Tag Archives: higher education

Publicly exposing cheaters?

Is this going too far to punish and deter academic dishonesty?

Texas A&M International University in Laredo fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing.” After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

“It’s really the only way to teach the students that it’s inappropriate,” he said.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move. He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way. He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

“They were told the consequences in the syllabus,” he said. “They didn’t believe it.”

Young was fired for violating FERPA. Young, and some of the commenters at the original article, don’t seem to understand the idea that a syllabus is not a legally-binding contract, and a course syllabus cannot overrule Federal law. So it doesn’t really matter whether he had this public humiliation clause in the syllabus or whether the students read it. Choosing not to drop a course does not amount to acquiescing to the syllabus policies if those policies are illegal. You might as well say that cheaters will be shot on sight and then claim immunity from assault charges for putting a cap in a plagiarizing student, because after all the student knew the consequences.

There’s also a sort of moral issue here too. Young lost his job because what he did violates FERPA. But if there were no FERPA, would it be OK to publicly humiliate a student who had been determined — let’s say beyond a reasonable doubt — to be guilty of cheating?

UPDATE: Young’s blog no longer has the offending article on it, but he has this response to TAMIU in which he claims he “analyzed FERPA at the department chair’s request” before posting the article, submitted his analysis to the university, and got no indication that his analysis was incorrect.

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Filed under Academic honesty, Education, Life in academia, Teaching

Accreditation nation

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia

Monday GTD moment: Scholarship and GTD

This is the third installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

Last week I wrote about grading and GTD. I noted that grading is kind of a poor fit in traditional GTD. A prof can grade anywhere, so the idea of contexts fits awkwardly; and grading “tasks” are usually projects, although we think of them as tasks and although the next actions contained in those projects are usually nothing more than smaller projects. GTD wasn’t really made for the academic profession, and so the staple activities of academics don’t often fit well.

Another area similar to grading in its relatively poor fit within the canonical GTD philosophy is research, or more generally scholarship. By “scholarship” I am including not only the usual pure research that most profs do (at least while they are getting their terminal degrees) but also any significant creative activity based on one’s expertise that contributes to a discipline or the application of a discipline. This is Boyer’s model of scholarship, and it is finding increasing purchase at colleges and universities all over. So, for example, an applied mathematician who contributes her skill by consulting “on the side” for some external project is scholarship; so would be research that she does on the teaching of applied mathematics or using her expertise to  do a math workshop with a bunch of elementary school kids.

Scholarship is hard for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that original creative work is amorphous. When I was working on my dissertation, the hardest aspect of that work was that at any given point in the process, although I could always measure how much work I’d done, I had no way to tell how much more work I needed to do, what course of action was really the best next action, or even if my previous work was going to remain or be wiped out by the discovery of a mistake or a more elegant and general theorem. It wasn’t like reading a book, where you knew not only how far you’d read but also how far you had left to go and which page was next, and you had a reasonable assurance that the pages you’d read wouldn’t disappear from the book once you’d read them.

Even now, I have all these scholarly projects I want to finish (or start), and I struggle to GTD-ize them. For example, I’m currently working through this book on probability as a self-study course. Some parts of this project are pretty linear and predictable and therefore have clearly-defined next actions —  “Read and work through examples in section 1.2”, for instance. But then the nonlinearity hits. I will eventually read through all of Chapter 1 and will need to work through the exercises. Do I do them all in order, or do I skip around? Would it be fair to lump exercises 1-5 together as a single task, or is that another project? Is even a single exercise a task, or a project, and how can you know in advance? Academic or intellectual work is a black box — you have no idea how long it’s going to take, what resources you will need, whether it is properly thought of as a task or a project, or indeed even if David Allen’s idea of a “task” (a single physical action) is even appropriate at any level.

Scholarship is highly nonlinear, which makes it much different from the business tasks for which GTD was originally created. But it’s what also makes scholarship fun and rewarding, and it’s why most of us eggheads went and got PhD’s in the first place. So, what’s a scholarship-enthused, GTD-powered prof to do in order to bring this important aspect of his work under the GTD framework? Here are some thoughts.

