Monday, February 28, 2011

Academically Adrift Part I: The Disengagement Compact

In Academically Adrift (hereafter, AA), Arum and Roksa identify a phenomenon that I assume we all know all too well. George Kuh calls it the disengagement compact (AA, 5). Faculty and students strike a bargain - a rather expensive one. The bargain is one in which teachers agree to ask little of students while providing an entertaining simulation of teaching and good grades, and in which students agree to ask little of teachers while providing compliant behavior and a routine simulation of learning. The teacher is rewarded with time and good student evaluations and the student is rewarded with time and a good GPA.

Who among us would admit to striking such a bargain? Not I. But as Arum and Roksa point out, the bargain is not struck among individuals, nor is it struck in a vacuum. As teachers, we enter an educational system in which this bargain has already been struck collectively. In addition, the bargain is but one among a complex web of tacit agreements among students, faculty, administrators, parents, politicians and government agencies: parents want their children to live in a pleasant, safe environment while becoming more mature and independent; students want a socially engaging college experience; parents and students alike want a credential; professors want a regular, secure salary and time for research; administrators want measurable improvements in student (consumer) satisfaction; politicians want practical outcomes; government agencies want practical, technological innovation. None of the members privy to this agreement have undergraduate student learning as a priority (AA, 124-5).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A venue for scholarly work on ethics and education

The journal Ethics and Education might be a good venue for some of our readers to publish teaching-related scholarship.  I don't recognize any philosophers on the editorial board, but it's a peer reviewed journal "which aims to stimulate discussion and debate around the ethical dimensions of education." It seems half ethics journal/half philosophy of education.

A selection of paper titles that caught my eye suggest the journal's orientation:

"Philosophy! Oh, thats-"

No one goes up to, say, an electrical engineer at a party and proceeds to tell the engineer what engineering is, or that engineering is all relative, or that engineers think too much, or that when it comes to engineering, people already know what's best for them, and we should never let anyone else tell us what to engineer because this is a free country.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

FREE e-book on assessment in the humanities

The Teagle Foundation has just published a free anthology on assessment in the humanities. (The individual book chapters are available here.) It's tilted in the direction of the literary humanities, so it may be of limited use to philosophers. It also seems to rest on the obscurantist claim that assessment in the humanities is harder than in other disciplines because learning in the humanities is "complex, subtle, [and] seemingly ineffable." Bosh to that, but it contains some worthwhile articles, including the first article by Carol Geary Schneider, which does a nice job placing assessment within the recent history of academic humanities.

I do not know what to think anymore

I had my first take home exams turned in this week from 2 of the three courses I teach this semester. Out of a possible 52 exams that could have been turned in, I received 28.  Oh, the pain.   They had two weeks to do the exam.  The questions dealt with Socratic philosophy and covered topics discussed extensively in class.  This exam is worth 20% of their final grade.  I simply do not know what to think.  I have a 'no late work accepted' policy clearly stated in the syllabus so I am disinclined to offer extensions.  Usually I give 0 points for work not turned in, but I could give then 50 points that would represent an F, but then what do I do with exams that were turned in that merit a failing grade?  I have told students that I take improvement into account when determining final grades, but how is simply turning in a exam an improvement over not turning in an exam?  I can drop these students from the class for not doing required work.  Or, I can simply let them take their lumps and deal with the total points they have earned at the end of the semester and give them the grade they merit.

Any suggestions?

Ambiguity Across the Curriculum

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed)

After a Twitter tip (from Michael Cholbi), I read through “Teaching Ambiguity” – a piece over at Inside Higher Education. The subject of the piece is clear enough: penned by a Dean at the Savannah College of Arts and Sciences, it implores instructors to “teach ambiguity” (as opposed to simply facts and figures) as a way to impart critical thinking skills to students. As Eisinger puts it:

This request is not an arbitrary one. To the contrary, it germinates from a belief that the liberal arts and sciences, and the students who take such courses, often thrive by appreciating complex questions that do not have easy answers. Precisely because students can retrieve facts instantaneously at their finger tips, I am asking faculty to revise their syllabuses to discuss and, yes, teach, ambiguity.

On the face of it, this sounds all well and good. But at the same time, it strikes me as a whole lot of meaningless Dean-speak and, frankly, insulting to the disciplines that actually do “teach ambiguity” as an essential part of what they do every day.



