Thursday, August 26, 2010

First Day of Class Links

Are you getting energized? Having butterflies? Experiencing that sinking feeling? All of the above? Some of these links might help:

Things to do on the first day of class:

How to avoid being a jerk in class (not that this would ever apply to any of us :)

Remembering to breathe in class:

Forthcoming TLI Event

Dear colleagues,
Thanks to all of you who turned out yesterday and helped make the Faculty Conference such a success! If you have feedback, a sound-byte you'd like to share, or any comments, feel free to contact me.

I wanted to remind you of a forthcoming event I mentioned yesterday. Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, will be coming to speak at Ursinus on Thursday September 16, 10-12, at the Lenfest Theater in the Kaleidscope. You'll be receiving further reminders, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Also, please don't hesitate to contact me if you are interested in the Student Consultant program. I'd be happy to forward you more information.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Credit for Teaching--Archives for Peer Reviewed Classroom Innovations

May 26, 2010

At many colleges and universities, the tenure trinity of teaching, research and service is widely viewed (at least by those coming up for tenure) as a myth. A new book (or articles in the right journals) will trump a great teaching idea every time, say many professors. Classroom innovation doesn't get any credit.

The American Sociological Association on Tuesday announced a new effort that -- organizers hope -- could change that. TRAILS -- the Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology Web site -- will be an archive for peer-reviewed classroom innovations, including syllabuses, class activities, individual assignments, bibliographies and Web sites -- all focused on teaching. A two-level peer-review process is being created to vet entries, and association officials promise that plenty will be rejected, or, as with journal submissions, sent back for revisions.

The idea is that by adapting a rigorous peer review process, successful items on TRAILS will be granted the respect on a tenure dossier that good teaching evaluations or a portfolio might never garner.

TRAILS will not be the first effort at peer review in teaching, which happens when senior faculty observe classes and in broader efforts such as MERLOT and the Peer Review of Teaching Project. Where TRAILS may be significant and successful, some experts say, is in its broad disciplinary focus. Junior faculty members win tenure based on publishing in their fields' top journals, the thinking goes, and the way to see teaching ideas actually get credit may also be to have the imprimatur of the discipline.

"I think there is power in having the discipline take it on," said Mary Taylor Huber, senior scholar emerita and consulting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has long promoted the idea of "the scholarship of teaching," advanced by the late Ernest Boyer when he headed the foundation. "I think there is a long way to go before there is a wide enough understanding and acceptance of this kind of pedagogical work as a serious intellectual enterprise, and I think this is a step forward."

Huber said that some disciplines and departments have made it possible for people to receive credit for teaching ideas in tenure and promotion by writing up scholarly articles about their teaching ideas and then publishing those ideas in key journals. While the basis for those articles may be teaching, they are ultimately being evaluated as research -- based on their publication. What she likes about the sociologists' idea, she said, is that the emphasis is on rigorous evaluation of and (where appropriate) "full credit for teaching as teaching."

How TRAILS Will Work

To get a resource accepted on TRAILS, a scholar will have to submit documentation that the learning tool meets a series of criteria -- and that assessment has been done by the professor to show that the idea actually works. The tool must also be demonstrably useful to others and explained in a clear way. Then the submission is reviewed by an "area editor," a professor selected by the association either for a focus on a type of teaching (introductory course, capstone course, research methods, etc.) or for sociology subject matter (from policy analysis to animals and society to stratification to immigration to biosociology). The area editor can approve the proposal for a second level of review (by the association's office or later by other panels), reject it, or ask for revisions.

Only after the second review would the resource be accepted and included on the Web site. To submit or to have full access to the materials submitted, sociologists will need to subscribe to TRAILS ($25 for association members and $100 for others). Those who join TRAILS will also be able to use any of the materials in their courses, with the only condition being that they give visible credit to the scholars who created them. So instructors will gain access to resources without any permissions process. Among the samples provided by TRAILS are a syllabus for a course on the sociology of the body, and a class module on AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of the ASA’s Academic and Professional Affairs Program and the creator of TRAILS, said she was under no illusion that the application of peer review would make teaching innovations be seen as identical to research innovations. "I don't think that publishing a class activity is the same thing as publishing a journal article," she said.

But if sociologists believe that teaching innovations matter, she said, they should consider why current systems for evaluating teaching don't end up getting much weight in tenure reviews. "Measuring excellence is very difficult," she said. Teaching portfolios may not be reviewed by people with expertise in teaching that subject, student evaluations of instructors are widely questioned, and in-person observation by senior colleagues is "a snapshot of a day."

The TRAILS idea is to provide "meaningful evidence of teaching accomplishment" that could earn the respect of tenure and promotion committees. Vitullo noted that Boyer argued that teaching would get real respect in academe only when reward structures reflect its importance, and added that she hoped this project would move the field of sociology in that direction.

While TRAILS "can't magically undo" a century or more of institutions giving relatively little credit to teaching, Vitullo said that she hopes review committees will pay attention. "We are showing that we can measure high quality teaching in a way that is public and peer reviewed and scholarly," she said.

