The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

Suzuki Shōnen, "Butterflies," ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Suzuki Shōnen, “Butterflies,” ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).

We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.

It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us.

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

So here’s some advice for the first day/week of classes. You’ve heard some (maybe all) of it before, but, repetition never hurts. (Already the first piece of advice: you’ll need to repeat the information you give to students on the first day of class. Don’t expect them to have “heard” it, and the more important the information, the more the need for replication).

The syllabus is a strange mixture of legal contract and teaching document. While it needs to signal to students what we expect of them (as well as what they should require of us), it can be particularly off-putting if the main thing students encounter is a list of and restrictions and injunctions. So it is for the first day of class: to greet students with a catalog of prohibitions (no laptops, put away your smart phones, don’t come in late) is not much of a welcome, and, anyway, there will be time to get to that.

Prohibitions

Certainly, students will want to know what the course they have signed up for is about, but since the content of most of our courses is largely self-evident, I would suggest that students really want to know something else. They want to know what is it you have found so exciting, intriguing, or challenging about your field to keep you with it for years – if not decades. Your students will explore the field with you for the next 15 weeks. Maybe they have already discovered the questions that have brought them to your classroom, but letting your students know why you came to study economics or neuroscience or dance is a way of signaling that you once sat where they now sit, with more questions than answers. What they want to know is how you got from that first class to where you are today. What were the questions you encountered you felt compelled to answer? Who helped you answer them? Who gave you support when you needed it?

You’re not going to answer all of those question on the first day, but just by raising them you can bring students to your enthusiasm for your subject while letting them know that you, the expert, understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk, to be a novice. You will find time later to unpack assignments and readings, and in any case you might want to give them the syllabus as the first reading assignment in the course before discussing it. But for the first class: tell them why what you do is important to you and how you hope it will matter to them as well.

Thinking as Educators

In an earlier posting (“Classroom Communities and College Communities,” March 4, 2013), I proposed that colleges contain two kinds of communities, one that we build within our individual classrooms, and one that, collectively, we attempt to create across the college as a whole. I want to borrow a bit from that article to discuss the first kind of community, the one we generate in our classrooms, and how to think about that in the context of the start of the semester.

If we do our jobs well, over the course of the semester we will construct an authentic community in each of our classes where, on the first day of the semester, we probably found a group of individuals who shared little in common other than being in the same place at the same time. What we want is to create a community where students not only come to share a interest in the subject matter, but also feel a sense of kinship such that each is eager to support the learning of the others.

How do we get from here to there?

A good way to start is to engage students with the challenge of building that community. What do they think will lend the greatest support to the creation of the kind of learning community they (and you) have in mind?

As teachers, we are aware of the standards to which we hold students: we expect them to be respectful of each other and of us, to challenge but not disrupt the class, to be aware of the ways that words (and actions) have histories and carry consequences, as well as being cognizant that as learners we all make mistakes and should/must be able to learn from them.

Each of us likely negotiates differently the fine line between risk and comfort, challenge and disruption. But it is always good practice to engage students in a discussion of the kind of community they want to see in their classroom. In particular, you can ask them to develop the rules they think would most support and sustain productive learning. One benefit of asking students to develop their own rules of classroom engagement is that they become responsible for maintaining the rules (and can be reminded of them later in the course). Obviously, there is no guarantee that a set of rules alone will prevent behaviors that can eat away at classroom community, but establishing a shared starting point can be helpful.

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

Some years ago, I came across some advice that Audrey Thompson, a professor of education studies at the University of Utah, put in her syllabus, and it helped me think about the kind of community I wanted to create in my own classroom. Here’s some of what she wrote,

I will be asking everyone in the class to think like educators: if you feel that you have a better understanding of particular materials than do other students, ask yourselves what you have had to learn to get to this point, and see if you can make that understanding available to others (without lecturing them).

Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. What Thompson argues in this regard, and what I have found to be useful in my own classroom practice, is that students should be reminded that they are not only students but also teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.

Thompson continues:

If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning.

When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility. As student-learners, they do not want faculty or other students to disrespect or abuse them; as student-educators, they need to be aware when their actions have the same effect on their peers or on us.

Thompson concludes as follows:

Thinking as educators…doesn’t mean that no one can ever get angry or that everyone should always be ‘nice,’ but it does mean that you have to show respect for others. ‘Difficult’ behavior – and indeed ‘nice’ behavior as well – becomes an issue when 1) not everyone has the chance to speak; 2) not everyone is listened to; 3) someone is abusive, patronizing, or disrespectful; 4) opposing stances are not acknowledged and addressed when people have questions about them; and/or 5) people expect other people to understand their position when they have not explained their position.

We can create positive classroom communities in a variety of ways: via the knowledge that is generated, the relationships that are supported, the challenges that are addressed and overcome. But as Vincent Tino argued in “Classrooms as Communities,” student engagement will always play a central role in what happens for the simple reason that if students aren’t engaged, learning will not occur to the full extent it should. (A future workshop will explore the ways that implicit bias and what has been called the “stereotype threat” can make it harder for certain students, because of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability, to feel that they are legitimate members of the academic community we are working to create on campus.)

The start of the semester is a spectacular time to engage students in the excitement we feel about the subjects we teach, and to invite them into a classroom community that will thrive to the extent that all take responsibility for both teaching and learning.

Teaching Tips for the New Semester

Steve Volk, August 22, 2016

Frank Boyd, "In Memory," Creative Commons Flickr

Frank Boyd, “In Memory,” Creative Commons Flickr

So I walked out to my driveway… and I couldn’t remember what I was there to do. Trash goes out Wednesday nights and it was Tuesday, so not that. Not to fix the flat on my bike, either; I forgot to pick up the patching kit in town. It won’t be until the next morning, in the shower, that I finally remember that I needed to ask my neighbor to feed the cats while we’re away.

Some years ago I shared with colleagues one of my favorite poems, “Forgetfulness,” by the marvelous Billy Collins. “Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,” he sighed, “it is not poised on the tip of your tongue/or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.” How true. I’m at a point where I forget that we’ve already seen the movies on whose behalf I lobby enthusiastically to go see, or the mysteries I check out of the library only to (re)encounter their strangely familiar plots. This also happens with the timely advice that I’ve received over the years, advice that, Collins again, seems to have “retire[d] to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

And now I’m even forgetting the useful advice that I’ve given.

Assuming that maybe you have forgotten it as well, and as a way to bring faculty and staff new to the college into the loop, I’ve put together a “playlist” of past readings on pedagogy and classroom practice to refresh us all at the beginning of classes. Other advice (new and old) on evaluation and assessments, reflections and reconsiderations, will come later in the semester.

Thinking About The Syllabus

The Dual Life of a Syllabus discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making one’s syllabus publicly available.

The Honor Code:

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Lewis Hine,"Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine,”Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the Classroom:

Active Learning:

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques, Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.

Beginnings and Endings:

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins, I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.

Class Discussions:

Inksheds and Eggshells examines a technique whereby students freewrite on a topic that has come up in class, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.

