Posts Tagged ‘Scatterplot’

A recent post about names and titles over at Scatterplot got me thinking about the conventions that professors (and grad students, instructors, etc.) use when sending e-mails to students.  It seems that the “professor e-mail” topic is rather barren when compared to the multitude of posts, e-mails, and conversations I have had regarding student e-mails and their ridiculousness/lack of professionalism.  As I noted in my comment at Scatterplot:

When teaching classes as a graduate student in a large department at a large university I told my students to call me whatever they were comfortable with but signed e-mails with my first name, which led to a number of them to call me by my first name. I saw this as a way to make things feel a bit closer on a large campus. Besides, I didn’t want to reinforce the idea that I wasn’t a “real” professor.

Now that I am a real (well, assistant) professor at a small liberal arts school I do less to encourage students to use my first name and most of them call me “Dr.” or “Professor.” Since the campus is smaller and I am much more likely to see students outside of class I don’t mind reminding them that there is some social distance between us.

My movement away from encouraging first-name usage has caused some problems for my e-mail routine.  Now, in addition to trying to find a proper closing (Peace?  Best wishes?  Sincerely?  Yours until the end of time?) I also need to find a different way to sign my name.  So far I have been hesitant to sign “Dr. Smith” or “Professor Smith,” maybe because they seem too new to have stuck yet.  My current unsatisfactory practice has been to let my e-mail signature, which includes my full name and contact information, stand in as a closing and signature, but this leaves my e-mails feeling unfinished

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Following up on my post about reviewing bad papers that Jeremy gave the Scatterplot bump, I completed my review while being as gentle as I could.  Although I did not search for the paper’s title before completing my review, I did so afterward and came up with nothing, supporting my belief that this work had not been previously presented in any form and leading me to suspect that it was written by a graduate student.  While most students in my own graduate program would not dream of submitting a paper for review that has not been read by numerous graduate students and professors, it is becoming increasingly clear that not all graduate student experiences are the same.

At any rate, shortly after completing the review I received a message from the journal’s editor containing the decision (a much-needed rejection) and the text of all of the reviews.  I thought that this was excellent, as it gave me an opportunity to see how others had framed their attempts to let the author down gently and also to compare the points that were raised.  It actually took me a moment to identify which of the reviews was my own because a number of them began by pointing out how interesting the idea was and how promising the research could be if done in a completely different way.

Incidentally, a friend of mine reviewed a paper for the same journal around the same time and was horrified that she received the same type of message because she worried that others might negatively judge her review.  Of course, the reviews were blind, so I had a hard time seeing how a chance to compare her own review with those of others could have possibly reflected negatively on her.  I tried pointing out how excited I had been at the opportunity to see how others approached the review but this failed to convince her that the practice was a good one.  (Maybe she has her own pseudonymous blog with a bizarro-world version of this post.)  Given my relative lack of reviewing experience, I’m not sure how common this practice is but my sense is that the answer is “not very.”  While opinions about the practice are split based on my sample size of two, as a young scholar I greatly appreciated the chance to gain a bit more insight into the reviewing process.

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PowerPoint is a presentation tool.  While it may seem absurd to blame a presentation tool for the boredom of countless college students, plenty do so.  A July 20 Chronicle of Higher Ed article implores professors to “Teach Naked,” (free of technology), and asserts in its headline that “When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom.”  First of all, boredom in college classrooms likely dates to the 19th century, long before computers came along.  As a student, I had plenty of professors who used no technology at all and managed to be incredibly boring.  There is a basic methodological lesson here: correlation does not equal causation.  The fact that a professor who uses PowerPoint is boring does not mean that PowerPoint is to blame.  Rather, the blame lies in the presentation style that PowerPoint (and other presentation software – you’re not exempt from the possibility of boring presentations just because you use Keynote) has helped popularize – bulleted lists of facts.  This presentation style can be found everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the nightly news, and seems designed to ensure that you can get the information you need without paying attention to a single word the presenter is saying.

