Tag Archives: students

“The faculty/student nonagression pact”

From a 2004 review by George Leef of Patrick Allitt’s book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student:

[M]atters might improve considerably if the rest of the faculty were also fighting against the student aversion to reading, but few of them probably are. Allitt doesn’t say much about his colleagues, but I suspect he knows that many of them have given in to what Murray Sperber calls the faculty/student non-aggression pact: Students get light assignments and good grades in return for expecting little instructional effort from their professors. Allitt’s willingness to stay and fight when much of the rest of the faculty has surrendered is commendable, but if only a small number of professors insist that students read and understand, the college experience is just the skeletal remains of its former self.

The bolded passage is a dead-on appropriate term for much of what goes on under the guise college teaching and learning these days.

Sounds like a good book but one which might be too depressing to read just before the semester starts.

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

Observation

I’m looking back over my statements of teaching philosophy from 2001 (when I was searching for my current job), 2002, and 2003 and then comparing them with the new and improved one. I’m noticing that, back in 2001-2003, my teaching “philosophy” was more of a laundry list of pedagogical techniques that I engage myself in when teaching. “I use lots of active learning.” “I measure my students’ progress using a variety of assessment techniques.” “I am a firm believer in the use of computer technology in mathematics courses.” And so on.

Whereas, now, my focus is much more on the big picture — on what makes me who I am as a teacher, what makes me tick, what you will find in any instance of my teaching, regardless of technique or technology used, as well as what goes on behind my teaching. I am saying, “Here’s what drives me. Here are my core beliefs about education, teaching, students, and how it all fits together in the culture of education. And out of that, proceeds what I do in the classroom.”

So these days, when trying to express my philosophy of teaching, I am focusing less on what I am doing and more on how, why, and to whom I am doing it. I like that.

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Simul kids et adults

I’m working on updating some of my professional documents, including my curriculum vitae and my Statement of Teaching Philosophy (SOTP). Both of these are badly out of date; I don’t think I’ve touched either one since I was up for tenure in 2005. That’s too bad, especially the SOTP; it seems like professors ought to be constantly re-examining their core philosophies behind teaching and having a critical look at what really characterizes what they do in the classroom.

The new SOTP is absorbing some flavor of recent developments in my personal life on the faith front. Since joining the Lutheran church, I’ve become more exposed to — and more appreciative of — the concept of holding paradoxical pairs of ideas in tension with each other and having a real truth emerge out of the dialectic between the two. In Lutheran theology, for example, we have the idea of simul justus et peccator — the notion that a Christian is, at the same time, both righteous and a sinner. My teaching philosophy turns out to have some of the same kinds of pairings.

The pair of opposing ideas that struck me as I was brainstorming it out was the following:

  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that each of his students is somebody’s child.
  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that none of his students are children.

(This is being written in the context of undergraduate education. In K-12 the students really are children.)

On the one hand, my teaching changed drastically once I had kids of my own, because getting an up-close look at how kids act, think, and react makes me a lot more sympathetic to them and to their parents. There were times past when I would get extremely upset at students for some kind of (truly) dumb behavior and have some awfully unkind thoughts about them. I can’t say I don’t do that anymore, but it is a lot less frequent and I feel the wrongness of it much more viscerally when it happens. Because those students are somebody’s kids. My girls, as smart as they are, have a long way to go before they can do the kinds of things my students do. Once they get there, I am going to be extremely proud of just about anything they do. The thought of having some priggish college professor ripping into them — even if they deserve it — for something they do or don’t do in class just makes me horrified.

So these days I tend to view my students as products of a long (long!) process of development, having gone through years of trial and risk and hard work on both their parts and their parents’ parts. Yes, students do dumb things and make bad choices and are often ill-prepared. But to even be in the position to do those things implies that they have come a long way, and I guess I “get” this and respect it more than I used to. And my teaching is better when I don’t objectify them. (I’d also argue that their learning is better when they don’t objectify me, but that’s another post.)