Lewis Hein, "The constant visitor, Main Children's Room, 1914," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine, “The constant visitor, Main Children’s Room, 1914,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Reading:

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills, provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) – another post considering the question of how much reading should be assigned, and offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.

Listening:

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand presents a synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Visualization Strategies:

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization suggests the strong link between image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.

Assignments:

In Designing Assignments for the New Semester I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand. In particular, assignments need to state the task (what we are asking students to do), the purpose (what learning goals the assignment is designed to address), and the criteria on which the student will be evaluated.

Grading

Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article looks in particular at “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading.  Contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

New Approaches

Taking Risks:

In “The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom,” Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

Slow Pedagogy:

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis.

Harold E. Edgerton, "Moving Skipping Rope" (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Harold E. Edgerton, “Moving Skipping Rope” (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin

Attending to Specific Student Communities:

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias:

The Stereotype Threat discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum:

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) offers some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students:

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Technology in the Classroom:

Laptops in the Classroom:

Lids Down! summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Teaching in Troubled Times:

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism”

Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism

Steven Volk, May 9, 2016

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Writing in the New York Times in late 1951, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed what he called a “new Decalogue” for teachers – intended to supplement, not replace the “old one” – as his response to the gathering fanaticism he perceived. As we have most certainly entered our own age of zealotry, it seems fitting to reproduce his words here:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition…endeavor to overcome it by argument any not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for it you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. [New York Times, December 16, 1951]

While some bright spots remain in the global political landscape – the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor, the first Muslim mayor in a western capital, stands out – the primary campaign season in the United States has seen intolerance and fanaticism take center stage. The campaign has produced a wholesale slide from (at least) modest regard for the truth to “spin,” “untruths,” and, finally, outright fabrications. According to one study, about three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are either “mostly false,” false, or “Pants-on-Fire” false. His statement that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed was only one of a string of invented “facts” and illusory assertions. It hasn’t helped that Trump pushed the boundaries of what one can say so far that almost any statement could be made, and believed, by trusting followers. Certainly the calumnies leveled against President Obama paved the way.

When asked to define the difference between politics and business, Carly Fiorina, a one time presidential candidate and Ted Cruz’s running-mate-for-a-week, replied, “Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know; about half of her statements were classified as “mostly untrue” or worse.

truthinessStephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to people who will claim something is true because they just know it since it feels right in their gut. Presidential candidates are not alone as they trek through abundant fact-free deserts. And it is not a stretch to argue that the candidates are only following the evidence that many of their supporters have grown accustomed to hearing only what they want to hear, and believing only what they want to believe.

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” majorities in 97% of U.S. counties disagreed. We’re not even talking about whether global warming is happening, just what scientists believe. In fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Jenny McCarthy, a model and television host, was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular program where she (McCarthy) once again affirmed that vaccines and mercury cause autism. When asked where her information came from, she replied, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.” (I’ll leave to others a discussion of the rise of the internet as the single most important factor in the democratization of information…as well as its almost inevitable replacement of rational argument with emotional name calling and narcissism.)

Teaching and Facts

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

While the tumble into truthiness and the rise of the internet expert should be of concern to all citizens, it is a particularly consequential development for those of us whose work it is to train students to value evidence, question sources, and approach broad claims with a degree of skepticism. We would do well to ponder precisely the value of our work as  teachers in higher education in light of the fact that the absence of a college degree is probably the single most important characteristic of a Trump voter.

And yet to maintain the democratizing work of higher education and not see colleges and universities return to their characteristic state as a sanctuary of privileged access is becoming more and more difficult. If the cost of attending private colleges and universities has been spiraling up, the real surge in tuition costs in the 21st century has been in the public sector. Sticker-price tuitions at private colleges and universities have increased by 45% between 2000-2001 and 2015-16 (17% in terms of net tuition increases); they have almost doubled at public institutions, and the reason isn’t hard to find. Legislators have removed their support of higher education as a public good.

ChartAfter all, why pay for expertise when Google can tell you what you need to know for nothing? Why should the public pay for anthropologists and philosophers and art historians when we need plumbers and welders? Indeed, why should the public pay for plumbers and welders when private enterprise should be giving them the training they need? Or, perhaps even more pertinent for those legislators slashing state education budgets: why use taxes to pay for a skeptical public who will then question their legislative priorities?

But we should not rush to congratulate ourselves for having created an insulated “bubble” where rational discourse and capacious skepticism naturally thrive and guide our interactions. We are hardly immune from the larger trends outside the liberal arts enclave. Social media whips us about every bit as much as it does those beyond our gates, if not more so for being an inward-facing community. Ironically – tragically? – discussions among colleagues who share many perspectives can seem to pose even greater challenges than conversations with strangers.

And yet we are not powerless at this time and in the face of such trials. But the question remains, how do we advance our work, and build our community, so that it is instructed more by Russell’s “decalogue” than by Trump’s demonology? How do we maintain oases of critical thinking in this terrain of truthiness? How do we establish not just the basis on which we can contest and evaluate ideas, but indicate to our students the value of what we are doing?

One way is simply to reaffirm the goals we champion for our students, and to assert them to ourselves as well. What we want for our students is no less than what we hope for ourselves.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

At Oberlin we have recently completed a process of specifying learning outcomes for students in the College of Arts & Sciences, not as a list of bullet points to satisfy some external reviewers, but as a part of a much deeper discussion of what it is we hope our students will take with them when they graduate. There are many ways in which our learning outcomes will resemble those at other liberal arts colleges, as indeed they should. Prominent among these is the importance we see in cultivating in our students the ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence. As an educational and intellectual community, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties that entails, and we maintain the significance of fact-based evidence in any analysis. We will surely disagree on many points and in many contexts, but we are committed to engaging in a process whose procedures are clear and which have lent meaning to intellectual disputes for centuries and in many cultural contexts.

So perhaps, as we come to the end of what has been a challenging school year, we can reflect on those goals we share for our students, the values we hope our graduating seniors will build upon for many years to come. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, that “Without anxiety there is no courage.” We have anxiety in excess. It remains for us to find the courage to recognize a way forward, a process that can begin by reaffirming those aspects of our students’ learning that we most value.

The statement of learning outcomes, which is excerpted and rephrased below for purposes of brevity, was passed by the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty in December 2015 and can be read in full here. One short of a decalogue, it can still guide our work.