Further, the effort asserts -- in the face of calls for accountability to be demonstrated through testing -- that a discipline takes teaching seriously, but doesn't want to rely just on testing. "Rather than say that we know a university does a good job of teaching because we are giving all of our students a test that may or may not measure what we want," the individual reviews of teaching techniques and tools (all accompanied by evidence of success) speak "to the push for accountability" and show that it is "something we take seriously," she said.

Scott Jaschik

Course Planning for the Fall

Dear colleagues,

If you're thinking about your courses for next fall (which we all are, right?) you may wish to check out the following link, forwarded to me by Leah Joseph:

It's a tutorial for designing courses in the geosciences, but its emphasis on articulating and setting goals, knowing one's students, and course planning, and follow-through could be useful to many of us.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Conversations about Difficult Topics

For anyone who can take a break from grading, the following link might be of interest. And for anyone who's ever struggled with handling a conversation about diversity, this author offers some ideas. Of course, there are many sources on this subject out there, but I appreciated this author's perspective after feeling the challenges of facilitating such discussions recently.

The project Stephanie discusses below contains an inherent connection to those "difficult conversations." How do we talk about the physical or intellectual differences of our student body at Ursinus? How do we foster these conversations among our students?

Next year, the TLI will be sponsoring a series of discussions about pedagogy and diversity. Please stay tuned, and feel free to send feedback/comments/questions along.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Update on TLI Small Grant for Curriculum Innovation

Earlier this spring semester, I applied for and was awarded a Teaching and Learning Initiative small grant to help me develop course materials. This post is an update on my progress with my proposed project, "Going Beyond the Banality of Education-Speak: Bringing Disability Theory to the Education Curriculum." Before I provide an update, however, I have provided an excerpted (slightly revised) version of my proposal.

Overview of Proposal: At present, the Education Department is under pressure from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to incorporate more material about what educationalists call “exceptional learners” into all of our courses; this includes study of gifted and talented students and students with disabilities (physical, emotional, intellectual). The purpose of my project is to add readings to my courses and to create a library of disabilities studies materials that my department colleagues can use in their courses.

While there is a wealth of ready-made material on these topics, our department prefers to take a more liberal arts approach to education, going beyond the banality of much of the discourse in our field to help students think in complex ways about topics for which there are not always easy answers. We tend to prefer primary sources over textbooks, and as a philosopher of education, I prefer to incorporate texts from the humanities into my classes in addition to the more applied social scientific research that is prevalent in Education.
As such, my work on this project has involved delving into the wealth of literature within the humanities and social sciences that problematizes the ways in which we define what it means to be an "exceptional learner" (disabled/able, normal/abnormal etc). Such work, which falls into the fields of literary theory, history, philosophy, anthropology, and disability studies takes a more contextual look at such definitions, considering the ways in which our definitions reflect underlying social, historical, and political values.

Update on progress: At this point, I am about halfway through my project. I have reviewed the following books and selected (or decided against) readings from within them: The Disability Studies Reader, Crazy Like Us, Manufacturing Depression, Foucault and the Government of Disability, and Healing Logics. I am currently in the process of acquiring and reviewing the following works: The Incomplete Child: An Intellectual History of Learning Disabilities, On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth Century America, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, Shyness : how normal behavior became a sickness, and Why are so Many Minority Students in Special Education? I am also still looking for more sources, so if anyone knows of any, please drop me a line.

What next? I managed to incorporate three brief readings from The Disability Studies Reader and Crazy Like Us in my “Foundations of Education” course late this spring.Students responded well to them, so I will likely use them again. I will also incorporate a few more readings into this same course when I teach it again in the fall and hope to use more of these readings next spring when I teach “Intro to Education” and possibly an upper level seminar. Once I have finished reviewing the above texts, I intend to spend my grant money to purchase the ones I think will be most valuable to my department and will create a library of readings in our office area for all to use.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Introducing the Student Consultant Program at the TLI

My name is Nicole Gervasio, and I’m a senior majoring in English and Growth & Structure of Cities at Bryn Mawr College. I’ve been helping Professor Goldsmith put together a Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI) at Ursinus this semester, which is my second as a student consultant.

Before I get into what being a TLI student consultant entails, I’d like to say a bit about what our TLI at Bryn Mawr looks like. Now in its third year, our program has hosted thirty-nine student consultants with an average of seventeen faculty-student partnerships a semester. The TLI seeks to help professors improve their courses by pairing them with student consultants. At Bryn Mawr, faculty also often enlist in a weekly pedagogy seminar that discusses broader issues related to higher education and teaching.

Student consultants attend one session of their faculty partner’s class each week, handwrite or type up observations and reflections from monitoring that class, share those notes with their partner, and give their partner feedback in one-on-one consultations once a week. Although the logistics of these tasks may shift based on the needs and preferences of each faculty member, they are four of the five essential duties of the job. The last would be attending a weekly meeting with fellow student consultants and the TLI coordinator. The meetings provides opportunities for consultants to get to know one another and mull over issues that may be going on in their partnerships together.

