Friday, May 26, 2017

How to Melt Snowflakes--or maybe harden them up

Good interview of a person I just learned about.  This is the kind of Republican and republican we need.  Not whatever passes for one in Washington now.


The other day one of my students was talking about his job at Walmart.  He said customers bring their dogs into Walmart all the time.

"You mean service dogs, right?" I tried to clarify.

"No, just dogs.  I just leave them alone," he answered. 

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Walmart just lets them, and we leave them alone.  I'm not getting in trouble over someone's dog."

I was flabbergasted.  What are these people thinking?  Why would you think bringing a dog into a grocery store is your right or need?

First, I grew up when dogs, except for what was called "seeing-eye dogs" never went anywhere.  Second, dogs are not all house-trained and might go when they feel the urge.  Yuck.  Who gets to clean that up?  Third, children often walk up to dogs they don't know and get friendly--they shouldn't but they do.  As the owner and daily walker of a pitbull, I am extremely vigilant about children who have not been trained that all dogs are not sweet puppies and they should give strange dogs a wide berth.  Fourth, dogs are still ultimately wide animals; yes, they are thousands of years removed from wolves, but they are still genetically very, very, very close.  They sometimes just do crazy, wild things.

Even more, can these people not live without their dogs for the time it takes to go into Walmart (which, admittedly, can sometimes be long and is never pleasant, for people or dogs?)

But . . . now I have been told that students can bring pets to class not because of a clear disability (I had such a student last year, and her beautiful dog was a joy to behold), but because of a need for comfort. 

Add to this the most bizarre article I've read on Breakpoint in a while: Dog boomers 

I truly am afraid that not just the twenty-somethings but older people are becoming totally unable to cope with life and find alternatives that would have been scoffed at forty years ago.  Self-medicating, not being able to go anywhere without a pet, trigger warnings, seeing offense in everything, microagressions.  Is it going to get worse or are we going to get real?

I read that 28 Coptic Christians were killed today in Egypt.  Yet Americans have to have their puppies with them all the time.  Nowhere have I ever been so confronted with the differences in the West and the rest of the world. 

I'm going to write my Compassion Child in Rwanda now and be reminded of reality.

The Socratic Method and Getting in Trouble as a Professor

Excellent article in Inside Higher Education, which I read more than The Chronicle of Higher Education simply because IHE comes to my box everyday for free, but I also find the articles valuable.

This writer works in the same system I do and I know his situation.  I also have had the same kind of thing happening.

Sometimes when we play "devil's advocate" we are both trying to challenge critical reflection and expressing a viewpoint, or a half-way one.  I had a student skewer me on a student evaluation a few years back because I had the nerve to suggest that being a stripper was not a good career choice for women.

What I get from this is the granularity and care we must take with our language.  I am very guilty of letting my subconscious speak.  Sometimes this serves me well with some amazingly creative insights.  Other times I put my foot in it, and I'm not talking about my mouth.

At the same time, I agree with his syllabus disclaimer, and it should be common practice.  The students must be clearly told that their perception of a racist or sexist or otherwise offensive comment may be totally and only their perception and based on their own experiential biases. I will be doing that for my next f2f syllabus. 

It is odd to me that we encourage the students to express their own viewpoints and allow them to do so  but they would get upset in a discussion if the instructor does it, assuming the instructor (and this is important) frames it as his/her viewpoint and not as absolute, finalized truth.  Such a reaction on their parts is both a function of their immaturity and the snowflake condition, which is my next post. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Myth of Easy

Having recently finished leading a (small) book group with colleagues on Mindset by Carol Dweck, I have a few thoughts--well, more than a few, but I'll just share the most useful, in my thinking.

First, I would recommend the work of Angela Duckworth and David Yeager.  This video on YouTube is a good start: 

This is one of many you could find (Angela has done Ted Talks and is the "grit" lady) but I think this one combines them in a coherent way.  I heard David Yeager speak at AASCU last year and he has a lot to say to serious college teachers.  By serious college teachers I mean those who really want to attain student learning outcomes and are willing to set aside ego and biases to achieve that goal.

