Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hands Off

Twice in the last few months I’ve had male colleagues put their hands on me.  One time involved actual physical contact.  The second time was more metaphorical.  Both were unacceptable.

In the first instance, I was standing with a group of other colleagues, talking at the end of a meeting, when I felt someone come up from behind and put his hands on my shoulders.  He used doing so to turn me towards him and then he dropped his hands and began speaking to me.  As is often the case with such things, I was so taken aback I didn’t have a witty or pointed response at the ready.  I spoke with him briefly and then walked away.

But it was another feature of my response that troubled me as well.  As I told the story to colleagues later that day and tweeted about it, I caught myself saying that he was someone who “I didn’t even know that well.”  Once I realized I was doing that, it caught me up short.  What difference did my relationship with him make?  I had fallen into the trap of trying to explain his behavior and provide a potential “out” for him by suggesting that familiarity would have made his actions acceptable.  But would it have been okay if a male colleague that I DID know that well had done this?  Of course not.  There should just be a “no touching colleagues” rule.

The second instance was different.  I ran into a male colleague on campus.  He referenced an earlier meeting in which I had very directly criticized a certain practice at the university.  And then he said with a smile “Next time I’ll sit close and hold you back in case you get all angry and fired up again.”  Ah yes, the tired (nay, exhausted) trope of the angry woman.  Had a male colleague led the charge, I’m sure he would have been praised for his dogged determination and leadership.  And I’m sure he wouldn’t have been jokingly cautioned when he came to the next meeting.  Thankfully, I was able to chasten my would-be restrainer somewhat by telling him that my critique had actually resulted in a much-needed change.

In the grand scheme of things, both of these cases are relatively innocuous.  They involved no direct physical threat or harm.  Neither has held back my aspirations as a leader on my campus–or have they?

They are, of course, evidence of the insidious, subtle and often silent operations of gender in the academy.  Why are only 18% of the full professors in my field (History) women?  Why are only 26% of college presidents female (when over 57% of college students are women)?  Certainly, some of it is the result of overt and structural discrimination, but part of the reason these gaps persist well into the twenty-first century is also because of episodes like these.  And so although I’ve enjoyed promotion, leadership, and research opportunities at my university, am I truly the equal of my male colleagues if I’m going to manhandled (pun intended) and called angry when I fight for something important?  I suspect not.

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.

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The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.

 

Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.

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Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.

An Open Letter and Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I recently read your op-ed on the “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on College Campuses.”  Many things trouble me about your piece but for now I wish to address the caricature of higher education that undergirds your entire argument.  Oberlin, no disrespect intended, is not typical.  The notion that college campuses are “liberal bubbles” demonstrates a profound disconnect between public opinion and what a college campus actually looks like today.

The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”

In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier.  It is not typical.  The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.

These statistics provide a powerful counter, in fact, to the very dangers of insularity that you decry.  Diversity is not simply political or ideological.  It is generational and experiential as well.  When I look out at a classroom that includes a nineteen-year old, a thirty-ish year-old single mother putting herself through college, a returning veteran, and the handful of individuals who are over sixty and participate in a program my college offers that allows them to take classes for free, I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble.  Instead, I relish their discussions of the assigned material, as each brings to bear a distinctive perspective that educates the others.  There is nothing “shrill” about this exchange.  And if anything, I have observed in over twenty years of teaching at this institution, that their exposure to such a diversity of life experiences encourages a civility and open-mindedness that serves them well both inside and outside the classroom.

If anything, your caricature of higher education only serves to feed its critics on the right.  When you accuse us of operating in liberal echo chambers and behaving shrilly and illiberally you endorse the image that conservatives have used to undermine and underfund institutions of higher learning.

The only cure it would seem, is to understand better what college campuses today are really like and to actually meet the students who populate them.