As a faculty, we value:

  1. The ability to become deeply immersed in a single field of study. Concentrating profoundly in a field allows students to understand the logic and epistemology, assumptions and methodologies of a particular approach. Such engagement generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches and the production of original work.
  2. The importance of being open to a wide breadth of knowledge, the scope of which spans scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. We want our students to be acquainted with the wide variety of ways that humans have asked and answered questions in the past and the present, within the traditions of western culture as well as within other cultural frameworks and ways of knowing so they can better appreciate that deep understanding draws on a variety of approaches and traditions.
  3. The ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence, and to understand the context in which evidence is produced. To become engaged participants in their own education, students must learn how to learn. The central tools in this process are those of critical analysis: an understanding that assumptions, approaches and conclusions must be tested, and that claims are to be examined in light of evidence. To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in the face of its limits. To become skilled at critical analysis, one must develop a number of different capacities, specifically the ability to conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.
  4. Our students’ participation in, and appreciation of, the creative process as an important aspect of what it means to be human. We widely recognize creativity as a central component in the arts, and have long valued the expressive talents of our students. Creativity is also a cognitive process that underlies the work of our students across many fields and endeavors. Creativity implies the capacity to generate new ideas, approaches, or hypotheses, the skills involved in planning, and the determination and resources needed to bring an idea to life: in the concert hall and the classroom, on stage, the athletic fields, and in the laboratory, in the community and with the community.
  5. The ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. As the world is increasingly drawn together, we understand that our students will need to develop the skills and cultural competencies needed to interact effectively in languages other than English and through a variety of means, including visual, quantitative, and digital.
  6. The ability of our students to develop a critical understanding of the historical and cultural factors that underlie difference and inequality in U.S. and global societies. It is our responsibility not only to bring together a diverse community of students, but also to place our students in the epistemological, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks where they can learn to interact across the differences they encounter. Truly engaged learning requires the presence of diverse learning communities and the reduction of barriers to inclusion at every level.
  7. The ability to engage effectively with others as they work to understand and address complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Developing the practice of successful collaboration also entails a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of the relationship between individual initiative and the potential of working with others.  Collaborative efforts should increase one’s openness to working not just across disciplinary approaches, but also alongside those with whom one may disagree.
  8. The ability of our students to develop an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future. Oberlin’s long history of challenging some of this country’s gravest inequities underlines the responsibility our graduates feel to acting beyond narrow self-interest, of working together to create local and global communities that are more just, equitable, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable. These are lifelong ethical commitments that can be pursued via a wide range of careers pathways and social commitments.
  9. The ability to cultivate those habits that support healthy and sustainable living, responsible and empathetic interactions with others, and a capacity for self-reflection and contemplation. Our students should carry with them a strong ethical and moral grounding, a capacious curiosity, a broad capacity for empathetic engagement, an awareness of their own physical and mental well-being, and an understanding of the importance of being responsible in the world, along with the humility to recognize their own limitations.

Father Daniel Berrigan died this past week at the age of 94. The Jesuit priest, committed over his long life to peace and social justice, composed his own Decalogue in a 1981 book titled, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. One seems particular apt for today: “About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Student-Faculty Partnerships: Collaborating to Improve Teaching and Learning

Steven Volk, May 2, 2016

"Gloriosa Superba" from "The "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Gloriosa Superba” from “The “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

How do you know what’s happening in your classroom? For one thing, by being there, experiencing it live and in real time. But your ability to observe what is happening is always partial, and always from the perspective of you, the expert. You can video the course and review it later, which is a great way to see what’s happening in slow motion/freeze frame. But that can often be, well, painful (Did I really say that? Do I really sound like that? I never realized I had that nervous tick. Ouch!). Sometimes a verbatim record of the proceedings is not really what you want, and certainly not for every class. We ask the students at the end of the semester, but, again, their feedback at that point is often less than helpful.

Time to think about the Student and Faculty Partnership program.

 

Begun at Oberlin in the spring 2015 semester, the “Student and Faculty Partnership” (S&FP) program provides an opportunity for faculty to experience their own classes from a (novice) student’s perspective, but also divorced from the power relations that normally accompany and shape instructor-student relations. Oberlin’s S&FP program, currently completing its third semester, is modeled after the student consultant program developed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr College (Students as Learners and Teachers) in 2006, and is one of a small number of such programs currently underway at campuses in the United States and Europe, including the Student Observer Program at Carleton College and the Students Consulting on Teaching Program (SCOT) at Brigham Young University.

The program pairs a student who is not enrolled in the course (or any other course taught by the professor that term) and an instructor. Student consultants (who are paid for their time) attend one of their faculty partners’ classes per week, meet weekly with their partner, and bi-weekly with the program’s directors at CTIE (currently Marcelo Vinces and Steve Volk). The weekly student-faculty discussions are based on the student consultant’s observational notes of the class, and the bi-weekly meetings between student consultants and program directors explore the student-faculty dynamic and provide feedback to the students on how to reflect on and communicate what they see in class to the instructor.

Student consultants are not peer instructors or TA’s. They are not there to help students with questions about course content or offer advice on homework. That’s for the OWLS, the Writing Associates, or other such programs. According to Cynthia Taylor (Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois, Chicago) and Eli Rose ’15, who were paired as consultant and instructor during the pilot semester for the project when Taylor was at Oberlin, the student consultant’s main task was “to observe the atmosphere and dynamics of the class and to record these observations in detailed notes” providing space for the instructor and student to talk out their thoughts about the class based on the observational notes. (The information from Taylor and Rose will be published this summer in the proceedings of the Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education.)

The Pedagogy of Student-Faculty Partnerships

"Amaryllis formosissima" from "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Amaryllis formosissima” from “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

We expect our student to be “responsible,” and learning to take responsibility is one of the key dispositions we hope students will gain as undergraduates. But what does that mean? As Cook-Sather points out, the students’ responsibilities within educational settings are generally conceptualized as “students doing what adults tell them to do and absorbing what adults have to offer. Student accountability here means compliance and acceptance: adherence to what is prescribed, asked, or offered by the adults in charge” (p. 3). In that sense, students and teachers have quite a different set of responsibilities. Teachers are responsible for teaching and students are responsible for learning.

The student-faculty partnership proposes a rethinking of what responsibility means, suggesting that students can become responsible not only in the sense of being accountable (i.e., answerable for their actions), but able to act on the basis of their own initiative, to become accountable for, to take ownership over, their own learning. Partnerships, then, are based on respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility between students and faculty.

To quote at length from a recent book by Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten:

Studying and designing teaching and learning in collaboration with students does not mean that we simply turn the responsibility for conceptualizing curricular and pedagogical approaches over to students, nor does it suggest we should always do everything they recommend to us. Rather, it means that we engage in a more complex set of relationships involving genuine dialogue with students. These more complex relationships may involve negotiation where we listen to students but also articulate our own expertise, perspectives, and commitments. It means making collaborative and transparent decisions about changing our practices in some instances and not in others and developing mutual respect for the individual and shared rationales behind these choices. Indeed, it means changing our practices when appropriate, but also reaffirming, with the benefit of students’ differently informed perspectives, what is already working well. Sometimes it means following where students lead, perhaps to places we may not have imagined or been to before. In all of these cases, reciprocity is an integral element of the learning process: we share our perspectives and commitments and listen to students’ insights, they share theirs and listen to ours, and in the exchange, we all become wiser.

Having seen the program develop over three semesters, I would observe that creating opportunities for “genuine dialogue” between faculty and students is not necessarily easy. Negotiating teaching practices with students bumps up against much of what we have come to think about what we do as teachers. Since we control the content, we are the experts and therefore have little to learn from student input. This understanding is often confirmed by much of the input we get from students. That which we get at the end of the semester is (by definition) too late for that course, and is often delivered in a form that we may find hard to take seriously (Really? Comments on our clothing?) Nor are students trained to deliver important critiques in a way in which we are most disposed to hear – or listen to – them. We may learn some things from Student Evaluations of Teaching, but they are not the best instruments for encouraging instructors to listen to student input.