My major take away from Mindset: the myth of easy

Learning is supposed to be fun, right?  And everyone can be whatever they want to be, right?  And everyone should have great self-esteem on the basis of just being, right?  Without having actually achieved anything, right?

Self-worth and self-esteem are two different things, by the way, and from a theological standpoint the first comes from the IMAGO DEI.  I mean, where else would it come from?  The other narrative is that we are biological products of natural selection anyway,  with no intelligence behind that selection other than the process itself.

Self-esteem needs a basis.  And that gets into the myth of easy.

If learning is easy, than it can't be hard.  If learning is hard, than I must not be good at something.  If I am not naturally good at something, there is no reason for me to spend time on it.

Math is hard.  Biology is hard.  Learning to write cogently is hard.  Because they are hard, I must not be good at them, because they would come easily to me if I were good at it.  So, I shouldn't have to do it.

Anyone who has taught difficult classes to freshmen (Writing, Public speaking, algebra, biology, a foreign language) has heard some variation on this.  Since I teach the first twp, especially public speaking, I heard versions of it quite a bit.

The fault lies in the presupposition that LEARNING IS EASY.  It is not. It was never intended to be easy and is in fact not, not from a psychological, biological, or social standpoint.

Duckworth points out that learning comes from powering through (that's the grit) periods of confusion.  Without the confusion, there has been no learning because it's already known.  This parallels Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, which I think is an important theoretical perspective.

We need to stop portraying learning, at any age, as easy.  It is hard and it's hardness has nothing to do with one's ability to do it or its value.

I am reminded of the research about people who believe in soul mates having more divorces.  Your soul mate is not supposed to present any challenges or problems in the marriage.  If there is a problem, the person is not your soulmate; you made a mistake, so you must divorce that person and go find the real soulmate.  This is the plot of almost every Hollywood rom-com, where the protagonists are in relationships with others but break up  to be with the right ones. The "break up' partner is always clearly flawed in some way and the "right one" is always perfect, unflawed.

The point is that since love with your soulmate (a strange concept, really), see here is supposed to be easy and not hard, it's just right to jump ship than to work through relationship problems like an adult.

Years ago my husband wanted to get into snow skiing.  I learned it.  It was hard.  I did get to a minimal proficiency.  There was some enjoyment in it, but not really.  I mean seriously--it's cold, the boots are painful, the likelihood of injury is high, and it's darn expensive.  So, ultimately, despite the learning, I don't ski any more and don't plan to, especially the way my back is now (which may have gotten bad from the skiing).  Learning is not easy.

Now, in terms of the Mindset book, we decided in the group that it was too black and white, that it portrayed people as either being in a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.  This is way simplistic.  I think it's a range, and it's contextual/situational, and it's a tendency rather than an "always reaction."  I may have a growth mindset and have failure set backs but find that resiliency after a period of time.  I may be growth about somethings and fixed about others.  I may be 75% growth and 25% fixed.  Life is not as simple as this book portrays.

If I know anything, life is complicated.  And the myth of easy doesn't help.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tribal Leadership

Reading this book because it was recommended by a higher up at the college who wanted to lead a book group on it, and the book group is this week.  I am slow to recommend books like this, but I found it helpful.  It took me a while to get into it, and it’s pretty anecdotal and of course, like all these books presents its ideas as the salvation of the organizational world. 
Essentially, it posits five levels for organizations.
Stage 1 – Members say, “Life sucks.”
Stage 2 – Members say, “My life sucks.”
Stage 3 – Some members say, “My life is great.”  Here we have people performing well but only for themselves.
Stage 4 – Members say, “We are great,” which is an us-them mentality but is preferable to Stage 3, where everyone is about themselves and their own success.  At this stage the leaders have had epiphanies that show them the organization is bigger than individual members, etc.  Sort of a Jack Mezirow transformative learning thing.
Stage  5 – We don’t have to worry about being great because we are not about ourselves or beating the competition, but about serving the greater good, the globe, etc.  Sort of like Maslow’s self-actualization level. 
Since I recently read Carol Dweck’ Mindset, I couldn’t help seeing the connections with that book, which I do recommend although I wish she had put more scholarship into it.   

