What Do Faculty Think?

As my university’s director of faculty development, charged with designing a new Center for Teaching & Learning, I surveyed faculty to try to get a sense of how they felt about their jobs. Survey results are in and I have done a preliminary sort of the data. Here are my initial impressions:

  • Both full- and part-time faculty derive much satisfaction from helping students learn and seeing signs that their teaching had an effect. But not a single respondent referred to student evaluations of teaching. The instrument simply isn’t on instructors’ radar as an informative, useful tool. (Probably because it’s not.)
  • Only 2 of the 79 full-time faculty who completed the survey mentioned collaborating with colleagues to foster student achievement. Teaching seems to be regarded, in the end, as a solitary endeavor.
  • On Likert-scaled questions about teaching, research, and service, full-time faculty were the most satisfied with their teaching (4.3 out of 5) and the least satisfied with their research (3.2). Perhaps this explains why only a handful of both full- and part-time faculty expressed a desire for pedagogical training. Since respondents frequently cited high teaching loads as the main impediment to engaging in more research, opportunities to learn how to teach more efficiently — for example, by spending less time on grading — might be well-received.
  • Although satisfaction with research had the lowest numerical score, responses to open-ended questions about committee service were far more negative than comments about teaching or research. Faculty signaled frustration with the inequitable distribution of service commitments, meetings that were badly managed and time-consuming, and a general lack of concrete outcomes from committee work.
  • In general, faculty feel that there are too many conflicting demands on their time. As a result, they feel forced to reduce the scholarship that — in their minds — is inherent to being a professor. Notable in its absence is any mention of the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The Article Summary

(Photo credit: Joanne H. Lee, Santa Clara University)

Today we have a guest post about teaching the research process by Anne Baker, assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. She can be reached at aebaker [at] scu [dot] edu.

Getting students to use academic articles for research papers can be a challenge. In my experience, many students, even those in upper-level courses, are not familiar with search engines such as JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, or Political Science Complete. And if students do happen to use Google Scholar, they frequently rely on excerpts from sources instead of entire articles that they might not have access to. So, what can be done to replace these habits with better practices?

In my advanced writing course on the presidency, I have developed a class activity which provides students with skills they will need if they are going to successfully locate and utilize academic references for their research papers. First, I want them to be able to use the library’s website to access search engines. Second, I want them to understand that research is an iterative process. Sometimes you don’t find what you need for a variety of reasons and you should be able to determine what those reasons are—whether its human error, the need for a wider search net, or that no one has written on the topic (this last possibility always surprises the Google generation). Third, students need to become acquainted with the literature on the presidency, including the subfield’s primary journal, by discovering how research practices in political science have changed overtime, even in a subfield which remains largely qualitative.

I have students work in pairs and I provide them with two search terms related to the institution of the presidency (e.g. signing statements, executive orders, oath of office). I pick the search terms carefully knowing that some topics have no scholarship and represent dead ends and others have later but not earlier scholarship or vice versa. The first step of the activity provides instructions about how to first locate JSTOR on the library’s website and then how to access Presidential Studies Quarterly using JSTOR’s advanced search options. Helpfully, for the purposes of this activity, JSTOR only has copies of the journal until 2000. To access later copies, students have to use the Wiley database, which students have to figure out how to find.

For each search term, I have students locate one article published in the last few years and then another for 1995-2000—a total of four articles. Next, students identify the research question and method the authors used, noting whether it is qualitative or quantitative, the sources of data regardless of method, the type of analysis (e.g. text, interviews, statistical), and the date of publication. After they have their four articles and perform this analysis, I ask them to compare the results of both searches. Finally, we have a class discussion in which we explore road blocks and challenges encountered and review how the field has changed over time.

I have found that this activity makes students more likely to cite academic articles in their final research papers and use them more effectively to support their arguments. Students also exhibit a much better understanding of the subfield and are more likely to use the other search engines that they encountered while on the library’s website. And they learn that research takes time and requires shifting your strategies to find the information you need.

More On What Students (Don’t) See

A recent meeting with a student inspired a follow-up to my last post about how students do and do not respond to information in a course syllabus. A month into the semester, the student said that he hadn’t been regularly submitting assignments because he was broke and reluctant to ask his parents for money to buy textbooks.

