Saturday, December 9, 2017

What is College Good For? Linked article

One more voice in a repubtable publication calling for educating young people for technical careers rather than liberal arts education.  If that's all that college is about--getting a job--then it's foolish to send everyone to college.  Trust me, they aren't getting it and are wasting their time.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

College Pedagogy: Two fascinating articles on why it isn't working


My takeaways:
1.  Learning is individual in many ways, so an instructor should use more than one method for a "unit" or "lesson" or "concept." 
2.  Students must be empowered in their first years and continually with understanding the learning process for themselves and using it, and this is must more than their "learning style" (which is not supported by research anyway).
3.  Less is more.  In a world of growing research and knowledge explosion, we have to cull our disciplines down to the most essentials and perhaps restructure the curriculum or process of our fields.
4.  If one works in faculty development, as I do, one should make his/her dealings with instructors as individualized as the instructors will have to do with learners. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Biggest Detriment of Student Evaluations

I have written elsewhere on student evaluations.  This is the first day of final exams for my institution, so I had to remind my students this morning that it is also the last day for them to complete the online evaluations. 

I could write a volume on this process, and perhaps one day I will, because I plan to write a book entitled Inspirational Teaching in an Age of Assessment. 

Student evals have their place.  They can be of value in quality improvement for the individual teacher if the instrument is good and comments are looked at more than numbers.  They also alert administrators (like me) to patterns of problems.  If one student says the professor is a jerk (as has happened to me), I don't care.  If ten do in a year, that means something.

There are many things wrong with student evals.  They commodify education, the opinions of 18-year-olds are given too much weight, and they should never be used as the primary method of assessment of an instructor.   But I want to mention here what I think is the worst. 

They stifle innovation in teaching, and they cause us to teach from a position of fear.

An instructor with good evaluations knows that if he or she tries something different--high impact practices, for example--it may not work, and that might lead to student complaints and lower evals.

I say this because I led a session on high impact practices yesterday (I'm working on a guidebook about it with some colleagues).  Two professors who had piloted a high impact approach this semester talked about the major push back from students.  One had used collaborative learning in a basic psychology class, and it sounded like a well designed project; the other had used service learning in a social media communication class.  In the second, the students had resented having to help nonprofits with their social media strategies; however, by the end of the semester they had changed their tunes and saw how much their help was needed by these organizations. 

In both cases the instructors (both women) expressed real concern about how this would affect their evals.  I believe this is a real issue for consideration by higher education administrators if they want innovation and course redesign. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Very interesting article on disparity in higher education

For anyone who studies higher education trends, I found this interesting, including the comments.  I teach at one of the non-selective institutions and our funding is problematic (I wanted to say atrocious, but I won't). HeeHee.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Advice for (New) College Administrators

Let me start by saying I have an administrative job in a college and have had them in the past.  Let me also say this "advice" (re: warnings) is from wide experience and reading and not directed at any one institution.

First, I do not understand why administrators who are new to an organization think they know more about the institution than those who have spent their professional lives there.  Likewise, I don't understand why they would seek to change "things" (structures, programs, positions, etc.) in the institution until they have spent ample time knowing everything they can about the organization.  Listening is the first job of a new leader.

Sure, maybe a few of the organizational members will be crackpots, but most have a clear-eyed view of things from where they sit, and maybe of things as a whole.  A person who has worked at a institution for twenty years should be an asset, not an obstacle.

Second, follow (at least some of) that advice from the long-termers.  The faculty and staff are not your enemies.  If they are, maybe you are part of the problem because you did not do your first job of listening (i.e., gathering data).  Lest you forget, it is the faculty who are carrying out the mission of the college.  You will not be remembered by the students; the faculty member who offered tutoring after class will be. 

Third, "change for change's sake and growth for growth's sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell."  An administrator who wants to change a lot of things is perceived as resume building. 

Fourth, I used to be guilty (in my naivete) of thinking that administrators were just smarter than the non-administrators, as if they had learned the secret handshake or joined a secret club with all kinds of esoteric knowledge when they entered an administrative job.  Since I have been long taught to reject gnosticism in theology, I'll choose to reject it in higher education practice.  Nonadministrators have access to all the same policy information that administrators do.

