I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.
An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.
I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.
This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.
The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.
This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.
So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.
I often don’t have time to keep up with the various teaching articles and publications during the semester. So, these off times are often when I get to check in with what has happened outside of my classroom during the semester.
So, I’ve been doing some reading over the last week or so, and I have some blog post ideas lined up here for the summer.
The first thing that came to my attention was a recent post in Inside Higher Ed titled “Office Hours: Why Students Need to Show Up.” It was the first paragraph that really got me considering my own experience. As the author describes her experience with office hours:
Office hours: those moments when we are held hostage by our students, shackled to our desks, unable to tackle our mountains of other responsibilities. At crunch times, to better handle the line of students queueing outside my door, I’ve thought about installing a ticket dispenser, like at the deli: now serving number 17.
This is very much not my experience. And it goes back to a broader sense that I have about one of the challenges of teaching at a community college versus a more traditional four-year university. I have sat in my office week after week with almost no students ever coming by my office for thirteen years. I see students most often when they need a drop slip or a mid-semester grade check signed. Students certainly do not line up at my door, and I certainly do not feel held hostage by them. Instead, I have a required 10 hours of office hours every week, where I spend the majority of my time sitting there doing my own work and not interacting with students, except for what I do in my online class during that time.
I have my office hours clearly posted on my syllabus and in my online classroom. I sell my office hours to students at the beginning of the semester. I remind them of office hours multiple times in the semester and offer up advising time and draft-reading time often throughout the semester. And still, I have almost no students at my office hours.
And, do I complain about this? Of course. Instead of phrases like being held hostage, I instead bemoan the “students today” who don’t take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. However, I have more recently come to a realization that I need to approach the lack of students at my office hours differently, much like I have been trying to approach other things in my course differently. Although I can’t place the exact place that triggered the idea, I would say it probably came from one of the podcasts I listen to regularly:
The thing that I think is the biggest issue is the idea that if students are not doing what I would think is in their best interest, then it probably means the they do not know it is in their best interest. Instead of complaining that they don’t come to my office hours, I need to see the problem as one of them not coming from the academic tradition of understanding what it means to be a student. Students at a community college are often from families without a long tradition of college education. To them, we professors are unapproachable and intimidating. They do not see me as offering an opportunity for them to do better. Instead, without a culture of understanding academic life, like those of us who teach them who have become very comfortable with the ways that academic life transpires, many of them are first timers who are not comfortable with meeting a professor one-on-one in his or her office.
So, I know that I need to do something different to help bring students into my office hours. That’s because the article I started off is correct, the one-on-one interaction is important and often makes a big difference in student success.
Here are some of my ideas:
- Making an initial office hour visit a requirement at the beginning of the semester.
- Having students meet to discuss a project or paper as part of a progress report in the semester.
- Having more active office hours where there is a theme or object each week for students to participate in.
More radical ideas than that are currently not allowed by our office hour requirements – as I have to have 10 office hours on campus in my office each week. But I would be open to suggestions? Does anyone have any more success at getting students to office hours? Are there any things that we could do differently to get students in office hours?
I have started up my summer session as of yesterday. Summers are low impact overall, with 50 students in two online sections for the next 5 1/2 weeks here, and the first two days here have largely matched the low-key aspect so far.
As I think about it, I see a lot of value to the summer session for both professors and students.
For students at the community college level, a full load of classes can be quite challenging, as they tend to have at least one job, take care of family members, and have many commitments outside of school that traditional, four-year students do not have. As well, many are coming in with academic deficiencies that need remediation and many struggle financially to pay for college, books, housing, and transportation. Many students taking 12 to 15 hours in a long semester struggle with these problems, and yet their reliance on financial aid makes ties them to a full-time schedule. As well, many students really do not have an idea of what it means to be a full-time college student, as opposed to a high school student, and this shows in their struggles, especially in the fall semester. In the summer, students can take a maximum of two classes in a summer session, and most just take one. This allows them to concentrate in on one course and do the best they can in it. I will say that my grade distribution, the quality of work, and the number of students successfully completing the course are much higher in the summer than in a long semester. I find students to be generally more focused and able to work around other commitments better with the lower pressure from fewer classes.