Why is it Dean-speak? Because it takes the appearance of a noble sounding clarion call for meaningful changes in pedagogy — “Let’s all teach about how complicated things are! Let’s teach about the challenging of basic assumptions! Ratchet up critical thinking!” — while asking for nothing substantive in order to assure that this gets done. How many instructors out there do you think, if you asked them, would say “I don’t teach critical thinking in my courses”? Zero. So the call to “Teach ambiguity! Add it to your syllabi!” is in practice meaningless when it is stated in this milquetoast driven way. Everyone will say “I already do that”. It sounds good, though – good enough to get Higher Ed to publish it.

Why is it insulting? When it comes to certain key foundational learning outcomes — critical thinking comes to mind as the most obvious — there is often the assumption (which I alluded to in the above) that everyone does that. After all, everyone teaching at the university has a PhD, and how can you get a PhD if you don’t have critical thinking skills? So, the implicit argument will go, everyone can — and does — teach it. Maybe they need to tweak what they do a bit to make it more apparent, but it’s already there.

But is it true? No. Of course, as Academically Adrift points out, the empirical data does not bear this out with respect to the different disciplines. Many disciplines simply do a poor job of “teaching ambiguity.” Now clearly I’m not saying that people in all disciplines don’t use critical thinking. Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that (a) they can teach it well and/or (b) that it plays a prominent role in what they do in the classroom.

Some disciplines — philosophy for instance — have critical thinking as a foundation. That’s what philosophers do. They challenge assumptions and tear things apart. That doesn’t mean we’re smarter than everyone else, but it does mean that we concentrate as a discipline on the techniques of critical thinking and on the pedagogical methods through which you can effectively teach it. Essentially, saying that everyone can and should do it in their classrooms, and that this will be effective, is really just saying that everyone should teach philosophically in their classes when they are not all prepared to do so.

Let’s face it: it’s difficult to teach philosophically when you’re not trained in philosophy. Hell, it’s difficult to teach philosophically even when you are trained in philosophy. This reminds me, in a way, of the belief that any teacher can “inject ethics in the classroom”. Apparently, there’s a belief that since we’re all good people (reasonably speaking), we can all teach students ethics. I know lots of people who seem to believe that. Nice words, but it just ain’t true, at least not true on the level at which it would need to be true for it to be seen as the basis for making good educational policy decisions (where "learning ethics" is a sought out educational outcome). Some people are simply trained to do it, some are not. That's a fact.

So how about a “radical” thought here: instead of assuming that we can just legislate “ambiguity across the curriculum” into existence by asking everyone to tweak their syllabi, how about we actually make riskier speeches about the need to make the Humanities more central to what we expect students to master and then get our curricula or our hiring decisions to match those goals?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"It's what's in your cart that counts"

I'm really looking forward to our Academically Adrift reading group next week. I came across this nice analogy from Michael Leddy at Orange Crate Art:
Of course some students don’t expect a return on their college investment in the form of learning. Their aim is to acquire a credential. When I talk about these matters with my students, I make an analogy to shopping at the supermarket. If the point is merely to get a receipt and get out, it makes perfect sense to grab something, anything, and head to the shortest line. No waiting on Register Four! But having something to show for your effort is another matter. And if everyone has a receipt, it’s what’s in your cart — or what you take away from your education — that counts.
Aso, here's a good interview with Richard Arum, the book's co-author, from Minnesota Public Radio.

Next week we're adrift



A reminder: Our online discussion group of the buzzworthy 'Academically Adrift' is scheduled to start on Monday the 28th. We hope all our readers join the discussion. Here are some sources for the book:
AmazonU. Chicago Press (Note: there are HTML and Google previews of the book at the Chicago site.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Alternatives to Investigating Issues through Argument Papers

In this post I will (1) highlight the "opposing arguments" approach to issue-based papers, (2) identify some problems I see with that approach, (3) explain how I developed an alternative approach that I’ve been using in my courses, (4) offer a basic outline of the approach, and (5) close with some questions I have for readers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Steppin' up to the mic: Part 9

We're pleased that Karla Pierce will be joining In Socrates' Wake as a contributor. Karla is a frequent commentator here at ISW and looks to have some serious teaching chops. We're looking forward to her posts!