1. Use the review process — all six levels — to craft a coherent and realistic scholarship plan. The heart of GTD is the weekly review, but don’t forget the other kinds of review that Allen talks about in the book. Specifically, Allen gives a six-level model for review in terms of altitude: 50000+, 40000, 30000, 20000, 10000 feet and “runway”. The weekly review often tends to stay on the runway — which, if your work looks like mine, resembles the runways at O’Hare around Christmas — but those higher-level reviews are important. Scholarly directions change rapidly and often at the discretion of the individual. In the business world, you don’t often get the opportunity to change the fundamental direction of your work on your own initiative. But in academia, every day has the potential for such change. If I decided tomorrow to stop studying cryptology and start doing mathematical finance, I could do that. That ability is liberating but also a recipe for stagnation. It’s important to see your scholarship, regularly, not only in terms of current projects and areas of responsibility but also in terms of where you want it all to head in the next year, the next two years, and so on. The tenure and promotion process at an institution, if that process is well-designed, will help profs to think in these terms, but only once a year or (post-tenure) every five years. GTD, done with these higher altitudes in mind, would say to think about the big picture a lot more regularly so that your overall plan is more coherent.

2. As much as possible, concretize your research agenda. Since scholarship is amorphous, once you get down to the level of 10000 feet and lower, some superimposition of structure on scholarship is necessary. It doesn’t always fit well, like a nice suit on an unruly young boy. But it’s still important to break the scholarship plan you’ve created down into manageable projects with a list of concrete next actions. Having “Write a paper” as a project will lead nowhere; most scholarly activities are projects within projects, and at bottom you find one project that can finally be broken down into discrete next actions, each of which has a well-defined context. The challenge is to get to that point. (This is a major similarity with grading.)

3. Don’t be bothered if the plan changes. The nature of research puts all scholarship-oriented action lists into an automatic state of flux. That nice, tidy list of actions under the “Prove the twin prime conjecture” project stands a good chance of being brutally rearranged if, say, you discover a journal article that shows your main theorem so far (which you thought you proved 3-4 next actions ago) to be false, or somebody proves it first, or if you get an unexpected opportunity to work on something else which requires dropping or postponing the project. We all know that research and scholarship are highly volatile areas. But one of the strengths of GTD as a workflow management system is that GTD assumes that tactical decisions will change fluidly and constantly, and that’s OK. The system doesn’t fall apart if things change; you just adjust your next actions and move on.

4. Subdivide your Read/Review folder and make it more like an inbox. Read/Review means something very different to an academic than it does to a business person. The entire life of an academic could be summed up by the term “Read/Review”. So I think Allen’s conception of the Read/Review file needs to be expanded for academics. In my system, I’ve got three Read/Review folders for physical stuff and three for electronic stuff — the three folders in each medium being Teaching/Service (articles about the profession, articles about GTD, articles about pedagogy, etc.), Research (traditional research papers from journals), and Popular (math-related but not from journals; sometimes ed tech items make it in here). I treat these folders like inboxes in the sense that I make them part of my weekly review. Sometimes I gather articles that look good at the time, and I do intend to read them, but they get crowded out by something more urgent. I find that I need to go through Read/Review at least 2-3 times a week to process stuff. Expanding on the Read/Review idea helps keep fresh ideas coming onto your radar screen and into your brain.

5. Stick to your guns with GTD on everything else besides scholarship. Being a prof involves wearing lots of hats — we teach, we serve on committees, we grade, we mentor and advise students and colleagues, and many other things. In order to have the time and flexibility to carry out these amorphous, nonlinear scholarship projects, we have to exercise discipline in getting things done that are “morphous” and linear — stuff like grading, prepping courses, working on committee proposals, and so on. If a person can use GTD to get those tasks and projects under strict discipline and control, then there will (for the most part) be time and space in our schedules to do scholarship. But if the manageable stuff is running all over us, then we can forget about research, unless you are one of the tiny minority of professors who do research and basically nothing else.

I think there’s a great deal of connection between being happy in your academic work and being balanced. The more we enable ourselves not only to be excellent teachers but also active scholars, the more we benefit and so do our students and institutions. I think GTD can help in that regard.

Have a productive week!

[Photo by Jay Lichtman; artwork by ynot2006]

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Filed under GTD, Higher ed, Life in academia, Profhacks, Scholarship, Study hacks, Tenure

Academic subjects of the future?

