Tag Archives: Higher ed

Pushing back

Seth Godin has a lot of good things to say in this short blog post, such as:

When a professor assigns you to send a blogger a list of vague and inane interview questions (“1. How did you get started in this field? 2. What type of training (education) does this field require? 3. What do you like best about your job? 4. what do you like least about your job?”) I think you have an obligation to say, “Sir, I’m going to be in debt for ten years because of this degree. Perhaps you could give us an assignment that actually pushes us to solve interesting problems, overcome our fear or learn something that I could learn in no other way…”

When a professor spends hours in class going over concepts that are clearly covered in the textbook, I think you have an obligation to repeat the part about the debt and say, “perhaps you could assign this as homework and we could have an actual conversation in class…”

As a professor, I love it when students make such demands of me. It’s how I want to teach anyway, and it makes it a lot easier when I know students are not only on board with but insisting that I not simply lecture from the book, repeat problems that are in the book, and expect them to learn only the things that are printed in the book.

So I would add one thing to Seth’s injunction: Students, if you feel this way about your professors, take a look at your peers who don’t feel this way. Do you have classmates who just want the professor to read from the book, give tests that are just like the book’s examples, and not expect more from them? Then push back there, as well. Demand from your peers that they not leave you out on an island demanding academic excellence and getting your money’s worth.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Peer instruction, Student culture, Study hacks, Teaching, Vocation

You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Problem Solving, Study hacks, Teaching

Working and having a life, redux

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The Chronicle has an article on a Harvard survey of Gen-X professors and their attitudes toward the balance of work and the rest of life. The professors surveyed indicate that they want to be successul in their careers but don’t want to sell out their personal lives in the process. The main survey report is here (PDF, 2.1MB). Here’s a representative quote from one of the interviewees, a business professor, talking about the perils of overwork that Gen-Xers perceive in their older colleagues:

There’s really nothing to be gained by closing your door and working until 11:00 o’clock at night, other than the tenure hurdle that is somewhere out there. If you want to pole vault over it, you go right ahead, but no one here is going to back up the Brinks truck and start dumping all this cash on you, simply because you’ve decided to work like you have three jobs. So that’s the approach I take – sometimes you have to know when there’s this point of diminishing return, where if I keep pounding at this one front, then yes, I may nail it, but at the same time, it will then for a very high cost in other areas.
Although the sample size for this study is painfully small — just 16 professors (the Chronicle article says 12) — the responses are nonetheless fascinating to read and range across a wide variety of work/life balance issues. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

The study is from the same group at Harvard to which I referred in this post from 2006. There, I was responding to comments form some older (or “embedded”) faculty who took the reluctance of Gen-Xers to work until 11:00 PM every night as some form of laziness. Some of the comments at the new Chronicle article tend in that direction also, and conversely there are comments from Gen-Xers that lob equal and opposite stereotypes back at the older faculty.

Unfortunately, until COACHE comes out with a scientific nationwide  study on this issue (with, at the very least, n > 16), all we can do is rely upon anecdotes to understand the issues. But it does seem that most GenX faculty I know share my incredulity at the priorities of some other faculty who place work as the be all-end all of their lives. We also share an extreme irritation toward the inefficient use of time that seems endemic to academia. I shudder to think about how many meetings have I been forced into that have no agenda, spend 45 minutes in chit-chat or irrelevant philosophizing, and accomplish nothing.  And — very especially — we share a kind of hopelessness in considering the rewards structure of academia that gives the loudest applause to those faculty who cut the most out of their lives and say “no” to work the least.

I can only speak for myself (until COACHE gets more data), but I have learned that the best sacrifice to make is not to take time away from your wife and kids so you can get another publication out or hold office hours at 10:00 PM, but rather to lay down hard boundaries around your family and make the crossing of those boundaries by work to be unacceptable. I have learned to say a resounding “no” when work gets to be too much. I have tenure, and surely if I can get tenure then anybody can, but I am coming to understand that I will probably never win one of those prestigious teaching or service awards at my college simply because I maintain those boundaries and protect my family time ruthlessly.

