Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death to the syllabus?

A number of my colleagues (mostly non-philosophers) had a provocative discussion last week of Mano Singham's article "Death to the syllabus" (Liberal Education, fall 2007) The article is facially a call
to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.
However, I think Singham's concerns about the syllabus are proxies for deeper issues (similar to Chris' concerns about who's in control in the classroom) about the balance of power in the classroom and the role instructors play in creating a climate conducive to learning.

Singham's main point seems to be that contemporary rule-infested syllabi, with their legalistic maze of rules and policies designed to cover every conceivable contingency, omit
any mention of learning. They list the assigned readings but not reasons why the subject is worth studying or important or interesting or deep, or the learning strategies that will be used in the course. The typical syllabus gives little indication that the students and teacher are embarking on an exciting learning adventure together, and its tone is more akin to something that might be handed to a prisoner on the first day of incarceration.

In short, the legalistic syllabus is an intrinsic motivation killer: Whatever excitement the subject might generate is swamped by minutiae about how grades are calculated, the policy for coming to class late, and so on. In the frenzy to honor the notion of syllabi as "legally enforceable contracts" between instructors and students, we have (Singham claims) become victims of administrator-driven "syllabus creep."

I find some truth both in Singham's observations and his worries: I've seen 15-20 page syllabi that lay out, in absurd detail, the answers to every conceivable question one might have about the course content, requirements, policies, and the like. What seems right to me about Singham's article is that we faculty produce the syllabus and it's typically the first 'official' communicative act toward the students in a course, and because of this, it has significant impact on the tone of our interactions with them. The messages of the legalistic syllabus that Singham parodies? That we, the faculty, are in charge. That these intricate rules and policies are what will chiefly govern our interactions with the students. That our interaction is a kind of contrived game where we make the rules and they figure either how best to satisfy them or how to exploit the loopholes in them. In my estimation, Singham is probably correct that the legalistic syllabus is received (even if not intended) as an instrumental of control, which is diametrically opposed to what we know about how people, especially late- or post-adolescent age college students, respond to controlling environments:

a detailed legalistic syllabus is diametrically opposed to what makes students want to learn. There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts.

So ironically, the legalistic syllabus creates the conditions where students respond to our authority with disengagement, defiance, even subtle antagonism. Faculty have
assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely to be true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do.
All that being said, I don't think Singham's reaction to all this is entirely on target. First off, my own syllabi are reasonably detailed and rarely run longer than six pages. But that aside, his own strategy, to ditch the traditional syllabus in favor of a general outline of readings and writing assignments later augmented by grading standards decided upon collectively, strikes me as an overreaction (though I should say that giving students some autonomy can be a good thing). For one, some 'legalistic' aspects of the syllabus are ways of respecting students' right to make educational and personal choices. Many of my students have jobs and families and have an understandable expectation that they should know what's expected of them in my course (and when). Second, I think the context in which the syllabus is presented matters. To start off on the first day of class by distributing a lengthy syllabus probably does send the counterproductive messages Singham identifies. That's why I wait until near the end of the first class meeting, or even until the second class meeting, to distribute the syllabus. Those first moments should be about, well, philosophy: what makes the particular topics invigorating, why they interest me, why they should interest students. Learning, in a word.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Teaching News

Too many doctorates chase too few jobs
Recent report also shows colleges have themselves to blame

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"College students are getting a raw deal, a recent New York report asserted. The problem is they're taking too many classes from part-time, or adjunct, professors."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who Controls the Classroom, Anyway?

Today in one of my classes I made an observation. I suggested that whether the class, as a whole, turned out to be good or not really depended in large part on how engaged the students in that class decided to be. If the class was quiet or uninvolved, the class wouldn't likely turn out to be very good (I don't mean "educational" by "good" - just that they won't enjoy it). If they speak and talk to one another, the class will be really good and fun. Whether a class succeeds or not clearly depends on the teacher setting things up the right way, setting a good tone, and so on. But some large portion of the responsibility for making a good class (or suffering through a bad one) is all on the shoulders of the student, and his/her own attitude towards learning, or towards education.