Question for you in the video about what might be on the horizon in terms of academic subject areas.

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Wednesday morning links

  • Walking Randomly has an interesting discovery about the Fibonacci sequence and linear algebra.
  • The Productive Student offers up some advice on how to be a leader and conduct killer team sessions. It’s good stuff not only for students who are doing collaborative work but also for anybody who goes to meetings. Are there people who don’t have to go to meetings?
  • InsideHigherEd reports on an interesting setup to attract Chinese students to study in the US — the 1+2+1 degree, which involves one year in China, two in the US, and then the final year back in China. (Unfortuately, as the article notes, you can’t Google “1+2+1” because all you get is “4”.)
  • Also at IHE and a lot of other places, Rice University is now using an open textbook for its elementary statistics course which is not only free but open for rearrangement and adaptation by any user. A shot across the bow of traditional textbook companies?
  • Study Hacks offers advice to students on cutting out the single biggest source of stress (according to them) — the killer course load. There’s something to be said for having an unbalanced course schedule — I found grad school to be easier in some ways than college because I was only taking math courses — but I do remember the worst semester I ever had as an undergrad had me taking three senior-level math courses… plus German, orchestra, and concert choir, with a 20-hour work week at a donut shop to boot. Balance is important.
  • Reasonable Deviations writes about a hack of the Boston subway system by three MIT students (for what appear to be purely academic purposes). Predictably, the subway authorities have sought legal action against the students. They ought instead to be thanking them, or hiring them outright, for pointing out a security flaw that eventually could have cost the company millions.
  • Java is the most popular programming language in the world, but some are saying that using Java as the language of choice in intro programming courses (as is currently done, for example, in the standard AP Computer Science courses) is hurting students in the long run. To me, this article raises the question of just what computer programming is these days.
  • A new Zogby poll is indicating that online university programs (meaning, it seems, online programs offered by existing brick-and-mortar universities as opposed to online universities) are rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance, despite the perception (possibly justified) that they offer less academic rigor than traditional university programming. Unfortunately you have to drill down into the Chronicle article mentioned at the above link to discover that the Zogby poll was administered online! So much for unbiased sampling. But at any rate, the trend seems to be limited mainly to older adults who are looking for college coursework, which makes sense. I think if you restricted the polling to a traditional college population — for example, high school seniors who are looking at colleges to attend — I don’t think you’d see nearly as much of a trend toward online programming.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Links, Math, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Wednesday morning links

Update: Welcome, readers from The FIRE! I’ve got more articles about free speech on campus and academic freedom which you might like to browse. Also take a walk through the Top 12 Posts retrospective page if you like.

  • The importance of teaching kids to pay attention, over against the phenomenon of “multitasking”. Lord knows I’m trying to do this with my 2- and 4-year olds. [h/t Joanne Jacobs]
  • What college administrators think about college faculty. The short version: Some admins think that faculty play too little of a role in campus administration, some think too much, but most think that faculty focus too much on their own territory and lack perspective.
  • On the innumeracy of intellectuals. This is a juicy article and I will try to have more to say about it later. But I distinctly remember several colleagues in the humanities who at one time or another openly embraced their having no knowledge or enjoyment of math or science, often in full view of students whom we were trying to teach a lifelong love of learning. Intellectuals, if you prize education so highly, get a well-rounded one yourself!
  • Some student journalists have earned themselves a bad reputation around this blog, but here’s a great example of a student journalist at IU-South Bend who is blowing the lid off an embarassing speech code case at IUPUI.
  • Speaking of speech codes, here’s a piece on the death of parody on campus.
  • Richard DeMillo is stepping down as dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. I’ve blogged about Georgia Tech’s interesting new approach to the computer science major before, which was instituted on DeMillo’s watch, and its seemingly positive impact on computer science major enrollments. The interview at the link gives the strong impression that DeMillo’s resignation comes as a result of political struggles with the Provost, which is disheartening if true.
  • India is developing its own $100 laptop, and this time it might not actually end up costing $200.
  • According to a recent report, starting salaries for electrical engineers are up 13% from 2007, and starting salaries average around $56,000 per year — not including signing bonuses, which are more and more common and are reaching levels of around $4500. And that’s for a EE with just one degree; imagine what you could do with two!

