We have been going through a difficult time. One of the signposts of that difficulty, for me at least, came when I hesitated after writing the very first word of this posting: we. I wasn’t about to put it in quotes, but I have been realizing just how tenuous that “we” has become. I know I don’t speak for a “we,” nor can I say what that “we” is feeling. Neither am I willing to abandon the hope embodied in the we.
As an intellectual, one who works with words and ideas and attempts to make them relevant in an environment in which learning occurs, I turned to literature as offering a way into this conversation (and I hope it is a conversation). To Virginia Woolf, in particular, whose 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book,” I was recently reminded of in a lovely blog entry by Maria Popova.
“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading,” Woolf writes, “is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” [The essay is in the public domain .]
With Woolf’s advice in mind, and with Oberlin’s turmoil in mind rather than the challenges of reading, I start again: We have been going through a difficult time, both individually and collectively. I know there are many of us in the Oberlin community thinking hard and talking constantly about the road ahead. My intent here is to add to those conversations.
Over the past week, I’ve been nursing a muscle I pulled in my leg when I slipped on the ice. I asked one of the coaches what I should do and when I could start to exercise again. He recommended ice and ibuprofen, so the damaged tissue could quiet down from its inflamed state before attempting any exercises designed to strengthen it. I dislike organic metaphors, but it seems to me that we desperately need a healthy dose of Motrin in order to rest our jangled nerves before moving on to strengthening our community. Understanding that pulled muscles impact people differently, that those who are more conditioned can come back faster than others…still, we need an ice pack.
It’s what Woolf recommends as “letting the dust settle” after reading a book before passing judgment on it. “We must pass judgment upon those multitudinous impressions [received in reading]; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep.” I can only hope that we are in the process of letting the dust from the recent weeks settle before passing “hard and lasting” judgment. Again, each of us will have different ways to do that, but just as it is hard to run with a pulled muscle, to deliver informed judgments the moment we put a book down, so it may not yet be time to know exactly what is the best way forward.
I have no doubt that students, faculty, staff and administrators all have a number of concrete steps that can and should be taken to move us from this place while addressing the shortcomings we have identified. I have only one suggestion, and it’s not as easily achieved as implementing a new curriculum, hiring new staff, or deploying more security personnel. It is about what we do here every day. It’s about teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition (whose definition I borrow from a statement that some colleagues and I are working on). If done well, study in the liberal arts instills in students a capacity and a passion for inquiry, for critical thinking and analysis, for clear and original expression of ideas. Liberal arts learning values self-reflection and the ability to understand and accept differences in others. Liberal arts education seeks to foster an openness to, and engagement with, new ideas; it assigns central importance to the asking of questions as a mode of learning; it affirms habits of inquiry that regard our search for values and the ability to live an ethical life as the keystone that holds our learning in place. Finally, I would argue that empathy is central to this; that it is critical to the process of engagement with others and a commitment to the cause of social justice.
Some mistake empathy for sympathy, and it may produce just that. But empathy is the capacity for imaginative attribution, and psychologists consider it a critical foundation for promoting cooperative, pro-social and satisfying relationships. The (by now clichéd) Cherokee saying “Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes,” is about empathy, as is Atticus Finch’s observation in To Kill A Mockingbird, that, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Some would say that you shouldn’t do that (asserting a tribalist perspective), or that you can’t do that (suggesting that we can never leave our own social formation). It seems to me that both literature and social justice activism (among other things) would suffer without the capacity for empathic imagination.
Empathetic engagement is not about abandoning one’s principles or an appeal to the sad cry: “can’t we all just get along.” Sometimes we can’t. It is about listening…no, it’s about trying to hear what someone you disagree with has to say. At the end of the day, maybe you and your interlocutor will still be miles apart; I seriously doubt that you’ll be best friends. But something will have changed for the listening and hearing.
I wonder if you’ll bear with me for a story which seems a good illustration of this (rather than an assertion that I have any idea about how to deal with radical differences). A few years back, the town and college were shaken by a series of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids on a restaurant in town. Five undocumented workers were hauled away and, before we could even locate them, they had been deported. Three of us (a student, a town resident, and myself) decided to bring a resolution to City Council to provide those who live and work in our town with a modicum of protection and support. We worked hard on the resolution, consulted with officials, police, activists, and others, and finally brought it to Council, where it had to pass three separate readings before final approval.
Tensions were high at these meetings as news of the resolution had spread to other Ohio towns and anti-immigration activists from places like Painesville and Grafton made up the majority in the hearing room. We received threats on our lives, and for the first time ever, City Council brought in a metal detector through which audience members passed. The meetings themselves were pocked with invective from many of the out-of-towners (“America was built by the white people!”), but the resolutions passed with strong support.
Shortly after the last meeting, I received an email from an unknown sender who criticized me for having called her a “bigamist” in the course of the hearings. Since I didn’t know her, much less her personal life, I had no idea what she was talking about, but assumed that she had meant “bigot,” and, indeed, in my own remarks to City Council I had characterized some of the opposition to the bill as arising from bigotry. I wrote her back, trying to clarify my comments, but I also realized that I hardly ever talk to people with whom I fundamentally disagree, and this might be an opportunity. So I suggested we talk. Since I was leaving to teach on the London semester two days later, time didn’t permit an in-person meeting, but we did spend about three hours on the phone.
I thought about what I wanted to achieve in that conversation: I wasn’t going to change her mind, nor she mine. But I did hope that she could perhaps hear something she hadn’t heard before. (Tellingly, I wasn’t so empathetic as to imagine that I could hear something as well.) I also decided that there were certain limits and bounds to such a conversation and, once reached, I wouldn’t spend any more time at it. For me, unless she was willing to see undocumented migrants (“illegal aliens” in her terms) as human and therefore deserving some dignity, I couldn’t see much purpose in the conversation. Lacking that, game over.
