On rules

“Why Rules Matter,” Gary A. Olson’s “First Person” essay in the Chronicle this morning, surveys the comical sense of “rules for thee but none for me” that operates all too often on college campuses.  I’ll never forget standing in the registrar’s office early one spring semester and overhearing a professor who still hadn’t turned in fall grades explain that, 1) anyone who turned in grades by the deadline was guilty of pedagogical fraud, and 2) she’d wanted to have a relaxing holiday with her friends and family.  Pure class.

Here’s Olson:

 It is not that compassion and flexibility are bad; it is that in violating rules and deadlines, other people might be injured or disadvantaged. A veteran provost I know is fond of saying that a good administrator must be a rule monger, otherwise you invite chaos and injustice. She tells stories of faculty senates or administrative officers creating a rule, and then promptly violating it when that proved convenient. “I would constantly have to remind them that they themselves created the rule, and usually for a good purpose, but they couldn’t simply disregard it,” she told me. “It is as if some people believe that ‘academic freedom’ somehow means that they are free from the constraints of rules and deadlines or that rules are for others, not them.”

What I particularly enjoy–and by “enjoy,” mean, “want to drive a spike through my eye when it happens”–is that all too frequently the rule-breaking isn’t just tolerated, but *celebrated* as an example of good service to students, faculty, or staff.  It’s a particularly nice rhetorical maneuver, because if you point out that, not only was the rule enacted for a reason, and not only did the affected person have plenty of time and notice to comply with the rule, but that breaking the rule potentially screws those people who *did* comply with the rule—then all of a sudden *you’re* the jerk who doesn’t care about student success.  Recently someone on my campus singled out for praise an act of routine rule-breaking–or, I guess, exception-granting, even though it  directly contributes to system crashes during registration.

While it’s true that not all academic deadlines are mission-critical, outright contempt for the rules, or the belief that they don’t apply to us, is toxic.

Posted in academe, academic freedom, higher education | 1 Comment

Mozilla / Creative Commons Open Education Course

This week marked the start of a very cool experiment in movement-building:an online seminar on open education, sponsored by Mozilla and Creative Commons. You can see the main page for the course–and most of the content–here: https://wiki.mozilla.org/Education/EduCourse/Outline.   It was organized by Philipp Schmidt, a South African academic who’s worked on collaboration in a variety of contexts.  (We met at WikiSym last year.)

Here’s Philipp’s deck of slides from the opening seminar; as you’ll see, the course will take up a fascinating array of topics.

Posted in higher education, humanities computing, mozopenedcourse | Leave a comment

The mini-interviews are back!

I’m *very* pleased to say that this week marks the return of my posting mini-interviews, rather than only links, to Jessa Crispin’s Blog of a Bookslut.  There are more in the pipeline, too–including an exciting multimedia one!

At any rate, Joshua Kryah was kind enough to answer a few questions about faith, language, and poetry:

Glean‘s debt to poets such as Paul Celan is evident, but I think I was even more struck by the presence of Hopkins and Hardy (Eliot almost goes without saying). I wonder if you could comment on what you value in the English tradition?

If, by “English tradition,” you mean English poets, I value their attention to language. Especially in the work of of Donne, Hopkins, and Hardy. I share their affinity for language. It’s the same English I use, but one imbued with a deeper sense of history and etymology.

Hopkins, for instance, forces language, under immense pressure, to yield a number of possible routes for a reader to follow—the “naked thew and sinew of the English language” as he calls it. Geoffrey Hill, like Hopkins, constrains the language in such a way as to make it labyrinthine and tangled. Both poets are, as Heraclitus would say, “estranged from that which [they] are most familiar”—God and language, language and God. So their poetry conflates the two, endeavoring through one in order to reach the other. The poems in Glean operate similarly.

As always, read the whole thing!

Posted in books, interview, literature, poetry | Leave a comment

Victorian parody: Bulwer

I want to post more regularly about Victorian topics, and thought that the best way to kick it off was with this satirical take from Fraser’s Magazine in 1832 on Edward Bulwer’s Eugene Aram (the end is worth it–how often does a critic get to wish for an author to be hanged?):

 E.A. and E.B.

A Christmas Carol, to the Tune of “God save you, merry Gentlemen!”

“Impius ante Aram, atque auri caecus amore.”

E. Aram was a pedagogue

     So sullen and so sad;

 E. Bulwer was a gentleman

     Wot plied as Colburn‘s Cad:

And the deeds of both, I grieve to say,

     Were werry, werry bad.

E. Aram he whipped little boys

     With malice and with ire;

E. Bulwer wrote Whig articles,

     As Beelzebub did inspire:

And both of them they did these things

    All for the sake of hire.