Here is the relevant section the syllabus:

Readings

  • This course requires a basic digital subscription to The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com.  Use your university email address for the academic discount.
  • Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Public Affairs, 2011.
  • Several chapters from William Easterly, The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001, available for free as an e-book from the library.
  • Articles on the library’s journal databases, or at indicated webpages.

Here is what I had to explain to the student:

  • The New York Times gives free access to up to ten articles per month, and an unlimited number of articles can be read by using the library’s computers.
  • Poor Economics can be checked out from the library at no cost and the book’s full text can be found as a free download after a few seconds of internet searching.
  • As stated in the syllabus, The Elusive Quest For Growth is also available for free via the library’s catalog.

The student’s reaction when I said this? Astonishment. All he had seen — or rather, bothered to investigate — was the price of Poor Economics at the campus bookstore, because that’s what was listed there as the required book for the course.

I can accept a small amount of responsibility for this situation because I discarded the syllabus quiz when I completely retooled the course in 2018. But mostly it seems to be an extreme case of learned helplessness. I was a first-generation college student for whom the expense of college was a major concern, and I have met many people over the years who, like me, found the cost of textbooks prohibitive — long before the existence of rental textbooks, digital editions, and eBay. Our first stop at the beginning of every semester was the library to see if required textbooks were available for check out or on reserve. We also searched local used bookstores, or borrowed books from other students.

So, next year, the syllabus quiz returns, and it will include questions about where to find books.

What Do Students See?

What do you conclude about the organization of this course, specifically the quizzes, based on the image below — part of the homepage for the course website?

The document containing the course syllabus is formatted in a similar manner.

To me, the course obviously contains a series of topical units, each ending with a quiz that tests knowledge of that unit.

Given the number of students who are emailing me questions like “What will Quiz X cover?”, it’s not so obvious to many of them. Apparently students don’t know how to read a syllabus, even when they do read it.

Does A River Really Run Through It?

Do students experience the curriculum in the manner intended? Probably not. The curriculum in the department that I just finished chairing includes a sequence of courses common to all three of the department’s majors — one course each at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level. All students are supposed to take the 200-level research methods course when they begin their respective majors, in part to identify a topic of interest before doing a semester of study abroad, an internship, or some other field experience in the junior year where the topic is researched. The 400-level course is the senior capstone, where they are supposed to compile the findings of the work they’ve already done and generate a finished report.

The reality? A fair number of seniors start the capstone not having previously selected a topic. They then have a single semester to identify their topic, design and complete the necessary research, and write about it — a situation that promotes a less than ideal final product.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to devote the 200-level course to having each student create their own research design, begin the data collection and analysis in the 300-level course, and tie everything up in a nice little bow in the capstone.

But there are complications. Each of these three courses is taught by a different instructor. Sometimes students don’t take the 300-level course until the senior year. And the university’s general education requirements — a distribution model — reinforce the preconception held by students that knowledge exists in discrete boxes and that courses have little or no connection to each other. While some of this could be prevented by imposing hard prerequisites, such a system would exclude many of the students who enter the department because they’ve changed major or added a double major. Given the small size of these academic programs, we want to encourage, not discourage, enrollment.

Storytelling with GIS

Another example of why it’s good to consult with librarians:

For the last several years in my globalization course, I’ve had student teams create and deliver presentations on their commodity chain analyses and ethnographies of consumption. Generally students build Powerpoint files for these assignments; occasionally someone uses Prezi. Simple rubrics make grading this work very easy. But the end products aren’t going to make recent graduates stand out from the competition when interviewing with prospective employers. It’s also difficult to convey the content of the entire project in a single presentation without showing a mind-numbing number of slides. Enter the storymap . . .

One of our librarians, a specialist in digital scholarship whom I’ll be working with next semester, introduced me to the digital storytelling tool from Esri,* a.k.a. the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which allows a person to create a multi-media presentation with ArcGIS. Rather than describe what this looks like, I’ll show you:

My task now is to reconfigure the project’s different assignments so that students complete their own storymaps by the end of the course, and figure out how to evaluate them.

*I have no financial interest in this company.