Now that we have established that PowerPoint itself is not to blame for boredom in college classrooms, let’s take a closer look at the argument in the Chronicle article.  The article centers on José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, and states early on that:

More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

If you are a boring professor who relies on text-heavy PowerPoint slides to lecture to your napping students, it seems likely that ditching PowerPoint might shake things up in the classroom.  Rather than arguing for the end of the lecture, however, the article appears to be arguing for the end of the reading.  The fact is that the sort of discussion-focused class time that Bowen describes would be possible if students completed their reading assignments.  Imagine if a textbook chapter was assigned as a reading and the professor and students could spend class time delving into the issues raised by the reading.  It is more likely that the majority of students have not done the reading because they know the professor will spend the class period rehashing the main points of the reading because the professor knows the majority of students will not have done the reading.  Yes, this is what a self-fulfilling prophecy looks like.

So lectures are boring because professors spend too much time rehashing the readings, which are so boring that students cannot bring themselves to complete them.  But students want to be entertained.  Ditching PowerPoint in order to shake up the status quo doesn’t solve this problem, though, because it focuses on shifting lecture material outside of the classroom, to podcasts and videos.  For example, this quote:

Kevin Heffernan, an associate professor in the school’s division of cinema and television, has also created podcast lectures—essentially narrated PowerPoint slide shows—for students to watch before class. During class he shows movie clips from his laptop and has students discuss them based on the background lectures.

“I don’t have to explain to them how film censorship in America changed in 1968” during his class session on Midnight Cowboy, says Mr. Heffernan. “They have that information from the online podcast.”

What’s this?  Something that students can look at outside of class that introduces them to the important points of a topic so that they can discuss the topic in the classroom?  That is what readings are supposed to do! Of course, if your students are currently bored by your lectures in which you rehash boring reading material, I fail to see how they are going to be excited about the prospect of watching you narrate PowerPoint slides from the comfort of their dorm room or sorority house.  As much as you would like it to happen, they are not going to call their sorority sisters over to the couch so that they can all watch your fascinating lecture on hegemony before discussing it over dinner.  My guess?  They’re going to find your video lectures just as boring as your previous readings and in-class lectures, and they’re not going to watch them before class.  Sure, they might spend a few hours trying to glean the key points before an exam, just as they did before with the textbook readings you assigned.

I can see that you are curious about something: If your students are not watching your videos before class like they’re supposed to, why are they participating in discussion?  The answer, of course, is that you are coming to class with different assumptions and enough of the students have watched the videos (the same students who always did the readings) to get things going, after which the other students will have heard enough to make points that are at least somewhat related to the topic at hand.  At the same time, the shift of all lecture materials outside of the classroom causes your students to be curious about something else: if all of the lecture materials are available outside of class and class time is spent discussing them, why do they need to go to class at all?  The discussions that you find so engaging will essentially become a waste of your students’ time because they have other things to do and if it isn’t going to be on the exam it may as well have not happened.

Another problem with shifting lecture material outside of class time is that it greatly increases the time demands on professors.  Professors who do this must now spend an additional 3-12 hours a week (depending on course loads) recording their lecture materials so that they can spend their course time doing other things.  Unlike lecture notes, which can be tweaked from semester to semester but do not always need to be completely redone, these recordings will need to be completely redone each semester in order to change even the smallest detail.  The ease of blaming PowerPoint sure has created a lot of extra work for professors!

Each semester when my students are about to fill out their evaluations I argue for the importance of constructive criticism.  If they tell me they hate something but don’t tell me what a better alternative would be, I’m not going to be able to do much about their complaints.  As a result, I’m not going to complain about blaming PowerPoint for problems that run much deeper in academia without offering what I think is a better solution (clearly, any jackass who starts giving people job market advice almost immediately after receiving a job always thinks that his way is a better way).  If the goal is to ensure that students are engaged participants in the classroom while continuing to believe that class time is valuable, we need to do several things (so you don’t have to pay too much attention, I have provided them in a bulleted list!):

  • Require readings that provide background for discussion and hold students accountable for the completion of these readings.
  • Keep things fresh by mixing lectures, videos, discussions, and exercises in the same class, just as those focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning have been telling us to do for years.
  • Allow students to focus on what is happening in the classroom by relieving some of the pressure to take extremely detailed notes.
  • Demistify exams and assignments by telling students what your learning goals for them are and how your exams and assignments are designed to help you measure their progress toward those goals.