Transparency would really help lessen that wall between administrators and faculty.  I perceive administrators as holding on to their secret knowledge as a power play and as a statement that they are inherently smarter than the faculty, who, by the way, have the same degrees as the administrators and are just as smart.

The difference is that faculty prefer, in general, to deal first-hand with students and to develop their discipline.  I love being in the classroom and working with students more than I love sitting in another meeting, so for now I choose to do both; I do like to make a difference at the institutional level and work cross-disciplinarily, which is discouraged in most colleges.

My point is that in my years in higher ed we have often quipped "He went to the dark side" about someone who became an administrator.   Granted, administrators work longer hours and put up with more crap.  They also make a lot more money (I know from experience; I made close to six digits one year as an administrator, and going back to faculty was a significant pay cut).  Faculty and administration should grow past this "dark side"/us-them mentality.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Prescription for College Student Retention and Graduation

My institution's faculty and staff were treated to a very good presentation from a system bigwig on Friday.  He prescribed the following recipe for retention and graduation (this is my version of his prescriptions).

1.  Nine hours of major-related courses in first year.
2.  Growth mindset (not just that the student has a growth mindset but that he/she perceived the faculty believes he/she has a growth mindset)
3.  30 hours finished in first year (can include summer school)
4.  Students' understanding their major choices
5.  Complete required English and Math (because they won't go any further without them).  Mathematician organizations all support that students take the math relevant to their discipline.
6.  Feeling connected to the institution and that they belong (how many students feel that "they just don't belong here" for whatever reasons?)
7.  Give them confidence to interact with faculty and staff.
8.  Ensure they understand the purposes of courses they are taking to their major/careers.

I am a firm believer in faculty development (to ensure #2, #4, #8, primarily, but the others are connected) and in high-quality onboarding of students before Day 1 in the classroom. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Don't Send Your Kid to College

Yes, that is my title.  It is my firm belief, too.  Read the whole thing before getting mad.

And it may seem strange from someone who has worked in higher education for forty years and has three graduate degrees. I don't write this post because I am against higher education or because it hasn't had a place in my life.  It's central to who I am (but not the core).  I love what I do, where I work, the blessing of working with my students and colleagues, and the exploration of ideas.

I believe in  higher education's promise for America and for individuals.  

But I still believe in the advice in the title, and I will deal with this topic in two parts:

First, don't send your kid to COLLEGE.

Second, don't SEND your kid to college.

First.  College is not for everyone.  It's definitely not for everyone at 18 years of age.  In my 40 years in the classroom and as an administrator, in all types of institutions, I have seen two phenomena.     The first is the late twenty- or thirty-something who comes back to college and confesses that they tried college at 18 and "flunked out" or had some other reason that it just didn't work out for them.

Sometimes they were athletes who couldn't keep with the lifestyle of performing athletically and scholastically at the college level.  (To say nothing of the other issues we could address here about college sports).  Sometimes they got pregnant.  Sometimes they had family responsibilities.  Sometimes they were having too much fun at "away" college and their parents said, "enough"  Sometimes they just realized college wasn't for them, that the bang wasn't worth the buck.  Good old ROI.  Sometimes (more than we want to admit), they just couldn't afford it any longer even if they wanted to.  Sometimes they just failed too many classes and lost financial aid.  Sometimes they find themselves at an institution whose values overwhelm them, and they can't deal with the concept of "micro-agressions" for asking an innocent question.

Let me state quickly that I don't think that last is really that prevalent in the vast majority of colleges.  College professors like to be provocative--I've done it myself.  But the extremes of "trigger warnings," "micro-agressions," and "safe spaces" are over-reported and mostly confined to a certain type of college.  See my advice below. 

The second is the younger version of that thirty-something who has been told they have to go to college but have no goals, or no realistic ones, for why they are there.  They have a high school GPA of 2 and were admitted to an open-access college to be a nursing major, which requires usually something close to a 4.0 for entrance to the program.  They enter the private college dependent on loans that they and their parents don't realize will haunt them for decades, whether they graduate or not.  They choose a major because it sounds like fun (my favorite being fashion merchandising) but don't realize they will have to move 500 miles away from home to find a career in that field.