SIFTing for the Facts

The Winnowers, 1855, Gustave Courbet

Anyone interested in teaching students how fact check claims should visit the Check, Please! starter course. Check, Please! is a free training course in how to use the SIFT method to evaluate the accuracy of online information:

  • Stop.
  • Investigate the source.
  • Find trusted coverage.
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.

Check, Please! was created by the company Notion (which I have no financial interest in) but as stated on the website’s homepage, the content is intended for reuse and revision.

Call for Proposals: 2020 TLC

A reminder that the 16th APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is going to be held February 7-9 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Proposals are due September 23. Full details are at the APSA’s TLC 2020 webpage. As I’ve mentioned previously, this conference is not the standard sequence of tedious, badly-attended panel sessions. Participants can facilitate interactive workshops or engage in full-weekend working groups on particular topics.

If I remember correctly, when the TLC was last held in Albuquerque, a small group attendees began talking about the need to better communicate what we do and what we are passionate about. This blog was the result.

Why I Got Arrested (Twice) Last Semester

Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette, assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College. He can be reached at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.

It’s about time that I come clean publicly: last semester I was arrested not once, but twice, at the start of class. My crime? Teaching constitutional law.

Students in my Civil Liberties course were wrapping up a unit on criminal procedure, which includes case law involving proper arrests and interrogations. To give them firsthand experience, I asked for two volunteers to arrest me and then achieve a conviction without using any unconstitutional evidence.

Before class started, I discretely asked one student to watch over my snack-sized bag of “drugs” (oregano). At the time of my arrest I was handcuffed (using fake handcuffs that were easy to get out of) and brought over to the interrogation room where I was placed under a portable clip lamp I had concealed in a canvas bag.

Throughout the simulation I did not make the arrest easy. I admitted to the crime before my rights were read, after which I vigorously denied the charges. I pretended not to understand my rights while accusing the officers of violating them, signed the rights waiver under a pseudonym, asked for and then rescinded my request for a lawyer, and pretended to be under the influence of mind-altering substances. Each of these represents one of the surprisingly common complications in criminal procedure.

After the simulation concluded, I asked the class to determine which evidence could be used against me in a court of law. The results were . . . murky. The “easy” constitutional interpretation of Miranda v. Arizona began to look a lot more difficult.

Students responded positively to the experience and gladly arrested me again on the last day of class. This time I played an intelligent and peaceful extraterrestrial who had been living in the United States for many years, a scenario that asked students to extend the logic of Plyler v. Doe, a case about the children of undocumented immigrants. Students acted as a jury to determine whether I, as an extraterrestrial, could be tried under a military tribunal, executed, and denied admission to law school despite being otherwise qualified. The exercise served as a review of the semester and a reminder that constitutional rights come from cases that push the boundaries of the law.

This simulation requires that the instructor cede a great deal of control to students in a way that may not be comfortable or even advisable for everyone. The professor should have a rapport with the students beforehand. The number of students in the class and its physical location is another consideration.

But my students reported that the exercise gave them a new understanding of what can otherwise be dry and unapproachable legal reading. Anecdotally students seemed more attuned to the complexities and nuances of constitutional law in their exams and hypothetical case briefs after the simulation than they were before. And in their writing they were able to wade deeper into legal reasoning by analogy rather than a strict factual application of precedent. Students also noted in their course evaluations that they learned that the law is not as straightforward as they thought.

Thus, the exercise appeared to have achieved my goal of demonstrating that the law is not as cut-and-dried as students usually assume, and that most constitutional law is advanced through these tough cases, if it is ever settled at all.

Does the Question Determine the Answer?

Regular readers of this blog know that I sometimes ponder the clarity of my assignment and exam prompts (some past posts on this subject are here, here, and here). Students sometimes don’t hit what, in my mind, the question targets, so I revise in the hopes of creating a prompt that is more transparent. But I don’t want prompts to be answerable with a Jeopardy-like regurgitation of facts. I want students to exert some cognitive effort to figure out how to apply concepts that are relevant to the question at hand.

Usually this situation occurs with my undergraduates, but I’m noticing it more frequently with master’s degree students. A recent example is an assignment from my graduate-level introduction to comparative politics course:

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