Yet there is little doubt that the people who are best placed to tell us about our teaching are the students sitting in front of us every day. But, as we know, this doesn’t happen magically. Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten suggest that there are four key qualities to developing a student-instructor partnership that can open a significant conversation about teaching and learning: (1) trust and respect, (2) shared power, (3) shared risks, and (4) shared learning. As observed above, partnerships, particularly when we talk of shared power, cannot ignore the fact that faculty are the experts in the course, both in terms of content and teaching experience. But the partnership means that “the perspectives and contributions made by partners are appropriately valued and respected.” Bringing this to realization takes effort on the part of both students and faculty, but the results from our first three semesters of the Oberlin program suggest that it is worth it.


 

I think when most faculty hear of a program in which students are involved as commentators and collaborators, they assume that the program is giving the students unfettered authority or equality in the teaching process. But I realize now that taking student contributions seriously DOES NOT mean blindly or directly following their opinions and suggestions, but rather taking them seriously, carefully reflecting on and analyzing them, and then addressing the core concerns behind them in a way that is consistent with my overall goals and values.  (Faculty partner quoted in Cook-Sather, Bovill, Fenten)


 

Henry Erroll, "A Woman's Favour" (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Henry Erroll, “A Woman’s Favour” (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Selecting Student Consultants

Student who have been in the program have demonstrated a strong interest in the dynamics of teaching and learning. They often have criticisms of some of the teaching they have experienced, but also have moved to a position in which they want to take responsibility for improving classroom dynamics. Finally, many are interested in what they can learn by establishing a significant dialogue with a faculty member. Student consultants are often recommended by a faculty member to the program directors or simply respond to a call for participation in the program. They are chosen by the directors of the program based on the number of partnerships we are able to sponsor, their expressed interest in the program, and a compatibility with faculty in terms of available times and, occasionally, course content.

Many institutions that have implemented student-faculty partnerships, including Oberlin, have made a specific point of inviting under-represented students into the partnership, both to gain access to their important insights and to begin to counter the sense of exclusion that many of these students feel.

As noted above, students are paid for their time in the partnership in recognition that this is a significant commitment and that since the students are not enrolled in the course, they need to be compensated, at least to the extent of our budgetary ability. Their pay is consistent with the pay of other student workers on campus.

Ideally, student consultants are paired with the faculty without regard to the students’ background in the class being taught by the faculty member. This is particularly relevant for intro level courses where the novice status of the student consultant would put him or her at the same level as those students enrolled in the course and therefore better able to note what seems confusing or problematic in the delivery of course material. On the other hand, there are occasions when the partnership will work better by pairing a student who has specific academic preparation (e.g., in the sciences or music) with a teacher offering an intermediate or upper-level course.

Finally, student consultants cannot be enrolled in the course for which they will serve as a partner, nor should they be enrolled that semester in any other courses offered by the faculty member. The reasons for this are obvious enough: the student-faculty partnership requires a relationship that is as open and honest as possible, and this can be compromised if the faculty member is giving the student consultant a grade in some other course.

Selecting Faculty Partners

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, "Vom Amazonas und Madeira" (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, “Vom Amazonas und Madeira” (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

The program is open to any faculty member, although usually faculty won’t apply for a student consultant until their second year or later. It requires that faculty have a specific goal in mind as regards their teaching in a specific course rather than just wanting to participate in the program. For example, Cynthia Taylor described her own interest as follows:

The instructor [Taylor] had previously taught this course twice before. She was particularly interested in trying to improve student engagement with the material, as feedback on the course previously had indicated some students found the material dry or uninteresting. She also wanted to know what material was particularly confusing to the students, and how to make material more comprehensible in general.

Faculty who have applied to the program have been interested in getting feedback on a specific pedagogic approaches (e.g., discussion-focused instruction) or technology (e.g., clickers) that they will be implementing for the first time.

While more tenured than junior faculty have applied for the program, not only can such a partnership provide newer faculty with important and thoughtful feedback early in their careers, at a time when they can implement changes as needed, but participation in the program is a very concrete way of demonstrating a desire to continue to improve one’s teaching.

Calls for faculty participation in the program most often come out at the end of each semester, with the number of partnerships dependent on budgetary issues. For the Fall 2016 semester, we will be able to sponsor four partnerships, two in the College and two in the Conservatory.

The Partnerships in Action

At the heart of the S&FP program is the weekly meeting between the instructor and the student consultant. These meetings are based on the notes that the student consultants take during the one (sometimes two) classes that they attend each week. Students involved in the program are trained in observational note taking, specifically in differentiating what they observe from any interpretation of why it is happening. They are also trained in how to reflect on what they have observed and how to discuss issues from the class with their faculty partners in ways that can be best heard by the instructors. Most often, the faculty partners will tell the student consultants what they should pay particular attention to in each class.

For example, the instructor might have told her student consultant to pay attention to moments of disruption in the class when she was lecturing. The consultant’s observational log might note that, in a class that began at 10:00 AM, one student left the room at 10:15; another at 10:18; a third at 10:20 (each returning to the room approximately 5 minutes later). While the student consultant can’t know why they left the room (bathroom? boredom? thirsty?), she could observe that this had an unsettling impact on the room (students became distracted, watched them walk to the door, stopped taking notes, etc.). On this basis, the student consultant could suggest a topic for discussion with the faculty partner: the impact of having students shuffling in and out on the classroom environment. Should the instructor develop “bathroom” rules? Should she allow the class as a whole to decide rules for non-emergency leaving during the class since they are the ones who are being disrupted?

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, "Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science Course: An Experience Report"

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, “Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science
Course: An Experience Report”

Student consultants usually send their faculty partners a copy of their notes in advance of their weekly meetings so they have the same information for their conversation. Here’s how Taylor and Rose describe their weekly meetings:

These meetings generally lasted about an hour, and the topics discussed varied widely in specificity, from comments like, “I noticed that some of the students seemed confused at this point”… to in depth discussion of what distractor answers would best illustrate common student misconceptions in a peer instruction question. The student consultant would also frequently ask the instructor what her perception of something that had occurred in class was, or the instructor would ask the student consultant what his personal experience learning specific material had been. Discussions tended to be grounded in specific lecture slides or course materials, but also touched on student reactions to the course as a whole, and occasionally touched on what could be added to materials like labs or problem sets in order to aid student understanding of specific points.

Sophina Gordon, "Flowers, Earth's silent voices" (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

Sophina Gordon, “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices” (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

All student consultants (up to four per semester) would meet bi-weekly with the program directors. At these meetings students would compare notes from their various classes, discuss the strengths their faculty partners brought to the classroom, reflect on the conversations they had with their faculty partners and how these  discussions developed: awkward moments, what they brought to those discussions, any problems that came up in terms of their own interactions: what could they have done better. Finally, we would examine their assumptions about the feedback they gave to their faculty partners. One theme that often appeared in these discussions was the student consultants’ feeling that it was their responsibility to offer solutions for issues that they either observed or that were raised by the faculty. They were reminded that they are not in the partnership to provide the instructors with “solutions” to teaching problems. The primary role that student consultants play is as observers who can, with a novice’s eye, help faculty see better what is happening in their classes. Faculty partners certainly can, and do, ask student consultants for their advice, but decisions remain with the faculty member.