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Five big ideas for freshman orientation

This past week saw most of the incoming freshman class converge on my campus for an initial round of freshman orientation. At the end of the month is a much more extensive exposure to orientation, taking up what appears to be 80% of students’ waking hours from the Friday before classes all the way up through the end of the weekend. One has to wonder how much orientation leads to disorientation.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

The purpose of a freshman orientation program ought to be, well, to orient freshmen in college — that is, to give students a “compass bearing” in the strange and unfamiliar world of college. Many such programs do not even remotely address or even desire this goal, preferring instead to indoctrinate students into the correct political stances or endorse irresponsibility in an ill-advised attempt to be relevant. Other programs tend to focus on making college first and foremost a place for fun and socialization and only secondarily (if that) a place where hard work and learning is going to happen.

I’ve seen very few freshman orientation programs that really put academics first and seek to address the points of students’ greatest needs and misconceptions. Generally speaking, those are all rooted in the sudden and overwhelming freedom they get when they enter college. Students don’t have their moms or dads waking them up for school, making their breakfasts and dinners,  planning their after-school schedules, and — especially — checking to make sure schoolwork is done right and on time. Most freshmen I’ve met do not have a good concept of how to manage that freedom, nor do they understand the various ways its misuse can mess them up. That’s where freshman orientation ought to step in.

If I were to make up such a program, here are five big concepts that I would make sure the freshmen got in significant doses:

1. The basics of college-level academic expectations and how they differ from those of high school. This is by far the biggest need. I cannot count how many freshmen I’ve had, many of them academic standouts in high school, try to operate in college using high school parameters and end up doing poorly. The common refrain is “I never had to study in high school!” (High school teachers: What’s the deal with that?) Yes, in college, professors assign stuff for you to do, but no it’s not always taken up for a grade, and yes you are still supposed to do it. Yes, professors will expect you to complete the readings prior to class, and yes, you will look like an idiot if you don’t do them. Yes, we are serious when we say “two hours of studying outside of class for every hour inside”. Freshman orientation is a chance to set the academic tone for the entire college for the entire year. In fact one could argue that it always does so, and it’s just a matter of whether the formative impression students get is one of games and pizza parties or one of rigorous, rewarding learning.

2. Time/task management with a view towards a student-friendly version of GTD. This is a close second to academic expectations in terms of need. I’ve blogged about time/task management many times before. College is not, of course, all work and no play. But it is primarily work, and work involves getting things done with timeliness and quality. How many orientation programs have you ever seen which stress that there are only so many hours in a week, and you have to first give plenty of time to personal maintenance (sleep, etc.) and schoolwork, and THEN divvy up the remainders for the “fun” stuff? The tendency of orientation programs to have an 80/20 ratio of “fun” stuff to academic stuff doesn’t help. Time management is not something many freshmen have even needed to think about, so they need training and practice, and they need a system that works for them. I propose GTD, because it’s exactly the kind of system that doesn’t require much thought — indeed, a main idea with GTD is to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about your system — and can be implemented with fancy computer software or just with a pencil and notebook. Here’s a good article which outlines a student-focused implementation of GTD that I think would serve well.

3. The meaning and centrality of academic honesty. This is really a subpoint of #1 above, but one which is so problematic these days that I think it must be driven home with force — especially since some so-called educators are redefining plagiarism to the extent that cut-and-paste hack jobs are considered endearing works of intellectual creativity. That works fine for 4-year olds, but not so much for grownups. Every semester I have to intervene, sometimes punitively, when students cross the lines of academic honesty, because their threshhold for dishonesty is a lot higher than mine or my college’s. I think most freshmen (or older students) don’t realize how important academic honesty really is to higher education.

4. Basics of nutrition and exercise. When I was a freshman, I ate horribly — including multiple trips per week to the pizza buffet across from my dorm — and I gained not the usual “freshman 15” but more like 30 pounds that I struggled to get off all the way into graduate school. When you have the freedom to eat a breakfast that consists of lime jello, Cocoa Pebbles, and Mountain Dew — or maybe just the Mountain Dew — then you very well might do so. A lot of students forget that their brains are part of their bodies, and as your body goes, so goes your ability to think and pay attention in class. Even varsity athletes seem to struggle with this point. And I think it’s ironic that many colleges are spending millions on lavish new student athletic facilities but giving nothing in their freshman orientation about the importance of exercise or simple strategies for exercise during the school year when it’s busy.

