Archive for September, 2012

After the frustratingly low levels of student participation in my courses last fall I implemented a form of discussion questions in the spring semester that was designed to hold students accountable for class preparation while directing their reading to some specific topics that were relevant to the day’s discussion. In general, it seemed to work, so I am using them again this semester. While I require students to bring a copy of their answers with them to class (either handwritten or typed), some students type their answers but then have issues that prevent them from printing them before class. In these cases, students often e-mail them to me. Other than the fact that they won’t have their answers to refer to in class, I don’t have a problem with this practice. What I do have a problem with is the fact that, when sending them, students often refer to them as “homework.”

I realize that the difference between “discussion questions” and “homework” is largely semantic but, to me, discussion questions imply a student actively preparing for class, while homework implies busywork. The thing is, I don’t want students to see discussion questions as busywork. It is nice that they are preparing for class, but I hope that at least a few of them actually enjoy engaging with the material.


they’re discussion questions, not homework!

See the subject.

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Almost as if she had read my post about reifying arbitrary decisions on my syllabi (I’m sure she hasn’t!), Tenured Radical recently posted about her view that syllabi are guides, not contracts. She states:

Most people feel committed to the syllabus they handed out on the first day of class. I understand this. You worked hard on that syllabus and it represents your mastery of a field. It is a symbol of your intellectual authority and autonomy. Finally, even if you want to change it, you may not think that you are allowed to change it. Many faculty and students regard a syllabus as a contract between teacher and student that should not, and cannot, be changed.

But syllabus isn’t a contract: it’s a guide, and a set of appointments you keep every week.  It lays out the scope, logic and promise of the course, offers signposts in the form of topics, requires some readings and suggests other readings that the more ambitious student might wish to pursue. It articulates basic expectations for what students must do (how many papers? How long? Will problem sets be accepted late?), and it spells out as when and how work must be accomplished.

For precisely these reasons, if your syllabus is flawed you must change it. Teaching a syllabus that you have lost confidence in is like choosing to drive a car with a flat tire.

Although I have never substantially altered a syllabus during the semester I agree that flexibility might help a floundering course. To her advice I would add a caution not to remove assignments or change the point distribution in a way that will make it harder for students who have struggled during the first portion of a course to feel like they can bring their grades up. Whether or not they actually will bring their grades up is another issue, but I am always in favor of their ability to feel like they can!

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In his most recent revealing campaign moment, Mitt Romney talked about the 47% of Americans who do not pay Federal income taxes, stating:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

The Atlantic takes a look at who these people are, concluding that, “for the most part, when you hear “The 47%” you should think “old retired folks and poor working families.” It breaks down like this:

Of course, as The Atlantic notes, this 47% also includes 7,000 millionaires who paid no Federal taxes. Talk about entitlement!

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Although I’ve written about college and university rankings in the past, rankings are not a topic of much discussion on my campus (probably because they’re low!). What we do hear a lot about, especially from the president and provost during faculty meetings, are peer institutions. Peer institutions justify the administration’s decisions on everything from tuition increases to faculty salaries. The term “peer institution,” though, is often vague. Who exactly are we comparing ourselves to? Are we aspirational in our comparisons or do we compare ourselves to supposedly lesser schools in an attempt to boost our institutional self esteem? A new networking tool from The Chronicle of Higher Education gives some insight into these questions.

The network displayed at the Chronicle demonstrates which institutions a given school chose as peers when receiving reports from the U.S. Department of Education. Although the accompanying article notes that some schools put more thought into the selection of their peers than others, this still gives some insight into how campus administrators are making their decisions.

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One of the things I’ve found interesting about higher education in the United States is that the public seems to increasingly favor specialized degrees while the job market is moving toward uncertainty, meaning that students with specialized skills are less likely to get the jobs they are trained for. For today’s job market, it appears (from my potentially biased position as a liberal arts professor) that what students actually need is a well-rounded education that will prepare them to think through a variety of potential situations rather than to perform any particular task. Two recent articles reveal that I’m not alone.

The first, an op-ed by Michael S. Roth in the New York Times, argues that the goal of any education should be to instill students with “the inclination to learn.” He states:

The inclination to learn from life can be taught in a liberal arts curriculum, but also in schools that focus on real-world skills, from engineering to nursing. The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done. This combination will serve students as individuals, family members and citizens — not just as employees and managers.