Benefits and Difficulties

The Taylor-Rose paper lists what they observed as both benefits of the program as well as difficulties that developed over the course of the semester. On the positive side as far as the faculty partner is concerned, are:

  • The opportunity for a weekly, in-depth discussion of the class with someone who observed it but is neither a formal faculty evaluator or a student in the course.
  • The opportunity to continually reflect on and revise approaches taken in the course. While many faculty reflect on their courses in an on-going way, having a weekly conversation about the course makes this much more likely.
  • The ability to gain insight from a “novice perspective.” Most of the advice we get about teaching comes from other experts, and yet we teach novices. It was critical to receive feedback from a student, a novice in the field.
  • Input from different parts of the classroom: the student consultant would often sit in on different student discussion groups in a large class setting, providing the faculty partner with input she couldn’t get herself.
  • A written record of most of the class discussions: “It was surprisingly helpful for the instructor to have a written record of all class discussion from a class period. Being able to review student comments and questions while reviewing and revising the lecture allowed for reflection on discussion details that the instructor otherwise would likely not have remembered.”

The student consultant reported that the program allowed him to reflect more deeply on his own learning process (“Discussing students’ reactions to concepts with the instructor, he discovered new approaches and understood subtleties that he missed the first time around [i.e., when he was a student in the course].”). He also noted that he learned that his own approach to learning was different from other students, that “the student consultant note-taking process (sitting in the lecture hall, being as attentive as possible to the atmosphere of the room, recording it in detail, trying to think from the perspective of 37 other people) quickly expanded his ideas about students’ experiences of computer science classes.

Needless to say, having another set of eyes on your classroom will not always produce agreeable results. As Taylor wrote, “It is not pleasant to be reminded that the back row of your class was reading their phones instead of paying attention. There were times when a lesson didn’t work and there was no clear reason why or how to fix it.” Faculty may worry that student consultants are questioning their competence in the classroom, an issue that the program directors often address in their meetings with students consultants, making sure that the students remember that their role is to observe and to provide their partners with valuable insights, but they are not there as “consultants” in a traditional sense, experts who are hired to “fix” problems. Students consultants, for their part, are not accustomed to being in this role and may find it difficult to raise certain subjects in their meetings with their partners. (Many also regret not having the same kind of interactions with faculty in other courses they take.)

Ultimately, and perhaps the most important lesson I have learned while directing this program, is that there is not always a “fix” for every problem that arises in the classroom. For the instructors involved in the program, it is valuable to know that the are not the only ones to face such problems; student consultants, for their part, come to appreciate to a much greater extent both the complexity of teaching and the care and attention that faculty put into their courses in order to achieve an optimum learning outcome.

Conclusion

Open communication is not particularly easy; not between faculty and faculty, students and students and, to be sure, faculty and students. For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of an audience and the likelihood of good exchange: the larger the audience, the harder to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. For another, a basic level of trust is often needed before meaningful conversation can happen, and that is often only built up over time. The Student-Faculty Partnership program allows these exchanges to develop organically. As they continue, one can hope that these conversations can be expanded to broader and broader levels.

NOTE: The go-to book on this subject, exploring the theory behind the program as well as detailed accounts on its strengths and difficulties, is Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Richard Jefferies, "The Dewey Morn" (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

Richard Jefferies, “The Dewey Morn” (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

 

Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

[The following is an edited and updated version of a post from 2013.]

From Guy Newell Boothby, "Doctor Nikola" (London: Ward, Lock, & Co,  1986), p. 335. British Library.

From Guy Newell Boothby, “Doctor Nikola” (London: Ward, Lock, & Co, 1986), p. 335. British Library.

As the semester moves to it close (insert fist pump), it’s a good time to reflect on what you learned from the semester as well as considering what you think your students are taking away from your classes. To begin, here are three ways to track your teaching, from the quick and simple to the more time consuming.

End of Semester Snapshop

While you can, and probably should, reflect on your teaching at many points during the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), two moments can be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (or once you have had a chance to read student evaluations). You are all unbelievably busy right now, but try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions – and then return to them when you can. It is useful to engage in this process before you read the students’ evaluations, as you want to be able to consider from your own perspective why the semester turned out as it did.

(1) What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish? Try to answer this question concretely. Was it the assignment you designed to help you evaluate whether students were reading the text closely and which worked exactly as planned? The discussions, which were a lot livelier than other times you taught the class? The students’ ability to recall basic materials, as demonstrated by better exam results than in previous years? The fact that you were able to establish a dynamic in class that allowed students to talk about extremely difficult topics? In short: What worked well in the class?

(2) Why do you think that happened? Can you link these outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, reflect on why that was the case.

"Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

(3) Did you achieve your learning goals for the course?

This, of course, should lead you back a consideration of your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

Did you use assessment methods – papers, tests, projects, etc. – that can help you answer this question reasonably? If you find that you have learning goals that aren’t being assessed, you should make a note to change that next semester.

(4) What were you dissatisfied with in terms of how the course is turning out?

What didn’t work as you would have liked it in your classes? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking, “Next time, I probably shouldn’t do that”?

You can think about this in a variety of ways. For example:

(a) The pedagogy you employed. The mix of discussion and lecture, more active learning techniques, preparation for discussions, group work, student presentations, etc.

(b) Structural factors: Maybe you have found that teaching after lunch is not the best time; that the classroom you were assigned did not help your teaching and should be changed, that the class size did not lend itself to the particular pedagogy you employed.

(c) Classroom management issues. Did you allow one student to assert too much sway over the other students? Did you not step in where you should have? Did you not address management issues early enough? Should laptops be banned in your class as students are not using them appropriately? Should you have a “bathroom” policy to prevent a continual in-and-out of students from the class? How have you responded to challenges to your authority? How have you dealt with tensions that have come up in the class?

(d) Course Materials: Were students doing the readings? If not, why? Was the reading too basic? Too theoretical? Did mechanical issues (not being able to upload files, etc.) get in the way of their being able to complete assigned readings? Were the readings improperly paced (too much right during midterms) or unengaging (even for you!).

(e) Assignments: Too many? Too few to give students proper feedback? Should you be assigning multiple drafts of papers? Would smaller quizzes work better than one or two high-stakes exams? Did you assign collaborative work without preparing for it?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

(5) As with your successes, think about why things didn’t work and what you can do the next time to change those aspects that you can change.

If time doesn’t permit you to plan out a concrete strategy for doing things differently next semester, jot down a note to remind you about the things that you should consider addressing.

(6) Who can help?

If you are not sure what to do to change those aspects of your course that you agree should be changed, jot down the name of the person/people you can talk to or the resource you can use.  Who are the colleagues and mentors, on campus or elsewhere, who you should be emailing to set up a coffee date? Where can you find materials that address the topics of your concern?