Many student consultants share some key traits: a genuine interest in education, a love of learning, insightfulness, a proactive, constructive attitude, compassion, and sensitivity, among many others. If you’re applying to be a student consultant, you probably exhibit many or all of these attributes. Central to the application process are two letters of recommendation, one from a professor and another from a fellow student. It should also be noted that students are not always placed with a discipline with which they are familiar—in fact, coordinators often place English students with physics professors, for example, to give both students and professors entirely new perspectives on learning.

Admittedly, the job isn’t ideal for every college student. It requires intense self-reflection, stamina, and dedication, which can seem daunting on top of your regular coursework. However, most students I know in the TLI (myself included) find that the program offers an inimitable opportunity to think deeply about education, develop ourselves as better learners, and forge some very empowering ties with faculty members in the process.

That said, the TLI also may not be ideal for every faculty member. Having an outside student come into a course and observe a professor’s teaching style, behavior, course structure, and students can be a very challenging experience. There are many times when both students and faculty members may feel vulnerable in the partnership, but that level of discomfort is completely normal—it constantly encourages further dialogue and a mutual willingness to make positive changes happen. Most partnerships also usually overcome this hesitation and evolve into strong, mutually beneficial collaborations.

I would be happy to answer any questions you might have about the TLI. Please feel free to contact me via email at

Monday, March 29, 2010

TLI Common Hour Wrap-Up, Independent Learning Experiences

It's something of a truism that independent research is good for undergraduates. College students today learn much more actively than they did 20 years ago, in large part due to the self-motivated projects we foster. But these projects are fraught with their own challenges. How do different disciplines address the question of how to foster research? How do we encourage independent thinking and work throughout the curriculum, from the first-year core to senior theses? Last Wednesday, the TLI held a Common Hour dedicated to exploring this issue. Thanks to our thoughtful speakers--Lynne Edwards (Media and Communication Studies), Walter Greason (History), and Tony Lobo (Biology)-- and thanks to all of you who gave up your lunch hour to join in the discussion! A brief summary and some questions from the audience follow below:

Walt Greason is an expert on mentoring independent studies and internships,having worked with over 25 students in his six years at Ursinus. Walt began with a discussion of mentoring, especially the challenges of mentoring students at different skill levels and preparing them for longer research projects. He encouraged us to consider the range of preparation of high school and early years of college--even in a class of one, each student will need different tools to come up to speed, and the "speed" will be different for everyone. Walt laid out a structure for independent research with students that I found admirable. He suggested that one might begin with a critical assessment: 1) What do I bring to this project? 2) Develop a clear and sustained plan, with benchmarks and achievements for which students are held accountable. The third step: modeling professionalism--showing the student what you do in your field, as a scholarly practitioner. Finally, Walt noted to the strengths Ursinus faculty bring to mentoring: our map for lessons, from the 50-minute hour to the structure of the semester; our willingness to share our passions with our students; and the institutional support that helps make independent work possible (Summer Fellows, Study Abroad, internships). He also encouraged us to consider areas of improvement: why not consider the campus as classroom? Ursinus College as a lab for urban/suburban development? Walt offers a model for helping students to think critically about their locations as students at a residential college in a rapidly changing suburban landscape; how eye-opening it could be to consider the Collegeville/Montco region as an advantage, rather than an impediment!

While the disparities Walt mentions of skill level, engagement, and sense of inclusion within the college community affect the success of independent research across the board, they are particularly pertinent for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and first-generation college students in a majority white, middle-class institution. Even the act of visiting office hours is laden with cultural capital, as is the level of agency needed to complete an independent project. As faculty members, we should be aware of the obstacles that exist to students' agency--and the self-conscious mentoring Walt discusses models how to meet students half-way.

Lynne Edwards followed with a discussion of inter- and intra-personal challenges that can occur during independent projects. Independent projects, she noted, are required, but can also be transforming, rewarding, and terrifying (to us and to them!). The mandatory nature of the ILE can become another obstacle to agency--students may see these projects as a hurdle rather than an opportunity. To make them less burdensome to us, Lynne made several recommendations: first, is the student passionate and prepared? Have you taught this student before and assessed his/her capacity for self-motivation? (She has a "top secret" assignment to help assess this--but if I described it, she might have to kill me.) Second, Lynne recommended we distinguish between teaching and mentoring--hearing students rather than simply talking to them, and moving toward a dialogic exchange. Lynne also discussed the long-term value of generating student excitement: many of the students who work with us have never imagined the academic life. Some man have never developed their own task, or learned to work from insight, intuition, or a sheer interest in something odd or unusual. Intuition is hard to teach--we've honed ours through years of experience. Yet Lynne showed that it can be modeled, and that modeling can be inspiring.

