My students don’t turn up: Responses to another classic problem

This

As I looked out across the lecture theatre yesterday afternoon, I did wonder what had happened to the two-thirds of the class that weren’t there. The sun was shining outside, but still.

Following on from Amanda’s post, I wanted to think about why this happens and what we can do about it.

Causes

  1. It’s the timing. Oldest one in the book, this: “it’s too early/too late/the other side of campus from my other class/the only thing I’d be coming in for/etc.” It’s easy to mock this one, but you remember feeling the same way when you studied: some times just feel more difficult than others. And just because I like teaching at 9am on Monday doesn’t mean my students like it. In yesterday’s case, it wasn’t even the usual slot, because I’d had to move times to avoid a clash with research commitments.
  2. It’s the room. Provision varies across campuses, even the most well-endowed ones. Sometimes rooms aren’t what they should be for the task in hand.
  3. It’s the other commitments. Another classic: I’m aware that yesterday’s class came a couple of hours before a deadline for most of the group and I’m guessing that some people decided they needed to focus their energies on that. Going off and enjoying the sunshine falls in this category too.
  4. Personal issues. I’m also aware that several of my class have been in touch to give valid personal reasons for their absence, due to ill health and other personal issues. This is a standard environmental factor for all of us, but sometimes it can be more substantial than others.
  5. It’s the class. Sometimes it’s not them, it’s you. Your class might not be very exciting or relevant or well-designed or it might be redundant because of other stuff you do. If you take all the other causes above as par for the course, then you can’t ignore this.

Solutions

1-4 All these things aren’t necessarily in your control, so you need to work with.around them as best you can. That means working with colleagues and your timetabling service to find time slots that make sense within the various constraints that exist. It means reporting faults with rooms promptly. It means coordinating assessment deadlines (that can be another post by itself). And it means ensuring students get appropriate and timely pastoral support.

Which leaves the class.

Think about how your class works, both in of itself and as part of a broader course. Is it offering something useful and something engaging? Note that these are two different things. Hopefully none of us teach stuff that isn’t useful – at least in our own minds – but the engagement aspect is more easily overlooked: there’s often an attitude that it doesn’t have to be engaging, because it’s important. Research methods is a good example of this: you have to do it, so it doesn’t matter how we do it.

If you’re aligning your teaching properly, then students will know what they’d doing at any given moment, and why they’re doing, and that they’ll be assessed on it. But if you’re flipping and/or providing powerpoints with all the key information on them (as I am in this present case) then are you undermining the need or desire to attend class?

This is one of the more tricky aspects of alignment, namely that you want to reinforce key elements, but then students take that as redundancy. If there is a solution, then it’s that we don’t tackle those key elements in the same way each time, but instead approach from another angle. Instead of just ploughing the same furrow again and again, you’re marking out criss-crossing tracks that join up into a mesh of knowledge and understanding (and mixed metaphors).

There’s more to be said on this, but I just wanted to get the ball rolling. If you have thoughts about this, then we always welcome comments and guest posts.

ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things. Continue reading

More Rashomoning: Considering truth in political communication

After our recent posts on teaching Trump, and on problematising interpretations of phenomena for students, I now find myself sensitised to such matters.

Walking through town at the weekend, I found a leaflet thrust in my hand. As you can see from the photo, this is obviously an individual with something that they feel strongly about: my very first impression was that the paper was irregularly cut, which means they have cut it by hand – no small effort.

And then you read it.

By itself, it’s an excellent piece for a group of students to discuss in class. The argument is there, but jumbled up and obscured: I’m still not sure the proverb makes any real sense (plus, it seems like a very long, and specific proverb).

But the bit that pulls one up is the arrest. How can promoting veganism get you put in jail? Continue reading

ALPS is at ISA!

This week is the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association in Baltimore, Maryland.  Most of ALPS will be attending, running workshops, participating in panels, and ready to talk all things pedagogy with our readers!  Please do find us, let us know you read the blog, and what else you’d like to see us cover in the future.

A few places you can find us:

Michelle Allendoerfer will be presenting a paper on the NGOs as Key Stakeholders in Human Rights Promotion panel.

Victor Asal can be found co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence and presenting papers on two panels: Conflict Processes and Understanding Change in World Politics (with Corina Simonelli) and Avenues of Violent and Nonviolent Contention (with Kristian Skrede Gleditsch).  He will also serve as a discussant on the Protecting Civilians and Preventing Violence in Peace Operations panel, and will play the role of Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Nina Kollars will be on the roundtable on Disobedience, Resistance, and Transgression in Military Organizations and is presenting her work at the Barriers to Effective Cyber Operations panel.  She can also be found playing the role of King Salman bin Abdelaziz in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Chad Raymond will be running the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on ‘Teaching the World with Authentic Writing Assignments’ and presenting a paper on the Pedagogy for Transformative Learning and Global Engagement panel, both with Sally Gomaa.

Amanda Rosen is co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence, playing the role of Egypt’s President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi  in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation, and presenting two papers, one on the Universality of Rights Revisited panel, and the other on the Higher Education and Globalization panel.  She’s also a discussant on the Innovations in Assessment of Active Learning panel.

What do you see?

They let me out last week, to give a talk at a schools event, about studying at university. As well as a chance for some fresh air – and to discover the back roads of Dorset – it was also an opportunity to try out some new things.

In particular, I had been toying around with how to communicate what happens in a university, as compared to a school. Central to that – I decided – was building individuals’ capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection.

So I showed them this:

Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 2

An ideal teaching environment

In my second post about factors that are affecting my teaching this semester, I’m going to zoom out to the institutional environment. When the spring semester ends, I will have taught seven distinct courses, two of which were online and in two sections each, so a total of nine classes for the academic year. I am also a department chair, for which I receive one course release each semester. My contractual teaching load is seven courses per academic year, so as calculated by the university, the overload teaching and department chair duties boost my workload by 57 percent. Yet in relation to my salary, I am only compensated an additional 18 percent.

Economically this is irrational, so why do it? Continue reading