So we talked. I pulled out my most obvious empathetic moves: what if you were a Mexican mother who had to feed her children, etc, etc. Nope. I kept moving back, hoping that we would find the one point we could agree on before we hit the ultimate boundary. Finally, more than two hours into the conversation, I realized I knew nothing about her, her family, its history, or what she cared about (other than making sure that undocumented workers weren’t working in Oberlin’s restaurants). So I asked her. Her family had been in Ohio for a long time. Not surprisingly, they had been farmers, but no longer were. “Was it hard for your family to give up its land,” I asked? Yes, it had been. Very hard. After a few more minutes, I asked her why she thought that a family from, say, southern Mexico, which had been on the same plot of land for maybe 500 years, maybe much longer, would give up that land so they could wash dishes in a restaurant in northeastern Ohio. And for the first time she paused and said, “I don’t know.” We talked some more, I told her a bit about NAFTA and what it had done to many Mexican farmers…the details at this point don’t matter. The conversation ended shortly after. We didn’t (figuratively) give each other a hug; I still have my very strong beliefs about immigration, and she most likely has hers. But we each heard, of that I’m convinced, and we each were changed.
Listening is not easy; hearing is even harder because it means that you have to think about your own positions as well as those of the other party. And that is particularly difficult when one’s ears are filled with shouts of approval from one’s supporters (or one’s hearing is hardened by disapproving voices from one’s detractors). But hearing is essential if we are to move ahead, particularly when the differences that divide us are much narrower than those expressed in the City Council’s chambers.
What can we, as teachers, do to help this process of listening and hearing? Where can we best intervene? How can we model empathetic hearing and liberal arts values? I trust that we will find the answers.
Steve Volk, March 10, 2013
[NOTE: This is the first of a series of suggestions for making modest changes to the College in order to strengthen student learning]
Whether stated or implied, a tight link exists between classroom design and learning theory. For planning reasons, we tend to organize our classrooms (leaving labs and studios out of the question for the moment) on the basis of class size. The largest spaces (King 106 and 306; West Lecture Hall, Craig, Hallock, Severance 108, Warner, etc.) are designed for large numbers of students; the King, Peters, Bibbins, Severance, and Science Center classrooms (e.g. K337) will hold 20-60 students; and the “seminar” rooms around campus are designed for less than 20 students. The pedagogical implication of this are unspoken: “linear” classrooms are designed around lecture or other presentations; “horizontal” classrooms allow for class discussion.
- King 106
Many faculty engage in concerted guerrilla attempts to subvert the design of the classroom to which they are assigned: schlepping chairs from rows to circles; reconfiguring desks; allowing smaller groups to spill out into the hallways to find congenial discussion space. The large amphitheater spaces most deeply resist these seditious desires. I was defeated in my attempts to do anything other than lecture in King 306, although some faculty will have their students wheel around in their (fixed) seats to talk with those behind them; many will allow students to sit on the desks in a desperate attempt to promote discussion.
At the end of the day, though, we must admit that a large number of our classroom spaces were designed with student bodies, not student learning, in mind. They have been upgraded (at great cost and with much staff dedication and support) to provide access to technology, drapes have been changed, carpets added, desks swapped out. But a simple truth remains: except for the smaller seminar rooms, our classrooms are designed to have a “front” (from which point the teacher controls the technology console and the front black or white board/s), and faces out on the rows of chairs. Even seminar rooms are hard to re-purpose to allow small group discussions.
What we know about how students learn has been developing over the past generation. Based on the research findings of some influential studies [e.g. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney, R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn; John Seely Brown, “Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn,” Change (March/April 2000); Theodore J. Marchese, “The New Conversations about Learning Insights from Neuroscience and Anthropology, Cognitive Science and Work-Place Studies,” AAHE Conference on Assessment and Quality, Assessing Impact: Evidence and Actions (1997), etc.], we can say with some confidence that deeper learning experiences (i.e., those that are at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy) occur when learning is social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned (see Colleen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner, “Mind over Matter. Transforming Course Management Systems into Effective Learning Environments,” EDUCAUSE Review (Nov/Dec 2002), p. 29).
I have full confidence that Oberlin teachers will make the most out of the classroom geographies they are assigned to create a learning environment which can provide these experiences. But it is hard to be fighting our furniture all the time.
- Lena Dunham (‘08) – Tiny Furniture
As much as I try to make 100- and 200-level classes (from 20-50 students) student-centered, I often feel trapped behind the technology console: I’m a (supposed) “sage” who is quite consciously trying to get off the stage, but there I am, in front. Further, what we know of “universal design,” is that design (whether of buildings, classrooms, or course instruction) should take everyone into account from the ground up, not “accommodate” to special needs. Our classrooms, as currently configured, don’t take our students’ different learning styles into account. Again, we do our best to “accommodate,” to make it work. But shouldn’t we be designing for student learning from the beginning?
The more I think about this, the more I wonder what it would be like to have a classroom that was capable of supporting what we know about how students learn. What if Oberlin faculty had a fully flexible classroom space, with modular furniture (both chairs and tables on casters), and tables that could hold 6-7 students, that could be shifted easily to meet the demands of a particular class session, with decentralized computing and networking (where there were flat-screens in 3 of the room’s corners and white/black boards on at least three walls)? (Photos of two examples, from Brown and the University of Minnesota, Rochester, are below.)
Helpfully, researchers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tried just such an experiment to evaluate the impact of a variety of factors in a classroom design on student learning and engagement. You can find the full results of the study (Stern Neill and Rebecca Etheridge, “Flexible Learning Spaces: The Integration of Pedagogy, Physical Design, and Instructional Technology”) as a pdf on the web or in Blackboard. They conclude that “student-centered approaches to learning require a physical space that adapts to learner demands. Using modular furniture and accessible information technology better supports alternative approaches to teaching and learning. As instruction moves toward co-creation of the learning experience, the flexible, networked classroom provides an appropriate physical setting. Investment in flexible learning space design supports students and faculty and reinforces institutional commitment to educational excellence”(p. 7).