And you know what? So be it. I have three happy and healthy kids who see a great deal of both Mom and Dad every day, who never want for play time or story time, and who know without question that they and their Mom are top priority in Dad’s life. This is more important, more satisfying, and ultimately more crucial to the well-being of the next generation than anything I can possibly crank out in my career. And if it ever gets to the point where my job and my family life cannot coexist, guess which one I’ll jettison without a second thought?

Although hopefully it will never come to that, and I have no reason to think that at my current place of employment it will. And hopefully higher ed as a whole will begin to see that there are a lot of people like me out there and learn to respect our boundaries even as we work to respect the mission of the academy.
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Filed under Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure, Vocation

Must the tenure process really be like this?

Like a lot of people in higher ed, I’ve been following Friday’s deadly shooting at the University of Alabama-Hunstville. (Click the link for background in case you missed the story. I have no idea how much press it is or is not getting in the national mainstream media.) It’s known that Amy Bishop, the UAH biology professor being charged with the shooting, was denied tenure in April and had made an unsuccessful appeal regarding her tenure denial. It’s not clear that the shooting was related to the tenure situation, but the speculation — especially in the article at the second link — is that there’s a connection.

What is clear, at least from my perspective as a professor and as somebody in the fourth year of a five-year appointment to my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, is that something is really badly wrong with UAH’s tenure system, and perhaps with tenure as a concept. Listen to this description of Prof. Bishop’s situation from William Setzer, chemistry department chair at UAH:

As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn’t secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on “bizarre” rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand — “left-field kind of stuff,” he said. […]

While there were those who supported her tenure and promotion, Mr. Setzer said, he didn’t believe she had any friends in the department.

There was no doubt, however, about her intelligence or pedigree. “She’s pretty smart,” said Mr. Setzer. “That was not a question. There might have been some question about how good of a [principal investigator] and mentor she was. Yeah, she knows her stuff, and she’s a good technical person, but as far as being the boss and running the lab, that was kind of the question.”

Mr. Setzer might not be giving an accurate description of how people get tenure at UAH, but is this really what tenure is all about? Publication records? Grants? Personalities? Whether or not you have enough friends, or the right friends?  UAH does state up-front that it is a research-intensive university, but where is teaching in all of this?

Now look at the depressing remarks of  Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, about the realities (?) of tenure:

“The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching,” said [Nelson]. “You probably can’t get another job.”

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the review is a period of great stress for even the most likely candidates. They feel judged. Denial can lead to isolation.

“If you have underlying problems,” Nelson said, “then there’s a good chance that they will surface during the tenure process because you are under so much stress.”

We do not know, yet, just how much Prof. Bishop’s tenure denial contributed to her actions, which (I stress) are not justifiable under any circumstance. But honestly — if this is what getting tenure is like at your school, then your school is doing it wrong.

The tenure process can, and should, be an open and transparent process whereby junior faculty are guided in their professional development by senior faculty with a view towards making positive contributions to their institution for 30 or 40 years or more. Done right, tenure can be a transformative and powerful experience for faculty, institutions, and students alike. Done as it is described above, though, it is bound to be petty, political, focused on all the wrong things, and producing professionally unbalanced faculty who have merely learned to play the game properly. No wonder so many schools are considering dropping tenure. But isn’t there some middle ground where tenure can be redeemed?

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure

A school for grown-ups

My 6-year old is in kindergarten and fascinated by school and schoolteachers. Last week she asked me: “Daddy, are you a teacher?” I told her I was. “What’s your school?” I told her I teach at a college. “What’s a college?” I told her: “A college is a school for grown-ups.” And in that off-the-cuff answer, we have an economical way of describing the difference between college and pre-college education, and of encapsulating the hopes and goals of higher education.

College students, even the wide-eyed freshmen who show up every fall, are not kids. They are emerging adults, having worked 12 years for a high school education and who now enter a 4-5 year buffer zone before entering into the world with nothing more than the things they know, the experiences they’ve had, and the people around them. Therefore we college professors aren’t serving students if we treat them like kids, refer to them as “kids”, or in any way give them a reason to conceive of themselves as children. If we do any of these, students will simply model what we do and stay children. Indeed, I hear my own students talk much more frequently about “the other kids in my class” than “the other students” or even “the other people“.