And so I end this letter with an invitation.  And a sincere one at that.  Come visit me and my students at an urban, public university where many of my students are Pell-eligible, working multiple jobs, raising families, all while being among the most engaged and diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.  Spend a day or more with them, talking to them, listening to their experiences, and discovering more about what it’s like to be a typical college student today.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are not the straw men and women that your piece makes them out to be.  They are living, breathing students who have a lot to teach you.

Academic Kindness

Not gonna lie.  I’m angry.  As I reflect upon the presidential election and the troubling ripples it continues to cast I am angry.  And fearful.  I have tried in the short-term to productively channel these emotions by calling my congresspeople and making donations to various organizations.

But in the longer term I have concerns about my anger.  I think it is okay to be angry, but generally speaking I am aware that my anger and fear have made me impatient and short-tempered in my daily interactions with colleagues and students.  And this worries me.  While I think anger can be an inspiring emotion–it can motivate us to take action and fight back–it is ultimately, in my experience, an exhausting and unproductive emotion if you inhabit it for too long.  So inspired by a terrific Tumblr account and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicKindness, I’m determined to find ways to insert more of this into the culture of my campus and my broader professional communities.  And before you accuse me of being a Pollyanna and just trying to paper over real problems with sunshine and flowers, I also want to offer some insights as to why such an approach has merit beyond temporarily assuaging unpleasant feelings.

Being truly present for my students.  Over and over again the evidence about retention and student satisfaction demonstrates that one of the most significant factors is the sense of connectedness that students form with their professors.  In his book, Small Teaching, James Lang highlights small, easy things we can do to reach out to our students.  For example, arrive a few minutes early for class and make a point, over the course of the semester, to chat with each student–not just the ones in the front few rows.  The twenty-first century university has, in my opinion, become too enamored of shiny software fixes.  Yes, that clever online advising system does make a difference, but so does something deceptively simple: human relationships.

Such an approach doesn’t just make students happier, it can also impact student learning.  In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have demonstrated that student motivation increases when they sense this kind of investment and attention from their professors.  If we can engage students at this level, then we can leverage that motivation and enthusiasm in other ways that promote their learning.

But then it occurs to me, why would we limit such an approach to our students?  Surely we want to retain good faculty and colleagues and promote their job satisfaction, too, right?  Surely, we want to motivate them to do their best work.  What might this look like in practice?

Create community among our colleagues.  And no, I don’t mean department meetings.  I never cease to be amazed at the power of a shared meal or cup of coffee and conversation.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly opportunity for faculty to gather, imbibe some caffeine, and share a snack.  It cost next to nothing and it fostered tremendous good will.  Some of the conversations inspired new initiatives and projects.  We could replicate this practice or variations on it across various categories enacting it at the departmental level, as a way to foster interdisciplinary conversations, or to bring colleagues together to discuss teaching and pedagogy.

Recognize good work.  Let people know when they’ve done something you appreciate or find valuable.  In these short-tempered days I am very quick to complain about the colleagues who annoy me.  But this it to ignore the ones who unfailingly meet deadlines, produce great work, or otherwise are just easy and pleasant to work with.  And here, too, the lessons from student motivation and learning have something to tell us.  Much of what drives faculty is the reward system of tenure and promotion–in other words, they are extrinsically motivated.  Staff motivation is often built upon a parallel rewards system of merit pay and the like.

But in these difficult times I believe it is all the more important to help connect the people we work with to intrinsic motivation, something bigger than themselves and beyond the quotidian tasks at hand. Research has demonstrated that the more specific we are in our praise of students and the more we connect it to their development of skills or a larger purpose, the more it resonates with them and motivates them to improve or continue to perform at high levels.  So rather than simply thanking a staff member for helping a student, what if it went something like: “thank you so much for taking the time to work with that student.  Connecting her to that important resource is going to help with her graduate school application.”  And for the faculty colleague: “I really appreciate your hard work on that report.  Your thoroughness is going to make it much easier for me to argue with the dean for new positions.”

