Saturday, February 26, 2011

Classroom as airplane

Welcome to Air Literature, Flight 457, departing for nineteenth-century Boston. Our flying time today is estimated at 75 minutes. Flight attendants: please arm doors for departure.

Beneath your seat you will find in your backpack a book marked The Bostonians by Henry James. Please take it out and follow along as the crew members review the important safety instructions for this flight.

All seatbacks should be upright and tray tables should be down and in the locked position. You will also want paper and some kind of writing implement to be on your tray table at all times so that you can take notes on our flight.

Crew members will shortly be passing through the aisles to hand out an exciting QuizOpportunity so that you can gain more GradeMiles.

All portable electronic devices must be turned to the off position and must be stowed for the remainder of the flight unless you are directed to power them on by a member of the crew. Devices that transmit or receive a wireless signal may not be used on board at any time.

Passengers enrolled in our GradeMiles program will earn 25 participation points toward their GradeRewards card for today's flight.

[To student who stands up to wander out in the hallway for a drink of water]: Sir, you could wander away in a normal classroom, but didn't you hear that the flight attendants had armed the doors for departure?

We now invite you not to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight but to sit forward, listen, and discuss the book in front of you, since this powers the flight for us all.

Thank you for flying AirLiterature.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Random Bullets of Friday

  • Over at The Chronicle, Thomas Hart Benton is right about "A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education." He cites lack of preparation, grade inflation, a culture that doesn't value education, etc., as things that people like Arum and Roska just might want to consider when they're thinking about why undergraduates aren't showing more improvement.
  • In an online-learning related topic, Idaho has a plan for educational success:
    • give high school students laptops;
    • fire 750 teachers;
    • increase class sizes;
    • require that students take at least two online courses.
    Because who needs a teacher when you have the Internet, right? Everything research studies have shown about online courses suggests that mature, motivated students succeed the best at them, and that describes teenagers well, don't you think? (I'm not throwing stones at teenagers, but "mature and motivated" doesn't describe me at 15--how about you?) Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna wants you to know that this has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the for-profit K-12 online learning companies that are heavy contributors to his political campaigns.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Online teaching: thinking like a student

One thing that online teaching does better than just about anything else is force you to think like a student.

Say you're in a face-to-face classroom and you discover that you've dropped a week in making up your syllabus. I do this often enough that I should trademark it as "Undine-style teaching,™ now with the magical disappearing week," so this isn't exactly a hypothetical instance. What I do is announce it, thank the person who brought it to my attention, issue an updated syllabus, and move on.

Or you hand out an assignment, and, as you're talking the students through it, some hands shoot up and ask questions about something you hadn't even thought to put on the assignment, because it never occurred to you as an issue. I like to think that my assignments are pretty carefully laid out, but then I hear this: "Do you want paper clips or staples?" or "If I don't use the extra time to do X, can I have it as extra credit points?" I answer the questions, make a mental note to add that information next time, and, yes, move on.

And anyway, it's not always what you did or didn't say. You hand out a quiz, say "this is an open-book quiz," and, two minutes later, five students ask, "Is this an open-book quiz?"

But when you're teaching online, you have to think like a student and try even harder to anticipate these questions from the beginning not just of the class but of the semester. First of all, you're not supposed to change anything once an online class has started.

Second, I've been teaching long enough not to break the cardinal rule: never change a deadline date, because even if it's to their advantage and you make the date later, someone who wrote the paper early will always, always complain about it on the evaluations. I don't like to think what would happen if a date got changed in an online class, where some students like to print out all the course materials on the first day and ignore everything but the Discussion Board thereafter even though they're cautioned not to do this.

Although there's a space for students to ask me questions about the class, and they can email me with questions, it's better if I'm as clear as I can possibly be about what I expect from them. This is always a good policy, of course, but when you can't see them, and they can't see you, it's doubly important. You have to think like a student the whole time. No wonder online teaching takes so much time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Devil over the Right Shoulder

The Wisconsin news (see Dr. Crazy, who can write rationally about it) about the continuing war on education and the middle class would only lead me into another rant, so I am not going to write about it.

Instead, here's an update on what Mark Scroggins is calling "my writing life" over at his blog. Like him, I've finished a number of pieces that are now coming out, and I'm now looking at the big project.

The big project now sits before me, in all of its terrifying there-ness. It isn't complete, although I've published some pieces from it and have presented on others. I've gotten feedback from scholars and an editor I respect that it's good, even exciting. At those times I've felt buoyant and good about it.