I attribute these two phenomena to a number of sources.  The mythology that a college education is the best way to get to the middle class.  The lies told by recruiters (athletic and otherwise).  The lack of transparency about the reality of college, especially funding it.  The  poor quality of teaching and advising in some institutions and the systems that allow it (I'm not specifically speaking of tenure here, which can do great good but also follows the law of unintended consequences).

And let me say, unequivocably here (that's a big word for make no mistake), I don't consider these the problems of the institution, not always.  And I except my institution from it, because we are extremely reasonably priced and do a fine job of educating the students we are sent, and I mean that with all my heart and not because I get a paycheck. 

Primarily, though, I think much of the phenomenon can simply come from the fact that people who don't work in higher education do not understand it.  It is a black box to a large portion of the population.

There are simply other options for 18-year olds.  Get a job.  Military.  Government or non-profit service (VISTA, for example). Trade school (yes, trade school.  It really doesn't hurt anyone to have a trade and make some decent money for a few years before deciding on what you really want to do for the next forty years.) In other words, don't inflict a goal-less 18-year old on the college of your choice.  You will waste your money.  You will waste your government's money and your student's potential financial aid (Pell is not forever; current regulations limit to ten semesters, assuming those are ten successful semesters).


I had an interesting conversation with an old friend who was visiting our town recently.  She teaches in a Christian Academy out west.  She mentions that one of the parents in the school sent their daughter to a certain very large Christian university (I'll not name it, but they love President Trump there) because that institution teaches a literal six-day creationism.

That has been bugging me for weeks.  Not because of the institution or the creationism (those are  other issues) but because of the idea of "sending" your child to a college.  How much agency does the student have in the decision?

This is part of a larger discussion about helicopter parenting.  Teenagers today seem to have a very different relationship with their parents than we did; I went 600 miles away to college and saw my family two or three times a year. I chose the college.  Whether it was a good choice is another matter, but I chose it.  I knew it was all on me.

Of course, I know of 20-year-olds who haven't bothered to get their drivers' licenses yet, a mystery to me.  Being protected, dependent, and driven around by mom and dad or friends seems more important to them than the autonomy of being able to drive a car?  How could that be? 

I don't suggest my experience is the best, but I think the idea of "sending" your student to college, as if it were the same as sending your 6-year-old to kindergarten, needs to be reframed.  At best, the parent should facilitate the decision of the student and consult on it, but not make the decision.  It seems like breaking the apron strings at 18 is what college is about.

Many parents, especially conservative Christian parents, don't want their students exposed to the "evils" of the secular campus.  I definitely agree, so discussion is needed.  I consider most of the big state universities unfit for human consumption.  Parents would need to start working on their students' responsibility and agency long before senior year anyway.  I just fear the practice of using the nonsense and sin that goes on on most campuses as an excuse to shelter the young persons from reality. I teach at a state institution and there are good and negative influencers; however, we are small and also have the opportunities for small classes, input from faculty, and clubs that help a student's faith journey. My real issue is with campuses of 40,000 where the student can get lost.

This is not to address for-profit institutions, the complications and vagaries of  financial aid (as a faculty member, I do not address this issue with students because I simply don't want to misinform), athletics scholarships and other types, how to choose a major, or a number of other issues.

The diatribe against humanities and liberal arts majors is founded in two problems:  the myth that a degree automatically opens all kinds of doors for the graduate, and the failure of students, their parents, and the institutions to look for opportunities for developing work skills, a resume, and networking.  An English major can take a minor in computer science, combining a love of writing and literature with their analytic abilities to code and develop websites.  It's a false dichotomy to think that a major in one disciplines can dance into a career while another one doesn't have a prayer.

I'm adding this piece on November 18, 2017:


Once a student goes to college, he/she is a young adult.  Remember that.  They are not twelve years old.  They are legally responsible for everything at 18 (except drinking, which doesn't stop them from doing it).  They are not kids.  This is a whole post in itself, but I often shake my head at the way young people are overprotected by their parents who are so afraid their child will make a mistake or something that they don't allow them to be adults.

My advice:
1.  look for reasonably priced colleges.  Higher price does not mean better education in the long run.
2.  If a young person is dying to go to University of X, think about going to reasonable state college for undergrad and the big impressive place for grad school.
3.  Know what you are getting into.  Do the research.
4. Don't overspecialize in a major unless you really know that's what you want.

I imagine I will get some blowback for this post, but maybe that's what blogs are for.