5. The meaning of “free time” and how to spend it fruitfully. Many freshmen have a backwards idea of time. They think that every hour of the day is lawfully theirs, and when a professor gives an assignment it is cutting in to “their” time. The opposite is really the case. The freshman’s time belongs not to them but to the university and whomever else they are obligated. “Free time” is best defined as the time left over once a person’s obligations are taken care of. So freshmen have a lot less free time than they think (and some have so overloaded themselves that they have no free time). This means that free time, being scarce, is valuable and therefore must be carefully managed. If you budget 10 hours a week of free time, will you spend it playing video games or watching TV? Or exercising? Or working on a fraternity service project? Or doing some reading for pleasure? (The importance of reading for pleasure might be another item for this list.)  Nobody can tell a person how to spend his free time, of course; but there are some choices for doing so that are better than others. Orientation programs should spend some time driving home the truth that investing free time in something that will bear fruit for you later on is better than simply spending it on unfruitful things. That fact will lead different people to make different choices, but at least there’s a reason behind their choices which, maybe, will make their college education more full.

After the orientation program has addressed all that stuff, THEN the freshmen can play goofy group games and have pizza parties.

What are some other elements that you’d like to see in freshman orientation?

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Study hacks

Fall preview

It’s August, which means the start of school is just around the corner. The public schools and my kids’ preschool start on August 11. Classes start for me on August 26, but there’s a run-up of meetings and other activities that consume the entire week prior to that. With all this stuff about to commence, here’s an overview of what’s on the plate this fall. I don’t blog about what’s going on at work or what my students do, but I do use CO9s to flesh out thoughts or experiences I have about what I’m doing. So this should give some context.

  • Teaching two sections of calculus. Although I didn’t blog much about it, I taught calculus in an 8-week evening format this summer and I thought it went very well. I was running the class with an eye towards reusability; I’m hopeful that I can reuse all the stuff that I prepped during the summer for my fall courses so that my energy can be devoted to teaching and grading and not so much on prepping.
  • Teaching my sophomore course on Methods of Problem Solving. This will be the eighth running of this course since I first designed it back in 2001, and frankly I’ve never quite gotten it to where I want it. I am breaking with my usual form and using a textbook this time around and doing a few other different things to try and be more effective with a very difficult pedagogical problem: how to teach students who have been immersed in a basic calculus course for a year and who tend to think of math in terms of calculus exercises how to experiment, conjecture, and prove theorems.
  • Teaching my upper-level course on Geometry. Actually I have a lot in store for geometry in general, and if it works out I will blog some more about that separately.
  • Being chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee this year, which is a huge responsibility — although we have a lighter-than-usual load of faculty coming up for tenure or promotion this year for whatever reason.
  • Continuing to direct our new dual-degree engineering program. This program has generated a lot of buzz, but since it’s not a major on campus, I really don’t know how many actual students it’s going to attract. But regardless of population, this programs gotten me to think a lot about how engineering and the liberal arts interact.

And of course there’s a thousand little things that are always on the task list, but that’s life in academia.

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Teaching

What’s wrong with curricular uniformity

Update: Welcome, InsideHigherEd.com readers! Please feel free to browse, and I’d suggest this Top 12 Posts page for starters.

My criticism of Ivy Tech’s handling of an adjunct who distributed alternate course materials to supplement his statistics class textbook needs a little clarification. I’m being critical here not so much of Ivy Tech itself as I am the model that sets Ivy Tech’s priorities.

I can accept that Ivy Tech, as an institution keenly interested in maintaining absolute consistency of course content across all sections, was simply acting within the dictates of its business model. Despite what its name might indicate, Ivy Tech Community College is not a single campus but a sprawling network of community colleges with 25 brick-and-mortar campuses throughout Indiana as well as a growing online education division. When you look at Prof. Norasteh’s statistics course, it is one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of sections of this course that are all running at the same time. Four-year colleges and universities have to be able to see this course listed on a student’s transcript and have some reasonable assurance of trust that that course with that grade indicates a uniform extent of mastery of the subject — regardless of where or from whom the student took it.

