at 9:30 am

I must be too-well socialized: I'm reading my daughter's book manuscript this morning, but I'll probably leave the house shortly to get some work done on Education Policy Analysis Archives and then reading and grading papers. Yesterday's class documented two things for me: I had planned enough for an entire day of teaching, and it's been 9 years since I've done that. That is, students grumbled a bit as we went a few minutes overtime (I'll figure out how to make up for that), and I collapsed after I came home. And my spouse had no sympathy for me, since she's taught full days for 13 years of her life, the last 6 in special education.

This morning, I woke up to find that our finches were mad (short, sharp vocalizing instead of singing). My wife and I had no clue why they were mad since they had fresh water and millet, and she had opened "their" sliding-glass door so they could hear the birds outside. That usually sparks some active singing, but it didn't. (The finches also like opera, especially coloratura arias.) Apparently, the younger finch had been mad at us last night. So I said hello and started exercising, which apparently satisfied the older guy, since he started singing. But the younger one was still grumpy (I think from lack of sleep, though I'm sure I anthropomorphize). He cheered up only when I did some shoulder rolls (as in whole-body rolls over a shoulder). Since birds are in very bad shape when lying on the ground, watching human exercises such as crunches or rolls must be the bird equivalent of going to horror movies: "He's on the ground and still alive: it's a giant food-bringer zombie!!!" And the nice thing about rolls is that if you do five or six of them in a row, you get much the same feeling as if you had been on a turn-you-upside-down roller coaster, all without the sunburn or entrance fees of theme parks.

On second thought, maybe the finches are just laughing at us when we exercise, an entertaining break from their efforts at redecorating. For now, I'll finish reading this chapter and then head off to work.

June 2, 2008

Do not copy and paste

This morning (or at least now), I am reviewing the syllabus for the course that starts this Saturday. In reality, the term began last month, but we are meeting for the first time on Saturday. I sent the students several e-mails over the past few weeks after uploading the syllabus to the relevant Blackboard (ick! I know) page. I also gave students an opportunity to note errors or omissions from the syllabus, with an incentive that is meaningful to at least several students. So today, I finish the minor revisions on the syllabus based on feedback (version 1.1) and upload it. (For students who read my blog, don't worry: I just changed the last assignment to a 50-page paper requiring original research. Just kidding!)

Revising the syllabus also gave me the chance to look at my standard "class policies" language before I create syllabi for the fall. I've decided I very much like the advice I give on avoiding plagiarism:

If you are not sure what the standard is for online materials, maybe a rule of thumb will help for this course: Do not copy and paste. Do not copy and paste without citing at all: that is plagiarism. Do not copy and paste, fail to put in quotation marks, but put the author(s) and publication date in parentheses: that is awful citation mechanics. Do not copy and paste, put in quotation marks, and cite properly, because you are wasting precious space. I do not grade students for how well they quote sources. The highest grades are earned by thoughtful evaluation and synthesis. You cannot meet that standard by copying and pasting.

I know that teachers sometimes socialize students into the string-the-quotations-together school of writing a research paper, but a paper where 60% is quoted material drives me bonkers. If they cared about improving their writing, students would understand they need to avoid quoting. What feedback do students want on weak papers: "Next time, pick better quotations"?

Addendum: Yes, I will be cleaning up the colloquial language for the fall. You now see the warts in the current version.

May 24, 2008

May progress notes

All May birthdays and the anniversary are now done, all but two of the musical events are done, and one of the two belt tests are done. We know roughly how many faculty are being laid off at my university (very few, which is good, but many staff, which is bad). I'm far behind on many things, but given that it's May and a May with budget cut plans, it could have been much worse on many fronts.

Thus far, plans for the June-July course are apace, and I'll soon have a sense of whether the logistical innovation I'm trying will change the dynamics of a graduate class with working professionals. I'm giving students a limited amount of "leave time" they need to accrue before they can use it to skip class time (roughly up to 8-9% of the total semester time). This switches attendance from an orientation I fear will remind them of undergraduate classes (lose too much, and you drop grades) to something they know in a professional context: you get leave time you can use any time you want, but you have to accrue it before you can use it. (I'm using things like taking quizzes early, spotting omissions or errors in the syllabus, and answering classmates' questions as ways to reward students for helping the class run smoothly.) Students still cannot pass the class if they miss half of the time, but they can take time off after earning the leave. There are other things I have planned that I'm excited about, but that's all speculative. From watching things thus far, it looks like accruing leave time is motivating a core group of students already, even though we haven't met.

Note: My thanks to CCPhysicist, whose comment on my last entry about policy (and specifically an interesting extension of Bayesian probability to matching personal judgments to predictions about a population's judgment) gives me some ideas on my own classes. There are apparently a range of techniques that try to match personal judgments to predictions of a population (e.g., the information pump technique) and now a paper called A Truth-Serum for Non-Bayesians. I love discovering and learning about this, but I have things I need to do... ah, intellectual distractions.

May 19, 2008

On not beating around the bush in the classroom

Is there anyone else who winced at the following sentences from the Atlantic Professor X column, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower?
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them....

I knew that Ms. L.'s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn't tell her that she wasn't ready for an introductory English class.

Is there anyone else who thinks that English comp classes need to require writing from the very first week, and that faculty need to be proactive in taking students aside early where appropriate and telling them forthrightly that unless you do X and Y, you will probably fail the class? Beating around the bush talking about "skills deficits" (in the case of Ms. L., "computer-skills deficits") does not explain "the seriousness of the situation, the student's jaw-dropping lack of ability, without being judgmental." It's just beating around the bush.

And for the larger argument of the article, I will just advise that everyone read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which addresses many of the same issues in much more depth and with far more compassion.

May 11, 2008

Sterility or psychodrama vs. untimed engagement or intellectual drama

Margaret Soltan is not a Luddite—far from it, she has used her University Diaries blog to become one of American academic letters' premier public intellectuals. But as an observer of college life, she has a well-reasoned hatred of what she calls technolust. She regularly links to stories about students who abuse cell phones and laptops in class and professors who abuse students with PowerPoint. Her argument is that at its best, the classroom is the best environment for the drama of learning, and that technology is too tempting a draw for poor teaching:

...my focus is not on occasional courses in which clever and restrained use of this and other visual technologies makes a better class. My focus is on student (and other audience) response to PowerPoint in general, and on the clear trend toward the overuse of this technology and other technologies in settings in which direct human interaction should be primary. [emphasis added]
I assume that she is working off the same mental model of intensive interactions that's in my head: you walk into class, and you cannot wait to see what ideas suddenly come into conflict, which people realize what's happened to the ideas they've always held, and who change their minds as you watch and participate! ("Survivor" and other reality shows have nothing on a great seminar, because involvement of the audience on a "reality" show is vicarious at best.) To Soltan, presentation software, clickers, and online course management systems are the processed carbs of higher education: easy to digest, but not very nutritious. [The extension of this metaphor to identify academic equivalents of fiber, proteins, fats, and MSG is left as an exercise for the reader, who should instead read Howard Becker's warning about metaphors in Writing for the Social Scientist.]

The reality of instruction is far more diluted: even in a small seminar, the great, life-changing moments are rare. To her credit, Soltan recognizes that but holds up the ideal as the standard against which parallel-play* online classes, reading from PowerPoint slides, and constant-clicker lectures are found wanting. No shinola, Sherman. Take the worst from any format and it will be found wanting against the best of another format. The worst of online classes is the electronic equivalent of a correspondence class, where students proceed at their own pace in their personalized and isolated bubbles, at best watching their peers in an adult form of parallel play. The worst of either bad PowerPoint or bad clicker-based lecturing is a sterile reading of bullet point and faux interactivity. But the worst of in-class drama would also cause Soltan to cringe: the unprepared/psychodrama professor leading her or his students through a semester's equivalent of drowning in emotions, an academic waterboarding.

Maybe a better comparison is among the everyday exchanges in a highly-competent class taught in different formats. In the hands of a skilled lecturer, a PowerPoint or a clicker is a tool used to keep the class engaged, not a crutch for bad teaching. For decades, Bryn Mawr professor Brunhilde Ridgeway kept her beginning archaeology classes engaged with the old set of lantern slides, chugging through centuries of sculpture until, just as she was pointing out the development of articulated knees carved in Greek funerary sculpture, onscreen would appear Magic Johnson, larger than life, running downcourt with... superbly articulated knees. Everyone laughed, the point was carved in our brains, and she moved on. No one took her class expecting to fall asleep, and I suspect today's skilled equivalents of Bruni Ridgeway use PowerPoint stacks in similar ways.

The everyday exchange in a competently-run small discussion class is what Soltan claims it is, an intellectual drama. The adrenaline isn't pumping every minute, but even when the tension ebbs, there is always a flow, a set of themes that the faculty member reinforces through the term, the possibility of a quick turn of thought, a sudden connection with material remembered from several weeks before, and regularly a softly-spoken "aha!" that marks a minor epiphany.

The problem with online education is not that you can find bad online classes, because you can run a poor class in any environment. The problem with online education is that we don't have a strong sense of what broad engagement looks like online. I've been struggling with this issue for some time. When I can make the class synchronous (an awful term implying that we're somehow in our bathing caps and in an Olympic pool), there is some drama that helps, but synchronous online classes have to be pretty small to work well with equipment commonly available. Asynchronously? There's the great challenge, and the fact that I don't have an answer may mean that Margaret Soltan is right: Maybe there is no way to engage students consistently in an online class that doesn't have a live (synchronous) component.

But I suspect that there is a way to have an engaging intellectual exchange online. The terms social presence and transactional distance are awkward ways of talking about how to engage students outside a live setting. It would not be the same thing as a face-to-face seminar, but it may have some compensating advantages: the student who participates more when she or he has more time to think through a response, or the working parent who is able to take the class and thereby injects a mature perspective that changes the way 20-year-old classmates think about the world. Those changes are more likely when the message comes from a peer instead of a teacher. It would not be the live intellectual drama that Soltan and I value, but it would not necessarily be of lesser value.

I am certainly not There yet. I am not sure if anyone is in terms of deliberate course design, though I am certain it appears in spots and for some students. But it is incorrect to assume that distance education is technolust just because faculty are not practiced in a relatively new format in the same way that they can be in a centuries-old format.

Sterility or psychodrama vs. untimed engagement or intellectual drama

Margaret Soltan is not a Luddite—far from it, she has used her University Diaries blog to become one of American academic letters' premier public intellectuals. But as an observer of college life, she has a well-reasoned hatred of what she calls technolust. She regularly links to stories about students who abuse cell phones and laptops in class and professors who abuse students with PowerPoint. Her argument is that at its best, the classroom is the best environment for the drama of learning, and that technology is too tempting a draw for poor teaching:

...my focus is not on occasional courses in which clever and restrained use of this and other visual technologies makes a better class. My focus is on student (and other audience) response to PowerPoint in general, and on the clear trend toward the overuse of this technology and other technologies in settings in which direct human interaction should be primary. [emphasis added]
I assume that she is working off the same mental model of intensive interactions that's in my head: you walk into class, and you cannot wait to see what ideas suddenly come into conflict, which people realize what's happened to the ideas they've always held, and who change their minds as you watch and participate! ("Survivor" and other reality shows have nothing on a great seminar, because involvement of the audience on a "reality" show is vicarious at best.) To Soltan, presentation software, clickers, and online course management systems are the processed carbs of higher education: easy to digest, but not very nutritious. [The extension of this metaphor to identify academic equivalents of fiber, proteins, fats, and MSG is left as an exercise for the reader, who should instead read Howard Becker's warning about metaphors in Writing for the Social Scientist.]

The reality of instruction is far more diluted: even in a small seminar, the great, life-changing moments are rare. To her credit, Soltan recognizes that but holds up the ideal as the standard against which parallel-play* online classes, reading from PowerPoint slides, and constant-clicker lectures are found wanting. No shinola, Sherman. Take the worst from any format and it will be found wanting against the best of another format. The worst of online classes is the electronic equivalent of a correspondence class, where students proceed at their own pace in their personalized and isolated bubbles, at best watching their peers in an adult form of parallel play. The worst of either bad PowerPoint or bad clicker-based lecturing is a sterile reading of bullet point and faux interactivity. But the worst of in-class drama would also cause Soltan to cringe: the unprepared/psychodrama professor leading her or his students through a semester's equivalent of drowning in emotions, an academic waterboarding.

Maybe a better comparison is among the everyday exchanges in a highly-competent class taught in different formats. In the hands of a skilled lecturer, a PowerPoint or a clicker is a tool used to keep the class engaged, not a crutch for bad teaching. For decades, Bryn Mawr professor Brunhilde Ridgeway kept her beginning archaeology classes engaged with the old set of lantern slides, chugging through centuries of sculpture until, just as she was pointing out the development of articulated knees carved in Greek funerary sculpture, onscreen would appear Magic Johnson, larger than life, running downcourt with... superbly articulated knees. Everyone laughed, the point was carved in our brains, and she moved on. No one took her class expecting to fall asleep, and I suspect today's skilled equivalents of Bruni Ridgeway use PowerPoint stacks in similar ways.

The everyday exchange in a competently-run small discussion class is what Soltan claims it is, an intellectual drama. The adrenaline isn't pumping every minute, but even when the tension ebbs, there is always a flow, a set of themes that the faculty member reinforces through the term, the possibility of a quick turn of thought, a sudden connection with material remembered from several weeks before, and regularly a softly-spoken "aha!" that marks a minor epiphany.

The problem with online education is not that you can find bad online classes, because you can run a poor class in any environment. The problem with online education is that we don't have a strong sense of what broad engagement looks like online. I've been struggling with this issue for some time. When I can make the class synchronous (an awful term implying that we're somehow in our bathing caps and in an Olympic pool), there is some drama that helps, but synchronous online classes have to be pretty small to work well with equipment commonly available. Asynchronously? There's the great challenge, and the fact that I don't have an answer may mean that Margaret Soltan is right: Maybe there is no way to engage students consistently in an online class that doesn't have a live (synchronous) component.

But I suspect that there is a way to have an engaging intellectual exchange online. The terms social presence and transactional distance are awkward ways of talking about how to engage students outside a live setting. It would not be the same thing as a face-to-face seminar, but it may have some compensating advantages: the student who participates more when she or he has more time to think through a response, or the working parent who is able to take the class and thereby injects a mature perspective that changes the way 20-year-old classmates think about the world. Those changes are more likely when the message comes from a peer instead of a teacher. It would not be the live intellectual drama that Soltan and I value, but it would not necessarily be of lesser value.

I am certainly not There yet. I am not sure if anyone is in terms of deliberate course design, though I am certain it appears in spots and for some students. But it is incorrect to assume that distance education is technolust just because faculty are not practiced in a relatively new format in the same way that they can be in a centuries-old format.

May 7, 2008

Summer syllabus finalized

In between bits and pieces of other things, I've finalized the syllabus for the class I start teaching in June. This is a topics course on education reform (history and social-science perspectives on), and I probably didn't take many risks in setting up the summer course. We'll just see how it goes. Four books in common, one independently chosen and read... I'm fairly happy with how I'm using the gap between the fourth and fifth class sessions, but that's before we get into the course. There are a few other ways I'm trying to manage the time (all-day class sessions), and I hope it keeps student interest and motivation high.

And I'm trying an avatar before the course. (If you can't see the Flash avatar box below, you'll have to click through to the entry on my webpage to see it.) We'll see how it goes...


April 21, 2008

College graduation

The new Ed Sector report by Kevin Carey, Graduation Rate Watch, summarizes some of the material available from the IPEDS 6-year graduation measures for four-year colleges and universities. The main point is that there are vast differences within different higher-ed sectors not only in 6-year graduation stats but also Black-White differences in graduation. He correctly points out that some institutions such as Florida State have programs that appear at first glance to provide substantial support to first-generation college students, support that increases the likelihood of graduating.

Kudos: the interesting slice of IPEDS rates, with the appropriate hedges/caveats; the nod to Vincent Tinto's work; the acknowledgment of Cliff Adelman's suggestion for improving the IPEDS measures; the observation that U.S. News & World Report rankings largely diss graduation rates as ways to distinguish institutions; the recommendation that financial aid be shifted away from its merit-based emphasis today and back towards means-testing; the observation that funding enrollment does not provide a strong incentive for retention programs.

Kumquats: the continued push for a national unit records database. I think that's the only DOA suggestion in a compact, complex report. I may disagree with some other ideas, but the report on the whole is thoughtful and presents issues in a clear way. I might want a bit more use of the current college-retention literature, but I can't point to specifics because that's outside my area of expertise.

Some broader issues that complicate efforts to increase undergraduate graduation:

  • A large proportion of college students are in community colleges, and programs that focus on first-time-in-college students at universities are great... and limited to that sector of higher education.
  • Part-time students are a serious puzzle in terms of retention and even measurement. In many states, part-time students have a much harder time getting aid (in part because they are often older, and in part because of minimal-credit requirements). They also have competing obligations, are on campus less frequently, etc. I love older students in my classes for very selfish reasons (they are more mature, they help teach their classmates simply by being there and talking about their lives), but I'm not sure who has cracked the practical challenges that part-time students present for themselves and for their colleges.
  • Health crises can turn a student with marginal success into a student who has dropped out, and young adults are among the least likely Americans to have adequate health insurance.
  • Institutional pecking orders are hard to pinpoint, and they can shift rapidly: witness Florida, where reduced funding is pushing most of the state's public universities into being far more selective. My guess is that graduation rates will rise in 4-5 years, but while some institutions (including mine) are figuring out how some concrete steps to increase student success, some part of that will be a selection effect. So making comparisons with "peer institutions" may be a difficult enterprise.
  • Measures focused on undergraduates make it somewhat more difficult for graduate-focused institutions in any incentive system. States need to be flexible and negotiate the systems with institutions, or they are likely to provide odd advantages to some institutions over others, advantages that will only be discovered after the fact.
And those are the issues that are apparent to me without knowing the higher-ed attrition/retention/graduation literature. There is one faculty colleague at USF who focuses on higher-ed attrition, and there are IR gurus for whom this is an occupational focus, so I do have local resources... now I really need that Time-Turner. But for now, it's 11:30 pm, and I still need to provide feedback on a student thesis...