So here’s what I propose: Select 3-4 classrooms around the campus (King, Peters, the Science Center and Bibbins) to be fitted with modular furniture, accessible information technology, three-wall displays (flat screens and white/black boards). All faculty who are interested in more active, experimental pedagogy can request the rooms while (for the purpose of evaluation), they will also be assigned to other faculty. Enlist some of the faculty with good experience in experimental research design to modify the Cal Poly experiment to our own needs and environment, and then rigorously assess the impact of classroom design on student learning.
Let me know what you think and what other ideas you may have on this subject or ideas for changes on campus that can positively impact student learning.
Steve Volk (Feb. 24, 2013)
- Classroom in Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. Photo: S. Volk
- Andy Petzold talking with students during a biology class at the University of Minnesota Rochester. (Photo: Suzanne Pekow)
Providing timely, directed, and cogent feedback to student assignments is a difficult and time consuming task. Previous CTIE “Article of the Week” posts have addressed some of the issues involved in giving feedback on writing assignments (e.g., “Responding to Student Writing,” April 11, 2011; “Providing Effective Feedback on Tests and Assignments,” February 28, 2011; “Grading,” Nov. 29, 2010; “Designing and Grading Exams,” May 3, 2010, etc.). As I’m working my way through a pile of papers, I often think: the best thing would be if I had the student here, I could tell her quite concisely what I thought the strengths and the weaknesses of her paper were. Well, there are now ways that you can do something similar, using programs that incorporate your oral comments to a student’s paper or assignment.
OK, first things first: this is probably not for the technologically faint of heart. But neither is it so complex that only our colleagues in OCTET would understand it. Finally, for students, the only real skills involved are being able to open and click on a link.
There are different ways to do this, but the main recommendations come from a recent article by ProfHacker, a regular feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education. If you don’t have a subscription to the CHE, you can access it via the library’s website, making sure to sign in if you are off campus (if you are on campus and access it through the library’s web site, there should be no problem).
The article in question is by Heather M. Whitney, “Grading Computer Programming with Voice,” CHE (October 30, 2012). She uses three accounts (JotForm, Jing, and screencast.com) to allow her to pull up an assignment uploaded by students (in her case, some programming problem), use screencapture technology and a microphone to point out those places on the assignment which need improvement or were excellent, give students verbal feedback on what was and wasn’t working (up to 5 minutes of comments on Jing), and then return the assignments to an individual folder which only the individual student can see.
Whitney’s article links to others, including how to “Grade with Voice on an iPad,” (CHE, June 19, 2012), how to use iAnnotate on the iPad to comment on PDF’s, and an interesting article by Billie Hara on “Responding to Student Writing (audio style),” CHE, Oct. 16, 2009.
I have not used any of these techniques in my own classes, but they sound so attractive that I will probably start next semester, if not this since I often feel that I could convey my suggestions with greater precision if I were talking to a student, particularly if I’m working my way through a large stack of papers and I get tired writing. My sense is that there is a modest learning curve involved in using this technology, but that, once accomplished, the commenting would move smoothly.
I’d be very interested to know if others are using this technique, and, if so, what software you use, how long it took you to learn it, and, most importantly, what you found the results to be for your students in terms of feedback you have received and any evidence of increases in their learning.
Once again, if you need to connect to the Chronicle of Higher Education through the library, use the following link: http://tinyurl.com/CTIE-CHE .
Steve Volk, Nov. 5, 2012
Steve Volk, CTIE (Sept. 24, 2012)
One question that comes up often for beginning faculty, but reappears almost every year you plan a syllabus is: How much reading should we be assigning in our classes? Is there an amount that is so reduced that students will think that my course is a “gut” (do they still call it that?); is there an amount so large that its only purpose is to signal how hard the class is? Obviously, any answer will depend on the course, the topic, the placement in the syllabus, etc. Five pages of a physics article may take as much time to “read” (more on why this is in quotes later) as 100 pages of history or a 200-page novel…but maybe not. Hence we keep asking ourselves the question.
Higher Education seems to be beset by a lot of hand wringing these days, or at least that’s the case for pundits who write on trends in higher education. Some of this angst has been spurred by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2011 which argued, very briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t being challenged. Among other factors, students are not reading enough, they are not writing enough, they are not studying enough. The authors highlight as an example of this that 32% of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. One of the concerns I have about Academically Adrift is that I don’t know exactly what to make of this. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are reading more? Are the 32% of the “light-reading” courses in the sciences, math, poetry, creative writing, studio art, etc? And finally, for the purpose of this discussion, do we have any research to suggest that more is better?
So, other than to recommend that you assign at least 41 (!) pages of reading a week so as not to fall afoul of Arum and Roksa’s follow-up study, I will suggest (as you already know) that there is no magical formula by which you can arrive at an abstract optimal number of pages that students should be reading each week. Instead, I’ll try to provide some suggestions for ways that you can think about this in order to come up with something that works for you (and, more importantly, for your students).
(1) Perhaps the most important starting point when thinking about assigning reading is: What do you want the reading to do? Is reading assigned as a background that will inform the week’s lectures but won’t be directly discussed in class? Are you expecting that, as in a seminar, it will generate the entire classroom discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? Do you have in mind the exact arguments you want your students to get from the reading, or do you really want them to explore in a more “free-writing” kind of way? The first point, then, is that the amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish. Students will have a hard time successfully completing a close reading of 60 pages of text, whereas a longer text-book reading of material that they will go back to frequently as they clarify points raised in lecture can be longer. Unfamiliar language (whether English texts from the 18th century, texts in foreign languages, deeply theoretical texts, etc.) will take much more work. Students may “read” the entire text (i.e. their eyes will “touch” each word), but they won’t be reading it.