After the SETs Come In

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of teaching (SETs) for your courses. (For advice on how and when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 7, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds any resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions – and you need to think about why that’s the case. Reflect on – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities. Just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that those aspects should be jettisoned.

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

While it is useful to reflect back on your class at the end of the semester, you can gain more insight by reflecting on your classes in real time. This is particularly useful for people like me whose memory, to quote Billy Collins, has “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Make goal of class: Help students classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students reach the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of in your opinion worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The day you chose to examine the topic (The day before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. The last thing you need is to be hard on yourself. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (and we all have many of those) but to begin a practice that can be empowering.

In For a Penny, In for a Pound: The Teaching Portfolio

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 226. British Library.

‘Lilliput Lyrics … Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson’ 226

To contemplate creating a teaching portfolio is to accept that you’re willing to spend some quality time reflecting on your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (either on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials: standard syllabus, annotated syllabus, reflections on particular classes or on the course in general, emerging “philosophy” of teaching, notes on pedagogy, classroom management style, essays on finding your own teaching style, articles that have proven particularly important in your teaching, comments from people who have observed your teaching, student reflections, student work in response to particular prompts, comments from mentors and colleagues, etc., etc.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: Tried a very directed set of primary source readings in philosophy class to get students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. Don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class; papers on topic turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. Thought about goals for that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s a plan for the next time…

For more on teaching portfolios, consult the excellent handbook written by Hannelore B Rodriguez-Farrar (The Teaching Portfolio: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants, and Teaching Fellows) at Brown University, the materials prepared by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, or the paper (“The Teaching Portfolio”) by Matthew Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

The end of the semester is a time, all too often, of exhaustion and, at some level and speaking for myself, disappointment. In light of this, reflecting on what we think our students have actually absorbed from our classes is a useful exercise.

One of the most complicated issues we face in teaching is understanding in a comprehensive fashion what our students have taken away from the course. I think of this as somewhat different from what they have “learned.” We can get a good sense of that through our students’ written work or quizzes and examinations. What I’m talking about is more speculative: what do we think they will carry with them into the future, what will shape the way they think about the subject of our classes or more broadly? What will they remember 10 or 20 years in the future?

This is, of course, one of the devilishly hard questions of assessment. In the humanities, in particular, we know that more often than not, many students will “get it” only after the course is over. Synapses will be closed that remained wide-open during the class; light bulbs will finally turn on. And, more often than not, when this happens, it won’t be tied back to a particular class or even a particular course.

Of course, there is no way to know what the group of students just completing your class will take away from it. But thinking into the future is actually the starting point of “backward planning” and, as such, the first step for planning your next course syllabus. So, what do we think they will put in their backpacks and carry away with them?

I’ll use my own teaching this semester as an example. One of my classes is on museum studies (“Museum Narratives”). I am quite sure that only a few – OK, no one – will remember anything about exhibition morphology, how depth, ring factor, and entropy work in exhibition design. But I think that most, when they walk into a museum in the future, will think about how exhibition layout relates to content and audience, will search for the museum’s narrative rather than only focusing on its artifacts, and will continue to consider what Stephen Greenblatt meant when he divided museum exhibitions between those that worked through resonance versus those that work by wonderment.

And maybe that’s good enough.

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.

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An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.

divider

We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.


[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

Inksheds and Eggshells

Steven Volk, April 11, 2016

Bored-in-the-Classroom-Vintage-How-To-Learn-Danish-When-Youve-Got-Other-Shit-To-Do-Scandinavia-StandardAs the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.

At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….

But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:

Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.

So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”

Some Theory behind Inkshedding

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)

Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:

  • When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
  • Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
  • The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”

From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion

There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.

1962 "Hi-o-Hi" (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

1962 “Hi-o-Hi” (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”

A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,

One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.

Enter the Eggshells

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.

This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.

But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.

The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.

And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Drawbacks?

A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”

Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”

When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:

  • Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
  • I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
  • This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.

The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:

  • I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
  • Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!

To Use or Not to Use

So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:

Pros:

  • as a writing-to-learn tool;
  • as an exploration tool;
  • as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
  • as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
  • as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
  • as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
  • as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
  • as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
  • as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
  • To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester.  This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
  • To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
  • To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
  • To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
  • To help students find paper topics;
  • It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
  • Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
  • They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
  • Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
  • Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
  • The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
  • Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.

And the Cons:

  •  International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
  • Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
  • Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
  • If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
  • Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
  • Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!

Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.

(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School,” lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading

Steve Volk, March 27, 2016

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Students in museums studies, more so than casual visitors, are frequently confronted with the question of how specific artifacts made their way from their point of origin into the museum where they are displayed for our enjoyment and edification. For some objects, the answer is relatively straightforward: the painting originally in, say, the French royal collection, was purchased by a dealer who sold it to a collector who donated it to the museum. For other artifacts, particularly if the museum in question is the British Museum (the end point of a vast collection of imperial booty), the origins of the artifact is more troubled. The catalog entry for this “Benin Plaque” (left), dating from the 16th-17th centuries, calmly notes that “following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms.”

But as this information doesn’t appear on the object’s label in the gallery, the viewer has little sense of the violent history — the imperial relations — that underwrote the trajectory of the plaque from Benin City to its current abode on Great Russell Street in London. Museologically and culturally speaking, that’s a problem. If museums are to represent (and not simply appropriate) objects from their colonial empires, the history of that displacement must be kept in sight.

This may seem an unusual way to begin an essay on grading, but I thought of the Benin Plaques and their absent labels as I prepared another set of grades for my students. Grading (as I’ve written many times before here and hardly need to remind you) is about as eagerly anticipated by teachers as a colonoscopy (and at least those are served up with propofol.) There are any number of reasons why this is the case, and at least some of the problems of grading do come with relatively straight-forward solutions. If you can’t bear reading the 27th paper on the role of the cottage in Frankenstein, then open your assignments to allow for a greater variety of responses. If the assignment essentially requires that students feed back to you what you’ve given to them, don’t expect to have an enjoyable experience reading them. Try completing your own assignments and if you find them boring or not conducive of learning, change them so that students can use the assignment to demonstrate both mastery and application.

Full Disclosure

Other issues involved in grading are more difficult to resolve, which brings us back to the Benin Plaques. What everyone knows, yet no label discloses, is that grades represent the ultimate power that faculty hold over our students. As much as our professional code of conduct requires – demands – that we grade fairly, objectively, and without regard to extraneous factors, there is no denying that we are humans and that, when it comes to grading, we are both shaped by, and must contend with, a variety of factors that make that difficult, if not impossible. These range from simple tiredness to complex issues of prejudice including racism and sexism. [See, for example, here (the impact of the teacher’s emotional state) and here (the impact of the stereotype threat) as examples.). Perhaps, just as the Benin Plaques should include on their label an indication of the nature of the power that brought them to the British Museum, so too should we include a label on all of our tests and assignments:

Warning: As much as I will try to grade your assignments objectively, fairly, and without prejudice, and as much as I will attempt to forget how annoyed I was with you when you [fill in appropriately]: didn’t do the reading/watched a Beyoncé video on your laptop instead of listening to what I was saying/left the class three times to go to the bathroom, I am only human, so caveat emptor!