April 20, 2008

Sketching a course 6

Habits and experience
Today I'm trying desperately to finish a paper that is far too late. Part of the delay is the craziness that is my professional and union life, but another part is that I am delving into two subjects that I have not been diligent in keeping up with. I am keenly interested in them, but they are on the margins of my main research interests, and when one's time is short...

The consequence is that I now have to play catch-up. If I weren't pressed for time in other ways, I would enjoy this process more, because over my life I have repeatedly been required to undergo a "drink from the firehose" experience in reading. It is an exhausting short-term experience, and it challenges me to engage all sorts of skills simultaneously, with the mental effect nothing quite so much like keeping a number of balls in the air at the same time. No, not juggling balls: more like a lit torch, a chef's knife, a soap bubble, and a ceramic bowl filled with yogurt. All of them. If you can keep them up there, it's quite a thrill.

Usually, graduate students have these experiences in high-stakes environments, as major papers at the end of a course. Or, rather, if they do have drink-from-the-firehose feelings, they're not likely to be successful. Is there a way to give them that experience in a strongly positive sense, with far lower stakes?

In more mundane news, I've been suckered into a new exercise regime. No, not suckered: quite enjoyable. But it's another thing I need to schedule. Anyone have a working Time-Turner I can borrow?

April 19, 2008

Sketching a course 5

Framing questions as stuff, habits, and experience
Probably the most powerful intellectual experience I had as an undergraduate... or rather the most powerful explicit design of a course I took in my major (history) ... was a course on late medieval/early modern Europe taught by Susan Stuard. She structured the entire course around a single question: what accounts for the rising economic and political power of western Europe by the end of the Renaissance? Each week's reading was a famous piece of European historiography that had a different answer: technology, a reaction to Muslim control of the Mediterranean, an early industrial attempt that failed, the Hanseatic cities as a crucial cluster of merchants, etc. As we accumulated a critical mass of readings, the members of the class began to have much more extensive, in-depth debates about European history, historical explanations of change, what constitutes sufficient evidence, how to shape strong arguments, and so forth.

As I think back on this course and a few others with similar designs, the intellectual experience was a shared one. In other courses, I had my epiphanies and wonderful moments, but this particular class became a cohesive group. Sometimes that's just the dynamic of the particular collection of people involved, idiosyncratic and unrepeatable. But Susan Stuard's framework of the course (as well as the way she ran discussion) was absolutely integral to the development of the class dynamic.

April 18, 2008

Sketching a course 4

Stuff to expose students to

  • Street-level bureaucracy/loosely-coupled systems
  • Arguments over what the links between education and democracy are
Habits etc.
  • Grasping POV within nonfiction
  • Staying with a the development of a complex idea through its nuances
  • Multiple-resolution understanding: Seeing the flowers (details) and the landscape (10,000-foot view) at the same time

April 16, 2008

Open-source textbooks

This morning, Inside Higher Ed has a good article on faculty who write open-source texts. In the end, it'll be faculty decisions that determine whether this is a viable alternative to expensive texts.

April 12, 2008

Sketching a course 3

Habits etc.

  • Reading at multiple levels: for information, for a story, for perspective
  • Evaluation at multiple levels: consistency/logic, newness, accuracy, relevance of questions
  • Writing through multiple drafts
  • Revision with an audience in mind
  • Reading for wonder
  • Writing as joyful
  • Writing as intense
  • Writing to sort through ideas and then present them

April 11, 2008

Sketching a course 2

Stuff to expose students to

  • The difference between the rhetoric of federalism/local control and the (maybe chaotic) reality of education reform (multiple sources)
  • Politicization and education as part of citizenship (multiple sources)
  • Curriculum as projection of values (Kliebard)
  • Finances and reform rhetoric (multiple sources: need an argument more than pat descriptions)

April 9, 2008

Sketching a course 1

In the next few days I need to carve out time for journal editing responsibilities as well as writing a symposium paper I'd promised to be finished by Friday but probably won't be done until next Tuesday or so. (There, Laura! I've made that commitment publicly.) But since I'm waiting for a student to show up in my office, I'll blather a bit about a course I'm creating for the summer on school reform.

Stuff to expose students to
I want to focus on the historical and policy literature on school reform, which overlaps but not entirely. There are a few obvious books to assign (Tyack and Cuban to start off the course, and a choice of DeBray, Manna, or Mcguinn somewhere towards the end: see the Amazon recommendations box on my home page for those), and then I have to figure out how much I want to delve into the contemporary policy literature vs. history. I need to think more about the concepts and less about books... but it's also inherently a reading class.

Habits etc.
One shift I want to encourage in graduate students is to rely less on the mental shortcuts they've accumulated from their experiences and try to use different questions to probe the issues in the class ... and their experiences. This is probably unfair of me, since I teach in an area where I'm using all my own mental shortcuts, but it is my course. Maybe I can challenge them to provide me an experience where I have to give up my mental shortcuts. Hmmn...

The course has a bit of an odd schedule--four day-long classes on Saturdays in June, followed by a day-long Saturday late in July. I need to think about the experience of a complete day in a heavy reading class. And the several weeks' gap in the end. What opportunity does that gap provide?

April 3, 2008

Speedy animation

Done in about two minutes of downtime with K-sketch:

Yes, I'll keep my day job.

March 17, 2008

Complex object creation tools: review needed

With the recent release of new versions for both Omeka and Sophie, I'd love to see some comparative review from both institutional users (e.g., the perspective of someone in charge of a project team) and also individual users (e.g., teachers trying to create content for specific courses or modules).

I'm not saying I'm going to (no time!), but I'd love to see the reviews from both perspectives.  Oh, yes, and while we're at it, how about a review of Inform 7?

March 2, 2008

Ethnography of seminar discussions?

This is a stab in the dark, because my normal routes for searching aren't leading me anywhere, and I want to get this query out there before I forget (and I don't have a "fleeting thoughts" category for the blog): If you know of a good ethnography of seminar discussions in higher ed (either undergrad or graduate), please let me know. Equivalent studies in other disciplines are also relevant (so something in communications that looks like micro-ethnography would certainly qualify).

February 27, 2008

Wherein we become cranky about Bloom's taxonomy and accidentally teach our sharp-tongued son some math

I will admit that I am one of people who grind their teeth when hearing the umpteenth time about Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in the context of planning instruction. In my experience, most people point to it as a source of heuristic advice: how do you design assignments that push students to do more than they thought they could?

But I've also seen people view the taxonomy as Truth Incarnate about Instruction, as a hierarchy of thinking, and that drives me up the wall, as I have written before. Last week, I read something that relied on a Bloom-as-truth assumption, and I began to think, why do humans think in hierarchical terms, even where it is inappropriate? I'll speculate on that in another post, but when I tried to set this up with my adolescent son, he had an interesting counter-argument (apart from trying to argue with me about Bloom, just because he wanted to argue):

Any scheme that is not hierarchical can be converted into a hierarchical scheme.

I tossed out a few examples, such as a circle, a random array, etc., and he handled them all with aplomb, explaining how he would pick a path through each scheme and declared (roughly paraphrased), "If I can pick a path from first to last, then I've created a hierarchy." I didn't argue with him on the difference between an order and a hierarchy, because what he'd just discovered for himself is the notion of a change of variables.

February 13, 2008

How to ask questions of faculty

Once again Cal Newport has solid advice for college students:

Don't be afraid to ask questions when confused in class. Use the following format: <this is my interpretation> + <this is what confused me> + <this is what I want to be clarified>

Yes, yes, yes: don't ask a vague question such as Can you tell me again <topic>? Instead, explain your best understanding, which will help me or my colleagues figure out if you've nailed it, if you're in the ballpark but need some guidance, or if you're out of the ballpark.

January 20, 2008

Turn anything into a lesson, but will it stick?

A friend of mine has done something unusual with the celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday this year. She teaches young adolescents with moderate cognitive disabilities and behavior problems, and this year, she chose King's 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as the basis for a series of lessons in reading, language arts, civics, etc. in the last week or two. She says she wasn't sure how basing a spelling test on a Nobel Prize speech would go over, but she did it anyway.

There's a test of what the students learned beyond the question of whether the speech taught the students some new words. She reported that when she asked the students if they agreed with King's arguments (in favor of "unarmed truth and unconditional love" over militarism), they all said yes... in a week where she had at least a handful of minor conflicts to break up. So perhaps we should say that their understanding of King's message, or maybe their own behavior, is a work in progress.

On the other hand, I'm not sure we're doing much better as a society than my friend's students. We're happy to give King his day, as long as we can ignore his ideas about justice and peace.

Maybe it's time we adults change.

January 14, 2008

Teaching about what humans do

I've been tagged by Craig Smith, who asks, Why Do You Teach and Why Does It Matter? after reading Dr. Crazy's explanation of why she teaches literature. This comes on the heels of Stanley Fish's boldly hedonistic Epistle to Philistines and the expansion on this, last night's Epistle to Dumb-Ass Colleagues. (Okay, the posts were properly called The Uses of the Humanities, parts 1 and 2, but I agree with Margaret Soltan's reading of Fish Epistles I.) Fish's essays are in his typical eliding style, with just enough of substance to frustrate me when he misses the obvious.

And here is one part of the obvious: an academic education requires the study of a variety of disciplines, including science, math, and also what humans do. Understanding "what humans do" requires behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the configuration of disciplines is not carved in stone, a student will get a pretty good education in the culture that humans produce within the humanities. One way to think about the value of any discipline or area is to think about the institutions that leave out the area.

Here is the other part of the obvious: you don't learn how to think in the abstract but in bumping up against ideas in specific contexts. That "bumping up against" phrase is important to me, because you don't learn anything if you are not challenged. Some subjects appear easier to you or me than others, but that perception is about subjects that are under a threshold of difficulty, not the absence of new ideas and challenges. Teachers can make learning easier, but that fact doesn't eliminate the need for challenge. And the specific context matters. As my favorite high school English teacher told us at the beginning of AP English, she taught writing, and she did it in the context of teaching about literature. She also taught us an enormous amount about literature in the course of that year. Even philosophers talk about topics. Care for a casual game of penny-ante Ontology?

In my case, I teach social-science and humanities perspectives on education, with a focus on history and sociology. The majority of my students come to me to fulfill exit requirements or in the midst of pre-professional training that reinforces psychological assumptions, and I have most of them for only one semester. I provide students with an additional set of views, humanities and social-science perspectives to examine schooling. When students leave my classroom, they should be able to explain how people fight over the purposes of schooling and the different models of how schools function as organizations (or don't).

In many ways, I am lucky to be in a field where I get paid for navel-gazing. My neighbors and fellow citizens should want me to teach students who want to teach that the world may not agree with their reasons for teaching or their view of the purpose of schooling; that the world's range of schools includes places that provide a very different education from their own experiences as they grew up; and that the job of teaching involves more than going into a room, shutting the door, and letting the gorgeous lesson plans unfold without interruption or difficulty. That's a fairly practical purpose. There is also the specific example of the argument above: Formal schooling is what humans do today, and studying the social context of formal schooling is a reasonable way to study what humans do.

In addition, when students are in my course, they have to write extensively and coherently about schooling. Over my career, I have taught over 2,000 students. I have taught most of those students at USF, where I have never written a multiple-choice final exam and where I have always required that students write papers. Before my colleagues and I agreed to craft a single paper assignment across all of the undergraduate social-foundations sections, I assigned a "perspectives" paper where I collected sources on two or three recent "hot topics" in education and told my students, "This is not a research paper. I've collected all of the background you should need. Your job is to apply the concepts you have learned in the course to these hot topics." (I gave students the ability to propose a topic of their own choosing, as long as I approved it in the first month of the course. Almost no students took me up on the offer, and as a result, I stopped having students propose topics that focused more on psychology than the topics in my course.) In most cases, the common readings for the course never directly addressed the hot topics, so they couldn't just regurgitate ideas. I was mean! (See the bit about challenges above.)

Some of these assignments were more successful than others. I am still aghast that a few years ago, the majority of students who wrote about the "intelligent-design" controversy in Dover supported teaching it alongside evolution in a science class. I graded them on the merits of the assignment (which is not synonymous with the question of what should be in the curriculum), and then explained my point of view in comments separate from the grading. But I challenge students' beliefs about education, no matter what they carried into the classroom, and I push students to  justify their conclusions with plausible arguments.

And to continue this meme, I tag...

January 12, 2008

Timothy Burke beats me to the punch on interesting learning objects

In his blogging on a conference this week sponsored by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (or NITLE), Timothy Burke has raised the right questions to ask about electronic learning objects that are interactive, information-intense, and based on scholarship and the interests of great teachers:

  • How could they be crafted to change teaching? [W]e're also not pedagogically literate about how to use this kind of material and we don't often create them to be used as the center piece of a small liberal arts class. Suppose I had students look at the Palenque learning object. It's great for giving the students a vivid visual and experiential feel for the place. But ok: it's thus just a supplement to something else that's being used to create discussion-based learning for that session. That's part of the problem with some of these objects: they're supplemental, optional, not just because faculty don't work to enhance their teaching but because that's how they cast themselves. At least some of these objects have to have the character of scholarship, e.g., to have an argument, to enter into the conversation about a particular area of knowledge forcefully, to be knowledge rather than a supplement to knowledge.
  • How do we create/grant professional credit for this? [I]f you build this stuff, you're really building it for external use, as a gift to the world, and usually a gift specifically to institutions and users who are asymmetrically related to the faculty and institutions involved in building digital resources. E.g., to K-12 students, to community colleges, to universities in the developing world, to underresourced colleges. And no matter how much some of my colleagues in history and anthropology may talk the talk of social justice and digital divide, when it gets down to being involved in giving a digital gift, they ask: what's the incentive? Why should I, if that means I won't publish my next monograph in a timely fashion? Who will notice or care if I give a gift of this kind?
  • How do we build sustainable institutional support? Wesleyan has started creating a chargeable model for the activities of the Academic Media Studio, but as Burke notes from the presentation (or rather, as the presenters noted), Scholarly collaboration is not free.

I'm sure I'd be able to figure out at least a few possible answers to these problems, but I'm still struggling with the pedagogical questions, I'm not sure how I'd get credit for it in annual evaluations, and I'd need to write grants to support the time I'd need and the technical folks to implement the solutions.

That last sentence is a joke, dear readers. I'm fairly sure my colleagues would be supportive, and I do have a few ideas for support, but Burke has explained the key barriers.

November 23, 2007

Technology as culture, part 1

When the Honors College asked me to teach one of their lower-division arts/humanities classes this fall, I had two thoughts:

  • If I do run for the leadership of the faculty union chapter, it'll be an interesting semester. (For most faculty, an Honors College class is an overload, not part of the regular load.)
  • I'm in the social-science end of history. What the heck do I teach?

Because the Honors College classes have less structure than courses I normally teach (to wit, the start of this course's description is "An introduction to western arts and letters..."), I had both greater freedom to design my class and somewhat different (and greater) expectations. An introduction to western arts and letters! I'm an Americanist, and my strength really is in social science history. In the end, I decided to design an introduction to culture studies using technology as a centerpiece, using Thomas Misa's From Leonardo to the Internet and David Nye's America as Second Creation as nonfiction books and a few novels to round it out. My students would disagree with my judgment at this point: if/when I teach this again, I'll have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and William Gibson's Neuromancer as the fiction.

Having undergraduates write entries in a group blog about class sessions is working well in the last few semesters, giving me a good sense of what students are responding to. It hasn't worked as well in graduate classes, and perhaps that's a difference in the age of students or the frequency of classes.  But this semester, students' blogging has revealed where students are making connections I was hoping they'd make, where they are making additional connections that delight me, and where I've fallen through in setting up themes of the course.

I set up the first half of the course to undercut the technology-as-progress narrative most students brought into the course. Misa's conceit is that the uses of technology has varied among wealth-producing and wealth-consuming eras and places. But since Misa's first chapter focuses on Leonardo da Vinci, that gave me an avenue to ask questions about Renaissance art. As my friend and colleague Greg McColm reminds me, the cathedral in Florence is an opening to all sorts of topics, from winch technology to blueprints to ... well, the use of perspective in art, given the history of the cathedral dome (with Filippo Brunelleschi, who helped propagate ideas about perspective drawing).

In addition to readings and a few other matters, I made students try their hand at technical drawings of ordinary objects (one student had a mousetrap; I couldn't resist!) and then at perspective drawing, and they had to find a description of how European art acquired perspective. The majority of students found descriptions with a progress narrative. I noted the fact, and over the next month we talked about Misa's central question each chapter (was the technology in question wealth-producing or -consuming?). No connections made back to perspective drawings and the overarching narrative.

So we began reading some cyberpunk as a break between nonfiction books, and we had the completely expected discussion about the genre's being dystopian. Then several students complained that it was disorienting. Okay, I said, time to bring European art back into it (after making a few connections with some of the Misa chapters), and I brought out Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, a painting with multiple perspectives. The students were largely silent while I showed how Cezanne had different vanishing points for different parts of the painting, let alone the non-perspective way of showing depth in the apples themselves. Disorienting, I asked? Er, a little bit, came the general response, but we're familiar with it... though we're sure that it was considered odd at the time!  (That response was expected, though I should have pushed the parallel to the complaints about cyberpunk; are we disoriented whenever we're unfamiliar with a genre's conventions?)