But now I'm sitting at my desk with the devil over the right shoulder. The devil is asking whether it's worth doing at all, or at least whether it isn't two different projects. He's asking for more rationales and more research. He's asking whether every single claim is really true or whether I'm flourishing rhetorical capes to distract the attention of the bull/audience. More immediately, he's asking me how I plan to structure the opening arguments.

This devil over the right shoulder can be a great help, of course, in anticipating problems and making the project stronger. What's been the most help in answering the devil is approaching this through structure, or models, as Jonathan Mayhew recently suggested as "reading for structure" over at Stupid Motivational Tricks. Reading for structure is something I've done for years myself, and I've recommended it to students many times.

In this case, it means reading introductions and prefaces, lots of them, to recent scholarly books in the field and noting not only how the argument is structured and in what level of depth, but also the nuts and bolts: how long is the writer spending on the various parts? How is she/he making the claims? How much background and review of scholarship is there? What's the voice like in these pieces? How does the first sentence work? The first paragraph?

This could be seen as a distraction, but what has happened is that I end up making notes and putting pieces of my own project together as well as temporarily quashing the devil's objections.

What about the other shoulder? There's a devil on the left shoulder, too, saying, "C'mon, why don't you ditch this and write a blog post or something?"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Clutter-busting, academic style

Tenured Radical has a post up about a book, Clutter-Busting, that encourages getting rid of things, examining your emotional attachments to things, or something like that.

My clutter-busting moment came the other day when I was in the office, finished for the day but too lazy to head out for the library for an hour or so. Then my eyes fell on the filing cabinet in my office, which for some time has stood there as a Memorial Cabinet of Classes Past rather than as an actual, functioning space in which to, you know, file things.

Some background: I've recently reorganized the bookcases in my study at home so that I could actually find the books I needed and have arranged them according to a system more precise than the big books on the big shelves and the little books on the little shelves. This had an immediate effect: apparently I was catching sight of the disorder on that side of the room out of the corner of my eye, because once it was decluttered and organized, that side of the room felt peaceful and, strangely enough, the whole side of my body that normally faces that side of the room felt oddly relaxed.

Back to the Memorial Cabinet. In the past, when I've tried to clean this out, I've gone through every folder carefully, trying to see what might still be useful. But the advantage of having everything in a computer file is that you don't have to look at the paper. In the past, I've kept the paper versions because of the notes written on them, but really, if I haven't looked at them in the past two iterations of the class, what are the chances that they're really useful?

Instead of heaps of documents that might be useful, divided by class, author or subject matter, I had three heaps: Keep, Shred, and Toss.

So--class notes from 2005? Folder contents gone (into the recycler). The whole folder. All at once.

Never-picked-up student papers and exams? Gone (into the shredder).

Materials from a curriculum reform now implemented? Gone.

Stuff I apparently thought would be useful at some point but haven't looked at since 2007? Gone.

Old book catalogs (which were in the Memorial Cabinet for some reason now lost in the mists of time)? Gone.

The difference between this decluttering and others is that it wasn't a ritual memory tour through classes past, with meaningful pauses to consider the students and the work done, or a piece-by-piece consideration of whether something would work for classes in the future. Maybe there's still a place for that kind of reflection--I don't know--but the place, for now, is not in my no-longer Memorial Cabinet.

Oh, and 20 minutes later, having hauled these stacks of paper to their various bins, I was at the library, energized with all the decluttering.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Student Evaluations and Academic Rigor

Richard Arum, speaking in "A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students 'Adrift'" at
According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principal evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.

"There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high," Arum says.

I'm glad it's a real study, or we'd all be saying, "thank you, Captain Obvious."

Seriously, though, student evaluation numbers are the primary way in which a lot of us have our teaching evaluated. We (or our administrators) have canonized those numbers and granted them a lot more power than they had when student evaluations began back in the 1970s. Isn't it logical to assume that in situations where those numbers have the most power, the temptation will be the greatest to massage the assignments into something that's student-friendly or at least complaint-proof?

I'd like to see some study like the following: take instructors of comparable rank and teaching ability (as measured by observation, etc.) who are teaching similar kinds of content, maybe a large required course where the instructors don't have to use the same materials. Half of them don't have to have student evaluations at all, or maybe they have evaluations that are locked away for the period of the experiment so that administrators can't see them. Follow both groups for 5 years or so, judging teaching in one group solely by observations, self-report, and review of course materials. At the end of that time, see if there's a demonstrable difference in student learning and academic rigor.