Finally, practice some academic kindness on yourself.  I know it’s a busy time of the semester/quarter/term.  But this week commit to carving out 20-30 minutes in your schedule for something that is pure joy for you: reading for pleasure, going for a run, watching an episode of your favorite sit-com, taking your dog for a walk, enjoying a meal and conversation with your partner or a friend, or maybe, just maybe sitting still and doing nothing.

Academic, Know Thyself

So as you’ll know from my last post, this has been a busy few months.  And if there is anything good that has come out of feeling constantly frazzled, behind, and discombobulated, it is a reassessment of how I work.  At first I was frustrated by the need to do this.  I’ve been in the academy for a long time–why I haven’t I figured this out more effectively?  Am I just a slow learner?  But then I realized that my life in the academy has constantly changed: from faculty member to department chair to full-time administrator (who tries, desperately, to keep a research agenda going).  I have also recently said yes to several big projects within the profession and these have definitely added complexity to my work life.

And so, I find myself taking stock and trying to make the chaos more manageable.  And one general observation I’ve made is that I need an inventory of what works–and what doesn’t–in the ways that I order my life and tasks.  Good academic that I am, I have read and researched, and I follow the blogs and commentary of other academics who are trying to do the same.  But in the end, as with so many things, it comes down to what works for YOU.  In other words, know yourself in all of your messy glory and work back from there.

I got lucky and stumbled upon some preliminary answers as I mulled this over for the past few weeks, but to avoid it being a random, undirected process, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:

  1.  Where do you get stuck in your work?  Is there a particular task or time of day that routinely hangs you up?  What can you do to change or manage that?
  2. What are some small fixes that you can make in the short term while you figure out the big picture?
  3. What energizes you and helps provide the momentum to keep you going?

As some food for thought, here are a few things I’ve begun doing that resulted from trying to do a better job of figuring myself out.

Manage Your Bad Habits: In the long term you can work on breaking your bad habits, but in the short term, you need coping mechanisms.  Take my relationship with emails: if I can find a way to put off writing a difficult or complicated email, I will.  Now for the future should I work on a better system of managing my email?  Yes.  Absolutely.  But in the short term, there are emails that need to be written and business that needs to get taken care of.  So here’s what I’ve tried:

  • Tee it up: there are emails that I know I will eventually need to send, but I’m just waiting for a few details to fall into place.  I have started writing those emails in advance and letting them sit in my drafts folder.  Then, once the details are available, I just drop them in, and I’m done!
  • My inability to work on emails is symptomatic of a larger issue with procrastination.  There is a rich literature on why we procrastinate, but in the short term what helps me is to Just Start It.  Whether it’s an email or some other project that’s nagging at me, I set a timer for fifteen minutes and begin working.  The point here is not to go all Nike and Just Do It, because frankly that’s too overwhelming, and I never will.  But if I Just Start It I typically realize it isn’t so awful and I do have a handle on it.  Or maybe I don’t and it is awful, but at least then I’ve begun to figure out what I need to do to finish it.

Finally, digging deep and trying to assess what makes my work life tick has revealed that I need to Make Time for the Good Stuff.  I know this is often easier said than done, but try to identify what makes you happy and then endeavor to do it as often as possible.  Last week I was in a miserable mood when suddenly it occurred to me that two things that typically make me very happy–going for a run and taking time out to write–had both been markedly absent from my week.  I know that these things make me happy, but I don’t always do a good job of making time for them.  Like everything else that needs to get done–meetings, teaching, etc–I need to put these things on my schedule.  I went for a run yesterday, and yesterday I started this blog post.  And already I really do feel more like myself.

Do I hope that I will break my procrastinating habits?  Yes.  I also hope that I’ll get better about eating more vegetables.  But in the meantime, I need to find ways to make my bad habits manageable and to identify what energizes me and do more of it.

How would your work life look different if you dug deep and tried to know yourself a bit better?