(2) A second point to consider is where the reading comes in the course, a question which relates to the issue of what role reading itself will play in your course. Is one of the overall learning goals in your course teaching student how to read sociology, anthropology, physics, or musical scores? This may sounds a bit unusual since our students, by and large, need to be very well prepared in order to even be here. But being well prepared doesn’t mean that they know what is involved in reading at a college level. I am most familiar with how students are prepared in history, and it’s very clear to me that even the best prepared students have not had practice in reading history monographs in high school, so they will not know how to get through a 220-page text in a week. And they won’t be able to do this because reading history in high school often means reading to memorize details which will later “be on the test.” The same thing will be true for literature students who certainly have read novels in high school, but not necessarily with the tools of textual analysis and close reading technique. Students often come in as consumers of texts, comprehending content and relying on us to give me some guidance as to what is relevant, the points at which they should question the text, etc. Since one of my overall learning goals in my introductory courses is to help students learn how to read college-level history, I try to assign shorter, more directed readings in the earlier part of the semester and only build up to more lengthy reading later in the class. But even in upper-level courses, I will start slowly just to get a sense of where the students are in their practice of reading.
(3) Less can be more. Timothy Burke, who teaches history at Swarthmore, observes that the reading we assign bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure, or for our own work. In fact, we assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, can possibly read in any “normal” fashion. When I was in college, we carried around as a pretty twisted badge of honor the excessive amount of reading we had to do each week. No, I didn’t do all that reading, but it was assigned, and I think that as faculty, many of us carry that practice along with us to our own syllabi. Many colleges survey their students’ self-rated study practices. Invariably, when students are asked what percent of time they come to classes “well prepared,” the number hovers around 70%. When faculty are asked to rate what percent of time they think their students come prepared to class “well prepared,” the number falls to around 30%. Does that mean that students aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing or that we faculty are requiring too much preparation? I can’t answer that, but it’s likely somewhere in the middle. None of us wants to sacrifice the reading we think essential for our own classes…but, is there a price we are paying in student learning when the overall student reading load is excessive?
Unhappy with how discussions went when I assigned a 200-page monograph in an intermediate-level class, even when I felt that I had scaffolded my students’ learning appropriately by preparing discussion questions and study tips, I began instead to assign an article by the same author that (at least in history) is always published in a top quality journal prior to the book’s publication. Discussions improved. Similarly, assigning four different articles in one week might mean than they aren’t getting as much as they could out of any of them. Less can be more.
(4) Novices and experts. Many of the above points relate to the fact that we read as experts while our students are still novices and are really learning how to read appropriately to build up their expertise. There are a lot of excellent guides for how to help undergraduates read effectively in their discipline, but let me suggest just a few here. As faculty, we wouldn’t have made it this far (we wouldn’t have finished those 800+ page weeks) without knowing how to skim. Novice readers don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming involves making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading. Timothy Burke (referenced above), who writes a lovely blog called, “Easily Distracted,” uses Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (Verso Press) as an example for how to help students skim for arguments.
In an 2008 article in Teaching Sociology (“Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses”), Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts suggest a number of ways to use reading responses to help student develop stronger reading practices. These include:
- Connecting to the text—Underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students are encouraged to go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They can then answer some of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
- Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Summarizing the reading by using visual or graphic approaches, charts, lists, etc.
- Reading response journal—Each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
- Studying as a group—Two or three students discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.
(5) Don’t lose track of the calendar (or your syllabus). Always try to keep in mind where in the school year you are and where in your syllabus you are. We all know this, and most of us ignore it anyway. Very lengthy reading assignments during mid-term week or at the end of the semester will not be read. We may feel that we have to squeeze that extra bit of reading in, but it is generally expecting something that won’t happen as students have much too much else going on during those weeks. Similarly, assigning a heavy reading load during the same week that you have assigned a paper or an exam is not likely to produce the results that you were hoping for. Keep those calendars in mind.
So, how much reading should you assign each week? Try 72 pages and call me in the morning!
For some additional tips on reading, Eric H. Hobson has written a nice paper on “Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips” .
Finally, many disciplines have prepared their own guides for reading in their discipline. History, for example, has “The History Guide: A Student’s Guide to the Study of History: 2.1 How to Read a History Assignment.”
If you have a particularly good guide for your discipline, please send it to me or write it in the comments below. (Other comments, as always, are welcome!)
At the most recent CTIE workshop on “blended” learning at Oberlin (how faculty are combining face-to-face teaching with online learning), one faculty member remarked that one of the most positive outcomes of the workshop was being able to hear and learn from what other faculty were doing in their classes. Along those same lines, another observed we teach behind closed doors and rarely know what engaging and productive approaches others are taking in their classrooms.
Judging by these and other comments, it struck me that this would be a good time to raise the issue of faculty/staff learning communities at Oberlin. A faculty/staff learning community (FSLC, as a shorthand) is a group of faculty and staff who meet regularly to undertake a project or work toward a defined goal. Faculty learning communities (I prefer to see them composed of both faculty and staff) have been discussed for about 15 years and the literature on FSLCs is fairly extensive, but let me define how I see them at Oberlin by turning first to the needs I think they address.