Tony Lobo wrapped up our discussion by talking about the differences that exist--or appear to exist--between mentoring in the sciences and the other disciplines. Tony considered whether the typical science model, in which students work on an existing project, constitutes an "independent study." In the science model, students are mentored from early to upper-level courses, and upper-level students assume a role in mentoring students earlier along. He then discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this model: there is a focus in this kind of research on products, teaching students to generate results, in order to write a successful grant to fund more research. Is peer mentoring beneficial? (The lab, as Tony noted, is set up like a grad school lab, in which advanced students mentor beginning ones, and the PI is off writing grants--is that a good model for an undergraduate institution?) And--as Lynne mentioned--are students conducting research because they want to, or simply because they have to? Despite Tony's critiques of the lab structure, this made me think about how humanities students, who tend to work in isolation, might benefit from such partnerships.

There were a number of excellent questions that came up, which I would love to hear your opinions about (maybe they could become a topic of a Common Hour next year):

What do you do with students who aren't self-motivated?

Internships: what might you do with them? Becky reminded us that there are all kinds of curiosity, not just academic.

How much independence is necessary to describe something as an ILE? (Projects discussed here ranged from Summer Fellows to a 2 1/2 year project.)

How do others set objectives and learning goals in independent study projects?

After the independent study/internship has taken place, how do you evaluate the student's growth, academically and personally?

There has been a significant shift in the relative importance of research and teaching over the past 2-3 decades (at least in the sciences, maybe more broadly) in undergraduate education. Are we now spending too much time and faculty resources on classroom teaching (at the expense of actual learning)?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review of Teaching Positions by Elizabeth Ellsworth

**The following is the first of occasional book reviews on pedagogy. These books were purchased by the Mellon TLI, and if anyone would like to review a book, please contact Meredith Goldsmith.**

“How should I teach?”

Elizabeth Ellsworth poses this question in the introduction of her book, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address. But if you’re expecting her to answer it with a rundown of pedagogical techniques, you’d be wrong. Instead, Ellsworth’s response comes in the form of a surprising paradox: “Teaching is impossible…and that opens up unprecedented possibilities” (18).

This phenomenon is approached and explained in various ways throughout the text. Decidedly against the limited thinking about education solely as a social science, Ellsworth draws on a multitude of scholarship from fields within the humanities. Her main expertise comes from the area of film studies, but she also cites literary criticism, psychoanalysis, feminisms, and cultural studies.

Ellsworth uses the paradox format as a springboard for discussion and explanation in each chapter. One of her major paradoxes deals with mode of address, a film studies term that asks “Who does this film (or, in terms of education, this curriculum, school, teacher, etc.) think that I am?” The paradox, Ellsworth writes, is that our conscious and unconscious perceptions of our students consciously and unconsciously shape the way we address them, and try as we might, we can never be fully successful in making our students “learn” what we’re trying to communicate to them. In other words, “We teach, with no knowledge or certainty about what consequences our actions as teachers will have” (17).

Ellsworth thus proposes radical revisions to the goal of Western pedagogical thought, which she believes is for students to accumulate knowledge about all there is to know. Instead of answers, she believes in posing “moving questions” and using the technique of juxtaposition to explore the power of discontinuity (13).

For example, she cites an account of an incident where a near-victim of a lynching, James Cameron, sees one of the white men who wanted to kill him happily riding a bicycle with his daughter. Cameron wonders how this carefree man could be the same person as the one he saw capable of such rage and hatred. Ellsworth suggests that this story reveals how “whiteness is always more than one thing…it is never the same thing twice,” and how it is “staged as historically situated and context specific.” She feels that Cameron’s retelling of this story “is pitched to an array of seats in the theater of U.S. race relations” and “those multiple seats are moving.” This broad mode of address “manipulate[s] readers into taking on responsibility for the meanings they make” (156). Taking on responsibility for the meanings we create is an interesting way to think about education, having less to do with traditional “learning” and more to do with acknowledging one’s own participation in creating cultural constructions.

Teaching Positions is a highly complex and theoretical book that is about uncovering the way we think about education, looking for new ways to conceive it through various disciplines in the humanities, and exploring the possibilities those new ways present. Fortunately, however, the book reads much more smoothly than might be expected. It’s clear that Ellsworth, as an educator, is familiar with the effective tactics of storytelling and using examples to demonstrate her points; for example, she contemplates the film Jurassic Park in order to explain mode of address. She also often restates her points in different words in an earnest attempt to be as clear as possible while dealing with complex abstractions.

It’s probably a bit ironic that I’m trying to summarize what I’ve learned from Ellsworth’s book, since she herself states that “any unproblematic, direct, reflective, total exchange of knowledge [is] impossible” (65). However, even if what I’ve taken from Teaching Positions cannot be exactly what Ellsworth had in mind, she is correct in concluding that the impossibility of teaching opens up new possibilities, for what I feel I’ve learned is that I have new things to think about.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Common Hour, March 24

Just a note to announce the next Common Hour sponsored by the TLI, Wednesday March 24th in Pfahler Auditorium:

The topic: Fostering Independent Research Across the Curriculum
Our speakers: Lynne Edwards (Media and Communication Studies); Walter Greason (History); Tony Lobo (Biology)

Our speakers will each discuss their experience of independent research for 5-7 minutes each, and then open the floor for questions. The February Common Hour was dynamic and generative; we hope to see you on March 24th at noon!