After showing the class how subsequent artists took Cezanne as a springboard for breaking away from perspective, I asked the question I'd been waiting to spring on the class since the first day:

So if early 20th century painters broke away from perspective, why is the Renaissance use of perspective drawings considered progress?

There was a little bit of discussion on that, but not much. So I left class, wondering if I'd see any blogs mentioning it.

It's been several weeks, and not a peep. That part of the course design has now officially flopped. Other things have gone well, fortunately, and the blog entries show that disparate threads in the course are coming together for a number of students. I think I've convinced students that narratives of progress are limited, including with technology (that's a main argument in Nye's book), and while I wish I had nailed the perspective-drawing-progress item, you don't get everything.

November 1, 2007

Social annotation for teaching how to read difficult material

A few days ago, I raved about the possibilities of social annotation. What I barely touched were the teaching purposes of social annotation. Let me provide an example from my masters course in social foundations of education. Below is the root to a discussion thread over the past week on the Seattle and Louisville desegregation cases that the Supreme Court ruled on this spring. The following contains my comments to students, links to the opinions that have my annotations (hold your cursor over the underlined passages to see the annotations), and a few starting questions.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) was as fragmented as the Gratz and Grutter cases. Below are links to the annotated pages of the opinions.

Roberts's opinion is called a plurality because a majority of justices agreed to the decision but only four agreed (Roberts and three others) agreed on the same reasoning; Kennedy agreed with the decision but for his own reasons. This is a particularly difficult set of opinions to read -- in this case, it is Breyer's dissent that is long-winded (not Thomas's), and then the plurality opinion and the concurrences both refer to the dissent.

A few questions:

  • Does this case shut the door on voluntary desegregation? If not, what other options are available?
  • Regardless of whether there are options available in the future, the decision will make districts think three or four times before including racial classifications in formal plans to create more diversity in schools. Is that a good or bad outcome?

In my during-semester survey, a few students offered the following comments about Diigo when asked what had helped them learn in the course:

  • The Diigo annotation technology has made reading the court cases far more enriching. It as though you are in the room while I am reading the cases.... I wish there were a way you could do the same for all the other readings.
  • It really helps to bring clarity to the court cases by reading your comments. I would be confu[s]ed on some judgements or miss important points without the comments. It is the next best thing than [to] sitting in a lecture and discussing interpretations.

Let me be honest: providing this annotation requires a lot of time, and that is time sucked away from other activities (being more proactive on the discussion board, or creating more formal presentations). But I know from prior experience that some readings such as court opinions desperately require some assistance for students, and I was gratified to have my judgment confirmed by students who felt the effort helped them.

October 30, 2007

Social annotation and the marketplace of ideas

David Rothman has a wonderful idea from the growth of social annotation tools and the development of an open e-book format:

How long until savvy writers pester publishers to let them do interactive e-books? -- where readers' comments can appear in relevant places in the texts or elsewhere in the books. Imagine the possibilities for smart nonfiction writers and those in dream-with-me genres like romance fiction.

I am experimenting this semester with using Diigo to show students in one course my annotations on Supreme Court desegregation opinions. I've been able to provide translations of legal terms (certiorari, de jure, de facto, etc.), tell students where they can skip (e.g., issues of standing, which are tangential to the topics at hand for the course), what passages to read in depth, and some questions to think about specific passages.

There is already BookGlutton's idea for Unbound Reader, based on the epub standard. For those wondering what the One Laptop Per Child initiative is for, imagine an eight-year-old reading a copy of a story and seeing and replying to the comments of other eight-year-olds around the world on the same passage. 

For those who wonder about the monetization of this -- how can anyone make money off free books? -- Rothman has an obvious answer:

A community approach is worthwhile in itself, but along the way would reduce losses to piracy. You're less likely to steal from someone whom you and your friends respect. What's more, forum participation could be among the rewards for those who paid voluntarily for books distributed under Creative Commons licenses.

I suspect that savvy musicians think of mp3-sharing in similar ways, and if we're headed back to the days when vinyl records were the a way to get musicians concert gigs, maybe free books are a way to draw people into other ways to remunerate authors. For those in genre fields (romance, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, etc.), midlist authors might find that approach enormously attractive. And those of us in academe? There are some obvious possibilities that appeal to me to provide access to reading but some possibility for revenues where appropriate, such as books that are free online but that carry a Creative Commons license requiring a "binding license" fee, so anyone can read a book but where publishers or copy shops need to pay to distribute bound copies. This idea adds to that imaginary repertoire.

As Rothman notes, this potential requires a standard for annotation to be folded into the next generation of epub standards.

October 13, 2007

Roy Rosenzweig

T. Mills Kelly has the best remembrance of Roy Rosenzweig today. Rosenzweig was a pioneer in digital history who began the Center for History and New Media (see the original page). (Hat tip.)

October 11, 2007

I (heart) The Little Professor

Why I love Miriam Burstein's The Little Professor blog

If you sow dragon's teeth in order to reap soldiers, what do you reap after sowing apostrophes? Editors, maybe?

I needed that, on a day of traveling.

October 10, 2007

Caribbean Frost

In the honors class I'm teaching, I'm trying some without-a-net activities each week to connect technology with social and cultural history. One recent week, I asked students to describe the aesthetics of everyday objects. In a plurality of cases, students discussed the commercial choices involved in consumer-product design--i.e., that the aesthetics are shaped as part of product marketing. (Anyone who has seen Monty Python's Michaelangelo sketch can wonder if perhaps that dynamic holds true in the creation of highbrow culture as well, if in a personal relationship with patrons.)

One of my students chose to examine as one of her two objects a bottle of blue-green nail polish and discovered that its official name is Caribbean Frost (and you can see the colors at Wet n Wild's website, if you wish to confirm this oxymoron). I live in Tampa, north of the Caribbean. It's mid-October, and the high today will be around 90 F. Who do they think they're kidding?

These weekly adventures are worth a small portion of the semester grade, but I hope they're engaging for students, and in some cases students have made some interesting connections. None yet, though, between nail polish and Leonardo da Vinci (where we started the course).

August 27, 2007

Bloggy bon mots

First, from Kevin Carey:

[W]e've reached the point where people are actually arguing, with a straight face, that the real crisis in American education is the shameful neglect--the injustice--of how we educate smart white men.

Next, from Miriam Burstein (aka The Little Professor):

  • Number of leftover bite-sized chocolate cupcakes from yesterday's department picnic consumed this afternoon: 2
  • Number of calories in those cupcakes, thanks to the Laws of Academic Calories: 0
  • Number of books involving cannibalism on the honors comp syllabus: 3

Update: Third, from profgrrrrl:

I miss primal scream -- only my time to scream is no longer the end of the semester. It's the beginning. So:


My accomplishments are far less witty. In the last few days I have dropped one child off at school, finished my syllabi, oriented one online masters class, taught an in-person undergraduate class, procrastinated planning Wednesday's advanced graduate class, picked the other child up from school, come home, helped clean up after a bearded dragon, and eaten chocolate. I am sure I have done other things, and these are all important, but right now I have no capacity for the angry elegance of Carey, Burstein's eye for irony, or profgrrrrl's refreshing honesty [updated].

July 28, 2007

Democracy, justice, and teaching

There's been a fascinating discussion developing in response to Aaron Schutz's review of Jeannie Oakes and John Rogers's Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice (2006). Sometimes comment threads develop in a few hours. This one is still growing after a few months.

July 21, 2007

Why vocabulary makes a difference

Notes on student misunderstandings of vocabulary, and how that affects performance:

  • citation vs. quotation. One is acknowledging one's sources, and the other is using exact passages and making those passages typographically distinct. Some students misunderstood my advice to cite several sources and turned in drafts where more than half of the words were quoted. I think I cleared that one up... and fortunately, one student was honest enough to explain the misunderstanding.
  • argue vs. agree. I think one paper has used argue when agree was meant in the following sentence:  I want to argue with Mr. Quieto about his point that one dropout is too many.

There is nothing for a student to be ashamed of when she or he doesn't know a word. But there are consequences for not clarifying one's understanding or for misusing words.

For the record, these are notes rather than a response to the batch of papers I'm currently reading. I've already come across a paper with a solution in our simulated case that is entirely original and delightfully so.

Reading... but not what you think

Yes, I was at a local bookstore at midnight, getting two copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But I'm in my office this afternoon, reading student papers. I don't get the Harry Potter until I'm done.

In other news, Jeff Solochek reports correctly that I'm now the representative of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform on the Florida DOE's advisory committee looking at the FCAT. I've worked with FCAR co-founder Gloria Pipkin before on a few matters, and I was flattered to receive her request. This is an interesting challenge for me, and Gloria and I took a few steps to make sure that the FCAR board was comfortable with my particular take on accountability.

There are a few things that Solochek didn't get correctly. I don't think of myself as an "FCAT critic" but a critic of the current uses of the FCAT. The conflation of the test with the policy is interesting...

The more serious problem is the way that the Gradebook's thumbnail of my portrait is all fuzzy. You can compare it to the image in the top left corner of this page and see what you think. But I understand the need for thumbnails, and I am here providing a slim, 100-by-100 portrait that should accommodate virtually any blog's storage limits:

Simpsonized Dorn portrait
(after Simpsonization)

Enough silliness.  Back to reading!

July 18, 2007

The discussion glow

I left the classroom for a few minutes this evening, after telling students to arrange themselves in small groups, making sure that each group had at least one member who had read each of the two books I had assigned the class (half to Gilberto Conchas's The Color of Success and half to David Tyack's Seeking Common Ground). When I returned, I found one circle, everyone in it. I raised an eyebrow, maybe asked a question, and sat on a table behind one part of the circle, listening to the group take turns describing the two books, raising questions, comparing the perspectives of the authors, making connections to some other readings in the course, and then making connections to their own school memories, the work some of them do in schools, and the experiences others have had as parents.

I said almost nothing for half an hour, until it was time for break. I didn't need to.

It was a wonderful affirmation of the term on the last class. Thanks, guys!

July 8, 2007

When have you had online "aha" moments reacting to others?

For the first time in five years, my distance-learning course is asynchronous, without a live chat, and this poses an interesting challenge.

Oh, heck, let me be honest: at some level I'm terrified at the prospect of an asynchronous-only class, because my teaching style relies heavily on the timed revelation of material and ideas, commonly in one of the following ways:

  • Getting students to commit themselves to some perspective or a factual or policy position and then reveal information designed to shift their perspective radically; or
  • Intervening in a discussion to push students to rethink their ideas.

When I'm lucky, setting up a discussion allows peers to educate each other (why students who are over 25 are invaluable in my undergraduate classes!). But that still requires interaction in a live context. While students do tell me that my reading assignments often get them to think differently, the live interaction is still crucial to some of the ways I teach.

I won't have that in the fall, and I'm trying to think about the student "aha" experience and asynchronous interaction. So I'm asking my online readers for some personal story: can you remember a specific time when you were reacting to someone else or someone else was reacting to you online, not live, and your perspective on something shifted?  If so, please tell me what it was (hey, you can even link to it!) and what made that aha moment possible?

For those who comment, thank you!!!

June 23, 2007

Travel-time Saturday

Profgrrrrl is off to Thailand for a month. My son and mother are coming back from Arizona, where they spent a week on and around the Colorado River. (My mother just called me from the Houston airport on layover.) I have been grading student work today so I have a little less on my plate when heading to the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference next week.

I'm reasonably well-prepared for this conference (though I'll try to condense the results of my paper down to two sides of a single sheet of paper), and I think I'm prepared for the travel, having acquired my power converter, a set of Koss "the plug" headphones, and having figured out one of the Koss mods. I haven't taken an overnight plane flight since I was in my early 20s, and I'm hoping I get at least a little sleep, as I'll be getting into Copenhagen at 9 am local time, or Middle of the Night, Tampa time.

Is anyone else heading somewhere interesting this week?

June 13, 2007


Practical question to my 2.71828183... readers: has anyone used YackPack for classwork? I'm realizing that for the first time in 5 years, I'll be teaching a course distance-learning without live chats, or at least without having to wrench each week upside down for students or me in doing so. Our LMS (Blackboard) doesn't even have icons/avatars in the discussion boards to duplicate even a faux kind of social presence. Assuming no student has a hearing impairment (at which point I switch everything around), YackPack could be a way to make social connections in a course with plenty of hot topics and disagreements in a class.

But I'd love to know if anyone's experimented with it.

June 5, 2007

K-12 teachers of history need close-reading skills

Over the weekend, the American Historical Association Council Endorsed the National Council for History Education's Statement on Teacher Qualifications. Among the better parts of the statement is developing historical "habits of mind," including an understanding of how to read and utilize primary sources. That phrase came from the K-5 teacher guidelines. (The 6-12 guidelines insert in depth before understanding.)

Maybe my high school history teacher and undergraduate alma mater socialized me early in the importance of respecting primary sources. As a college teacher, I've found that my students tend toward eisegesis as a substitute for exegesis. (2 points for anyone who knows the difference.) Not everyone succumbs to the siren song of sloppy reading, but sometimes I find myself engaging in a pedagogical Turn Back, O Man to pull students back to the text. (No, not literally: I'll sing the Erie Canal song in class, but not Stephen Schwartz. I'm referring more to a performative environment as a way to engage student interest in a text.)

The temptations vary by age, I think: those 20-25 are tempted to interpret readings through an "it fits with my preconceptions or doesn't" filter, while older students are more tempted to conflate their preexisting notions and something they read in class. When I read, I tend to imagine a dialog with the text. I still don't know how to make sure students have a similar orientation.

May 5, 2007

Grades and puns

As I left the house this afternoon for Chain Cafe, I told my dear spouse, "I'm leaving for a few hours, hopefully to finish my grading." I swear that the pun was unintentional (and she didn't catch it until I groaned).

I only had to wait half an hour before getting my pun-ishment: the rejection of a article manuscript ... on migration and graduation. The reason was a lack of fit for the journal scope, which was almost half-expected: I had chosen the journal for the audience and not because it was the best fit. So it's time to hunt for another outlet or five.

(Incidentally, while the permalink for this entry is 900, I only have 848 entries.  No, I don't understand the math, either.)

May 1, 2007

My unfavored things

Why do students sometimes have no clue about how word processors work? Why do they not ... oh, well, let's break into the End of Term Professor Musical Style (which Miriam Burstein aka The Little Professor does much better than I).

Papers which use hard returns but not page breaks,
Students who don't even spellcheck as brain-fake,
A cover page loaded with pictoral bling--
These are a few of my unfavored things.

A list of one's sources without textual reference,
A nod to all authors with uniform deference,
Abusing long words in attempts to add zing--
These are a few of my unfavored things.

When the term ends,
and the day bends,
and there's work galore,
I'm thinking of all of my unfavored things,
and I want to rush out the door.

Starting a paper with Merriam-Webster,
Saying reformers wanted "to better,"
An A's justly earned by my parents' k-ching!--
These are a few of my unfavored things.

Homonyms used in a fifth-grader's fashion,
Fallacies covered with purple-prose passion,
A phrase that has surely a plagiarized ring--
These are a few of my unfavored things.

When the term ends,
and the day bends,
and there's work galore,
I'm thinking of all of my unfavored things,
and I want to rush out the door.

For the record, I have yet to see cover-page bling this semester, I'm reading some very nice papers, and I haven't yet seen plagiarism. But sometimes the best way to exorcise demons is in song...

April 9, 2007

A war against the empty thesis statement

To The Little Professor, who complains about student papers with the thesis statement declaring "many similarities and differences," I say, I will join with you in this battle. In fact, I think I've been there all along, but I just didn't know where the chain of command was.  Lead on!

My students don't usually declare the existence of "many similarities and differences." My students are far more creative when they write empty thesis statements, finding their own, unique ways of listing topics rather than summarizing an argument. (Sometimes they list to the right, sometimes to the left, ...) I've never thought of writing "Arrrgggh!" in the margins, and that's an interesting idea, though it does bring to mind the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The professor says I have a thesis of ... Arrrgggh!

A thesis of arrrgggh? That sounds like an expletive.

I think it's a note of frustration.  Arrrgggh!


No, not "Ooohhh." "Arrrgggh!"  Frustration.

No, not an "Arrrgggh!" of frustration, but "Ooohhh," as in surprise and alarm.

[they all turn around]

[in unison] Oooooohhhhh!

[The Great Beast of Vapid Writing launches itself at the hapless students, swallowing up their grades.]

And now, to a bit of reading of student work, followed by the judging of undergraduate research posters. After a head-cold-filled weekend, I'm on the market for new nasal passages. Unfortunately, despite rumors to the contrary, it appears that there are not any available at the moment on eBay.

December 14, 2006

Freudian slip of the day

From an otherwise well-written paper: "money is the fist necessity."

Poking away...

Having a cold is not fun. Having a cold when you're trying to grade papers, revise a book manuscript, keep up with journal editing stuff, and chaffeur children is particularly not fun.  And then having a cold when it's your spouse's birthday?  Yes, of course I'll still pick the younger child up from school.  What part of "spouse's birthday" don't you understand?

In the meantime, I'll be plodding away on small tasks. No brilliant insights for me, today.

December 5, 2006

Death by dictionary

Rule #13.5 for students: Do not cite dictionaries in social-science or humanities courses!  Sometimes I'm tempted to strangle the K-12 teachers who encourage this bad habit. How Webster's defines discrimination has nothing to do with demonstrating understanding of course material. It's a distraction from what the student needs to do in a paper, it's poor debating technique, and it is trite.