Invariably, when faculty and staff gather at a workshop or brown bag, some will remark (as did those faculty members referenced above) about how energizing it is to get together with colleagues and talk about what is happening in their classrooms and with their teaching. Just as invariably, someone will recommend that we should do this more often: Wouldn’t it be great if…
As someone who convenes a regular series of pedagogy related brown bags and workshops and who talks with others who do the same with educational technology, I must observe that the (honest) desire to attend these events is ultimately tempered by a dismally real lack of time. As much as we may want to attend workshops or discussions, other pressing events often intervene. A noon-time brown bag may attract 5 or 15, and I have no doubt that the difference in attendance is not usually determined by the topic, but by the fact that on some days people were just too busy. Let’s face it, we are incredibly busy and as much as we might have wanted to go to that particular session, a student emergency, a class to be prepared, or a conference paper deadline intervened.
So will FSLC’s magically produce more time for us just because we call them something fancy? Can FSLC’s slip through a rip in time? In your dreams. But the story doesn’t necessarily stop there, so let me relate one additional observation.
Each semester I organize two-three workshops, usually held from 4:30-6:30. On average, attendance over the past 3 years (about 14 workshops) has been around 18 per session. (That, if you’re wondering, is a great number.) This last session? 23 people signed up for it and 21 actually attended (again, not a shabby attendance rate). So what’s the secret and how does this anecdote relate to FSLC’s? I always pay attention to three components in the workshop preparation: a defined topic/goal; RSVP required; and…dinner. You knew that was coming, didn’t you!
Some people will say that you can bring faculty to anything as long as you offer food. Maybe we’re just cheap; or maybe, as someone said, “you’ve gotta eat anyway.” While that may be true, few of us “eat” over the course of 2½ hours, which is the typical time of a workshop, and will we really do anything for a free lunch? I don’t think so, but I do think that food – as in breaking bread together, conviviality, sharing a meal and interesting talk with colleagues – is not to be overlooked.
Actually, I’m interested in the other two aspects of the workshop: the fact that the topic is well defined and that those who are going to participate need to send in an RSVP. The first is important because as heartfelt as it is to say we should get together for dinner with a group of colleagues we rarely have contact with, we almost never will do that. Faculty social hours with wine and snacks can bring us out for 45 minutes, and are always pleasant, but to meet for a longer period? A reason for the meeting is essential.
And the RSVP? Actually, I think that’s a critical element, and that’s where the FSLC idea comes in. When you give an RSVP to a workshop, not only do you commit to coming, but you are saying: go ahead and buy dinner for me since I’ll be there. And, once you have done that, my experience suggests that you will honor that commitment, enter it on your calendar, not double book, and, barring an emergency, come to the event.
Back to the FSLC.
Faculty-Staff Learning Communities are small groups of colleagues who make the commitment to each other to meet on a regular basis (once or twice a month during the school year) to study or investigate a defined topic with the specific goal of implementing changes in practice. As opposed to a book club or a writing group (both of which are useful for different purposes), FSLC’s are designed to address issues of teaching, learning, faculty development, and/or liberal education. The meetings are usually based on common readings and are informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning or other research in a particular field. Different people in the group can be in charge of different topics, but together the group develops as a community of practice moving toward a goal. Their “findings” or conclusions are most often made public so as to inform the larger community of what they have learned and changes they recommend.
Let me again point out the key aspects of the FSLC’s that I believe make them different than other kinds of committees, informal groups, or occasional meetings:
* They address a specific concern and actively look for means to address it;
* They intend to make their findings public as a way of pursuing changes that they have determined to be worthwhile;
* They will inform themselves by consulting the pertinent scholarship and research in the area and their conclusions will be informed by what they have found;
* They are composed of people who are noticeably interested in the topic and who make a commitment to each other to pursue it;
* They meet (usually) outside of the normal work day, often at night, and often in a social and comfortable setting;
* They will make an effort to bring together colleagues who do not normally interact: faculty together with staff; faculty from different departments and programs; junior and senior faculty; etc.
FSLC’s can address any issue they find important, but they make the most sense in terms addressing issues that are most pressing for the college community at the time. Here are a few examples of FSLC’s that I could imagine for now, along with some links or references to some literature on the topic:
1. “Distribution” vs. “Learning Objective” requirements at Oberlin. As opposed to the structures we have in place to make recommendations and decisions about this topic (EPPC, EPC, CFC, the College or Conservatory Faculty, etc.), this FSLC would look at the literature on student learning, and on the experiences of other institutions as a way to inform its recommendations.
2. How can faculty in the early stages of their careers better negotiate their roles as teachers and scholars? What does the literature and other experiences suggest? Are there institutional changes that can improve this process? A learning community on this topic was formed at Bowling Green a few years ago, and their conclusions appeared in the July-August 2005 issue of Academe (“Balancing Acts: Tenure-Track Faculty in Learning Communities,” by Andrew Hershberger, Paul Cesarini, Joseph Chao, Andrew Mara, Hassan Rajaei, and Dan Madigan.
3. Rethinking the lecture: How can technology and learning theory help us rethink and reshape our approach to entry-level classes? (See, for example, Russell Warhurst, “‘Learning to lecture’: situating the knowing and learning of higher education teaching”
4. Integrative learning and curricular structure: Our curricular structure is quite dated: it is largely based on stand-alone courses with integration left to the students’ initiative. What would be the benefits of redesigning a curriculum that actively encouraged integration through problem-based pedagogies with real time uses? (See Barbara Leigh Smith, Jean MacGregor, Roberta S. Matthews, and Faith Gabelnick, “Learning Community Curricular Structures,” in Learning Communities: Reforming Undergraduate Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 67-96. See also Steve Volk, “A Laboratory for Experiential and Meaningful Learning,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011.
5. Integrating study-abroad experiences into the campus: pre- and post-practices.
6. Digital storytelling (See, for example, Matt Lewis, “Implementing Digital Storytelling on the Small Campus: Successful engagement, inquiry and assessment for learning, ” and, at the University of Georgia, “Faculty Learning Communities on Digital Storytelling”.
