First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

Recasting how you teach your discipline

Should we be dignified, or efficient? Or both?

Here at ALPS, we’re pretty open to new ideas, to questioning the assorted received wisdoms of the world.

So it’s always good to find examples from outside political science, not only because many of the things we talk about aren’t disciplinary, but also because it’s just stupid to think we have all the answers.

As a case in point, we might look to our little brothers over in economics. Over the past decade, they’ve taken a real battering because they seem to have utterly failed to model the world in any useful fashion.

A recent piece in The Economist pointed out, the most basic models that students get taught are often only caveated much further down the (academic) line, often after the point that many students get to. This leads to conventionalities in public discourse – trade as always positive-sum, for example – that simply don’t reflect the evidence or the state of the discipline.

In the febrile era since the great recession, students and faculty themselves have sought to throw out the approach taken to date and to build a new format.

That started with protests-cum-movements like the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society, but has since matured into the CORE project.

CORE is a collective of faculty from various institutions, who have built a very extensive e-textbook, grounded in a fundamental different way of teaching economics. The challenges and issues are fore-grounded, rather than back-loaded, and there is a effort to invite discussion and debate, instead of presenting a fait accompli of theory.

As someone who never had any economics education at all, I’m really enjoying starting to explore this resource, which is meant for use by a wide range of users and is intended to be integrated into local teaching delivery. I’d really encourage to have a wander around the site too.

Part of me would, of course, like to just say “welcome: what took you so long”: political science has long accepted that there is contingency and conflict of interpretation of the world and has frequently used critical questions as a way into building an understanding.

But at the same time, it is refreshing to see how there is a project to re-examine so much of what makes economics the discipline that it has become. By contrast, political science has usually just stopped at the point of saying that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, rather than trying to bring those ways together. As the quantitative shift continues to work its way through the community, there is a risk that such diversity is attenuated or stifled.

I’m always in favour of heterodox positions: the perils of group-think and conventionality are well-understood out on our side of the social sciences, especially in a era of ‘outsider’ politics. But even I wonder whether and how we might ever produce an equivalent piece of work as CORE, just as I wonder what might have had to happen for us to want or do to produce it.

 

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Using social media as an academic

A slightly different post this week, off the back of a session I led in Brussels for TEPSA’s PONT project, on how to use social media. I talked with a group of 15 young professionals, planning academic or think-tanky careers, about why social media can be of use to them.

The key message was that even if you don’t really care about social media, it cares about you.

If you’d like a demonstration, then google yourself and see what comes up. I did that for the group and put up a slide with the first photo that appeared on google images. Suffice to say that everyone had a photo, just not necessarily of them, or a particularly relevant one.

Put differently, even if you’re not created a virtual profile, others might be, so you need to engage with things enough to address misrepresentation. Continue reading

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Checking assumptions, breaking the ice: the UACES L&T workshop

Oh, I seem to be promoting this website… (thanks to @bentonra for the photo)

I’m in Poland this week, for the annual conference of UACES, the world’s largest European Studies association, of which I’m very proud to be Treasurer.

As part of the conference, we run an L&T workshop on the day beforehand. We’ve been doing this for some years now and it seems to be a good way of ensuring some critical mass on things teaching-y and for giving an opportunity to try out some different formats.

As such, each year, we do different things in a very deliberate way: it not only keeps it fresh, but also demonstrates to participants how they can reconfigure their practice.

Last year, I was tasked with an ice-breaker task, so I tried out an activity that sought to marry ‘getting to know you’ with ‘talking about teaching.’

Obviously, I used post-it notes to achieve this.

As we started, we gave out a post-it to everyone and told them to write one idea that they have found useful for improving their teaching practice. I was keen to stress that should be no limits to this, so it could be anything at all.

Once they’d done that, I got people to stick their post-it on to their name badge and then go and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and explain their idea to each other.

Within minutes I had a room of people chatting away.

After a while, as chat began to die down, I got everyone to swap around, to meet a new person they didn’t know and repeat the exercise. We did a third cycle too.

Having broken some ice, I then asked everyone to stick their post-it on a whiteboard, which I’d marked up with two axes: a horizontal one of small things-big things, and a vertical one of degree of subject specificity.

The final stage was to talk about what had been posted and using it to flag some points that fed into the next part of the workshop.

As an exercise, I’d observe that it was very helpful for getting a bunch of people who mostly didn’t know each other to start conversations, but also in getting me to think about the variety of what people bring to such sessions.

I’m very fortunate that I have a great community of people with whom I exchange regularly on L&T: we share a lot of language and range of considerations.

But that’s not the only way of doing things, as this exercise demonstrated.

I’d made some assumptions about what people would write: my own contribution was ABC feedback; small, quick, generic. Surely everyone would do the same.

Well, as you can see in the photo, there was a load of that (group 2), but we also had a lot of other stuff too (see list at the bottom of this post).

In part, this reflected some debate about “what’s ‘small’/’big’”, but it was mainly about the different backgrounds of the people. A browse of the list will show that all kinds of things are there.

So it’s a good moment to remember that we have to check our assumptions, not only with our students, but also with each other.

Now to find out more about what inverted learning might involve.