From the professor side, as well, the smaller number of classes and students (as an example, in a long semester, I generally teach six sections and have around 200 students) can be a nice break and time for recovery. The long semesters can wear down even the most dedicated instructors, whereas the summers allow for a more relaxed teaching and grading pace. Because I have required office hours in the summer (10 hours on campus per week in the summer), I am almost forced to get things done in a way that can easily be left behind in more unstructured summer time. I plan on preparing my fall semester and reworking some of the material while also catching up on my own professional development reading that I never seem to have time for otherwise. I can feel productive without feeling overwhelmed, which is something that is hard to achieve otherwise.
What do you think? Are you or have you ever taken a summer course? Do you teach in the summer if you are in the profession?
I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on. I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session. What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.
I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts. For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer. I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them. And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to. Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting. I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there. There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session. Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.
One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com). I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to. I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job. The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better. I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far. The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education. The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education. I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university. I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students. I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.
Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall. I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now. I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one. I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now. I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme. It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together. So, that is what I am thinking about.
Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update. I’ll be back for more later.
So, hello again. Yes. I know. I have not been on here in a while. In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014. Here it is, the summer of 2016. So, what happened?
We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house. In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time. I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time. I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about. We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job. With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was. However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working. I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities. That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life. And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.
Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision. I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them. I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students. That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time. Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well. After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance. While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile. Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.
In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change. I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times. It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working. As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well. However, the overall effect has been good. I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home. As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love. I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books. I consider that a success as well.
Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically. I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance. I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog. I would like to take more continuing education-type courses. I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book). I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods. And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much. So, we shall see how it goes.
I guess you will see this result directly. If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching. So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind. Also, do you have any thoughts on this?
I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while. In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority. And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read. I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.
The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education. So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.
The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed. It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.” In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones. I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring. This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college. I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring. When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years. Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure. Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts. Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.
We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration. There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation. They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards. I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now. There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up. I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me. The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little. I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.
And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about. My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire. I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is. And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey. Over and over. If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years. I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay. We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year. And, I will continue to teach the same classes.
Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey. We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line. We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here. And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best. Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway. So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways. I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats. To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do. But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.
I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again. This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.” Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end? Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire. And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours. I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say. But what I worry about is burnout. I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair. However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.
What I don’t have are any solutions. I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life. But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year. So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close. I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.
Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?
And so the summer session begins. I am teaching the second of our two summer sessions, which means that I just finished up roughly 8 weeks off before starting teaching again. I have never done that before, as I usually teach the first summer session, which means 3 weeks off, teach for 5 weeks, and then 5 weeks off. I can’t say I got any more or less done in having the 8 weeks off together, but I will see how I feel at the end of this summer session on how that change affects me.
I have 44 total students in two online sections this summer. We are on day 2 of the session, and 10 of those students have not yet logged into the classroom. Of the 34 who have, things seem to be going well so far. I have fielded some questions, and I have found one minor mistake in the material that I had prepared. Otherwise, I would say that it has been a smooth start so far. About 20-25 students have been at least somewhat active, starting to complete some assignments and interacting with the introductory materials.
The summer is always strange, as I pointed out to the students directly in one of my initial announcement posts. As opposed to a traditional, long semester, the students have just 5 weeks to complete all of the material. And, if you consider when I have to schedule exams (the school and Testing Center are only open Monday-Thursday over the summer), things get even more rushed. The first half of the course will take a little less than two weeks, which is normally the first seven weeks of a long semester. As I pointed out to the students, this means that each two days, they are covering a week’s worth of material. I would have let it go a bit longer, but with the school schedule, I have the first exam running a Wednesday and Thursday, leaving only 13 days to cover the first half of the course before the exam opens. Then, they will have about 2 1/2 weeks for the second half of the class, because I had to schedule my exams around the college’s schedule. I understand the need to have shorter work weeks in the summer and the less need for long hours with a much smaller student presence in summer classes, but 4 days a week is limiting when compared to 6 days a week in the long semester.
I have made some suggestions to the students on how to complete the material in time. I have the class set up with two major deadlines, one at the end of each unit. I know that the temptation for the students will be to put it all off until the end of each unit, but I have warned them that there is more material to complete than can be done in a day or two. My suggestion is that they take the class with the goal to complete each “week’s” worth of material from the long semesters every two days. If they do that, they will be on a path to complete the course material with no problem. I cannot, of course, force them to do this, but it is my suggestion. Of course, I could actually force them to do it, by putting in intermediate deadlines, but I like the flexibility that the current format allows students to have. The summers are always complicated, and I want to make this a process that works well for all of the students regardless of vacation and work schedules.
We shall see how the summer session progresses, but it has been a good start so far.