Essentially, I strongly believe that no matter how skilled the teacher, it's always possible that the class he/she is teaching will actually turn out to "suck." I very firmly believe that even good classes are always just a short step away from failing. One or two students who bring the right mood to class get sick and it's all downhill from there. Sometimes bad classes, in reverse, become good classes at the drop of a hat because one or two people decide to "tune in" (I've had that happen, and it's always strange). Someone decides to get invested, to laugh, and it's infectious. Others start doing it. And then, before you know it, you can't wait to teach that class again.

To me, the point is a humbling one: teachers, although they play a necessary role in making a class a good and enjoyable experience, really have limited control over the actual outcome of the course (again, not speaking "educationally"). In fact, I'd say that the teacher maybe controls 30% of the destiny of the class in this regard. If students resist (for one reason or another) and bring uncooperative moods to a class, there just won't be much that a teacher can do to change it. Too many of these folks and you're outnumbered. Teachers have names for these classes -- they call them (perhaps lacking some creativity) "bad classes." "It's a good class" means "people in there are receptive." "It's a bad class" means "they just stare at me" (well, it can get worse than that).

Sometimes I think that students underestimate the amount of control they have, as a group, in making their own educational experience a good one. While of course I realize that some teachers do a bad job of setting up a classroom in an effective way, many times when students say "man, that class sucked" what they really should be saying is "boy as a group we really stunk up that joint, didn't we?" At the same time, sometimes when students think a class is really good, it's not necessarily the teacher, but more so the students themselves who successfully brought the right mood to the class, one that made learning fun to do.

What do you folks think? If you had to assign percentages, how much control does the instructor have over making the class a good one? How much control do students have?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cracking the Code: Student Recommendation Letters

I've been filling out student recommendations for graduate school lately. Nowadays, most of the recommendations are online (thankfully), so it's pretty easy to do. One thing stuck out at me, however. When you get to the part at the end where it asks you just how much you really are recommending this person, it asks you to check off the appropriate box to signal your intention. I noticed that two online recommendations had the following boxes:

* I do not recommend X.
* I recommend X.
* I strongly recommend X.
* I recommend X without reservation.
* I give my highest recommendation to X.

Now, for as long as I've been writing recommendation letters, I've always operated within the first four. It's understood that if you 'recommend' then, given the other higher ratings, that it's a weak recommendation. The more distinctions that appear, the more chance there is that categories are taken as code, so that not using the top category will be seen as some degree of "faint praise."

Now, it seems, there's a fifth category. "Highest recommendation"? Since when is that the new "shindizzle" recommendation? Who makes up this stuff? Is there a code committee out there? If so, I think there should be a Code Newsletter that comes out once a year to inform us letter writers of the latest rankings so that we know what it will mean to say "highest" or "recommend" or "without reservation" or "with enthusiasm."

The problem is -- you could be saying "without reservation" to really mean "this applicant is amazing" but the person reading it might say "aha -- they don't think X is the best!" (because to them, "highest" is actually the top).

I don't mind the fact that people read between the lines (use code), I just want to know what the distinctions are!

Anyone had any similar experiences? I'm curious whether you have struggled, thinking, "what's the best recommendation?" If I say "X" is there a better way to put it? Will this mean they'll think I'm speaking between the lines?"

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Once more into the breach: Getting students to read

The NEA Advocate has a nice suite of articles on how to get students to read. It offers the usual dismal evidence concerning student reading (20-30% of students read regularly) — along with some pretty good tips. I'll mention a few of the more intriguing suggestions here.

