Archive for March, 2012

Near the beginning of the semester I wrote about my most recent effort to encourage student participation: requiring students to write answers to discussion questions before class. Now that I am two thirds of the way through the semester I thought that I would provide an update.

Overall, I think that the effort has been a success. On most days, nearly half of the 27 students in class participate at least once, which is a huge improvement over the last time I taught this course. I can’t be sure whether this is attributed to the fact that they are supposed to bring their answers to class with them or the fact that I only give them five student-written discussion questions for each class so it is easier for them to gather their thoughts beforehand (in the past I gave them all of the questions that students wrote rather than narrowing them down myself – in hindsight this may be the most important change I’ve made).

Despite the overall success, I have noticed some areas for improvement. The first is that a few students have developed a habit of bringing the list of discussion questions to class and answering them in class as we discuss them. If we discuss each question, then, and I collect them, there is no way for me to tell that they did not answer the questions ahead of time. Recognizing this, the last time I collected their discussion questions I asked students to write an “X” through any questions that they had answered in class and a surprising number of students did so (and received lower grades because of it), giving me the opportunity to reiterate that students need to answer the questions before class in order for them to be effective at promoting discussion.

The second area that could be improved is my own reluctance to call on students who do not volunteer to speak. Although I warned students at the beginning of the semester that I would do this I have only done it a handful of times. I think that if I were more comfortable calling on a few students who don’t volunteer in each class period I could improve the number of participants on a given day even more.

Although there is definitely room for improvement, there is a night and day difference in both the level of participation and the classroom atmosphere between this semester and the last time I taught this course. Last time, I would pose a question and wait in silence before one or two students would volunteer answers. This semester, it is common for five or six students to give their perspectives on each question, sometimes leading to broader conversations that I can connect to previous course material. The bottom line is that these changes have made my time in the classroom fun again, which is exactly what I needed after a frustrating experience last semester.

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When I started advising students I recognized that I had no idea what I was doing. Since then, I’ve figured out most of the important things but I still have not figured out a good way of dealing with students who are in need of emotional support that I’m not qualified to provide. It is easy to refer these students to the appropriate campus counseling services but it is not always easy to get them to recognize that I’m neither knowledgeable enough nor comfortable enough to provide the type of advice they seek. Because they don’t realize this they repeatedly come back to my office seeking advice. In these situations I feel like this:


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The other day Tenured Radical posted a story about her undergraduate transformation from an “untogether” to a “together” student. The fact that she got into Yale suggests that her academic potential was different than that of many of my own students, but I think there are some general things that professors can take away from her story.

First is her contention that as a college student she wanted “to be invisible, to be free and to be special.” These three words seem to encapsulate the desires of many students, despite the fact that being invisible and being special seem contradictory. In TR’s case, being singled out as special in one area led to transformations in other areas. I do wonder, though, how a student’s belief that he or she is special before arriving on campus might affect interactions with others. While TR might have thought she was special after getting into Yale, did that belief cause her to wonder why nobody was noticing her in her first years? Some of my own students have done extremely well relative to others in their high schools only to attend college and realize that their academic abilities are not in line with their academic identities.

The second general thing that I think we can take away from her story is the list of things she learned through this process. Some of these things may seem self-evident, but it is easy to forget them when we continually focus on the negative aspects of our students:

  • Be open to new opportunities and new people.
  • If you work hard, someone will notice you.
  • When people notice you, let it lift you up.
  • The student in the room who is really screwing up might just need a small adjustment to excel. Never write a student off.
  • Take opportunities to close the social gaps between student and professor, senior and junior colleague, faculty and administrators.
  • When students fib, don’t blame them, but do them the favor of responding honestly. It is the moral equivalent of an intravenous shot of Red Bull to be held accountable but not judged.
  • Be generous.

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When describing why Type II errors are preferable to Type I errors in class I often use the example of Andrew Wakefield’s discredited research on the link between vaccinations and autism, making the point that his false positive led to long-term changes in behavior. Recent revelations about Mike Daisey’s work on conditions in Apple factories overseas reinforce the ease with which a lie can become accepted:

There’s a popular online petition at Change.org which has amassed over 250,000 signatures. It begins:

You know what’s awesome? Listening to NPR podcasts through an Apple Airport, playing through a Mac laptop, while puttering about the kitchen. Do you know the fastest way to replace awesome with a terrible knot in your stomach? Learning that your beloved Apple products are made in factories where conditions are so bad, it’s not uncommon for workers to permanently lose the use of their hands.

Last week’s This American Life shined a spotlight on the working conditions in the Chinese factories where iPhones are made. Just one example of the hardships there: the men and women in these factories work very long days spent repeating the same motions over and over, which creates amped-up carpal tunnel syndrome in their wrists and hands. This often results in them losing the use of their hands for the rest of their lives. This condition could be easily prevented if the workers were rotated through different positions in the factory, but they are not. Why? Because there are no labor laws in China to protect these people.

No one other than Mike Daisey has reported about such repetitive stress injuries. And he made it up. 250,000 people believed him — in no small part because of the credibility of Ira Glass and This American Life — and signed a petition. There is no larger truth here. This is not a mistake. This is simply a lie, a lie that was told to draw attention and create sympathy at the expense of the actual truth.