Lessons from an Impossibly Busy Month

There’s a reason I haven’t posted in over a month.  September was a hellishly busy.  I got to do some great things, spent time with great people, and work on some very cool projects, but  still.  I was the busiest I’ve been since I was working on getting tenure.  I was in transit or out of town for half of the month and felt perpetually frazzled and behind.  But ever one to try to learn from my mistakes, I offer here some lessons from that impossibly busy month.

  • I need a better system of task and deadline management.  It’s not that I don’t have a to-do list, it’s that I have too many to-do lists, scribbled on multiple scraps of paper and scattered across multiple locations.  And then there are the calendars.  Like the lists, I have too many of them.  I am seriously thinking about merging my calendar and to-do lists into a paper system and am very intrigued by the idea of an Everything Notebook.  My old systems of organization have been outstripped by a more complex schedule and life.  Time to create some new systems for workflow–I’ve got some ideas and will write on this in a future post.  And, please, if you have ideas or strategies, please share them in the comments section below.

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  • The timer is my friend.  I’ve written before about jump starting a hard task or shaking off procrastination by setting a timer for 15-20 minutes to force yourself to do something.  In a busy month, setting a timer allowed me to chip away at tasks that otherwise would have seemed insurmountably overwhelming in the fog of my general busy-ness.
  • Even when ridiculously busy, it is possible to keep some larger goals on track.  I almost abandoned the prospect of running my first half-marathon because I thought I was too busy to keep training amidst the busy travel schedule.  But I stuck it out.  And guess what?  Last Sunday I finished my first half-marathon (I’ll resist the temptation to show you a picture of my finisher’s medal).  So don’t give up on goals or projects or tasks that are important to you even when a crazy schedule might tempt you into doing so.

 

 

 

 

Back to School, Administrator-Style

I confess: the first day of fall term always gets me.  I love the shiny new-ness of it all.  The term and the academic year lie in front of you–anything is possible!

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But I will also confess that as an administrator, a little bit of that fall luster is lacking. When I was a full-time faculty member, I usually had been away from campus for big chunks of the summer.  I’d also been in a different kind of headspace: doing research, taking time to think, and with any luck, do some writing.  I would return to campus with renewed resolve.  I was all about the bouquet of newly sharpened pencils that Tom Hanks describes in “You’ve Got Mail.”  This would be the year that I would get all my lecture notes organized!  This would be the year I would stay current with the journals in my field! (we will put aside, for now, whether or not I achieved these things.  I suspect you know the answer).

But as an administrator, I work on a 12-month contract.  Sure, I take vacation in the summer, but I don’t really get long breaks from campus.  And yes, I try to carve out a little bit of time for my research, but it usually takes a back seat to more pressing administrative projects.  There’s a continuity to my work life now that means fall doesn’t feel like the dramatic shift that it used to when I had been away geographically and cognitively during the summer.

Administrative work, in addition to its continuity, can also easily become drudgery. Reports, meetings, spreadsheets, and other bits of administrivia can wear down even the best and most enthusiastic administrators.

So rather than get mired in my meh-ness or let my 12-month contract define me, I’d like to propose some strategies for recapturing some of the fresh start-ness of fall term.  Consider this a back to school primer of sorts, for administrators (though faculty may find some useful tips here as well!).