Busting Teachers Unions

I put the following on my facebook, but it seems germane to our on-going discussion, even if it is, at times, a bit polemical in format:

Seems there is a move on to bust teachers unions as a means to balance budgets and improve educational outcomes. I would suggest that a better means to improve educational outcomes would be for parents to 'team up' with teachers and have their children turn off electronic 'playthings,' require meaningful homework and make sure that it is done correctly and on-time, improve critical thinking skills, not to mention reading and writing skills, and actually take an active interest in the fundamental role that education should be playing in all our lives. We should stop treating education and learning as simply a means to an economic end and start treating it as an end in itself as a lifelong activity that enhances one's sense of self worth and personal identity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Students Do Not Succeed

In light of the last few postings I thought that my experience last (Monday) evening might contribute to the underlying theme, which seems to be what constitutes, or contributes to, student success.  Last night in class a student ask me to explain my statement that many students do not do as well on the 1st exam as they thought they did.  Depending on how I have structured the course, I give 2-3 exams per semester.  I always give them the questions from which I will make up the exam @ two weeks before the exam.  Sometimes I make these take-home exams.  I explain to them what I expect on these exams and remind them to read the definitions of grades that I have provided in the syllabus.  Regardless, a large number of students (@ 30%) will do D or F work on these exams and many are surprised at, not to mention disappointed in their grade.

Friday, February 11, 2011

the case(s) for optional attendance?

Have any of you made class attendance optional (i.e., that there are no grade penalties for absences, neither is there any requirement to drop the course after a certain number of absences)?

It sure does put a damper on a class when significant numbers of students aren't prepared or when they're obviously distracted by various distractions. And maybe -- maybe -- making attendance optional, while still having high standards for class preparation, could be an effective response to that problem. Maybe it signals, "you don't have to be here, and there's no penalty if you're not; but if you are here, then you'd better be focused, not surfing the Web, and ready to go", and makes good class sessions more likely.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Student e-mails revisited

Chris' post last year about student e-mail styles and habits garnered a lot of discussion, and this older post on 'How to e-mail a professor' (from Orange Crate Art, Michael Leddy's blog) offers some good positive advice to students about how to e-mail a faculty member.

There are several tips there, but here's the summary:

Yet one more way to feed your ISW fix

UPDATED FEBRUARY 10: We're now in the Kindle bargain bin. Amazon's lowered the monthly cost to 99 cents!

You can now read ISW on your Kindle! Yes, Amazon's fabulous e-reader now offers blog publishing, so the Kindle-enabled among you can now get ISW delivered wirelessly to your e-reader.

Here's the page with all the information. The downside of course is that Amazon charges for such services: $1.99 a month in this case. We still think it's worth it! ISW may see a small revenue stream from Kindle sales. Perhaps we can poll the readership about which worthy cause might benefit from this revenue.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Psychological Cause of Grade Inflation?

Yesterday, my colleague Matt Pianalto and I were having a brief discussion in the hallway about grading. Something I've wondered about in the past, and which we discussed, is whether a particular psychological cause sometimes contributes to grade inflation.

Monday, February 7, 2011

'Academically Adrift' reading group

So the global academic buzz over Academically Adrift has prompted us to organize our third ever ISW reading group (following groups on James Lang's On Course and Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit). Here's our plan:

We'll begin the group the week of February 28. You can anticipate two or three posts per week, in addition to the usual ISW content. Since the book is brief, we're not going to adopt the chapter-based approach we followed with past reading groups. Instead, ISW contributors will offer posts highlighting themes or claims in the book, linking these themes or claims to teaching philosophy. Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, the book's authors, have indicated they may drop by from time to time to offer comments on our discussion.

Becko will kick us off February 28, with Mike, Jason, Chris, Adam, Vance (and others) to follow. I'll wrap things up with my own post on March 17. Hope you'll join us!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A win for the virtues

Just wanted to draw everyone's attention to our colleague Chris Panza's post at A Ku Indeed!, a paean to the epistemic virtues in the wake of Academically Adrift.

Chris' basic idea is that much of academic success comes from habits acquired and reinforced in academic settings.  His coolest idea: We should question the notion that students are long-term rational actors who make learning-related choices and exert academic effort in accordance with their perceived long-term goals.  Habits — the virtues or the lack thereof — shape students' learning efforts more than does commitment to long-term goals:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Responding to hateful ideas

Patrick O'Donnell draws my attention to a pair of posts (one, two) by Mary Anne Franks at PrawfsBlog. The issue: "What role should one's own views play in the response to homophobic, sexist, or racist sentiments, expressed either by students or in the class material itself?" Doubtless this is a problem philosophy instructors sometimes encounter.

There are a number of considerations in the air in Franks' posts and in the comments. Franks contrasts two general approaches:
(a) To respond negatively to students expressing such sentiments would amount to expressing one's own sentiments, a violation of the detachment or neutrality instructors ought to manifest.
(b) Detachment or neutrality in the pedagogical sphere is impossible. Neutrality is violated simply by the texts we choose, the topics we address, etc. Thus, no special worry is raised by responding negatively to students who express hateful sentiments. In a sense, it would be ethically irresponsible and show a lack of integrity concerning one's own values not to respond negatively.