  1. "Explain why you chose the readings you did, as well as their purpose, value, and relevance to the course. Students see this as a sign of respect." This helps students see that the readings selected have a substantive connection to the material taught; you didn't just choose them so that the students would have something to read. It might also prime them a bit for the reading experiences to come.
  2. "Preview and promote the next reading assignment in class, and help students over the hump by letting them start reading key pieces in class." I've always tried to do the latter, giving students some hints as to what they might be reading for in what's assigned for the next class meeting. But I like the latter, too: If you've got a few minutes at the end of a class meeting that will go unused, why not encourage students to read? They've already set that time aside anyway, and they can't finish a reading they never start!
  3. "Stop lecturing the readings in class." Obvious enough, though this is probably the reason that even conscientious students often don't read.
  4. "Teach reading strategies." I.e., help students identify conclusions, teach them how to use marginalia, cue them into how the reading is structured. I couldn't agree with this more. It may seem a little embarrassing for students to admit they really don't know how to read the texts we assign, so it's up to instructors to take initiative and break the silence on this issue.
The articles also outline some ways of holding students accountable for reading without pop quizzes and ways of integrating reading activities into the classroom. It also points to a nice tool, the McLaughlin SMOG Detector, to measure the difficulty of a text.

All in all, I find the tone of these articles refreshing: Getting students to read need not be all fire and brimstone, with lots of pop quizzes and other extrinsic motivators. Echoing my earlier thoughts on this subject, I tend to think that we have to sell students on the value of reading by connecting it to meaningful learning. In other words, get them to see reading's rewards rather than issuing threats.

Friday, January 11, 2008

To Attend or Not to Attend, That Is the Question

First, Happy New Year to my SW friends, and to the posters! Sorry for my absence these last few months. I'm in the middle of a book project, and the deadlines are murder! I have been lurking regularly, however.

We're inching closer and closer to the start of the new semester, so I've got a related question for everyone. Well, it's time to crank out those syllabi again. One question that I struggle with every time I put together a syllabus is: should attendance be required? Obviously, there are different ways to deal with this.

a. No attendance requirement at all (if anything, a student's grade would suffer on participation, but in this option there's no separate grade or penalty for not attending).

b. Attendance is required, and the student is given X number of points for showing up. Here, the student, loses points (whatever amount) based on absence.

c. In addition to (b), another requirement can be added: that for the student to pass the class, they cannot have more than Y number of absences total.

There are probably other ways to do this, of course. My main question, though is this: should we attach penalties to students who don't come to class? I'm torn on this. Three different positions come to mind:

1. Paternalism: you can't really get much out of a philosophy class that you don't attend regularly, so the student should lose points when they don't show up.

2. Consequentialism: the other students are robbed of part of what they pay for when students irregularly show up. It serves as a disruption to the overall class environment and moreover the regular students lose the ability to interact meaningfully with the absent students.

3. Libertarian: basically rejects the approach in (1), claiming that it is a student's right to not show up if they don't want. If that's how they want to spend their tuition dollars, I shouldn't be coercing them to show up by threatening them with grade penalties. Moreover, since it's the student's right to spend their money as they wish, (2) shouldn't be an issue either. They didn't pay to assume the obligation to assist others in their education.

Obviously there are lots of ways of framing this issue, and lots of different ways of listing possible responses to it. So I don't intend the above to be exhaustive in any way. But it should help to at least get the conversation going.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

17th International Workshop-Conference on Teaching Philosophy

Sponsored by the American Association of Philosophy Teachers, the 17th IWCTP will be hosted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada this coming August 6-10, 2008. Proposals for interactive workshops and panels related to teaching and learning philosophy at any educational level are welcome. We especially encourage workshops and panels that deal with innovative and successful teaching strategies; the application of philosophy to any area or issue; the connection of philosophy with other disciplines; the use of new technologies; new uses of "old" technologies; and the challenge of teaching in new, as well as in traditional, settings. Applicants are welcome to submit more than one proposal. Please visit http://www.philosophyteachers.org for proposal guidelines. The deadline for receipt of proposals is January 16, 2008.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Evaluating teaching credentials (revisited)

We've talked in the past about how departments do (and should) evaluate the teaching credentials of prospective job candidates. I'm serving on a search committee right now and we just completed about a dozen phone interviews with candidates, in which questions about teaching constituted about half the questions. I thought I'd share some observations about that experience in the hope that it may be of use both to candidates and to those seeking to hire.