E. Aram killed a man one day,

     Out of a devilish whim;

E. Bulwer did almost the same–

     A deed well nigh as grim:

For Aram he murder’d Daniel Clarke,

      And Bulwer he murder’d him.

E. Aram’s crime it was impell’d

     That cash he might purloin;

E. Bulwer did his wickedness

     For love of Colburn’s coin:

Alas! that money should debauch

     Two geniuses so fine!

E. Aram he was sent to jail,

     And hanged upon a tree;

E. Bulwer is in parliament,

     A shabby-genteel M.P.;

But if he writes such murdering books,

     What must his ending be?

Why, that in Fraser’s Magazine

     His gibbet we shall see.

I saw this last week on the VICTORIA listserv; the text is available on Google Books.

Posted in Edward Bulwer Lytton, Victorian literature | Leave a comment

Learning from our public schools: What matters in evaluations

So, this weekend we received a document with two forms: the teacher of the year nomination and a parent survey, largely about satisfaction with the school.  We’re pretty happy with the school, and very happy with the teacher, so no worries there.  (Readers with long memories will recall that I think the district . . . makes poor decisions, but we like our kid’s school.)

The parent survey is labeled “Holmes Brand Survey,” and, after a demographic question about grade-level, the first two questions are . . . wait for it . . . these:

Holmes School focuses on

  1. Leadership
  2. Higher Order Thinking Skills
  3. Science and technology
  4. Global Community

Holmes School’s (motto/slogan/tagline) is:

  1. Raising Readers!
  2. A formula for success!
  3. Launching Leaders!
  4. Scholars at Work!

(The answers, for the curious, are “Science and technology” and “A formula for success,” respectively.  And, yes, the fact that the correct answers have lower-case words is reproduced faithfully from the handout, as if it’s a tell.)

After these critical questions come more usual questions about whether the child’s being challenged, etc.

I hear the Connecticut State University system is redesigning and standardizing our student evaluations–I think we should look to the public schools!  Start all student evaluations (sorry, student opinion surveys [!]) by asking them to correctly identify the motto of the system and of their particular university.*  Because that’s what matters in education: maintaining your brand.


*Every single day it amuses me a little that my school’s slogan/motto/tagline (“Start with a dream. Finish with a future.”) is basically indistinguishable from my father’s community college’s (“From here, go anywhere.”).  I’m *very* easily amused.

Posted in academe, assessment, higher education, new britain, public schools, silliness, teaching, things that should stop | Leave a comment

Deploying the iPod Touch in a classroom

Put the case that you were piloting the widespread deployment of iPod Touches in a classroom.  You can assume the following:

  • Two sections of the same class will be taught in a 5-week period.  For the sake of argument–let’s call that course World Lit I, a 200-level course for both majors and nonmajors.
  • Both courses will teach the same syllabus, and, broadly, the same assignments.
  • In one section, every student and the instructor will have an iPod Touch.  In the other, not so much with the iPod Touch.
  • It’s definitely an iPod Touch, not an iPhone.  No cheating!  (Perhaps your governor has banned new cell phone contracts.)
  • You’re at a regional comprehensive public university.  You can assume the professor’s down for whatever, but you *cannot* magically assume s/he can throw significant amounts of resources at this one class.  (E.g., no fair coding an application in 2 months during a semester.)
  • Update: You can also assume that the default class location has good wireless access, and that the college has a Blackboard/Vista license, and so can support the new Blackboard app.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to accomplish two things:

  1. Showcase the tech, but *also*
  2. Meaningfully assess its utility in the classroom

What kinds of things would you like to see in the class?  What kinds of information would be useful to you in persuading colleagues to adopt / not adopt the iPod Touch?  What might you do to make the experiment a helpful one for everyone?

At present, let’s still call this hypothetical, but let’s also call the question a serious one.

Posted in academe, higher education, iPod Touch, teaching | 17 Comments

Updates to two recent posts

Two points that, while interesting, don’t quite merit their own entries:

  • If you were interested in the recent post about online quizzes in lit classes, then you might be interested in this posting from Tomorrow’s Professor about crafting effective multiple choice questions.
  • In comments to my post about reaching out to administrators and college staff, Terry Brock pointed out the important point that many college staff members are . . . academics on a different career path.  (Bethany Nowviskie made this point, too, on Twitter.) This is an excellent point, and reminded me of an anecdote David F. Bright & Mary P. Richards recount in The Academic Deanship: Individual Careers and Institutional Roles* (Jossey-Bass, 2001):

The dean is thrust into a new place in the world of the college, and this can strain or even distort individual relationships.  Many colleagues, of course, accept the shift, often with mordant witticisms about selling out or fading out, whereas others assume that the individual has not merely taken a new position but become a different person.  One faculty member who accepted a year’s assignment as acting dean of his college had been collaborating on a book with a colleague, and they ate lunch together every week to discuss the project.  When the temporary administrative stint was announced, the colleague said, “I will see you in a year.”  The almost-dean assured her that he would have time to continue the project, but she said, “That is not the point.  I do not eat with Them, and you have become a Them. Call me next year.”  She stuck to her aversion to administrators but cherfully resumed lunch and project the next summer when his administrative contagion had passed.