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Grading has a way of reversing the intent of teaching, not only closing off a formative process of dialog and reflection, but often contradicting what we have been insisting all semester: “It’s not about the grade.” Well, what if it is? And how do we tell students with a straight face not to worry so much about their grades when they know (as do we) that when all is said and done, the grade we give them can/will influence whether they get the fellowship they need to pursue their studies. I would venture that, for most of us, the problem is not that we feel pressured to give “C” work an “A” (although grade inflation, particularly at elite institutions, might suggest otherwise), but rather how we maintain a straight face when we suggest there is a clear and obvious difference between a “B” and a “B+,” between a “B+ and an “A-.” Particularly in the humanities and social studies, but likely in the sciences as well, we know full well that extraneous considerations (those extra trips to the bathroom!) can influence our decisions. There’s no way around the fact that a serious evaluation of our students’ work is so much more complex than can be expressed in that single letter, and giving a student a “B+/A-” really doesn’t resolve the problem.

What else is wrong with grades? Let me count the ways! As  Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out,

  • A single, over-all grade conflates elements that need to be disentangled.
  • They tend to overly reward lower-order thinking skills (such as memorization and recall) rather than higher order skills (involving analysis, application, and synthesis).
  • Grades too often fail to accurately reflect student learning or mastery.
  • They are frequently de-motivating and discouraging.

Nor is this a recent finding: studies as early as 1912 questioned the utility (and validity) of grades, and research has fairly consistently underlined some of the main problems in grading practices.

Typical-student, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

“Typical figure, showing tendency of student life,” British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Does that mean that we should stop giving grades? Very few colleges or universities have abandoned the grading system altogether. Hampshire College, where faculty write narratives of their students’ learning rather than assigning grades, remains the exception. But even there, complex narratives probably won’t work in a class of 80 students, nor is Pass/Fail an option without draw-backs in a world in which grades are the norm. A “Pass” in Organic Chemistry might not help a student when she applies to med school.

Valen E. Johnson, professor and head of the department of statistics at Texas A&M University at College Station argues further that if we didn’t grade, “students probably wouldn’t work as much and wouldn’t do homework and wouldn’t study for exams”? While this is not universally the case, we can (and probably should) admit that we share at least some of the blame for not making learning more intrinsically motivating. But such an observation can only get us so far. Ultimately, we need to think about new ways of grading that can address some of the shortcomings of the current system. That’s where contract grading comes in.

CONTRACT GRADING: THREE OPTIONS

Contract grading, which actually was first used some decades ago, more recently has been gaining traction in higher ed. Briefly, contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students within the evaluation system in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment.

There are a variety of approaches to contract grading, each designed to meet an instructor’s intended outcomes, but all share the fundamental goal of clarifying the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions. While there are a number of different types of contract grading options, I’ve  summarized three different contract-grading approaches here. At the same time, I’d encourage you to talk to your colleagues about how they grade; raise the issue at department meetings: you’d be surprised how many have adopted this method of grading.

Contract grading as a means of negotiating authority

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

The essential factor in determining a grading approach, at least as I see it, is deciding what you hope the process of grading can achieve in the broadest terms. For some, revealing and addressing the nature of power relations within a classroom environment is the central element that a grading system can address. Ira Shore, for example, has written much about the importance of creating a democratic classroom in which power is both fully disclosed and openly negotiated with students. Similarly, Isabel Moreno Lopez argues that teachers should create a critical classroom in which “authority and responsibilities are shared between teacher and students, empowering all course members to become active, responsible participants of the learning process, not merely passive consumers.” For both, grading is a means by which power can be shared through a collectively negotiated contract co-constructed at the beginning of the semester.

Here, in a condensed version, is how Moreno Lopez describes her contract grading system:

The negotiation process starts at the beginning of the semester when the teacher presents the elements of a contract grading system to the students. In general terms, the grading system is based on the quality and quantity of work students are willing and capable of doing. That is, if a student signs a contract for an “A,” s/he will do more work in the course than the student who contracts for a “C.” The quality of work will also reflect the contracted grade. Students are permitted to rewrite the written assignments as many times as necessary to attain the contracted grade.

At the start of the semester, then, the teacher opens up class-time to discuss both the syllabus and the grading system. Then, s/he asks for questions, amendments, and comments on the original proposal. A debate follows, after which the students sign the contract, as amended by themselves, and keep a copy for their records. During the semester, the negotiation process continues, both in class discussions and in comments in the students’ journals. At the end of the semester, based on the contracts and their performance, students discuss with the teacher their final grades. This grade might be the same they contracted or might have varied depending on their performance and progress.

Moreno Lopez suggests that this negotiated grading system is valuable in two ways: it helps students see learning as a process and not an end, and it “encourages students to be active participants in their own learning process by allowing them to cooperate in what is usually considered the ultimate prerogative of the teacher: the assessment process.”

Shor, Moreno Lopez and others who engage in this form of critical pedagogy identify the classroom as a political arena where differences of power are necessarily, and properly, brought into the center of teaching where they are negotiated. In such a context, struggle and conflict is both inevitable and appropriate insofar as it is a reflection of the larger society, not a “bubble” separate from it.

Non-negotiated contract grading to improve learning

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

The grading contracts used by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow in their composition courses are similar in some respects, but they are less concerned about using the classroom to negotiate authority than Shor or Moreno Lopez. Instead, they see their goal as creating “a classroom where both teachers and students get to give as much time and attention as possible to writing—not politics and culture. Of course political and cultural issues turn up in student writing, but our tendency is to discuss the effectiveness of the writing more than political and cultural issues themselves (not that one can ever completely separate the two).”

Danielewicz and Elbow present the grading contracts to students at the beginning of the semester rather than co-constructing them with student input. By using contracts, they seek “not only to help students learn more and function better as learners; we also want a grading system that encourages them to be the kind of persons our world needs; furthermore, we want to make our own teaching easier and more satisfying.” And they add, “That’s all.” Indeed, that would be plenty.

Here is a summary of the main elements of the Danielewicz-Elbow grading contract:

  1. Attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes.
  2. Meet due dates and writing criteria for all major assignments.
  3. Participate in all in-class exercises and activities.
  4. Complete all informal, low stakes writing assignments (e.g. journal writing or discussion-board writing).
  5. Give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops and work faithfully with their group on other collaborative tasks (e.g., sharing papers, commenting on drafts, peer editing, on-line discussion boards, answering peer questions).
  6. Sustain effort and investment on each draft of all papers.
  7. Make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching up.
  8. Copy-edit all final revisions of main assignments until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English.
  9. Attend conferences with the teacher to discuss drafts.
  10. Submit their mid term and final portfolio.

In other words, students get a “B” based solely on what they do, not on any evaluation of their work by the professor. Grades higher than a “B,” however, depend on the teacher’s evaluation of the quality of their writing. They will discuss in class what “exceptionally high quality” writing means, making the criteria as public and concrete as possible, but they don’t give students power over “high-grade” decisions.