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Academic Freedom

I take a very conservative view of Academic Freedom.  By that I mean that as far as free speech for the faculty member in the classroom, the less the better.  This is odd for me because I am libertarian in regard to free speech, but I also know the issues of power in the classroom and that the classroom has one goal, and that is not to allow the professor to spout off and pontificate.

The goal of the classroom is student learning, not indocrination into a faculty member's viewpoints.   There is too much to do in a classroom to spend time on your own tangents. 

Does this mean the faculty member is a blank slate, with not opportunities for self-expression?  Of course not.  We should be and are free to state our opinions, as long as we present them as such.  And we all know faculty who state their opinions as facts and as the sum total of the issue.  Admit it.  Just because you agree with someone's viewpoint doesn't mean it isn't their viewpoint.

Likewise, self-disclosure must be minimal, and that includes the use of foul language.  While some students will think a faculty member who uses profanity is "cool," more or many will think it unwise, intemperate, or unnecessary. And of course, some won't even notice.   Some might, reasonably, find the use of the f word sexist and violating.  

I will probably make some mad with this, but too many college professors treat the classroom as a floorshow about themselves or their ideas rather than engaging the students in real learning, and then we complain when the students don't meet the learning outcomes.

Am I a hypocrite in this regard?  My only violation might be to tell personal stories that have a point in the content, and I imagine some of those stories work and others don't.  It was hard during this last election not to say both candidates were horrendous.  Actually, I probably did.  So,yes, I am human and probably hypocritical, but I don't think academic freedom protects me. 

Reflective Practice as a High Impact Practice

The following is an excerpt from a guidebook I am co-authoring with colleagues on implementing High Impact Practices in a classroom.  I wrote this part so I think it's ok to post; our final book is going to be an open resource anyway and under Creative Commons.  This section is under the part on one of the quality matrices, "Periodic and structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning."

 One of the examples of this essential element, provided by the AAC&U literature, is “A capstone course in which students submit a portfolio and explain the relative contributions of the artifacts contained therein that represent the knowledge and proficiencies attained at various points during their program of study.”  Although this is one way to use reflection in a significant way, there are many ways that reflection can be used.  Unfortunately, reflection is a word more talked about than understood and done, as Shakespeare would say, “a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Reflection is a buzz word today but little is said about how to facilitate reflection.  If we are to follow David Kolb’s model of learning, based on Dewey’s, there must first be something to reflect upon, specifically, an experience.  (see Image 2). Reflection does not exist for its own sake, but for future experience and use of the learning. 

Students should also be educated to use reflection that is critical, in the sense that the student should be using the reflective episode to question prior assumptions he/she held about the content of learning, about him/herself, and about the discipline and knowledge construction (learning).   Reflection is a method that can aid the student not only to assimilate the knowledge into existing frameworks of understand but also to accommodate or transform existing frameworks to the new knowledge (as per Piaget’s theory of assimilation and accommodation in learning).  Reflection can therefore aid the student in moving up the hierarchy of Bloom’s/Krathwohl’s taxonomy of learning.

The Western practice of and belief in the power of reflection is based in the Socratic advice to know oneself and that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  It is a way of helping students find their places in and response to the world.  Reflection has a strong subjective component, and unfortunately the student often interprets the task of “reflection” as focusing mainly or totally on the subjective, personal experience and not the objective, corporate experience.  In other words, the emphasis is “I,” not “it” or “we” or “others.”  The personal is part of reflection, but not all.  Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning should not be interpreted as an expectation that the students should wallow in or privilege their own opinions, but that they should think deeply and critically about various facets of an experience, not just their immediate emotional, ethical, or cultural reaction.