You’ve not lived until you’ve seen one professor dismiss a colleague’s input as invalid because the latter is temporarily serving as a dean’s appointment to some committee or other.  It’s always a charming moment.

*I know this book well because I helped copyedit it, not because  I have delusions of grandeur.

Posted in academe, higher education | 2 Comments

Changing attitudes among students and faculty

Earlier this month, UCLA reported on their triennial survey of faculty attitudes and values, “The American College Teacher.”  (Here’s the study; here’s the InsideHigherEd.com writeup.  Quotations below are from the latter.)  The above-the-fold news from the study was that faculty are apparently interested in promoting personal change:

Compared to three years ago, faculty members were more likely to believe it is part of their job to “help students develop personal values” (66.1 percent, an increase of 15.3 percentage points over 2004–05), “enhance students’ self-understanding” (71.8 percent, a 13.4 percentage-point increase), “develop moral character” (70.2 percent, a 13.1 percentage-point increase) and “provide for students’ emotional development” (48.1 percent, a 12.9 percentage-point increase).

Some of these sound pretty . . . um . . . squicky.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t want anything to do with students’ emotional development, and I’m *certain* that I don’t have much to offer students by way of “develop[ing] moral character.”  I also have a hard time understanding how I could help students “develop personal values.”  (And, lest you think I’m just another misanthropic jackass . . . I teach in the FYE program.  I helped pilot learning communities program at my school.  [Ok, “misanthropic jackass” probably still fits, but student success means a lot.])  When people talk about the transformative power of education, they’re supposed to be referring to its self-transformative power.  As Adam Phillips once said about psychoanalyis, the illusion that teaching too often leaves in place is the belief in the power of the teacher–which is a problem.

But it turns out that the same center at UCLA releases another study, “The American Freshman.” (Study; InsideHigherEd.com report.)  And there’s a question in this other survey that arguably speaks to the shifting faculty interest:

The survey also contains questions about students’ personal goals, often depicted in the report as a struggle between “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” and “being well off financially.” During the counterculture years of the ’60s and ’70s, students often emphasized the importance of having a meaningful life philosophy, an interest that receded over the next two decades as financial concerns surged. In the last three years, students increasingly have said that both areas are important, a change that analysts attributed mainly to women’s rising interest in financial success.

Slightly more than half (51.4%) of current freshmen said it was important to develop a life philosophy and more than three-fourths (76.8%) said it was very important or essential to do well financially.

It would be interesting to introduce a question about helping students develop a life philosophy into the faculty survey.  I tend to read the answers quoted above as proxies for “life philosophy,” which makes sense: It’s not that faculty really want to build students’ moral character *directly*, which would be weird; rather, we know that an education in the liberal arts can help students embark on a program of self-transformation.

(I think Mark Bauerlein’s critics run past this point too often: That students today seem much less interested in self-transformation or self-improvement as a goal, at least according to all of these longitudinal measures. I don’t think it’s Twitter’s fault, but he has a point.)

My chair (yes, that’s right–my chair blogs!) was on this story a while ago,  which isn’t surprising since the two of us argued just this point in the local paper three years ago.  Faculty might be more interested in helping students change than they’ve ever been, but that can be understood as a defense of relatively traditional educational values against an increasingly pre-professional reduction of the undergraduate curriculum.

Posted in academe, higher education, teaching | Leave a comment

A small proposal for (esp. junior) faculty

Everyone in graduate school gets drilled into their head that they should be good to the department secretaries.  Department secretaries can accomplish all sorts of excellent things–they can expedite your travel paperwork, teach you the funky new copier, make sure your stipend money doesn’t stop when your funding department changes . . . they’ve got their hands on lots of levers.  They’re great.  And, in case you ever get a teaching job, it’s good practice, since department secretaries can help you with all manner of things–like getting you a good room to teach in, expediting your travel paperwork, &c.  Quite often, especially in your first couple of years, aside from filling in personnel forms in your first week, the department secretary may well be the only university staff member you deal with on a regular basis.