That list in full:

1: Quite small, relatively subject specific

  • Innovative assessment (e.g. briefing papers, not always essays)

 

2: Small and generic

  • Student field trips (with prep talks)
  • To do the work at the best/highest level, to bring to discussion new, sometimes challenging ideas
  • Find a balance between interaction and structure and guidance
  • Inverted learning, leading to advanced study, leading to connections of experience and debates
  • Tell jokes
  • ABC feedback
  • Role play
  • Tell jokes
  • Get students to use Moodle in class
  • Good use of first and last 5 minutes of the class
  • Involving participants in the discussion

 

3: more substantial, but still generic

  • Meetings to exchange experience/knowledge
  • Tour de table: get students to hear their own voice
  • Discussing current news by linking current problems with EU studies
  • Setting up workshops
  • Role play exercises
  • Brain-storming sessions
  • Use professional exchange: people of different scientific and professional backgrounds address cross-cutting issues
  • Working with students’ practical experience
  • Using self-reflection as a teaching method: students reflecting their performance during an internship, classes
  • Engagement through debating
  • Introduce student-run blog
  • Using study visits to enhance students’ experience and understanding

 

4: big, and quite subject-specific

  • Teaching EU business (school) students
  • Visit Brussels
  • Mixing masters and undergraduate cohorts in same unit

Missing Class: What to do when you have to cancel

Welcome back to the start of another academic year! I know we are all excited about the start of classes, but today I want to talk about what happens when you CAN’T hold class. We’ve all faced this dilemma: a sudden illness, a flat tire, bad weather, an inconveniently timed conference, an invited talk, jury duty—something comes up, planned or unplanned, that requires us to miss class for a day, a week, or longer. What are our options when this happens?

Option 1: Just cancel class

The easiest option is to just cancel class, no strings attached. Students often love this option as it’s a free snow day, although they may later regret it if it means some material gets left out or rushed. And that’s the real downside to this option: we put a lot of thought into what content to cover in our classes, and missing a session entirely means either dropping a topic or rushing through several topics to find that time again. Plus, there is an obligation of a certain number of contact hours with students that we should adhere to. There are so many other options out there that this one is by far the least advisable, and may in fact be explicitly forbidden by university or department policy.

Option 2: Have a proctor show a video or give an exam

Ask a TA, department office worker, research assistant, or another trusted individual to watch the class while they do an activity without you. This is not a guest lecture (see below), as the person is not being asked to deliver content, but instead to handle the logistics behind an activity that students can do without you. If you know about a missed class in advance, consider scheduling an exam for that day. Alternatively, you can have the class watch a video or film that the proctor can easily set up and run for the students. In that case, I advise having the students complete some kind of assignment to ensure they show up and pay attention—perhaps a video guide they fill out in class, or participating in an online discussion after the fact.

Option 3: Use the time for an out-of class assignment or site visit

If you know in advance that you will miss class, consider scheduling an out-of-class activity for that time. For an intro class, maybe you can have a librarian give the students a tour of the library and go over the available resources germane to your class. Or give them this time to work on a group project, conduct a survey or field observation, or some other project. Perhaps the timing is fortuitous and there is a conference or other relevant campus event that the students could attend.

Option 4: Online lesson

Another option is to put a fully formed lesson online for the students in your learning management system. Typically this would consist of putting some form of PowerPoint, podcast, notes, or videos online with an accompanying assignment such as required discussion, quiz, or problem set. You can also set up a time where you will be available to answer questions via Skype, Vidyo, or another web conferencing system. An online lesson is also a great option if you fall behind in class—just move a topic or two online, and you will quickly catch up. I tend to use audible ( a free audio recording software) to record a lecture that is linked to PowerPoint slides, put that up, and then ask students to take a quiz on the material and participate in one or two relevant discussions. Once you have the lecture recorded, you can use it again in a future class.

Option 5: Schedule a make up class

You can also try to schedule a make up class. This is probably the best option in terms of content delivery and contact hours, but can be difficult logistically, particularly if you have students with job, family, and other personal obligations. With a large class, this may be completely out of the question, but it is doable with a small class. I did this once with a research methods class, but ended up having to schedule two separate times for students to come so I could make sure everyone could attend. That meant I had to deliver the same material twice, on a Thursday and Friday evening. I haven’t done this since, honestly—now I would just do an online lesson on this material or arrange a guest lecturer to cover the class. But check your university guidelines–some schools require that missed classes be made up.

Option 6: Arrange a Guest Lecture/TA

The final option is to ask a TA or colleague to deliver a guest lecture to your class, either on the subject for that day or on a relevant topic within their expertise. This is more than just proctoring: you are asking your colleague to essentially stand in for you on that day and run the class. This semester, for example, I’ll be guest lecturing in a research methods class while a colleague is on his honeymoon. It’s easy for me to do this, since this is a class I teach all the time, and it helps him out—and of course, he immediately offered to do the same for me if I need anything covered now or in the future. Building up social capital by helping out your colleagues means that one day when you need to miss class, they are more likely to be eager to help you out. A few years ago, another colleague of mine injured his back and was bedridden for a few weeks. We dug out his teaching materials and took turns teaching his class for him so the students were not left adrift.  When I know in advance that I’ll be missing a class for a conference or other travel, this is the first option* I turn to—I only look to the others if I can’t find someone to step in.

Obviously missing class is never ideal, but since it invariably happens, it’s important to know the range of options we have to ensure our students still have the opportunity to learn the material. What have you all done when you’ve had to cancel class? What options are missing here?

*Ok, second. If I can realistically schedule an exam during that time, I’ll do that. But often the timing does not work out for that option.