7. Service learning, civic engagement and democratic promotion. (See, for example: Karen K. Oates and Lynn H. Leavitt, Service-Learning and Learning Communities: Tools for Integration and Assessment (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities), 2003.
8. The economics of higher education, access, and the challenges for a democratic future.
…and I could go on and on, but you’ve probably gotten the idea by now.
It is my (perhaps optimistic) belief that some FSLCs will form because their members are interested in pursuing, in a rigorous fashion, the questions that they raise. But support also matters, and here’s where the free lunch (actually dinner) comes in. Because the FSLC’s are designed to solve problems and promote useful changes on campus, I would argue that they should be encouraged and supported by the administration directly or via grants and awards raised for the purpose. There are a variety of ways to support FSLC’s, including providing each member of a FSLC with a course release (arguably the most expensive and least probably way); giving the person who organizes a FSLC (the person who would be in charge of the formation, administration and ultimate report of the FSLC) a course release; or providing each FSLC with a budget to provide that “free lunch” over the year that they operate. Since funds would be involved, we would need some procedure to determine how many could be supported in any year, but we can begin slowly and build up from there.
What do you think? Can FSLC’s encourage the kind of discussions which faculty and staff have been interested in? When push comes to shove, will group members stick with it? What kinds of FSLC’s would you be interested in? What kind of support do you think they deserve? Send me your ideas and feedback
Steve Volk, CTIE (March 19, 2012)
Like many on campus, I was part of a large audience in Finney on Saturday night, absolutely enthralled as Ira Glass basically produced an episode of “This American Life” right in front of our eyes. As he made his magic with an iPad-like mixer and spoke of TAL’s conception and the many collaborators he has enjoyed working with, students would shout out “Oberlin grad” each time that Glass (sometimes unaware) mentioned yet another of bit of creative genius that seems to have originated from this campus. Whether it’s Jad Abumrad (recent winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant); Alex Blumberg, Paul Brown, Robert Krulwich, Zoe Chace, Joe Richman, Ben Calhoun, David Greene, or many others, it seems that Oberlin grads are at the heart of creative public radio. The highlighted words are key: creative and public. (Check out the article on the Oberlin-Public Radio connection in the Summer 2006 Alumni Magazine).
So that got me thinking. We graduate a lot of students whose creativity has gone on to enrich, and even define, important areas of the cultural landscape. Why? We probably know why Oberlin isn’t likely to generate the next generation of hedge fund managers, but do we know why we produce so much, well, creativity? One of the more obvious answers is that we tend to attract students who already see themselves as creative, original, experimental, edgy. But let’s think more about the “value added” side. Once students are here, what are we doing that promotes creativity in and among them? I have no doubt that a tremendous amount goes on in that regard both in the classroom and, perhaps even more, outside. I recall attending a production of “Into the Woods” featuring one of my students in a performance in Hall. I came away thinking: 15 years from now, he will remember very little about Latin American history, but the lessons learned in that production (and the emotions generated by it) will last a long time.
Here, then, is my first question to you: What are you doing inside or outside of class to cultivate creativity among your students? To what extent do you think of creativity as a distinct learning objective or goal in your courses? This would be standard operating practice in the performing, visual, musical or time-based arts, I am certain, but what about in the sciences or social sciences? Do you structure your classes or assignments in a way that intentionally helps the cultivation of creativity? Send me your thoughts so that they can be shared with others.
But creativity is not just a prerogative of the arts. Ira Glass, after all, studied semiotics at Brown; Krulwich was a history major at Oberlin; and Abumrad? A composition and creative writing double major at Oberlin, he now spends most of his time on Radio Lab dissecting and reassembling science stories so that they can be understood (and appreciated) by a lay audience.
So how do we get to creativity? A recent article by Steven J. Tepper and George D. Kuh addresses this topic, and you can find it as part of the “Article of the Week” for this week in CTIE’s Blackboard site or directly from the Chronicle of Higher Education .
In “Let’s Get Serious About Cultivating Creativity,” the authors suggests that creativity is not just (or only) about building nonhierarchical, informal, flexible spaces where creativity can flourish. Rather, it can be “cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time.”
The authors list seven of these core abilities or skills that research has suggested to be central to the promotion of creative thinking:
1. The ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor;
2. Conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems;
3. Keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;
4. The ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;
5. The ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;
6. A capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas;
7. The expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.
This final point drew me back to the subject and (and practical genius) of Glass’ approach which is rooted in the power of storytelling. As humans, we are as drawn to a good story as students are to their cell phones. At its best, a good story is mesmerizing, and the ability to draw listeners to a message by the narrative strength of one’s presentation, the “human” (simple but not simplistic) clarity of its lesson, and the excitement it can generate, is certainly one area of creativity that doesn’t come naturally, but rather has to be cultivated.
Cultivating creativity, then, becomes one way to think about the work we do in most of our classrooms; we should not think of it as an approach that is only nurtured in the “creative” arts.
And, as long as we are thinking about the skills that go into the fostering of graduates with a full range of creative potential, we should think about the important discussion occurring in the College regarding distribution requirements. Our current distribution requirement (on the books now for more than 30 years), defines the “breadth” of a liberal arts experience by requiring Arts & Science students to take courses in three divisions.
Should we instead be thinking of the skills and abilities and, if those core abilities and skills involve the cultivation of creativity, than is it possible that students could find those skills identified and strengthened not just in a dance or studio art course, but in an economics or sociology course?
What do you think?
Steve Volk, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence
By Tushar Rae; Chronicle of Higher Education (March 17, 2011)
After coming under fire for an academic paper he wrote more than a decade ago, Timothy J.L. Chandler retracted on Thursday his acceptance of the position of provost and vice president of academic affairs at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia.
In a statement released by Kennesaw State, Mr. Chandler, who is senior associate provost at Kent State University, said he decided that the “recent distractions caused by external forces would interfere with my effectiveness as provost.”