The same thing can be said for any franchise-based business, or any business that operates virtually as a collection of franchises. When you go to a McDonald’s, you expect to get the same experience and the same product, no matter whether it’s the McDonald’s up the street or one in another country. Uniformity of product is what makes McDonald’s and other franchise businesses work. Are you craving a Big Mac? Go to a McDonald’s — any McDonald’s. Are you wanting to take a statistics class that will transfer into a four-year university? Take it at Ivy Tech and don’t worry about which Ivy Tech or which instructor you are selecting. The same thing can be said for the for-profits like University of Phoenix, which have similarly highly-distributed populations and whose business model stands or falls on curricular uniformity.

So when I criticize Ivy Tech, it’s not so much Ivy Tech as it is the model that Ivy Tech uses which sets uniformity of experience as a higher priority than the quality of classroom learning. When you’ve got a system that actually ends up punishing professors who, on their own initiative and on their own dime, create course materials which help students learn the material better — because this creates a differential between that professor’s course and another professor’s — then I think you’ve got a broken system. What that system really does is reward the professors who do only what is required of them, no more — who stick with the incomprehensible textbook when they know good and well that their students aren’t learning from it. The incentive to do something to help students learn is rewarded by losing one’s job if not everybody else is doing something similar. Talk about your lowest common denominator.

Better to have a smaller, more concentrated educational environment where the uniformity-across-course-sections issue is minimized or nonexistent, and focus on making the classroom experiences as enriching as possible, where both professors and students are doing everything they can to learn, and everybody gets rewarded for doing so.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed

Getting fired for helping students?

When you’re teaching a class and students are having trouble understanding the textbook, usually the responsible thing to do is provide them with some form of clarification in the form of a handout or some web links to additional resources. But apparently that’s a firing offense if you’re an adjunct faculty at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College:

Pejman Norasteh — like many adjuncts — didn’t have much control over the material he was supposed to cover [in his statistics class]. But students started to send him e-mail saying that the textbook was unclear. One student said he was getting “depressed” and giving up when he didn’t understand the required assignments. Another student wrote: “As usual, our textbook does a poor job of explaining concepts. I am adding this chapter to my list of examples of how poor our book is….”

In response to the e-mail messages and personal requests, Norasteh started handing out supplementary materials to cover the same subject matter as the textbook, but with his own explanations. While the students who complained were happy, some others were not. They sent e-mail messages to the division chair saying that they were being asked to do extra work on top of the syllabus because the supplementary materials were not mentioned on the syllabus as required reading. That of course was true, since Norasteh didn’t start the course thinking he would add to the reading beyond the textbook.

At that point, Norasteh received an e-mail from Mark Magnuson, division chair for liberal arts and sciences, and general education at the campus. Magnuson wrote that it was clear to him that “you are not using or following the syllabus or textbook,” adding that “all instructors, adjuncts and full-time, are required to use the syllabus and textbook in each course to meet the statewide agreed upon course objectives. Individual instructors do not have the option of straying from the syllabus and/or textbook.”

Ultimately, Noratesh was not kept on at the college. Never mind the fact that Noratesh was not “straying” from the textbook but merely doing his job as an educator to clarify the textbook and maximize the students’ learning experience.

There are actually two appalling things about this story. Perhaps foremost is the fact that Noratesh lost his job because he was doing his job, which is to teach students and give them the best learning experience possible. Apparently, according to Ivy Tech — which here in Indiana serves mainly as a transfer institution where students take courses and then transfer the credits to four-year colleges — the need for consistency in coursework trumps the need for clear exposition of the course content, which might (and frequently does) involve the instructor using his or her best judgment and creating materials of his or her own to supplement the standard materials. What’s more important here, Ivy Tech?

The other appalling thing is the reaction of those students who got upset because they were “having to to extra work”. God forbid that you should have to work harder than the absolute minimum to understand the course content — even if the absolute minimum, which involves using an impenetrable textbook, gets you nowhere. Will these same students be raising the same objections on their jobs after college if their bosses give them “extra work” to do or if they have to do “extra work” to make their clients happier? Shame on that attitude.

Final note for full disclosure: Jeff Fanter, Ivy Tech’s communications director who is mentioned in the original article, happens to be my next-door neighbor. He’s a good guy.

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