  1.  Identify something about your administrative work that brings you joy.  It can be big or small, but you need to find it and make time for it.  Maybe it’s helping faculty connect with grant opportunities.  Maybe it’s developing new curriculum.  Maybe it’s finding a new way to make a cumbersome university process more streamlined.  Use the start of a new year to reconnect with the part(s) of your job that you enjoy and let that provide a jump start for the next twelve months.
  2. Identify something that you could be better at.  If you’re like me, graduate school didn’t prepare you for administration, so the learning curve can be steep.  For example, when I started in administration, I was AWFUL at Excel and spreadsheets.  I have worked on cultivating this skill.  Embrace the start of a new school year to say that this will be the year that you learn how to do a certain task or figure out a certain problem.  It’s okay to be bad at something.  It’s not okay to continue to be bad at it if it’s essential to your work.
  3. Pay it forward.  If you’ve made it into the ranks of administration you probably have some seniority at your institution.  One thing that can restore a sense of resolve and purpose to the start of the new year is reconnecting with your faculty colleagues and helping those individuals thrive.  So reach out to those junior to you and be a mentor or an ally.
  4. Find a way to teach or interact with students.  I have strong feelings about why administrators should teach (which I will save for a future blog post), but for now, I will just say that much of what is missing in higher ed administration could be remedied by administrators reconnecting with the classroom and students.  And it’s good for you, too.  Nothing helps me transcend administrivia and spreadsheets better than the unscripted and unvarnished perspective of students.  So maybe you don’t have time to teach an entire course.  What if you guest-lectured for a colleague in your disciplinary area?  What if you sponsored a co-curricular activity that gave students the opportunity to meet and provide feedback to the dean/associate dean/provost?
  5. Vow to do one thing that is about taking care of you.  Maybe it’s getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, or taking time for a hobby that makes you happy.  Whatever it is, take advantage of this time of fresh starts to make it a priority.

I hope these strategies or any others you might identify will help you reconnect with the newness of the fall term.  May it be a year of sharp pencils, well-written reports, and easily comprehended spreadsheets!

 

Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

A recent article in The Atlantic on the place of the lecture in the college classroom sparked a familiar debate. A little too familiar, in fact. It left those who direct college teaching centers and who work on the scholarship of teaching and learning scratching their heads in exasperation. While no one would say that you should never lecture, the stunningly clear conclusion that you can draw from extensive research on the efficacy of lecturing is that it doesn’t work well when it is the sole pedagogical method.

lecture visual

Continuous lecturing is not consistent with what we now know about how the brain processes and comprehends material. When we listen to a lecture we don’t simply record it as a continuous stream of information that we can call up at some later date. Instead, we group or categorize information as we take it in, linking it to previous knowledge or creating new categories. This means that a lecture that goes on for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes becomes increasingly ineffective. Our brains simply can’t process it all effectively. In fact, we are more likely to better remember the beginning of a long lecture than the part we heard most recently. Even more troubling still, the research also demonstrates that lecturing is a particularly ineffective teaching method for minority, poor, and first-generation students. As Annie Paul has noted in her New York Times piece “Are Lectures Unfair,” “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge. This is a problem, since research has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.”

If the evidence for the limitations of lecturing as a pedagogical choice is so overwhelming, then why do we keep having this debate? Why are some of our colleagues reluctant to abandon an over-reliance on “continuous exposition” (this phrase comes from Derek Bruff’s great piece, “In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher“) and why do we keep seeing defenses of the lecture in high profile publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic?

[And please note: I write all of this as someone who does lecture and sees a place for it in most of my classes].

To begin with, lecturing is a comfortable and familiar strategy that lets us control the classroom.

Lecturing is a relatively accessible pedagogical method. You can definitely be bad or good at it, but as a method, it is not complicated. Many (most?) of us did not receive pedagogical training as part of our PhD programs (though this is something that organizations like the American Historical Association are beginning to address). There are a myriad of excellent and proven active learning strategies that provide terrific counterweights to a reliance on lectures, but if we haven’t studied these and been equipped to deploy them, it is not terribly surprising that we would gravitate towards a fairly passive and straightforward pedagogical style.

A corollary to this is that lecturing provides control. Many active learning strategies put (quite rightly) more control in the hands of students. Suddenly, the students are directing the conversation and momentum of the class. This can be scary if you’re not used to it. Lectures provide a comfortable script. You walk into class and know that you have fifty or so minutes to get to the end of the outline/notes. Moving away from solely lecturing thus also requires readjusting our notions of how to impart information, communicate our expertise, and help students acquire higher-order thinking skills. We don’t call the lecturing style of pedagogy “the sage on the stage” for nothing. We need to understand that employing active learning strategies doesn’t discount our sagacity; it just asks us to adapt it to different pedagogical methods.