Regarding point three, one way to do this is by recording class sessions and making them available online after class.  A number of professors do this, including Tina Fetner of Scatterplot fame.  This gives students the option of reviewing their notes after class to fill in any gaps or revisit confusing topics.  This is probably a good solution in a large class like Fetner’s (she had 475 students in her intro class last fall).  In classes of all sizes, this approach may prevent students from seeing going to class as a worthwhile way to spend their time.  Why go to class if you’re guaranteed not to miss anything?*  Of course, if 25% of students in a class of 475 skip, the rest of the students will probably enjoy the extra elbow room.  If 25% of students in a class of 21 (my current intro enrollment for the fall semester) skip, however, the classroom dynamic can be significantly altered.  Students in small classes are also less likely to have problems hearing others due to noise from those around them, which makes this option appealing for large classes.

Another potential solution is the use of “Guided Notes,” which, “provide all students with background information and standard cues with specific spaces to write key facts, concepts, and/or relationships during the lecture.”  The use of guided notes forces students to pay attention and take notes but does not force them to write down everything that is said, word for word.  As a result, they are freer to participate in class discussions.

Obviously, while podcasts and guided notes, along with keeping things fresh and explaining why exams and assignments exist, can help with student engagement in the classroom, neither directly addresses the problem of student engagement outside of the classroom (indirectly, of course, one hopes that students who are engaged inside the classroom will be more likely to be engaged outside of it).  While this is a difficult problem, it existed long before the rise of PowerPoint and classroom technology.**

*I know that professors include lots of things like quizzes, attendance policies, participation grades, etc. in their syllabi to ensure that students will come to class, but if we are truly seeking engaged students, encouraging students to be physically present in order to take a quiz, sign an attendance sheet, or even ask a question, after which they check out mentally because they know a recording of class material will appear online is probably not the best approach.

**I use PowerPoint in class almost daily.  I use it primarily to provide students with definitions of class concepts, but I also use it to display pictures, diagrams, and guidelines for in-class exercises (basically, as a substitute for the “slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies filled with hand-scrawled notes that students struggled to decipher” of the past) and as the basis for my guided notes.  If my class sessions are boring I am positive that the fault is my own, not PowerPoint’s.

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As Shamus on Scatterplot posted earlier in the month, Washington State University has decided to eliminate its rural sociology program and, with it, the jobs of eight faculty members.  Today, Inside Higher Ed posted a report on the topic:

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline — and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally — stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State’s decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally — and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

An interesting aspect of the report is the idea that rural sociology is a candidate for the chopping block because rural life itself seems less important to some than it has in the past:

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. “There aren’t very many rural sociology programs around. There’s a general perception that rural doesn’t matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens,” said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission — that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. “Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don’t see that at a lot of universities,” he said. Pigg’s work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is “a savior” for rural life, Pigg said that there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

I think that closures such as these point to the increasing importance of public sociology.  While we need to do work that is relevant to public concerns, sociologists also need to have a larger role in informing the public about why our findings matter and which concerns are socially important.  If our discipline is to survive the public needs to know the benefits of taking a sociological view in addition to a biological or psychological view on human behavior.

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Last week Shamus posted the above NY Post cartoon on scatterplot, which the editor of the Post claimed “is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy” but I argued was “a clear parody of two unrelated things, which we tie together with racial subtext.”  This has been discussed everywhere, but for another sociological take you can check out the racism review.  The same day, Penny Arcade posted the following comic:

The above comic is referring to the depiction of African villagers in the upcoming Resident Evil 5 video game, which is also discussed here.  Connecting these topics is the notion that one’s interpretation of each is affected by the history of racism in the United States and, likely, one’s racial experience.  It seems that a broader portrayal of African Americans in the popular culture would be a good way to begin weakening these associations.

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