November 30, 2006

Performance pay in teaching and in business

The following is a partial transcript of my live chat tonight. (I've rearranged a few lines so that the conversation reads more linearly than it really was, and I've done some other light editing for readability.) Paying for performance came up, and a student who works in private business started to talk as if it made no sense to have pay systems without incentives, but she soon realized that conservative proposals for performance pay, at least in Florida, bear little resemblance to her experience in private industry.  Student 1 is currently in private business.  Student 2 is currently a teacher but used to be a chef.

Student 1:  In my job, I am expected to set goals and meet these. If I don't meet them, I don't get all of my possible raise. 

Student 2: what is your job? 

Student 1: Training Team Lead for and IS department of a large healthcare system 

Sherman Dorn: So you set your own goals? 

Student 1: Yes, me and my Director. 

Sherman Dorn: Most ideas of teacher performance pay do NOT have teachers setting their own goals. The major exception: the United Kingdom. 

Student 2: how so?  the UK teachers that is... 

Student 1: You have to buy into goals if you are expected to meet them. Therefore, it makes no sense for someone higher up to make goals for you. 

Sherman Dorn: Mr. Student 2: teachers work out goals in connection with their principals [I believe the term is head of school]. 

Student 1: That is a very corporate model. 

Student 2: okay, got it... 

Sherman Dorn: Ms. Student 1: I also assume that it's possible for EVERY employee to get a raise, if they hit their negotiated goals. 

Student 1: Yes 

Student 2: I worked as a Chef for many years... if food cost was down, bonus was up. Teaching's different...  I can't "pick" my students... at least in the first level... 

Student 1: That is true, our possible raise is based on how the company is doing. 

Sherman Dorn: That's generally not the idea with most proposals for teacher performance pay, which is usually framed as competitive: only a certain % would be able to get it. 

Student 2: like [Florida's] STAR "Special teachers are rewarded" 

Student 1: Really!!!! That is terrible. 

Student 2: 25% get bonuses based on the new plan...  as if to say, 75% of us aren't worth it 

Student 1: That is a terrible way to motivate teachers! 

November 10, 2006

Fun with historical GIS

My wonderful spouse has consistently reminded me over the years that as a union member, it is a violation of my principles to work on any specific task during a paid holiday. Today was a paid holiday, and I've tried to follow her advice by doing something new and completely unplanned, even if work-related. (There was also the chauffeur duty for a zebra finch and a 14-year-old daughter, but we'll skip the stories on those for now, except that my daughter acquitted herself well as the solos/ensembles festival in the county.)

So I tried playing around with GIS. I'd been wanting to use the National Historical Geographic Information System for some time but was intimidated by the cost of commercial software. Turns out there's now a nice open-source desktop program, QuantumGIS, and as soon as I figured out that the social variables (for thematic maps) needed to be inserted into the .dbf file for the shapefile set (actually a collection of files, one of them in DBase4 format), it was relatively easy. So where do I start?

Over last weekend, John Rury and I talked about the dramatic growth of secondary attendance and attainment in the post-WW2 years. This is a time when the secondary attainment gap shrank dramatically, and we're both exploring this in separate projects, John using census microdata and archival sources, me with my Georgia school reports from the late 1930s through the early 1960s. One starting point you could choose is 1940, when the county-level census statistics include the numbers of the school-aged population attending school, by relatively small age intervals. One of those age intervals is 16 and 17 year old adolescents, almost precisely the focus of John's work and a great indicator given the ages at which teens start to leave school (one way or another).

Could I get a map of the continental U.S. counties in 1940 showing the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds attending school? Check in the full entry!

16 and 17 year olds in school 1940 by county.png

Source: John S. Adams, William C. Block, Mark Lindberg, Robert McMaster, Steven Ruggles, and Wendy Thomas, National Historical Geographic Information System: Pre-release Version 0.1 Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center University of Minnesota, 2004.

Just a reminder: everything in this blog falls under a Creative Commons license unless noted otherwise. You are free to use this image as long as it is attributed to me, there are no changes to it, and it is for noncommercial use. And if you're using this in a course, I'd greatly appreciate if you'd click on the Comments link below and let me know which course and university the material is being used.

Yes, I'm intending to create more over the next year. I'm teaching a history of ed course in the spring, so I have an incentive!

October 9, 2006

On teaching as a perpetual activity

New Kid on the Hallway's entry today on watching the (rebroadcast) Eyes on the Prize has me focusing on two thoughts:

  1. Wow. This really is evidence of how long the series has been unavailable to too many people.
  2. NK's comments show how much education really is a matter of making sure that information and perspectives don't disappear. I remember the Eyes series almost as if it were yesterday. I shouldn't be surprised that someone seeing it for the first time this month will be similarly affected.  And, moreover, there's nothing wrong with that repetition.

October 3, 2006

To inspiring teachers

Military historian Mark Grimsley writes today about visiting his ninth-grade teacher Billie Cranford. Go read.  Just go read it.

September 16, 2006


Excerpts from a note to a class after grading one set of quizzes:

There were two reasons why the quiz scores were lower for this quiz than for the others. First, the material is more difficult, and most of you haven't had experience with legal opinions. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this quiz had the lowest measures of central tendency in the entire semester. (I hope so!)

In addition, many of you turned to quoting chunks of the opinion, ... Reading an answer that is mostly a quotation frustrates me, because my obligation is to evaluate your understanding; did you understand it and select an appropriate excerpt, or did you get lucky? It's also very hard for me to give you any constructive feedback if you don't use your own words; if we agree that quoting is appropriate, then any feedback would consist of, "Well, select a better quotation next time." I hope you'll agree that wouldn't be very helpful!

Because of my experience reading the quiz answers this week, I strongly advise you to avoid quoting in your answers for the rest of the semester.

I can't mandate the no-quotation rule for quizzes (though I will next time!), because I didn't put it in the syllabus. But does anyone else get frustrated with the fallout of coming after teachers who do reward the extensive quoting of source materials in lieu of paraphrasing?

One well-known writer in education (whom I'll call Dr. Overquote) has a habit of quoting other sources for a good chunk (sometimes more than half!) of the typical Dr. Overquote article. Dr. Overquote is a nice soul and does a very nice job of synthesis when it's Dr. Overquote's own words, but, sheesh, it's sometimes as frustrating to read a Dr. Overquote article or book as the student answers that prompted my note quoted above. Some years ago, Dr. Overquote was lured away from Grand University to Big State University, and Grand University then proceeded to bid him away from Big State University, to return to their genteel and loving climate. Since then, I've had the idea to prepare a joke article manuscript that would be a ransom note in Dr. Overquote's style, if just a bit exaggerated.

"Dear" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "Grand" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "University" (Overquote, 200x, p. n),

"We" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "have" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "Overquote" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "and" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "will" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "not" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "return" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "your" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "perfesser" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "until" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "you" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "give" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "either" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "us" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "or" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "Overquote" (Overquote, 200x, p. n) "3.2" (Overquote, 198x, p. n) "gazillion" (Overquote, 199x, p. n) "dollars" (Overquote, 200x, p. n).

"P.S."* (Poobah1, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "Don't" (Poobah2, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "go" (Poobah3, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "to" (Poobah4, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "the" (Poobah5, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "fuzz" (Poobah6, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "or" (Poobah7, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "you" (Poobah8, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n) "will" (Poobah9, quoted in Overquote, 200x, p. n) "be" (Poobah10, quoted in Overquote, 198x, p. n) "sorrie" [sic] (Poobah 11, quoted in Overquote, 199x, p. n).

The key, of course, would be that the references section would be about seven times as long as the "article."

*—I'm doubtful that I could find a "P.S." in an article except as first and middle initials, and I'd have to be lucky. Everything else I'm sure I could find some version of.

September 3, 2006

Of liberal arts colleges, a core curriculum, and contingent faculty

One might suppose that the following is an object lesson about the type of overgeneralizing that Donald Kagan swims in for his Commentary magazine piece about imperious faculty. (Much better: head to University Diarist's corresponding entry and the fascinating comment thread.) Are faculty blocking a core curriculum either through their pomo aspirations or laziness/caring more about research? Given that Kagan wants us to see all institutions as he paints Harvard, I'm a bit skeptical, but let's head to another institution, one that not only is a liberal-arts college but one where the faculty deliberately tried to craft a common entry point for students.

About 23 years ago, give or take a week, we freshmen at Haverford College were at the end of Customs Week (i.e., orientation) and starting classes. Every one of us was enrolled in the new all-frosh English class that the faculty had decided was critical to a good undergraduate education. Before, there were composition classes and English requirements, and students who had certain AP scores had been exempt... but no longer.  We want everyone to go through a common experience, faculty explained to us. You will read Great Literature and have Intellectual Experiences.

For those who don't know about Haverford, it's a small (thousand-student) college that is still loosely associated with Quakerism. It has an honor code that students administer. In my day, students proctored the exams, where I chose which exam slot to take a final in, signed out the exam, walked to any of several available rooms, and completed the exam (usually with a handful of classmates who are taking finals from different classes). The full load was four courses, which made sense given the reading and general workload of courses. I was a bit of a geek even among Haverford students, but the environment was thoughtful and intellectual.

The faculty is small enough that they can all get together and debate the curriculum. It may take a large room, but they can fit into a big room (and not an auditorium). So they can craft a direction for undergraduate education, and they do, both within departments and the college as a whole. In the mid-1980s, the history department's intro history class was a large-for-Haverford (i.e., 150-person) lecture twice a week and then individual sections taught by faculty on Fridays. I truly enjoyed my first-year physics class (Lyle Roelofs and David Pine deeply impressed me as teachers), but the physics faculty were ambitious enough to redesign it entirely several years after I left. So when the faculty decided to create an all-frosh English experience, they meant it in a serious, ambitious way.

And so we exposed ourselves to Great Literature, such as Moby Dick and Invisible Man (the Ralph Ellison book, not the Claude Raines movie). We all tromped into Quakerish not-quite-comfortable Roberts Hall to listen to Literary Muckety-Muck mumble into the microphone about Ellison's meaning, we all had relatively small sections with individual faculty, and we wrote. Oh, we wrote.

Haverford is an all-undergraduate institution (well, not quite: I knew one masters student in biology when I was there in the mid-80s, but she was the only one as far as I was aware). So there were no graduate TAs to take on the burden of the English classes.  Every member of the English department took at least one section, but that wasn't enough. Even at Haverford, they could not manage to run a common experience, one with thoughtful, serious intellectual intentions, without either hiring contingent faculty or breaking down the commitments of the faculty in other departments to their own disciplines and the courses students expected to take in their majors. There was no other way to run the frosh English course, so the college hired contingent faculty.

I was taught by such a visiting assistant professor. He was nice and a Milton scholar. He told us in the spring that every time he taught Milton, the majority of the small class who took it had serious life crises. I'm not sure if that's the nature of Milton or those who study him, but in any case, he tried hard.  I think he tried a bit too hard—our papers were returned with all sorts of codes and different colors of pen and highlights for his comments—but he did his best under the circumstances and, a few years later, moved into banking. He came to our graduation, and for a few seconds I didn't recognize him.

But my first-year experiences at Haverford—taught by a visiting assistant professor not only in English but also in history and math—illustrate the limits of the teaching faculty at any institution with disciplinary boundaries and commitments to existing students. If you have existing, established courses of studies, where you must teach courses for majors, then who teaches the common-experience courses? You can't just rearrange the specialists to teach the general courses, because they're committed to the upper-division courses. You might stretch the faculty a bit to accommodate a few core courses, but the stretching is limited in those institutions where there already are problems covering the existing courses (i.e., in almost every public institution). 

If Haverford is one of the premier liberal-arts colleges, and it turned to contingent academic labor when instituting a partial core curriculum, what would happen if we instituted a true core curriculum with a limited set of mandatory courses? It matters not whether the faculty are imperious or what the standard ranked-faculty course load is: there just isn't enough wiggle-room in existing commitments to shift around where people teach. Unless a miracle happened and someone committed to hiring tenure-track faculty for these positions, we would see tremendous hiring of contingent labor to fulfill these responsibilities. We all know the grinding nature of English and math courses at state universities—here, where there is at least part of a potential core curriculum, we have the worst exploitation of contingent academic labor, the worst budget situation where the central administration treats the departments as teaching cash cows, and the worst gap between the promise and the reality of university education. Many who teach calculus and English comp do fabulous jobs, but they do so in spite of the conditions, not because of them.

The irony is that the disciplinary organization of a university—the boundaries that make a common curriculum almost impossible without exploiting contingent academic labor—is also what allows for deep intellectual exploration either for majors or for graduate students. Yet that disciplinary organization and the resource and prestige competition the disciplinary boundaries foster also encourage territorialization, turf defenses that dovetail with faculty identifying with a discipline. I tend to value that identification in many regards. I'm an historian in an interdisciplinary field (social foundations of education), but I am not competent to teach other things in education (such as psychology), and I am skeptical of efforts to infuse what we do in other courses. Yet I know that such a structure also creates limits. Part of the reason for the menu-like structure of distribution requirements is because allowing different departments to offer courses that satisfy the requirements evens out the burden of teaching the general-education reqirements more than might otherwise be the case.

I suspect that most of those who call for a core curriculum do not wrestle seriously with these institutional arrangements. I looked through ACTA's Becoming an Educated Person (2003) and could find no references to the funding or resource arrangements needed for what they define as a true core curriculum. I certainly wouldn't mind additional tenure lines in areas such as English, math, and history: there's nothing wrong with an historian's full employment law! But that's unlikely, and I'm not sure the alternatives would provide a sufficient base for a quality undergraduate education.

September 2, 2006

Top 10 no-sympathy lines, and 10 top must-answer lines

Via a friend's recommendation (thanks, Rob!), Wisconsin-Green Bay geologist Steve Dutch's Top 10 No-Sympathy Lines that students shouldn't try. To balance out the professor snark, let me add a few concerns of students that faculty should always be willing to address and should, ideally, be described in the syllabus or other documents available early in the term.

  1. What is important to you in this course and in your field?
  2. When do you want us to complete readings and assignments (by individual assignment)?
  3. Can you either tell me how you're going to grade assignment X or point to some examples of well-done student work (or model professional work) for this or a similar assignment?
  4. What citation system do you prefer?
  5. What are we responsible for completing entirely by ourselves as individual students?
  6. If we are working in groups, how will you address the free-loader problem?
  7. How will you decide final grades for the semester?
  8. What's the best way to contact you when I have questions?
  9. What's the reason for you trying to teach us concept X with method Y?
  10. I haven't learned concept X with method Y: Can you suggest another approach?

August 29, 2006

Distance-learning tools

It's the start of the semester, and I've given up on using CMap's collaborative concept-mapping in my online class this semester. Ah, well. I've at least figured out a package of cool tools to use instead. USF uses Blackboard, which would be a very clunky tool indeed except for a few other side apps. One is Respondus's offline quiz-creation program, which USF has a site-license for. My reaction several years ago to that: whew!

Last year I used a variety of tools, largely Microsoft's MovieMaker, to turn Powerpoint presentations into very bulky files. Bad Sherman, by this year's standards. Huge WMV files are so 2005, along with Social Security destruction reform, Katrina, and heckuva job. This year, smaller footprint is the watchword (or watchphrase), and for that I can thank the eLearning XHTML Editor that creates SCORM-compliant packages that I can upload to Blackboard; SWiSH Presenter, which is like Camtasia and Articulate Presenter in converting PowerPoints to Flash except that the educational license is US$50 instead of much more; and Audacity, which allows me to create narrations that are noise-filtered, normalized, and have all the breath intakes and ums deleted. That deletion of my mistakes takes just a little more effort than the filtering and normalization, but that's because I breathe a lot; my academic-year resolution is to breathe less and thus save time in audio editing.

I've recorded the narration for the first-unit lecture for the online course and am about halfway through the editing. I should finish sometime late tomorrow morning, and then there's the first live chat tomorrow evening. I just hope our tech gurus on campus have discovered the security certification for the chat facility by then!  Oh, yes, and finish filling in holes of chapter 1 of Accountability Frankenstein, because I have brilliantly decided to give my students chapter drafts. That means, um, er, that I have to finish them.

August 17, 2006

Backround on arrests of killers of USF student

Because I only subscribe to one metro daily, I missed a story in early July that described the policework behind the arrests of three involved in the murder of Ronald Stem. It was a lucky break from a break-in close to campus that allowed the arrests, and there is still one suspect who has not been indicted.

August 10, 2006

Addicted to teaching

I finished the syllabus for my fall online class today—finding new hot-topic readings, changing the structure of assignments somewhat, eliminating the wiki, changing what the blog is used for, creating a different type of paper assignment, and adding a separate page for orienting students to discussion (leaving heavily on Brookfield and Preskill). Blackboard is now a mature framework (finally!) and has what it calls adaptive-release rules and I call conditional access. Students will now have to read the syllabus, complete an initial survey, and pass a plagiarism quiz before they can really start work. I'm such a mean teacher!

But as I've worked on the syllabus, I'm enthusiastic again about the course. Ah, I think, I know how to tweak this to make live chats more effective. And I decide to change the order of reading within a unit, so students have theoretical background before we talk about issues of the day.

So it happens every semester: I like to teach. Darnitall. Where's Teachers Anonymous when you need it?

August 1, 2006

Annotation and teaching

All this Web 2.0 stuff has gotten to my head. A friend of mine has convinced me that trying to use the collaborative concept-map software CMAP would be a mistake in a masters class (which I reluctantly agreed was probable), even though I'm fairly certain there's a reasonable application, if not in my classes. Then there's the class of edit-in-place applications (examples 1, 2, 3, and 4), which look to be fairly simple tools that are halfway between web annotation and wikidom and might fit well in a teaching environment.