Further, I think we delight in the “sage on the stage” model because we have a nostalgic attachment to lecturing as an iconic representation of what college is supposed to be like: large lecture halls filled with rapt students hanging on the every word of a dynamic professor. I queried a group of friends and colleagues about examples of movies or television shows that enshrine the model of the “sage on the stage.” The responses came very quickly—we all have a ready picture in our heads of what this looks like. But the gulf between those representations and reality is, of course, huge. I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced exactly one professor who could lecture that eloquently and charismatically. And I’ve been in the academy for over twenty years.

That said, I was really struck by some of the most popular examples that were offered. John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously. While we might object to his bullying style, he actually employs the Socratic method—a questioning give and take with his students, designed to guide them to the right answer. Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” (putting aside the fact that it’s set in a prep school and not college). Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously, either. He lectures for a few minutes, then calls on the students, has them read passages of poetry aloud, compose and read their own poems aloud, etc. Barbara Streisand in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” In this case, she does lecture fairly continuously, but she embodies the best that lecturing has to offer: good storytelling in the service of the broader communication of important ideas and concepts. And, not incidentally, she does pepper her lecture with questions posed to the students. So even our presumably iconic examples are not really examples of continuous exposition. And thus I suspect many of you who will read this and defend your use of lecture, actually do more of what’s described in these three examples: you engage in good storytelling, you break up your lectures with other activities, you engage the students actively in the flow of the lecture itself.

But what these iconic examples also instruct us to do then, is to embrace other pedagogical methods. To do so we will need to move away from what we know best, what comes perhaps easiest, and what feels comfortable and controlled.

But it should not be too hard to do so if we avoid seeing this as an either/or proposition. It is not a question of lecturing or employing active learning strategies. It is, however, a question of choosing appropriate strategies and limiting or breaking up the amount of time we spend lecturing. And, yes, as the recent piece in The Atlantic argues, if we are going to lecture we could probably get better at it. But that same piece also implicitly argues that simply training professors to be better lecturers would somehow obviate the research that demonstrates the inefficacy of relying mostly on lecturing. That research is based in the kind of cognitive science cited in the beginning of this piece. Simply lecturing better will not erase the fact that our brains do not process long lectures efficiently. By the same token, we do not need to demonize the lecture in order to promote the adoption of active learning strategies. Both have their place.

Which brings me to my final point. We need to stop devaluing and ignoring the work of cognitive science and the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is strange that a profession that values research would ignore research on how we learn and teach. A colleague offered a good explanation for this: we bifurcate research and teaching. For too many, research is that thing we do when we’re not teaching, making teaching a separate category, oddly immune to the impact of research. And yet there is tremendous, important, and persuasive work being done in cognitive science which explicates what was once mysterious: how we learn and acquire knowledge and comprehension. And this work is in turn being applied by astute colleagues who work in the scholarship of teaching and learning to help us make smart choices about which pedagogical models to use when. Why would we fail to employ pedagogies that have been proven to promote student learning? Why would we cling to methods that do not work well under certain circumstances? To ignore this work is to do our students and ourselves a profound disservice.

 

 

 

 

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Reaching back into the archives (I’ve been blogging long enough to have archives!) and offering this as semesters and terms begin to wind down.

Tales Told Out of School

I am waiting.  I am waiting hopefully and patiently for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.  I am waiting for a cultural shift that will stop glorifying busy and that will stop measuring our worth by our ability to multitask, work long hours, and turn our smartphones into near-permanent appendages.

(And rest assured, I am guilty of all these things).

For now, however, I know that this means tilting at windmills.  So instead, I will write in defense of sabbaticals–both big and small.  At its most literal sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” or sabbath and means ceasing or taking a time of rest–typically, ceasing from work, so that attentions can be devoted elsewhere.  In the academy, of course, it is a break from teaching and other quotidian responsibilities, so that you can take time to do research, travel to archives, work in the lab, develop new…

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