One of the things I have tried to be mindful of over the past couple of years is university staff outside of departments.  They used to terrify me, and they still scare me a bit.  They promulgate rules designed to cover contingencies I can’t imagine, and they deal with faculty, students, and state auditors–three audiences with very different interests.  Plus, they often like to use the phone to accomplish work-related tasks, and I hate the phone.  (My current voice mail quite literally begs people to hang up the phone and send me an e-mail.)

But as I’ve worked on a couple of committees that are populated by faculty and staff, and as I’ve worked on events that have occasionally required massive contributions and favors from administrators and staff, I have generally come to think that it’s important to know these people and to understand their jobs.  And not just because you may one day need a favor.

What’s interesting–aside from the normal interest one might take in people and their jobs–about the administrative side of the house is that it is, in many ways, an embodied history of the university and its decisions.  Policy X is housed in this department rather than that one because of historical contingency Z.  Policy exception Y, touted as exceptional customer service by one department, ends up interfering with another’s mission-critical task.  Rule 42, which seems intuitively stupid to any right-thinking faculty member, is *also* hated by the staff, but they have to do it anyway.  Rule 43 emerged because faculty members a, b, c, d, e, and f over many years refused to address circumstance foo.  And so forth.

I was at a meeting of such a committee a couple of weeks ago, and one of the participants said that the most amusing thing about the meeting was watching my face as I processed all the sausage-making that goes into making certain kinds of decisions, given the resource constraints that we operate under.  That experience is incredibly useful.

Don’t take me the wrong way: I don’t know much about how things work, and I have precisely no power on my campus.  I know that there is *always* going to be conflict between faculty who tend to improvise and a state-regulated bureaucracy that needs to have paper trails.  And I lean *way* too much on a handful of people who–out of kindness and out of a shared desire to make awesome things for students–are able to fix things when I just start beating my head against the desk.  And I don’t want you to get the idea that if you just walk across campus in someone else’s sensible shoes that all of your campus’s problems will vanish.  That can’t happen, especially in times of budgetary crisis and recission.

But I think that in addition to working on committees with faculty (which I’ve written about before), it’s worthwhile to find ways to connect with staff.  Maybe that’s through clubs.  Maybe it’s through the union, if you’re on a unionized campus.  (Or, if you’re on a campus with multiple unions, through inter-union collaboration.) Maybe it’s through big, honking committees. Learning about how your university works, not from gossip (which privileges scandal and vitriol), and not through the one time you need a particular office to process something, is a remarkable experience.  Because the staff serve the faculty and students as a whole, rather than just a department, they are the living memory of the institution.

Posted in higher education, teaching | 1 Comment

Satisficing & grading

I’m slow with the grading.  Some of it is garden-variety procrastination; some of it is bad planning (assignments for different classes coming in at the same time); some of it is overcommitments elsewhere; some of it is figuring out the assignment design before figuring out how the grading will work.  But a big part of it is overcommenting.  On most papers, I give three different kinds of feedback: a rubric score, interlineal comments (now delivered, in most cases, via track changes), and a terminal comment.

On the one hand, intellectually I know perfectly well that this isn’t necessarily helpful.  On the other hand, when I was a student I felt very strongly that comments = professorial love and engagement, so it’s hard for me to let that go.  Beyond that, the biggest problem with a lot of student writing is that it seems to have been produced with no thought of a reader.  It’s as if churning out material of a certain length is good enough, and so the plethora of comments is supposed to say, “Oi! Live reader here!)”

The track changes feature in Word actually makes matters worse in one way: If you change a formatting aspect of the paper (say, the margins), then it produces a comment about that for every single paragraph in a paper, so it looks like you’ve commented a lot.  But then it looks like all you’ve done is look at formatting, so I always make extra comments to convey that I read the paper carefully.

I also don’t think of comments as negative; often, I’ll use comments simply to suggest alternate lines of thought or stylistic possibilities.  (How else are the students going to get them?)

This really isn’t sustainable, however.

The other day, I re-discovered this word: satisfice, or to be happy with a good-enough solution, rather than one that is maximally optimal.  It reminded me that my current grading practice is a mostly failing attempt at maximizing the amount of possible feedback on any given assignment, which leads to two different counterproductive effects: it takes too long for me to grade, and students may well feel overwhelmed.  (Although very good students usually point to this overcommenting as the thing they like best about my teaching.)

What I need to do, then, is to develop a satisficing strategy: knowing where I’ve said enough to suggest opportunities for revision (and, to be candid, to justify the grade), but in such a way that it’s acceptably fast, light, and flexible.  Students who want more comments can always come in and talk to me anyway, right?

How do you know when enough’s enough?

(There’s always Ross’s solution . . . .)

Posted in higher education, teaching | 4 Comments