Mr. Chandler has recently come under attack from newspaper columnists in Georgia for a paper he wrote with a colleague, “Beyond Boyer’s ‘Scholarship Reconsidered’: Fundamental Change in the University and the Socioeconomic Systems,” that was published in The Journal of Higher Education in 1998. The columnists for The Marietta Daily Journal said that Mr. Chandler’s work showed an “obvious fondness for Marx and vehement dislike of capitalism.”
In response to the newspaper, Mr. Chandler said he is not a Marxist, although he did say that the paper was written “partly through a Marxist lens.”
To prove that Mr. Chandler had “swallowed Marxist theory hook, line, and sinker,” the columnists pointed to several excerpts, including this statement: “An asymmetric distribution of resources guarantees high levels of competition, greed, and violence. These three outcomes are important explicit goals of capitalism.”
When contacted by the Journal, Daniel S. Papp, president of Kennesaw State, backed Mr. Chandler and said he still wanted him as provost, although the president did say he was “blindsided” by the contents of Mr. Chandler’s 1998 work.
And Mr. Chandler had initially said that he planned to start the position in July, in spite of the criticism. In Thursday’s statement, he said he had changed his mind. He noted that, even so, he felt strongly about the commitment he had made “to elevating Kennesaw State University’s academic stature.”
The Faculty Senate at Kennesaw State had taken up a resolution this week to voice support for Mr. Chandler. But the measure was tabled after several members said they felt a need to further explore Mr. Chandler’s past work.
By Ben Wieder
Chronicle of Higher Education (March 13, 2011)
Each week last semester, 20 students at Yale University met with retired four-star Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
In a seminar on leadership, General McChrystal—who had recently been relieved of his command in Afghanistan after criticizing top U.S.-government officials—shared lessons from his own experience and brought in high-profile guests to share stories from their careers as well.
There was only one catch: Students were forbidden to reveal what General McChrystal or anyone else said in class.
The Yale seminar is one of several recent instances like this. Lectures last semester in several classes at Georgetown University by Alvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia, were off the record, as is a current class at George Washington University featuring lectures by and discussions with Ed Henry, CNN’s senior White House correspondent, and Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary.
Should institutions dedicated to shared knowledge cloak courses in secrecy? Absolutely not, says Dalton Conley, senior vice provost at New York University, who thinks the practice runs contrary to notions of academic freedom. “There’s definitely a clash of institutional cultures here,” he says.
Gregory Scholtz, director of the American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, says the organization’s founding policy document suggests the opposite.
“Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large,” according to the organization’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.
The universities say these classes give students inside information they wouldn’t get otherwise: a worthwhile trade-off.
The August announcement that General McChrystal would teach at Yale came less than two months after he was ousted following a controversial article in Rolling Stone. The article and his forced resignation were among the biggest stories of the summer, and his appointment to the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale brought significant media attention, says Larisa Satara, the institute’s associate director. The class policy was a response to that.
“It was more off the record in the sense that you weren’t going to talk to a journalist,” she says.
But Julia A. Knight, a senior who took General McChrystal’s seminar, said she didn’t discuss class materials with students who weren’t in the class or with her family, either, because of the command in the syllabus.
She’s studied with high-profile professors at Yale before, but this was the first time she’d encountered such a policy. There were no restrictions on classes she’s taken with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and John D. Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence.
Still, she says, silence was a trade-off that she and her 19 classmates, selected from a pool of more than 80 applicants, were willing to make.
Ms. Knight, who hopes to work in city governance, says that the opportunity to discuss leadership in an academic setting was itself unique, and that the discussion’s being led by a retired general made it all the more valuable.
She also says the policy didn’t have much impact on the classroom environment: “I didn’t dwell on the fact that it was a confidential atmosphere.”
Mr. Uribe, a visiting scholar at Georgetown, didn’t teach any courses, but he did give lectures in several classrooms on the campus. He asked professors in those courses to share the following statement with students, according to Rachel M. Pugh, Georgetown’s media-relations director:
“To encourage an active discussion and exchange of ideas, this class is off the record. All participants agree that they will not record or publicly report on this class or distribute any recordings, photographs or videos of this class or any of the participants. By attending in this class you all are agreeing to these ground rules.”
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How can we as teachers help our students think about contentious events on campus in a productive and useful fashion? I hope I’m not being totally naïve when I ask this question, because I do believe faculty have a serious responsibility to engage these issues. Not only are we members of this community with standing, but we carry a considerable amount of moral authority. Here, then, are some suggestions. If you have more, as well as contrary opinions, please post them to the blog or send them to me.
1. Provide context. As an historian, I always find context is important. We live in an increasingly contentious time in which speakers and viewpoints out of favor with legislators, administrations, faculties, or students are being outright banned or prevented from being represented on campus at a growing rate. The poster child for this is Bill Ayers, a (recently retired) education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was banned from the University of Wyoming, Boston College, Georgia Southern, and the University of Nebraska, among others. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage during a commencement speech at Rockford College (an event described in the local paper under the Orwellian headline: “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation”). Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was continually disrupted as he attempted to speak at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010. [For more, see the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/free-speech) and FIRE (http://www.thefire.org/cases/topcases ).] Of course, the highly contentious “town hall” meetings of the summer of 2009 stand as a backdrop to the present moment, even if they took place in a different sphere than the academic. Nor is the banning or disrupting of speakers on U.S. campuses a new occurrence (think back to the many bans on left-wing, radical, and communist speakers in the 1950s and 1960). But I would suggest that the context of Mr. Rove’s talk is one in which the space for civil discourse has been narrowing, and it is useful for students to consider how their actions on one campus can become a part of a chilling trend in which debate is replaced with shouts.