The problem I've discovered with wikis is that they can be too flexible, to the point where I've had former students who merrily created pages with no links to their team, and these orphan pages then became problems. And web annotation typically is browser-specific and relies on a third-party server to link a class's annotations and bookmarks, and relying on a third-party server is never a wise thing with a time-limited class (I know from experience). But a section of a page that is edit-in-place (like Flickr's titles and captions) could serve as an annotation space. And, if it works with multiple browsers, it's fairly simple to explain to students, Go to this page. Click on this paragraph and add to it. Now, if only there were versioning...

In other teaching news, I've been having fun putting together another directed reading (which puts me in the position of having to read several new books, always a good thing) and figuring out which hot-button issues I put in my online class this fall.

Oh, and my thanks to profgrrrrl for recommending Brookfield and Preskill's Discussion as a Way of Teaching (2nd ed., 2005). Some useful tips, and I haven't delved into the college teaching-methods literature for a few years.

July 31, 2006

Grading doggerel

profgrrl inspired me, even though I'm not teaching this summer:

In grading some are at their best
but others can get quite depressed
when marking "wrong" and sometimes "right"
and eat and grade all through the night.

(Halvah's great, but M&Ms
feed the brain cells and the stem.
What helps read mensch or plain mean jerks?
For me, just theobromine works.)

For those who come from overseas,
culture gap's far from a breeze,
they must think U.S. students nuts,
all pupils who think with their... lower spines.

(I exaggerate, of course.
Who work as hard as a horse
will earn high grades and my respect,
becoming close to the Elect.)

The homesick blues I've seen in peers?
The folks who all dissolve in tears?
The stuff most prone to gradingology?
Yep, it's paleontology.

Six TAs in a lecture hall
thought it all was just a ball
until they had to grade the final.
Then they learned the screaming primal.

Six TAs from overseas
who though that grad school was a breeze,
who hadn't met their match, quite yet,
But horrors waited, you can bet.

They fought through hundreds of exams.
They read Sue's, Al's, and even Sam's.
They marked some unreadable text
and purple pictures of T. Rex.

They X'd some here , and cross-hatched there,
and slowly they pulled out their hair.
Green pen for wrong and blue for right.
And red their eyes half through the night.

When all was graded, all was done.
They squinted at the rising sun.
Four were left as psych-job wrecks,
the other two were just blue Czechs.*

Please treat your TAs kindly, peers,
and don't ignore the flowing tears.
Their organizing's not a sin,
so show the grad school union in.

*—profgrrl's poem refers to "blue checks."

(And now I'll flee with rapid run
for writing such an awful pun.)

July 18, 2006

Boiling down the stratification literature

With a new doctoral student this fall, I advised that we arrange an independent reading course on stratification and institutions, because there is no doctoral-level course right now that fits the bill, and the breadth of topics pushed me to figure out the essential introduction to stratification (as one of four topics for the semester). I know the student has read Foucault and has independent ideas on inequalities, so the key thing is enough of an introduction so that anyone having completed the readings would know about structural-functionalist, conflict (including reproduction and resistance in education), human capital, signaling, and networking models. We get into new institutionalism later in the semester, but I think this is a reasonable stab...

  • Ralph H. Turner, “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System,” American Sociological Review 25 (1960), 855-67.
  • Randall, Collins, “Functional and Conflict Theories of Educational Stratification,” American Sociological Review 36 (1971), 1002-1019.
  • Henry Giroux, “Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis,” Harvard Educational Review 53 (1983), 257-93.
  • James E. Rosenbaum, Takehito Kariya, Rick Settersten, and Tony Maier, Market and Network Theories of the Transition from High School to Work: Their Application to Industrialized Societies,” Annual Review of Sociology 16 (1990), 263-99.
  • Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Though Foucault's Discipline and Punish is commonly read as his work most obviously relevant to education, A History of Sexuality (the slim volume) has a more digestible discussion of power in general. The readings head off into other territories later in the semester.

June 4, 2006

Arrests in murder case of Ronald Stem

Three teenagers have now been arrested in the murder of my former student Ronald Stem. Two were arrested in April and one more was arrested this past week. One known suspect is still at large.

May 2, 2006

Social foundations exam questions

The questions from this semester's undergraduate social foundations of education exam (for my sections):

  1. Would graduation by portfolio change the expectations that school systems hold for students?
  2. Describe the extent to which the U.S. population trusts teachers to do their job.
  3. Compare a main argument of your first book with any of the lectures.
  4. Contrast the ways that your first author addresses issues of diversity with the conflicts over schooling and diversity in the 19th century.
  5. Is schooling part of the American dream?
  6. What is the political role of high-stakes testing?
  7. To what extent is the No Child Left Behind Act the logical successor to Brown v. Board of Education?
  8. Describe two ways in which schools have coped with conflict over the purpose or structure of schooling.
  9. Read the following background and then answer the question:
    In 2005, the Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools asked a number of questions (see tables 18-22) about accountability. 90% of respondents said it was either somewhat or very important to close achievement gaps between White students, on the one hand, and Black and Hispanic students, on the other. 75% of respondents said that the achievement gap was mostly related to factors other than the quality of schooling received. 63% of respondents said that either students or their parents were most important for determining “how well or poorly students perform in school.” 58% of respondents said, “Yes, it is [the responsibility of the public schools to close the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students—I'm splicing stem and answers together here].” On the face of it, one might conclude that the U.S. public holds both families and schools responsible for achievement.

    Why do U.S. polls appear to show inconsistent answers when adults are asked who is responsible for the achievement gap?

And now, to grading the answers...

April 29, 2006

On writing tics and mental kits

I've written before on writing tics, such as the horde of whereases that used to appear in my student writing. (I wonder how many of them knew that the conjunctive whereas is a contronym, a fact that caused a few problems in their essays.) Tics are easy problems to solve: you point them out, and a writer either pays attention to the advice or doesn't, but it's easily digestible information.

More on the jump...

What's much harder is giving advice when the internal organization of a paragraph is wonky. Some ideas that occasionally flit through my head in reading essays (and, no, I don't use any in comments on papers):

  • No, that idea doesn't flow naturally from the prior one, and please don't expect me to be telepathic (because you don't really want me to know what you were doing over the weekend instead of reading the book).
  • Next time you get a volume discount on ideas, please keep some to yourself instead of offering all of them to me in a single paragraph.
  • You cherry-picked that quotation and plopped it down where it had no relevance just to cite course material—and didn't expect me to notice?

Unfortunately, while I assign plenty of writing (too much, if you ask my students) and provide as much feedback as I can, given my other commitments, I can really do no more than provide a reader's perspective: this makes sense, this doesn't, I think section A belongs after section B, and so forth. For some students, that's enormously useful, but I'm guessing that those students usually have the necessary skills and either forgot them or were lazy didn't leave themselves enough time.

But suppose you've never learned how to organize ideas clearly. Where do you go to learn that skill? I learned them years ago in a summer speech camp. High school speech events, especially extemporaneous speaking and team debating, require extraordinary organizing and prioritizing skills, and I had explicit instruction in both macro-level organizing (how to outline a 7-minute speech in the first minute of your 30 minutes of preparation) and also micro-oganizing—explaining a single argument in 15 seconds. I was never as fast on my feet as my debate partner for two years, Jeffrey Sklansky (also a social historian), nor as verbally quick as my siblings. So those skills didn't turn me into a champion extemp/impromptu speaker (which my two brothers and the eventual-Professor-Sklansky were at various levels) or a great debater (I was rather dragged along by my partner when unanticipated situations came up). But they were enormously helpful in writing.

But I'm at my wit's end when I need to provide suggestions to students. I can go through a paragraph with a student and point out the crazy jumps in topics, and I can swiftly show how I would reorganize it, but that doesn't really help the student become flexible in organizing paragraphs and see multiple ways of leading the reader by the nose. That's not always part of a student's academic equipment, and I'm not sure I have the supplies that students need. Ideas?

April 23, 2006

I am not a caring teacher

While I'm grading this afternoon, I'll borrow one of my entries from The Wall of Education, a multiblog I'm participating in. It's my foray into an interdisciplinary discussion of ethics and caring, a critique of some notions from a cynical historian's perspective. And since it's our accreditation/review visit over the next few days, it also fits in with reflection on institutional obligations and commitments.

. . .

Some days, I think that Nel Noddings is the most dangerous person in America, or rather, because others abuse her ideas, the common image of Nel Noddings is the most dangerous (imaginary) person in America. I don't mean dangerous as in David Horowitz's Dangerous Professors (though perhaps Noddings avoided being on the list merely because she's retired), nor dangerous as in Michael Bérubé's parody, International Professor of Danger.

Instead, I'm thinking of the implications some draw from her work on caring. More on the jump...

From what I understand as a mere historian of education, her work (going back to her 1984 book Caring) argues that a relational ethic of caring is an alternative to the deontological arguments of Kant or the utilitarian ethic of Bentham and that ilk. I'll return in a moment to the contribution she and other feminist philosophers make towards ethics and justice in a minute, but what concerns me is how others misread her. The most studious misreading I know of is by virtue ethicists such as Michael Slote, who argues that one must turn her relational argument into virtue ethics because to do otherwise would be unfair to the person who is caring (since caring may not be worth anything unless received as caring by the other person). (See Nodding's response.) That's an interesting argument (though I think it gives considerable privilege to paternalism), but I will leave the proper categorization of Nodding's caring to the professional philosophers.

What concerns me is the more casual transformation of Nodding's caring notion into a rougher virtue, especially in teacher education programs. Those taking inspiration from Noddings often write about a "caring teacher," including the characteristics a caring teacher might have (e.g., Concordia College, 2003; Lewis-Clark State College, n.d.; Nowak-Fabrykowski & Caldwell, 2002). Mentioning the characteristics of a "caring teacher" (or dispositions, in NCATE lingo) instantly turns caring into a virtue.

But virtue ethics have no place in professional education, especially in teacher education. I say this from an historian's perspective, not a philosopher's. There are a number of reasons why virtue ethics are inappropriate in professional education—the way that it can lead to litmus testing (as in LeMoyne College), or the psychologization of evaluation and the presumption that faculty in a professional school can somehow evaluate (or worse, intuit) what's inside someone's head. This search for some sort of a professional soul tempts faculty to think of professional education as a process reconstructing the self, something with which I am highly uncomfortable.

More insidious is the way that this transformation of caring into a virtue feeds into the historical rhetoric denigrating teaching as an intellectual occupation. Two hundred years ago, the primary qualification for teaching was virtue, not academics. When Mann and others encouraged the hiring of women as teachers, it was from the essentialist argument that women are more nurturing. While that was a shift from the predominance of men in teaching, it dovetailed with changing sex roles (Strober & Tyack, 1980).

We retain this legacy of seeing teachers as role models, with virtue and morals more important than skill. People assume my wife must be patient because she teaches special education, but whether she can think about her students is ignored. And then there are the old chestnuts: Women who care and teach don't need to be paid decently, because that's just what women (and teachers) do. It's a service profession, after all, like nursing and social work. Who goes into teaching to make money? So pardon the sound of my teeth grinding when I hear about "caring teachers." Regardless of the philosophical arguments, writing and talking about teacher virtues feeds into some of the worst historical legacies for teachers.

That conclusion doesn't mean that Noddings isn't important. She is, but in a different way. In my mind, her work falls within a literature on reconstructing (liberal) philosophical arguments from relational assumptions. Rawls' (1971) original position was the ultimate end-point of liberal philosophy, focusing on the logical consequences of assuming that people are isolatable individuals: take that individual outside of reality, behind the veil of ignorance, and see what the logical person-in-a-vacuum would conclude is just. As many others have noted, that assumes the existence of the person-in-a-vacuum. Communitarians have taken one counterposition to liberalism, arguing that we must see the community in itself as an important unit of society.

Others have taken a different approach, seeing relationships as the source of self (Guignon, 2003) and of a network of obligations that have ethical consequences, including public policy (Kittay, 2001). In this regard, I find Kittay's work more satisfying than the others, because she recognizes the way that there are multi-level dependencies, where those who care for a dependent are themselves weaker and dependent. Kittay argues that welfare reform of the 1990s privatized the act of caring, placing it in the bounds of family, outside public policy. Leo Casey's argument against the "caring teacher" language echoes Kittay's criticism of the privatization of dependency: when teachers are assumed to be the sole ones who care for kids' minds, then the network of support that teachers themselves need is neatly placed on the shelf.

Thus, Noddings' work is better seen as tentative, raising interesting questions about the extent to which we can (re)construct notions of ethics and justice from a relational starting point. Those in education have much to offer in this regard, from the relational nature of teaching to the implications of disability for our notion of the self. Instead, too many of our colleagues see her work as the caring gospel, a reification that does far more harm than good. Do I care for my students? I try. But don't call me a caring teacher, ever.


Concordia College. (2003). Conceptual framework. New York: Author.

Guignon, C. (2004). On being authentic. New York: Routledge.

Kittay, E. F. (2001). A feminist public ethic of care meets the new communitarian family policy. Ethics, 111, 523-547.

Lewis-Clarke State College. (n.d.). Conceptual framework. Lewiston, ID: Author.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminist approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K., & Caldwell, P. (2002). Developing a caring attitude in the early childhood pre-service teachers. Education, 123(2), 358-364.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Strober, M., & Tyack, D. (1980). Why women teach while men manage. Signs, 5, 494-503.

April 22, 2006

Mental whiplash

Hint to student writers: don't suddenly switch topics in the middle of the paper. My brain's too old for that.

April 10, 2006

Paper malaprop

Maybe I'm too tired, but I had to laugh at the misspelling of a 1980 article's title: Myra Strober and David Tyack's Why Do Women Teach and Men Mange?

I'll admit I'm getting itchy just thinking about it.

March 8, 2006

Chug chug chug...

SafeAssignment (the plagiarism-checking software my institution uses) is back to checking papers, albeit slowly. I suspect their client list grew more quickly than their capacity, but the problems are irritating to me as a faculty member.

March 3, 2006

Warning on plagiarism software

For anyone who teaches at a university contracting with Safe Assignment's plagiarism-detection service, please note that those of us at USF have had several serious problems with the service in the past week, from the failures to pass off cookies smoothly from Blackboard to Safe Assignment's server to far more serious problems, a corrupted database for one of my courses (where some of the students were sent the papers and my feedback for other students [and, yes, I double-checked that I hadn't made the mistake myself]) and the failure of Safe Assignment's software to do any checking before pronouncing papers perfectly clean (0% overlap, even when there's a bibliography with titles you can find online). I hope these problems are fixed soon, because it wouldn't be a good thing for Turnitin to have a monopoly.

Back in the old days, before plagiarism-checking services, back when we only had Google, I had to recognize the style of a passage as not quite fitting the rest of it and, lo and behold!, often enough (but not always) there was plagiarism. Back to that, I suppose. I've had a few cases of outright internet plagiarism over the years, and in one case, the student looked completely dumbstruck, as if he weren't aware that the paper was plagiarized. So, after he meekly exited my office and the course, I tried to figure out why he had that deer-in-a-headlight look. Maybe because it was ... someone else had written it? So I speculated on the honor of thieves and wrote a mediocre song about why such things may occur.

I still regret three cases in my years of teaching when students did not get what they earned as a result of plagiarism. One was my fault—a student had plagiarized, and I foolishly decided to talk to the student before deciding whether it was a failure on the paper or on the course. Then what the she told me was that, as in my speculation in the case described above, someone else (not a student at the institution) had written that passage. Well, right. Yeah. If so, that's awful and the student really should've been kicked out of the program. But was that true, and would a panel of my peers want to punish a student for volunteering such damning information herself? I decided that a panel might not side with me and went only with failure on the paper (and the student passed the course). Wrong decision, and as a result I've since decided on consequences based on the observable facts rather than talking to students, so I'm not put in that position again. The other cases involved two students at one of my first teaching spots who each plagiarized for two paragraphs in an open-book final exam, and the hearing officer for one student—a housing official at the university—decided that wasn't too much, and failure for the course was too harsh a punishment. My colleagues at the time were horrified, but an administrator immediately decided that the two students couldn't be treated differently and so reversed the punishment for the other student.

For an interesting (if problematic) site on plagiarism in academe, see Famous Plagiarists and then subsequent comments by Scott McLemee and Miriam Burstein.

February 11, 2006

Murdered student

I found out this morning that one of my former students was murdered at USF's campus late one night this week. Ronald Stem was a student in my masters-level history of education class a few years ago. Fundamentally a nice guy, he was a Vietnam veteran who loved history and was hoping to become a teacher. He left USF without finishing his studies, and this is just horrible news. For a large campus with 43,000 students, in many ways we're lucky that his death is the first on-campus murder since 1994, but it's still awful, and I hope the campus police and county homicide investigators find his killers quickly.

January 11, 2006

Sideways looks at ed policy

On the cryptic-note front (move along, move along, there's nothing to see here), I want to set down briefly what I discovered from trying to explain my sideways looks at ed policy to undergraduates last semester. While this doesn't quite capture my disciplinary (history) background, I tried to explain a bit about my political legacy of school accountability article and extract a few cynical questions from it:

  1. Why does this policy exist? Answers could cover different ground:
    • the explicit rationale
    • the implicit theory of action
    • The organizational purpose/role
    • The history
    • Whose ox is gored

  2. What are the consequences of this policy?
    • It's a tool for ...
    • How does this policy change questions raised about ed (and reframe debate in the future)?
    • What forms does dissent take, and what are the reactions?

I'm not entirely pleased with this reductionism, but it's a first stab.

January 9, 2006

Beginning of semester

Tomorrow's my first teaching day, but the semester begins today for USF, and after several days of combining a research trip with seeing friends, I need to switch directions. Finish syllabus revision, toss things on the web, etc.

Update (11 am): Perhaps I shouldn't have done my weekly volunteering gig at my son's elementary school. By the time I drove to campus, every parking space was occupied. So I'm ensconsed in Local Café, doing a bit of work and hoping that I can find some parking at lunchtime, when many faculty and staff leave for off-campus munching. I know: you could have guessed it, right? So go ahead and laugh at me.