Building a Better Teacher (NYT Magazine, 3.2.10)

Last weekend's New York Times Magazine takes up the topic of "Building a Better Teacher," focusing on the innovations in K-12 education documented by Doug Lemov, the director of Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit that starts up and manages urban charter schools. I found several of this article's observations particularly striking:

First, the contrast between good teaching as an innate gift v good teaching practices as identifiable and reproducible techniques. Lemov's contention, as the title has it, is that inborn charisma or dynamism will not simply make one a better teacher. As journalist Elizabeth Green explains,

"There have been many quests for the one essential trait [of good teachers], and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once."

My second observation hinges on the example above: what can we, as college teachers, learn from k-12 instructors? "Standing still" and giving precise directions seem like the simplest things in the world to do, yet we know when we stand in front of the classroom how difficult these things can be. When students don't follow our instructions, is it worth considering how we might convey those instructions more clearly?

The final thing I was struck by has to do with the effort to come up with a kind of knowledge that is specific to classroom teaching, that can be classified as neither "content knowledge" "pedagogical knowledge." As Green writes of the math education specialist (also Dean of the School of Education at the U of Michigan) Deborah Loewenberg Ball:

"...Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. ...Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. 'Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.'”

One might think that here's where the distinction between ourselves and K-12 instructors comes in. Yet many of us may have experienced the struggle to determine, or get past our own assumptions, about what students think and know. Is there a"knowledge for teaching" in our respective disciplines? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this subject.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Generating Student Discussion: TLI Panel Wrap-Up

Dear colleagues,
On Wednesday at noon, the TLI sponsored its first panel, on the ever-popular question of generating student discussion. Our panelists were Stephanie Mackler (Education), Becky Jaroff (English), and April Kontostathis (Education). Thanks to many of you for spending your lunch hour with us! Below, some of the highlights:

Stephanie began by exploring the big questions: why would we ever think discussion is worth having? What would it mean to say "discussion is a way of teaching"?

Here were some potential answers:
*Discussion shifts from disseminating information to developing powers of reasoning, to democratic deliberation. Discussion helps students gain the ability to talk through ideas.
*Discussion helps students practice speaking the language of the disciplines.
*Discussion shifts the discourse for students--it helps them tolerate ambiguity, see that there are differences in perspective, makes clear that for many questions, there are no right answers.

After this introduction, Becky offered some ways to prepare students for discussion. As she noted, students (especially on the lower level) often do not realize that they are responsible for their own learning. Generating knowledge is a communal practice, and we all share responsibility. To help students get started, she recommends:
*study questions--homework; get students writing and thinking before they enter your classroom
*have students bring things in to make the material relevant for themselves (objects from their own lives relevant to your course material)
*give students their day--debates and in-class projects where we be quiet and let the students organize the discussion
*push a little bit (do not be afraid to challenge students--to call on them if a class is silent, to question silences without being humiliating)
*make students grade participation; everyone evaluates the participation habits of others twice over the course of the semester (it was noted that this takes the pressure off professors, allowing for a more productive use of faculty time

April then followed up by explaining how and why she brings discussion into the science classroom.
*as others have mentioned, it shifts pressure from dissemination of information
*connects science to real world issues, making clear to students how the technology they study is used in society.

April mentioned some projects that sounded fascinating to this nonscientist: putting popular science articles on the syllabus, making students experts on these topics in advance, emphasizing creativity (how could you write a compiler, for example?).

In the large group, we discussed some of the challenges of discussion, and everyone had their own ways of dealing with them. The first--what do you do with students who dominate discussion? There were many responses, which included:
*flatter students on their oral skills, ask them to let others speak first
*limit students to a certain number of contributions per class
*ok to ignore someone constantly raising his or her hand
*use a roulette wheel that he spins to choose the next participant (so it really is by chance!)
*both Becky and Stephanie play a game called "popcorn," in which the first participant who answers a question gets to call on the person of his or her choice

The next big question--what do you do when discussions go bad? how do you salvage a failed discussion? This is perhaps the lingering question for many of us--cultivating discussion is linked to larger questions of student engagement. As Lew put it, "What is the magic? When does it happen? How do you cultivate a culture where it is ok not to be bored?" These are big questions, speaking to general problems of generating enthusiasm for students emerging from the K-12 system. We discussed a variety of approaches: "being the magic," as Erec put it--letting our own enthusiasm bubble over the students; exercises that allow students to take a stand through adopting a role; and the barometer exercise, in which students have to move around the class to physically inhabit a position they have taken. Our discussion Wednesday began by considering the value of discussion writ large, and ended with a burst of spontaneous enthusiasm, as faculty around the room offered their methods of getting students excited. Perhaps "Generating discussion" and generating enthusiasm can be mutually constitutive, one leading to the other and back again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thursday Link Round-Up: Focus on Student Learning at Ursinus

So it is week 4 of the semester, and as we dig out from the snow, it might be a good time to remind ourselves why we take on this onerous task of teaching. Cultivating our own best practices improves student learning, and reflecting on our own goals can help students articulate theirs. The links you will find below are all part of national efforts to develop stated, attainable, and assessable goals for best practices in undergraduate liberal education. A bit of information follows each link.

