The Risk Averse Generation semester is again drawing to a close — final exams are later this week — and as I have done in the past, I will review some teaching successes and failures by loosely applying Simon’s ABC method to myself.
But I will start with a general impression about a changing teaching environment, based on my own experiences this semester and discussions with some of my colleagues. We are seeing incoming college students who increasingly exhibit psychological traits that hinder academic success: an inability to plan, a reluctance to take risks, a lack of coping skills and emotional resiliency, and a fragile sense of self-worth. Learned helplessness is just one manifestation of this phenomenon.
While these students might have the same innate intellectual ability as students have had in the past, they are far less confident about themselves and fear uncertainty to a much greater extent. And so they try to avoid situations they perceive as challenging, refuse to test themselves on what they might not know, and their academic performance suffers as a result. In my case, I have seen the overall grade distribution in my first-year seminar shift markedly to the left — more D’s and F’s and fewer A’s. Maybe this is a one-time occurrence, but I doubt it.

Food Matters

The Agricultural History Society has extended its call for proposals for panel sessions and papers for its May 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. The new deadline for proposal submission is January 1. The conference’s theme is Tropicana: Commodities across Borders. The theme locates the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America in a global history of commodity production and consumption. Full details on the CFP can be found here.

Since I have shepherded a new minor on food studies through our faculty governance system, and applied for a federal grant on the same subject, food as a field of academic study has been occupying a growing — pun intended — amount of my time and energy. I’ll probably be writing more on this blog about teaching food production and consumption systems during the spring semester, but for now here is a simple assignment that uses food to get at socioeconomic inequality, public health, globalization, and environmental sustainability:

  • First, ask students to collect grocery receipts, either from their parents or from members of the off-campus community.
  • Second, have the students go into the markets where the foods listed on the receipts were purchased to identify the origin of these foods. Fruits and vegetables, at least in major U.S. supermarkets, are labeled by country of origin. For processed foods, like canned soup, additional research into corporate supply chains will be required.
  • Using some guiding questions, have students analyze — either through discussion, an individual writing assignment, or a team project — what they have discovered about who buys certain foods, where, and why.  What broader conclusions can students reach about the effects of people’s food choices?


Continuous Improvement, Perhaps

As another semester begins to wind down, I remain convinced that it is always a good idea to tell students what they are doing and why. They are unlikely to figure this out on their own.

For students, my first-year seminar has evolved into a semester-long exercise in problem-solving, yet I don’t mention “problem-solving” anywhere in the syllabus or in the directions for any of my assignments. So as a first-pass attempt at improvement, I’ve yet again tweaked my end-of-semester meta-cognitive Quality of Failure assignment. Directions for the Quality of Failure essay now read as follows:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your learning in the course in relation to your Knowledge Plan from the beginning of the semester. Respond to the following questions:

  • What helped or hindered your learning about the problem solving process when reading, writing, and designing games?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?
 I don’t think the results are ideal, but they are good enough for now.

When There’s No There There

Earlier in the semester, a student became hostile in class. I told the student to stop and that I wasn’t going to engage in an argument. The student became increasingly belligerent, so I responded by ordering him to leave the room. By this point the student was out of his chair and indicated that he would not leave willingly, so I pulled out my cell phone to call university police. The student said a few more things, using profanity in the process, and left the room. After getting the class back to business, I emailed the appropriate academic dean, the dean of student affairs, and the director of campus security.

What then transpired was enlightening, but not in a good way. I thought I had acted responsibly: de-escalating the situation by convincing the student to leave the room before he became violent. But according to university administrators, the student’s behavior did not constitute a reasonable — in legal terms — threat to anyone’s safety. Per university policy, as long as a student approaches that standard of reasonableness but doesn’t cross it, the student can say or do anything in class. Even if the student is removed from the classroom, the student can come back the very next day and engage in the same behavior all over again.

If, on the other hand, I had acted irresponsibly and deliberately provoked the student to commit a violent act or threaten harm to someone in the room, then the student could have been suspended or expelled.

In essence, I discovered that there is no middle ground where I work. Maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning for all students is not as much of a priority as I thought it was.

Collaborative Reading – Follow-Up Thoughts

Today we have an update from Colin M. Brown, College Fellow in Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at brown4 [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

In a post last year, I talked about the potential of using annotation software like CritiqueIt to make the reading process more collaborative. In short, by creating a single copy of the reading that students can mark up together online, there’s the potential for creating discussion prior to and during class, and also for getting students to see course readings as statements in a dialogue.

My first use of CritiqueIt was promising, but I’m less satisfied after having further used it in two undergraduate seminars plus a graduate-level, continuing education course.

Two things have continued to work, probably still making the tool a net positive. First, as a diagnostic tool CritiqueIt makes class prep easier, because it gives me a window into what students find interesting or are struggling with. Students indicate their interest implicitly or explicitly, and they also seem relatively fine with using their comments to signal that something doesn’t make sense—especially useful when they’re having difficulty with something I didn’t expect. Second, they seem to like it. Students seem to perceive it as a cool new gimmick, and I seem to get credit for trying it.

However, while CritiqueIt lets me know what students want the conversation in class to be about, it hasn’t generated a conversation among students on its own. Students have posted a few responses to other students’ annotations, but the kind of exchange I mentioned in the original post hasn’t happened consistently. Students seem to be completing the assignment because it sends me a signal that they have, in fact, engaged with the reading. This provides me with feedback for me, as mentioned above, but was not my ultimate reason for using the tool.

Since I want students to see political science writings as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas, there are three changes that I’ll be implementing next semester, thanks to insights from my colleague Daniel Smail, who has been experimenting with the same tool in his history courses:

  1. Build CritiqueIt into the entire semester. Students need time to get used to the tool, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of their work.
  2. Assign early readers. If everyone reads the night or morning before class, there’s less incentive to start a dialogue that none of their peers will respond to. By dividing up the collaborative readings and having one or two students make their annotations three or four days before class, there will be more time for students to jump into the conversation.
  3. Work CritiqueIt into summative assessment. This also normalizes the use of the tool, and gives students the incentive to develop better commenting skills. Students will need several days to virtually hand the document back and forth so this has to be accounted for in scheduling other assignments. But giving them a longer piece of journalism on the broad course theme and having them react to it, and then to each other, knowing that their comments will be graded on some explicit rubric, might be a better way to tease out their ability to respond critically to arguments—and actually use something they learned from class.


Amoeba Game

I’ve been telling students in my first-year seminar that the design of a good game often simultaneously combines chance, strategy, competition, and cooperation. About a month ago I invented a simple game to demonstrate how this could be accomplished.

I took the class outside, defined starting and finishing lines — about twenty-five meters apart — and divided the class into teams. The game had only one rule: every person on a team had to keep his or her left hand on the right foot of another teammate. First team to reach the finish line “won” the game.  Continue reading

Extending Simulations without Becoming Overextended

Today we have another guest post by Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia. He can be reached at joel [dot] moore [at]

Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.

Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles. Continue reading