December 12, 2005


Oh, that's funny. One of my students wrote that the cave allegory in Plato's The Republic is the "least sensible" idea in the whole semester.

Quite. ;-)

No motivation

I'm reading final papers from one class and waiting for the other class to upload final exam answers today to the university's portal. But I have a family trip to plan and purchase for, errands to run, house things to arrange, and bills to pay, so I have plenty of grading to do and no great motivation to kick me into high gear. This is life. I may end up with a caffeine overdose, but I'll do what I need to...

In the meantime, I'm just happy that I'm in Florida this time of year. For those in colder and messier weather right now, stay warm and safe and don't worry. You'll get your Schadenfreude (if you really want it) come next hurricane season. We in Tampa are rather due for a big one.

December 8, 2005

Exam time

For your information, here is the bonus question on my students' final assignment this semester:

According to the most recent Gallup poll of opinions about public schools, a majority of those polled thought that students or their parents were largely responsible for students' achievement, but a majority also thought that schools were responsible for closing the achievement gap. Explain this paradox, using course materials.

The real test here is to see how many of them use course materials instead of bluffing their way through an explanation.

November 30, 2005

Writing tics and reading idiosyncrasies

In one paragraph I'm reading this morning, a student wrote about courts' passing a decision. There's clearly some confusion with the student between legislation and judicial opinions (and two branches of government), though maybe it's a matter of our slippery language: Congress passes laws, and the Supreme Court passes down law. (There's also the unlikely possibility that the student considered the case the judicial equivalent of a kidney stone.)

But apart from conceptual confusion, student writing is chockful of tics—habits that interfere with communication. Some tics are perennial, the weeds of passive voice and antecedentless pronoun, comma splice and homonym confusion. Some tics fall in odd patterns, though, such as the invasion of alien whereases that sprouted six years ago in West Central Florida, or the whilsts that my native Floridians use only in writing. (The last doesn't bother me when coming from my English friends.)

(To be honest, education journals are full of writing tics as well—from impact used as a transitive verb to the neologism rubric, which most people would understand better as grading criteria. Sometimes, though, such bad writing can inspire Bulwer-Lytton contest entries.)

I suspect some writing tics come from students' thinking that they need $5 words to impress teachers. And there may be some truth in the impression, in part because Florida's writing test does reward multisyllabic Latinate words. Such verbal prestidigitation may be oxymoronic, but it's fungible. I respect students who can explain abstract concepts in down-to-earth terms, because such writing shows that a student got it. But tics are habitual.

Then there are the odd uses of prepositions, and I'm not sure what to make of them. As Stephen Pinker has written, verbs are little tyrants. Once you choose them, the sentence often has to take a certain form. I think he used to lay as a paradigm of the tyrant verb. Not only is it transitive, but it requires an adverb: One cannot simply lay a book. But picking up on the nasty rules that verbs (and lesser tyrant verbs) lay down requires both an ear for such patterns and also enough exposure to writing. Maybe the nonstandard uses of prepositions suggests that a student is overreaching in language, trying to use the $5.15 verb without reading the directions. Or maybe it reflects considerable independent efforts at reading difficult material without the teaching guidance that can smooth one's learning and make it possible to pay attention to the language as well as the ideas.

Such independent efforts often result in another error that is more common with older students, overlaying experience and prejudices on a reading without considering the reading in itself. I've written about my concern with close readings and textuality before, and I'm still puzzled how to teach that attention. One student in my honors-college class said she hated Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? because she couldn't hear his voice in her head, so she clearly has that capacity (and may be unable to shake the habit!). Is that mental listening a teachable skill?

November 26, 2005

Paraphrasing self-test

After looking for a way to help students test their paraphrasing skills, I've modified what real programmers have done to create a test-your-skills-at-paraphrasing page (and the links to the folks who really deserve credit are at the bottom of it). It won't cover errors such as borrowing metaphors, but it should give a reality check to someone who thinks that replacing every third word is appropriate. As usually happens with my webpages, I wait until I see someone really clever who creates something useful and then tweak it a bit.

Yes, anyone's free to link to that page for teaching purposes. Oh, I love Creative Commons licensing!

November 20, 2005

Googling plagiarism

One of the perversities of Google is this: If you search for sites on plagiarism, two of the five ads on the right side (at least today) link to web sites that sell papers to students.

Talking to faculty

From Mel at In Favor of Thinking comes a link to How to talk to a professor. Generally quite useful.

Too bad only a small handful of my students come to my office hours, and generally because of course concerns. Do I look like I have fangs?

November 18, 2005

Wanted: paraphrase teaching tool

Browsing online late last night, I came across a Javascript tool for distinguishing between two text strings and an implementation of corrected code that works great as a check on paraphrasing. I need to modify this for students at some point, as a task (and then put breadcrumbs back to the programmers who did this, wonderfully).

October 16, 2005

Midterm Commandments

Following Miriam Burstein, I'll see how many commandments I need to etch in stone for my students at midterm time:

  1. I am Knowledge, Thy Aim, which brings you out of the land of ignorance.
  2. Thou shalt have no mundane priorities before me (once your bills are paid). Thou shalt not make graven images, pseudo-books, or Cliff-Notes. Thou shalt not bow down to them or buy them. For I Knowledge am a jealous god, visiting the ignorance of the parents upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me.
  3. Thou shalt not take knowledge in vain or treat it as an object of conspicuous consumption, or thou shalt find thyself in the checkout counter with a volume of Richard Bach.
  4. Remember the study time and keep it. I really don't care how many days a week you study, except you shouldn't forget that a week only has seven days, nimwit, and the half-day you spent in a daze after the party still counts.
  5. Honor thy teachers, in order that the days you're in school aren't cut short for stupidity.
  6. Thou shalt not kill the language.
  7. Thou shalt not plagiarize.
  8. Thou shalt not copy in the middle of an exam.
  9. Thou shalt not tattle.
  10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's Stuff, because there are libraries that share information.
Should there be any others?

September 21, 2005

Student gripes

It seems a bit early to be hearing students complain about grades, but what do I know? There are various student gripes circulating around the net. And a colleague told me of a student who claimed that policies at my institution required that all grades be based on a 90%=A, 80%=B, etc., scale. (No, they don't.) It's only the first day of fall! But maybe it's karmically related to fewer A grades at Princeton.

Well, I don't have any of those (yet) this semester, but I can add the student who complained last year that his A- in my class "ruined" his perfect 4.0 in a program and asked if I would reconsider the grade. I'll admit that was a new one for me. No, I didn't. I don't see anything inherently worthy about grading—it's an institutional routine with constructed value. I'd be as happy giving out pass/fail grades. But we have grading, it's part of student motivation, and I'd make my life and the life of my colleagues much worse if I didn't stick to what I described in the syllabus as standards.

September 16, 2005

"Declining (x) literacy"

Now that Constitution Day is nearly upon us (tomorrow, folks, the 218th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, not that its signing had much historical significance—quick, what was the criterion for ratification?), the New York Times has its obligatory obeisance-and-reflection, which turns out to be a bunch of historically-unreflective pap about "historical literacy:"

The new law takes effect as many historians are voicing alarm over the dimming historical memory of the nation.

James Rees, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, said that in his 22-year tenure he has seen a growing historical ignorance among visitors. ...

Some educators believe that young people's history proficiency is declining because they watch too much television,...

Some experts say the problem is worsening because history and civics are receiving less attention in public schools, the result of a nationwide focus on reading and math.... (emphases added)

One of the great signs of historical ignorance is when people take on one of the great trend-y myths of popular belief, like the myth of declension. Whoops. Looks like Sam Dillon, the reporter for the Times, catered to that myth in the article. While Americans may not know enough of their own history, I doubt that such ignorance is greater now than at any time in the past, except maybe September 17, 1787, when there was very little national history to regurgitate on standardized tests.

Moreover, the usual definition of "historical literacy" is focused on fragmentary bits of information that look remarkably like trivia. In the case of the Times article, the obligatory quiz question was the commander of colonial forces at Yorktown in 1781 (hint: not William Sherman, Ulysses Grant, or Douglas Macarthur). While I'd like folks to have a clue to who was the commander, I'd also like them to know a little more: why the battle was important and who else was involved besides the colonials and the royalists, for starters.

As historian of education Harvey Graff has noted, we use the word literacy when we want a trump card to tout the importance of a topic, even though any particular literacy concept is historically contingent and constructed. To add to computer literacy, economic literacy, math literacy, physics literacy, among others, we now have historical literacy. And, after a bit of searching, I've discovered that there are at least 31 pages referring to condom literacy. That puts the dispensers in gas station men's rooms in a whole other perspective. Postmodernists should be so happy, that we are constantly commanded to read the world in so many ways.

August 12, 2005

Plagiarism disorders

Just a brief entry: Margaret Soltan today discussed the plagiarism by Judith Kelly in her "memoir" Rock Me Gently:

Again with the uncontrollable memory! What shall we call this? Incontinent mnemonism?

Ah, yes, the "I wasn't aware I was copying words" excuse I've heard a few times from some of my enrollees (which is different from the "I wasn't aware that copying words was plagiarism" excuse). (I wouldn't call a plagiarist a student.) I think I have a slightly better term: eideticitis.

  • Hint to the budding enrolled plagiarist: you might get away with explaining that half a sentence just stuck in your memory. Half a page? Nah...
  • Hint to the budding professional plagiarist: If your excuse wouldn't pass muster with a college professor, don't think it'll sound better coming from you.
  • Hint to the caught-red-handed professional plagiarist named Judith Kelly: Getting your representative to say that you are "rewriting those passages for the next edition of the book" sort of puts the lie to the claim that the book is a memoir, doesn't it?

July 25, 2005

Still grading...

Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about going back to the federal courthouse for jury duty today (or again this week, according to the phone system I just called), so I just have to finish the grading. Back home now, finish the job, post grades to Blackboard, and then get on to other tasks: union membership drive logistics, EPAA, grants, academic freedom, and other things that have been on the back burner.

Mow the grass? What do you mean, I should mow the grass?

July 24, 2005

Grading frenzy

The rest of my family (well, the humans anyway) are out of the house for the next 48 hours, and I'm grading until the work's done. Grades are due Tuesday morning (I found out after I had shifted around the last online chat), so at least I have Tuesday morning to breathe a tiny bit.

June 18, 2005

Another professor's plagiarism response

Mel, of In Favor of Thinking, has feelings very much like mine in response to plagiarism.

June 8, 2005

Rigor mortician on dissertation committees

The Panda's Thumb evolution blog reports an object lesson in dissertation duplicity with an aborted thesis defense of Bryan Leonard's "intelligent design" curriculum dissertation because, well, there was no evolutionary biologist or science education faculty on the committee! The money quote comes from the comment of Andrea Bottaro who wrote,

A graduate student has the right to a thesis committee that will provide expert critical feed-back and guidance on his/her thesis work of the same kind and academic/scientific rigor that the student is likely to encounter in their independent future career. Whether the student wants it or not, it is the duty of faculty members on the committee to provide such guidance and criticism, or recuse themselves. Rubber-stamping a thesis, or even worse leading it in directions that fulfill exceedingly minoritary philosophical preferences of committee members (as opposed to the mentor’s and student’s, who are free to pursue whatever idea they wish) is primarily a disservice to the student, in addition to being a stain on the academic process and the Institution involved.

Right on!

May 21, 2005

Changing grades

Miriam Burstein shows once again that she is one of the queens of academic blogging in her short, pithy advice to students on the fine art of requesting a higher grade. I don't agree with everything she says (for I do respond to e-mails asking for clarification, even if I generally stuff the response inside the more secure confines of Blackboard), but the sense of the entry is great.

May 8, 2005


From no great matter, this bon mot:

Those who do not know the history of Americans' ignorance of history seem doomed to point it out repeatedly, acting each time as if it were something new.

This morning, I've retreated to Chain Cafe, reading student work frantically before heading up to Ocala for an un-Mother's Day, at least for me, for I then go to that town's Chain Cafe to continue reading student work frantically before driving back here to Tampa where I'll ... hopefully be finished. We'll see. In any case, the teaching anguish of the term now appears to be students who were so engaged in the material (or in creating Cool Tech) that they did not pay attention to the assignment. I did tell them all, "write the words first," but I'm afraid that was not enough. Students who were highly engaged will be penalized for not paying attention—not enough to ruin the semester grade—and I'll have to figure out what happened and what I can do in the future.

But this sure beats students who were disengaged and thus failed to pay attention to the assignment. The disengaged-student's work is easier to judge (okay, if he/she didn't spend much time on this assignment, I guess I don't have to spend much time grading it), but I'd rather have this anguish.

May 5, 2005

What the .... ?

In class we disused women in school is one of the stranger statements I've read thus far in this batch of student exams. From the repetition of the misspelling elsewhere in the exam, I gather the student meant to write discussed but, um, er, forgot to check the spelling.

The Morning's Back (and I'm Gonna Be in Trouble)

I'm behind the eight ball this morning on teaching for two reasons: I couldn't get to sleep before about 3 am and my university's Blackboard server has bollixed up the upload of my masters class's major assignment. I'm not sure why I didn't get to sleep until far too late—probably residual discomfort from the dental work yesterday morning—but I'm going to be groggy this morning. That's life, and since I've done prep work on grading the undergraduate exams (reading over some early responses to get a sense of the answers before I wade in completely), I'm not too worried. I had intended to do as much exam grading as I could today before I head to Orlando for the Florida Education Association delegate assembly over the next few days, and then grade the major papers for the masters class there in between all the things I need to do there.

But if I don't have the bulk of the papers downloaded to my computer (and most of them were uploaded as opposed to being written as online papers—innovative of the students who did), I can't do much grading in Orlando, and that would be very bad, as grades are due Monday. I've sent in a problem notice to the Academic Computing gurus, but I strongly suspect it's a nonrecoverable error. This means I'd have to contact all of the students who turned in papers over the past two days to e-mail them to me, causing problems for my in-box and delays. Poor students. Poor me. Likely to be late grades...

April 30, 2005

Psychologizing as the exception now

I just finished reading a student paper that distorted most of the cited class readings, turning them into an explanation of where juvenile delinquents became psychologically abnormal. This is evidence that the student had not quite learned the message I've been pounding for the entire semester: this course isn't psychology. It's humanities and social-science perspectives on schooling. So I've failed in some way with this student, or the student failed to grasp the point, or the student's failure to come to class for the last third of the semester may have led the student to forget some of the key things about the course.

Fortunately, this type of failure-to-grasp-the-key-concepts is now an exception, and most students focus on the central issues in this course. So I see progress in my campaign against the tendency of students to look at everything in schooling through a developmental-psych perspective. I am very fond of my developmental-psych colleagues in the department, but they don't get to rule our students' minds without competition.

March 12, 2005

No longer funny to me

Via Bitch, Ph.D. came notice of another academic blogger's cynical universal disclaimer for students in courses. Hmmmnnnn...

I guess I don't feel the need to gripe about students these days. Maybe it's because there are bigger fish to fry in my professional life, or maybe I just have thick skin, but sarcastic or griping comments by students just aren't my problem. If a bunch of students complain, I figure they know something is wrong in the course, but it's my job to figure it out. Sometimes students have great suggestions, but if not, the next step is up to me.

January 31, 2005

Time and pacing

This afternoon, I'm trying to finish as many short student papers as I can. Around Labor Day, when the second of four hurricanes hit Florida, I realized I had to start pacing myself for the duration of the term. Then two other hurricanes hit. Yikes. That pace became grueling, as I spent hours each week out of the house (to avoid taking out my aggravation on my wife and children), desperately keeping up with grading.

Right now, I'm taking a brief break. I have ten papers to go (out of forty submitted last week), and since they're low-stakes, I suspect I'll finish before I go to bed. Other things have gone by the wayside yesterday and today for this, but my sense of the world is that I need to get that done. On the other hand, I've thus far dropped (or avoided?) last year's habit of drafting long lists of things to do, akin to profgrrrl's frequent to-do and checkoff list. It's probably a response to keep my sanity, though I know some things minor things are slipping through the cracks. What I've learned last year is that something will always slip through the cracks, and priorities are not necessarily guaranteed with to-do lists. Well, that's a rationalization at least. Mel, of the academic In Favor of Thinking blog, recently discussed her rebalancing work and life. I'm still trying that, but my work instincts are getting the better of me today.

January 16, 2005

Teaching models

This morning, the New York Times has an article by Richard Panek on new teaching models, primarily the Program in Course Redesign at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Academic Transformation. I haven't seen the reports at all (something else to do in my copious free time!), but the article jibes with my sense of teaching: jiggling academic routines a bit can help dramatically, but entirely online experiences risk high attrition.

Of course, I say this at the start of a semester with an entirely online class. After my last experience a few years ago, I'm spending a lot of effort with the "soft" part of the course—encouraging students separate from the academic content, setting up opportunities for them to engage in the conversational parts of an in-person course that allow repetition of key information in different formats and times. I'm also trying to have a bit of fun with different things in online lectures (now that most students have much more ready access to broadband and I have tools on my laptop that are sufficient for most things). So the first-unit lecture has a takeoff from the scrolling-text start of the Star Wars movies, and another will involve philosopher-puppets. But I'm not sure that quite counts in what this redesigning-coursework project is doing.

January 10, 2005

The cognitive blogroll

After setting up my Bloglines blogroll last week, I had this startling thought about RSS aggregators like Bloglines, niche (and partisan) media outlets like Fox News, and selective "hearing" that students occasionally engage in when reading: part of the freedom to pick and choose what is convincing—and select one's sources for reading (or believing)—is the freedom to be willfully narrow-minded.