First off, here are the teaching-related questions we asked in our interviews:
  1. Describe for us the worst course you ever taught and why, and the best course you ever taught and why.
  2. How would you approach general education courses for non-majors?
  3. How do you approach teaching students with diverse cultural and educational backgrounds?
  4. Describe how you would teach courses in area A and/or area B (our requested AOS's).
  5. What are some specific methods or approaches that you use in your classes to enhance student learning?
  6. What are some of your long-term teaching goals (for example, topics you would like to teach, techniques you would like to try, areas where you'd like to improve, etc.)?

I won't comment on candidates' responses to each and every question but rather point to some themes that linked the responses that impressed us the most.

First, some candidates answered virtually every question in terms of (a) course content (
which topics, textbooks, etc they have taught or would teach), and or (b): evaluation (how many papers and exams they do). Obviously some discussion of content and evaluation is appropriate, but candidates whose answers fixated on content or evaluation did not impress, for the following reasons:
  • It can get awfully tedious to hear people talk this way. It's like they're reading a syllabus (a syllabus which we may already have in their application materials anyway!).
  • We sometimes were not in a position to know if the candidates' content was well-chosen. With respect to one of our requested AOS's, no one on the search committee had much background in the area, so we weren't really in a position to know if opting for this textbook over that one, for instance, is a good choice pedagogically or not.
  • Most importantly, those who fixated on content and evaluation seemed less reflective than those who could more thoughtfully talk about teaching goals, challenges, methods, etc. I.e., it just doesn't seem like rocket science to be able to select some topics and a general evaluative scheme for an Introduction to Philosophy course. I don't mean to trivialize the challenges presented by the choices we have to make about content or evaluation, but I suspect most any philosopher can make those choices competently. What separates competent instructors from the excellent ones are that the latter have a better understanding of how to enable students to learn said content and demonstrate their mastery of that content via different evaluation instruments.

Second, in addition to being able to talk about how to help students learn, the candidates that performed best had a sense of their self-development as teachers. Several of our questions (1 and 6 in particular) require candidates to refer, at least implicitly, to their development as teachers, and I have to say, a number of candidates were flummoxed by them. It was as if they possessed a very limited pedagogical vision of themselves — teachers with no past and no future.

Third, candor goes a long way. We fully expect candidates without a specialization in X to, say, "of course I'd be interested in teaching a course on X." But it made a favorable impression when a candidate said things like, "no, I've never taught X and know very little about X, but if the department needed someone to teach X, I'd be willing, even though I'd need some time to investigate X a bit."

Finally, be detailed. With respect to questions 1, 2, 3, and 5, some candidates struggled to get past generalities and pieties. The best candidates left us with something concrete that illuminated the core of their pedagogical philosophy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Is there a ppoint?

Since there's been some mention of PowerPoint over in Nathan's post about lecturing, I thought I'd draw everyone's attention to this pro-con discussion of PowerPoint over at the the NEA Higher Education Advocate. The discussion is too brief to settle much, but let's talk about this technology

Confession: I'm not a PowerPointer. For me, it's not a pro-tech/anti-tech issue. (Heck, this is a teaching blog; how much more high-tech can you get?) And as the pro- piece argues, PowerPoint can (like every technique or technology) be used well or badly. But here are my main reasons for my PowerPoint abstinence:
  • Dim lights = dim brains? If your students have any inclination whatsoever to ignore you (or sleep!) turning the lights off won't help.
  • Note taking: Writing on the board takes time. With PowerPoint, the text is already there, so to speak, and as a result, instructors sometimes go far too quickly for students to keep up and take notes. I also believe (though I concede my evidence is minimal) that students perceive PowerPoint to be somehow more authoritative than written text, with the result that they write down only what the slides say. It's only a hunch, but I suspect PowerPoint might discourage a more active or detailed approach to note taking.
  • Engagement and dialogue: Again, this is very unscientific, but when I walk the halls of my university I see the blue glow of PowerPoint in classrooms and rarely are those classrooms filled with much interaction. It just seems like so long as the slides are up there, they're what matters (not the reactions, questions, concerns, etc. that the slides' content might prompt in the audience). It's as if PowerPoint artificially confines interaction and discussion to those moments when it's not in use
Of course, I'd be delighted if people find PowerPoint useful, but I remain something of a skeptic for now.