I know this probably couldn't be done (and isn't a scientific design, of course), but if we're going to "assess outcomes," shouldn't we also be assessing one of the primary if not the only means by which we evaluate teachers?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

That's one small step for MLA, one giant leap for MLA-citers

Update on the quandary about using MLA format to cite from the Kindle (from The Chronicle):
Ms. Feal says the MLA is considering whether to "accommodate" location numbers on the Kindle.
Finally! And may I also say "thanks"?

But wait--there's more!

According to the commenters, the newest software for Kindle can display the real page numbers, too:

This feature isn't available yet for those using the Kindle app on computers or iPads, apparently. Also, you Nook users must be laughing up your sleeves at the rest of us, because apparently the Nook already has page numbers.

Still, all those Kindle books need to be retrofitted in some way so that the page numbers show, and it's likely that they'll convert Eat Pray Love or Tom Clancy before the critical study that I was thinking about buying today before the "citing locations" problem made me put it back on the virtual shelf.

This still doesn't get past the "it's harder to annotate an e-book" issue, because, well, it just is harder (says the person who has downloaded every imaginable type of book and .pdf reader). But it does start to tip the scales when the choice is "instantaneous download" versus "this book will ship in 6-8 weeks."

Monday, February 07, 2011

NYT: "Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension"

"Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension" (at the New York Times) considers the question of online courses with a fair amount of balance. Again, for the record: I am not categorically opposed to online courses and in fact teach some. I am opposed to approaches that don't consider their strengths and weaknesses.

Some thoughts:

1. Bill Gates wants "at least one great course online for each subject rather than lots of mediocre courses."

Who decides, Bill, and what are the standards? Video lectures by dynamic Ivy League lecturers? Interactive razzamatazz? How does the value of "great" comport with student (and administrator) pressure to make courses easier? Or wouldn't this be a concern since without teachers who have to fear being fired because of the immortal "course was to hard" and "to much writting" comments on evaluations, the course content would be immune from being watered down?

2. Food for thought: Like M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon has worked hard to make its courses available for free on the web, a laudable goal, if an expensive one. These are "automated courses" without instructors. CM doesn't give credit itself for these courses but will send completed student materials to another institution so that that institution can give credit.

Maybe this works well for science courses; I can't judge. But the message is that automated courses are good enough for other schools, but not good enough for Carnegie Mellon, which prefers, as the article puts it "humanoid instructors."

3. I think this person is onto something:
Wendy Brown, the Heller professor of political science at the Berkeley campus, spoke witheringly of the idea at a campus forum in October: “What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?”
4. Why is it that people seem keen to get 3-D on their television sets despite the funny glasses but would rather go 2-D when it comes to education?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Do Android Students Dream of Electric Blackboard Sheep?

Sharon Marshall's "More Face-to-Face, Less Screen-to-Screen" at the Chronicle really resonated with me and with things I've written on this blog. I found myself wanting to yell, "Preach it!" at statements like this one:
I posted assignments online, and students uploaded their papers from their computers. I experimented with the paperless option, which meant downloading student essays, saving them in a file, using the track-changes tool to give feedback, and then e-mailing the papers back to students. It took many hours, and now that I have learned that reading on a computer screen can be about 25-percent slower than reading on paper, I understand why.

In our discussions, instead of writing their first thoughts about a topic in their notebooks, they recorded those thoughts in a dialogue box online. In the old days, we would read those thoughts aloud from the notebooks. But being citizens of Blackboard meant that—in class or not—we were able to view all of the other responses and papers and give peer feedback online.
"Citizens of Blackboard"--exactly right. Although we're all "citizens," we governors of the electronic CMS states know that the work of government eats great, uncompensated buckets of our time and is even messier than making laws or sausage. (Check out, for example, this hilarious account in the Chronicle forums of creating quizzes in Blackboard.)

Right on schedule, someone in the comments writes that no, no, no, technology is not the problem; it's just that Marshall is not a digital native, don't you see? Android Students love technology. They love Blackboard and Big Brother. Two plus two equals five. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

Can't we say that both things are true?

Here is what you get less of, good and bad, in a techno-enhanced classroom:
  • Paper. Eco-friendly? You bet, as long as you're not counting the electricity and gadgets.
  • Voice conversation.
  • Eye contact.
  • Immediate, spontaneous responses to what others have written, which helps to foster ideas and get class discussion going.
Here is what you get more of, good and bad, in a techno-enhanced classroom:
  • Writing.
  • Written conversational responses, especially by those known in classes everywhere as "the quiet ones."
  • Time spent (by the teacher) on managing the gadgetry and listening to complaints when the gadgetry doesn't work.
Here is what I would like to see: more acknowledgment from techno-enthusiasts in positions of administrative power that those who see two sides to this issue are not Deadwood Bumps in the Shining Path of Educational Progress.