I'm not an educational psychologist, so I don't know if the literature on constructivism has discussed this potential. (Anyone know? Please e-mail me!) One hundred years ago, yellow journalism and propaganda was a broadcast entity. Today, people have much greater freedom to have minimal exposure to diverse perspectives, blow them off, and shut them out.

There are many who talk about the sheep mentality of those with different partisan leanings, from Rush Limbaugh claiming that African Americans are the colonial victims of Democrats to Mary Daly's discussing anti-feminist activists as "fembots" to what neighbors say about each other after this last vicious campaign. What these explanations miss is the fact that culpability requires choice (unless you're a strict predestinationist in the Calvinist vein). And intellectual freedom includes the absolute right to be ill-informed and the right to filter information through one's preexisting knowledge and prejudices. (I think educational psychologists use the neutral terms "activating prior knowledge" and "using schema".)

And I suspect that there is no easy way to distinguish the need to be selective in reading/learning from prejudice.

October 31, 2004

Remote-control teaching

I'm considering letting students have remote controls in class next semester.

A few weeks ago, a McGraw-Hill representative had a new techie toy along with the typical book display in our department conference room one day. E-instruction looked like a television remote, except it's designed to be linked to a receiver that a teacher programs. I'm sure it was originally designed for mass-given multiple-choice tests. But there are easily several other uses, from more private surveys of student attitudes/prior ideas to quick gauges of comprehension. I need to ask a few more questions about capacity (I have a wonderful idea of how to use it to queue students up in discussion), but I might try it out next term.

August 23, 2004

What students know (or think they do)

This semester is my first teaching one of the frosh courses in USF's Honors College, and I enjoyed meeting my students this morning, though there was one disconcerting minute or two, when I was trying to encourage discussion of real-life high-stakes examples of trying to discern truth. (The course, titled "Acquisition of Knowledge," is really an epistemology course.) I had discussed the controversies over Michael Bellesiles' now-discredited book (Arming America) that had won a prestigious historians' prize and controversies over what educational research is and is not, but those are fairly arcane matters for the first morning of the semester. Time to let them start a heated debate. So I asked how many had read or heard of the Swift Boat veterans ads or the controversy over Bush's National Guard service. The group looked sheepish while a few raised their hands. I was flummoxed. Oh, well. So much for students' keeping up with current events. Time to try another tack, I figured. I asked how many remembered the O.J. Simpson trial. I don't know why, really—it was the first thing that came to mind in terms of pop culture and discerning the truth.

Every hand went up.

July 26, 2004

The 'multiculturalism'/'diversity' tantrum

At least once a semester, at least one of my colleagues or I hear the following complaint from a student: "I've heard enough about diversity and multiculturalism!! Why can't we just treat each other as human beings?" I'd hazard a guess that anyone who's taught a social-foundations course in education or other classes where this topic pops up gets a similar complaint. It's a minor vent/rage against the topic itself as well as a response to disturbing views that someone might be reading. And until recently, I didn't understand it except as someone resisting the analysis required by the topic.

And then, in a committee meeting this spring, when we were discussing something (I can't remember what) and another member talked about the need for tolerance, I responded in my usual way to caution against that word—probably something like "You may not be aware that I'm not tolerant of racism"—when I felt something I usually don't on the topic: this small blurb of rage, a totally irrational spate of livid thoughts. I don't think I said much based on this, but afterwards, I realized that I was most angry at the assumption that mentioning tolerance was sufficient to paper over deep differences in power and philosophy. I was pissed that the popular language of diversity had replicated structural-functionalist language precisely over issues that generated conflict. "As long as you talk about it, and I tell you that I tolerate your views, that's enough." Aaaiiiii!

As my colleague Barbara Shircliffe has pointed out, the language of multiculturalism and diversity can be absorbed and coopted into the curriculum in a variety of ways, and this may be a reflection of its success. Like so much other reformist language, diversity is a malleable concept. Why do students need to learn about diversity? Beware that word "need," because it prompts a functionalist response—to be able to fit in as an adult in different workplaces. Now, I know that's true, but it's such a shallow explanation, and it shrinks the issues tied to diversity into the social psychology of the workplace. I guess we don't have to discuss affirmative-action policies, since you don't need to know that to "fit in" at work. And I guess we don't have to discuss anything else related to public policy, either.

So the next time I hear a "diversity tantrum," I'm going to probe a bit more deeply. Maybe it's a healthy response to rhetorical pablum that effaces conflict. That doesn't mean I'm going to agree with the speaker, necessarily, but it's another lever for discussion.

June 24, 2004

Decisions, decisions

I'm doing significant course development work in the fall on an entirely distance-learning course, and for this I've been offered a rather nice stipend that comes from a federal grant. That's very nice, but I don't really want that stipend. (I'm also not sure that I can take it, since I'm teaching an overload course in the fall that also comes with some money.) I first asked for it to go into an account I control that I can use to hire students, or pay for equipment (like a Linux server for my teaching, yeah!), etc. But the federal grant won't allow that, which is fine and proper.

So, depending on whether I can accept any of that stipend at all, I'll be putting a chunk of it towards hiring a student for the project. That's all fine with me, since these days my most valuable commodity is time. The question is, given my idiosyncratic use of technology in teaching, and the steep learning curve involved with lots of tools I might be interested in, what can I ask a student to do in the fall, and how might that be mutually beneficial?

May 11, 2004

Interesting plagiarism discussion

The Syracuse University grad-student blog, Orange Philosophy, has an interesting discussion of reading student essays and catching plagiarism. I'm not sure I agree with the skeptical approach here—I tend to be a trusting reader unless something jabs me in the stomach, so to speak—but it's a provocative exercise to read the catching-plagiarism-through-key-disparities approach.

April 25, 2004

Foolish and sensible consistencies in grading

The practical problem with reading more than 10 or 15 student exams or papers is that one has to balance the need for consistency with the need for sanity. Even with a good bit of experience and a grading scheme (or rubric, or what-have-you—a set of guidelines for grading), there is always the good chance that one's standards will change from the beginning of a batch to the end. As a colleague tells me, sometimes the paper that you cracked down on for minor factual problems looks a lot better by the bottom of the pile. Conscientious teachers are aware of that and will reread some papers to make sure that the grading standards haven't changed.

But the deeper grading problem is a simpler physical one: reading student work carefully is exhausting. When the exams are handwritten, one can enjoy the neat print-like work of some students but struggle through other work that has overlapping curlicues and daggers of ink or just a muddle that one must puzzle out. Did the student write "curdle" or "coddle"? More fundamentally, you're trying to figure out whether the student understood concepts and can explain them clearly. You don't want students to regurgitate whole phrases (or at least I don't), but a student who puts an idea in her or his own words may also be mangling those ideas beyond recognition. It's a balancing act, and that act tires me out.

The undergraduate exams I'm now grading are all paragraphs in response to eleven questions. So, instead of making a judgment on one or two essays per student, I'm doing so on five or ten times as many. I think it gives me a better sense of what students have learned in this course than long essays, but it's more mental work, believe me.

The practical solution for me has turned out to be partially batch processing, partially blind grading of individual questions. I take a batch of papers (say, 10 or 11) and go through them one or two questions at a time. That theoretically gives me some question-by-question consistency within a batch of papers while still letting me see progress while I work. For example, I have the white-paper exams queued up this morning, having turned the first sheets over last night, so that I'll only know student identities after grading questions 3-11 and then turning to the first sheet and the first two questions. I should finish this batch over four or five hours, but I'll take breaks between questions.

All right: enough procrastinating. Time to start grading this batch.

April 24, 2004

Exam grading

And for the next week, almost everything goes overboard while I read student work. Yesterday I had a bunch of meetings, and then the new laptop had some problems (a memory chip needed reseating), but after lunch it's time to crack down and start reading the undergraduate exams with some discipline (of my mind).

February 4, 2004

Getting back to reading

Finished one batch of short papers yesterday for the undergraduate class—had graded it the prior week (which is easy, as it's pass/fail, and grading is much harder than providing comments) and had gotten bogged down in a number of things while trying to provide comments. Then I got through two batches of quiz answers for the graduate class, and now it's time to switch back to quiz answers for the undergraduate class from the last week or so. Reading and commenting on low-stakes student work is an enjoyable task for me, but it requires some time.

January 19, 2004

Keeping up

It's a holiday, but I still need to get some things done before my family heads out of Tampa for the day: time to update some quizzes from last semester and upload them to Blackboard. Time to download student responses from last week and read/grade them. A former student e-mailed me a few days—very nice to hear from students—and so I replied this morning.

January 5, 2004

First day of class

Absolutely wonderful first day of class. Relaxed, only moderately cranky equipment, and the class began to rethink its collective interpretation of the 1640s Mass. general-court decrees on education.

December 31, 2003

Main job this morning

Time to get a few loose ends tied up from the fall. A student who had a car accident right before the final is taking a make-up this morning, and I need to grade a few papers that came in late, get some stuff to student groups from my undergrad course, and then move on to set up a few things for the spring. The syllabi are set, so it's time to set up the first week's on-line assignments.

September 6, 2003

Computer woes and lessons

The university computing center made a major mistake in upgrading Blackboard just before the fall semester began. The result? Significant glitches and long stretches when the server has either been down entirely or just so screwed up as to make no difference between screwed up and completely off-line. So I’ve been reassuring frantic students that I’ll adjust deadlines for on-line quizzes so no one in the class is penalized for technical problems.

I made my own goof yesterday in trying to upgrade the on-line journal system I’m using for my graduate class. Didn’t I learn anything from what happened with Blackboard??? Evidently not. Oh, well. I was able to revert to the older level. Fewer nice things, but I can deal with it, and I only caused minor panic when the database screwed up passwords and I couldn’t figure out how to reset them for students. (I did, eventually.) This should be a good basis for when we discuss educational technology later in the semester, no?

August 25, 2003

Bollixed technology

First day of classes. I’m not on campus, because I’m not teaching and I know parking would be a nightmare, even without half of the central parking lots being torn up or otherwise in chaos.

On Friday afternoon, the tech gurus at USF finally finished their upgrading of the on-line courseware package, Blackboard, to the new version. Of course, that left 3 days for faculty to upload information to their course, after two weeks of unavailability. That, and a few things just aren’t working right, like the program I use to create and upload quizzes to course pages. I’d be able to use a workaround if only the server weren’t slowed by everyone else’s trying to do the same thing...

August 20, 2003

More prep

A few more on-line quizzes done, new sheets delivered to Pro-Copy for the undergraduate course pack, and some stuff taken care of for H-Education‘s book reviews.

August 16, 2003

Getting ready for the semester, and a surprising invitation

I’ve been delinquent on this work journal, I know. We’ll see if I can be more disciplined this semester, but my 3.14159... loyal readers will understand that other things have priority. Right now, I’m working on my pre-semester to-do list. Syllabi are (mostly) redrafted. I’m slowly working on quizzes for the undergraduate class (more of that later in this entry). I’ve checked on the books I ordered. I’m mostly ready to go, at least for the first week. New wrinkles this term:

  • On-line quizzes for undergraduate class. In prior semesters, I’ve had weekly in-class, short-answer quizzes. These have been useful for keeping students motivated to read the material every week. They are also very time-consuming for me. So I’m trying on-line quizzes to serve the same function. Yes, they’re standardized, but they’re low-stakes, and an additional wrinkle may help me in assessing student reading.
  • Using an online journal system for the graduate class, albeit for comments on readings. My favorite academic toy right now is the Open Journal Systems open-source software, which allows a journal editor to use software to do the most tedious aspects of running a journal—assigning reviewers, sending out routine correspondence, routing the MS’s, and so forth. I’ve used it as back-end support for the H-Education book reviews, to manage the reviewing pool, and now I can think of another use: to organize a class peer-reviewing process. So each week, students will write comments on the upcoming week’s reading and then respond to two classmates’ comments on the prior week’s readings. The latter assignment will also allow students to provide comments after class discussion.
  • A style guide I’m still in the midst of writing. Inspired by reading Stephen Pinker and Joseph M. WIlliams this summer, I’m trying to finish the style tutorial I had slated for writing a few years ago (to match my plagiarism tutorial). It’s a lower priority, I know, and may not be finished until the end of the term.

And now for something a bit surprising...

Yesterday, I received the following e-mail from the secretary to my dean:

Dr. Dorn, I am pleased to inform you that you have been nominated for the position of Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development. If you accept this nomination, please send a one-page letter indicating your interest and a current copy of your vita to me no later than Friday, September 12.

Dr. Kennedy encourages your application.

The position is an interesting one, combining research compliance (making sure all faculty follow ethical and financial rules for grants and contracts), research encouragement (herding cats to write grant proposals), and personnel issues (tenure, promotion, grievances, recruitment, retention, etc.). I have no idea who nominated me for the position, but it’s a bit odd. I’m an associate professor, so my involvement in decisions on promotion to full professor would endanger their credibility (and possibly earn me some enemies on that score when it’s my own promotion at risk in a few years). I also have no administrative experience, and I’d instantly leap to a senior administrative post in the college, with personnel responsibilities (when I’ve never even been on my department’s annual review committee). And it would be a huge investment of time, not only in doing the job but in the steep learning curve. It would reduce my commitment to my own research and teaching, and it would be more time away from my family. And I’ve committed myself to be the treasurer of the local faculty union chapter through April.

Now, I love being an academic matchmaker (which would be one part of the job), and I have a number of ideas on that score. I’m reasonably competent at cutting or at least coping with red tape (the research compliance piece). And I can (or will be able to) write evaluations and be part of personnel decisions, if with considerable time spent in learning that part of the job. But it would be a diversion from my expected activities over the next few years, and I doubt that the college’s chairs would see me as qualified. Or, rather, I’m afraid to think about a pool of candidates that would make me the most qualified.

July 17, 2003

The uses of Blackboard

I am very skeptical of Blackboard for a number of reasons, primarily its clunkiness, its unusability in many contexts, and the unfulfilled promises up to now. But I have found a way to use the automatic quiz function intelligently, as a way to push students to read material on-time and at least a little thoughtfully. The quizzes are open-book, which is fine for me, and I tried them as a low-stakes assignment in my masters-level history-of-education class in the spring. This fall, I’ll replace my weekly in-class quizzes with on-line quizzes for the undergraduate social foundations class, which should reduce my in-semester grading duties to the ones with more substantive feedback (writing). I’ll see if I can tweak them during the semester or in the spring to be even more useful, but I’ve learned to try one thing at a time in changing classes that otherwise work well.

March 6, 2003

Painful clues

I had a discussion with a former student earlier this week with a painful lesson about miscommunication between students and faculty. But it’s an important lesson, and I think I know how to remedy this specific problem.

In the relevant class, where I was teaching a cohort of students in a single program, I received abysmal student ratings in the end-of-semester surveys students completed. I knew I was going to take a hit for the fact that a book supplier failed to come through at the beginning of the term (partly my mistaken faith in the retailer) and that students had some skill gaps as a group. But I also suspected there was some other dynamic I was missing entirely. I received a clue ten weeks into the term when a student told me she was absolutely fearful of my judgment of class discussion. Why? I asked. Well, she explained, I had cut down another student in an on-line discussion thread fairly early. Here is, word-for-word, what I wrote from that thread:

[The student] suggests that my item about a possible contradiction regarding the status of women may be imposing contemporary values on the past. In other words, he’s accusing me of the historian’s sin of presentism. Since this is an issue about my discipline and not the book itself, I’ll respond on that point alone. (I take no offense at the challenge, by the way; it provides one of those interminable teachable moments we’re supposed to be so fond of.) (Then I addressed the substantive issues.)

The other student (who read my response) was certain that I saw her colleague, an absolutely wonderful student in my opinion, as challenging my authority. I said absolutely not—it was a wonderful exchange, in my view. I was puzzled by her reaction, but didn’t think much more about it until I spoke with another student in the class this week, and the same issue came up (though this other student was not as specific).

The thought hit me with a ton of force: These students interpreted challenge as a signal that I thought the student was a challenge to my authority as a teacher. They were fitting my remarks into their understanding of teachers in charge of students. That perception was at odds with what they thought university faculty were like, though it was close to their understanding of authoritarian-styled K-12 teachers. The comments in parentheses may have reinforced their interpretation of my remarks as being displeased with the student.

In reality, I was delighted with the issue that the students raised. So there was obviously a gap. One was how students perceived my humor, and that’s always tricky (and unpredictable). Generally, students don’t misinterpret my occasional uses of humor.

The second issue, though, was the lack of a shared understanding of the class as an intellectual endeavour that everyone contributed to. They certainly understood that we were discussing the politics of education, and they had no qualms with it. But to see the politics of education through a set of intellectual lenses was a different task from shooting the breeze. And they had to see themselves as intellectuals to feel comfortable with a certain amount of give and take. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I know that this cohort did not talk about themselves as a group of teachers who were also intellectuals (or intellectuals who taught a certain subject).

I think that gap in understanding has been the missing piece for several graduate courses I’ve taught at USF. And, now that I know it, I can address it explicitly at the beginning of classes. My classes are intellectual endeavours. I expect students to act as intellectuals, and I know they’re all capable of it. And I will support their intellectual achievements.

And this is broader than my courses. It’s a problem for doctoral programs in the college as a whole. There’s a deep gulf in the faculty between those who think of doctoral programs as research training and those who see it as part of career paths (to do some honest work while earning another step on the salary scale). And there’s also a deep gulf among students who see graduate work as intellectual and those who see it as part of earning a credential. I suspect this failure to reexplain what intellectual work is (for I believe most students will recognize it when explained well) is something that is easily solved, if we all agree as a faculty that students should work hard at intellectual stuff.

February 13, 2003

Time to edit former students’ papers

I have, from the spring, the papers of two students who agreed to let me share their work with others (with their names removed). I haven’t edited them, and it’s time.