Many people on campus know that we are currently involved in a Teagle Foundation cross-campus study on teaching and diversity. However, the Teagle does much more.
The Teagle Foundation, according to its mission statement,

"provides leadership for liberal education, marshalling the intellectual and financial resources necessary to ensure that today's students have access to challenging, wide-ranging, and enriching college educations. We believe that the benefits of such learning last for a lifetime and are best achieved when colleges develop broad and intellectually stimulating curricula, engage their students in active learning, explore questions of deep social and personal significance, set clear goals, and—crucially—systematically measure progress toward them."

The last part of that sentence is, indeed, "crucial." In browsing around the Teagle web site, I've been impressed by the movement toward action that marks all their activities--discussions move to publications, publications to campus action, campus action back to cross- and inter-campus discussion. From what I have read so far, their materials are of a high quality, well-written, stimulating, and refreshingly free of jargon. The questions they grapple with are the ones we struggle with daily: what is the purpose of a liberal arts education? how can we advance student learning so that all students can be as empowered as possible? how can we use the unique qualities of the small college environment to advance student learning, yet encourage students to make connections to the larger world?

Here are some selections from their site:
The National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a three-year series of workshops on (guess what?) the future of liberal education

Here's a link to the Teagle White Papers, including a new one on civic engagement.
Note: you must download these documents from the White Paper link.

You may also wish to examine the LEAP (Liberal Education and America's Promise) blog--written by guest bloggers from educational institutions around the country. It is dedicated to a reflective discussion about "'liberal education' - how it is changing, why it is so important in today's world, and what people are saying about it around the country and the world.

There are also some forthcoming conferences you might find interesting, two of which are just down the road in Philadelphia:

Faculty Roles in High-Impact Practices, 25-27 March 2010, Philadelphia (Hyatt Regency Penn's Landing), sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. From their web site:

The conference calls attention to "high-impact practices"--including undergraduate research, service-learning, first-year and capstone projects/programs, and learning communities—that by their nature require students to be actively involved in their own learning. This conferences brings together "faculty members seeking innovative, robust, and practical designs for learning, teaching, and assessment approaches proven to deepen student engagement, and a network of engaged colleagues" and "administrators and others on campus looking to support and partner with faculty to advance the use of high-impact practices" throughout their campus communities.

Highlights include a Keynote on "Academic Excellence and Civic Engagement: Constructing a Third Space for Higher Education," and (my favorite title so far): "How Teachers Need to Deal with the Seen, the Unseen, the Improbable, and the Nearly Imponderable." Reading the AAC&U's discussion of "high-impact teaching practices," I'm struck by how nay of these we are already doing. The conference sounds like a great opportunity to learn how faculty at other institutions are engaging with similar questions, and to share what we have gleaned with the larger educational community.

Deadline for registration: March 1.

The AAC&U is also sponsoring the 20th anniversary meeting of the Institute on General Education and Assessment, 40-9 June 2010 (at U of Vermont-Burlington). The Institute focuses on helping institutions develop clear, coherent goals for general education, and includes a special emphasis on assessment. The deadline for this one is coming up soon!: February 19, 2010.

Greater Expectations Institute, 15-18 June 2010 (Vanderbilt U, Nashville TN)
aims to make teaching excellence inclusive, as colleges help "prepare far more Americans for success in a globally interdependent society." This institute underscores efforts to "make excellence inclusive," focusing particularly on underserved populations--students of color, of low-income backgrounds, of the first generation of their families to attend college. Given the changing demographic of American college students and our historic commitment to egalitarian education, Ursinus faculty might find this institute very productive. Deadline for team application submission: March 12, 2010.

Engaging Departments Institute, 7-11 July 2010, Philadelphia. The Institute "offers campus teams intensive, structured time to advance plans to foster, assess, and improve student learning within departments and acorss the institution." Bringing together teams of deans, department chairs and faculty members in collaboration, it aims to "advance integrative and engaged learning across disciplines." Deadline for team application: March 19, 2010.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Many of us have spoken to our students about their not-so-successful (and admittedly, often annoying) efforts at multi-tasking. Some of feel like we might have to multitask, all too often, ourselves. And then there's "texting-and-driving." This weekend, the Chronicle of Higher Ed took up the issue. As David Glenn writes,

"Students' minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has" ("Divided Attention," CHE 1.31.10).

