The Death of Curiosity? Part 1

Our fall semester is nearly done, and I’ve already started mentally reviewing it. Although this might be a consequence of recency bias, the teaching-learning environment feels like it has been below average.

Given their annotations on Perusall, many students seem to still have great difficulty identifying the thesis, independent variables, and dependent variable of assigned readings — despite the accurate comments written by classmates.

Attendance in class has frequently been below fifty percent, and a greater portion than usual of the students who do come to class look like they mentally check out during discussions. For context, see my October series on physical presence in the classroom here, here, and here.

Possible solutions to the above problems? Instituting pop quizzes based on Perusall readings and class discussions, machine-graded in the Canvas LMS, comes to mind. If students don’t want to voluntarily eat the carrot of knowledge, then perhaps I should use the stick of multiple choice questions that directly affect the course grade. Two potential drawbacks to this method: first, the difficulty of guiding in-class discussions toward quiz questions that were created before the discussion occurred, and second, potential complaints about not being allowed to “make up” quizzes that were missed when absent. My general policy is not to complicate my life by scheduling alternative testing dates, granting deadline extensions, etc. As I’ve stated before, I regard students as legal adults capable of setting their own priorities.

Before classes end this week, I’ll be gathering slightly more objective feedback on the “skills” components of my two undergraduate courses via anonymous surveys. I’ll report the results in my next post.

Live From COP 27, Part 2

Maybe

Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Live From COP 27

As usual, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

I’m attending the COP 27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh as an observer, courtesy of my university. For the general vibe, read this cheeky article (plus a follow-up!) from The Guardian. In its design and operation, the event models some major international relations and comparative politics concepts.

The Blue Zone, the main conference site, is sprawling and chaotic, yet has only one entrance and one exit where attendees badges are scanned. You’re either in or out. The Blue Zone is dominated by meeting rooms and exhibition spaces for state actors and a few U.N. organizations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, petroleum exporting rentier states, have the largest and most glitzy exhibits. Egypt, military dictatorship and conference host, ranks third in this respect. The U.S. pavilion is good-sized and neatly organized, but extremely loud, as is typical for Americans. Canada? Friendly and free coffee for passersby. The pavilions of African states are quite welcoming, despite their organizers’ histories of exploitation by foreign powers.

Potemkin coffee kiosk

Power hierarchy is apparent in other ways. One Blue Zone area is the preserve of high-ranking officials who meet behind closed doors after arriving in limousines. Occasionally dignitaries stroll through the mass chaos elsewhere in the Blue Zone, flanked by plainclothes protective teams. My compliments to the bodyguard who expertly guided me into a non-threatening position by gently touching my upper arm with only three fingers.

The Green Zone is a smaller space for Egypt’s government ministries and universities, along with international civil society groups, to showcase their environmental sustainability efforts. It is located directly across a road from the Blue Zone, ostensibly allowing attendees to conveniently pass back and forth. But the Blue Zone’s gate that faces this road is closed for the duration of COP 27 because of “security,” and the promised shuttle bus running between the Blue and Green Zones did not materialize until a few days after the conference had started. The conference venue includes a third building, dedicated to public-private partnerships, that also requires a shuttle or taxi to access because of surrounding walls, despite being only a short distance away as the crow flies. My prior international travel experience in authoritarian states leads me to believe that these impediments to movement and communication are a feature, not a bug.

My final comment, more directly pertinent to the subject of this blog: so far, COP 27 has resembled the typical academic conference at which information is dumped onto a passive audience via speeches and panel presentations. I have not yet encountered any Blue Zone events designed with active learning in mind. This is probably not the most effective strategy for teaching about an existential threat.

Update on CHAMP Forecasting Project

My impressions so far of the political forecasting project (described here, here, and here) that I created for the undergraduate course on the Middle East that I’m teaching this semester:

The quality of student writing on the different elements of CHAMP has improved over the first three iterations of the assignment. Their analyses are more specific and relevant to what they are trying to predict. I’m hoping that this is a sign of students’ increasing interest in the project. Citation of sources remains problematic for some students. No, a string of URLs is not a bibliography.

The quality of no-stakes classroom presentations has similarly improved. After each forecast, one member of each team presents his or her team’s collective conclusions without using any visual aids. The first two rounds of presentations were terrible. The third round was adequate. I’m now wondering, if I use this project in the future, whether I should grade the presentations against a simple rubric and introduce a rule that a different team member presents each round.

As for the forecasts themselves, here are the average probabilities assigned to each event for the three rounds of predictions students in the class have made so far:

Physical Presence, Part 3

To continue the subject of Part 1 and Part 2 . . .