February 10, 2003

Pleasurable work

Over the weekend, I’ve been reading parts of three memoirs I assigned my masters history of education class. I am delighted no one picked the fourth option, but all of the memoirs are wonderful, and I need to finish my own assignment before class tonight to discuss the memoirs as primary documents (historical sources) in their own right.

I also put together background materials for the perspective papers for my undergraduate social foundations of education course. I put together these topics every semester, generally combining a topic and place to give specificity and reduce the temptation to plagiarize. This semester’s topics are the funding lawsuit in New York state, the debates over the protection of/tolerance of gay/lesbian students in Florida high schools, and the debates over the Kamehameha Schools (a private trust set up by the last surviving descendant of Kamehameha for children of Hawaiian descent). Originally, I thought the last was going to be about admissions of non-Hawaiian students (the topic I had read of before the start of the semester), but I found out over the weekend about a scandal that had resulted in the remove and prosection of former trustees of the estate. So while I think including that topic would be a stretch for most students, I am including the relevant web sites in my resource list.

February 2, 2003


I’m on campus today, working on the historical foundations class prep for tomorrow (as well as finishing grading student work). I’m having fun putting together in-class exercises that I intend to be fairly low stakes but highly intensive in terms of requiring students to think. I’m working with primary materials that are deliberately a week behind in terms of the background they’ve read, and tomorrow’s is from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), working from his discussion of laws and proposals for new laws. My students have already read of one, the description of the proposed system of education, but not the other (regarding Jefferson’s views on race and slavery). Useful discomfort, I think. And now, back to putting things together...

January 26, 2003

On-line quiz development

I’ve just finished the third on-line quiz for EDF 6517 (the historical foundations course). I think I finally have the drafting of quizzes on-line down. Last week I discovered that I can’t give detailed, individual feedback to students. Rats! So I add feedback to the essay/short answer items, and I’ve promised to give individualized feedback if students want it.

This is just a learning process.

September 7, 2002

First-time adjustments

Ah, the first time teaching a course, and you have to shift everything around ... Some students in my on-line course ordered the books from Barnes and Noble, which didn't have them in stock. So, inevitably, that was the book that we start in the second week of the course. So, its being an on-line course, the adjustment is simple, merging the discussion threads for the whole book so I don't evaluate anyone's comments until after the whole period, and also delaying the first paper a few days.

The students, all of whom are in a vocational/technical teacher education program, are more skeptical of the "established order," economically speaking, than I expected, heavily criticizing a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce report (which was the first reading). So I need to finish up evaluating their first week's worth of comments, make some general remarks, and finish my essay for next week (which I need to put up on the web site this weekend).

August 28, 2002

A personal touch

Because I'm paranoid about technical problems, I've been trying to call all my students in my distance-learning course as I can, and I'm discovering something—I'm learning some stuff about the course that's entirely unrelated to technical problems, as students read the syllabus and ask me questions they may not have if they only had e-mail contact. That's obvious in retrospect, of course, but I'm glad I was paranoid in this way.

And, of course, I'm making all sorts of beginner mistakes.

August 25, 2002

Classes begin

I've started my first distance-learning course this semester and had the orientation session with most of the registered students on Saturday. They seem a nice bunch, and apart from the complete lack of tech support to show them the system—and except for the fact that most of them didn't have the proper net access—it worked out quite well. I know we'll be doing some improvising, and I'm fine with that. This week I meet my other class for the first time, in a graduate course I've taught several times before.

Judy Genshaft, USF's president, did not in fact fire Sami Al-Arian on Wednesday. See UFF's web page on the Al-Arian affair for more details about current events.

March 19, 2002

Plagiarism again

I discovered two cases of plagiarism over the last few days. I feel rotten for the betrayal of ideals and the time I had to spend tracking it down instead of reading other students' work. I'd like to spend a minimal amount of time on this and not let it get to me, but my spouse tells me every case of plagiarism will always affect me like this.

February 13, 2002

I think I'll be trying—gasp!—Blackboard's

I think I'll be trying—gasp!—Blackboard's chat facility over the next week with my undergraduates. It's java-based and so incredibly clunky, but I'm not sure how else to do this. Requiring students to sign in to the web portal will also be clunky, so we'll see how it goes.

September 3, 2001

First week recap


The registrar's website tonight shows 40 students in my undergraduate class, up from 33 the first day of class. We'll see who shows up tomorrow morning. (I better!) Nine showed Thursday night in the graduate class, just about perfect.

Talkative or quiet?

I like students who are willing to talk productively (which most student talk really is, at least in my experience). The undergraduate class is fairly quiet, perhaps because a plurality are in the physical education program (and so why do they need to learn about the social foundations of education?? Obviously, I think they do). Smaller classes, like the graduate one I'm teaching this semester, generally take a week or two to find their dynamics. The first week in this course, I do lead much of the time, including when I'm explaining functionalist, conflict, and organizational theories of change using their explanations of specific events.

Some other stuff

I've now gathered a list of recent history-of-education dissertations which is on the website. This is in addition to the current research projects database in the history of education or childhood. I announced the database midweek and have 16 entries thus far. Only one member of my department apart from me has entered her research!

Discussing specifics

The first graduate class Thursday night worked better than any other attempt I've made to explain the differences among different types of explanations of change in the sociology/history of education literature. I remember, in my first education class as an undergraduate (at Bryn Mawr College), listening to sociologist David Karen lecture about functionalist and conflict theories and being impressed with the profound differences in world views. I have been much less successful in reproducing that aha! reaction in my own students, until this last week, and I now know why: I needed to guide them with their own specifics.

Last Thursday, I asked students to generate explanations of four phenomena in education

  • the history of desegregation;
  • the extent of distance learning;
  • the development of state standards in Florida; and
  • the use of standardized tests in Florida for high-stakes purposes.

The first lends itself well to conflict theories (for a lawsuit requires an argument), the others to both functionalist and organizational explanations of change. As students reported their explanations, I wrote brief labels on the board, in three sections. Only after I had filled in the categories did I describe them and explain my classification scheme. Then I gave a capsule description of each category and used their own examples to illustrate. There were one or two minor confusions (did the explanations refer to different types of school reforms or different plausible explanations of the same one? did they pass value judgments on the reforms?). But I have one bit of evidence that my explanation stuck with at least one student, who immediately tagged the next week's reading as functionalist. (For any student reading this entry, we'll talk about that claim on Thursday!)

The craft in this case is finding real-world examples that will generate different plausible explanations. In all cases, one needs a prompt that will easily draw student discussion.

August 28, 2001

First day of classes

Thirty-three students came to my lower-division Social Foundations of Education class this morning. Since the cap is 45, and a few other sections are being cancelled, I expect a surge on Thursday. That's no real problem, and I'm willing to have such "section refugees." The class was quiet. A plurality at the moment are in the physical education program (i.e., preparing to be P.E. teachers), and this will be an interesting experience for all of us. I've included one paper topic that should be of interest to them (what happens to P.E. programs in budget cuts). I have halfway reorganized my overheads and added a few cartoons to the first-day spiel. As usual, I took photographs of the students (and will do so for the new students Thursday), so I can learn their names. I'm awful with names and faces and need the help desperately. It's my first-week homework.

After class, I added their e-mails to the class list and went to work on a few other things. I've been having troubles for 2 years using FrontPage. I've now deleted it entirely and will reinstall, to see if that fixes things. I doubt it, but it's worth a shot.

August 14, 2001


I've reconstructed my work site and, after discussing a spate of plagiarism with colleagues, drafted a sometimes-ascerbic tutorial on plagiarism. I was wondering what to call it, perhaps the "irreverent plagiarism tutorial"—and then thought that some readers would think the "irreverent" referred to plagiarism. Then I thought about how my experiences with student plagiarism (e.g., this spring) has served as the basis for this effort, and how it's a bit the case of making lemonade from lemons. (Students: most of you don't plagiarize. One of the reasons why I hate plagiarism is that it infects how I like at other students.) Since lemonade still has that acidic taste, there came the title.

July 16, 2001

Changing things around

One of the courses I'm teaching in the fall, Schools and the Future, was put on the registrar's schedule for the wrong day and wasn't corrected until this past week. Eight students are currently enrolled, and so I need to contact them so they know they're now scheduled for a course on Thursday evening, not Monday.

The rest right now is juggling.

May 3, 2001


I have just turned in final grades to the department office, where they'll go (probably tomorrow) to the university registrar. Despite the registrar's office having a scantron form for grades (according to a former student of mine), we still handwrite the grades, and the university hires clerks to type in each grade by hand.

One student had an interesting comment about the final quiz. A question on one form of the quiz was, "By approximately how many years of life has the median age in the U.S. increased during the past 140 years?" The student wrote (in addition to an answer), "This is a terrible question. Does it matter to a future teacher? Rote memory?"

There are two issues here, one of the relevance of a piece of the course and a second one the extent to which exam questions can be relatively dry vs. more interesting and substantive. When I described (at the beginning of the course) what had happened to the population's age structure over the past 150 years, I explained a few of the possible consequences of the nation's aging (fewer voters with immediate family members in schools, for example) as well as how past conditions may have affected children (when during the mid 19th century, for example, at least one half of the population was under 20).

The second issue is how dry a question should be on an exam. Is there a reason for me to demand that students learn some facts, just as facts? I think so, because one needs to make arguments with details (not abstractions), and because one needs a command of such details. I suppose I could have pushed students further with this question: "Describe what has happened to the age structure of the United States in the past 150 years and how those changes have affected schooling." If I did so, I suspect future students might curse this current student.

April 28, 2001

An Honorable Time

My students know better than to assume the existence of some mythical Golden Age of families, education, or anything else. And yet I'm allowed a certain nostalgia for my undergraduate days at Haverford College, in part because we had an incredible luxury (and students still do, I assume), taking exams any time during finals week, without faculty proctoring. I remember deciding which three-hour slot during finals week I would take which exam, showing up 20 minutes before the start of the exam period, asking a student sitting at the desk for my sealed exam, going to one of the approved rooms, and completing the exam, typically with 5-10 other students in the room taking their own tests, usually in other courses.

My colleague Barbara Shircliffe argues that nostalgia is what we're allowed when there's an irreparable break with the past, but in this case, it's a spacial and institutional break, not a temporal break. I have specific times I require students to sit for their exams, and I wish it were not so. But the University of South Florida does not have what Haverford does, an Honor Code. The Haverford College Honor Council page describes the skeleton of how the Honor Code works at Haverford, a student-run system of collective self-discipline involving both academics and social life. Faculty members at the college generally follow the recommendations of an academic honor code trial, and the code in general is administered by an elected council of students. I once sat as a non-council jury member in a trial where a student had turned himself in. He had edited a take-home quiz response at the computer after the one-hour deadline and explained that he had violated the professor's rules. The professor was not at the trial, because the facts were not in dispute.

Haverford students are not saints, certainly. What is necessary for the operation of an academic code is some way to socialize students into the expectations and maintain those expectations. Haverford explicitly puts the code front and center in all materials for prospective students. Admitted students have to sign a pledge to abide by the code. Part of my orientation involved explanations of the code and several abstracts of real trials from the past (with names excised, of course, and some details changed to protect confidentiality). And several times a year, we found in our boxes one more trial abstract. Discussions of the honor code, "confrontations" of fellow students, and what constituted plagiarism and fair play towards peers, were usually low-key but omnipresent.

The guts of the honor code has changed over time, both in administration and substance. In the 1960s, if I recall correctly, the social side of the Haverford honor code included premarital sex as a taboo. Since the 1970s, substance abuse has become a far more prominent concern of students than it was before.

Faculty in this system have to both plan and trust a bit more. They need to provide exam copies for every student in advance of finals week. They have to trust that students will, on the whole, obey expectations. And, when they find a student has violated that trust, they turn over the trial to the Honor Council. (The final grade of course is a faculty member's judgment, which the honor code recognizes, but any other resolution, such as separation from the college, is in the hands of students.) Most faculty, I found, respected the system and trusted the students to work things out fairly.

Without such a system, faculty members become academic cops. Without some socialization, students either do not understand common academic expectations or behave as if they are not obliged to follow them. Having to sit in the same room while students write on pieces of paper that you designed is the ultimate example of academic policing. It is an unfortunate necessity. It is not a horrible evil, but having set times for exams is one of the small tyrannies of having an institution that does not trust its students, students who do not discipline themselves, and faculty members who carry the greatest burden of maintaining academic expectations.

April 26, 2001


was originally intending to write about something else, and then I saw my friend Debbie Ohi's Blatherings entry today on Internet stealing as well as Yen Shinkasen's journal entry describing someone else who "borrowed" her entire site's hand-coded design. Since I've had three cases of obvious plagiarism this semester (one stealing from an on-line source), it touched a nerve.

My interim chair, Jim Dickinson, has suggested that perhaps the Napster movement has made stealing a part of popular culture. I certainly intend to do more to educate my students, but I'm sure there has been plenty of cheating in the past. As I explain to my students, one needs to be wary about implicit myths of a golden age.

For the record, identifying student plagiarism is fairly easy: Usually the voice does not sound right. In about 80-90% of the cases, I can find the source within an hour or two. When I suspect plagiarism, I always get this awful pit-in-my-stomach feeling, and I hate the time my tracking sources down takes from the time I spend with other students, on my own research and writing, or my family.

April 2, 2001

A former student e-mails

Last night, a student from the fall e-mailed me. Over the course of the last semester, she and I had a running correspondence about the teaching of the course as well as the substance of it as well. She's an older student who, for a variety of reasons, was justifiably irritated at some of the structures I impose for younger undergraduates. I learned a great deal from her comments, which pushed me to think about what I do and why. One exchange, first her:

Here's my take on your comments. First that you detected a lack of respect for the writers you are asking us to read, and observed little or weak paraphrasing. Cool, you're right. Both counts. Writers should be respected even if they're wrong and it's an attitude that is easily corrected. It seems to me that you are defining respect for a writer by direct references and this paraphrasing you've requested. To me that was all a waste of words because you read the stuff, I've read the stuff and the paper only serves to show how we relate and respond. Another student pointed out to me that your aim might just be to have our papers readable by some outside person who possibly hasn't read the article in question. Ok, I'll buy that; surely that will improve with awareness. . . .

Looks to me so far that my papers are associational with the readings, but you're probably hearing way more than you care to about what we already know, and not enough about what difference it makes 'by direct reference/paraphrase'. To be honest, reading these articles hasn't presented me with much new information, but then we're back to the 'respect the writer of the readings ;-) and the teacher, aren't we? :-) By the way, there were a couple of things I'd have included in those papers, but couldn't fit all that into 600 words and pull off paraphrasing too!

And my response:

I know that at times a focus on the "text" makes teachers seem like we most value the pinning of authors down for close study, maybe making me an academic-as-lepidopterist (or butterfly collector). Please have pity on this poor reader, though, as I try both to gauge each student's understanding of the material and also respecting the nuances of all your thoughts. Specific references help with both of these tasks, because I face many times each week a passage of student writing that is ambiguous. Is the ambiguity intended, a reflection of writing late at night, or a sign of some misunderstanding? Discussing details helps me understand writing.

Teachers with small numbers of students—and students who have time to reflect and respond—have a great advantage in this effort at communication, in that a conversation can often sort out what the student is understanding and thinking. With more than 100 students, I do not have that option (I refuse to call it a luxury). The result is a horrific Catch-22 in which students most lacking patient guidance and coaching, in medium to large classes, are those where they most desperately need the skills that only such close teaching can provide.

As I wrote to another teacher afterwards, "My wife, who is taking classes for a masters, often chides me about this 'textuality' of academics, and at least I have an answer now for her (and myself)."

March 29, 2001

Magical moments

Every once in a while, students will say or do something that takes your breath away, and you trust that something you did as a teacher helped set that moment up. Today, I was lucky, and a student was luckier. A student group in each of my sections today organized a part of class around data on student and teacher demographics. In the afternoon class, the student group left on the dry-erase board the results of an informal survey in class, showing that most of the class thought that having role models from the same ethnic/racial group as students was important. Considering the nature of the data (showing that teachers are far more likely to be white females than their students in elementary and, to a lesser extent, secondary schools), that was not a surprising result.

I wanted to shake them up a bit to get them to look critically at what they had "voted." Since most are intending to be teachers (this in a Social Foundations of Education class presumptive teachers need to take in the college), I asked a question that would get them to think about their own capacity to model and make connections with students: "Are there responsibilities of teachers to be role models for students who may not easily identify with them along racial, gender, social class, or other dimensions?" Most teachers think of themselves as being able to make such connections, and the class quickly came up with many reasons or ways to make such connections.

Then one student in the back of the class raised his hand and explained that he was changing his mind. He had thought that having role models was important but realized that if he followed that logic to its extreme, African-American students should only be taught by African-American teachers, Latino/a students should only be taught by Latino/a teachers, and we'd be back to segregation. Discussion continued, in part raising issues that maybe the diversity of a teaching force is as important for white students as others, or maybe the individual qualities of teachers are important, and by the end of class about half of the students had voiced their opinion that an individual teacher does have the capacity to reach students who are different in terms of gender, ethnicity/race, social class, and the presence/type of disability. Then, at the end, having documented how their views were different when talking about individual teachers, I put some statistics from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education indicating that new teachers are still far disproportionately likely to be white (over 80%) and asked them if they were concerned. Yes, I wanted to leave them at the end just a little unbalanced. At this point in the semester, especially in this particular section, I am confident they won't take it personally. (If you're a student reading this and I've made a horrible misjudgment, please tell me!)

Changing one's mind in the middle of a vigorous class discussion is a type of bravery on the part of students, and it requires a type of intellectual honesty that is wonderful to witness. That made my week.