Citing a study by Stanford psychologists Clifford Nass et al., Glenn worries about whether students' attentional habits have fundamentally changed. But there are opposing views. According to contemporary literature scholar N. Katherine Hayles,

"One of the basic tenets of good teaching is that you have to start where the students are....And once you find out where they are, a good teacher can lead them almost anywhere. Students today don't start in deep attention. They start in hyper attention. And our pedagogical challenge will be to combine hyper attention with deep attention and to cultivate both. And we can't do that if we start by stigmatizing hyper attention as inferior thinking" ("Divided Attention").

Read the rest of the article here. And here's a little quiz on how well we multitask, courtesy of the New York Times. What do you think? Should we attempt to stem the tide, forbidding laptops from our classrooms among other measures? How do we adapt to students who conceive of attention, work, reading, and communication in fundamentally new ways? I'd love to hear your comments, as we eat, prep, and grade our way to this morning's faculty meeting. And please don't text-and-drive...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Class Discussions

Before I begin, I just wanted to introduce myself to those of you who don’t know me: my name is Cara Saraco, I’m a senior English major (advisee of Dr. Goldsmith’s), and I’m also getting certified in secondary education. Last semester, I student taught 8th, 9th, and 12th graders.

While I was student teaching, one of the things I was most nervous about was developing good class discussions. Though a discussion is typically regarded as a highly successful pedagogical tool, it’s also (in my opinion) one of the most difficult things for a teacher to pull off. I wanted to be the teacher who facilitated the kinds of illuminating dialogues in her class that I’ve experienced as a student, but I also remembered all too well the many attempts of my former teachers to spark a discussion that completely failed. Over those three months of student teaching, where everything I did was pretty much an experiment, I learned some things that can help to create an active and meaningful class discussion; these techniques are also practiced by the best professors I've had at Ursinus:

1.Scaffolding. It’s hard to get a discussion going if students aren’t already prepared with some thoughts. If you are going to be discussing texts, it’s helpful to set a purpose for reading so that they come into class having already considered the text. While the 8th graders I taught read Steinbeck’s The Pearl, I had them note quotations that responded to three “essential questions” for the unit. When we finally had our discussion of the novel as a whole, they had plenty of textual support to refer to and had been considering these questions throughout the reading.
2.Good questions. Questions should be intriguing and debatable. Though there’s likely an understanding you want your students to arrive at, questions should also reveal misconceptions.
3.Don’t ask a question that you don’t really want an answer to. Students can tell when a question isn’t really important, and will not feel like responding.
4.Wait Time. Studies have shown that teachers typically wait only for about 1 second before calling on a student, which is understandable: the silence is terrifying. However, it’s important to keep in mind that students need time to think, especially when you’re hitting them with some pretty heavy stuff, and if you wait just 3 to 5 seconds before calling on someone, more hands will go up and answers will be more substantial. I no one is raising their hand, don’t give in to the silence immediately. It might feel horribly awkward to stand there in silence, but it feels awkward for the students too, and sooner or later someone will feel obligated to break the silence.
5.If a student asks a question, resist the temptation to answer it yourself. Put it back out to the class to see if another student can answer it before you do.
6.Don’t be afraid to break away from your agenda. If a discussion is thriving and it’s intellectual, it’s good to hold off from predetermined questions and not worry too much about getting back to your plans.
7.Classroom arrangement. It may seem silly to force students to make their desks into a true circle, but it really does help. My most successful discussion with the seniors I taught occurred when we pushed all the desks to the sides of the room and sat in a circle on the floor.
8.Knowing and using students’ names. Making the effort really does pay off.

Dr. Goldsmith and I would like to hear your thoughts and experiences as well about this tricky topic.
• In your opinion, what constitutes a good discussion? What are some ways you’ve facilitated good discussions?
• What to you constitutes good questions? How do you develop them?
• What do you do if a discussion fails?
• Why is discussing good? When is it not good?
• For those of you who have students use discussion forums online, how do you get students to respond to each other rather than just posting their individual thoughts? (I tried doing a blog with the seniors, and the most common problem I found was that students didn’t read and respond to their peers’ comments).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tomorrow's Prof

Some of you may already read Tomorrow's Professor (a blog run by MIT and Stanford to discuss issues in higher education). If not, I encourage you to check it out!

If you use journals in your courses, you might be interested in TP's recent discussion of the subject. The author explains the benefit of student journals -- they get students actively reflecting on their reading for your courses--but provides some creative solutions to the problems journals pose (i.e., the feeling that you have to grade and comment on them). I know I might be making some revisions to my journaling policy based on this article.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Anyone, Anyone"?: A Panel Discussion Sponsored by the TLI

Do you ever feel like your classes are like this?

As our student blogger mentions, everyone has days when it feels like discussion rocks, and some days when it just doesn't work. Newer faculty might be adapting to a range of different class preps, class sizes, and student discussion styles and capabilities. For all of us, though, generating discussion can be a challenge. The TLI's first Common Hour will address this issue--please join us for "Anyone, Anyone?": Thoughts on Generating Class Discussion. Panelists will include Becky Jaroff (English), April Konstosthatis (Education), and Stephanie Mackler (Education), and all of them, I promise, are MUCH more interesting than Ben Stein.

