What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to: Continue reading

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.

Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

Binary Failure

kitten-fightAn example of the kind of assignment design that I mentioned in my last post about feature creep:

I have assigned three iterations of policy memos in this year’s iteration of my first-year seminar. Directions for the first memo are here. The memos are intended to function as authentic writing exercises — each has a specified purpose, audience, and format. The authenticity is supposed serve as a vehicle for stimulating students’ interest in the topic.

The memos require a small amount of creative problem-solving. First, each student chooses a policy recommendation that he or she prefers. Limited choice is always good because it generates mental investment in the outcome. Second, each student selects from information that I’ve provided to create a rationale for the policy recommendation, but this has to be done within the constraints of the memo’s format. There is a puzzle to solve. Continue reading

When Less is More, More or Less

shopping-listIn 2015, I wrote about asking too many questions in instructions for assignments. What I as the information-craving professor sees as helpful detail, the student sees as a tangled and confusing mess.

I still notice occasions where I fall into this bad habit, most recently in an assignment in two of my online graduate courses, in which students analyze peer-reviewed journal articles. The old instructions said that analyses should answer the following questions: Continue reading

ALPS Summer School

Scribe PortraitAre you interested in turning a classroom experience into a journal article? If so, we’d like to help. If you send us a rough idea of your topic in the form of a guest post, we will publish it. We will then provide feedback in the form of either comments or a series of subsequent posts. You will have the opportunity to respond. The end goal is to workshop the idea and help you produce a manuscript on pedagogy that can be submitted to a journal like PS, Journal of Political Science Education, European Political Science, or International Studies Perspectives.

Send your ideas to us at alps@activelearningps.com.