On the other hand, I really bristle when we profs refer to college students as “kids”. They aren’t children, not in the developmental sense at least. College students are fledgling adults. They don’t necessarily know how to act like adults (I didn’t, at that age) or even desire to act like adults (I didn’t). But that doesn’t mean that professors absolve them of the very adult world of actions, responsibility, and consequences. Just because those students are young and look like they are just out of high school, it doesn’t mean that we conceive of them as children — taking on their responsibilities, absolving them of the consequences of bad choices, etc. — and thereby teach them that they are children and can be expected to be treated as such.

And the truth that seems to emerge out of the tension between these two ideas is that teaching involves respect at its core. Profs ought to respect students for getting to where they are, and respect their intrinsic value as human beings. (Which is something Christian professors ought to find to be second nature.) But respect also means respect for who those students will be. If we cut students breaks all the time or give second chances when settling for the consequences of a bad choice would make them better-equipped to face the future, then we might be acting nicely towards our students and winning their approval, but that’s a long way from respecting them.

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Filed under Christianity, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

Finding success at MIT, and anywhere else

I completely missed College Chronicles, a “blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits”, until the first of three wrap-up episodes posted today at Study Hacks. That episode checks in with Leena, a student at MIT, who had a successful semester academically after some initial troubles.

The changes she made which had the biggest impact on her success?

  • The act of realistically plotting out when I was going to do things and how much time they would take.
  • GOING TO CLASS. It makes life so much easier.
  • Studying early enough to ask my questions at office hours.
  • Doing homework in office hours.
  • Not going back to my room until I absolutely had to.

Although Leena is probably studying rocket science at MIT, note that her keys to success in college are not rocket science: managing time responsibly, going to class, not procrastinating with respect to studying, and going to office hours. Note that these things do not not involve being a genius; do not require being a sheltered nerd who never gets out to do anything fun; can be enacted in any academic setting and not just elite universities;  cost no money; and can be implemented in any student’s life right now. (Especially, all you students out there, now that spring semester is underway or soon will be.)

Her changes which didn’t for her, as well as her advice to fellow students, are also worth a look. (Her advice follows the same path as her successful changes in being distinctly non-academic: get a good night’s sleep each night, keep in touch with friends and family, have fun, and so on.)

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Beating bad study habits in 2008

Happy New Year to all of you out there. For those of you about to start back to school (I don’t until February thanks to our January Term), Study Hacks has five bad study habits to swear off in 2008. Here’s a clip from the first one, which is “Studying Without a Plan”:

Do you still use “study” as a specific verb? For example, as in: “I’m going to go study, see you in 12 hours.” If so, you’re in trouble. “Study” is ambiguous. No one can “study.” What they can do is specific review activities, such as “convert first month of lecture notes into question/evidence/conclusion format,” or “quiz and recall study guides 1 to 3.”

I can’t recall the number of times a student has come to the office, having done poorly on a test or other assessment, and plaintively says “…but I STUDIED!” To which I reply, “OK, so tell me what you did.” And there’s often a stunned silence — because to those students, “studying” means something very passive and unintentional. Students — and teachers, who should be helping students learn the right ways to “study” — would do much better to provide concrete overall goals for learning, broken down into doable, concrete tasks.The other four are Skipping Class, Using Rote Review, Studying After Midnight, and Not Taking Notes on Your Reading. Go read it all.

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Calling all student bloggers

The comment on yesterday’s post from Matt, an undergrad in math and computer science at Carnegie-Mellon and blogger at Relatively Speaking, reminded me of just how much I appreciate blogs written by students. As a professor, my job on the “micro” scale is to design and teach mathematics courses and do stuff to help the college operate. But my vocation on the “macro” scale is to help students to think well and to chart their course through life. I like to think that blogging is an extension of that vocation beyond my everyday campus role, and it always excites me to be able to interact with students like Matt who are working hard at the business of learning.

So I’d like to ask any student blogger — especially undergraduates but also high school/homeschool students and graduate students — who is actively maintaining a blog that seriously reflects on their studies and their lives to leave your URL in the comments to this post. I don’t have a blogroll around here — maybe I should? — but I would certainly like to add you to my RSS feeds and keep up with what you’re doing.

And perhaps other readers who are similarly interested might like to glean those URL’s from the comments as well. Who knows, perhaps we can one day have some kind of “Carnival of Undergraduates” or something.

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