Where: Pfahler 108
When: Feb 17, 12 noon

Introducing...Student Consultants

This semester, as part of the TLI, I am participating in the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Faculty Pedagogy Seminar, in which faculty meet weekly to discuss pedagogical challenges and continue their conversations on a blog. So far, I am enjoying it immensely--the opportunity to meet faculty from other school in other disciplines offers a vivid reminder that teaching challenges are both perennial and universal. There's no such thing as a perfect class, perfect students, or a perfect teacher--all the more reason, though, to think critically and reflectively on this challenging thing we do every day.

In addition, the Bryn Mawr TLI hooked me up with a Student Consultant, a student who has been trained to serve as a source of structured, supportive feedback on faculty classes. My Consultant, Nicole Gervasio (Bryn Mawr '10) will visit my class once a week and meet with me regularly to comment on the progress of the class. She came for the first time today (in the middle of a fire drill, no less), and I was happy to see how comfortable my students swiftly became with her presence. (Me, however--that was another matter.) The Student Consultants are paid for their work, take a weekly seminar in which they discuss their own responsibilities, and are mentored by the Bryn Mawr TLI Director (Alison Cook-Sather, Education). It is my hope that after piloting the process with Nicole this semester, next fall I can begin to train consultants for Ursinus. FYI: students sign a strict confidentiality agreement--they agree not to discuss what transpires in a class or their meetings with faculty members with students, or with anyone else. Their comments have absolutely no role in the tenure process. Such students could be excellent resources for us--dedicated to attending a class throughout the semester, they have more time than faculty are often able to provide, as well as a difference in perspective.

Do you have a student you think would make a good consultant? I'm hoping to establish a pipeline this semester. Students need not be academically exceptional, but they should be strong students with a capacity to think reflectively about their learning. Please contact me if you'd like more information, or if you'd like to pass a name along.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What Can the TLI Do for You?

*co-ordinate mentoring for new and new-ish faculty members
*co-ordinate classroom observations
*facilitate panels for faculty to discuss a wide variety of aspects of teaching
*help you integrate a new approach (technological, artistic, you name it!) into your teaching
*provide feedback and support for new faculty, completely separate from the tenure process

What are some of our larger goals?

*to foster discussion about teaching and learning for faculty at every stage of their careers
*to encourage students' participation within the Ursinus community as active, engaged learners
*to house and make available information about best teaching practices at Ursinus College and elsewhere
*to support and honor the hard work that Ursinus faculty engage in every day

What the TLI won't do:

*impose a top-down model of teaching "excellence," or imply that one approach to pedagogy is superior to any other

For more information about the TLI, please feel free to contact Meredith

Thursday, January 21, 2010

TLI Advisory Group -- who are we?

Five faculty members graciously agreed to serve on the TLI Advisory Committee: Chris Aiken, April Konstostathis, Stephanie Mackler, Heather O'Neill, and Jenn Van Gilder. Drawn from across the disciplines, each one brings expertise in his or her field and a wealth of experience. However, each also brings a commitment to the critical, reflective, and passionate practice of teaching. I look forward to our continued collaboration.

What Did You Do on the First Day of Class?

It's day 4, and the semester already feels well (and disturbingly) under way. What do (or did) you do on the first day of class? How did it go? Here's a link with some recommendations. For clarification, while the link is housed at U of Hawaii, the material is actually written by Joyce Povlacs's, at the University of Nebraska.

Do any of these sound useful? I'd love to know what others do on Day One--please feel free to comment!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Small Grant Competition

The TLI has approximately four small grants to offer (500$ each) for faculty pursuing an innovative pedagogy project either this semester or next fall (the grants area available for year of 2010). These grants provide incentive and support for the hard work, critical reflection, and and creativity we bring to our courses at Ursinus. Here are a few examples of what the grants could support:
*integrating some new software or technology into one of your courses
*a course-related partnership - with another faculty member, at UC or at another institution (a co-written blog? a sustained listserv/e-mail exchange?)
*the time involved to visit another faculty member's courses on a routine basis, with a consideration of the implications for your own teaching
*integrating the arts (or the sciences, or any major extradisciplinary element) into one of your courses
*integrating an off-campus component (including travel) into a course
*bring us your ideas--be creative!

One-page proposals are due February 12 for this coming semester, and April 1 for the fall semester. At the end of the semester, we request a one-page write-up of your project. These one-page write-ups will be available on line to colleagues who may apply for grants themselves in the future.

In the Spring and Fall of 2011, there will be eight grants available. So if your schedules are already crowded for this year, please consider planning ahead!

Welcome to the TLI blog!

Dear Colleagues,
Thank you for your frank, thoughtful responses to the survey. Just a few words to update you on our latest activities:

Based on your requests, we are organizing the following events for the Spring semester:
*a Common Hour on generating discussion at UC (February 17)
*a Common Hour on dealing with "problem students" (March 24)

Feb 17 panelists: April Konstosthatis and Stephanie Mackler