Although they don’t evaluate the quality of their students’ writing up to a “B” grade, they also don’t withhold evaluation as they continue to provide students with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses in their work, both drafts and final version. But the evaluation (up to a “B”) is decoupled from grades. “As a result,” they write, “students don’t have to heed any of our judgments or advice when they revise their papers (though they must revise).” They want their students to feel that the evaluations they conduct are “from individual persons: yes, experts about writing, but individuals, nevertheless, who cannot pretend to be wholly impersonal or fair.”

Their article (“A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching”) offers a fascinating discussion of how they came to the various elements of the contract, why, for example, they picked a “B” grade as the base-line mark for their contract (“Our original reasoning was merely timid—crassly negative and pragmatic: we were scared to ‘go all the way.’”), or whether their contract is actually less “fuzzy” than a standard grading system. “How can we defend ambiguous and arguable criteria like ‘conscientious effort,’ ‘thoughtful feedback,’ and ‘conscientious participation?’” they ask. “First, we don’t accuse someone of failing to meet one of these fuzzy criteria (‘no-effort,’ for example), unless the violation is grossly flagrant (e.g. drafts far short of the required length). Secondly, we’ll always take the students word for it.” In terms of a final, summative, grade they are persuaded that their decisions were relatively easy to make. Students who didn’t fulfill the contract (including some who were excellent writers), were disqualified. They then focused more closely on the remaining final portfolios that they found to be particularly strong.

Contract grading to encouraging active learning and community building

"The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century," British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

“The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century,” British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

The final example of contract-style grading is Asao B. Inoue’s community-based assessment approach. Similar to all contract models, Inoue, a writing instructor at Washington State University, moves away from teacher-centered assessment and evaluation while encouraging students to take more initiative. But, more than in the previous models, Inoue seeks to create a classroom in which “students take control of all writing assignments, their instructions, assessment criteria, and the practices and reflective activities that go along with their writing.” Such an approach, he maintains, “encourages a community of writers that are implicated in each others’ writing and assessment practices, and gets them to critically engage with these practices.”

Inoue’s model underscores the fact that assessment is a vital component in the act of writing. He spends considerable time discussing with students what they want out of their papers and how they should be read and assessed. It is a complex and recursive process that begins when the class collectively creates its first assessment rubric, a set of guidelines that everyone agrees to, and that they will use both as writers and assessors. This first rubric will be revised continually as the class moves from the early stages of writing (paragraph writing) to position papers and final essays.

Any student can suggest a rubric revision or raise a question about the rubric at any time. To test and revise the iterated rubric, class members write two separate paragraphs, each receiving three peer assessments that use the in-process rubric. The class — instructor and students alike — uses what it has learned from the paragraph assessments to revise the rubric, which becomes the new starting point for on-going assignments, and so on. Over a month, each student writes a position paper, receives responses and assessments from the entire class (both on paper and through class discussions), posts a revision of the position paper based on those discussions and input, gets a more formal peer-assessment of the revision by a few colleagues, writes an essay (often based on the position paper), and finally receives a formal peer-evaluation of the essay. The same process is repeated for a second paper. (The process is schematized in the illustration below.)

ChartWhen the students assess each others’ writing, they are not looking to identify an “A” paragraph or an “exemplary,” or “outstanding” one. Rather they use the rubrics to help them identify proficient paragraphs, ones that reach the proficiency markers they set out at the start of the process. If a paragraph hits these markers, then it has done its job.

Here, for example, is what the class came up as a “proficient” paragraph with after their discussions: A proficient and adequate paragraph will . . .

  • Contain a consistent claim
  • Support claim with appropriate evidence (when needed)
  • Elicit thought on the part of the audience
  • Adapt to or consider its audience
  • Use clear and concise language
  • Use appropriate language and grammar
  • Contain three or more sentences

They continue to refine this set of criteria over the course of the semester.

As Inoue explains,

I try simply to provide the structures for my students to create a rubric, re-think it, write from it, use it to assess each other, and, of course, reflect continually upon all these practices. I distribute guidelines, provide due dates, post weekly reflection prompts, and pose additional questions in class that facilitate assessment discussions on student writing. In short, I try to coach them toward sound assessment practices and active learning stances by making them do the hard work of assessment. I encourage them to voice disagreement, show agreement, and elaborate and qualify ideas. I act as a facilitator, questioner, and listener when we talk about each other’s writing. I try to keep us focused on our rubric in our assessment discussions, yet not be a guard to ivory towers… Our class writing isn’t about what I want — it’s about what the class can agree on they want and can justify in some way so that agreements can be made… My students must debate and decide on all the important decisions regarding their writing in the course from start to finish. The class is about them learning not me teaching.

The key to making assessment work pedagogically, according to Inoue, is periodic reflection on the assessment activities. He does it once a week based on open-ended prompts to point the students to the areas he wants them to reflect on. Community-based assessment pedagogy also offers ways to build a pragmatic sense of community that is active and purposeful.

If our purpose, as teachers, in assessing and evaluating student writing is to help students learn — if assessment is inherently a learning practice (which I think it is) — then the teacher shouldn’t control all of the process. And Inoue concludes:

Community-based assessment pedagogy, as described here, boils down to three classroom imperatives: (1) encourage active learning stances by allowing students to assess and evaluate their own and their colleagues’ writing practices, and make these assessments meaningful and purposeful, (2) situate assessment practices within a community of knowledge makers who construct assessment rubrics and define and justify assessment practices, i.e., encourage the class to work for one another as mutual agents working with and for each other’s benefit, writing for each other, and negotiating hard agreements together, and (3) give lots of opportunities to reflect on assessment that speaks to the larger class community, in order to theorize about writing, rhetorical conventions, assessment, and the judging of writing from specific criteria, i.e., what we say about what we are doing (or did) can help us do it better in the future. In my versions of this pedagogy, these imperatives rest on a framework of recursive, repeated writing and assessment activities.


 

As you will have noticed, none of these models makes grading “easy.” Contract grading is not the contemporary equivalent of throwing the papers down the steps and handing out marks depending on where they land. But, by bringing students into the assessment process, contract grading can help make assessment criteria clearer, remove some subjective aspects of grading, bolster student learning, and build community. And, by foregrounding the grading process as reflective of the inherent power of faculty (i.e., we may be their friends, but ultimately we will give them grades), contract grading provides a needed “label” for students and an invitation to faculty to re-imagine classroom practices.


Some additional bibliography:

Elbow, Peter and Jane Danielwicz. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” English Department Faculty Publication Series. Paper 3.

Huot, B. “Toward a new discourse of assessment for the college writing classroom.” College English 65 (2002): 163–180.

Inoue, Asao B. “Community-based Assessment Pedagogy.” Assessing Writing 9 (2005) 208–238.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Moreno-Lopez, Isabel. “Sharing Power with Students: The Critical Language Classroom.” Radical Pedagogy 7:2 (2005).

Radican, Lynda S. “Contract Grades: An Agreement between Students and Their Teachers.” In Stephen Tchudi, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997, 285-290.

Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.