Saturday, September 24, 2011

What I am Reading and How It Affects Teaching

I have not posted in a while.  I am overwhelmed with work.  I am tempted to start posting about the realities of teaching in a state, open-access college.  The reason is what I am reading, both for personal enjoyment and for professional readings, and I'd like to comment on it right now.

Detour:  On this beautiful Saturday afternoon, I am inside, although I plan to remedy that later and walk the dogs.  However, I started taking an anti-inflammatory medicine called Torodal (sounds like a Spanish bullfighter) that has more warnings than the hormones I used to take.  I am only supposed to take it with food, only for five days, and with nothing else, and it may causes bleeding ulcers and all kinds of horrible things.  It definitely causes upset stomach, although it's better today than last night.  I am going to take it today and see if it helps the pain I'm in, mostly joint and muscle in my feet and hand.  But it's supposed to make me drowsy and I don't want to drive very far while taking it, thus I'm in and blogging, something I'm very far behind on with both my blogs.

The first book that is sitting beside my chair, face down, is Sway, by the Brafman brothers.  It is a lot like Cialdini's book, Influence, but with different examples.  I just read two chapters that made a lot of sense about teaching.  In one, they recount an experiment where people were paired with a partner, whom they could not see, and asked to split a sum of money.  If person A (initiator) offered 50/50 split, almost always Person B would take that.  If person A offered at 55/45, or more lopsided split, when the experiment was done in American, almost no one ever took the money.  We Americans have our own definition of fairness; we also have a sense that we shouldn't have to take stuff from others, I think.  But the Brafmans rightly focus on the fairness, and use other examples to show that we are often more "irrationally" focused on the process than the outcome.  Rationally, we would still get the money, just a little less, but that doesn't matter to us.  Of course, in other cultures it didn't always work out like this.

This clicked with me because I have found that students are far more concerned with the process than the final grade in evaluating an instructor.  Now, that may seem contradictory; of course the student doesn't want to get a lower grade from an instructor, but they won't dislike or dismiss one just because of the low grade.  They are more interested in the fairness of the process of the low grade, in their minds.  This means to me that an instructor cannot be arbitrary and go with her gut to assign grades.  Good instructors are process oriented; they provide clear directions and clear indications up front of how they will evaluate.  Call them rubrics if you like.  It also is a matter of giving a student a fair hearing, a truly fair and sincere one, not an "I'll listen to you but ignore what you are saying."  I find the best response I can give a student when he or she complains or asks for special treatment is "the other students are being held to a standard you are asking not to be held to.  I can't do that.  It would be unfair."  If it's a matter of I don't want to, it's what's best for you, the course has to be rigorous, you won't learn if I'm not being hard on you, etc., they don't much care. 

One time a student approached me (in front of class, of course) to ask why he got an 85 on a speech.  I thought that was a reasonable grade, but this student was under the impression he was supposed to get all As; his father, I learned later, was a high school principal.  Interestingly also, he and three female friends (one a girlfriend, one her sister) ganged up to give me miserable ratings on my evaluations (here you can tell patterns like that).  Anyway, after listening to the student complain about his grade, I said, "Do you feel like some sort of injustice was done here."  Although he deserved that kind of remark, I regret it.  It was snarky.  I really didn't care about his complaint; I just wanted to put it back in his court and say, "you know, it's just a few points.  Suck it up.  It's not the end of the world."  He was going on like he was persecuted, but my saying tat wasn't appropriate.  Of course, it shut him up, and I don't know what else I would have said.

In Sway they also deal with the inadequacy of extrinsic motivators, particularly money.  In short, the pleasure centers of the brain, which are motivated by money, are in conflict with the altruistic part of the brain.  People will do things to help others more readily than for money.  Bringing money into the equation is activates the pleasure center, and then it has to have continual stimulation (like cocaine, they claim). 

The other day I used some of this information, somewhat unwittingly, in my class.  I have been told that I need to get my D/W/F rates down, from 36%.  I chose a realistic goal of 30% for my performance evaluation.  But I told my class I needed their help.  I just came right out and said that on my performance evaluation I will be expected to have higher completion rates in the course, and that not only would their sticking around and finishing out the class be to their benefit (because obviously it would--the class is not going away for them and they have already spent time and done work, another concept in the Sway book, that is, the longer a commitment the more difficult it is to change) but it would help me out to.  Some of them were not doing well but I said they still had time to make a new start and stick with it, and almost all my students get As or Bs if they just do the work.  Plus, I said, you're going to have much harder courses than this, like Math 1111 and Biology 1107.  One student (albeit a nontrad) wrote me a note and handed it to me after class, telling me that she enjoyed the class and how I taught and that people didn't drop out because of me.  That was nice.

So what else am I reading, which I will post on later?

Academically Adrift (faculty reading group)

Blumberg's book on Learning-Centered Teaching (faculty learning community)
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One.Life by Scot McKnight
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris (for literary reading group at the college)
Higher Education?  by Hacker and Dreyfuss (the one that is making me want to rant about the real world of higher education--it ain't Harvard and Yale, baby.)
There are several others on my bedstand--A Mill on the Floss, Elizabeth McCracken's book on the death of her baby, A Diary of a Country Priest, and my own novel which has been set aside; Calvin's Institutes, and some works on presidential rhetoric. 

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