Like equating time spent in a physical classroom with knowledge learned, the assumption that learning always matters most to U.S. college students does not mesh with reality. U.S. universities in the main operate on the basis of their customers’ revealed preferences. Experiences that seem to be just as attractive as or more attractive than learning to these students:

Where there is smoke, there is fire
  • Occupational credentialing. Like it or not, students are aware of the economic benefits of college. Accurately or not, many students perceive that these benefits derive from meeting the requirements for a diploma, not from what is learned. Given that elite universities in the USA function as prestige goods, I can’t say that this view is entirely incorrect.
  • Maturation and individuation. Students are willing to pay (or, in reality, borrow) tens of thousands of dollars to live independently of their parents for the first time. Colleges that cater to 18-22 year olds are happy to provide this revenue-generating service.
  • Recreation and entertainment. Many first-time, full-time students choose a four-year institution on the basis of whether they will be able to continue to play the sport that they played in high school, for example. Others are quite willing to watch this happen, even at taxpayer expense.

How did the pandemic affect student demand for and access to these experiences? It’s probably too early to identify any changes in what a bachelor’s degree from State U. signals to employers, given the economy’s current strong demand for labor. College certainly wasn’t a maturation experience while campuses were closed. Anecdotally it seems like students were happy to return to campus dormitories and apartments, regardless of the cost, and university CFOs breathed a sigh of relief as auxiliary revenue streams kicked in again — despite the continuing national decline in college enrollment. And I don’t know of any collegiate athletic programs that have been dismantled post-pandemic.

But there does seem to be something different in the wind. I know of several institutions where enrollment began declining several years ago, federal pandemic aid provided a temporary stopgap, and now broad swathes of academic programs are being eliminated as they try to budget cut their way to financial viability. I also am seeing reports of the customer-facing employees of higher education — faculty and graduate students — abandoning academia for better salaries and greater job satisfaction elsewhere. The same seems to be true of mid-level non-instructional university staff. Last, the few campuses that I’ve been on over the last year seem less lively than has customarily been the case. Fewer people walking between buildings, less crowded parking lots, and more empty chairs. Maybe this is because people discovered during lockdown that the benefits of working or studying remotely were at least equal to its cost.

It looks from my biased perspective that the pandemic might have been my long-awaited inflection point for higher education. The online experience may be quantitatively or qualitatively different from in-person instruction, but as I’ve stated above, learning for learning’s sake has not been the top priority for many college students for quite a while.

I’m reminded of MIT president L Rafael Reif’s statement in June 2020 about MIT’s plan for its upcoming fall semester — “Everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online” (italics original). I’m also reminded of last year’s purchase of edX, MIT’s non-profit MOOC platform, by the publicly-traded company 2U. In ten years, edX went from nothing to a market valuation of $800 million. There are at least some people out there who think that physical presence in the classroom is no longer essential to the educational experience of college.

Physical Presence, Part 2

As promised in my last post, here are the results of my unscientific survey on absenteeism. I anonymously polled the 47 students enrolled in the two undergraduate courses that I’m teaching this semester. I received 41 responses.

The survey contained three questions:

  • What has been the main reason you have not attended one or more classes for this course?
  • Does attending class in this course have a positive or negative effect on your mental health?
  • Does attending class in this course have a positive or negative effect on your learning?

Lack of sleep or food, physical illness, and depression/mental health were, in descending order, the most common reasons given for not attending class:

These two courses meet at 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I’m going to assume that insufficient sleep, rather than food, drove the most common response to this question.

Some students said that attending class had a positive effect on their mental health, but more said it had no effect:

In contrast, most students said that class attendance had a positive effect on their learning:

So there you have it. Small sample, muddy picture, but I’ll draw two tentative “conclusions” from the data. First, given the well-documented links between sleep and physical and mental health, there is a good chance that these students’ stated reasons for being absent would change dramatically if they went to bed earlier or if classes did not begin until later in the day. Second, while it’s been my anecdotal experience that students who are chronically absent from class have poor academic performance, the former can’t be said to cause the latter given the likely presence of confounding, omitted variables. We also know from research on active learning pedagogies that people usually have a very inaccurate sense of how much and why they’ve learned. It would be nice to know when and why some students learn more than others when they are in a physical classroom.

Physical Presence, Part 1

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Why Students Are Skipping Class So Often, and How to Bring Them Back,” by Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas journalism professor. The piece is paywalled, so here is a short summary for those without a subscription:

You, again?
  • During the spring 2022 semester, Holstead noticed a very high rate of absenteeism in her courses. She surveyed 245 or her students about their reasons for not attending class; 175 responded.
  • Over a third of the respondents said they regularly did not attend class. Common reasons included physical illness, depression, attendance wasn’t required, boredom, tiredness, and conflicting family care commitments.
  • Students said they regularly came to class if they felt a connection to other students or the professor, if they felt it improved their mental health, or if attendance was required.

I thought this was an interesting exercise in gathering data, so I’ll be administering a similar survey in the coming week. I’ll report the results in my next post.

But I want to point out two underlying assumptions to this kind of survey, and my objection to her recommendation that faculty require students attend class. The assumptions are that learning is a function of time spent in the physical classroom and that students are in college mainly to learn. I’ve written before about why the first assumption should be discarded. I’ll belabor that point a bit more — always happy to beat a dead horse that people keep trying to ride — by connecting it to the pandemic.