Students, especially college students in their first two years, are usually unaware of methods for reflecting.  Sometimes their “reflections” are skeletal and superficial, although in my experiences some students who are more verbal or more introverted will produce more in-depth or at least verbose reflections. Some students mistake “giving my opinion or personal response to something” as reflection on an experience or classroom event.  It is common practice to use prefabricated prompts from a textbook or other sources to instigate the reflection.  It might be a valuable long-term project to instill in students a taxonomy of reflection, or methodology, so that when they are told to “reflect” they have the tools to do so.

Such taxonomies exist.  A good grounding in Bloom’s taxonomy and Krathwohl’s and Anderson’s revision of it is a basis. Peter Pappas takes Bloom’s as his inspiration for his taxonomy of reflection (Image 3).  Although Pappas works mostly with public secondary students and teachers, the model gives a sense of how reflection could be structured, and therefore more assessable.

The word “assessable” brings us to the real gist of the matter and the essential element.  What does the faculty member do with the reflection? How is it “graded?” It is not unusual for faculty to read reflections, make a few comments as needed, give a check mark, and move on.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it should not be the goal, especially in upper division courses.  A reflection paper of any length should be expected to follow a structure that examines various aspects and is graded with a rubric and sufficiently weighted in terms of grades, since the writing and revision task itself is iterative, reflective, and basic to critical thinking. 

And of course, not all reflective tasks are equal.  If an instructor shows a controversial video in class wherein a filmmaker or speaker makes an argument, the reflective task there might focus on rhetorical elements.  On the other hand, if in a psychology course the instructor enacts a role play of a famous experiment, that reflective task may look different.  However, in referring to Pappas and Kolb, the first step would be to get students to clearly, nonjudgmentally review what really happened and the facets of its meaning before moving on to the validity of the claims, the biases of the speaker or the audience, and the connection or application to reality.  Image 4 gives an example of a taxonomy that might be useful for a rhetorical video.

Question 1
Question 3
What is being said (and not?) (understanding)
What does it mean? (interpretation)
What can I do with this information or insight? (application)
Why is this important? (value)
Why should I accept his position? (logic of his arguments)
Why would I be biased against this position? (questioning my assumptions)
How did the speaker get to this position/idea/view? (is he/she honest about it?)
Could the speaker be leaving out something? (his/her biases)
How does the speaker support his/her ideas? (persuade us?)

Another, element of reflection is the communication mode.  Is it best for the student to do reflection in written form for only the instructor and him/herself, in written form only for self, in written form for others, in oral mode to the whole class or to just a small group, or simply internal?  This is a difficult question, related to the level of the controversy involved, perceived threat of retaliation in a grade, perception of the subjective nature of reflection, introversion-extroversion of the student, cultural experiences of the students, and diversity in processing modes or learning styles.  Being asked to reflect doesn’t mean that the student will come to fully formed conclusions in a few minutes.  It might make more sense to focus on the process of reflection than the outcomes or conclusions.

Writing or stating something publicly in our culture is seen as a commitment one is held to and judged by.  A student expected to reflect out loud or in a public way might still be processing and unready to commit to a viewpoint; it’s still tentative, nascent, and undeveloped. At the same time, we could argue that telling students to reflect without a permanent record of it is truly as waste of time. They might as well be told to plan what they are going to eat for lunch or what Netflix show they will watch that evening.  Writing, even for the self, involves the brain actively far more than just speaking or keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.  The weight of the assignment and relationship to the course’s student learning outcomes also enter into the communication mode chosen.  

Related to this question is whether the instructor himself or herself is willing to engage in the same type of reflection and honesty and to recognize his/her assumptions that might need testing.  If the instructor’s goal in reflective assignments is to get the students ultimately to agree with his/her viewpoints, then there is a problem.  Students often perceive the reflective task this way and decide that the best method is to give the instructor what is wanted for a grade rather than be honest.

In conclusion, reflection has many values and should be an integral part of whatever High Impact Practice utilized in the course; however, its use should be strategic, intentional, assessable, and facilitated with training students with ways to reflect.