2. Of course, the heart of the discussion one can have with students has to do with not just the first amendment right to free speech, which is extremely important in and of itself (even in its breech), but of the particular rules of discourse and behavior in our own educational community. These are not easy discussions to have with students, but they are important ones. Stating the obvious – that we are a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas – is useful but insufficient. Is it never right to disrupt a speaker, however uniformly hateful he or she may be? Unwilling to play the “Hitler card” so soon, I would raise a less significant straw man: what about Florida pastor Terry Jones? Once given a forum, should he be prevented from speaking? Allowing students to discuss these issues in class can provide them with a somewhat sheltered space to think about these questions – unlike what they are likely to find in Finney on Tuesday. I say that the rules of our community are useful but insufficient because our students (indeed we, ourselves) find these inadequate to solve the question by themselves. Otherwise, we could just pull out our JS Mill and leave it at that. So I do believe we should discuss the behaviors which bind us as a community as a starting point, including the right for many to speak, but also would argue that we have to go beyond that.
3. Help students think things through to the end. Full disclosure: I participated in a few confrontations at my graduate university when we prohibited speakers from speaking. I felt deeply, passionately and personally convinced that these individuals were criminals (and while my views have hopefully become a bit more sophisticated over the years, I still see them as exactly that, criminals). And yet I wonder to this day whether my tactics (not my beliefs) would have been different had members of the faculty I respected encouraged me to think the matter through to the end. Yes, you can prevent “x” from speaking here, and students at the other university down the road can do the same, but what is it you want to accomplish besides denying him a stage? Disruptions turn conversations around to the issue of disruption, not the presentation of the political or humanitarian matters that you want to call attention to.
4. As students who are, hopefully, training to be more than chemists, historians, or oboe players – who are training, in fact, to be citizens, we can help them ask questions about the events that they will confront. Why, for example, is a particular speaker invited to speak on campus? Without impugning the motives of the College Republicans in this particular case, I would suggest that at least one purpose of the invitation was to be provocative, i.e., to challenge or test the campus by showcasing a lightning-rod figure whose views are likely to be generally unpopular to the majority. (There are other purposes as well, of course, but this is the one that is important to our discussion. The others are subsumed under Mill’s observation that one reason for free speech is that you can actually learn from what you hear.) One can probably say similar things about other speakers from different viewpoints, but as teachers we ask our students to be smart, not naïve, and one way to be smart is to question motives, and not accept arguments on face value. What, then, is the purpose of this invitation from the perspective of those who are suspicious of it, and how should one’s actions be guided by one’s reasoning? You can point students to some ways of answering the question, including research (e.g., New York Times, “Rove Returns, With Team, Planning G.O.P. Push,” Sept. 25, 2010).You might point out to students that they can think more effectively about any response by considering the purpose of the visit. If you think, for example, that by disrupting a speech you will allow some to claim that free speech only exists for progressive causes at Oberlin, and that this will then become part of a larger argument about how colleges and universities have become hostile to conservative views and that this is more reason why voters should turn out of office those who “pal around” with “extremists,” – if you believe this, than it would seem rather foolish at best to willingly walk into a trap that has been set for you. And this is the case for arguments on either side of the political spectrum – our task as teachers is to help students ask the kind of questions (and then determine the kinds of responses) that are most likely to be informed, informative, and productive.
5. Help your students think about what interest they have in this event, what interests the community has, and the dangers of assuming that one is acting in the “best interests” of the community even though you may be in the majority. Democracy, after all, is about more than majority rule; it is about minority rights.
6. Help your students clarify what they want to accomplish? Small (or large) groups can disrupt audiences. We’ve seen that play out in U.S. politics over the past two years (“You lie!”). Shutting down speech with which you disagree is an easy act, not a difficult one. Determining how to insure that your point of view is heard (and not just the disruption that you have caused) is much harder. As faculty, we need to help students accomplish what is difficult but productive, not what is easy and damaging.
Your role as a teacher and mentor is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think through issues and consequences and, if useful, arrive at alternatives. The fact that you teach math and not politics is irrelevant to the fact that we are all members of this community, charged with helping our students think not just as mathematicians and politicians, but as citizens.
Vimal Patel, TheEagle.com [Bryan-College Station, Texas], Sept 1, 2010.
Frank Ashley felt the shifting winds several years ago: As state officials embarked on accountability measures for K-12 teachers, he said, he told his faculty colleagues that public sentiment would eventually demand such measures in higher education.
Now, Ashley, the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the A&M System, has been put in charge of creating such a measure that he says would help administrators and the public better understand who, from a financial standpoint, is pulling their weight.
A several-inches thick document in the possession of A&M System officials contains three key pieces of information for every single faculty member in the 11-university system: their salary, how much external research funding they received and how much money they generated from teaching.
The information will allow officials to add the funds generated by a faculty member for teaching and research and subtract that sum from the faculty member’s salary. When the document — essentially a profit-loss statement for faculty members — is complete, officials hope it will become an effective, lasting tool to help with informed decision-making.
“If you look at what people are saying out there — first of all, they want accountability,” Ashley said. “It’s something that we’re really not used to in higher education: For someone questioning whether we’re working hard, whether our students are learning. That accountability is going to be with us from now on.”
Peter Hugill, the head of the local chapter of a national faculty group, calls the measure simplistic and crude, and views it as an idea spawned from a conservative think tank in Austin that has advocated faculty accountability and has the support of Gov. Rick Perry and the A&M System Board of Regents.
“As being partly paid by the public purse, I believe we owe the public some degree of accountability — I don’t have a problem with that at all,” said Hugill, an A&M geography professor and local president of the American Association of University Professors. “What I have a problem with is silly measures.”
The project, tentatively called “The Texas A&M University System Academic and Financial Analysis,” will be presented to the A&M System Board of Regents, and, when complete, be available to the general public, officials have written in documents.
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