This semester, and probably for the foreseeable future, students who test positive for Covid are required by my university to quarantine for at least five days. In practical terms, this means missing up to a week’s worth of classes. Faculty are expected to accommodate these students accordingly, and right so, in my opinion. But from my perspective, such a policy is long overdue, and it shouldn’t be limited to the latest communicable virus. Penalizing students when they are absent from class not only punishes those who are infected with contagious diseases, but also commuter students who decide not to drive to campus on icy roads during a snowstorm, and students with ailments that are periodically physically debilitating. The list goes on. It’s an accessibility and equity issue.

The credit hour is the quantum building block of college curricula. It is a proxy for how long a student sits in a classroom chair. As Matt Reed pointed out recently in Inside Higher Ed, this measurement exists because it meets the bureaucratic needs of the institutions that use it. It was never a valid or reliable indicator of learning. Maybe it’s time for a different measurement.

As for the faulty logic behind the second assumption, I’ll discuss that in an upcoming post.

Job Search Red Flags

Given the traditional academic hiring cycle, interview season will soon be upon us. I thought both novice and veteran job seekers might find this Harvard Business Review article on interview red flags to be helpful.

A few personal examples of bullets dodged and not dodged:

When individually meeting each member of department during one campus visit, one said about another, “He’s been trying to sabotage my career since I got here.”

During the same routine at another university, it wasn’t until talking privately at the end of the day with the interim chair — a dean — that I learned that the department was in receivership because of interpersonal conflict.

A position was advertised three years in a row. I applied the first time the ad appeared, never even received a rejection notice, and assumed “oh well, someone else got the job.” Applied a second time when the same ad appeared the following year. Several months later, I received a strange email stating that “some” applications had mysteriously disappeared from a locked office and that the search had been halted. The ad appeared again. I applied a third time, interviewed, and received an offer, which I accepted. My probationary contract was not renewed mid-way through my second year on the job, after I had unknowingly helped interview the person who became my replacement.

An interview at a small university included a meeting with the president and vice president for academic affairs. The latter struck me as having the personality of an old-timey small town banker — cautious, conservative, honest. The former seemed like a used car salesman. Less than two months after I had started the job, the president became embroiled in a scandal that received national media coverage. He was eventually forced to resign because of the bad publicity, but not until several other people quit or were fired.

Call for Proposals: In-Class Active Learning Exercises

The editorial team behind the recently-published Simulations in the Political Science Classroom:  Games without Frontiers are seeking chapter proposals for a new volume on in-class games and activities that are useful for teaching any subfield of political science. This book is intended to be a catalog of dozens of active learning exercises that an instructor can select from to teach a particular topic in less than a single class period. Ideally, the activities should be flexibly applicable to high school classrooms or introductory, upper level university, or perhaps even graduate courses.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter proposal, the editors need your name, institutional affiliation, potential chapter title, the subfield and subject, and a description of the activity that is 150 words or less. Because the editors want to include a variety of exercises that cover a breadth of subfields, multiple submissions on different activities by the same author are welcome.

The deadline for proposals is October 15, 2022.

To submit a proposal or get additional information, please contact one of the book proposal’s editors:

Mark Harvey: mark [dot] harvey [at] stmary [dot] edu.

James Fielder: james [dot] fielder [at] colostate [dot] edu.

Ryan Gibb: Ryan [dot] Gibb [at] bakeru [dot] edu.

Derek Glasgow: derek [dot] john [dot] glasgow [at] gmail.com.

The More Things Change . . .

The 2022 TLC @ APSA is in the can, to use an early 20th century metaphor about a now-obsolete analog technology. Because of the pandemic, I had not attended an in-person conference since the Albuquerque TLC in February 2020. I was hoping for something new and perhaps revitalizing after the hiatus.

I got something new, but not in a good way.

Welcome,
conference attendee

No one wants to sit through a 15 minute recitation of comments from student evaluations, especially when those comments are simultaneously displayed on a projector screen as part of a 45 minute presentation that was actually supposed to run for only 20 minutes. In our work as teachers, we hold students to certain standards and demonstrate how they can meet those standards. This was a numbing example of “do as I say not as I do” that ran completely counter to effective pedagogical practice. It was also disrespectful to the audience and other panelists.

The problem was compounded by a moderator who failed to properly execute the duties of the role, and not just by letting one presenter consume half of the session’s allotted time. The moderator incorrectly assumed that most of the presenters scheduled for the subsequent panel were absent. He unilaterally decided that people who no longer had time to present in the panel that was in session could do so in next one. He announced this decision more than an hour into the session, which prompted exclamations from the audience of “But I’m here and part of the next panel!” and “What’s going on?”

I contrast the above events with what I witnessed in Montreal’s Time Out Market while eating lunch earlier in the day: a clown making balloon animals for a cavernous room full of rapt children. He’s the one to learn from.