The second, by Barry Glassner in USA Today, reports that a national study by the Annapolis Group has found that this belief in developing one’s ability to learn and to reason is echoed by liberal arts graduates:

Among the key findings: Liberal arts students are academically anchored — not adrift — and community minded. They value supportive learning environments and teaching that stretches their abilities. Strong mentoring, abundant intern and community service opportunities, and working directly with professors rather than graduate assistants — these things matter.

So, what is the ultimate liberal arts payoff? Alumni declare they are well prepared for both graduate study and the workplace, having developed intellectual, practical and leadership skills vital to scholarly inquiry, career advancement and life as public citizens.

I wonder when the public, and those in charge of the shrinking higher ed budgets, will catch on.

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What did Manhattan look like before its trees were cut down and it was covered in concrete and glass? It looked like this:

By internet standards, this is ancient, but so is the Manhattan that it depicts, so I figure that is okay. The most interesting part to me is the interactive map that lets you compare Manhattan today with a British map from 1782. I’m not sure how sociological this is, but I’m always fascinated by the extent to which we transform coastlines, such as that of the Harlem River.

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If you want to talk to your students about class consciousness without getting too political (and without having to rely on pictures of Santa Claus), one approach is to talk about something that is not overly politicized: vacations. This article by Claude Fischer from the Boston Review looks at vacation length in the US and Europe through the lens of class consciousness. Additionally, these graphs from Sociological Images can be used to provide students with more data.

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I know that following my post from the other day with Michelle Obama’s speech from the DNC runs the risk of turning this into a political blog but watching the speech it was amazing how well she connected the values that Republicans reportedly espouse (hard work, sacrifice, not complaining about one’s social position) to the goals of the Democratic party (ensuring that everybody has a chance to succeed through hard work and sacrifice). It was also amazing to see a political speech that didn’t rely on lies (or even “spin”). Even if I could have done without so many references to being a mother, this is going to be a tough act for the rest of the speakers at the DNC to follow. Maybe they saved the wrong Obama for last.

I’ve heard that this guy was pretty good, too.

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The Republican platform for 2012 states that abortion should be illegal with no exceptions. The Republican candidate for 2012 states that abortion should be illegal with some exceptions. Click here to see The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee hilariously dissect the beliefs of those at the Republican convention that American liberty allows individuals to make up their own minds on issues, as long as those issues are not abortion.

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If you have watched TV in the past few months you have probably seen the above commercial for 5-hour Energy that would provide a good introduction to misleading media deceptions in a research methods or statistics course. The commercial touts the fact that they surveyed over 3,000 doctors and what they found was amazing. What was apparently so amazing was the fact that 73% of doctors surveyed said that they would recommend 5-hour Energy. Wait, no, that’s not it. 73% of doctors surveyed said that they would “recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.” That’s not quite the same thing, is it?

Unlike those “look how great we are” commercials that say things like “four out of five dentists recommend Trident,” the claims made by 5-hour Energy seem more along the lines of “we spent a lot of money to do this survey and we’re going to advertise the results no matter what they show!” In fact, the small print (visible if you enlarge the ad above) is incredibly honest (for a commercial, at least) about the actual methods and findings. Here is the small print in order:

  • All doctors surveyed identified themselves as primary care physicians
  • Two surveys were conducted to determine the opinions of primary care physicians regarding energy supplements and 5-hour Energy: 1) an online survey of 503 participants; and 2) an in-person survey by 5-hour Energy representatives of 2,500 participants (50% of those approached). In both, participants agreed to review materials regarding 5-hour Energy consisting of label and basic description of its ingredients. Of the 503 online and 2,500 in-person, over 73% said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.
  • Of the 73% of primary care physicians who would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements, 56% would specifically recommend 5-hour Energy for their healthy patients who use energy supplements.
  • Of all primary care physicians surveyed, 47% would specifically recommend 5-hour Energy for their healthy patients who use energy supplements.

So, 5-hour Energy has spent a lot of money on a survey and advertisements to tell people that 27% of doctors would not recommend low-calorie energy supplements to their healthy patients, even if they already use energy supplements. Furthermore, only 47% of the doctors surveyed would actually recommend 5-hour Energy. This is a far cry from the “four out of five dentists” claims. These results are amazing, all right. Amazingly unimpressive!

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