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In the local paper today I saw an editorial explaining the decision not to run last week’s Doonesbury series about the Texas abortion law by Garry Trudeau. Since I’ve been living under a rock (it is spring break, after all), this was the first I’d heard of the controversy surrounding the comic. The editor’s main justification was that the comics were “offensive,” though Trudeau’s treatment of the situation seems much less offensive than the situation itself. As a writer for the Texas Observer describes (via Historiann):

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

You can decide for yourself by viewing the comics below (via Gawker):

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I like that spring break coincides with the first weekend of the NCAA tournament but this also makes it unlikely that I’m going to accomplish anything outside of the exams I graded and some important things like reading, yard work, and washing my car. I guess that I don’t completely identify with Female Science Professor (in every other way, obviously, we’re the same), who spends spring breaks working in her office and wonders why graduate students don’t want to do the same.

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From MSN (though it has been covered numerous other places as well), here is another example of a teenager’s backstage statements causing frontstage problems. As the article states:

The lawsuit raises the complicated — and quite unsettled — legal quandary that balances students’ constitutional rights with schools’ needs to maintain order and a positive educational environment. For example, can schools punish students who publicly criticize school officials on their own time using social networks?

Federal district courts have handed down contradictory decisions on that issue. Facing a chance to settle the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court in January declined to hear three cases on the issue.

But private social media criticism, intended only for a limited audience behind a password or a privacy wall, raises a different legal issue, said Teresa Nelson, a lawyer for the ACLU in Minnesota.

“The notion that it was a search of her private Facebook content … the Fourth Amendment applies,” she said.  “The government has to have a really good reason to do that kind of search,” and would need a court order in most cases, she said.

Situations like this demonstrate that even the ability to choose who is allowed to see the content you post on Facebook is not always enough. With this in mind, I offer the following advice to classmates, coworkers, and anybody else who wants to complain about their public lives in private:

Facebook is not for venting! Even if you choose who can see your posts you may find yourself needing to explain them to your friends, parents, school officials, bosses, or college professors. If you want to vent, do it in a Google Document that is accessible only to you and a few close confidants. Facebook is the equivalent of writing a comment in somebody else’s yearbook. Google Documents are the equivalent of passing a note to a few of your friends. Yes, there is still a chance that it might fall into the wrong hands, but that chance is vastly diminished.

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Anybody who has ever given an exam recognizes that students work at different speeds. One student may finish in 20 minutes while another might take 60 and, without doing any actual analysis, the amount of time one takes to complete an exam does not seem to be strongly correlated with the student’s grade. Because of this, I have never limited the amount of time that students are given to complete an exam. This semester, however, my class schedule necessitates time limits so that I can get to my next class on time.

This change has led to an increase in incomplete exams, but I’m not convinced that it has decreased exam scores. If a student does not know the material covered on an exam, extra time may increase the chance of the student having something written down but it may not increase the chance of that answer being correct. Students who know the material, on the other hand, may have to work faster than they would prefer but should still have plenty of time (one of my former students had a habit of taking an extra 10-15 minutes to proofread each exam answer before turning it in).

With these things in mind, I still don’t like strict time limits, if only because they probably increase the amount of stress students feel. For this semester, however, all I can do if students don’t feel like they had enough time is recommend that they study harder.


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A few weeks ago I received an e-mail asking me if I would accept a nomination to run for chair of a campus committee in the upcoming faculty elections (reinforcing my belief that being known on campus can be both good and bad). I have been on the committee for the past two years and I think it is an important job but I absolutely did not want to serve as chair. On some campuses, there might typically be competition for elected positions, but on my campus the average number of people running for open positions tends to be one. Because of this, I did not want to decline the nomination outright and leave nobody to run for the position.

My first attempt at avoiding the nomination was asking if the current chair was running again, since I didn’t want to run against him. Unfortunately, the current chair was not running and had nominated me. My second attempt involved e-mailing the current chair to see what sorts of duties the job involved. He confirmed by suspicions that the position was a lot of work and then said that he hoped I would run (hence, I suppose, the nomination).

Reluctantly, I accepted the nomination and headed to the most recent faculty meeting desperately hoping that somebody else would be running against me. When we reached that point in the agenda I was happy to see that not only was somebody running against me, the person running against me was infinitely more qualified than I was. The other nominee won in what I assume was a landslide (we do not reveal vote counts for elected faculty positions, only the winners).

In the end, this outcome was the best of all possible worlds; those who are in charge of things like tenure and promotion got to see that I was willing to run for an important campus position and losing means that I don’t have to actually hold an important campus position. Responsibility averted!

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A recent article in the Chronicle by Nannerl O. Keohane tackles the age-old question of why a liberal arts education is valuable. Keohane mentions a number of good reasons, but I don’t know how many of them would resonate with my students or their parents. Although I work at a private liberal arts institution, most of my students don’t want an invitation “to a community of scholars, both professional and amateur, spanning the ages.” They want jobs.

Because students and their parents want reassurance that $120,000 of their money will not be wasted by spending four years in college, there is increasing pressure on institutions like mine to offer more applied majors with direct connections to jobs. I see this in my intro students when they tell me that they love sociology but that they don’t want to major in it because they don’t want to be social workers and even in my advisees when they come to ask me what kind of job their sociology degree will get them after graduation.

Maybe majors at schools like Duke and Wellesley, where Keohane has worked, have a direct pipeline from the liberal arts to careers and graduate degrees, but the experiences of my own students (and most of my friends) have been very different. Ask a few non-academic friends what they majored in in college and compare their responses to their current jobs. I’m guessing that most of them aren’t employed doing anything remotely close to what they thought they would do when signing their major.

While schools like mine are facing pressure to offer more applied majors, the reality of the job market for most people is that those who are best off are those who have a broad knowledge base and can use that knowledge to reason, solve problems, and clearly communicate with others. There seems to be a huge disconnect between what students think they will get out of college and where they actually end up. If we can get people to realize that linear paths from high school to college majors to careers are the exception, the importance of the liberal arts should be self evident.

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