What we hope to do in higher education is not so much to convey academic subject matter but rather, when you boil it all down, we are trying to teach people how to think like grown-ups. Of course we want our students to retain the best aspects of childhood — curiosity, energy, and so on — but we also want them to temper their child-likeness with adult sensibilities. We want them to think about other people besides themselves; to be self-motivating and responsible; to judge information objectively; to trust but verify what they see; to draw freely from a depth and breadth of experiences to make sense of what they encounter; to be able to think and act for themselves.

Since this is what higher education aims for, I’d like to give a good-natured challenge to my colleagues in higher ed, and by extension all those high school teachers who teach “college preparatory” courses. Very simply: From now until the end of classes this spring, don’t refer to your students as “kids”. Think of them instead as adults, “emerging adults” if you like, and refer to them accordingly. And take a look at your course policies and the ways you make decisions about how to deal with and treat students. If these are set up in a way that places grown-up behavior as the basic assumption, or at the very least provides a road map for younger students to ramp up into grown-up behavior, then I’d say that’s on the right track; otherwise think about ways to change.

I did this recently. I was visiting a high school class I had been working with as part of a dual-enrollment course. During my visit, the teacher allowed the students to have some open Q&A time with me, and several of the students asked me about the differences between high school and college. After spelling out some specifics, I told them, “At my college, we’re going to treat you like men and women when you come in. Not like kids. You won’t be kids and you shouldn’t be treated like kids.” Those young men and women got the message immediately — they straightened up in their chairs and more than a few got smiles on their faces. If we college profs all agree to treat students like men and women — daring students to believe in their own adulthood — I think we’ll see the same positive effect.

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

The blogging VPAA?

I was thinking over the session coming up at Blog Indiana by John Oak Dalton titled “Chancellor 2.0” which promises to address “existing and emerging obstacles of CEO-grade context” [sic? Was that supposed to be “content”?] for Twitter. In other words, it sounds like the session will be about how to get your college’s upper administration up and running with blogging and tweeting. I’m curious to see what Dalton makes of this, because his home institution seems to have embraced blogging and Twitter at a scale you don’t normally see from a university. Even the chancellor tweets.

I’d love to see more college administrators blogging or twittering, using their real names, making no secret of their institutions, and writing honestly about their successes and struggles in the work that they do. There’s no faster track to giving higher education a measure of transparency that it badly needs than this. That transparency is needed both inside and out.

On the inside, faculty benefit from having a window on what the administration is doing, rather than having an administration that lives and works behind a wall of separation. Students, for whom college administration is especially important but also mysterious, would benefit too. And as faculty have a tendency to objectify administrators and turn them into lay figures to complain about — a mirror image of what many students do to faculty — anything that administrators can do to show people their human side (up to a point, of course; there’s still such a thing as “too much information”) helps the organization operate better.

On the outside, the general public has cultivated such a distrust and dislike for higher education — and can they be blamed, the way we act sometimes? — that giving them that same window on administrative operations would be an honest, unilateral step towards reestablishing the trust that ought to be shared between town and gown. And if I were a parent with a child about to start college, the administrator and faculty blogs would be a valuable source of information about what the college is really like.

If I were a college administrator (not that I’m looking to become one), not only would I be blogging and Twittering regularly, I’d encourage the people who work under me as well as faculty to do the same. I’d be trying to make sure the resources are there to make it happen — dedicated server space for faculty and staff to have their own WordPress installations, and so forth — and most important to make sure that they have permission to speak freely. Imagine what it would be like if your official college blog posts or tweets could be used for your benefit towards tenure.

Are there other college administrators out there who blog or tweet? Or any administrators out there reading this post who don’t, and would care to explain why not?

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Filed under Academic freedom, Blogging, Higher ed, Life in academia, Social software, Technology, Tenure, Twitter, Web 2.0

Four questions to ask about tenure

Over at the Young Mathematicians’ Network, I have an article today on four revealing questions that young faculty should ask about tenure. Since you have to have an account to post comments at the YMN web site, and since some readers who aren’t mathematicians might want to discuss this stuff, I’m going to reprint the article below the fold and open comments for it. Enjoy!

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure, YMN